REVIEW | ‘Supergirl’ takes steps in diversifying on-screen representation

Fans of Supergirl have had many reasons for being excited this past month since its second season premiered at its new home on The CW.  Those who had wondered throughout season one if Superman would ever show up on his cousin’s show finally got their question answered when the Man of Steel made a guest appearance in the first two return episodes.  Melissa Benoist’s Kara Zor-El got the chance to take part in some team-up superheroics with her more famous cousin without being upstaged by him, whilst also dealing with the reality of the effect her biological family’s presence had on her adoptive sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh).  Though the two sisters undeniably love and support one another, their relationship has also shown cracks under pressure, and considering their dynamic is the emotional heart of the show, it was encouraging to see this strain between them being addressed again so early in the new season.

As soon as Kal-El was back in Metropolis, another DC legend turned up in National City: the original Wonder Woman, or rather the actress who portrayed her on the 1970s show.  Lynda Carter guest starred as the show’s President of the United States, Olivia Marsdin, and her appearance did not come without a few nods to her iconic TV character.  Though her appearance was relatively brief, it was directly related to the plot, and was left open-ended enough to prompt a return later in the season.

Another cause for excitement amongst many fans is the apparent developing story about Alex’s sexual orientation, first hinted at in the third episode of the new season.  A runaway favourite character in the first season, Alex’s sexuality was never addressed by the narrative, and she was never appointed any romantic subplots other than a candlelit dinner with antagonist Maxwell Lord, which was purely for the purpose of keeping him distracted.  Nonetheless, a number of bi and gay female fans identified with the character and hoped she too would eventually be revealed as an LGBTQ character.  When the show’s executive producer, Greg Berlanti, announced over the summer that a previously established character on either Supergirl or The Flash was going to come out in the next season, fandom went into collective overdrive, theorising over whether or not it could be Alex.  This was further fuelled by the revelation that a long-established lesbian character from the DC comics universe, Maggie Sawyer, was to be a new regular character on the show.  Why was all of this such a big deal? Well, the short, simple answer is ‘representation matters’, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Alex & Maggie dressed to the nines

In the show’s first season, whilst no character was strictly identified as straight, this means little considering the heteronormative society we live in.  Occasionally characters such as Alex and Kara co-opted language frequently used by the LGBTQ community to refer to Kara’s decision to ‘come out’ as Supergirl and Alex’s need to tell her mother what she did for a living.  In the pilot episode, Winn – Kara’s male friend from her workplace – wondered if she was a lesbian, which she denied.  Other than these few instances, the entire first season made no suggestion of the fact that there are many people in the world are not straight.  Not a single minor or supporting character was identified as a member of the LGBTQ community.  For its first season, Supergirl was a decidedly straight show.

Similarly, representation of people of colour on the show was little better.  Though two of the core cast members are black men, women of colour featured rarely throughout the first season.  A minor supporting character, Susan Vasquez, appeared fleetingly throughout the season, and a Senator portrayed by guest star Tawny Cypress appeared in two episodes, but otherwise every named, speaking female character was portrayed by a white woman, (though recurring guest star Jenna Dewan-Tatum is part Lebanese, it was never established if her character, Lucy Lane, was similarly multi-racial, as only her white father was introduced).  When Grant Gustin’s The Flash visited National City and befriended Kara, the two found themselves lined up along with Winn, and James Olson – portrayed by black actor Mehcad Brooks – before Kara’s boss, Cat Grant, who cracked a joke at the scene before her:

“You look like the attractive yet non-threatening, racially diverse cast of a CW show.”

So-called CW diversity

It was intended as a good-natured dig at the network that homes The Flash (and now Supergirl) along with Berlanti’s other DC TV productions, Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Yet whilst superficially amusing, it was ultimately more a case of the pot calling the kettle black (pun not intended), considering Supergirl has always been a less racially diverse show than The Flash.  Not to mention, one person of colour amongst three white people is not an example of racial diversity, but rather tokenisation.  At this stage in the show’s lifespan, there were not even enough regular or recurring characters of colour to comprise a majority in a line-up of four people.  It’s particularly cringe-worthy when you consider that both white men in this line-up look rather alike at first glance.  This brief interaction actually works as a microcosm of white society’s interpretation of racial diversity within media and I think it said a lot more about the show’s own shortcomings than it meant to.

Briefly introduced in the same episode of season 2 as Maggie Sawyer was Sharon Leal’s M’gann M’orzz, who revealed herself to David Harewood’s J’onn J’onzz as a fellow Martian.  Considering both characters are shape-shifters, and can take on the appearance of whomsoever they choose, it’s certainly noteworthy that an African-American actress was cast to portray M’gann, when the role could have easily been handed to a white woman.  Whilst Leal is not a series regular, she is set to guest-star on the show in multiple upcoming episodes, and pending how the story unfolds, could certainly appear in the season’s back half of episodes too.  The fourth episode, tonight’s ‘Survivors’, is set to feature her as integral to the narrative, along with guest star Dichen Lachman (whom I frequently gush about in my Dollhouse rewatch) as antagonist Roulette.  Nonetheless, the show’s cast – and writing team – is remains mostly white, and there is still a desperate need for diversifying representation and creative voices in this regard.

And what of the new LGBTQ representation on the show? Though Maggie and Alex were initially territorial and butting heads with one another in their first meeting, it wasn’t long before Maggie extended an invitation to show Alex where she got her intel from, and within a day of meeting she had come out to her new partner.  In the same moment that we and Alex learn that Maggie is gay, we are also introduced to her ex, Darla, who works at the alien bar Maggie has taken Alex to.  The bar is introduced as a ‘safe haven’ for alien refugees and immigrants to hang out and meet others like them.  The importance of such a location being used as a safe space is not lost on queer viewers.  Certainly it will be interesting to see if this location features throughout the season.  Though Maggie is human, she explains that she relates strongly to aliens, and understands their struggle to fit in and be accepted:

“Growing up a non-white, non-straight girl, in Blue Springs, Nebraska, I might as well have been from Mars. I was an outcast and I felt like it. Our alien neighbors, they are no different. Most of them are hardworking immigrants, or refugees just trying to get by. They have to hide who they are in order to survive. I can sympathize with that.”

She also clarifies – for Alex’s benefit(?) – that she does not exclusively date aliens.  Yet whilst Maggie cares about aliens integrating with human society, Alex has spent the past two plus years with the Department of Extranormal Operations (DEO), hunting down alien criminals and fugitives, imprisoning them, and occasionally killing them. Other than Kara, cousin Kal-El, and father figure J’onn J’onzz, Alex is very distrustful of aliens, and as soon as she realises the bar is full of them, her attitude springs from wary to gung-ho.  Later, when Maggie has been captured by one such aggravated alien, Alex returns to the bar alone for information.  She becomes aggressive towards an alien patron whom she believes may have information on Maggie’s whereabouts, and assaults and incapacitates him, but instead it is M’gann M’orzz who provides her with information.

Alex's aggression

The scene is clearly meant to illustrate that Alex cares enough about Maggie to go to extreme lengths to rescue her, and these actions certainly fit with her pro-active, provocative nature, but there’s a more troubling layer here that I don’t think the writers considered.  Maggie is ostensibly an ‘ally’ to the alien community, somebody who has gained their trust, and is bringing another outsider into their safe space.  The first thing that outsider does is rough them up and demand answers.  It’s a total breach of the trust that that community placed in Maggie, and frustratingly it’s something that never gets addressed in the episode.  Furthermore, as law enforcement officials, Maggie and Alex should take extra precautions to not abuse their positions of power when interacting with oppressed communities.  Police brutality is a real issue, as is the over-militarisation of police forces, and most media never acknowledge when they portray this, unless it is specifically the topic they are focusing on in their narratives.  Whilst this episode is surprisingly nuanced in its portrayal of differing attitudes towards aliens, it definitely dropped the ball in this regard.

Nonetheless, Maggie does seem to be a positive influence on Alex, encouraging her to look around and see for herself that not all aliens pose a threat.  By the end of the episode, Alex actively credits Maggie with opening her eyes to the reality that aliens are not all hostile.  Hopefully as the season progresses, Alex’s worldview will expand further.  In response, Maggie acknowledges that whilst she doesn’t usually work well with a partner, she thinks she and Alex make a good team.  As a police detective, Maggie has local connections and invaluable knowledge of the neighbourhoods, and this combined with Alex’s DEO resources and medical and bio-engineering training makes them a pretty formidable pair of humans.

Alex sneaking glances

Much of the evidence suggesting that Alex will be the DC TV character exploring their sexuality this season could be dismissed as circumstantial, but is hard to deny that Alex seems intrigued when she sneaks a few glances at Maggie whilst they are listening to POTUS give a speech.  These looks are never addressed by the episode’s narrative, and so they must be part of an ongoing thing within Alex’s character development.  The chemistry between the two women has certainly been picked up by numerous eager fans, and just today, Entertainment Weekly published Greg Berlanti’s response from when they recently asked him about the new dynamic.  “If people suspected chemistry, they’ve got good instincts,” Berlanti told EW. “I love that people are already really invested in their dynamic. If they are, they’ll hopefully continue to be really pleased.”

Promos for the next episode show them continuing to work closely, apparently undercover, and it will certainly be interesting to see how their tightening bond impacts on Alex’s relationship with Kara, but also how Maggie reacts to Alex and Supergirl’s relationship.  How soon will it be before Supergirl and/or Alex reveal to Maggie that they are sisters?

Working together

Of course whilst there is a lot of excitement over what potentially is to come, there is still also wariness amongst fans.  Not only is there a fear that the show is purposefully misleading (or fans are misinterpreting out of wistfulness), and that instead a different character will be revealed as the one coming to terms with their sexuality – thanks to the ambiguity of the rather cynical tease from the executive producers – but also this apprehension highlights the fact that TV – and of course media as a whole – needs to be doing more in terms of its LGBTQ representation.  Fans excited that ‘a character’ will be revealed to be bi or gay do not all fall under the same identity.  Male LGBTQ fans are quite keen for representation too.  To have different sections of the community fighting for scraps demonstrates just how underrepresented the community is, and how desperately we all need to see a higher percentage of positive LGBTQ representation on our favourite TV shows, and in the films we watch.  Is there any reason why both Alex and Winn can’t be LGBTQ characters along with Maggie? Of course not.  But tradition dictates that we only get a couple of LGBTQ characters per narrative in the majority of mainstream media.  This is even the case under the purview of out queer executive producers such as Greg Berlanti and fellow co-creator Ali Adler.

Most of all, however, the uncertainty of what will happen to LGBTQ characters is a source of anxiety for many members of the community.  Alex and Maggie are confirmed as season regular characters for the duration of the second season, but what then? Alex certainly seems to have longevity as a character, considering she is the second most important person on the show, and has the strongest bond with Kara, but as all queer fans know, nothing is certain with bisexual and lesbian characters.  Maggie could be killed off in the season finale for ‘shock value’, or even in the season three opener, as happened with bisexual character Sara Lance on Arrow.  If it sounds pessimistic or disingenuous to consider such things when the character has only just been introduced, that’s because LGBTQ viewers have come to accept this as reality; queer woman are almost always killed off.  The instant we learn of a new bisexual or lesbian character within media, the initial feeling of joy is followed by dread and begrudging acceptance of the very high possibility that the character will not have a happy ending.  Since March of this year, it is very difficult to find a media outlet that writes about LGBTQ characters in TV without mentioning the Bury Your Gays trope.  It is almost ubiquitous in all discussion about queer media.  Death follows.  And so, excitement over Maggie’s introduction on Supergirl – and Alex’s likely exploration of her sexuality – is marred by the persistent fear that happiness for them will not last.  Every queer fan knows that with each new episode of burgeoning romance, we also get an episode closer to whatever cruel fate awaits a queer character.

President Olivia Marsdin would remind us to have hope, and that because it’s hope, it can’t possibly be false.  And so we shall have hope.  But we have also been burned enough times to know that media content producers cannot be trusted to treat the LGBTQ community responsibly.  At the end of the day, there are numerous differing opinions on how Alex’s story will and should unfold.  Does she already know that she is queer, or have these feelings only recently been stirred by Maggie’s arrival? Will she realise she is exclusively attracted to women, or does she like men too? Of course if somebody on the show ever uttered aloud the word ‘bisexual’, that would be akin to a miracle, so we should probably set our expectations a little lower than that.  As somebody who has always hoped that Alex was bisexual, ever since the show started, and that she is already out to her mother and adoptive sister, I have a strong feeling already that I am not going to get the exact story that I imagined for the character.  But nonetheless, it is exciting to consider where it might lead.  And as for Maggie, will she prove herself to be an integral part of the show’s character base, or is she simply there as the token gay love interest? If the show can make Alex and Maggie the romantic heart of the show, and sustain their relationship beyond the length of a single season, that would make a refreshing change.  But at this stage, there’s nothing we can do but hope.

Edit: an earlier version of this article mislabelled Floriana Lima & the character she portrays as Latina, due to a widely circulated incorrect assumption about Lima’s race made by Executive Producer Andrew Kreisberg.  As such, the article has been edited to remove references to Maggie Sawyer as a Latina character.  Whilst Sawyer in the comics is a white woman, in all likelihood the casting call for this role was most probably open to all ethnicities (Dichen Lachman herself remarked at a fan event that she had considered auditioning for the role), and the character’s “non-white” line (the same line that was inaccurately paraphrased by Kreisberg) was likely non-specific about race precisely for the sake of acknowledging that Lima is brown-skinned.


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