Okay, so true confession time: I consider myself a Marvel girl. You can usually find me over at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. trying to sort out the difference between inhumans and mutants (hint: there kind of isn’t one). But that doesn’t mean I started there. The first comic I ever read was Wonder Woman, and lately the siren call of DC can be heard in the distance, especially at night when the prime time television begins.
I can’t honestly tell you what I expected from Supergirl. My hopes were high as Gotham currently holds the place as my favorite comic book show running, but I’ve been disappointed before, particularly when it comes to comic books and the dreaded f-word. Feminism. It’s not that these shows aren’t trying, because they are, but it’s never hard to see the distinctively masculine perspectives that underpin a lot of these series. So I went into this hopeful, but realistic and what I got was… well about a million times smarter a show than I was prepared for.
We start with some back story, a necessity with most origin myths. Meeting Kara Zor-El, older cousin to the famous Kal-El, we find that she too was sent from a dying Krypton to Earth. Except something went horribly wrong. She’s knocked into the Phantom Zone (You remember General Zod? Yeah, that’s where he hangs out), which I’ll admit to finding a bit confusing as I always thought of it as a trans-dimensional location more than a black hole-like structure you could just fall into. She escapes of course, but lands about 20 years too late to help her cousin. Instead, he brings her to the Danvers where we find her adoptive father is going to be play by DEAN “LOIS & CLARK” CAIN! I mean that’s a pretty awesome way to reference my childhood. That’s all I’m saying.
Kara decides, for some reason, that the Earth doesn’t need another superhero. Kara please, please listen to me when I say that the world needs as many superheroes as it can get. You and Kal-El have not oversaturated the market. But thinking this, she decides to move where all aspiring media moguls move, National City.
Kara works as an assistant to media mogul Cat Grant, Calista Flockhart at her most delightful. I, honestly, don’t think I’ve ever loved her more. Grant is not a nice person, but there’s something in her self-awareness and her unapologetic attitude that makes her an absolute joy to watch, even when she’s being mean to our hero.
We also find that Kara has her own, Jimmy Olson-esque sidekick in the form of Winn Schott. Winn isn’t wholly unlikable, but if ever there was an argument as to why some “nice” guys don’t have girlfriends, it’s Winn. It’s not that he’s a bit of a paranoid conspiracy theorists, so much as his very singular view of Kara as a love interest. It’s the kind of crush a high school sophomore carries around for the prettiest girl in school; idealized, a little obsessive, and pure fantasy. Even their first conversation somehow skews towards his awkward attempts to ask her out and his jealousy over her craigslist date. Okay, so it was probably Plenty of Fish, but honestly that guy turns out to be a huge, well…he’s a dick. There really isn’t another way to describe him.
I’d be tempted to mark down Winn’s character to bad writing if it weren’t for their commitment to his obsessive feelings regarding Kara. Even when she admits to him that she is Supergirl, a huge deal as only three other people even know she’s not human, he mistakes it for her trying to reveal that she is a lesbian. And his immediate response? Not “thank you for telling me,” or “I accept you for who you are,” or even a “that’s nice, do you want Thai for lunch?”. Instead, he immediately reacts with a relieved, “this is why you’re not in love with me,” which really should have earned him a slap from Kara, lesbian or not.
It’s behavior that stands in stark contrast to the actual James “Jimmy” Olsen who has one of the smoothest character reveals ever. James (only the big guy and his mom call him Jimmy) is here to stretch his wings, and point out how much Kara looks like Superman. Cover blown before it is even needed. But seriously, he’s obviously there to keep an eye on our budding superheroine, because if that was supposed to be a big reveal, maybe you should have cut back on the very specifically timed looks. Still, for an obvious love interest, James certainly proves himself more appropriate, if only because he sees Kara as more that just a cute girl. Oh yeah, and because she’s attracted to him. Kara, superhero you may be, but you are so not good at hiding a crush.
All of these relationships pale in comparison to Kara’s relationship with adopted sister Alex, even better because at no point do they refer to each other as being anything other than sisters. For these two, the fact that they aren’t genetically the same species, much less related, does nothing to weaken their bond. This is particularly true when, after fence sitting for half of the episode, Alex being put in danger is what finally causes Kara to embrace her powers and become Supergirl. And her final costume is exactly what you want in a Superheroine costume, even if it does take us some time to get there. Flats, because no one is running after criminals in high heels. Black full length tights because the last thing you need to worry about when preparing for battle is whether or not you’ve shaved recently. A cape because… well… every superhero deserves a cape if they want one. Though I will admit, I thought the “S” meant hope (clearly I have once again been mislead by Zack Snyder) because that was confusing enough to begin with, but nowhere near as confusing as S being the coat of arms of the house of El. Say it out loud if you don’t believe me.
With such a strong bond between the two, it’s no wonder that the reveal that Alex is working for the DEO and is essentially spying on Kara is the biggest emotional betrayal of the show. It also sets the sisters up as an interesting metaphor for the changing perception of what makes a strong female character in a comic book universe, and by extension in real life. Alex (who is basically the Natasha Romanoff of DC television) represents the old guard, just as competent and capable as her male counterparts, but toiling mostly in obscurity. Kara, by contrast, represents the new order: standing out, being herself, not apologizing for her opinions and beliefs, even in the face of losing her job, and ultimately, getting her credit where it is due. She’s not content just to be good at her job, she wants to be herself while being good at her job, and isn’t scared of the attention that will bring. It’s a big contrast, and whether purposefully set up or not, an important thing to recognize in an era where the very definition of “feminism” can mean extremely different things to different people.
Along those same lines, whether you agree with Cat Grant’s (and by extension the Supergirl creative team’s) explanation of why calling her “Supergirl” isn’t anti-feminist, you have to admit it’s a bold choice of them to confront the issue head on. If nothing else, it makes Supergirl the only superhero show talking about feminism, and I’m willing to bet that it’s one of only maybe four or five television shows participating in what is a pretty hot button issue at all.
So all and all, I’m more than a little impressed with tonight’s pilot. It’s a thoughtful show, doing what fantasy and science fiction shows were made to do: give us a safe space in which to talk about issues that affect our everyday lives. Issues that we aren’t always comfortable talking about in a 100% realistic setting. That’s not to say it was flawless. It was definitely a pilot episode, which means certain things like character relationships and stylistic choices feel a bit underworked. Some of the dialogue lacked the polish that only comes from actors and writers merging in their interpretation of the characters. And if there is one thing that seriously undercuts the show’s feminist message, it’s the eleventh hour reveal that “HE” (and really do we need to be so committed to not saying Superman?), is pulling strings to help Kara “find her way.” But in an era where research shows that 47% of comic book readers (and growing) are women, where there a plenty of fully-clothed male heroes with well-developed back stories, and where Jem and the Holograms has been reduced to yet another tale of how girls will ultimately give up their friends at the slightest hint of fame and fortune, I think we could all use a show were feminism isn’t a bad word. We deserve a show that can engage us in a dialogue that doesn’t try to value one person’s definition of feminism over another’s; a show where, for once, a girl gets to save the world and remind us all that inside of us all lies the power to be just a little bit super.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.