Supergirl, the newest superhero adaptation to television, premiered this month at CBS to great fanfare - and wonderful ratings. A great deal of excitement has surrounded the show since it was announced more than a year ago, and there are plenty of reasons to be excited. Not only is it being featured on a major network, but that network has pulled in some top notch talent to develop the series, with proven success in the superhero TV realm. An early leak of the pilot episode and reviews of the pilot showed a very positive response to the first hour, which tends to be most shows' weakest. The start of Supergirl is a bigger deal than just a new and promising superhero show airing; it marks a leap forward for how women are presented in this increasingly popular genre.
The current surge of popularity and styles in superhero stories both on television and at the movies can be traced back to 2008. That’s the year when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with the debut of Iron Man and superhero movies proved to be an unstoppable box office force when The Dark Knight reached the $1 billion mark. Since 2008 there have been no movies or TV shows starring women as the lead characters. In this generation of live-action superhero storytelling, Supergirl is a first.
The closest thing you can find to a woman in the leading role prior to this is Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Agents May, Johnson, and Simmons on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Natasha is still a part of Cap’s supporting cast in that film and the Agents are part of an ensemble. Agent Carter features Haley Atwell in a leading role in the Marvel Universe, but also hardly qualifies as superhero fare. It is tangentially related to superhero elements, but has much more in common with spy or crime procedurals than the movies that spawned it. There has been no equivalent of Iron Man, Arrow, Superman, The Flash, or so many other leading men among the productions from Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, or Sony. Considering that men and women make up approximately the same percentage of the population, it’s a pretty bleak disparity of representation in what is the most popular genre of pop culture today. Supergirl is the show that marks the beginning of correcting those off-kilter scales.
Looking at the available data for who in America is going to see movies and who is watching television makes it clear just how unbalanced the divide is between between the heroes being shown and the audience watching them. The most comprehensive set of data comes from the MPAA showing who was attending movies in 2014. It reveals an almost even divide between men and women, but one that favors the latter with women comprising approximately 52% of audiences. Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have borne out this near-even division, showing a great deal of interest in superhero movies from women. Yet none of the movies or shows being made since 2008 have bothered to put a woman in the title.
Some of this imbalance can be traced back to films that pre-dated 2008, two in particular. Catwoman and Elektra were released in 2004 and 2005, respectively to poor critical and commercial response. They weren’t simply disappointments, but were so widely panned that they have become punchlines. Their successive failures led many in Hollywood to believe that women couldn’t headline superhero productions. That (wrong) conclusion ignores that both were attached to already mediocre franchises and were put through production hell that resulted in poorly made and marketed films. Supergirl on the other hand is receiving a full-faith effort with proven talent and confidence in its goals and success.
It’s not simply that Supergirl is being done, but that it appears everyone involved is trying to do it right. That makes it not only a first from that 2008 date, but a first ever. Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Ali Adler are known quantities, the first two having created the very popular Arrow and The Flash. Their attachment alone indicates a serious attempt to create an appealing and well-scripted show (as even most detractors of Arrow enjoy The Flash). Melissa Benoist, who is playing the titular hero, has proven herself on television (Glee) and the big screen (Whiplash); she’s a rising star by almost any definition. The inclusion of Hollywood veteran Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant also helps ground the very young cast and places a more familiar face in the show for more casual viewers (and the often older CBS crowd). Flockhart may prove to have the same bolstering effect on the cast as Jesse L. Martin has had on The Flash.
Supergirl isn’t just significant in that it’s a first, but that it’s the first in what appears to be a trend. Jessica Jones debuts on Netflix on November 20, 2015 which will mean that both a Marvel and DC superheroine will have their own television show by the end of 2015. Furthermore, both stables of characters have a movie scheduled for production and release. Wonder Woman is supposed to be released in summer 2017 and Captain Marvel was recently bumped to spring 2019. The sequel to Ant-Man will also have Hope Pym co-headlining in Ant-Man and The Wasp in 2018. That means within the next 4 years, the two largest superhero franchises (i.e. Marvel and DC) will have a woman headlining a production on both the small and big screen.
All of this is cause for some justifiable optimism about gender in superhero movies and TV. It’s still just a good start, though. Having one example of a woman in a lead role in superhero movies and on TV still reflects a starkly imbalanced ratio between men and women, one that fails to reflect the audience or world. Finding roles for women in superhero entertainment is far from the only area of gender representation requiring rectification either. There have been no significant examples of transgender characters in Marvel or DC productions since 2008 (or ever).
The expected success of Supergirl will hopefully mark the beginning of a more egalitarian representation of women in superhero fare. Half efforts like Catwoman and Elektra may be forgotten and open producers to some ideas that should have been obvious a very long time ago. Superheroes are for everyone, and women are every bit as capable of being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and leaping tall buildings in a single bound. The age of super-women might finally have arrived.
Supergirl airs Mondays at 8pm on CBS.