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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Contrived Conflict: Supergirl Still Isn't Feminist!

Supergirl doesn't have conflicts that matter.

Supergirl instead, as I mentioned in my last article, has manufactured conflict. My issue with the show is basically...

Well, actually, my issue with the show is stuff like the ha ha I'm not a lesbian no homo gag in the pilot episode. Stuff that's just fucking inexcusable in 2K16, basically. But while that stuff is sort of, I suppose, death by a thousand cuts, it's not the kind of thing I can dig into for a full article. It's more like... listicle material. Top 50 things I Loathe About Supergirl. That sort of thing. Or, you know, something suitable for angry liveblogging.

Character conflict, though, is juicy and interesting and something we can dig into more deeply.

Now, a lot of the responses to the show--and the show itself cultivates these responses, as I pointed out last time--is that this is great because GIRL POWER YEAH.

But feminism at its best isn't necessarily interested in, well, girl power. Feminism as a liberatory project, and a project of resistance against patriarchy, has a bit more depth to it. According to this liberatory perspective on feminism, it's not just women succeeding in the same realms as men, it's working towards the undermining of patriarchy as a system. One person or character winning in a fight or in the company boardroom or in the military hierarchy isn't actually a measure of whether this project of dismantling patriarchy is moving forward.

And sure, our main character has power, she has strength, she's fighting for what she believes in &c. &c. &c.--she's winning from the perspective of winning fights and proving herself. But we can also look at this show and note that the women are constantly in conflict; the relationships between female characters are strained at best; the men in the series actually are closer to the main character than any female character in the series... we can look at all this and realize that as far as exploring the idea of solidarity between women goes this show isn't particularly successful.

Now, my problem with this isn't that I think women should never be in conflict.

What I'm suggesting rather is that the writers seem to believe conflict, as the core of storytelling, means that characters must be in conflict at all times. There must be constant drama.

Why? Well I guess because there's no kill like overkill. The assumption seems to be that this show works best dramatically when everything is drama, always. I think it sort of undermines the credibility of the show when so much of the show's content is women tearing other women down and attacking other women and marginalizing other women.

That is, to a large extent, what we see with the relationship between supergirl and Girlpert Murdoch Cat Grant.

There's a weird thing going on where the two are in conflict constantly but the show still sees this as good and necessary for Supergirl to grow as a person. But what indicates that Supergirl is NOT grown as a person? She seems to be "naive" only in the context of these conflicts--she is made to say whatever it is that she needs to say in order for It just comes off as the writers setting up endless unreasonable demands for her, holding her to some ridiculous standard that no male superhero--certainly not Arrow or The Flash!--have to deal with in their narratives. Is it actually feminist to construct your characters to be so hellbent on tearing down your female lead?

It's weird from the perspective of the show's constant intrusive metatextual commentary. It's constantly asserting that it's progressive and if you have a problem with Supergirl (character/show) then the problem lies with you. It sounds a bit like they doth protest too much though--like they're not convinced of their own claims. They're constantly setting up situations where Supergirl has to justify herself and then be chastized, learning she isn't as great as she thinks she is. Their need to crow about how brilliant and progressive they are is at war with their conviction that superheroes need to be Realistic and Believable.

I think it's best encapsulated by this weird moment partway through episode 3 maybe I don't care where Cat Grant writes a scathing article tearing down Supergirl and Supergirl in her humanstuck alias Kara Moonmoon comes in and asks, effectively, why are you dragging me, asshole?

The response is, basically, that it's fine that Grant's doing what she's doing because any woman worth her salt knows that she has to work twice as hard as a man to get half as much.

Now, first of all I'm pretty sure that's actually something that comes out of black antiracist activism. That's where I've heard it most frequently. So having a white CEO who runs a newspaper and can say and apparently do whatever she wants trot out that line that line feels a little... off to me.

Beyond that, I think what this highlights is this weird thing the show has going on where it treats the conflicts between women and the struggles of women as an inevitability that, rather than something to oppose through organized action, is embraced as a fact of life that each INDIVIDUAL must work through. Going back to the ideas from last time about conflict resolution and what a feminist superhero story would look like, one start might be an emphasis on collaboration not individualization. All we see in Supergirl though is this kind of antagonism.

Simply put, I don't think this idea of humans as atomized individuals is compatible with feminist thought, because feminism is all about an organized challenge to a social system. To have a woman say that she can do whatever she wants to tear down another woman (who she's named "girl" and then thrown a tantrum when someone challenged her on the presumption of that choice), and then to have her justify her actions because that's the way things are, just totally undermines any claims the show has to being feminist, to my mind. I don't think it's just an issue of this particular character, as I pointed out last time--she's a bellweather for the show's morality as a whole. Her words in the context of the show are treated as totally reasonable, as a lesson that Supergirl needs to learn in order to mature as a person.

There's no reason to portray this as something necessary to Supergirl's growth--in fact, it's ridiculous to do so. It fails wretchedly as an attempt at realism because it presumes that this woman who's mother is clearly a wealthy bougeois literati type has something deep to teach this girl who was raised on a FUCKING FARM about the burden of patriarchy. And that's leaving aside the fact that what's treated as a valuable lesson just comes off as a warped ploy. I've always been suspicious of people who tell you life's not fair when ultimately they're the ones taking advantage of you. Saying life isn't fair in the abstract is one thing. Saying it in order to justify your own misanthropy is another entirely.

The crazy thing about this show though is that this is sort of weirdly inevitable. There's no way they can avoid these kinds of conflicts. She's in conflict with her sister because her sister's involved in a government agency. She's in conflict with her boss because her boss is a huge asshole. She's in conflict with her aunt because ? ? ?. This is the end result of two irreconcilable forces on the show: on the one hand they want to have a bunch of female characters. On the other hand they want to have all of this unresolved conflict and drama. They've written themselves into a corner because when parceling out what characters have what tasks they assigned all the conflict roles to women. So of course the end result is unmitigated drama between women with the men as a sort of nurturing supportive force... who are antagonistic towards each other because something something jealousy something straight monogamous people something sewing is hilarious.

I'm not suggesting men and women should inherently be in conflict on an individual basis. That's dumb and essentializing. But to position all the conflicts as between women where men are involved only as a support network, or as henchmen for the female villain, it's just... nonsense. 

It's another instance of how these writers end up bumbling into terrible politics because they're such terrible writers. The show unravels on a narrative level just as frequently as it unravels on a thematic level, often due to the same conviction that they need to manufacture conflicts when they can't find some good ones that emerge naturally from the narrative.

I compared Cat Grant to J Jonah Jameson before and I think that comparison uncovers some of the problems with this show's conflicts. See, J Jonah Jameson makes a lot of sense as an antagonist for Peter Parker both in and out of his Spider-Man persona: he's someone who can undermine the heroic fantasy of Spider-Man (by ensuring that Spider-Man's victories are misconstrued or his credit is stolen) and someone who can frustrate Peter in his daily life, but he also represents a narrative opportunity in that Peter can provide pictures of his alter ego to the insatiable Jameson, making him complicit in his own pillorying. For Peter Parker, this job at the newspaper is a dreadful slog but is something that he needs to do in order to support his aunt after his arrogant decision not to use his powers for good lead to his Uncle Ben's death. There's a critical reason for him to be in that position, and there's all sorts of great narrative dynamics that emerge from it.

For Supergirl, unlike for Spiderman, there's no stakes, there's no reason for her to stick with this ridiculously shitty job. There's just this vague sense of her wanting to Be Normal which we're all just supposed to accept I guess because for some reason the writers of superhero media have all collectively missed the fact that BEING ABLE TO SHOOT LASERS FROM YOUR EYES WOULD BE REALLY FUCKING COOL ACTUALLY. I'm not sure if that's why she actually sticks with the job honestly I'm just spitballing at this point--if they ever gave a justification for it, I can't remember it, and it certainly wasn't emphasized nearly as often as it should have been for all the weight put on this job as something Supergirl absolutely must maintain.

This carries over to other characters as well for some ungodly reason. There's a whole subplot in the second episode where Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen (who is black, which is cool, and also like 30, which is... really weird and baffling and feels like a much more significant and inexplicable change) is threatened by Cat Grant unless he gets an interview with Supergirl, and it's this whole tense thing because if he doesn't do it he's going to have to... go back to the Daily Planet where he's... respected and well liked.

And this is the level at which Supergirl's job operates too, like there's zero stakes and everything's been sketched out so thinly that it becomes this weird status thing, where the fear of losing--not the fear of losing any one thing in particular but the fear of having lost--is the only thing driving the narrative. There simply are no other consequences of note.

Ultimately it comes down, once again, to a dynamic of power and authority.

Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation of this though is in the way the show seems to be convinced that supergirl is responsible for things that she's not actually responsible for. Like the big one, the really big one, is that Supergirl is made responsible for an alien invasion. She gets trapped in the Plot Hole Zone for a bit when she's trying to get to Earth and when she finally escapes she somehow drags with her an alien prison. We hear about this only now because ? ? ? and superman has done nothing about it because ? ? ? ?

So Kara's sister introduces this sorry state of affairs as... Kara's fault.

Now, what kind of sense does this actually make?

As far as I can tell, not a whole lot. There's nothing to actually indicate that Supergirl was in any way responsible for this--she was in stasis at the time, and the ship breaks free of the Fan Dumb Zone for reasons that we don't understand yet and which she had no control over. To say that she's responsible because she escaped is just ludicrous. There's no way you can get from point A to point B there I'm sorry it just makes no sense.

But the show is convinced that she's committed a deep sin and needs to atone. The show is constructed around the idea that she has done something wrong and therefore she's not good enough, despite the fact that they keep asserting that anyone who has a problem with Supergirl is The Real Sexist or whatever. This is another instance where it really feels like the show is convinced she is the real problem, that she is in fact some kind of real fuckup basically, and she needs to make good on these things she had no responsibility for.

At this point I'm waiting for them to just come out and say that Supergirl has to deal with this shit because Eve partook of the Apple of Knowledge and all women are cursed as a consequence and need to atone. All women are ba-ba-ba-bad!

It goes back to this thing about twice the work for half the credit. Maybe that saying is true, but there doesn't seem to be any critique of that state of affairs, it just seems to be the ethos by which the show lives, merely the way the show approaches Supergirl's existence as a person which is just... What exactly is feminist about that?

What about that says, oh yes, we do understand and care about these problems?

I cannot make sense of how critics look at this and say, yes, this is what we've been waiting for, this is the feminist superhero show we needed.

I mean I have been waiting for a show that doesn't SUCK among other things and that's sure not what I got here.

I think this is why we get this joke at the beginning about "I'm not a lesbian I'm Supergirl." This kind of shitting all over queers that we get so often in media is really symbolic of a kind of fake bullshit corporate feminism where everyone's sort of out for themselves and the high point of feminism is being able to oppress others as much as you've been oppressed.

I'm aghast because this is such basic stuff but this isn't apparently registering with people. It's important, though, because on every level the show seems to think that this kind of competition and conflict is the ideal way to be, and it's so so toxic, it's so harmful. The only way women seem to relate to each other on this show is as competitors and we deserve better in 2016. Hell, we GOT better with Jessica Jones recently. There's some women in severe conflict throughout the show. But here's the thing--often the conflicts are valid conflicts that are worked out through negotiation or they're instances where one person is clearly abusing the other. The whole show is about abusive relationships, exploring the dynamics of abuse in a variety of forms, which is actually very important I think. Is it what I've been hoping for with respect to queer representation? God no. But that said, it's at least addressing the possibility that these conflicts might be something other than this struggle to self actualize on the backs of others, and they're counterbalanced by a number of positive an nurturing relationships. We see Claire from Daredevil show up again and she's wonderful, we see the relationship between Jessica and her sister which starts out rocky but is then resolved through discussion because they're, you know, ADULTS... there's a bunch of stuff like that that's ultimately quite positive.

And for fuck's sake cartoons at this point are doing a better job of exploring these things than this show purportedly for adults. That's just pathetic.

What I guess I want to suggest is that there is a better way of doing this. I'm not saying don't have conflict I'm just suggesting that the context of those conflicts matter--what messages they send, who's in conflict, over what reasons, and what that does for the overall sense of gender relations. It should be possible for women to actually collaborate and work together, and not just against other women.

Creating a bunch of roles for women all as antagonists to the main character defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.

Ultimately I do wish that this was a better show than it is. I didn't set out to hate this show. I didn't want to drag this show. I didn't want to write a two part series on how bad it is.

But ten minutes into the god damn show we had a joke about her not being a lesbian!

The only way to get ahead in the world this show and its writers inhabit is to tear women down in the name of building one woman up, and that's just not good enough anymore.

Storming the Ivory Tower will update again whenever I manage to find a place with some damn wifi that I can use! Hopefully it will be Thursday February 4th. If you're a Patreon backer, you can view my whole list of upcoming articles here though it's admittedly pretty out of date at this point.

These articles are made possible by my backers on Patreon. Subscribe to view article drafts, see behind the scenes artwork, listen to the podcast versions of each week's article, or even to commission an article from me.


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