Supergirl’s Feel-Good Feminism is a Bright Spot in a Bleak TV Year

It’s been a bleak year so far for queer women who love TV. In addition to Lexa’s devastating death on The 100, we’ve lost seven supporting lesbian and bisexual characters to the Bury Your Gays trope. CBS finally added Person of Interest‘s fifth season to the primetime schedule, but cancelled it almost immediately after the announcement. Once Upon a Time‘s ballyhooed gay storyline is nowhere to be found. Even our old standbys like Pretty Little Liars — which boasted more queer women than any TV show besides The L Word, up until season six — inexplicably de-gayed itself.

The saving grace of 2016 TV has been the feel-good feminism exhibited by shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, and Supergirl. In an ideal world, of course, feminism wouldn’t have to feel good to make its way onto TV, and all feminist TV would be as effortlessly intersectional as Orange Is the New Black and as unapologetic as Jessica Jones. But non-streaming TV, particularly broadcast network TV, exists in a universe that centers itself almost exclusively around the narratives of straight white men.

CBS’ Supergirl has been this season’s biggest surprise. Sure, Kara Danvers always has a love interest dogging her steps. And no, Supergirl would never draw a subversively straight line from street the harasser’s manta (“smile!”) to rapist to sociopathic supervillain, like Jessica Jones did. But there’s something really special about an 8pm show on your grandpa’s favorite network that talks — even clunkily — about workplace inequality, the gender pay gap, the lack of female role models in modern media, the way so many men think of young women as incompetent, the dangers of likability, body-shaming, victim-blaming, and establishing yourself as an influential woman in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Supergirl has touched on all of these issues in season one, the last one being one of the many parallels between Kara Danvers and boss/mentor, Cat Grant. Cat established a media empire in world dominated by men, while Supergirl establishes her role in a universe where her cousin, Kal-El, has been doing superheroic hijinks for over a decade. Cat fetched coffee for male reporters at a tiny newspaper for years before she finally had the chance to write a single gossip column, while Supergirl has to constantly fight the bad guys while fighting the narrative that she’s not as worthy of adulation as Superman. (“You have to work twice as hard to be thought of as half as good [as the men in your industry],” Cat tells Kara early on, when she’s scolding her for crying at work because it makes her look weak.)

Cat is the mouthpiece that proves Supergirl‘s creative team is perpetually having a conversation with each other about what it means to write a female-fronted superhero series on broadcast network television. It’s clear they’re trying to find a balance between introducing feminist concepts to girls for the first time, nodding toward more seasoned feminist ideas, and shutting down the criticisms of fanboys who have unlimited superhero stories at their disposal.

Supergirl puts its action where its mouth is. The central relationship on the show is between Kara and her sister, Alex, who is a hero in her own right. It’s Kara’s love for her sister that causes her to reveal her superpowers in the first place, as she stops a plane carrying Alex from crashing in the pilot episode. And Alex is able to help Kara develop her superhero identity because she is a gun-carrying, ass-kicking, sharp-witted secret agent (and occasional interim director) of the D.E.O. Their relationship with each other is what nurtures, sustains, drives, and empowers both of them. They save the world, and then they share a blanket and a pizza and a night in front of the TV watching Netflix.

Supergirl is clear blue skies and open-office plans with giant windows. It’s good vs. evil, and in the vein of the original comic book binary, good always wins. It’s choosing your heart’s voice over your head’s voice most of the time. It’s fun and it’s sweet and everyone smiles a lot, especially Kara Danvers.

And it’s a woman beating up the bad guys. A woman being bullet-proof. A woman rescuing cats from trees and building IKEA furniture for her neighbors and stopping trains full of people from careening to their fiery deaths. It’s a woman acting as the brains behind the operation. It’s a woman who is faster than The Flash.

It’s a woman saving the day, every day.

In a world that’s infinitely darker and more complicated than the one in National City, it’s nice to feel good every once in a while.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 835 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Which is, of course why CBS is being THE WORST yet again (surprise, surprise) and not playing waiting games with its renewal. DEJA VU.

    At least the Nancy Drew reboot is something they own, so it probably won’t go through network BS like this?

  2. I’ve been trying to resist getting into Supergirl, but I’ve been waffling recently. It seems all the Person of Interest and The 100 blogs I follow on Tumblr have all recently become Supergirl/Supercat/Alextra blogs, so I’ve been inundated with Melissa Benoist’s smiling happy face. But I’ve been resisting for a few reasons.

    1) I was never that impressed with Melissa Benoist on Glee, though I acknowledge that’s probably more Ryan Murphy’s fault that anyone else’s;

    2) I’m generally not all that into superheroes as a genre, and when I have gotten into superhero stuff, it’s had a tendency to let me down of late (starting with Batwoman, and then Age of Ultron, and now I’ve finally decided to quit Agents of SHIELD for good);

    3) Didn’t the show JUST kill off Laura Benanti’s character? I know she wasn’t queer on the show, but there was a big Alextra fandom on Tumblr who were pretty pissed about that, and I just generally love Laura Benanti;

    4) from the looks of gifs and things it seems okay in terms of visible minority representation, but Ali Adler is the showrunner, and there are still no queer characters on it yet? And I know, I know, aimed at young kids, 8pm timeslot, CBS, blah blah, but seriously, in the age of Steven Universe, and Korrasami, can we please get over letting shows aimed at kids (ESPECIALLY ones with queer showrunners!) off the hook for not including queer characters?!

    Oh man, sorry to go so negative when you’re tried to spread happy, positive, girl power vibes. I’m just saying, these are the reasons I haven’t wanted to get into the show, and you’ve just given me a good reason to start watching,

      • Melissa Benoist’s (Supergirl) and Grant Gustin’s (The Flash) happy-go-lucky atittudes are literally the only things balancing out Stephen Amell’s grumpy face (The Arrow) for me.

        Also, though I get the appeal of all the lesbian ships on the show, I think it’d be really interesting (though it’d have to be done carefulyl) on how they would deal with all the power-play issues.

  3. Really, really enjoying Supergirl. And I don’t usually go for the cheerful bubblegum superhero stuff, but oh look turns out it’s actually pretty great when the people writing it are on top of their shit and don’t pull all the usual tropes out.

  4. Except for occasional annoying love triangle stuff, Supergirl is like being wrapped in a warm fluffy blanket after getting chilled in the rain. It’so comforting and nice. 🙂

    • Yes to all this even about the love triangle angle LOL
      Love the show and she’s irresistibly adorkable, she loves cupcakes and donuts and binge-watches Orphan Black. ^_^

  5. Is this the right place to complain it’s time for Kryptonian patriarchal naming conventions to be updated, LOL

    But anyways, I have been really enjoying Supergirl, I hope it gets renewed. I’ve always been a superhero fan and this is just perfect for me.

  6. Love love love this show! Call me old-fashioned, but I like to see this type of good-hearted entertainment on my TV.

    Nothing the show does will convince me of Alex’s hypothetical heterosexuality, though. Maybe if the actress gave her energy to any of her male scene partners besides the guy who plays J’onn Valjean, I might consider it. Possibly.

    • Chyler has said she would love for her character to be gay. She’s never explicitly said heterosexual either. Like she let Maxwell Lord “wine and dine” her for intel, but Chyler and Melissa explicitly said they don’t like him as a love interest for Alex. And Alex made a comment about dating boys in college. But lots of people experiment in college.

      Also Chyler straight up said neither of the boys were good enough for Kara.

  7. If the show added a queer character, I see four options (obviously Kara wouldn’t be, because hetero patriarchy):

    Any combination of Alex, Agent Susan Vasquez, and/or Lucy Lane

    Or Cat Grant and a new lady.

    (Also the guy that plays Winn said he could see Winn as gay, but with his feelings for Kara and Siobhan I’d say maybe bi.)

    But the fanfic for this show is AMAZING. 10/10 highly recommend.

  8. The one complaint I do have with this show is how they’ve been writing James recently. He’s kind of been selfish and arrogant for most of the show, but the way he acted after the red k episode was just wrong. It’s been obvious from day one that he’s her main love interest, but they’re making him pretty unlikable.

  9. I’d give anything for alex to be gay. I hope I’m not the only one that just gets a *vibe* from her? All I know is that ever since episode 1 I’ve been screaming to anyone who will listen that alex should be gay. And that would also kind of redeem the show for equating being gay with being an alien so often, AND for that scene where Winn thinks Kara is a lesbian. Just saying.
    Love the show though, it actually improved a lot since episode one!

  10. The week of THAT episode of The 100 I watched the whole series of Supergirl. And while it is ridiculous and rubbish in so many ways I JUST CANNOT STOP WATCHING. I actually cried at the post office from laughing so much while describing the scene where Cat makes Kara take off her glasses.
    So I am all in. And while the show itself is not explicitly queer, the fandom is just so queer I feel included.

    All in all, while the writing leaves a lot to be desired, the intent is good and it is a fun show. Combine that with a cast of awesome women and superpowers and you have me hook, line and sinker.

  11. How wonderful!
    I was catching up to “Falling” on Monday and was desperately wishing for there to be some way to discuss “Supergirl” on this site!
    Now, I don’t know what the politics or money spending decisions are behind rolling out all the tricks and sets and special effects for “The Flash”, while Supergirl spends an entire episode chasing down an evil alien via the means of a cheap ass prosthetic finger someone picked up at the Halloween section at Walmart, however, I’ve learned to overlook the ample use of styrofoam.And Jello.
    When Kara landed I expected something more..thrilling, but have learned to love the show for its campy,bad special effects (Red Tornado,anyone?) and good humor attitude.
    It just,sadly,feels a little disconnected, because what works for other Superhero Shows are the interpersonal relationship and conflicts, and Kara simply doesn’t connect to her “Team”.
    Especially not her supposed love interest.
    However, there was one scene, where, suddenly, I got a glimpse just how good this show could be: When Cat had guessed Kara’s identity.
    There was conflict, there was emotion, there was vulnerability and intimacy.
    No wonder a couple of hundred fanfictions shipping these two sprang forth.
    Now, with “Falling” Kara lost her impeccable good girl image and I mostly felt relieved for her during that episode.
    I haven’t watched beyond it,yet, but I so hope they use her glitch on exploring more of her character instead of Kara’s puppyness.
    I also so,so hope they explore the way she manhandled James for a minute there, because power structures, consent,etc.
    Most of all, I hope they ditch the romantic love interests and focus on what we’re watching the show for:Supergirl.
    I really feel that they could use the actresses they have a lot more and better!

    And re:Alex:Black polo shirts and cargo pants. What did they expect? For her not to pop up on our gaydar?^^

    That said, I raise my glass to the show with the most use of the phrase “Coming Out” by a wide margin and hope it gets another season.

  12. Whoa Supergirl!

    I started this show without much expectations, but idk how it happened, suddenly it’s one of my favourite.

    Is it cheesy, campy, whatever you call it? Yes.

    Is it exactly the superhero show that I needed? Yes, especially after all the pathos in Arrow. Flash is lighthearted, but Supergirl, Supergirl is the exact thing I need to start my week 🙂

    While they could do without the love triangle (why is this plot device so overused, argh) the rest, CAT GRANT, Alex, everything just warms up my heart.

    Seriously, CAT GRANT everybody.

    Also gay Alex is a great concept, finger crossed for it to happen.

    All in all I got my mother to watch it and she liked it.

  13. I adore Melissa Benoist in all her adorkableness, and I really love it when they explore Kara’s anger and darkness, but not in a way that feels alienating. It feels relatable (even though she’s an alien).

    Her relationship with Alex is A#1 my favorite thing, followed closely by her relationship with Cat Grant (yeah, I ship it).

    If they made Alex gay (likely bi) and gave her a rad girlfriend (hmmm, Vasquez?), it would be the bee’s knees.

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