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‘Supergirl’ Bares Feminist Conflicts, Not Abs

'Supergirl' Bares Feminist Conflicts, Not Abs

Some spoilers follow for the first episode of “Supergirl.”

CBS’ “Supergirl,” debuting Monday, wastes no time telegraphing the behind-the-scenes debates that obviously took place regarding its title. “We can’t call her ‘Supergirl!'” says lowly corporate assistant Kara (Melissa Benoist) in dismay when her flying alter ego is so named by her boss, media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). “She’s a female superhero! Shouldn’t she be called ‘Superwoman’?”

Well, yes. Of course she should; she’s a 24-year-old, not a tween. (And there is shockingly little usage of the term “Superwoman” in other material, at least as far as my meager comics-archive search has revealed.) But such are the small steps forward when debuting one of the first real female superheroes of our era, and creators Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg were obviously yoked in many ways to the character’s DC Comics origins.

Thus you have “girl,” and you have the short-skirted costume, which, despite the show’s best efforts, still looks fairly ridiculous. Yes, they’ve covered up her stomach from the original design, and she’s wearing tights (leggings? Could we hope they’re leggings, at least?), but the question remains: What man, besides Hercules, would opt for this impractical sartorial choice for fighting bad guys?

That said, there are many things to like about this superhero drama. It may not be high art, and it may lack the verbal finesse of some prime-time girl-power predecessors (I’m biased as a child of the ’90s, but I think “Buffy” is still the standard-bearer). And yet, “Supergirl” is a definite step in the right direction. I really do hope it’ll be an inspiration to its presumably on-the-younger-side female viewership. In another wink at the camera, the show has a throwaway character tell us as much: When Kara makes her first public appearance rescuing a crashing plane, a waitress remarks, “Can you believe it, a female hero! Nice for my daughter to have someone to look up to.”

Supergirl’s origin story (in the show and in comics lore) is, actually, pretty interesting: Turns out Kara Zor-El was sent to Earth as a teenager at the same time as her cousin, Kal-El (read: Superman) to protect him, Kal-El being a baby and all. But she gets stuck in a time vortex, or something, and ends up getting here many years later, when he’s grown. As a millennial, she decamps to “National City,” leaving Metropolis to him, and makes her own way in the world.

Picking up with Kara as a 24-year-old, she’s in many ways a mirror of her male cousin: Bespectacled, slightly awkward, working at a media company (a newspaper on its own would, of course, be laughably backwards at this point). Her boss is a woman, and it’s nice to see Flockhart back on TV, playing kind of a female J. Jonah Jameson type. Jimmy Olsen, meanwhile, has changed not gender but race: He’s played by actor Mehcad Brooks.

Kara’s central dilemma becomes, in the pilot, whether to keep her powers under wraps (and glasses) or go public. In a pretty pointed gender-parity comment, she rants to her sister (Chyler Leigh) that she can do everything he (Superman) can do — so why does she have to keep on the down-low?

Once she does “come out,” though, the door is wide open for commentary on sexism in the way we view female superheroes (few and far between though they are). When designing her outfit with a male confidante (Jeremy Jordan), she balks at his initial design, a recreation of the comic book character’s outfit. “I’m not flying around saving people in this thing!” she says. “I wouldn’t even wear this to the beach.” And when facing down her first villain, the hulking alien snarls at her, “On my planet, females bow before males.” “This is not your planet,” she snaps. Oh, snap.

I’ll admit I’m guilty of a little gender assumption myself: Throughout the episode, there are a couple of references to “the General” — which, if you’re even mildly schooled in Superman lore, leads you to assume they’re talking about General Zod. They are not! Props to Adler and Co. for that gender switch and for making me realize my own ingrained comic-book prejudices.

In her opposition to Cat Grant’s dubbing her alter ego Supergirl (in which I like to imagine we can glimpse Adler’s feelings on the subject), Kara even brandishes the F-word: “If we call her Supergirl,” she says, “something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?” I’m not sure Cat’s answer — “Well, I’m a girl, and your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot, and smart” — is exactly the comeback I was looking for, though it’s good to know the show’s creators aren’t taking these things lying down.

And let us not forget we still live in a world where an actual presidential candidate feels perfectly comfortable remarking creepily, of this character who’s way younger than his own daughter, that she’s “pretty hot.” Supergirl may vanquish her first misogynist baddie in the pilot, but she’s got a lot of battles yet to fight on the male-enlightenment front.

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