TV REVIEW: Does Supergirl Fly?

I don’t know much about the character of Supergirl. She is Superman’s cousin, is blonde, and wears a skirt. We’ve seen a few appearances from her in some animated shows. I toyed with showing my daughter the 1984 Helen Slater movie, but I remember it being terrible.

But Supergirl – as a concept – has been an easy shorthand to help my daughter to engage with superheroes. She is familiar with Superman, mostly from the Donner movies and the 90’s animated series, and the concept of a female version inspires her. If she puts on a cape, her default hero to be is ‘Supergirl’. If she wears a top with the ‘S’ insignia, again she is ‘Supergirl’.

Given this, I was excited by the prospect of a Supergirl TV show, so she could engage with the character directly. When I saw the first photos of Melissa Benoist in character, she certainly looked the part. She also had a warmth to her expression, that went against the prevailing darkness of most superhero adaptations these days. This would hopefully be an uplifting show.

An early trailer left me feeling a little wary, as it was rather close to this viral Black Widow rom-com parody.

This week we finally got to check out the TV show, on Sky 1 in the UK (minor spoilers ahead).

The set up is that the teenage Kara flees the doomed planet of Krypton right behind her baby cousin Kal-El (aka Superman), but as is the way with these things, she arrives long after him – so long that while she hasn’t aged, he is now Superman. She was supposed to protect the baby, but now she is the child who needs his help.

She grows up choosing not to follow him into the heroic business. We find her stuck in a dead end job working for Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart plays her ‘Devil Wears Prada’ like boss Cat Grant). Her life is going nowhere. She seem unfulfilled, until circumstances lead her to use her powers to prevent a plane crashing, and a hero is born.

Much set-up follows, including her costume (trying to justify the short skirt and cape), name (trying to justify the use of ‘girl’ over ‘woman’), and who the villains are (no spoilers).

Being a) the female version of a male hero, and b) being called ‘girl’ means this probably isn’t going to be the definitive strong female superhero many are clamouring for. But despite this I am happy for my daughter to engage with Supergirl (like Batgirl before her) because they can still be excellent, empowering characters when handled right. Plus, my daughter is proud of being a girl, so the name is one she likes.

As this is a primetime US network show, I had no reason to think it wouldn’t be suitable for my 3-year-old daughter to watch with me, and I was right. While there was a little cuddling up to me while Kara faced down the bad guy du jour, this is nothing compared to how upset she gets with other more overtly kiddie fare – such as the scrapyard denouement of Toy Story 3.

Will we be watching more? Absolutely. While the Devil Wears Prada aspect was there, it didn’t dominate. It’s being set-up with potential love interests for Kara, bit that didn’t drive the plot. It passes the Bechedel Test. And the superhero action was for the most part well staged. My daughter likes the character interplay as much as the superheroics, and spent the whole episode engaged and full of questions about the unfolding story.

This was a pilot episode, that had to shoehorn in a lot of exposition and set up. I trust that it’ll settle into a more streamlined show, and even if it doesn’t – showing my daughter a female hero save crashing planes, throw down with a villain, or take out a truck hurtling towards her, is enough for me. And probably for her too…

This kid. So awesome. 😀

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Will the ‘DC Super Hero Girls’ Line be the Princess Alternative I’m Looking For?

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DC Super Hero Girls, A New Super Hero Universe Designed Just For Girls

Superheroes are for boys. That’s a fact. What’s also true, but less accepted, is that superheroes are for girls too. So it’s great that DC and Warner are acknowledging this with their new project ‘DC Super Hero Girls’.

As the geek dad of a little girl, trying desperately to introduce her to alternatives to Disney Princesses and the like, I know how difficult it is to find appropriate content and merchandise featuring female superheroes, so when I first read about this I was excited. It features teenage versions (hence justifying the ‘girls’ tag) of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl (who were in my Top Five Awesome Alternatives to Disney Princesses). The likes of Harley Quinn, Bumble Bee, Poison Ivy, and Katana will also be involved. The target audience is girls age 6-12.

Finally, we have a big media corporation acknowledging what we keep banging on about – that there is an untapped market of girls who love superheroes. Glancing at the artwork, I thought how refreshing to see a group of female characters for girls in dynamic action poses, rather than the passive imagery that usually adorns apparel and accessories in the ‘pink’ aisle.

But taking a closer look at the artwork, I started to have some doubts. I realised that they all look like generic Disney Princess clones, which potentially alludes to the marketing intentions of those involved – going after Disney’s share of the girls merchandise market. If they do this by offering superhero culture as a real alternative to princess culture, that would be great. But if they take these superheroes too far in the direction of Disney’s heroines, it will be little more than a cynical market grab than trying to create a different offering. There are also issues of body image – while superheroes have always been visually hyper-realistic there’s a big difference between males having big abs and girls having waists smaller than their heads.

Then there’s the idea that this is being “designed just for girls”. It’s important to Include boys in anything involving female superheroes, so they understand from an early age that this genre is for girls too. I still read of boys telling girls that they can’t be into superheroes/Star Wars, only boys can. Subdividing the genre to create a girls only space clearly doesn’t promote inclusion.

The involvement of Barbie manufacturer Mattel is another worrying sign. While it’s worth noting they’ve said they’re making “action figures”, not dolls, this is the company that has presented a narrow view of femininity with Barbie for decades. If you want to see the kind of female superhero THEY think little girls want to play with, look no further than their recent Barbie superhero Super Sparkle, a pink and glittery princess who gets super powers from being kissed by a magical butterfly.

You can bet Mattel have noticed that Wonder Woman, as well as being a superhero, is also a princess.

There’s also the mention of LEGO, and “their experience and success engaging girls”. This can only be alluding to their LEGO Friends brand, the popular but divisive line of LEGO for girls, a pink and pastel gender ghetto that exists away from the rest of LEGO’s creative construction toys. A dedicated girls LEGO implicitly defines the rest of to as for boys. I worry the same thing could happen here. And that they’ll make a superhero spa playset.

And finally, they’re not even superheroes! They’re called ‘Super Hero Girls’ not ‘Superhero Girls’. The cynic in me suspects the thinking is that superheroes are for boys, but these ‘super heroes’ are for girls.

Am I being overly pessimistic? Probably. I would love this to be awesome. In a time when female superhero characters such as Black Widow, Gamora, and Big Hero 6’s Go-Go and Honey Lemon are routinely removed from merchandise, a new female superhero range is great. There’s no way they can ignore the female characters when they’re ALL female! So we should get a viable alternative to the pink & pastel shimmer & sparkle female characters of the moment. I hope that the cartoons, books, and comics provides wonderful character led tales of action, adventure, and inspiration with a diverse range of female superheroes (and villains). The lead writer of the project is a woman, Shea Fontana, so we’re not simply getting a male idea of what they think little girls like.

But ultimately, the reason I want my daughter to be exposed to female superheroes is to offer her an alternative to the current mass market merchandise targeted to girls. If DC Super Hero Girls is simply a cynical way to combine aspects of Disney Princesses and Barbie in order to get a piece of the existing ‘girl’ market, then it’s no real alternative at all.

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I’d love to know what you think about this ‘DC Super Hero Girls’ line.

Please comment below, join the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.