“Supergirl” is not the female hero we deserve

Stripped of its status as an important moment for gender representation on television, the superhero series doesn’t appear to have much going for it

Photo: Darren Michaels/CBS

The highly-anticipated Supergirl series premiered on CBS last week to rather exceptional ratings. The show brought in more viewers than any other new series this fall, and was the highest-scoring series among ever-important young adult demographics. Overall, Supergirl impressed its critical audience too. Variety deemed the show’s first episode a “very good, polished pilot,” and Vulture went even further, calling it a “smart, feminist series.”

I wanted to like Supergirl. I really did. Since the barrage of dudes in capes began to flood our screens several years ago, there have been depressingly few female-fronted superhero series (with Agent Carter being a notable exception). The Flash, Gotham, and Arrow feature plenty of interesting female characters, but all of them occupy supporting roles. And while film studios have been churning out dozens of male-led superhero films, the beleaguered Wonder Woman movie has struggled to get off the ground, burning through writers and directors faster than you can say “Great Hera.”

Unfortunately, stripped of its status as an important moment for gender representation on television, Supergirl doesn’t have much going for it. The special effects are middling, the plot holes are gaping, and the dialogue is relentlessly corny. It’s hard not to groan when villains say things like “I will lead Earth!” or when a mopey Supergirl (a.k.a. Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Kara Danvers) tells a skeptical character: “You’re right. The world doesn’t need me.” (No, Kara! The world does need you!) After Kara saves both her sister and hundreds of other people in a rather spectacular manner, the sister responds with this imperative: “You can’t do anything like that again.” Really, it’s just very lazy writing.

Perhaps most egregious of all is the fact that Supergirl as a character is aggressively uninteresting. Kara is the generically adorkable female lead from just about every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen. She gets flustered in front of handsome men and snort-laughs when she gets nervous. Her first nerd-girl to superhero transformation plays out like a classic rom-com makeover scene: Glasses gone! Hair let loose! Trying on outfits in front of a secretly infatuated male friend! Kara even works for a frosty, Devil Wears Prada-style media boss, for heaven’s sake. Ability to fly notwithstanding, Supergirl emerges as little more than an irksomely familiar female archetype.

Photo: Michael Yarish/CBS

Photo: Michael Yarish/CBS

It is true that the show tries very hard to assert its feminism. During the premiere episode, we see Supergirl successfully trounce an evil alien who tells her that on his planet, “females bow to males.” At her media job, Kara grapples with her alter-ego’s moniker (“Shouldn’t she be called a Super Woman?”), and even posits that the nickname is “anti-feminist.” These are noble — if heavy-handed — efforts at female empowerment that are rendered somewhat moot when Kara does things like compare the experience of flying to “that moment before you kiss someone for the first time.” Could Supergirl’s writers really not think of any other frame of reference?

Kara’s triteness is particularly frustrating because since superhero mania has descended upon us, several male heroes have been successfully translated onto the screen as dark, electric characters. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and Netflix’s Daredevil series come to mind as examples of adaptations that did away with the campy tropes of previous interpretations and offered up gritty, troubled, and deeply complex versions of iconic heroes. The Supergirl comic books certainly lend themselves to a little bit of edge; in various narratives, Kara grapples with rage control, intense betrayal, and some pretty freaky familial traumas. But the CBS series is so damn fluffy that it’s hard to imagine it will handle these storylines in any probing way.

We can give measured kudos to Supergirl for putting a woman at the front of its narrative, feeding her some feminist aphorisms, and letting her kick some butt. It’s not enough, though. We should be seeing smartly-written female superheroes with nuance and texture, with compelling backstories and complex motivations. Supergirl’s inaugural ratings may have soared, but when it comes to creating a female hero we can be proud of, the show definitely fell flat.

Supergirl airs at 8.30pm Mondays, on CBS.


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