Supergirl. As her name suggests, she was created by writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino in 1959 to be a female counterpart to Superman. In nearly all her incarnations, she wears Superman’s colors and symbol (for hope or whatever) and, holy Comet the Superhorse, she has a lot of incarnations. The most well-known of course is as Superman’s cousin from Krypton, Kara Zor-El. This version of the character shares Superman’s powers and vulnerability to Kryptonite. The early versions of Supergirl are, not surprisingly, pretty sexist. Supergirl is Superman’s lesser in every way that a “girl” would be lesser than a “man.” However, the most recent incarnation of Supergirl in DC’s New 52 has shown some promise that I hope will continue into the DC You movement and in her upcoming television show on CBS.
Unusual Beginnings and Strange Reincarnations
Supergirl was created to be Superman’s companion not only by Binder, but by Jimmy Olsen. In Superman 123, “The Three Magic Wishes” Jimmy Olsen wishes Supergirl into existence. The details of this story are actually quite hilarious in inuendo. At midnight, Jimmy rubs a jewel on the hilt of the Native American totem. The spirit inside grants Jimmy three wishes. Jimmy’s first wish is for a companion to help Superman. A blonde female Kryptonian magically appears before him and flies off to meet Superman. Poor Jimmy. He should’ve wished for a companion for himself like most adolescent boys at midnight do.
When this magical Super-Girl (spelling according to dc.wikia.com) flies to help Superman, although the cover indicates she is trying to prove herself worthy, she instead becomes a hindrance and turns every situation into a major blunder. However, one day as Superman is in the super-cliché of repairing a broken bridge, some thugs dump Kryptonite on him. (Apparently Kryptonite is just lying around everywhere in the 50s.) Super-Girl sees the dying Superman and risks her life to save him. In an act of strange euthanasia, Jimmy wishes her away before she dies of Kryptonite poisoning.
However, this trend of self-sacrifice and being poisoned by Kryptonite will become a common thread for Supergirl.
The second appearance of a “super girl” is in Superboy 78 (1960) when Superboy is changed into a girl after ridiculing an alien woman who has crashed her spacecraft. Superboy must operate as Super Sister and even Claire Kent. Scorned and ridiculed by men, he sets out to prove that Super Sister is just as capable as Superboy. Shar-La is convinced that he has learned his lesson and shows him it was all an illusion.
These two strange appearances aside, in Action Comics 252 (1959) we get the first appearance of Kara-El, Superman’s cousin. The creation of Kara-El as a recurring character was a direct result of the thousands of letters of positive fan response that DC got from her appearance as Jimmy Olsen’s wish in Superman 123. Kara-El is from Argo City which survived the explosion on Krypton. When the soil started to turn into Kryptonite, lead sheeting was placed on the ground. However, eventually kryptonite meteorites pierced the sheeting and the citizens began to die of kryptonite poising. Thus, Zor-El and Allura decided to send their daughter to join her cousin Kal-El on Earth. They even dress her in a costume like Superman’s so that he’ll recognize her as his cousin. Upon meeting Kara and noticing that she is demonstrating powers similar to his own, he decides she will become his secret weapon and explains to her that her identity must be kept secret until her training has been complete.
Despite multiple attempts to prove she’s ready to serve the public, Superman keeps shutting her down in typical late-1950s fashion. Remember, this is the same Superman who keeps foiling Lois Lane’s attempts to trick him into marrying her. So we’re not talking about exactly the most progressive of storytelling. So it should be no real surprise that a feminist reading of these early stories might interpret that Superman is actually threatened by Supergirl’s appearance and thus insists that she remain in secret as his secret weapon. Thus her residence in an orphanage under the secret identity of Linda Lee is seen as a continued method to insure she doesn’t make a life of her own. In episode 258, he even banishes her from Earth because she revealed her identity to Krypto the dog. The dog! But when she learns his secret identity but doesn’t tell anyone, in his patriarchal mercy he allows her to return. Then guess what. She’s still not ready to be revealed to the world.
So on one hand, it’s great that girls have their own character with all the powers of Superman that they can read about in Action Comics. She even has her own pet, Streaky the Super Cat. On the other hand, Supergirl is completely dependent upon Superman and extremely obedient to her patriarch. Just when readers begin to wonder if Supergirl is seemingly immune to kryptonite, it was an alien that was eating the kryptonite from the inside that allowed Supergirl to think she was building up an immunity. Nice try, Supergirl but you’re no match for 1959. In another episode she disobeys Superman (but only because of contact with red kryptonite) and *gasp* reveals her existence while saving the residents of Smallville! Does Superman finally give in and just let her have her day in the limelight? Nope. Amnesia gas for the whole town and Supes reprints all the local newspapers. In yet another episode it appears that Supergirl will finally find some autonomy when she’s invited to join the Legion of Superheroes in the 30th century. Join the Legion of Superheroes in the 30th century? Red kryptonite turns her into a woman. Her own Fortress of Solitude? Destroyed. Story after story dangles autonomy in front of Supergirl only to be snatched away – usually by Superman “for her own good.” Basically, every issue ends with Supergirl wondering if she’ll ever get to be like Superman. So, girls, no matter how strong, fast, or smart you are, it’s more important to just do what the men in your life tell you to do. Be his secret weapon. One day, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day you’ll get to be on the front page of the Daily Planet.
As we get further away from the fifties, however, Kara-El gets more and more autonomy. Superman has revealed her to the public. She is adopted by the Danvers. She goes to college. She moves to San Francisco. She saves her parents from the Survival Zone. She has a stint as an anchorwoman and as a graduate student in drama. She becomes a student advisor and a soap opera star. She develops her own look with the classy but still sexy v-neck sweater and small S insignia. Oh, and don’t forget hot pants and that rad headband.
Then she dies.
Supergirl gives the ultimate sacrifice in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Designed to streamline continuity (something that is an annual occurrence today), she was expendible because of the desire to reestablish Kal-El as the sole survivor of Krypton. While it’s a shame that DC thought this character to be so expendable and yet again she gets shelved by the one and only Superman, most Supergirl fans consider her part in Crisis on Infinite Earths to be Supergirl’s greatest story.
DC wants Supes to be the last Kryptonian, but readers still wanted Supergirl. So DC stubbornly gave them Matrix instead. Matrix is a shape-shifting protoplasmic matrix created by a good Lex Luthor in a pocket universe who later merges with a dying Linda Danvers and became the Earth Angel of Fire.
Yeah. Comic books are just soap operas with spandex.
In 2004, twenty years after being erased from existence, Kara is back. Her backstory is slightly different. Instead of being the younger cousin, she is a teenager when Kal-El was a baby and was sent in a rocket in suspended animation to look after the infant. But her rocket gets caught in the explosion and encased in a Kryptonite asteroid. This girl has the worst luck with kryptonite.
In the New 52 era, Kara Zor-El gets another reboot where the storyline is basically the same as in 2004 but she awakens with amnesia and is confused, angry, and eventually grief stricken. She falls for a badboy Kryptonian aptly named H’El until she realizes who he really is and kills him. But not before she gets, guess what. Kryptonite poisoning. She flies into the sun and survives. Oh and somewhere in there she has a red power ring because she’s so angsty! This angst-ridden, teenage version of Kara might be the most progressive yet. I asked one of our readers and a personal friend, Kristi, why she liked reading Supergirl:
“One thing I like so much about her is how powerful she is. She’s more powerful than Superman, which, until her, we thought was impossible. [. . . .] I also like her back story. While superman left Krypton before all the chaos and tragedy, she was still there. This shows girls that you could see your world be destroyed before your eyes, but still keep on. [When she falls in love with the badboy, H’el] she finds out that he tricked her, and she becomes torn. As a girl, it’s relatable. We’ve all been there. She worked through it and ultimately trusted herself. I think that’s cool.”
It is important to note that Kara, unlike Kal, did witness her planet getting destroyed first hand. And as for being stronger than Superman, she does fly into the sun and survive leading some to believe she’s immortal. More importantly though, she’s portrayed as a girl to whom female readers can relate. So while I haven’t kept up on Supergirl personally, (partly because I’m not really her target audience anyway) I can see that progress has been made.
Those Threads Though
So, while Supergirl does get to be more of an autonomous character throughout her history, her costume since 2004 has been, in my humble opinion, the epitome of sexual objectification. In the Batman/Superman story arc she wanders around naked for half the book and her objectification is at its worst when being drawn by Michael Turner. It’s no wonder most people just see her as nothing more Jimmy Olsen’s wet dream when she’s drawn as the sexy cheerleader of the DC universe. So while her personality gets portrayed as more passionate, strong-willed, and assertive, she’s drawn like she belongs on a mud flap.
When DC rebooted her costume in the New 52, I initially thought it was a positive move – except for one detail. What was with the red shield panties? Superman no longer has his underwear on the outside, but DC gives Supergirl a big red shield downtown. Her cape and boots are boss, but the red panties is the lower body equivalent of Power Girl’s boob window. Maybe I just have my “Dad” hat on, but I dismissed the series after the first issue as just more Turner-style sexual exploitation. I’m glad readers like Kristi did not.
I’m hoping that the new DC You movement allows more progression and less exploitation for Supergirl. But more likely all eyes will be on Melissa Benoist when she portrays the girl of steel in the upcoming CBS television show. In fact the first trailer for the series received a lot of criticism and many drew comparisons to the satirical parody of a Black Widow movie on SNL in that the show focuses on a very stereotypical “girl trying to make it in the big city while also looking for true love” kind of story line. Since then, another trailer has aired that has shown Supergirl to be more along the lines of Arrow and The Flash leading me to hope that the first trailer was an error in marketing rather than production. I was also encouraged by her interview at SDCC 2015:
“After a rigorous audition process that spanned more than three months, Benoist was tapped as Kara Zor-El, and she has the cape and tights to prove it. ‘It’s impossible not to feel empowered when you put it on,’ the 26-year-old Colorado native says of the costume, explaining that her first encounter with the suit came in the aftermath of an eye injury. ‘Simultaneously, I’m feeling all these feelings of empowerment, positivity, femininity and strength, and I have this pirate patch on. It was a little goofy.’”
According to the article, Benoist has done her research on the character. I was further encouraged to when Benoist stated, “I want to do right by women, I want to portray someone they can relate to and look up to. I want her to be complicated and flawed.”
Supergirl. Batgirl. There has always been the question of whether these two characters are nothing more than the girl versions of their male counterparts and thus perpetually seen as lesser. I think this question still presents itself today and will always present itself just by the nature of their titles (both being named after Batman and Superman and having the word “girl” instead of “woman”). This is a good thing. It means that these characters can perpetually answer that question. Supergirl in particular has the potential to demonstrate that she is just as strong as a character as her cousin, and she doesn’t have to prove it by punching harder or flying faster. She can prove it by showing that the “girl” part of her name shouldn’t and doesn’t equate to “lesser.” Or she can go back to just being the hot, blonde, DC cheerleader fantasy.
DC and CBS, show us girl power.
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