Diversity, Essays, Feminism, Race, TV

Supergirl’s White Kryptonite

There aren’t many shows I really love these days. For every Jane the Virgin or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, there seems to be a corresponding amount of hard-boiled police procedurals headlined by square-jawed and serious men. Still, it’s not a leap to say that I love Supergirl.

In a world where Superman is a sullen and reluctant hero and where we’ve seen Martha Wayne’s pearls spill into a shadowy alleyway more times than I can count on one hand, Supergirl is a welcome burst of joy–an unabashedly feminist show drenched in bright colors and full to the brim with girls. In a lot of ways, Supergirl has been a total triumph. The show has addressed survivor’s guilt, the wage gap, sexism in corporate culture, mean girls, sibling competition, envy, anger, unrequited love, learning when to negotiate when all you want to do is HULK SMASH, and a host of other topics that hit home for me and other viewers.

But it’s important to be able to criticize the things we love, because even our favorite shows probably have flaws. And, true to form, Supergirl’s flaw is super-sized. Despite what many annoyed men on the internet might think, the problem with Supergirl isn’t that it’s too feminist. It’s that it’s too white.

Since you’re all reading this piece on this particular site, I assume I don’t need to explain white feminism to you in depth. Besides, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin: feminist with caveats. Feminist for white girls. More specifically, it’s for white, cis, heterosexual girls.

Examples of unspoken privilege are everywhere in Supergirl. Kara might be an alien, but she’s still white, and even as an adopted child, she finds acceptance nearly everywhere she goes. Cat Grant has a number of monologues detailing how she worked her ass off to get where she is and that she deserves every ounce of her success. But her lectures on the wage gap reflect the same 77 cent statistic that rules those conversations without noting that it’s only white women who even get that much.

White Male PrivilegeRemember when Cat called her board member a “walking personification of white male privilege”? I loved that Cat called out that guy’s privilege. I hated that, nowhere in her righteous take down of this scumbag later in the episode, did she recognize her own. Cat’s a walking feminist handbook, reminding Kara that women have to work twice as hard as a man to be seen as half as good, but nowhere does she acknowledge that for women of color, or older women, or trans women, is it even harder.

Cat, Kara, Alex, Lucy, even the villain of the week – all the leading ladies of the show benefit from their inherent whiteness. In the season one finale, Cat hands Kara her own office and dream job to “think about what she wants to do” as a reward for working hard and being at her (Cat’s) beck and call for the last however long Kara has been at CatCo. In other words, Kara has successfully “made it.” She’s won her own version of the American Dream, because she worked hard and loyally, and as a reward, she now has the freedom to do absolutely whatever she wants.

Not only is this a fiction, it’s a slap in the face to the women of color and older women who are passed over for promotion due to racism and ageism. Besides, though we’re reminded that Kara is a Millennial–and thus a member of a community so drowned in debt and with so few decent jobs available that many of us live at home with our parents or in apartments with multiple roommates–Kara enjoys her very own stylish loft apartment, somehow maintaining rent, even on her minuscule assistant salary.

And then there’s this: J’onn J’onzz (in the guise of Hank Henshaw) reminds Alex that Supergirl is accepted because she looks non-threatening:

“Your sister looks like a pretty blonde cheerleader. J’onn J’onzz looks like a monster.”

Now, he doesn’t say “your sister looks like a white human,” but it’s not exactly an intellectual leap to draw the distinction between “pretty blonde cheerleader” and “white girl,” while J’onn is portrayed most regularly by a black man.

Like my previous examples of rampant privilege, the show doesn’t do anything with this moment. There is no deconstruction or even acknowledgement. We’re left to do with it what we will, and it’s never really brought up again. Except, of course, there are the aliens.

Altogether in Season 1, there are four characters played by Black actors: Hank Henshaw, Senator Miranda Crane, the unnamed White Martian, and James Olsen. Next season we will see the addition of Sharon Leal as Miss Martian, which ups the ratio of Black characters to five altogether, three of whom are aliens.

In a world as white as Supergirl’s is, it’s bad enough to have so few Black characters, but to have so many be playing something other than human is, frankly, unsettling. It smacks of making Black characters the Other. Even when three of the five–James, J’onn, and M’gann–are major roles and complex, layered characters with plots and arcs of their own, it’s certainly eyebrow-raising.

Bad as this is, there are zero major speaking roles offered to characters of Hispanic, Asian, Native, or Pacific Islander descent. Agent Vasquez, played by Briana Venskus, is the single speaking Latinx on the show. Jenna Dewan-Tatum is a quarter Lebanese, but Lucy herself is coded as white. The show has no on-screen queer couples or characters, and its investigation into subverting and upending gender tropes begins and ends with cis white women.

Despite Cat Grant’s now-famous description of the Super Squad looking like “the attractive, yet nonthreatening, racially diverse cast of a CW show,” Season 1’s embrace of diversity was half-hearted at best.

I mentioned Sharon Leal earlier, and it seems Season 2 is hoping to course-correct with the addition of Leal, Ian Gomez, Dichen Lachman, and Floriana Lima to the cast. Personally, I’m most hopeful for Lima’s character, Detective Maggie Sawyer, a lesbian police detective who will no doubt be asked to shoulder the entire burden of the show’s LGBT+ plots or mentions, but who is likely to expand the character roster in new and necessary ways.

Supergirl has its flaws, but my hope for Season 2 is that they address this one. Kara’s world should be every bit as vibrant and diverse as our own, and her struggles should reflect those we face every day. All of us, but especially those who need the extra help, the extra love, attention, and hope, because their own world has refused it to them for so long. Supergirl is about hope and love. The show needs to embrace the fact that it has to be for everyone.