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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.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Supergirl Is Not Feminist

So, Supergirl really sucks. Let's talk about that.

Now, I originally planned to write this article a couple of months ago, early in the show's run, and then my life sort of collapsed into a bewildering maelstrom. In the intervening time, the relevance has, perhaps, faded a bit.

I just can't shake the desire to write about this show, though. See, I think there's a lot of people who didn't actually hate Supergirl, and that bugs me. Mainly because I want everyone else to be as sour and grouchy as I am, let's be real. Beyond my terrible misanthropy, though, I'm honestly alarmed by how fervently people are defending the show as Progressive and Feminist and Groundbreaking and on and on and on. I find this alarming because, simply put, it isn't. That's a total misreading of the show, and I want to spend some time digging into why.

I so often come back to Film Crit Hulk's idea of tangible details, the notion that people often lock onto surface elements of things when they go to explain why they like or dislike something because they don't have access to the "intangible" deeper-level narrative operations. So because the Emo Peter Parker scenes feel tonally different from the rest of Spider-Man 3, to borrow Hulk's example, viewers latch onto those scenes as particularly bad when actually they're some of the only good parts of that film.
I'm going to kind of misapply this notion here--apologies to him for doing so--by extending the realm of tangible details to tangible signifiers of Good Politics. Here's the idea: people really want a thing to be Morally Good so they latch onto overt signifiers--buzzwords, mostly--of Moral Goodness and use that to confirm the reading they've already settled upon.

It's pretty arrogant I guess to suggest that people are basically just seeing this show as progressive because they want it to be progressive but I'm not sure how to explain the phenomenon of the series otherwise, you know? I'm not seeking to offend (much) I'm just trying to make sense of how something that I find so, just, awful is somehow still getting praised for being feminist. It feels like I'm watching a totally different show from actual professional critics.

The thing is, Supergirl talks a good line when it comes to buzzwords--there's lots of instances of people talking about how great it is to have a girl superhero--but on a deeper level... humor is derived from punching down at victims of patriarchy, success is framed as wholly individual in nature and the best a woman can do is beat all the other people--men AND women--to the top of the capitalist dogpile, violence is the only method of problem solving, women are constantly in conflict, and oppression exists only as individual people saying individually mean things to Supergirl. Basically, all the stuff you would expect a feminist show to do, this show... doesn't.

This isn't a new topic for me of course. In my series on Arrow, now in edited and revised form in the My Superpower is Manpain! article collection, I discussed how that show has the appearance of progressivism but when you dig into it the show is, at best, shallow as hell, and at worst is pretty offensive. Supergirl never quite gets to the point where the main character is beating up poor people for wanting to fight back against the billionaires who literally created a literal weapon of mass destruction to literally kill the poor, but it's a difference of degree, not kind.

Supergirl is a show that likes to shout about !Girl Power! a lot, and I think that on the surface that does seem like a big deal. It's not as big of a deal as you might think--it's 2016 and we don't actually lack that much for female-centered shows with this aesthetic, though most are cartoons--but I can see why that would be appealing at this point. We've been waiting seven years since Iron Man and a full decade since Batman Begins for a film or show set in one of the Big Two superhero universes with a female lead, for goodness sake. I think it's reasonable to want Supergirl to not be awful given a social field where neither Marvel nor DC deigns to provide a starring role to over half the fucking population. I think it's natural to respond positively out of fear that if we don't boost the ratings and come out for the show this rare gift will be taken away from us. Hell, in the brief moments when I'm not consumed by a seemingly endless inferno of rage, I have to wonder whether writing this article is the "right" thing to do! We've been put in a weird bind where criticizing these companies too hard feels like it risks convincing executives that funding shows and films with greater diversity isn't worth it.

But a show that has, at its core, nothing beyond whole "Girl power!" thing just doesn't cut it in 2016. I'm sorry, but it's simply not good enough. There's so many instances in this series where the show pats itself on the bat for having Supergirl merely exist, and I'm sorry but after A FUCKING DECADE having these writers congratulate themselves so heartily simply for SHOWING UP doesn't cut it!

And the message that girls can hit just as hard as boys is, I'm sorry, fundamentally not a worthwhile message. There's no point in saying it if that's all you've got to say and it's certainly not something that can sustain an ongoing serial narrative, not without something else to fill things out thematically. It's fine, if you're, like, eight, but for a show for teens and adults that claims to have something to say it just comes across as ludicrous.

The idea of what constitutes a meaningful narrative about feminism is nonsense, all the more shocking when you compare it to other contemporary shows like, say, Fringe, which actually attempt to address real issues in a fantastic context. The lead, Agent Dunham, is treated as a near pariah early on because she was responsible for the prosecution of a male general who had sexually assaulted female soldiers, and early in the series she's constantly being called "sweetheart," her expertise is constantly being challenged, in a way that feels far more genuine than the level on which Supergirl works. In fairness I feel like JJ Abrams & Co forgot about that pretty rapidly out of the pilot but, you know, An Attempt Was Made at least.

This is made all the more frustrating by multiple instances of a quite nasty little trope that's quite common in this kind of action fiction. The setup is pretty simple: a male character suggests that the female character isn't prepared to punch the robot or whatever, and she responds, "Why, because I'm a GIRL??" Then, the Reasonable Male replies, "No, it's because you're [inexperienced/being weakened by that krytonite/not actually a member of the military/a fleshy organic being incapable of facing the true power of the Robot Nemesis fool I have been one of the cyborgs this whole time/whatever I'm totes not sexist]."

The point of this exchange is to put the female character in her place and teach the audience that actually Reasonable Male isn't sexist and presuming otherwise shows that really the Problem Is With You. If half the time Supergirl's writers pat themselves on the back for being so daring as to have a female superhero (really the number of times that random characters practically look directly at the camera and intone about how great it is that there's a super!! Girl!!! is beyond belief) then the other half of the time they're very eager to drop this trope in to remind everyone that while this may be important, really supergirl should just Calm Down because Gender Is Solved.

This is what I mean about the show being tangibly good without actually being good--gender is a topic that they will bring up, like they're not hiding the fact that Supergirl is, you know, a girl, and they're willing to acknowledge that this is significant, but beyond that surface level they aren't actually doing anything to counteract, and in many ways they simply reiterate, existing sexist tropes.

I think we can see this most starkly in the show's idea of what female empowerment actually looks like. Repeatedly we can see an idea of female empowerment in the show indistinguishable from violent leveraging of power over others. It is based on a woman's ability to step into roles of masculine authority and domination. Domination actually is a big aspect of the series, and proving the worthiness to dominate and to be empowered to act independently as a dominator without someone looking over one's shoulder is the big goal the female characters seek.

With that idea and quote in mind, it's worth looking at Kara's boss, a character that embodies this dynamic.

Now, for some reason, they've decided that Supergirl is going to be in her 20s in this series. Ok. Now, traditionally--and I say this knowing full well that any attempt to pin down anything "traditional" when it comes to superhero comics is a descent into the uttermost abyss of madness but traditionally--Supergirl is in her late teens. They've made her 20something though so that she's a [threatening thunderclap and distant baby boomer screams] Millennial.

Anyway she's given a Millennial Job fetching coffee for her Yuppie Boss, who I think is meant to be the female version of J Jonah Jameson. She basically occupies the same role--boss of the main character, obsessed with the superhero character in this weird love/hate dynamic, kind of a huge asshole, &c &c. And asshole boss aka Cat Grant is, effectively, Supergirl's mentor in all things feminism. Yeah. For some reason they decided to have the primary antagonist also be Supergirl's wise mentor. Now I want y'all to keep in mind that it's not just me reading her this way. Wikipedia, that bastion of feminist thought, describes Cat Grant as:

"The shallow and superficial founder of the media conglomerate CatCo Worldwide Media, who feels, since she "branded" Kara as "Supergirl", that she has proprietary custody over the new hero. ... She also serves as a mentor to Kara, dispensing advice about being a woman in a man's world."

See? It's not just me.

Anyway, Cat Grant actually has a speech in the show that encapsulates the show's whole philosophy. It comes after Grant gives Supergirl her name, and Supergirl in her human alias (Humanstuck!Supergirl) storms in and objects to the use of "girl" in the name. Grant asks why not and Kara replies, and my skin is crawling as I type this awful awful dialog out: "I don't want to minimize the importance of this--a female superhero! Shouldn't she be called superwoman?"

So we've already got something here that's totally masturbatory. As I've noted earlier, this show takes every opportunity it can to shove in your face how certain the writers are that they're making the right choices--it's in dialog with its critics preemptively, constantly. One critique is that this is, perhaps, not feminist, and so Kara (Supergirl using her humansona) introduces this strawman critique actively:

"If we call her supergirl, something less than what she is, doesn't that make us guilty of being antifeminist?"

This is actually what a strawman is, GUYS.

This is a pseudo-argument, explored to no real extent, bandied about willy-nilly, and then knocked down immediately by the show writers in the voice of Cat Grant, who responds:

“I’m a girl... and your boss... and powerful and rich and hot and smart. so if you perceive supergirl as anything less than excellent isn’t the real problem you?”

[loud sounds of retching]

I can't fathom how someone could write this and not have a hint, not even any element of self reflection, to realize how masturbatory this is. This straight up like... "if you criticize us fuck you you're the REAL anti-feminist." It's just... I can barely wrap my head around it.

But it's interesting because it represents the reclamation of feminism as a form of dominion above all else. It's not the undermining of the power of patriarchy but the ability to step into that role of domination and submission. What we've got here is feminist critique defanged, and its replacement with this "I am rich, and hot, and smart, and powerful." Her ability to dominate others is the critical aspect of her being. You could easily replace this with "I am your boss, I have authority over you, I am more rich than you, I am more hot than you, I am more smart than you." Anything in that speech can have the "more... than you" added to it and the meaning of what she's expressing fundamentally remains the same.

She follows this up by threatening to fire Kara for challenging her authority, because of course.

My feminism will be arch-capitalist or it will be bullshit.

I think you could respond and say, well, she's not supposed to be a nice character.

However, while this is true, she is set up as a character whose insights should be respected, even if she is not nice. As I noted earlier, she's treated in the show as an important mentor. Throughout the show her teachings are embraced by Kara. These ideas may be presented through someone not nice but the ideas seem to be exactly what the showrunners want us to believe--theres nothing wrong with being a girl because girls can be just as good at blowing up Afghani civilians with drone strikes as any man, to pick a random example.

Because of the fact that this character is Kara's mentor while also being a prime antagonist in her daily life, you get a weird situation later in the series where Kara blows up at her boss for being an abusive shithead, and the boss... takes her out for drinks... and explains to her patiently that Kara isn't actually angry at HER for being an unpleasable bougie fuck. Really, Kara's not angry about anything to do with power dynamics or people questioning her ability or anything like that. She's angry about something else. Deep in her heart.

And dear Kara realizes that really she's sad because she doesn't fit in.

[Studio Audience: Awwwwwwww.]

In order for Cat Grant to be antagonist boss and older woman mentor the show constantly ends up basically endorsing everything she does as fundamentally reasonable. I'm not sure if this is deliberate, honestly. I think they probably do think Cat Grant is right about much of what she says but the show is so at war with herself when it comes to this character that it's totally possible that this is just emerging inevitably from the horrible maelstrom of the show's terrible character choices.

Ultimately it probably doesn't matter whether this is coincidence or not. The bottom line is that the show is totally into this whole domination thing but without even the interesting dynamics of queer BDSM like Wonder Woman has. God can you imagine? Anyway, instead of that we just have this reduction of all conflicts to the personal, and the resolution of those conflicts happening through violence. I think what we see in this is that there's no interest in challenging the idea of authority per se; rather there's an interest in the reproduction of authority and the proof, in essence, that authority can be properly established as reasonable as long as the person is "good."

We can pick out instances beyond Girlpert Murdoch where this dynamic appears, demonstrating the way the writers actually agree with Girlpert Murdoch's attitude.

One of the biggest ones for me was actually in the third episode, where Supergirl discovers that the villain of the week's family was killed in a tragic accident involving Superman. He's going after Kara for revenge against Superman. That's almost an interesting character motivation. They don't do anything with it so don't get your hopes up but it's something one could conceivably be interested in watching.

The thing with this is that when Kara hears what's going on, her initial impulse is to talk with this person. That's something that I think could plausibly be considered actually feminist. It privileges de-escalation and communication over violence and domination.

It seems for a hot second that there's an attempt to get outside of typical superhero punch-em-up narratives, and then that potential is immediately squandered, because ultimately... well, actually, I don't really recall how they contrived to make the punchup inevitable. I'm not sure it really matters, honestly. There is, after all, nothing to make it notable or exceptional, because superhero stories can always find a reason for a fight scene. You have to justify the budget somehow I suppose. What's important is that Supergirl failed to de-escalate and she learned I guess that she needs to take her military commander's advice more seriously. It's so wearying, honestly, to have to deal with this narrative where the naive girl is humbled. I'm just not sure why exactly this was a story anyone wanted to tell when they could've told a much more interesting story where Supergirl has to learn when NOT to use her powers and when to negotiate instead.

What I'm suggesting isn't that we should never have action scenes or that fighting is itself antifeminist. That feels like a pretty narrow interpretation of feminism. What I am suggesting though is that there should be some potential to address alternative narratives while still remaining an action series. Mad Max Fury Road is a good example of how one might do this--there's quite a lot of big showy action scenes but one of the core arcs of the film is the criticism by the brides of violence--even Furiosa's violence--and another is the conversion of the character Nux from antagonist to ally. We can see this in Daredevil as well... hell, we can see it in a show like Steven Universe or a game like Undertale. There's clearly ways of including action setpieces while adding in some element of nuance.

For goodness sake, Supergirl does spend quite a bit of time solving normal everyday disasters. They're only in montages though. They're sort of in there I guess as lip service to the traditions of the comics (or to set up scenarios where the Damn Kids with their Cellmular Phones take videos of Supergirl and put them on The YouTubes like the damn millennials they are) but it's clear that the real interest lies with the infliction of violence on other thinking beings. Really other humans--the aliens are just humans with slightly different color pallets. Let's be up front here about how lazy these creators are when it comes to introducing interesting monster designs, while we're raking them over the coals for everything else. I mean wow. Fucking. Come on. Slap some tentacles on there, guys, at the very least.

So much of Supergirl's existence seems to be about proving that she's worthy of unleashing her powers on other people, that she has the authority to make that decision as part of but semi independent from the military. Yikes. That's something I think we need to question and challenge because the way things are right now the show seems to mostly be interested in finding ways to justify her being One Of The Boys.

This is the spirit that I think animates some of the other nastiness in the show. Like, for example, the gay jokes. My god the gay jokes. I don't think a single episode that I watched didn't have some gay joke or joke about someone not performing gender correctly. Based on the stuff I specifically complained about on Tumblr, they included:

In the first episode a scene where Supergirl brings her nerdy white dude friend up to the roof to reveal her secret identity and when she tells him she has a secret part of her life he response with "Oh, of course, that's why you won't date me, you're a lesbian!" And she goes "No I'm not a lesbian, I'm Supergirl!" [Studio Audience: Laughs]

In a later episode it's revealed that white boy sews in his spare time. [Other characters: laughs] [Studio Audience: Laughs]

Oh and of course there's a joke about Jimmy Olsen and Superman being gay boyfriends of the homosexual sort. [Studio Audience: Laughs; applauds]

There's also something that I don't think quite qualifies as a joke but there's a bit where Cat Grant remarks that her interview with Supergirl is... well here: “It’s going to make that Caitlyn Jenner vanity fair look like a pennysaver pullout.” Trans people do exist in the DC universe. As witty topical quips.

I think what's so utterly wretched about this is that they do seem to think they're doing some great service by doing the bare minimum of having female characters and occasionally mentioning The Gays (if only to point out that the main characters are totally definitely not The Gay). 

They're so convinced that they're doing something radical and it's just not fucking good enough anymore. Using the oppressed as fucking punchlines while claiming to be super progressive is just vile and it reveals that ultimately the writers don't care about anything beyond the narrow, individual success of the Good Guys in proving that they're powerful. I'm sorry but it's 2015. It's time for writers to get with the program and go beyond just saying "here's a girl with superpowers! Fuck it, you know, gender is solved"

We can aspire to greater.

Well, all of us but the writers of this show.

These writers also write Arrow and The Flash.

Yeah it's obvious in retrospect that this was going to be shit.

Beyond slagging off these particular writers though I think it's worth considering this in the context of wider comics-influenced media. To call back to My Superpower is Manpain!, I ended that collection with a whole discussion of The Killing Joke and one of the things I said was that I felt there was much to be learned about a different model for superhero stories from that comic, if you read it, as I do, as being about the resistance to violence and the decision not to seek vengeance. I think it becomes quite interesting from that perspective. I also recently started reading Strong Female Protagonist and I think that comic, which you can find here, is also doing some really interesting things critiquing superhero narratives and what constitutes a "victory" for superheroes.

But I don't think that we're going to get that in this kind of show. There's just not an interest in exploring ways of interacting with these characters as a vehicle for anything other than dramatic punchout scenes, and they will manufacture conflict where there doesn't need to be any just to make that possible.

And that's where I'm going to pick this up next week when I talk about the manufactured conflicts in the series and the way the show, in an endless quest for more drama, ends up pitting women against each other and tearing the protagonist down even as they seem to be building her up.

Join me as I continue my spiral downward into the abyssal void that is this show's awful, awful writing.

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 January 28th! Our topic: more of this same grumbling about superheroes. If you're a Patreon backer, you can view the 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.



  1. It also just seems odd for them to have the older woman, not someone Kara's own age, be the one to say "well I'm a girl and I'm powerful so clearly the problem is with you sweetie :)"

    IDK how old the character Cat Grant is supposed to be, but Calista Flockhart's over 50, so ... the dialogue would suck regardless of the ages of who was saying it, but it seems even more nonsensical for an older woman to be talking to a much younger woman about the word "girl" as if they would have the same relationship to it.

  2. I thought you would find Strong Female Protagonist very interesting! I think you forgot the link, though.

  3. I was just realized that unintentionally or not, the writers using Cat as the "feminist" Aesop dispenser is similar to a critique I've heard pointed at the use of the unreliable narrator.

    Whatever the narrator says happened actually occurred, unless it's too implausible, in which case he made it up. Thus allowing the writer to have their cake and eat it too.

    Similarly, Girlpert Murdoch is tough but fair, and wise about the world and how to survive in it as a woman. That is unless what she's saying is horseshit, in which case she's a meanypants who probably has internalized misogynys.

  4. As a gay (male) feminist that lives in an objective reality far closer to that protrayed in Supergirl than whatever "ideal" feminist super-hero milieu you have in mind, I find your comments bitter, overly critical, and ultimately more rant than reason. Supergirl is, like it or not, about as feminist a superhero-show our collective culture is ready for. Terrible hunh? So is misogyny, but FAR WORSE is making feminism so UNPALATABLE that no one watches it and thus no one learns from it to confront misogyny. How do I know -- we've been trying this same experiment with racism (particularly shows like Star Trek) and homophobia. What happened to anti-Semitism? I'd wager too many critics like you...

    Do yourself and the world a favor -- SHUT UP. You want a better show? YOU WRITE IT *_AND_* get it on TV. Until then, celebrate what successes their are and push for more. And do NOT speak for the gay community...ugh!

    Oh, and try the kids' show, Steven Universe. If you find fault with that, intentionally ENGINEERED to be The Feminist show for kids, please just get some therapy and lock yourself in a room without a keyboard...

    1. "What happened to anti-Semitism? I'd wager too many critics like you..."
      -I have trouble parsing this as a criticism of criticism (is that what you were going for?). Didn't anti-Semitism subside throughout western society because people railed against it?

    2. Oh hey dude :P Wasn't expecting to see you here, particularly not on an article from last year

      Don't try to make sense of it, is my recommendation. It's pretty garbled.

  5. ""if you criticize us fuck you you're the REAL anti-feminist." It's just... I can barely wrap my head around it."

    Even people who live with it affecting their lives in serious ways on a daily or weekly basis can't wrap their heads around it.

  6. As a bi male feminist (despite being told I'm not allowed in the club by "better feminists" who were born better at it) this is spot on and really lays out my exact problems with the first couple episodes of this show. I want it to be good, fucking everyone wants it to be good, but it wasn't, but no one is allowed to say that, and that's not progress, that's the opposite of societal progress, but I'm really really not fucking allowed to say any of that, because of how I was born.


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