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.