It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it might fetch you a latte – CBS dropped a first look of their new series Supergirl yesterday, amid a weirdly mixed audience. I watched the six-minute trailer/edited plot summary and walked away feeling pretty positive about it. If I had any complaints about this at all, it is that this feels targeted at a much younger audience than CBS’ typical demo, if not something that I’d expect on the CW. The fact that the pilot and second episode are written by some of the people from Arrow and The Flash, as well as Glee doesn’t surprise me, though I feel that a show like this might lean closer to The Flash than Arrow in terms of pure grit.
Don’t get me wrong though – I just think the show is on the wrong channel. As far as love for the new generation of comic book-adjacent TV shows, I have much of it. I watch everything from Daredevil to The Flash to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The reasons I think some of these shows are so popular is often because they draw in a much younger, female audience. If anything, I feel like including gratuitous shots of Oliver Queen doing pull-ups with his rippling abs and biceps makes their target demographic pretty clear. All of these comic book shows have pretty cool ensemble casts, often with an emphasis on a cute, younger male protagonist and some level of more emotional interpersonal drama. It is a marked contrast from how male-dominated comic books have been written and marketed in the past. However, these shows have been lacking are a female protagonist, even still. This could be due to the fact that it’s seen as risky business to pitch a show like that or get ratings (Agent Carter springs to mind, same with the failed Wonder Woman venture). This is why I want to see Supergirl ultimately succeed.
However, some of the reactions to the first look video had me a touch annoyed and unsure if my fellow nerds feel the same way. A lot of people took the more breezy, feminine approach to task, stating that it felt very “rom-com” and also reminiscent of a recent SNL sketch that lampooned how Marvel handles female protagonists, notably Black Widow:
While I think the sketch is absolutely ferocious satire, I don’t think that and the Supergirl trailer are alike. For one, Supergirl is earnest, and not in a way I find offensive to the character. Black Widow, much like many other women characters in that universe being underutilized or badly written has been a long-term critique of Marvel for a while, particularly now after the debut of Age of Ultron. Supergirl as she stands herself, is a younger, feminine woman who is struggling with her super-identity as well as her “real” one at her job and social life. It feels very much in-step with some of other Superman series like Dean Cain’s portrayal as well as Smallville – a contemporary take on how to balance it all. The fact that she is a woman who wears skirts or does menial tasks for her boss doesn’t mean that it’s shoehorning the character into a romantic comedy situation, particularly given that she rebuffs her “nice guy” friend from the jump. There’s a difference, a marked one, between writers leaning into boilerplate stereotypes for “what women act like” and writing a woman who is young, fashionable, office-working and has to navigate that particular space. So far we haven’t seen Supergirl crying into any pints of ice cream or talking to her cat. As someone who has watched far too many rom-coms, there’s a distinct difference here. Kara Jor-El feels, so far at least, like her own person and not a construction. A certain empty construction of femininity applied to every woman character is not always on-key but it doesn’t mean that femininity itself is what is the problem. The bigger context we should be looking at is just that we have so few women characters that there’s just a very narrow spectrum of the kinds of characters they are allowed to be.
Now, none of this is to say that I don’t think these types of shows are above critique, far from it. What Supergirl might still suffer from, as many other comic book shows do, is often relying on offensive gags/jokes, under-casting (if not completely whitewashing) characters of color as well as yes, sidelining female characters. Some of the writing I saw in the heavily edited first look definitely fell into the former category: the “oh your big secret is you are a lesbian and that’s why you won’t date me” joke as well as the speech Calista Flockhart’s hell-boss character (WHERE ARE HER EYEBROWS) gives to Kara about “hating being a girl.” (Hey, girl is a pretty annoying diminutive if you are over the age of 15, writers!) I don’t think Supergirl will be entirely free of issues, but it is nice to see something like this come out.
The ultimate takeaway I got from the first look is that it will be awesome to see a 20-something lady try to balance her life and her attempts to save the world, especially in the shadow of her famous older “cousin” that was mentioned several times. Melissa Benoist’s Kara feels sympathetic and relatable as she tries to do it all, and Mehcad Brooks’ Jimmy Olsen seems like a really cool mentor-type character. I don’t have a lot of love for Rick, the best friend-type character but if he ends up filling a more “Cisco” role of engineering Kara’s costume and tech over the course of the series, it might be slightly more palatable.
Overall, I am excited to see yet another female-lead show finally take off. Too often I think we expect that every superheroine or bad-ass has to always have her shit together and this might be a nice departure from that.