Supergirl debuted into a crowded field of superhero television to good reviews but an underwhelming audience response. As it gears up for season 2, let’s take a look at why Supergirl is a groundbreaking show that deserves your time.
Modern TV’s first two female-led superhero shows both debuted in 2015: Supergirl and Jessica Jones. Amid the acclaim of Jessica Jones, Supergirl was largely written off as “the other female superhero.” Jessica Jones is excellent, but the conclusion that Supergirl therefore has nothing to offer displays the toxic crabs-in-a-bucket mentality our society forces women into: Only one woman is allowed to succeed at a time.
In fact the two shows offer complementary approaches to gender divided along a classic storytelling binary: Showing the world as it is versus showing the world as it could be. The former, embodied in Jessica Jones, is the currently favored approach: dark, gritty shows that lay bare the ugly realities of life. Those kinds of stories are important. But we also need positive stories that model for us how we can be better (Star Trek is the most triumphant example). That’s where Supergirl comes in. As she faces both supervillains and the realities of being a woman in the public eye, Kara always rises above adversity and holds fast to the moral code Superman threw out the window three movies ago. “It makes a hole in your heart, but you can’t fall into it,” she tells J’on J’onzz when he faces the white Martian who killed his family. What a breath of fresh air in the time of Game of Thrones.
Supergirl‘s earnest attitude and straightforward storytelling may seem cliché in a media landscape that favors Deadpool-style snark and deconstruction, but in fact it’s one of the most unexpected things on TV. While most modern superheroes spend all their time fighting villains (and, increasingly, each other) with no concern for collateral damage, Supergirl actually saves people. She wears bright colors. She delivers inspiring monologues and actually means them. She works to earn the public’s trust, and when she loses it, she has to gain it back, slowly and with difficulty. For fans of Chris Reeves and Golden Age comics, Supergirl reminds us why superhero stories, played straight, resonate so deeply with us.
Monologues are out of vogue. We prefer the Deadpool approach, where the hero gets bored during the monologue and shoots someone. That feels original and countercultural. In fact, it’s neither. It’s exactly what our culture demands and expects. Laying out your honest beliefs is the unexpected approach. And the Deadpool scene has no meaning. More and more, our superheroes have nothing to say. Captain America: Civil War could have been a sophisticated commentary on the limits of vigilantism, but it had no interest in using its premise as anything beyond a tool to divide up the heroes into two equal-sized teams. Supergirl actually has a message and is willing to say it.
It may be a long time before any studio gives us a superhero who’s a woman of color, but in the meantime, Supergirl offers us a joyfully diverse cast. There are only two white men in important roles, and one of them fills the role of “sassy best friend,” an archetype usually reserved for gay men and women of color (dear showrunners, please don’t make Winn gay). While Thor got credit for including one black guy in a supporting role, Supergirl nontraditionally casts characters all the time like it’s no big deal, including James Olsen, Lucy Lane, and Hank Henshaw. There’s even an interracial kiss, and while that shouldn’t be a surprise in this day and age, it is.
Female-led stories often surround their protagonists with male supporting characters (Anne McCaffrey sydrome). In particular, female familial relationships are rare onscreen, especially compared to the ubiquitous father-son and brother relationships, which are treated as universal touchstones. So it’s revolutionary that Kara has complex relationships with her birth mother, adopted mother, aunt, and sister. And the show never makes the supporting women into catty mean girls, but instead makes them sympathetic and relatable, even character types like the romantic rival and the tough boss.
Speaking of which, thank God for Cat Grant. In the trailers, she looked like an unholy synthesis of J. Jonah Jamison and The Devil Wears Prada. Instead, she’s the rarest of female character types: a smart, successful woman who knows she’s smart and successful and refuses to apologize for it. Cat has the brusque, egotistical attitude that we accept unquestioned from white men like Sherlock and House but consider an unpardonable sin in a woman. But at the same time, she has a strong moral compass and a deep investment in Kara, frequently giving her advice and even calling her out when she does something wrong. Cat even grows over the course of the series and admits when she makes mistakes. All that without ever doubting her own self-worth.
Through out, the show is smart in a subtle way. While it doesn’t generally tackle social issues as its primary plots, the writing shows a great deal of awareness. “I’m all about consent,” says Kara when she worries she might have accidentally kissed someone under the influence of mind control, a line that’s doubly unusual since it’s a woman speaking to a man. In another episode, Cat upbraids Kara for letting her temper get the best of her, warning that women in public life can’t afford to act that way. Later, Kara and James commiserate about how women and black men can’t get away with the same behavior that white men can. These points are never harped upon, but they provide an undercurrent of deep social understanding that we don’t often see.
Supergirl eschews dark and gritty in favor of fun and positivity without sacrificing intelligence or stakes. It’s equally well suited to watching with your friends, with your kids, or on your own in a good old binge. By all means, check out season 2 when it begins on Monday.