tv review

Supergirl Is a Smart, Feminist Series (and That’s Why Some People Won’t Watch It)

From left: Melissa Benoist and Chyler Leigh. Photo: Cliff Lipson/CBS

Supergirl is a character freighted with meaning, and her appearance in a network-TV series in 2015 feels auspicious. She arrives months before DC’s Wonder Woman can make her first appearance in a major motion picture (next summer’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), one month before Netflix’s Jessica Jones, and a full ten years into an almost entirely male-dominated cycle of superhero films that have generated billions of dollars in box-office revenue but only one significant female character (Marvel’s Black Widow, who has yet to land her own movie despite being a scene-stealing supporting character in several others). All that the show’s star, Glee’s Melissa Benoist, has to do to make a statement is show up onscreen in the heroine’s red, yellow, and blue outfit. But Supergirl goes further. It’s a very sweet, likable series, temperamentally opposed to the preferred superhero template of pumped-up guys with T-square jaws brooding in the rain. But it would be wrong to describe it as fluff or light entertainment. It’s about what it’s about, but it’s also about what it represents. It’s a series that’s in conversation with all the superhero entertainment that preceded it, and it speaks insistently and clearly to make absolutely sure that it’s being heard.

From the minute we hear the voice of transplanted Krytponian Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Kara Danvers, narrating the story, we’re primed to think of the show in terms of voices being heard, images being claimed and reclaimed. Although its four credited “developers” (one of whom is Greg Berlanti of the CW’s Arrow and The Flash) might be horrified to hear the show described this way, because the word is a kiss of death for some (mostly male) viewers, this is a feminist series that’s aware of the cultural and political implications of everything it’s showing us, whether it’s Kara taking issue with a prototype of a costume with a bared midriff or defeating a brawny, hateful, openly sexist foe by, essentially, destroying his symbolic phallus.

Kara was sent to Earth as a baby to watch over her younger cousin, the future Superman, but got waylaid and ended up landing on Earth years after the boy’s arrival. Now she’s trying to find her own way. She leaves her adoptive parents (played by Dean Cain and Helen Slater, who respectively played Superman on TV and Supergirl in a movie) and gets a job at a big-city newspaper run by media mogul Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), a petite human steamroller who says things like, “It’s not that I don’t see your frown, it’s that I don’t care enough to ask why it’s there.” Kara dons a costume and tries out her powers for the first time in the pilot episode, learns some secrets about her past, learns that she has a mission; we meet supporting characters familiar from prior incarnations of the story, including a bad guy who is essentially an openly sexist version of General Zod named Vartox (Owain Yeoman), and the newspaper photographer James Olsen (here played by Mehcad Brooks, certainly the most broad-shouldered, deep-voiced, confident “Jimmy” of all time).

All the usual origin-story beats are here, and at first it seems a little bit sad, or perhaps just irritating, that so much of it is just recycling the story of Superman but with a woman (all this is inherited, by the way; it’s from the comics). But soon it becomes clear that Supergirl is dealing in a couple of related subtexts. One is the difficulty of a woman establishing herself as noteworthy and valuable when a man has already done all of the things she’s capable of doing and been acclaimed for them (the ho-hum factor). The other is how hard it is to get the public (represented here by the newspaper’s readers) to think of Kara as the equal of any male superhero when even her allies seem to denigrate her, even though they don’t mean to.

“I don’t want to minimize the importance of this,” Kara says, the morning after the superheroine rescues an endangered airplane and makes headlines around the world and is dubbed “Supergirl” by Cat. “A female superhero. Shouldn’t she be called Superwoman? If we call her Supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn’t it make us guilty of being antifeminist?” Cat asks her, “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? If you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”

Well, not necessarily — but it’s still nice to hear these kinds of conversations occurring on a CBS series, especially one filled with so many iconic comic-book images and situations. It’s a gauntlet rather brazenly thrown down to sexist fanboys — many of whom will refuse to watch this series because it’s about a young woman who cries sometimes and still misses her dead mother and is still learning how to be a superhero, though of course they’ll say it’s for some other reason. The deliberate echoing of the original 1978 Superman: The Movie — which also let the protagonist make headlines by saving an endangered airliner and had the bad guy demand a face-to-face meeting via high-frequency transmissions that only superheroes and animals can hear — feels like an especially pointed sort of provocation. It’s like the show is flat-out saying, “Here is, literally, the story of Superman — but with a woman. If you are automatically not interested, ask yourself why that is.”

I don’t want to come across as unreasonably enthused about Supergirl because CBS only saw fit to send out the pilot. There could be a precipitous drop in quality in the next few weeks, for all we know. But what’s onscreen here is intelligent, sensitive, and sure-footed, and altogether promising. The show knows what it’s doing and what it’s about.

Supergirl Is a Smart, Feminist Series