Spoiler Alert! for Supergirl up to and including S2, Ep6: Changing (first aired 14th November 2016)
Season Two of Supergirl sees the show changing hands, with The CW taking over the reigns after CBS’ flawed Season One. With this changing of the guard, there have been a number of welcome changes including; an actual Superman appearance as opposed to just seeing a billowing red cape, or having him represented as a weird pen-pal, redefining the roles of characters such as Win and James, and more recently exploring Alex Danvers’ romantic feelings towards the newly added, Maggie Sawyer. Overall, the developing relationship between Alex and Maggie has been a great addition to the show, exploring Alex’s emotional side outside of her relationships with adopted sister Kara, or surrogate father Hank (Aka J’onn J’onzz), allowing us to see the character in a more social setting. This relationship has been building over the past few weeks, and finally came to a head with Alex coming out to Kara, admitting her romantic feelings for Maggie. Sadly, for all Supergirl is getting right, it’s falling into a number of unfortunate tropes that are turning a potentially heart-warming tale, into a cringy and frustrating mess.
When Supergirl first introduced Maggie, the cop moonlighting at an alien bar as a quasi-PI, she was openly shown to be a gay character. There was no fuss, no extended dialogue, she was gay in the same matter-of-fact manner that Winn is a geek, or Kara is an alien. While I don’t care much for the character, I appreciated that the writers didn’t go out of their way to highlight the only gay character in the room. All too often, entertainment properties fall into the trope of pointing out their gay character, with the sort of exclamations one might articulate if you found a Unicorn nesting amongst a field of horses. They are so proud of themselves for including one of these ‘rare’ instances that they completely overlook the fact that people of all sorts of sexual preferences exist in plenty everywhere. It’s these types of exclamations that make me both cringe and turn purple in anger; we don’t feel the need to point out someone’s physical attributes, or personality traits, so why spend so much time drawing attention to their sexuality? It’s a similar trope that is often seen with female leads, where the character will have to surpass a male counterpart before they can earn a sense of worth from their peers, or where every other line is a sexist joke or comment that needs to be rebuked. As such, Supergirl’s writers have been able to handle Alex’s recent ‘transformation’ (for lack of a better word), somewhat adeptly, and they haven’t made every mistake in the book.
Sadly, that was where Supergirl stopped carefully avoiding the obvious tropes, instead storming straight ahead into every obvious pitfalls along their path. Not soon after Alex met Maggie, the writers began hinting that there was a degree of romantic attraction between Alex and Maggie. Why? Alex was a character who had never shown any interest in women before, so what suddenly changed? No more than a few episodes into The CW’s management of Supergirl, and already we have a previously straight character turning gay. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of instances where people don’t discover such truths about themselves and their sexuality until later in their life, and it is perfectly fine for writers to tackle such instances. The problem here is that Alex’s romantic feelings felt forced and token, as opposed to genuine. It was almost as if The CW gave Supergirl’s writers a list of diversity tick boxes, one of which was ‘must have gay character’. If Alex’s feelings had been explored over a couple of months, as opposed to a few short weeks, then my opinions would be somewhat different. In the case of the former, they could have provided multiple instances of Alex being confused about her attractions, or even us seeing Alex’s suppressed memories rise to the surface in flashbacks, so that when Alex finally did come to the realisation herself, the moment would feel both momentous and earned, as opposed to somewhat rushed and ‘eye-rolly’. Instead, we ended up with an ‘I met one girl and now I’m gay’ trope.
Complaining about the inclusion of LGBT characters in entertainment properties is a difficult balancing act after so many decades of trying to get writers to include openly gay characters in their work, and in particular, as strong leads. That being said, a poorly executed LGBT relationship can often be more damaging than a story that contains no LGBT characters at all. Of late, many TV shows have included such characters. It as if their writers feel a weight of societal pressure forcing them into including characters that they either; lack the context to explore, or simply have little interest in exploring, on the deep and complex levels that their straight peers are afforded. The result in the type of forced and token characters that I have lamented Alex becoming.
Including characters that they either; lack the context to explore, or simply have little interest in exploring
One of the tropes that particularly mishandles LGBT characters revolves around the part of a story where said character has to come out. 99% of the time, these coming-out stories play out exactly the same way, with a friend or family member of the gay character first being appalled, repelled, perturbed, disappointed, or displaying some other negative reaction. After a while, the friend or family member apologises for the way they reacted, the two characters have a teary heart-to-heart, and then the plot concludes with the moral of the story; being gay is ok. It’s a template script that seems to be the go-to for most writers attempting to include a gay character, and it is tripe. Yes, these types of interactions are common for a great number of people coming out, and is one of the reasons why the process can be so difficult and daunting. However, it is not the only response. Often, friends and family members will be instantly supportive, even joyous, celebrating the fact that you have come to a conclusion that will allow you to a fulfilling life that was not a possibility before you came to the realisation. All too often, writers forgo this latter occurrence, instead seduced by the faux-emotional impact of the former. While I enjoy the show, the instance of this particular trope being used in Supergirl’s latest episode is amongst the most egregious mistreatments I have witnessed.
Supergirl is both an aspirational and positive show. The series has done a fantastic job of demonstrating to women, especially children and teenagers, that they can be powerful, strong, determined, intelligent, successful, and can match, if not surpass, their male peers. Sadly, Kara’s reaction to Alex coming out was far from aspirational or positive, but mournfully quite the opposite. Kara’s reaction should have been one of sheer joy or congratulations; the scene should have inspired those struggling to come to terms with their sexuality to talk openly about it, while helping to dispel a sense that such conversations would be met with a negative response. If Supergirl, a symbol of hope and a semblance of what the pinnacle of humanity should be, is perturbed at her sister’s revelation, what does that say about the way your average Jo/Joe would respond to such news? Worse still, how much further does it discourage undeclared LGBT people from wanting to declare or discuss their sexuality?
The series has done a fantastic job of demonstrating to women, especially children and teenagers, that they can be powerful, strong, determined, intelligent, successful
Supergirl is not an overtly serious show where the characters are explored on deep meaningful levels. Yes, there are smatterings of strong character development, not to mention the occasional emotionally impactful moment, seen in moments like Kara having to come to terms with her parents’ faults and lies, or J’onn J’onzz regaling the tale of how he lost his family. However, Supergirl is a show bookended as one about superheroes. No matter what happens in between, it is a show about an alien who can fly, has super strength, can shoot laser beams out of her eyes, and kicks some serious bad-guy ass. Yes, the show can be, and is, multifaceted. This includes the aforementioned emotional scenes, developing and evolving its characters over time, and commenting on societal issues, such as the representation and worth of women in society.
The problem is, that these moments are just that, moments. They are often too fleeting to tell a fully fleshed out story, especially one about sexual discovery and the type of conversations that surround such a discovery. This ultimately leaves audiences with questions such as why did Kara have such a negative and unsupportive reaction when hearing the news? As I said earlier, if Supergirl had spent several episodes, or even just dedicated the entirety of one episode to exploring these themes, then this criticism would be null and void. The fact that they didn’t, demonstrates the point that whatever else it is, Supergirl will always be a show about an alien kicking-ass. Changing began with a villainous alien virus infecting and killing people, and ended with Cadmus capturing Mon’el for whatever nefarious plan they are cooking up; the focus of the show is clear.
Thankfully, there is hope that Supergirl will stop blindly blundering into trope after trope. In part, I am glad that Alex and Maggie are not getting into a relationship. This should allow for Alex to explore other romantic interests and dispel the sense of the ‘I met one girl and now I’m gay’ trope I earlier rebuked the writers for following. That being said, I question if seeing Alex heartbroken and in tears sends the right message of positivity to younger viewers. The brief dialogue between Kara and Alex about Alex suppressing her feelings for other girls when she was younger felt genuine, true to life, and was one of two instances where the writers should be congratulated, not rebuked. The second instance of this was the final scene between Kara and Alex, in particular, Alex’s expression of feeling “humiliated” after Maggie rejected her advances. Now, while I’m once again not sure this scene fit into Supergirls themes of aspiration and hope, it nevertheless expressed a very real and tragic reality that faces many people after they come out, and demonstrated fantastic writing.
Chyler Leigh has also delivered phenomenal performances throughout Supergirl Season 2, expertly displaying emotions of confusion, fear, and a giddy sense of joy; she makes me believe Alex is gay, a feat that can be difficult for many actors to achieve. In the past I have praised Melissa Benoist for standout acting, not to mention carrying the entire show from week to week, but Season 2 has demonstrated that Leigh is capable of equally heart-tugging performances. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes, all I wanted to do was reach through the screen and give Alex a big hug and tell her everything would be ok.
Chyler Leigh has also delivered phenomenal performances throughout Supergirl Season 2
The reliance on, and exploitation of gay tropes is by no means limited to just Supergirl, and in many ways Supergirl is far from the worst offender. That being said, the clear disparity between the message of hope that Supergirl wears, quite literally on her chest, and the messages of negativity, fear, and even humiliation, appall me. Supergirl should be setting the example of what the very best of humanity can be, not sending a partial message of fear. My expectation is that Supergirl, and other entertainment properties, learn to stop relying on these tropes and stop mishandling their gay characters accordingly. We are only six episodes into Supergirl, and so, the show still has a chance to give us the type of portrayal we deserve, and quite frankly, the portrayal which younger audiences need to see. Supergirl can still deliver that much-needed message of hope and positivity, and I hope that it does.