My "Supergirl" hypocrisy: Female superheroes don't need to be "broken" to kick ass

Did I dismiss her at first because she's an angsty millennial or because she's an angsty millennial woman?

By Arthur Chu
Published October 27, 2015 3:24PM (EDT)
Melissa Benoist in "Supergirl" (CBS)
Melissa Benoist in "Supergirl" (CBS)

I was one of the many Internet snarkers ragging on "Supergirl" when the “first look” trailer came out in May. The unfortunate timing of it coming out right after a hilarious spoof of “chick flick” tropes in a superhero context on "SNL" was just too much to ignore. In unison with a groaning Twitter mob, I talked about how little I wanted to see 20-something millennial angst mixed in with explosions and gunfire and alien fistfights.

I said, at the time, that it was obvious that Melissa Benoist’s version of Kara Zor-El was a character designed to evoke stereotypical millennial angst—“I’m more than someone’s assistant!” I pointed out that it was extremely grating to juxtapose stereotypical millennial angst--the feeling of being a well-educated, creative person who’s underemployed and disrespected in the current economy--with themes of military combat, rescue operations and life-and-death stakes.

I am deeply familiar with millennial angst. I am not at all familiar with fearing for my life or the lives of my colleagues and loved ones on a regular basis, with witnessing scenes of horrific violence up close, with confronting people willing and able to do me physical harm to get what they want.

There are people my age who have lived through that. To compare the struggle of people like me to the struggle of people like them was, in my mind, deeply disrespectful. I had just come off of binge-watching Marvel’s "Daredevil" and was filled with the conviction that depictions of violence needed to show the associated trauma and horror to be “honest.”

I still think that’s a coherent position, and a valid stance for a critic of this kind of show to take.

But in my case it was deeply hypocritical, and the more I thought about it the more hypocritical I felt it was. I’d eaten up "Guardians of the Galaxy," which was all about a stereotypical slacker man-child (lifted straight out of a realistic setting in "Parks and Recreation") and juxtaposing his struggle for emotional maturity with a cosmic threat to the survival of the galaxy. I liked "Ant-Man," which was about taking a narrative about a divorced dad who’s worried he’s a disappointment to his kids and juxtaposing it with a terrorist conspiracy to bring global war.

And I’d always eaten up Superman himself. I grew up with "Lois and Clark," a show that was probably 80 percent soap opera, with gags about Superman flying all the way to China for “authentic” Chinese food in the middle of trying to stop criminals destroying Metropolis. (Dean Cain, the Superman from "Lois and Clark," cameos as Supergirl’s adoptive father in this pilot, with film Supergirl Helen Slater playing her adoptive mom.)

The kneejerk impulse to attack "Supergirl" for being “not gritty enough” fell flat when I considered that the whole Superman mythos fails when you make it gritty, as the most recent film has shown and the Internet backlash to the sequel has even more clearly shown.

Superman is a concept that just doesn’t make sense. He’s too powerful. He’s depicted as being able to hear anything that happens in the world and go there in the blink of an eye, having a whole toolkit of powers to solve any situation, being, in essence, a physical god.

Take that too seriously and it’s either deeply depressing or deeply terrifying. A version of Superman who reacted “realistically” to having the power that he does would either be some kind of masochist to force himself to constantly use it altruistically or would be a straight-up evil overlord. Maybe both. Certainly both possibilities have been endlessly explored in comics.

But the normal Superman that we grew up with isn’t a self-hating misanthrope or a gleeful villain. He’s, well… a nice guy. The real fantasy in Superman that makes him attractive isn’t just his superhuman physical abilities but his superhuman emotional ability, his superhuman psychological resilience, his superhuman niceness. The fantasy that it would be possible to both suffer incredible stress and wield incredible power and still, at the end of it, be a regular guy.

And I always accepted that, as long as the definition of “regular guy” was something I could relate to. I was never as good looking as Tom Welling or Dean Cain or Christopher Reeve, but the idea of the standard for “nice guy” being a bespectacled nerdy guy overcome with country-mouse awkwardness upon arriving in the big city--well, it resonated strongly with me, and with a lot of other dudes, just like it resonated with two nerdy kids named Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster who lived in Cleveland years ago.

So why not let women have that same fantasy?

The fact that I can’t relate to Kara as well as I could Clark, I think, lay at the root of why I and a lot of other people were so quick to call her dealing with everyday complaints annoying and out-of-place when I didn’t have any trouble with Dean Cain’s Clark Kent back in the day stressing out about a poker game with the guys or calling his mom for job interview advice. That good old unconscious bias at work again.

As many people pointed out, the reason "SNL"’s spoof trailer about Black Widow was funny is that it was making an “ordinary girl in the big city” out of Black Widow, a character established as a super-spy with a dark past whose hands are already indelibly stained with innocent blood when we first meet her in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Widow is a dark character and assuming a dark character must be made light and fluffy because she’s a woman is what’s patronizing about that trailer.

But it isn’t really liberating to make up exceptional women with dark, dramatic pasts. In fact comic books and media in general have more than enough femme fatale characters like Black Widow. I’m drawn to such characters--I’m a big fan of Marvel’s "Agent Carter" and I fully expect to be a big fan of "Jessica Jones"--but I have to admit that doesn’t show me to be any kind of groundbreaking feminist. Lots of guys like those characters. Lots of guys write those characters. Lots of (straight) guys get crushes on those characters and write inappropriate fanfic about them.

Think about the kind of female characters guys get into. They’re never characters you can imagine someone imagining themselves to be. They’re defined by Other-ness, by traits you’d never apply to yourself--mysterious, alluring, inscrutable. A femme fatale, fatal and dangerous to other people. A complex puzzle of past traumas like Jessica Jones who’s exciting to learn about and watch but whom you wouldn’t want to actually be.

That’s oversimplifying, of course. There’s plenty of female fans of dark, gritty female characters too, and certainly people who do identify with characters like Jessica Jones the way people identify with characters like Bruce Wayne--using the idea of incredible, larger-than-life trauma as a way to process the less supernatural traumas we ourselves live through.

But the simple, innocent kind of heroic fantasy? The kind that’s not about standing outside yourself and imagining yourself as someone “fascinating” and “extraordinary” but that’s just about being yourself in an extraordinary situation? That’s not about fantasizing about struggle and pain but simply about the joy of believing that you can fly?

Women and girls have, historically, not had that many of those heroes. I’ve heard my female friends complain, multiple times, that especially in comics female characters never get left alone to simply be heroes--they’re all too often traumatized, “broken” or even killed in order to make their stories more “complex” and “interesting,” usually for the benefit of a male hero who gets to react to their story while being himself unscathed.

Over in gaming this is why so many female fans reacted badly to making Samus have an emotional breakdown or making Lara Croft narrowly avoid sexual assault. Whatever merit those creative decisions have in isolation, they add up to a pattern where female characters have to be “broken” to be interesting enough for male audience members to pay attention.

Meanwhile there are plenty of “boring” male characters who are beloved because they’re “boring,” because they provide space for a male viewer to project himself into them. The lovable everyman good guy (these days being played by Chris Pratt) will never completely go out of style as long as there’s guys who want to relax and watch a movie or play a game with a guy they don’t mind being for a few hours.

There’s not enough characters like that for women. "Supergirl" is not my cup of tea, but if it provides that for women and girls who like Superman but want to see themselves in Clark Kent’s role--the original reason Supergirl was created--then I’m all for that. The various ways the comic books have played with Supergirl--making her filled with impulsive rage, making her secretly a shapeshifting alien, making her the “Earth-born Angel of Fire”--are all more interesting, to me as a male reader, than her being a female version of Clark, but that’s not who the show is for.

Of course the show has flaws I can’t help but nitpick. I wish the show weren’t so awkward and blatant about having to talk around even the word “Superman” (which is only mentioned once, in the opening narration). I’m glad that Cat Grant has been upgraded from Daily Planet comic-relief sexpot to commanding media mogul, but I wish Calista Flockhart didn’t seem to be doing a stiff impression of Meryl Streep as Anna Wintour while playing her. I wish Hank Henshaw weren’t such a stereotypical commanding officer, the kind who’s always wavering between firing Supergirl or giving her a medal. I wish the CGI were slightly more convincing. I wish the writers had spent some more time on why exactly Supergirl is grievously wounded by being nicked in the side by the evil alien’s nuclear-powered axe but she is later totally unharmed when she makes it explode six inches away from her face.

But the show isn’t aimed at annoying geeks like me, it’s aimed at people yearning for a wish-fulfillment power fantasy like the kid I used to be. Just like when I wrote a negative review of "Dr. Kenyearning for the more interesting, transgressive Ken Jeong of "The Hangover" and "Community" I had people write to me reminding me what a big deal it is for middle-aged Asian parents--like my own parents--to turn on the TV and be able to watch an ordinary, inoffensive family sitcom like "The Goldbergs" that happens to star people like them.

Expecting every Asian-led show or movie to be edgy and “indie” and aimed at people like me is really just putting Asian media into another kind of box. Expecting every “strong female protagonist” to have the kind of dark, complex grittiness that appeals to geeks like me is, again, another kind of box.

"Supergirl" isn’t a TV masterpiece. It’s a fun action show. It’s like the fun action shows I used to watch as a kid, with the minor difference that the majority of the main characters are women and none of them are “love interests”--which isn’t all that minor a difference if you’re a girl looking to see yourself in your heroes. And Melissa Benoist is a more perfect “Clark Kent” than any of the male Clark Kents I’ve seen—a living incarnation of the word “adorkable” who’s more relatable and lovable in one facial expression in one frame than, say, Henry Cavill was for the entire running time of "Man of Steel."

It’s not for me. Many things labeled as “chick flicks” are not for me. But that doesn’t mean I have to be a dick about it, nor does it mean I should get a pass on nitpicking and mocking as vapid what I enthusiastically consume when it is aimed at me.

It’s not for me, but "Supergirl" is a great show. I hope it’s just one of many shows of many kinds with women in the leading role to come.

Arthur Chu

MORE FROM Arthur Chu

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ant-man Guardians Of The Galaxy Lois And Clark Man Of Steel Supergirl Superman Tv