Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Tale of Two Superheroine TV Shows

Kristen, our youngest daughter (age 9), and I have finished catching up on Supergirl, which just entered into its winter break. We're loving it, and it's a blast to watch a show together. Kristen loves Kara Danvers; she's excited by her ups and downs as she works out her powers and tries to figure out how best to do good, and just finds it wonderful to see a woman flying around, slugging it out with the bad guys, saving kids on a bus and putting out fires. I suppose my dropping hints at small elements of the DC comic world along the way--"he's the Martian Manhunter!" "he's the son of the Toyman!"--has added to her excitement, as it enables her to see herself and her dad sharing some special inside knowledge.

For myself, I love the show; from the very beginning, I've grooved on the way it makes use of the source material, and delighted in the various clever hat-tips contained in the casting and dialogue (having Kara's boss and emerging-mother-figure Cat Grant, played by Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame, insist that calling the new superheroine "Supergirl" is a feminist statement was a good one; Dean "New Adventures of Superman" Cain's cameo as Kara's adoptive father who insists "I know more about Superman than anyone else alive" was another). Basically, I've enjoyed its upbeat and redemptive tone--one that is appropriate for the Superman mythos as a whole (thus showing up the flaws of the clumsy, harsh direction which Zack Snyder seems determined to take the current incarnation of Superman movies).

Of course, upbeat and redemptive doesn't describe anything in Jessica Jones. Like its forerunner Daredevil, I binged watched this show, and enjoyed it immensely. It was really solid television--often (if somewhat inconsistently) great dialogue and characterizations, with a dark and creepy mood that's hard to balance with an exciting story. But Jones pulled it off. Our oldest daughter (age 19, currently at KU) and our foster daughter (age 15) have both gotten into it as well--the former being deeply enough into its story that the final minutes of the final episode had her freaking out over the fate of Jessica and her sole reliable friend, Trish Walker. And I don't dispute her reaction; Jones absolutely stuck its landing.

I did have some complaints about how the show developed along the way--Kilgrave's powers didn't always seem to operate according to the same rules, and the way in which those around him responded to or dealt with his commands didn't always make sense to me--but they're pretty minor, all things considered. After all, telling an entirely "realistic" story about people with mysterious, secret powers and abilities, and honestly and consistently portraying how ordinary folk would act and think when confronted by individuals with said powers, ain't easy. (The list of films or television shows I've seen that really, fully, pulled off "realistically" telling a comic book-type story begins with Shyamalan's one truly great film, Unbreakable, and pretty much ends there too.) I give Daredevil a slight edge over Jessica Jones in the quality television department, but that mostly has to do with their relevant subplots, not at all their central performances, both of of which I thought were superb, or the way in which they made use of their comic books roots.

One way in which Jones is a clear winner over Daredevil, though, is obviously the way in which it makes central to its story so many topics that reflect upon the experience of women in a patriarchal society--sexual violence, most obviously, but also themes of dependency, code-switching, lookism, sexual longing and confusion, and male privilege generally. It was truly a great bit of feminist story-telling, made that much better because of the determination of the story-tellers to tell Jessica's story in the context of her experience of recovery and resentment. Which is, again, a very, very different approach to that which Supergirl takes: Kara has her problems, but she is not confused by or wounded by resentment, and she definitely is not struggling to assert herself in the face such a devastating, violating experience. So, does that mean Jones is a more or a better bit of feminism than Supergirl?

I'm not the first to ask this question, and every time it gets ask the answer is resounding: both are equally important! And those answer are all correct, of course. But let me play the very slight contrarian, and point out this: whatever "more" or "better" may or may not mean when it comes to feminist storytelling, I think any fair-minder watcher would have to admit that Supergirl is more broad in its feminism that Jones.

Why? Because of the range of female characters, most obviously. You have Kara herself, you have her sister Alex (educated, competent, loving, though also resentment and obsessive in her protectiveness), her boss Cat (smart, sexy, overly self-confident as a way to hide her own secrets and mistakes), her adoptive mother Helen (interfering, condescending, a micromanager, and also utterly dependable), her arch-enemy Astra (her aunt--and possibly more?--and a power-hungry, wickedly funny, contemptuous species-ist regarding these lowly human around her). All the men in these episodes are second-players; even when they are in positions of authority, women are never shown as dependent upon them, but rather as (appropriately enough) maturely responding to them. In short, in Supergirl my daughter Kristen is seeing even more women doing and feeling and dealing with more things than just about any other television show or movie I can think of that would be appropriate for her to watch. In that sense, it's doing something which the more narrowly focused Jones did not: giving viewers a view of the female experience, through the medium of comic book-style stories, that includes all of the ups and downs and difficulties and triumphs which every woman experiences every day.

I suppose I may be coloring the show even brighter than it actually, just because it's great for me to spend time with my youngest child, geeking out on something we both enjoy. But honestly: Supergirl is television that is both feminist and fun. It may not do anything better than any number of other shows, much less the terrific Jessica Jones, but still: it's worth checking out. We certainly intend to keep on doing exactly that.

1 comment:

Paul said...

I thought I’d take a look at Supergirl due to your review. Watched it with the family. We barely made it through the pilot. My daughter (13) thought it cheesy. I tried to talk them all into another episode and they wouldn't have it. Oh well...Agents of Shield has been working for family T.V. and maybe Supergirl was going a bit backwards for us. Personally I don’t care for drama that includes sitcom behavior. Kara’s and Cat’s (adults) behaviors are juvenile and are somewhat below sitcom norms. Reminds me of Ugly Betty and the Mexican novela it was based on. What is this juvenile behavior in adults coming from so called feminist shows (see also Desperate Housewives)?

I also binged watched Jessica Jones. Overall I found it entertaining. I had no background in the character. Didn’t care for the feminist notions, and if I thought about them, I would become annoyed with the show. The use of the same antagonist was trite. Should’ve brought Daredevil into the show. Not sure I’d watch a second season...this was probably a one trick pony show for me.