Tony juggles thematic undercurrents.
Five episodes in, Supergirl has begun taking on a role for itself in the popular culture. While the Girl of Steel is always likely to feel like safer viewing than the likes of, say, Jessica Jones, the show is beginning to tackle issues faced by young women around the world.
In this episode, the pressure of ‘having it all’ is folded and threaded through the narrative. Cat Grant is a woman with a high-powered career and a son she’s raising with only the help she can afford to pay for, as her mother is off Being Fabulous in her own right. Lucy Lane is trying to have both the career she’s earned and the man she wants, though she’s frightened he has a thing for superheroes, and now, to use her words, he’s found one who ‘wears a skirt.’ And then of course there’s Kara – perhaps the most profound example of ‘having it all,’ running at least three lives simultaneously – assistant to the demanding Cat, Supergirl, DEO agent, and perhaps pushing it by trying, also, to not end up in the Friend Zone with James and maybe add a relationship to her plate. When she decides she can take care of Cat’s son overnight so Cat can go and collect an award she’s won (for the first time outdoing Metropolis’ own media superwoman, Lois Lane), something is going to give.
It’s fascinating, this scenario, from a broader socio-political standpoint (No, wait, don’t nod off, it’s about superheroes, honest!). No-one ever wonders how Bruce Wayne can be a businessman, a playboy, and a marauding, nightcrawling vigilante. No-one ever asks how Tony Stark finds the time to be both Tony Stark and Iron Man. Spiderman and Peter Parker, Superman and Clark Kent, you name it, the comic-book world is littered with men with double lives. Perhaps only really Peter Parker ever feels the strain of it, only ever asks if perhaps he’s doing too much. Well, Peter Parker and Alfred, Batman’s butler. But generally, no-one asks.
They don’t ask because we live in a patriarchy, where for the most part, still in the 21st century, men determine our socio-political expectations, our media angles, and the kind of men in a position to do that need to feel somehow superior to women. So there’s a social expectation that ‘having it all’ would be difficult for all but the hardest-headed women. What’s more, there’s extra social pressure on those who do achieve what they want in all areas of their lives to ‘retain their femininity’ – again because the patriarchs want us to believe that achieving the same kind of power and autonomy as is available to men must automatically make women more like men. And then, just to tie up the Gordian Knot of messed-up psychology, there’s pressure that seems ostensibly to support women’s empowerment, but which really judges those who decide not to go for the combination of career and family, or to focus on one area at a time in their lives, as somehow ‘inferior’ or ‘lesser’ women than their go-getting sisters. Really, you begin to suspect that behind all the progress we’ve made, the He-Man Woman-Haters of the patriarchy are actually still in charge of the world in which we live.
It’s a world accurately reflected by this episode of Supergirl, and the lives of the women within it, with all of them forced to juggle everything that makes up the life they want, not because it’s inherently harder for women to do that than it is for me, but because men have rarely yet to see the support systems they use, or feel the urgent need to implement the same systems to aid women’s empowerment.
But, socio-political arguments aside (yes, really, you can come back now) the title also has another, more plot-based meaning in this episode. The arrival of robot drones that try to test Supergirl’s abilities is one thing. Bombs in facilities owned by DC’s anti-Stark, Maxwell Lord are another, and at the launch of his Supertrain, bombs on both the train and at the city’s airport force Supergirl and, as it happens, James Olsen too, to choose where their priorities lay. The whole thing, as it turns out, has been a set-up (and a fatal one), to test Supergirl’s capabilities and decision-making, rationally, scientifically, even clinically, in case a dossier of her strengths, weaknesses and psychology should be needed at some point in the future. To stretch the feminist point probably beyond its tolerance, she’s been manipulated into running around the place, trying to do everything, trying to save everyone, by a cynical man with an agenda that probably involves making her weak and doing her harm.
As for the question of having it all, kudos to the writers for how it’s ultimately dealt with – with Cat explaining to Kara the simple secret to what she calls ‘the most boring question of the age.’ How to have it all – ‘you learn. You start with two balls before adding a third. You can have it all – but not all at once, and not right away.’ While it makes no call for the system as it stands to be changed to make it at all easier for women to achieve the social standing that Cat has, it’s another example of a developing theme in Supergirl – while Cat Grant is the brusque boss who barely knows other people exist, she’s remarkably prescient and not entirely unlikeable. It’s been Cat who’s anchored much of Supergirl so far and here she fulfils the same role again, bringing the wisdom and perspective of an older, already successful woman to the naïve girl still making her way.
The point of Cat, really, is that her lessons are applicable. They’re by no means intended to dampen any girl’s enthusiasm for empowerment, or for anything, they’re simply a sometimes harsh reality-check and an archly realistic pathway through the world as it currently is – a cheat mode for actually getting where you want to be, and having all you want to have, rather than a clarion call to change the world so that others can do it with more ease and support.
All in all, given the ground it covers, you’d expect this episode of Supergirl to be rather heavy and overly cerebral, but no – it works all its themes thoroughly into the dough of the storytelling, and what we end up with is a relatively unsentimental, and therefore relatively realistic, fast-paced slice of superhero adventuring, with not an alien threat in sight (unless you count increasingly red-eyed Hank Henshaw), but still plenty of peril while Supergirl unwittingly runs the maze of a potentially dangerous enemy. All the feminist discussion here is made a part and parcel of the storytelling, making easy and exciting viewing of some complex issues.
Here's to the Girl of Steel going forward – and to powerful women everywhere.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk