I wrote this piece a couple months ago after binging on the second season of Supergirl. Sharing it now since the 3rd season is premiering this week.
Previously, on Supergirl: We find our hero Kara Danvers, better known as Supergirl, living and working on a planet called Earth-38, in alternate universe not too different from our own. An alien diaspora has occurred and many alien refugees have found…well, refuge…upon Earth-38.
Most of these aliens are decent folk, a few, not so much. Perhaps predictably, some humans are not exactly down with their new alien neighbors and reaction runs the gamut, from distrust to disgust to anti-alien terrorism. Supergirl works for a government agency, the DEO – Department of Extranormal Operations – tasked with keeping the bad aliens in line while protecting the good aliens from the machinations of bad aliens and bad humans alike.
CW + iconic superheroine and it’s a fairly good setup for a show. It’s kinda like Men in Black only with more hair product. But then the creators of the show took it a step farther and framed Supergirl as a thinly veiled political parable for the times in which we live.
Supergirl has been repeatedly lauded as “the most political show on television”. Sayings like “nasty woman”, “stronger together”, and “nevertheless, she persisted” are frequently tossed around. There’s a pro-alien female president played by Lynda Carter (yep, Wonder Woman herself), a character introduced in a cringeworthy episode that first aired just before the election of 2016, who is obviously meant to represent a successfully elected Hillary.
The aliens, intended as stand-ins for immigrants, are mostly good and harmless and have suffered horribly on their homeworlds. It is self-evident that the human thing to do is to welcome them to Earth-38 with open arms and learn to live together in peace and harmony. And even though a few bad kumquats have sneaked through alongside the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, only a heartless ogre would want to send them all back to planets where slavery and genocide are rampant (apparently on virtually all other planets in this universe, slavery and genocide are rampant.) Luckily we have the diligent and effective DEO to protect us from that teensiest smidge of aliens who actually mean us harm, and also to protect the innocent aliens from shady human terrorist organizations like Project Cadmus, a sinister humans-first paramilitary organization led by Lex Luthor’s mom.
So far, so good. Supergirl follows a pretty standard superhero script – xenophobia bad, tolerance good, ya can’t judge a whole group of people based on the actions of one, trust the good and noble heroes of law enforcement to protect us against the bad guys instead of taking the law into your own hands (usually) – but then Mon-El showed up.
If you haven’t watched the show, Mon-El is a refugee from a planet called Daxam, which is Krypton’s next door neighbor and was sadly pummelled with debris and destroyed, or at least presumed to be, when Krypton exploded. The two dearly departed worlds despised each other and had warred incessantly throughout their histories. The Daxamites, according to Kryptonians, were self-indulgent and spoiled, anti-intellectual, caring about no higher principles beyond drinking, partying, and having a good time. The Kryptonians were smarter, better, nobler, more educated, and just generally more evolved in general. Additionally, the Daxamites flew the Confederate Flag, watched Nascar, ate pork rinds, and abused opioids while the Kryptonians listened to NPR and discussed intersectionality while delicately chewing kale salad with their carefully flossed teeth (ok, I possibly made that last part up).
Even Supergirl herself is not immune to anti-Daxamite prejudice, which at first I believed a clever plot device designed to further demonstrate how xenophobia is bad and tolerance is good and ya can’t judge a whole group of people based on the actions of one. Luckily for all of us, Mon-El happened to be a superduperly cute boy (srsly, that guy is hot, I don’t know how it came to pass that dude was born in the year I graduated from high school, but I demand a recount) and so Supergirl’s instinctive hatred for Daxamites was soon overcome by her instincts for other things.
That was when things started to get weird for me.
Because the whole thing where I thought all this Kryptonian prejudice towards Daxam was just gonna be a plot device where Supergirl learns that prejudice was like, so totally bad, you know, and everything, and grows as a person and stuff? Didn’t happen. Her suspicions about Daxamites were proven correct when Mon-El turned out to be incapable of holding down a job and keeping his fly zipped. And while he did eventually get himself somewhat more together, it was not because he had any innately positive Daxamite qualities to begin with, but because Supergirl INSPIRED him “to be a better man”. Apparently the cure for Daxaminianism, is Kryptonianity. Supergirl never really gets over the whole pesky “prejudice” thing either, tossing it back into Mon-El’s pretty, pretty face on numerous occasions that Daxamites actually suck, like, litchrally, and are totes ma goats inferior to Kryptonians in basically every single way. He invariably agrees, sheepishly, promising to try harder to not act so damn Daxam-y the next time.
And then, when more Daxamites eventually show up, led by Teri Hatcher and Kevin Sorbo as Mon-El’s mom and dad, Queen Rhea and King I-didn’t-quite-catch-his-name, it is revealed that Supergirl’s prejudice was fully justified, cuz the Daxamites are really really really irredeemably terrible through and through. The adorable Mon-El is apparently the only exception to the people of Daxam’s universal terribleness (that is, when he’s not going all Daxamic and requiring Supergirl to give him a quick yank of correction on his choke chain) and they want to invade Earth and take it over and turn it into New Daxam and get rid of or maybe just enslave all the humans, they weren’t too clear on that part of the plan.
Oh and somewhere along the way, the head of the DEO and our magnificent Madame President Not-Hillary are also revealed to be shapeshifting aliens disguised as humans, I forgot to mention that part, so while even though they seem nice and all, their “let’s humans and aliens all be besties” motives are actually kind of suspect. The DEO itself is revealed to be inept, incompetent, and borderline corrupt. They disobey orders – even direct orders from the President herself, hold US citizens captive without due process when convenient, and pretty much every episode, one or the other of their agents lets criminals out of prison for their own personal reasons. No one is ever held accountable for any of it. And in the end, Supergirl and her gang of pals have to actually team up with the alien-hating Project Cadmus people (ya know, the xenophobic pro-human terrorist organization) to get rid of the invaders, thereby completely proving Cadmus’ point about aliens being a potential threat to the safety of Earth.
Do the writers of Supergirl not realize the greater implications of this plotline? The message of xenophobia is bad, tolerance is good, not all members of a group are in lockstep, treat everyone as individuals and not as members of a collective ethnic/cultural group, we have nothing to fear from living side by side with those who are different from us, is kind of shot down in flames if an entire race of aliens actually ARE all bad and actually are trying to invade Earth and take over and enslave us all. Remember, Supergirl was already prejudiced against the Daxamites. She never really did forswear her prejudice towards any Daxamite other than Mon-El (who as you may recall, is a super cute boy, Lord have mercy is he ever) and even with him, she kept bringing up what a Daxamass he was all the time. So not only was she prejudiced, not only did she not ever really get over her prejudice or even have it challenged in any appreciable way, but then in the end she was proved 100% right. And only by giving up his backwards, primitive, savage alien ways and embracing assimilation with both arms and possibly a leg or two, was Mon-El able to keep his green card and remain on Supergirl’s soil, meaning in her apartment.
Anddd in addition we’re supposed to blindly trust a shady, unaccountable, utterly inept government organization that exists entirely outside the law, headed by probable hostile double agents, to keep us safe from these tricky alien invaders that not even Supergirl trusts and likes?
Does this not imply that being prejudiced against certain groups is occasionally justified?? If they’re actually not nice, if they actually are from a people of strangely colored boorish pussygrabbing boobs, for example, and you are from a superior culture of highly evolved, well educated, lily white intellectuals, is it ok to dislike, even hate an entire culture? Even when your people destroyed their entire planet, like Krypton did to Daxam, or maybe like the US and Europe did to like practically all the other countries in the whole wide world back here on good ole Earth-1, it’s still ok? Unless they’re unusually attractive and charming individuals, that is? Then it is ok to forgive them for their irrepressible Daxamite-ishness but continue lording your Kryptoni-awesome superiority over them until the older women in the audience can’t help but think “If Mon-El had landed here, I wouldn’t kick his space pod out of my backyard.”
But I digress.
Anyways, it was all very subtexty and weird, all things considered. I mean, if they’re trying to be political, if they’re claiming it’s a political parable or at least not arguing against the idea, that means that takeaway must be intentional. Doesn’t it? I mean, the show has a rep for being the most political show on television, so it’s only fair for me to look at the show through that lens, and hold it up to more intense scrutiny than I do Iron Fist or whatever, right? If it is political by design, if they aren’t holding up their hands and saying “no we’re just havin’ some fun here peeps” then I cannot write the show’s plot off as just silly comic book superhero tropes. Supergirl has a larger political point to make, they admit that it does, thus the glaringly obvious message “While USUALLY we should all try to get along and coexist, there are some people with whom you simply cannot live, so it’s ok to hate them and even not feel terribly guilty about destroying their entire planet” cannot be accidental.
Right up until the last episode I was half-convinced it was all some sort of meta, Bizzaroworld conservative plotline some undercover Kekistani spy was sneaking in thru the back door. I amassed a dossier containing over a page of hard-hitting, undeniable evidence that I cut from this essay because it made me sound like Louise Mensch or something.
For in the end, as I saw a lesbian couple, a couple of cool black guys, a metrosexual totally non-sexually-threatening computer geek dude, a hopeful young millennial woman, Ally McBeal, Hillary Clinton/Wonder Woman, and inexplicably, an evil terrorist organization, teaming up to stop the Daxamite invasion it dawned on me. Nope. There is no bigger message here. It really is all accidental. This isn’t anything other than the work of a committee (and ya know what they say about committees) who learned everything they know about plotting, characterization, and worldbuilding from mediocre television and terrible movies directed by Joss Whedon, Zach Snyder, and McG. A brigade of idiots strung together some familiar tropes and cherry-picked comic book canon into a subtext disaster of epic proportions. No larger meaning, no grand plan, it was just some really dumb and uncreative people who have so little understanding of the debate over immigration that at no point did it dawn on them that they were actually just putting on a pageant enacting the Right’s entire case against mass immigration and even landing some punches seemingly in support some of the alt-Right’s case as well.
And this is the “most political show on television.”
How could no one have caught any of this? If you’re trying to be political, isn’t the first priority that you don’t, you know, make the other guy’s case for him/her?
My theory is, it’s because no one who works on the show really even knows what the dealio is. They don’t understand the issues at hand. They may think they do, they may think they’re all megainformed and cutting edge and politically savvy, but they aren’t and they don’t. Because believe it or not, for the vast majority of people opposed to mass immigration, it is not because they are huge racist meanies who hate people with brown skin. (This is why you can find millions of minorities and a good-sized chunk of legal immigrants who absolutely despise illegal immigration). But that’s what an entire generation of people, the kind of folks who on occasion end up writing CW series, have been taught. That’s the extent of the insight the writers of Supergirl bring to the situation. Big fat racist fascist meanies.
But the real case against unlimited immigration is more nuanced than that. Conservatives (and it isn’t just conservatives either BTW) feel – rightfully or wrongfully – that their culture, their planet, if you will, is being invaded and overrun by people like the Daxamites who want to defeat them, who want to at best consume their resources and at worst, possibly impose a different way of life onto them and their children and grandchildren. They fear that their way of life will be eradicated. Just like the Daxamites planned to do to the people of Earth with their scheme to create New Daxam here, obliterating the whole “Earth Culture” thing.
People are willing to fight for things like that. We understand it instinctively when we see it played out upon a screen but sometimes we forget when we see it in real life. We may watch a show or a movie and instinctively understand, yeah, if Daxamites took over Earth and turned it into New Daxam, that would be a bad thing. Even if the Daxamites were better at running our planet than we are (and some days I think alien overlords couldn’t possibly be worse) we wouldn’t want that to happen, we’d fight against it tooth and nail even when there are things we actively despise about our culture. Defending one’s way of life is a drive so strong we’d end up laying down our lives to save the fricking Kardashians.
Now, you and I, enlightened Kryptonian-types that we are, may disagree that that is what immigrants want, when they come here. To take over, to recreate their homeland here and instead of becoming more like us, to force us to become more like them. But it doesn’t matter what we believe. The people who oppose immigration believe it. As a compassionate and highly evolved people, surely we can see that their fears are legitimate if they believe that to be true. If they are legitimately afraid their way of life will be eradicated – economically, culturally, and even legally, with laws being passed to outlaw cultural talismans that matter to them. If they are afraid (and not entirely without reason) that like the DEO on Earth-38, heads of government organizations and possibly even presidents are at best inept and corrupt, and at worst are working actively with the invaders to eradicate their way of life. Surely anyone with half a heart can understand that if they believe these things, that this is scary, whether you agree with their conclusions or not, and even if their motives are not always totally pure.
Right or wrong, this fear should be worthy of at least a droplet or two of our sympathy. But if we, like the writers of Supergirl, don’t even understand why immigration opponents hold the positions they do, if we only see a big fat racist meanie when really there is a terrified person with possibly some bad information upon which they are basing some misguided opinions, then are we really any different from Supergirl, with her knee-jerk anti-Daxamite prejudice? Are we not, like the Kryptonians, guilty of seeing ourselves as better, superior, more evolved; entitled to sit in judgement of an entire group of people, writing them all off as deplorable, even while congratulating ourselves for our tolerance, even while taking pride in our ability to look at people as individuals instead of judging them on their externals?
In the real world there are no Daxamites. There are no groups of people who really truly are irredeemably bad and if “the most political show on TV” has the literal symbol of the American Way saying that there are, that means something. If the moral of Supergirl really is “While USUALLY we should all try to get along and coexist, there are some people with whom you simply cannot live, so it’s ok to hate them and even not feel terribly guilty about destroying their entire planet aka way of life” (and I very well suspect it may be, if only subconsciously) – that means something that should chill all of us to our very bones. Unfortunately, I think this truly the belief of many, not only writers of silly CW shows but also a great many Americans right now, some of whom are in charge of some pretty important stuff. The people who it’s ok to hate right now varies depending on what team you’re playing for, but whether it’s immigrants or rednecks, the net result is the same. Making it ok to hate people if the people you hate are bad enough.
But here’s the thing. No one ever went out on a pogrom in the middle of the night thinking that they were the bad guys and they were going out to wrongfully, unfairly harm innocent people. They went out feeling fully justified that what they were doing was absolutely right and completely necessary because they were attacking their borderline inhuman enemies who totally had it coming. It’s not an attitude to cultivate on cutesy TV shows made to appeal to children who don’t know any different. Xenophobia, bad. Tolerance, good. It’s a powerful message, an important message. Can’t we just leave it at that? The message that it’s sometimes ok to hate others under certain circumstances is toxic. If the last 2 centuries have taught us nothing, can’t we please just finally learn that lesson?
Tolerating people you like is not a challenge. Understanding people who are exactly like you is not difficult either. Tolerating people you hate and striving to understand those who are different is a noble goal worthy of a superhero. That is a message worthy of Supergirl.