One of the reasons that I was so excited at the end of the Supergirl pilot (no disrespect to fans of General Zod) was that the overarching villain of this female superhero series is also a woman. Laura Benanti plays General Astra on Supergirl, Kara Zor-El's aunt who is bent on ruling the Earth and destroying her niece. The CBS series isn't coy about the importance of having a superhero who is feminine and willing to embrace being a girl, but for those of us who want better representation for female characters on our screens, having an evil lady in the mix is important as well. — especially to Laura Benanti herself.
"I think it's equally feminist," Benanti says. You know, instead of just saying, like, "women are brave and wonderful!" — Like, yeah... they're also super complicated and murderers. And everything in between." But Astra and Kara aren’t the only women on the show, which Benanti thinks makes the message even more powerful.
"You have a business woman in Cat Grant. You have a young woman coming into her powers in Kara. You have [Alex], who's coming to terms with her own self and her relationship with her sister. You have Alura, a mother who only wanted the best for her daughter. And then you have Astra, who believes in something very deeply, and doesn't quite know how to go about getting it handled without violence. So you see a broad spectrum of women, which to me is the most feminist. Because you're not just seeing part of women — which is I feel is what we struggle with in the media... being reduced to parts."
It's true! Layers are important, and I think one of the traps we fall into too often is thinking that female characters have to be perfect in order to be feminist. The opposite of a victim, when it comes to character archetypes, is not always a hero. It can be a villain or an anti-hero, and the more we see of all types of women on screen, the better.
One of my other favorite aspects of the pilot, and the series overall, is the idea that these prisoners are after Kara Zor-El on Earth because her mother was the one who incarcerated them in the first place. For a show that deals with potentially campy concepts like aliens and the Phantom Zone, that is a very grounded conflict that's easy to understand. It's also hugely feminist in it's own right, as Benanti points out. "She wasn't just like, a mom who loved her child, she was a judge," she says. "She had a really important job on Krypton, and a really hard job. You'll get to see more of how difficult that job was for her in the coming episodes, but yeah — I think it grounds her. She's a working mom."
Supergirl centers on one kickass female hero, but it also tells the stories of many complex women, and the different dynamics that form between sisters, enemies, allies, and all of the other roles women hold.