[Editorial] On Superheroes and Gender Expectations

co-written by Dayna Abel and Kate Spencer

“If you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem…you?” -Cat Grant, Supergirl First Look trailer

I watched the Supergirl trailer the other night and had…thoughts. More to the point, I had gut reactions. Saturday Night Live recently did a skit about a Black Widow movie basically being a rom-com, because that’s what chicks like, right?

I got that same vibe off the Supergirl trailer. I was immediately put off by the clumsy, dorky, working-girl-in-the-big-city pop-music feel of Kara in the office, as well as the “You want to help? Go back to getting someone’s coffee” line and its subsequent pouty, dejected walking away. It put me in mind of Jodi Picoult’s bit in Wonder Woman where WW infamously cried after a mild criticism from Tom Tresser.

I saw Kara giggling and crying and being flustered around cute boys and I thought to myself “oh god no.” But then I thought about it for a while. About why it bugged me. And it boils down to “I don’t like traditionally girly things. I am not the target audience here.” But what about the trailer made it “girly?” The giggling, the crying, the doofy stumbling of her words around Jimmy Olsen? And why do I automatically code these things as “female”? And, by extension, some kind of weakness?

I got into this discussion with my friend Kate the day the trailer premiered, and I realized that I had fallen into the trap of coding “feminine” as “weak.” And she’s going to cut in here and school me on that:

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Let’s talk Supergirl. Specifically the trailer for CBS’ new Supergirl series. First of all, I loved it. This is the depiction of the Super-family I like to see – lighthearted, heroic, inspiring…well-lit. :P From what I saw in the trailer, Kara is just a normal woman who happens to have superpowers. Not unsure of himself, clueless, “afraid to be a hero” teenage Clark from Smallville. Not the reclusive, somber, over-emphasis on the “alien” part Superman of Man Of Steel. This is what I’ve been missing in DC’s cinematic endeavors: a comic book adaptation that remembers it’s a comic book adaptation.

So why do some people have their tights in a twist over the trailer? Well, I did some research. I read articles, I read the opinions of friends, and I did a search on Twitter to see what people were saying.

Never do that last thing. Ever.

Overall the complaints seem to be that the show’s tone looks like it matches a romantic comedy, and that Kara is far too “girly”. And before any of you bring it up, yes, I saw the damn SNL Black Widow sketch, and I’ve heard the comparisons to that many times.

Let’s address the romantic comedy concerns first. This will be more brief because the “girly” criticism is the one I mainly want to talk about.

While I don’t have the the insane aversion that some people do to the rom-com genre, I did see signs of that in the trailer. My response: “So?” Personally, I’d gladly accept a romantic comedy B-plot than a life of constantly hiding secrets from her friends, becoming increasingly reclusive, pining after her “one true love”, constantly whining about how she can’t be with her “one true love”, and ignoring any and all advice from people who tell her she’s destined to be a hero.

I really didn’t like Smallville. >.>

If a dumb romantic comedy subplot is what keeps the mood far away from being the teen drama that we’ve seen in every other superhero show, I’m all for romantic comedy. :P But I don’t think that’s what Supergirl is going to be. I think maybe people are just seeing the lighter mood and making assumptions because they haven’t seen this type of superhero show before. If anything, the trailer reminded me more of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman. But I might be wrong. We might all be wrong.

So to the “rom-com” criticism, I say: wait and see.

To the “girly” criticism, I say: get over it.

Okay, that’s harsh. Let me put this a gentler way. What’s the problem with Kara/Supergirl being girly? Some women are girly. Some women aren’t. Masculinity and femininity aren’t binary, there’s a scale. You have your tough macho guys, you sensitive softer guys, your tomboys, your girly girls, and a thousand things in-between each. Supergirl has long blonde hair and fights crime in a red skirt and boots – I’ve been wrong on things like this before, but that doesn’t scream “butch” to me. :P “Girly” is just a style or part of a personality or an identity. “Girly” doesn’t mean “bad”!

It’s not as though this is an entirely new take on Supergirl’s personality either. I’ve read and watched many versions of Supergirl over the years – the pre-Crisis version (which I’m admittedly less familiar with), the Helen Slater film version, the Matrix Supergirl of the ’80s and ’90s, the Earth-Born Angel Matrix/Linda version, the superpowered Linda Danvers version, the 2000s Superman animated one, and the modern Kara Zor-El created in 2004. While all of those versions had their differences, they weren’t exactly tough as nails and emotionless or tomboyish. None of them felt the need to hide their femininity and none of them were any worse for it. So again, what’s so bad about “girly”?

I think where some of the criticism is coming from is the perceived notion (even by feminists) that somehow girly equals weak, less empowered, or not feminist. That’s a pretty narrow view of femininity and feminism. And it’s exactly the kind of attitude that leads to Hollywood making strong female characters who are inevitably no-nonsense, grumpy, “gotta be more dominant than the boys to play with the boys”, “tough bitch” characters who are almost always played by Michelle Rodriguez. There’s nothing wrong with that type of character either, but what is wrong is if that’s the only type – or the idea that a woman can’t be strong or be a hero without shedding femininity.

Is there a place for the no-nonsense tough gal played by Michelle Rodriguez? Hell yeah – I love characters like that, and I love Michelle Rodriguez. But there are so many types of men and women that we need to move away from this idea that to be tough you can’t be sensitive or “girly”. I’m what a lot of people would consider a “girly girl”. I’m not ashamed to say it, I take pride in it, and I find my “girly” traits and tastes to be empowering because they’re part of who I am. And if that’s who Supergirl is, then I’m all for it. To me, she could be saving the city from a giant killer robot while wearing flannel PJ bottoms, a Hello Kitty shirt and bunny slippers and it wouldn’t matter to me one bit – she’d be the toughest woman on TV that night. Why? Because she would be saving the city from a giant killer robot.

But if you can’t see the killer robot for the bunny slippers, I think that’s your problem, not Supergirl’s.

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What it boiled down to, ultimately, was my knee-jerk fear that if this succeeds, all future superheroines on television will be portrayed as “girly,” whether it suits the character or not. (Can you imagine this tone in Agent Carter?) And it hit me square in the face: this is what a certain group of gamers are afraid of. Their stuff being “taken over.” I WAS THINKING LIKE THE ENEMY.

That was a wake-up call.

On top of that, I was being kind of hypocritical. I’ve lauded The Flash for so many things, but one thing I haven’t seen pointed out much is that Barry Allen has a lot of traditionally “feminine” traits. Barry cries, he feels his emotions very strongly and externally and talks about them openly. He has very close, physically affectionate friendships, including with other men. He isn’t afraid to demonstrate his love for Cisco with hugs. Barry is a protector above all else. He wants everyone to be safe and happy. He likes being the Flash because he likes helping others. It’s kind of a mothering role. Why is that okay for Barry Allen but not for Kara Zor-El?

Because holy crap do men need a role model like Barry right now. There’s been a huge uptick in the visibility of men who think women should be subservient, across all forms of geek culture. Barry Allen demonstrates that feelings and friendships are strength. Barry is not weakened by his emotions. They are, in fact, his driving force. Barry Allen on television says that it’s not only okay to be sensitive and caring, but it makes you a good man and a strong man.

Kara, on the other hand, also demonstrates these qualities, and I was taken aback by that, because it felt like it was shoving her into a traditionally female stereotype that we’ve seen over and over and over again. And I was afraid of that. But as Kate said earlier, that doesn’t automatically mean bad. There can be strength in femininity as portrayed by both men and women.

Kara Zor-El might be portrayed as a far richer character than a simple trailer suggests. Or she might be a girly young woman who is concerned about boys, and also likes to save the world. But no matter what, even if she ends up not appealing to me personally, that’s perfectly okay. There will be other women and girls who see themselves in Kara, and I’m grateful for that.

I hope Supergirl succeeds. I hope millions of viewers tune in and love her. And I hope she inspires both men and women, because it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t appeal to me. It matters to someone. And the world needs those people to fly.

2 thoughts on “[Editorial] On Superheroes and Gender Expectations

  1. Great read. As characters in comics become more and more diverse in appearance, gender, culture, and personality, so too should their counterparts in other media. More inclusiveness means more potential fans, and that’s good for everyone.

  2. I am stoked for the new Supergirl show, I hope that it does well!
    I am one of those women who falls in between the tomboys and the girly girls. I like that I have a bit of both because it is WONDERFUL! I read and collect comic books while I also will buy and read Vogue and Flare magazines!
    Good article and I am grateful that you and your friend wrote it! Thanks! :)

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