Supergirl is obsessed its “girl-ness.”
Perhaps it needs to be. It’s the first female-led superhero story in the recent adaptation boom, and before it even got out of the gate, it faced a barrage of criticism for being “too girly,” both from feminists who found the teaser to be distastefully like a rom-com, and from people who hated the idea of girliness tainting their comic book obsession.
But the result is a show that tries really, really hard to justify its existence, while also claiming it’s totally feminist and doesn’t need to justify anything, creating a narrative that’s far too self-conscious and self-congratulatory for its own good.
Every five minutes in the Supergirl pilot, we’re reminded that Supergirl is a GIRL and she’s a SUPERHERO and she’s just as strong as a MALE superhero despite being a GIRL because girls are STRONG and Supergirl is a GREAT ROLE MODEL and don’t underestimate her just because she’s a GIRL because she’s AWESOME.
Seriously. Every five minutes. And the opening moments of the second episode do the same.
More than once, Supergirl responds to doubt or criticism with, “What, because I’m a girl?”, and is told some variant of, “No, because you’re new to this,” in an apparent attempt to show both an awareness of the genre’s historical sexism and that the good guys here are not sexist. But the execution undermines the message, as Supergirl comes across as unnecessarily obsessed with her gender — the feminist who sees sexism everywhere when there is none — while the show repeatedly underlines her superheroic Otherness. You can almost imagine the fear in the writer’s room whenever another character needs to criticize Supergirl, that The Feminists might think it’s JUST because she’s a girl, and the desperate decision to address that question in the script, every single time, just in case.
The show seems to want to make its central theme that “girls can be strong” and “there’s nothing wrong with being a girl, or with being girly,” but it comes across as painfully self-conscious about it, fighting back against any criticism with a misguided desperation.
The worst example of this is a scene included in early promo material, when the protagonist Kara challenges her Devil Wears Prada-esque boss on her branding as “Supergirl,” arguing that she should be “Superwoman” instead. Her boss’s response is some intense gaslighting, as she criticizes Kara for thinking that girls can’t be strong — after all, she’s a girl, Kara is a girl, they’re all girls, and they’re amazing. This is obviously the show’s attempt to head off criticism of its name, but to be honest, it would have been better if the issue was left unaddressed. Neither Kara nor her boss are “girls,” they’re women, and Kara’s point in the scene that “girl” is infantalizing goes unaddressed. After her boss’s speech, Kara retreats, chastened, and seems to accept her words, despite the fact that Kara’s right, and none of her actual criticisms were addressed at all. Of course, it’s fine that the show calls her Supergirl, since she’s an established character, and that’s her name. And it’s an interesting idea for Kara to press back against that. But by halfheartedly raising the issue, and then forcefully dismissing it with Girl Power smugness, the show creates a clunky mess of a scene that is neither empowering or well-written.
Here’s the thing. Supergirl is a very “feminine” show. It’s incredibly, intensely rom-com-esque. Kara is the unappreciated assistant to a very demanding dragon-like female boss in a media company. She’s single, and that’s OK, because she’s totally career-oriented — but her coworker has a crush on her, and oh her heart suddenly starts pounding when she sees that new hire, James Olson, walk in through the door. As this is the first female-led superhero story we’ve had (assuming Agent Carter isn’t actually a superhero), that choice will inevitably face criticism, even though the sweet, bubbly and optimistic rom-com-esque female protagonist is actually a refreshing change in a sea of sexy female assassins in skin-tight suits, and determined spies with red lipstick, flawless hair, and a perfect shot.
But the answer to that problem is to prove criticisms wrong by being good, and by accepting that one show can’t possibly represent everybody and that more female superheroes are needed to show a range of characters and narrative tones. That answer is not to explicitly try to address these concerns within the show at every possible opportunity, without any sense of irony at all.
The answer is also not to have Supergirl face super sexist villains to provide more opportunities for Girl Power moments. The villain in the pilot makes many comments about Supergirl’s gender, and she beats him in part because of the way he underestimates her. So much for Supergirl being just like any other superhero. Her “girlness” is integral to everything she does. And yes, this is just one villain, but the villain of the pilot sets the tone for how the writers imagine the series. After all the other mentions, it just underlines that Supergirl is a GIRL but she’s still a SUPERHERO and everyone underestimates her because she’s a GIRL and girls CAN’T be superheroes but she IS a superhero and she’s AWESOME, just you WAIT AND SEE.
Supergirl could be a really good, fun show once it finds its feet, and I really do hope it’s successful. But right now, it comes off as far too clunky and self-conscious to be watched without excessive eye-rolling. If the show is feminist, with a great and capable female protagonist, that will come across in the story. If we need to be reminded of those facts every five minutes, it might be that the show isn’t so feminist after all. And even if the self-consciousness is unfounded, and a genuinely empowering show lies underneath, we’ll never see it if the writers can’t figure out how to let the story speak for itself.