MEMBERS ONLY: Supergirl is the Feminist Sci-Fi Drama You Need to Watch

by Justin Rosario

If you’re like me, after a while you start rolling your eyes at your television when your favorite show resorts to cliches to stir up some drama. Even good shows often take the easy way out and fabricate situations that normal adults would never let spiral into a crisis. Personally, I love the show Supernatural and I’m thrilled it got renewed for its 13th season(!) but, seriously, if I have to sit through one more argument between Sam and Dean not seeing eye to eye and then going behind each other’s back, I’m going to scream. There’s nothing worse than watching characters lacking even rudimentary communication skills fight over something that should take 30 seconds of conversation to sort out. The overwrought angst of Arrow and The Flash occasionally makes me weep in despair and don’t even get me started on the ridiculousness of Scorpion.

But into this miasma of manly scowling and artifice flies Supergirl like a breath of fresh air so unusual, I didn’t even realize what was happening until midway through season 2. Somewhere along the line, the writers of Supergirl said, “Fuck it, we’re not doing the whole dysfunctional relationship thing.” Instead, we’ve been treated to two seasons of aggressively healthy interpersonal interactions, even among people who are legitimately dysfunctional.

Early on, it looked like Supergirl would center on the tired romantic triangle and pining male best friend trope. Kara Danvers/Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) liked Jimmy Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) but best friend Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan) liked Kara and Jimmy was seeing someone else while secretly attracted to Kara. Because that hasn’t been done to death a million times already. Still, from those inauspicious beginnings, Supergirl resolved the whole dating story line without dragging it out. Best friend Winn got over it, Jimmy had a mature breakup with his girlfriend who could tell he was in love with someone else and the story moved on. None of this became the central drama of the series.

While all this and an alien invasion is going on, the show established just how close Kara and her adopted sister Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) are, building a shockingly healthy bond between the two. Halfway through season one, Alex is forced to kill Kara’s Kryptonian aunt, her last link to her long-dead mother, to save their sort-of father figure J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter (gruffly played by David Harewood). He took the blame because both Alex and J’onn justifiably think that Kara would never be able to forgive her aunt’s killer, letting Kara rage at him until Alex breaks down and confesses. It’s a powerful season expertly delivered by Leigh:

There’s that moment at 1:17 that makes you think that Supergirl is going to storm off and the writers will mine the anguish for several more episodes. Instead, we get a far more satisfying resolution as Kara sucks it up and puts her family over her own anger. When Kara reached out to take J’onn’s hand in silent apology and thanks, I sagged in my seat with relief, not because I was worried about their long term relationship but because wanted these characters to be better. Without realizing it, I was beginning to dread Supergirl using the typical pettiness and/or emotional constipation that I was used to in order to advance the story. I was craving maturity in my sci-fi and you know what? There’s no reason I can’t have it.

I imagine this has something to do with Supergirl seeing itself, for good reason, as a feminist icon and a show geared towards young women. The most powerful characters, both physically and otherwise, are all women. The President of the United States is Lynda Carter (yes, that Lynda Carter). The head of the world’s most powerful corporation is Lena Luthor, evil genius Lex Luthor’s adopted/secret half-sister who is a next level genius in her own right. The leader of every alien invasion and evil organization seen so far has been a woman. During the season two finale, Supergirl dukes it out with her cousin Clark Kent/Superman and (Spoilers!) knocks him out before passing out herself. Just to make it absolutely clear this was not a fluke, Superman explains that he was not in a weakened state despite being convinced he was fighting his worst enemy; Kara simply won the fight because she’s stronger. The title of the episode? “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”

In this context, using the kind of dysfunction most shows use to keep things lively would be a disservice to the audience. If Kara Danvers is supposed to represent the best of what it means to be a modern woman, having her act in a petty manner would be the exact opposite of that. Supergirl strives to a higher standard and that need to empower women extends to every female character in the show as well.

Consider how Supergirl handles Alex realizing that she’s a lesbian and growing into that part of herself. That entire story arc, from coming out to Kara, to being rejected and then accepted by Maggie, her first adult gay crush, to coming out to her friends, to dealing with Maggie’s own scars from her coming out trauma and past relationships was handled with great care, attention and mauturity. The drama was authentic, realistic (in the context of aliens and super science, no less), and full of drama that was not at all contrived. Best of all, it was an example of how well-adjusted adults deal with difficult emotional situations. In comparison, The L Word, the definitive show about the lesbian community during the Aughts, feels contrived and full of neurotic lunatics (come on, you know you hated Jenny as much as I did).

But so far, the crowning jewel of ignoring worn out tropes has been the friendship between Kara and Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath). Lena has been struggling to overcome the stigma of being a Luthor and in the process earned the absolute trust of Kara. Initially suspicious of Lena because of the annoying habit Luthors have of trying to kill anyone wearing a red cape and a giant yellow “S” on their chest, Kara quickly comes to realize that prelude is not prologue.

One of the best things about CW’s Smallville was watching the friendship of Clark Kent and Lex Luthor devolve into enmity as Lex slowly walks a path of good intentions straight into Hell. Like any good tragedy, the end of their story was written before the first scene began. It’s an immutable law of the universe that Lex Luthor and Superman are friends that become bitter enemies.  

But that doesn’t have to be the case with Lena and Kara because neither character has a set history in the comics. Batman’s parents have to die, Superman has to be raised on Earth by humans, and Wonder Woman has to be an Amazon with a lasso. But Supergirl and Lena Luthor have had so many rewrites and reboots, there’s no canon to take into account. Supergirl has to be Superman’s cousin and she has to arrive on Earth as a teen instead of a baby but beyond that, her story is free game. Lena has even less of a presence in the comics, having been at different points Lex’s daughter, full sister, half sister and repeated victim. So, really, the writers can do anything they want with the pair. They could become rivals or be each other’s Maids of Honor.

But the way Lena has been written, it would actually be out of character for her to turn on Kara. Supergirl has given Lena several paths to the dark side that she’s rejected every time, a few of which came at great personal risk and loss to herself. She literally killed a man she loved to save Supergirl, whom she doesn’t really know that well (she believes). The easy way out of her grief would have been to irrationally blame Supergirl or Kara, who had warned Lena that something was wrong, but that’s not how Supergirl rolls (or flies). It would take something apocalyptic for Lena to suddenly come to hate her best friend and just finding out she’s secretly Supergirl won’t do it. We shall see.

You’d think that a show that keeps deliberately avoiding drama would be boring but considering it’s already been renewed for a third season, this is clearly not the case. There’s plenty to work with as Kara figures out how to be a superhero, a career woman and still have a personal life at the same time. “Having it all” is a recurring theme for both Supergirl and millions of women in real life. Sometimes, the kind of drama women live with everyday is more enough and that’s what makes seeing it in a science fiction show so enjoyable.