Feminists have largely praised CBS’s Supergirl, which premiered Monday, for portraying a woman who can throw punches as powerfully as Superman. They have been eager to see a female superhero in a TV lead. Superheroes are archetypes, and Supergirl (a.k.a. Kara Danvers, played by Melissa Benoist) embodies the feminist girl-power ideal. And unlike Halle Berry’s Catwoman or Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique, she isn’t an overt sex object. She’s plucky, bright, and down-to-earth (pun intended).
Early in the pilot episode, we see Danvers, Superman’s cousin from the planet Krypton, protecting herself and her identity by refraining from using her powers. She spends her days fetching coffee for a narcissistic female boss.
Eventually, Danvers realizes she should take her mother’s advice and “be true to yourself” (groan). For her first heroic deed, she saves a plane from crashing, mirroring Superman’s first feat. Indeed, a premise of the show seems to be “Everything Superman does, Supergirl can do, too.” Benoist told Stephen Colbert on the Late Show, “What’s feminist about it is that it’s for everyone. She has all the same power [Superman] has.” In two fight scenes, we see a male villain dash Supergirl to the ground, slug her in the stomach, and hack into her arm with an ax.
While there’s a definite charm to this show, that charm masks a questionable core assumption: that feminism necessarily entails women filling traditionally masculine roles in exactly the same way. Executive Producer Greg Berlanti explained to the Washington Post,
In the pilot we were determined to never cut away from her getting thrashed or beat up where we wouldn’t have cut away with a male character. So there are times where Flash or Arrow would have gotten their a– kicked, and we would have watched that, and everyone would have been fine with it. And we were in testing and people were watching Supergirl get beat up in the middle of the episode and people were getting uncomfortable about it. . . . What we try and do, what would our code be if it were a dude, and let it be the same, and let the audience figure out for themselves what they think the difference is.
Except the audience is not really allowed to decide — it’s a foregone conclusion: Supergirl kicks butt just like Superman, that’s her destiny, and if you disapprove, you’re denying this likeable heroine’s right to be true to herself. Any natural discomfort with male-on-female violence must be ignored until it fades.
While the show is fantasy, its themes bear on reality in a striking way. The recent push to put American women in combat disregards evidence that women are at a natural disadvantage compared with men in battle. For example, women are six times as injury-prone, shoot less accurately on average, and are less able to haul wounded soldiers out of harm’s way. As National Review’s David French observed regarding a nine-month-long Marine Corps study, “Physically, the top 25th percentile of women overlapped with the bottom 25th percentile of men, and they possessed less anaerobic power, anaerobic capacity, and aerobic capacity than their male colleagues.”
#share#These facts haven’t halted the feminist crusade to place women on the front lines and in combat leadership roles. Indeed, the idea is no longer even up for discussion. As soldier and army cultural-support team member Raquel Patrick puts it, “It has to be done eventually . . . we have to be patient. We are used to working with men. The men have to get used to working with us. It’s going to take some time.” Again, the message for those with misgivings is “get over it.”
The problem with Supergirl’s message isn’t that art should never portray women in physical fights with men. It isn’t even that all such portrayals should necessarily be troubling to us. But rather, we should question whether we want women’s strength to be epitomized in their ability to beat and to take a beating from a man. Is having the opportunity to be bashed into the ground the zenith of feminist achievement? Supergirl’s producers seem to think so.
For a different take, consider Furiosa, the punch-slinging, sharpshooting heroine of this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road. We see her pummel and get pummeled by burly men in a manner that requires us to suspend disbelief about her physical ability. Yet while some labeled Mad Max a “feminist movie,” its plot offers no sense that Furiosa feels she is destined to be a fighting machine. She seeks escape from oppressive dystopian exile to return home to a green land, finding peace and redemption. She smuggles female slaves out with her, one of whom is pregnant and vulnerable. This film features a mythos of feminine strength, but it’s a life-giving, nurturing, maternal strength that glorifies the womanliness of women, even when they’re forced by circumstance to fight with fists.
Art teaches us what it means to be human, and the meaning of feminine strength is a theme worth exploring. But if Supergirl’s power is the same as Superman’s, then it would seem women actually don’t need a specifically female role model. The female archetype becomes modeled on the traditionally male archetype. And that seems deeply sexist.