“Truth, justice, and the American way” has been the tagline and mission statement for Superman for over 75 years. Now, on The CW’s Supergirl, Superman’s cousin Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) has taken up the mantle during one of the most politically divisive times in American history. Her unrelenting commitment to these core principles has made her — and the series on which she stars — border on radical, particularly given that Kara is a woman and an immigrant.
Her gender alone makes the show a rare exception among the many male-dominated comic book series on television, a fact that has given Supergirl a progressive slant from its inception. “We’re telling a story about a woman with incredible power, and unfortunately that is automatically a political discussion,” executive producer Sarah Schechter told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “It’s really in the DNA of the show, in its core, that it’s about a strong woman.”
Supergirl’s second season has focused heavily on the rights of undocumented aliens like Kara, a not-so-subtle allegory for the country’s contentious immigration debate — and, showrunner Andrew Kresiberg acknowledged, at least partly a response to the xenophobic rhetoric that dominated the 2016 US presidential campaign. And while the show may be addressing immigration metaphorically, it's also embraced inclusion head-on.
One of Season 2’s most prominent storylines has been Kara’s adopted sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), discovering her sexuality and starting a relationship with Detective Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima). Amid constant threats from aliens and humans alike, Supergirl has taken the time to sensitively depict Alex’s dawning realization of her same-sex attraction, as well as her coming out to her family. “You might not suspect that a superhero show would have been able to have the real estate to do this,” Kreisberg said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News.
And then, of course, there’s the racial diversity that has been central to the series from the beginning, including the casting of black actor Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen, a character who has traditionally been white. “Our desire is to reflect back not just the world that we live in,” Schechter said, “but the world that we could live in.”
From the onset, it was clear Supergirl wasn’t going to rest on simply having a strong female lead. While the first season aired on the stereotypically white, male network CBS before making the switch to The CW, the pilot featured Kara’s boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), discussing the feminist implications of branding the new superhero “Supergirl” instead of “Superwoman.” But in its second season on a network that houses the similarly enlightened Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Supergirl has moved toward an even more overt progressivism: The main villain this year is Cadmus, a research group determined to eliminate what they see as an alien threat.
Cadmus’s insistence on grouping all aliens together and removing them from the planet under the pretense of keeping Earth safe draws a fairly obvious connection to the anti-immigrant rhetoric that President-elect Donald Trump has spouted since his journey to the White House began. Cadmus hasn’t flat-out stated they want to “make Earth great again,” but the subtext is there for the taking.
When asked if the series is political, Kreisberg retorted, “Is it political to say that we believe all people should be treated fairly, that people who are different from us deserve the same respect and rights and privileges we have?”
But the showrunner eventually conceded that, in the current political climate, the notion that immigration and diversity are positives may be interpreted as partisan. “We don’t sit down and [say], ‘OK, what’s the most ultra-liberal, left-wing viewpoint we can take?’” Kreisberg said. “We make the show for everybody and hope that everybody enjoys it. If we can touch upon the world and offer a worldview that’s inclusive, we try to as much as we can.” (It's worth noting that in Supergirl's United States, the president is alien-friendly and a woman, played by Lynda Carter.)
These stories may not be popular with more conservative viewers — headlines on the right-wing site Newsbusters include “Supergirl’s Not-So-Subtle Hit at Opponents of Illegal Aliens” and “Supergirl Shows Liberal Fantasy Where Mind Control Is the Answer to Global Warming” — but that hasn't made those behind the scenes shy away from them. “Especially now, post-election, there’s going to be even more opportunities for people to reaffirm what’s good in the world and what our values are, and what we should all be striving toward,” Kreisberg said. “We feel blessed to be able to tell these stories.”
Besides, they couldn't avoid them if they wanted to: As Schechter said, Kara’s identity as an immigrant is central to the character. Supergirl has explored her role as an outsider, and how she struggles to balance assimilation to her life on Earth, while honoring her past on her home planet Krypton. She also comes face-to-face with adversaries who condemn all aliens while she passes as human. “It’s that feeling of wanting to fit in and feeling like an outsider,” Schecter said. “It speaks to what makes her relatable.”
Kara’s complexity, including her emotional if not physical vulnerability, is what’s drawn viewers to her, and it’s what makes them invest in her journey. That, in turn, allows Supergirl to espouse its values of inclusion without moralizing. “The primary directive is to tell stories about characters that people care about,” Schechter continued. “If you just wanted to be political and you didn’t have that, nobody would care.”
Supergirl has a clear point of view, but it’s not an after-school special with a “the more you know” moral at the end of each episode; the focus at all times is on the story. That's why Alex’s coming-out plotline has been widely praised as a realistic depiction of a woman discovering and processing her same-sex attraction. It was Supergirl executive producer Greg Berlanti who pointed out that people who come out later in life often do so because they’ve fallen for someone.
“With the idea of [Alex] striking up this friendship with this woman and slowly realizing that she has feelings for her, it just felt very grounded,” Kreisberg said. “It did feel like the culmination of Alex’s story, as opposed to sort of coming out of the blue, or feeling like a gimmick.”
In addition to critical praise, Kreisberg and Schechter have also heard from fans who were personally moved by Alex’s arc. In December, a Twitter thread from an Indiana comics-shop employee went viral when she wrote about meeting a young girl who felt empowered by Alex’s storyline on the series. “She didn’t want to die anymore,” the employee, Mary, tweeted of her interaction. “For the first time, she didn’t want to die because she got to see Alex be amazing and be queer.”
“It’s all worth it for that one story,” Schechter told BuzzFeed News in response. “The response has been, for me personally, one of the highlights of my career.”
“It’s very easy to get cynical and jaded about what we do in Hollywood,” Kreisberg added. “But to know your work can touch people at that level and really mean that much to people in a positive way is really special.”
That one example speaks to the Supergirl producers’ belief that representation on a fictional television show can have a real and powerful effect on people’s lives. It’s the same reason they are committed to complex stories featuring immigrants and people of color. For some viewers, like the one Mary encountered, these characters make them feel less alone. And for those who don’t relate to Alex or James — and have never met someone like them — they provide a valuable, humanizing look at a world outside their own. “If they so happen to expand their mind, then great,” Schechter said.
From what the producers have seen, any pushback against the show’s focus on tolerance and inclusion has been minimal. Some viewers have complained about “liberal pandering” and the “gay agenda,” but Season 2’s ratings were high enough for The CW to renew the show for a third season.
And to those who say that Supergirl, which returns to The CW on Jan. 23, is suddenly too political, Kreisberg countered that the morals of the series are nothing new to Supergirl, but rather an essential part of her foundation.
“The value of inclusion and the value of women’s rights and the value of tolerance and the value of justice, those are not things that are new to Supergirl through this show,” Kreisberg said. “We don’t feel like we’re trying to politicize and issues-charge something that didn’t possess it before. We just feel like we’re continuing on with the tradition.”
He added, “I guess it depends on what your definition of ‘truth, justice, and the American way’ is.”