TV Reviews

Supergirl Feels Like a Show Stuck In Its Own Historical Significance

“My cousin doesn’t get these kinds of questions.”

That was Kara Zor-El’s reaction to a particularly gendered question during her one-on-one interview with Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) at the start of last night’s new episode of Supergirl. Grant, who is herself an unmarried, childless woman of industry, asked the type of question she’s probably heard many times herself, “Are you planning on starting a family?”

Supergirl had every right to find that question annoying. Flash back to when the Christopher Reeves Superman met Lois Lane on that balcony in the Richard Donner classic or when Henry Cavill’s Superman had his sit-down interrogation with Lois Lane in Man of Steel. Did his family status ever come up in either scenario? They might have discussed how his birth parents died and how he was raised on Earth, but by virtue of his gender the “So, when are you going to finally have kids?” question never entered the conversation.

This was the beginning to a Supergirl episode which was all about her need to differentiate herself from her more famous, male cousin in Metropolis, part of on-going trend with this show. Superman is an iconic part of popular culture, going back over 75 years. Supergirl has been around since the late 1950s and has a solo movie to her name, but Supergirl, the show, operates on the principle that while everyone already knows about Superman the audience needs to be educated about Supergirl. It’s partially a by-product of being on CBS and thus needing to reach a wider audience. Maybe the average CW viewer doesn’t require as much education. However, the average CBS viewer is someone like my mom who recently asked me who the heck Supergirl was. When I explained that she’s Superman’s cousin she let out an “Ohhhh” followed by a “So that’s why she has that same ‘S’ thing on her chest. Wait, since when does Superman have a cousin? Wasn’t Krypton destroyed?”

What don’t you get? Kara was sent to Earth before Kal-El, but something happened that set her ship off course meaning that by the time she got to Earth Superman was an adult. Duh.

So, Supergirl’s mission across its first three episodes has been to explain all of that while also arguing quite stridently that the world is big enough for a female superhero. At times, though, it feels like the show is almost suck in its own historic significance as the first female-fronted superhero property in this modern era of superhero nirvana in film and on TV. This recent episode was about Supergirl showing her frustration and desire to chart her own path, independent of Superman, but it might as well have been the show itself telling Arrow and The Flash, “On my show, I’m the girl who saves the guy. I am NOT the damsel in distress.”

supergirl2The voice-over prologue preceding every episode has Klara summarizing her life story for the viewer before proudly proclaiming, “I’m Supergirl!” The pilot had on-the-nose moments like a waitress openly proclaiming to no one in particular how inspiring it was to see a female superhero out there as a role model for her little girls and Cat Grant delivering a feminist speech on why it’s okay to say “Supergirl” instead of “Superwoman.”

The second episode dealt with actually training Kara how to fight, revealing that she has to learn how to be smarter than her opponents, not just stronger. No matter what you do, some viewers will simply not accept the visual of someone like Melissa Benoist going toe-to-toe with burly, male stuntmen, a problem I recall as far back as Buffy the Vampire Slayer when some struggled to buy the idea of Sarah Michelle Gellar routinely beating the crap out of her mostly male, almost always much bigger villains. But we live in the age of Black Widow and Ronda Rousey, and Supergirl is not afraid to have its central female badass confidently proclaim that if she can’t talk a certain male villain out of his plans then she’ll just punch him really hard until he falls down.

The third episode featured moments of Kara venting about how no one will ever be able to take her seriously if they think that whenever she gets in serious trouble Superman will simply show up to save her. How can she be the hero she wants to be if the men in her life keep trying to fight her battles for her? Jimmy Olsen calls in Superman to help because he’s a man, and it’s hard-lined in him to want to protect her. Superman shows up for the briefest of brief cameos because that’s his little cousin in danger.

By the end of the episode both Jimmy and Superman get Supergirl’s message loud and clear: Have more faith in her. The inverse of this, of course, will inevitably occur at some point down the road when she’ll probably need to learn to ask for help. After all, in the scenario in this particular episode she was, to be blunt, getting her ass kicked by the villain-of-the-week before Superman scared him away. It was with her friends’ help that she finally beat the guy later on. In the episode’s closing moments, Kara and Clark Kent (kept entirely off-screen) exchanged text messages, with Clark promising to never again interfere, complementing her on defeating a villain he never could, “I guess it was a job for Supergirl.”

outtakeThe problem I have with all of that, though, is that the first three episodes of Arrow and The Flash were allowed to simply chart the heroic progress of Oliver Queen and Barry Allen, neither show ever contorting itself to justify its own existence or spending any time pondering Oliver or Barry’s gender. It would be a disservice to ignore the significance of Kara’s gender. That’s obviously a key part of her identity, and the bullshit she has to deal with as a woman is completely different than the troubles Oliver and Barry encounter. However, I feel like we are still in the portion of the show where the writers are working hard to establish A. She’s not Superman; B. It’s totally cool that she’s not Superman because women can kick ass and get stuff done.

That’s to be expected. I am waiting to see what else this show has to say though. You can be feminist AND fun AND intelligent AND awesome. Just look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Mega-producer Greg Berlanti had already co-created Arrow and The Flash when DC Television pitched him the idea of doing a Supergirl series, and he loved the challenge from a producing standpoint, telling Variety, “With what we accomplished and learned from The Flash, if we could do that on an even larger scale, on a bigger network, what would that look like?”

But, also, he understood the pressure of finally making a female-fronted property like this happen. He admitted that his nieces had been nagging him to finally make a comic book show focusing on a woman. When he pitched it to CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler, she cried in the room. Tassler, a self-proclaimed “loud-mouthed feminist,” grew up with a Puerto Rican emigre who was active in the civil rights movement. In her several decades at CBS, she’s made a point out of employing more female executives and showrunners than just about any other network, and in the form of Kara Zor-El she saw a classic CBS leading lady. “There are themes and aspects [of Supergirl] that define the classic CBS leading lady,” Tassler told THR. “She is embracing her potential. She’s juggling a lot of responsibility. I mean, she has to save the planet, but she also has a career.”

Sadly, Tassler is leaving CBS in December to spend more time with her 82-year-old mother and high school-aged daughter

However, even that real-world example possibly highlights how we view gender. Did Tassler’s crying in the room make her somehow less professional than her more stoic male colleagues at the other networks who wouldn’t dare show emotion like that? Or is that an asset for Tassler, proving just how passionate she was for the material and how hard she’d fight to get that show on her network? “I get a little emotional sometimes,” she told THR, recalling the day when Berlanti pitched her the Supergirl pilot. “What I loved so much was the end of the pitch, when Supergirl takes this crystal that was her mother’s [recorded] message. It was put in her pod when she was sent from Krypton. And Supergirl plays it at the time when she’s most vulnerable, and it says how much her mother loves her and to embrace who you are. It was so beautiful. It struck a chord. I cried.”

There’s also the story about the girls scouts who all dressed up as Supergirl and visited the set and got to take their picture with Melissa Benoist in costume.

supergirl-scoutsAnd Twitter and Instagram were flooded with pictures of celebrities and adorable little kids dressed as Supergirl this Halloween. That red “S” isn’t the exclusive shield for the men of the world anymore. Go, Serena Williams. Hell yeah, you’re Supergirl.

Serena-SupergirlI just wish the actual Supergirl show was a little more, well, super. The wire-work fight scenes haven’t been great. The supporting cast is kind of hit-and-miss. The standard Superman problems of “no good villains,” “too powerful,” and “it’s just silly that a pair of glasses fools everyone” all apply, with Cat and potential villain Maxwell Lord seeming remarkably stupid for not noticing that Kara is obviously Supergirl (maybe there’s no way around that). The weird mix of Supergirl working with a top-secret government organization that happens to employ her sister and is led by someone who’s probably The Martian Manhunter (my own personal theory) hasn’t quite found its footing yet.  The overall mystery with Supergirl’s aunt (Lauren Benanti), who happens to be her dead mother’s twin sister, improbably making it to Earth and plotting a global takeover has come off as a bit silly, thrown at us before we’ve even had a chance to really get to known Kara and her friends.

I’ve been spoiled by Berlanti with Arrow and The Flash.  Those shows came firing out of the gate knowing exactly what they were, modeling themselves after cinematic predecessors like Batman Begins and the Richard Donner Superman.  By comparison, Supergirl feels far more like a show which is only three episodes into its run and still figuring everything out.  It knows that it’s the first female-led superhero show of the moment, and it has a lot to say about that.  It also knows that Mehcad Brooks is gorgeous.  Kara may be alien, but it’s only human to smile every time he walks by wearing one of those tight shirts.  It sure thinks that Melissa Benoist is adorable.  It’s trying to position Kara as a wayward millennial who’s finally found her calling.  It’s trying to set up love triangles, and leaning heavily on mother-daughter anguish and sisterly bonds.  It hopes we’ll find Calista Flockhart’s Devil Wears Prada-impression funny, and that we’ll stop thinking that the show is set in Metropolis and that the paper Kara works at is The Daily Planet.

That’s a lot to throw in the mix.  Not surprisingly, whatever this show is going to be – it’s not there yet.

What do you think?  Where do you stand on Supergirl at this point?  Let me know in the comments.


  1. I think it is an example of a really, really annoying trend. One which started a few years ago with Brave, but took really off with Frozen. It works like this: A show or movie pays lip-service to the concept of feminism, but once you look past this, there is no escaping from the fact that said show or movie does nothing different and commits the worst sin of all: writing FEMALE character instead of a character which happens to be female.
    Let’s take a look at Supergirl. So, the big claim here is that there aren’t any other female Superheroines to look up to for children, and now Supergirl has come to rescue us. Eh…not exactly true. There is a distinct lack of female heroines in the movies, but on TV, there already have been a number of female lead comic book shows, starting with the Wonder Woman show in the 1970s. Granted, most of them have been pretty bad and better stay forgotten (especially Birds of Prey – shudder), but they have been around. The issue was always more that there are less than male lead shows, and that the quality of those shows was rarely up to snuff.
    So, the show claims that it is ground-breaking just by existing when in fact, it isn’t. It could be ground-breaking if it actually offers a layered heroine. And…it doesn’t. Every aspect of Supergirl is defined in relation to Superman, she is not allowed to stay on her own feet.
    I am not saying that you can’t address sexism directly in a show. But you have to do it right. Exhibit A: Agent Carter. Yes, her fight against sexism is a huge part of the show, mostly because it makes sense for the time period to make it her main enemy. But that’s not all Peggy is. She is also a woman in grief, a friend helping a friend, a soldier who has to adjust to civilian live. And in the end the big conclusion is that it really doesn’t matter what those male think about her. Peggy knows her worth.
    But for a show which is set in our current society, I would prefer a more settled approach to the topic. Which brings me to exhibit B: Agents of SHIELD. Not officially a female lead, but half of the core cast is female. The two best fighters in the show (May and Bobbi) are female. The most powerful character in the show (Daisy) is female. The most sensitive and caring person in the cast (Fitz) is male. The show demonstrates how gender equality works without constantly drawing attention to the fact that this is exactly what it is doing. And it works.
    Hopefully there will soon be an exhibit C with Jessica Jones. Because we need more shows with great females, as leads and in the supporting cast. What we don’t need is the kind of pseudo-feminism Supergirl offers

    1. I mentioned that Arrow and The Flash have their clear cinematic touchstones. Well, Supergirl has that too, but it’s not a superhero movie. Instead, it’s probably Frozen.

      Beyond that, you probably summed it up best with this concise passage: “So, [Supergirl] claims that it is ground-breaking just by existing when in fact, it isn’t. It could be ground-breaking if it actually offers a layered heroine. And…it doesn’t.”

      Also, on Jessica Jones, just read THR’s review of the first 7 episodes, and they dropped a Supergirl comparison in there, “Daredevil’s provocative Catholic view of the superhero landscape is nicely paralleled by the steely feminism of Jessica Jones, a moodier companion to what DC’s Supergirl is doing over on CBS.” They seemed to really like Jessica Jones, although they worried that so much of the show is defined by David Tennant’s villain character that it sometimes leaves little room for the rest of the show to breathe.

      1. I want to watch Jessica Jones with an open mind, so I won’t read the review just yet. But based on the trailer, I have the feeling it will end up the story of a woman living in the shadow of a crazy stalker, which is certainly a topic which should be explored properly in the media outside of stories of a hero rescuing a woman from a crazy stalker that is.

      2. The review does not get too much away, but I get wanting to stay away. The gist is they liked it, and as you’d expect from the trailers there are intersting ruminations on the metaphorical and literal effects of rape and psychological abuse.

      3. You know…it is not really a surprise that Supergirl was a disappointment, considering how badly Arrow and Flash do with their female characters. I am still stunned that they started out Arrow with so many interesting females and then managed to ruin every single one of them.

      4. I remember at some point Berlanti said in an interview that half of the writers on Supergirl are female, and that he actually co-developed it with Ali Adler from Glee and brought in Sara Schecther from Arrow/Flash to Exec. Produce along with Andrew Kreisberg. So, the idea is that although this a Berlanti Productions show and shares plenty of DNA with Arrow/Flash they’ve tried hard to ensure that there would be plenty of female voices contributing to the show. However, I’ve also heard the same thing about Arrow and The Flash, i.e., that they have more female writers than we probably realize, and both of those shows are always debated about online as to whether or not they do right by their female characters. So, maybe Supergirl’s struggles aren’t surprising, but sometimes I think that I’m just not the audience for this show. I’m not a fan of Supergirl in the comics. I love Superman as a symbol and piece of pop culture history, but as an actual dramatic entity I find him very challenging to make interesting. So many of my issues with Superman still apply to Supergirl, and Berlanti and Co. seem a tad intimidated by those challenges. Plus, the big story engine for the show – Kara’s sister works for a neutered version of SHIELD, and they help Kara track down extraterrestrial threats – just feels mismatched to me, even if I can see where it might make a certain logical sense. Lastly, I am nowhere near as in love with Melissa Benoist’s performance as the show is.

      5. The thing is that being a female doesn’t prevent sexist writing, because sexism is internalized, and female writers are in danger to fall in the same trap as male ones. And it doesn’t prevent writers from telling while forgetting to show. Plus, so far none of the episode has been written by an all female team. depending on the dynamic, it is possible that the input of the female writers is neutered by the male ones.

        I actually think that Melissa Benoist is the one good thing in the show, but it is not enough to rescue anything. Even if you take away the whole feminism and sexism issue, fact is that the whole story doesn’t make any sense.

    2. I am glad that you mentioned Marvel in your comment about the faults of Supergirl. I was thinking, as I read the article and read your comment, about the female characters seen in the Marvel Films. Black Widow uses her gender and sexuality occasionally, but she could easily be defined first as a spy with a dark history. Scarlet Witch could be looked at similarly. She, at least in my mind, can be understood first as an enhanced eastern European with telepathic, telekinetic and other related powers before you have to address directly her gender. Pepper Potts and Peggy Carter in the films initially could merely be men before there become love interest from Iron Man and Captain America. What I’m getting at is what we have seen in the Marvel films and TV shows are characters who can be viewed for their skills, knowledge and roles within the plots before they are used as females and love interests. I think that is why I’m more drawn to Marvel than the DC (exception being Harley Quinn & Poison Ivy). Ultimately, I think it comes down to depth of characters and explorations of taboo or newer ideas that haven’t been flushed out entirely.

      1. Marvel has gotten better and better with every movie. They still have a long was to go, but I trust them more to deliver something balanced in this regard than DC.
        But yeah, I never really thought about it, but how the female characters are treated has a big influence on how much I like a Comic book movie. That’s why I liked the The Amazing Spider-man better than the original trilogy, that’s why I hate Fox’s take on the X-men (or should I call if the Wolverine show?) and that’s why I enjoy the MCU so much.

      2. Yeah, Fox destroyed the X-Men. Like the whole Dark Phoenix Saga is completely different than how they used it in the first 3 films. They also did a terrible job with Rogue. There are so many amazing, powerful and important female mutants in X-Men, and Fox forgot that in so many ways.

  2. I haven’t watched it but from your description of it, it sounded like a desperate attempt to make up for what is not lost. The part is not necessary and sincerly I don’t see a reason why women have to battle every thing with men even to the point of cartoons. The fantastic four had women in it.

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