There are many things that define a hero. Heroes are strong, dependable, courageous, just, and willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. None of these characteristics are more inherently male than female, yet the heroes that we are asked to emulate in popular fiction are almost always men.
Supergirl is trying to change that. It is the latest in a series of shows based on DC Comics characters that have been successfully launched by Creator and Executive Producer Greg Berlanti. Supergirl shares much in common with other Berlanti shows: cheesy dialogue, lots of action, intense special effects, and likable, quirky characters. Yet Supergirl is unique in the lineup not only because it features a female lead but also because of its tone. There is a bounce and sunshine to this show that is absent from the dark and dreary Arrow and even from the lighter but still brooding Flash. Supergirl seems aimed at a younger audience, one that is more PG than PG-13, and what that audience is supposed to receive is a not-so-subtle feminist message.
“What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’?” asks Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) when Kara Danvers (Supergirl’s secret identity, played by the delightful Melissa Benoist) objects to Supergirl’s branding.
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?
No, the real problem is anachronism. When Supergirl was first created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino in 1959, she was a teenager. Over the years, the character has been depicted both as an adolescent and as a twenty-something adult, but the name has always stayed the same. Perhaps that is not such a big deal one way or the other, but if this somewhat illogical speech from Cat Grant is indicative of the particular kind of feminism that this show intends to celebrate, that will be a real missed opportunity.
There are lots of great female superheroes whose stories never get told outside of a very small circle. The icon of a hero in the minds of many people is the muscle bound man with the perfect, chiseled grin, but that is largely because our culture never asks young boys to make the leap and identify with female characters. The comic book writer Kelly Sue Deconnick describes the problem this way:
Women are raised without much representation in the media. So we’re taught very early on how to identify with a male protagonist. This is a switch we have no trouble making. But men are actively discouraged from identifying with a female protagonist because female is less in our culture and we don’t want to power down. Anything you do that is feminine is weak and small and not a good idea.
The solution seems to be obvious. If we want a richer, broader range of stories being told, we need to have a richer, broader range of heroes, which means at the very least creating as many female heroes as male ones. If there is no real difference in the heroics of male characters and the heroics of female characters, then they ought to be interchangeable. This, it seems, is the reigning logic in the comic world at the moment.
Marvel made headlines not long ago by announcing that Thor is now a woman. Smaller companies have done similar gender swapping with lesser known but still long standing characters like Kato and the Shield. If the only real difference is in the plumbing, then the sex of these characters does not really matter, whether we are talking about comic book heroes or any other fictional heroes. Aragorn could just as easily have been a woman as a man. For that matter, perhaps Hermione Granger could just as easily have been a man as a woman.
The problem is that this idea of interchangeability simply does not gel with the lived experience of most people. We experience the differences between men and women throughout our lives as we interact with one another. These differences are hardwired into us, from differences in how men and women experience interpersonal conflict to differences in spatial awareness, perception of colors, experience of fatigue and anxiety, and a host of other things. These differences are not incidental. Our sex need not be all that defines us, but it is one of the most important aspects of our make-up.
That these differences exist is not surprising, but pinpointing their causes can be difficult. Some of the differences between men and women are simply biological and would exist in any environment, but others are certainly influenced by the culture we live in. Much of our society’s struggle around issues of sex over the last five decades has been the result of this effort to pinpoint what is true and what is false about the way that our culture shapes our awareness of sex differences. Anti-essentialists who argue that almost all differences between the sexes are culturally imposed have largely won the day. Yet our lived experience so often seems to challenge our ideology. Little boys still pick up sticks and make weapons even when specifically socialized to do the opposite. Little girls still want to be princesses even when we shield them from ever seeing a Disney film.
For an unbearably long time, the Scriptures have been perceived as an enemy of feminism. In my various gender studies classes as an undergraduate, there was hardly a day that went by during which some kind of hideous act of sexism was not blamed on Saint Paul. If we take Scripture seriously, it is hard to avoid concluding that there are essential differences in how God has created us as male and female. Yet because Scripture is not the by-product of our specific culture but rather a source through which all cultures can be objectively assessed, there is great potential for liberation of our attitudes about gender in an honest and open reception of the Bible’s authority.
Scripture paints a picture of how men and women are meant to interact, yet so much of what we take for granted in the modern “battle of the sexes” is not present in the Bible’s depiction. Saint Paul teaches in Ephesians 5, for instance, that there is a difference between the roles of husbands and wives in marriage, that wives are to love and submit to the leadership of their husbands while husbands are to sacrifice their whole being for the sake of the needs of their wives. Yet nowhere in Paul’s description is the caricatured 1950s family: where Dad is the only one who can hold a job and imposes corporal discipline while Mom stays home, chained to the oven, wearing pearls and waiting for her husband to tell her how high she should jump.
Moreover, Scripture gives us a wide range of heroes, both men and women, whose heroism defies stereotypes. Jonathan is a sensitive and caring friend who shows faithfulness to David. Judith is a fierce warrior who cuts off the head of her enemy. The heroes of Scripture are not stereotypically gendered, and yet their heroism, like everything else about them, is linked with the essential reality of how they have been created. Besides Jesus himself, there is perhaps no more heroic figure in Scripture than the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her faithfulness and suffering service to the world is meant to be emulated by men as much as by women, yet her heroism is entirely wrapped up with who she is as a woman and as a mother.
What kind of hero will be presented in television’s Supergirl still remains to be worked out. The overtly sexualized depictions of women on Berlanti’s other shows do not provide much confidence. And, as the Cat Grant “girl” speech shows, the movement to erase our differences as men and women is not going away any time soon. Still, already there are indications that Supergirl might move in a different direction. Benoist is owning the character more and more with each passing episode, making Kara feel more and more like a young woman in the modern world. If the goal is to make a show with a strong feminist center, then let that center be founded on the idea that Supergirl is a powerful hero because she is a woman, not in spite of it.
Of course, it is entirely unfair to be dumping this much weight of expectation on Supergirl. This one show cannot possibly deliver the ultimate example of a female superhero, and it should not have to do so. If and when more shows that center on female heroes are allowed to shine, a whole range of types of heroic women will dot the landscape. That will be important not only for little girls who need to grow up with heroes they can relate to, but also for little boys who need to grow up seeing that heroism is every bit as present in the women in their lives as it hopefully will be in themselves.