Mary Super: Power Fantasies and the Supergirl Pilot


Hiya, me again!  Your friendly neighborhood overanalyzer, here to overanalyze everything!

I’m still getting all my thoughts in order in re: the other fafillion essays I’d like to write on Civil War (and also the response I want to make to a really thoughtful comment someone posted–dear commenter, I promise I’m not ignoring you, my life is just completely ridiculous right now!).  In the meantime, to celebrate Supergirl getting a second season against all the financial odds, here’s a thing I wrote back in September, after watching the pilot episode.  I haven’t had time to watch any of the show since then, or any of my other shows for that matter (like I said, my life is ridiculous), but I’m definitely planning to catch up once I get a moment to breathe.  I hope y’all enjoy it!


So, the Supergirl pilot.  I’d like to start out by saying that overall I liked it a lot.  Did it feel kind of rushed?  Yes, but such is the nature of a pilot episode, I think.  Did the no-homo moment between Kara and Wynn on the rooftop irk me?  Absolutely.  Are there enough women of color and/or queer women on the show?  God no.  But man, is it refreshing to have a superheroine in a practical outfit who just really, really enjoys being a hero.

With all that said, I’d like to address what I think has been one of the biggest talking points about the entire episode:  that feminism exchange between Kara and her boss Cat.

Kara: [on discovering that Cat dubbed her “Supergirl”] “Supergirl”? We can’t name her that!

Cat: We didn’t.

Kara: Right, I’m sorry. It’s just, uh… A female superhero. Shouldn’t she be called Super… woman?

Cat: I’m sorry, darling, I just can’t hear you over the loud color of your cheap pants.

Kara: If we call her “Supergirl,” something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of, of being anti-feminist? Didn’t you say she’s the hero?

Cat: I’m the hero. I stuck a label on the side of the girl. I branded her. She will forever be linked to CatCo, to the Tribune, to me. And what do you think is so bad about “girl?” Huh? I’m a girl. And your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot and smart. So if you perceive “Supergirl” as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?

On the surface, this conversation is really frustrating on a feminist level.  Kara’s perfectly valid concern that the name Supergirl infantilizes her is sort of glossed over.  But Cat’s response, while on some level patronizing and missing-the-point, actually brings up something really interesting, something I think the writers touched on but didn’t explore in enough depth (please, subsequent episodes, prove me wrong here):  the nature of power fantasies versus self-insert fantasies and how that relates to both gender and maturity.

Say what you will about the corn-fed Kansas boy, but Superman is basically the epitome of a power fantasy.  Who among us hasn’t wished they were that strong and near-invincible?  Clark/Superman is a man, darn it, and he’s drawn as even more than that, as this ridiculously powerful, godlike creature.  I mean, look:

If this were a gif, his cape would be rippling in the wind, but that perfectly curled forelock wouldn’t move an inch.

Now, Supergirl, on the other hand:  remember that line from the waitress in the diner where our baddie of the week was very much not eating?

WAITRESS:  Sorry about that, sir.  Can you believe it?  A female hero.  Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to.

The entire point of Supergirl seems to be that she’s more relatable, like Cat said and like the waitress confirmed, but the terms “man” and “girl” play into that in fascinating ways.

Going to get a little bit personal here for a moment:  I’m 22 years old, but even so, “woman” is a label I’m having real trouble accepting for myself, because heretofore it’s been defined for me as something I’m not, or at least that I’m not just yet.  Something more advanced, that I can only rightly claim after I rack up an indeterminate yet large number of Adult Achievement Points.  And I really don’t think I’m the only one feeling this way–I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen or heard other people my age say things like “who let me be an adult?”

In light of this ongoing cultural joke, I’m starting to think that even the words “man” and “woman” have become their own power fantasy words in a way.  And while people my age (by which I basically mean millennials) might like Superman and his ilk just fine, the new connotations of these words associated with adulthood and general life-together-ness make it harder for us to identify with them.  My peers and I may fantasize about being Big Strong Adults who can pay the rent with no trouble, mow the lawn, cook rice without burning it even a little, and overall keep it together, but we also don’t feel like we have the right to claim that sort of fantasy for ourselves.  We can’t ultimately bring ourselves to put our feet in those shoes.

Which means that a more self-insert-oriented character, a character like Kara, is that much more accessible, and her super-moniker absolutely plays into that.  The thing about Kara is that she’s still very much young and inexperienced, but she can still friggin’ fly.  Characters like her are great for people who don’t feel like they can claim an adult identity or the power associated with it, because characters like her still get stuff done.

In a nutshell:  self-inserts make power fantasies more accessible.

Furthermore, I think that’s the crux of the Mary Sue trope, and of modern fanfiction’s origins in general–the use of the original character as an accessible entry point, this completely ordinary, recognizable girl who happens to be privy to a whole other fantastical world, or who possesses magical or otherwise extraordinary powers.  It’s a way of bringing the super to the normal.


There you have it!  Not sure what’ll be coming down the pipeline next–maybe more Civil War ruminations, maybe more Northanger Abbey (because golly, I still haven’t finished that, have I?).  But regardless, I’ll be back soon with more overanalyzing!


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