I’ve been thinking a lot about Supergirl lately, both the TV show and the character in general.
One of the criticisms that bugs me about Supergirl is that she is a “masculine” ideal because she’s strong, invulnerable, and beats up bad guys. It bugs me because it assumes that superheroes (who generally kick butt as part of their job requirements) are a “male” genre. We all know the cliche of the arrested adolescent who escapes to empowerment fantasies, and while there is some small truth to that negative stereotype, that’s ignoring much of what makes the genre appealing.
There’s little point in denying that most superhero fiction, even so-called “subversive” superhero fiction, is about empowerment. Usually physical empowerment. Batman might not be superstrong, but he sure as hell can kick your ass. He can even kick Superman’s ass if the writer feels like letting that happen, and once you face down Superman and win, you can no longer claim to be a normal guy.
There is also a negative side to this fantasy, which can accidentally (and sometimes even intentionally) suggest that might makes right, that beating the hell out of bad people is the best way to handle injustice, and that being special in some way is what makes one important. Taken at face value, it’s easy to see superhero fiction as appealing to some of our worst instincts of egotism and violence. I can’t help but think of Man of Steel which attempted to make Superman relatable by making him mopey, ineffective, and, ultimately, someone perfectly willing to kill, shed some crocodile tears, and then go make out with his girlfriend and make a quip.
Much of this has to do with a shift of the target audience. Superheroes were made for kids. As time went on, the audience grew up with the medium, and that’s cool. There are some great mature superhero tales, but I sometimes feel like something was lost in the process of growing up. I think too often we apply real world logic to superhero stories nowadays and when we do, the entire genre often falls apart because it is, by its nature, completely unrealistic.
One only watch the Kick-Ass movie and its sequel to see how well subverting superhero expectations works, and the answer is it doesn’t work very well. In those films, our heroes are NOT supposed to be superheroes, yet they feature a young girl who can kill a room full of armed men, a jetpack with a rocket launcher built into it, and a sequel in which one of our heroes fights atop a moving van. Realism is not our friend here, and putting in swearing, blood, and ill-fitting costumes doesn’t make it any less of a standard superhero film.
The target audience for superheroes was originally children, and from that perspective, these stories and characters make a lot more sense. Batman doesn’t work from an adult perspective, but for a kid, saying there’s this rich guy who dresses like a bat and fights an evil clown is perfectly sensible. An alien who can fly and lift a battleship? Sure, why not? An ordinary person bitten by a spider and then swinging through New York? Seems reasonable. Kids look at superheroes the way they look at Bugs Bunny. They don’t question why these characters exist. They just accept them at face value.
Children also think more broadly. When children have empowerment fantasies, they aren’t usually about being super rich or repealing zoning ordinances. Despite what the prequel trilogy of Star Wars might have you believe, most children don’t invest in senate hearings and trade embargoes. That is why the prequels will never be as strong as the originals, which were aimed at a younger audience. And, no, ewoks were not a corruption of Star Wars. They were the logical part of a series that always had kids square in the crosshairs of its core audience, and children have no problem with space teddy bears fighting storm troopers. Kids love that kind of thing.
So we could argue that Supergirl embodies a “male” ideal, or we could say that she really embodies a child’s ideal of what it is to be powerful. Children, being mostly powerless themselves, see power as something magical. For a child, being able to catch a meteor or blow out a forest fire is a healthy and logical way of viewing power. It says that there are incredible problems out there, and they can be solved. The best superhero stories have the characters use their powers in creative and smart ways and still throw challenges at the characters that aren’t easily beaten. The best superhero stories say being awesome is great, but you still have to work at it. You can save the day if you believe in yourself and apply your best efforts.
This is the central theme of the new Supergirl TV show, and it is not subtle. But I imagine young girls watching this show and soaking up ideas that are often denied them, even in this day and age. I see a show about a woman who can handle herself, and, yes, she does so by beating up bad guys, but beating up bad guys is about as subtle as most children view things.
Like much of Superhero fiction these days, Supergirl walks a tight rope. It seeks to be appealing to younger audiences and still engaging to adults. Marvel’s movies have done a pretty solid job of that. DC’s, not so much. As an adult, some of the writing on Supergirl can be a little too on the nose for me but then I realize that this is a show about a woman who flies around in bright blue and red who fights crime and averts disaster. Subtlety may not be required.
Anyway, subtlety is often nonsense. Marvel’s more “mature” efforts like Daredevil is about as subtle as a train wreck. It merely substitutes plodding unpleasantness for child-like wonder. And Jessica Jones looks to do more of the same. That’s cool. I think the superhero genre is flexible, and while I would rarely see the point in taking something about empowerment and turning it into unpleasantness, I know there are those who do like that sort of thing. More power to them.
In any case, denying young women the right to see themselves as a force of nature that can stand against the worst this world has to offer is one of the small tragedies of this world. If Supergirl the show or Supergirl the character are around to offer that, I can fully get behind that.
And, hey, there’s always Squirrel Girl.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,