When Supergirl moved to The CW last summer, everyone (myself included) went bananas speculating how the show would change on its new home. More crossovers with the DC TV universe were almost a given; the departure of Cat Grant was inevitable (Calista Flockhart said as much ahead of time, due to filming locations); but most of all, being on The CW meant the show would have more freedom to feel like an on-screen comic book—which was, after all, the key to the success of The Flash, Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. But there was one major change to Supergirl that no one predicted: The second season has seen our heroine go from being a superhero to being a progressive activist (or “Social Justice Warrior [SJW],” depending on how you feel about the term).
Before we dig into all of the ways Supergirl became DC TV’s de facto liberal warrior, a few caveats:
- There will be lots of spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution!
- If you’re against “liberal Hollywood,” values-driven TV, or you use the term “SJW” as an insult, you may want to stop reading.
OK? OK. So here’s how it’s gone down.
1. The Show Confronted Superman’s Male Privilege
Integrating Superman into the Supergirl universe has always been a complex topic: How do you keep a show focused on her, when the audience’s basis of understanding Supergirl is drawn from her cousin?
In some ways, there was no winning from the start (it was rigged!). When a power dynamic based on social privilege exists between two characters, it’s not uncommon for a TV show to reflect, and even validate, that disparity. For example, when Bill Cosby (I know, I know) first starred in I Spy in 1965, he was the first African American to have a starring role on primetime TV, itself a huge sign post of social change. However, as he and his white partner (Robert Culp) drove around solving crimes, Cosby was never once behind the wheel.
One perspective on that was that the driving dynamic was pretty insulting to the black community — why couldn’t Cosby drive? Did they not trust him with the keys? It felt odd to see him constantly dashing for the passenger seat. The trouble is, if Bill Cosby had been the driver every time, it would have put him in the role of chauffeur, Driving Miss Daisy-style, which also would have been insulting…and, you know, much worse.
Clearly, the right answer would have been to have Cosby and Culp take turns driving—that never happened—but my point is that the producers of I Spy were in a situation that invited criticism no matter what they did, so long as they had to choose who to feature behind the wheel. (Again, I have no idea why Cosby and Culp didn’t take turns.)
With Supergirl, there’s a similar catch-22: When Superman isn’t an active character in the show, he’s mentioned so frequently that Kara/Supergirl effectively has to live in his shadow. But if he were a regular feature, it would give the audience the idea that she couldn’t keep the show interesting on her own.
Oh, and that overshadowing thing? I meant it literally. This was one of Superman’s two appearances in season one:
Throughout season one, when Superman wasn’t gracing Kara with brief moments of benevolence, each of the other characters took turns referencing Superman, constantly measuring Kara’s success as a hero to her male counterpart. It eventually got old and embarrassing, and started to suggest that the producers were insecure about Supergirl’s ability to maintain the show as a solo hero.
Of course, the opposite would have been a problem, too. Bringing Superman in to his more-than-capable cousin’s show could have made his shadow permanent, and he likely would have upstaged her, diluting everything that’s enjoyable about watching Supergirl. So in a sense, there was no winning.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Season 2 launched with Superman playing an active role in the plot, and instead of upstaging Supergirl, the scripts were written to show us Superman’s privilege in focus. Check it out:
What’s important about this is Supergirl’s reaction to Superman being treated with more respect than she is:
“Haven’t I saved more of these people than you have?”
Rather than having the show focus on Supergirl being overshadowed from afar (ala season one) or having her not blink at being upstaged in person, the writers chose instead to use the chauvinism of other characters to illustrate the casual sexism that Kara has to deal with. The DEO troops are “honored to work with” Superman, and meanwhile, we’ve seen Kara risk her life for months for the DEO to little fanfare. The disparity is stark, and powerful.
This is fairly revolutionary for superhero TV—getting us to root for a hero whose job is made much, much harder because of male privilege—Peggy Carter notwithstanding.
2. The Male Heroes Learned the Risks of Underestimating Supergirl
Fast forward to this year’s four-way crossover event between Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, and Legends (“Invasion!” parts one through four). The entire thing didn’t start off all that great for Supergirl — while each of the other shows had dedicated episodes to the story arc, only the last five minutes of a Supergirl episode bore any connection to the larger plot at all. To make matters worse, when Supergirl made her first appearance, she was asked to sit out while everyone else was training—as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow openly admitted that he was mistrustful of aliens.
As I was watching, I was pretty frustrated. Why bother going through the trouble of having Supergirl cross dimensions, only to then bench her? If you’re on a superhero team, and one person is several orders of magnitude more powerful than everyone else, why sideline her?
And then something pretty epic happened—of course, Supergirl’s powers played a key part in saving the day—and in the end, Oliver approached her and apologized for underestimating her.
Again, there are a variety of ways to see this; I’m still pretty miffed that Supergirl was underutilized, and basically turned into a prop in Oliver’s arc to learn to accept her. But I can’t stay too mad, because it’s not every day that a stoic, stereotypically macho character comes out and owns their own bullshit. If Oliver is an audience surrogate, then he’s taking us on a journey to embrace Supergirl as a powerful woman—not to mention an immigrant. This echoes Supergirl’s treatment of Superman: they put us on Supergirl’s side by showing us the ridiculousness of male privilege, and showcase that sexism is still an ongoing problem for her.
The interaction wasn’t enough to get me to start ‘shipping for Supergirl and Green Arrow, but it was a decent start to integrating her into the larger mythos of the DC TV universe. (And at this point, Oliver has slept with nearly every woman in the DC TV universe, so…gross. I’m in no hurry to see them get together.)
3. Supergirl Became the Perfect LGBTQ Ally
I was pretty surprised to see the Kara/James romance snuffed out so quickly in season 2 of Supergirl, but it made room for a far more interesting storyline about Kara’s adoptive sister Alex coming out of the closet. From the beginning of the season, Alex finds she has chemistry with Detective Maggie Sawyer, and over the course of several episodes her attraction leads her to struggle with her own identity.
Alex’s journey is done well, and it’s worth commending the show for embracing more diversity (although she isn’t the first woman to be into women in the DC TV universe — Sara Lance is, and we know this because Legends brings it up every chance they get, as though being queer is one of her superpowers). The achievement that Supergirl owns, though, is in Kara’s reaction when Alex comes out to her.
When Alex finally tells Kara, itself a difficult decision, Kara’s response is unconditional affection and support, coupled with her explanation that it doesn’t change anything for her. Kara responds with immediate empathy, noting how difficult it must have been for Alex to come out. She brings no judgment, and the show doesn’t waste any time on Kara “getting used to” the idea of her adoptive sister being gay. She doesn’t ask any dumb questions (“Will it be weird if I have to change in front of you now?”); she doesn’t need time to get over anything; she embraces her sister’s bravery, and shares in the glee (no pun intended) of her sister’s new relationship. Ten, maybe 15 years ago, this would have been “a very special episode” territory; today, it’s simply an opportunity to depict a sister with a good heart.
So where does this leave us? With a much better version of the character: She is now a Supergirl who saves the world by defeating both villains and sexism; a Supergirl who demonstrates a new level of acceptance; a Supergirl leading a modern fight for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
And that’s a lot of pressure for one hero, not to mention actress Melissa Benoist. But something tells me she’s OK with it.