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‘Supergirl’ Melissa Benoist’s Protest Sign Mirrors TV Show’s Own Steely Resolve

Last Saturday, an estimated one in 100 people in the USA marched and rallied for pluralistic solidarity and in objection to our new president.

As I  looked up news and photos from the marches that day, in which my wife and dozens of my friends were participating as well, I stumbled upon a photo that a friend reposted on Facebook.

It was of a woman at one of those marches, holding a sign that read: “Hey Donald, don’t try to grab my pussy. It’s made of steel.”

I immediately thought, “Oh, right on,” considering the statement as a metaphor of feminist righteousness. Given that a vagina can expand to push out a bowling ball-sized human, they’re pretty damn strong!

Then I looked more closely at the woman. And that’s when I realized she meant the vagina-of-steel bit literally. It was Melissa Benoist, titular star of TV’s Supergirl (The CW).

Immediately, I was incredulous. After years of seeing images manipulated to troll folks or reinforce their own ideological echo chambers, I use Web searches and image reverse-lookups like a fiend. Upon verification, I wrote it then, and I’ll write it now: “Wow. That’s a real photo. And, given the politics on Supergirl, I am proud as hell of this.”

Sure, I’ve enjoyed Supergirl since it began. It has action, drama, interesting characters. It turns on the importance of heart, love and joy in a way that the DC Comics movies lack. But this second season on The CW is more focused, more political in its message, along with even more engaging character work, than its first season on CBS.

Supergirl has been a balm of counter-programming to a presidential candidate, now president, who mocked the disabled, spewed conspiracy theories, quoted white supremacists, and bragged of pussy-grabbing misogyny.

Supergirl shows how big blue still speaks to issues of the day.

You’ve got the classic story of a working girl in her early 20s, trying to find her place in the world, butting against expectations or lack thereof. The presence of Cat Grant as a mentor to both Kara and Supergirl, built intergenerational solidarity, while crafting an increasingly humanized figure who built herself into a powerhouse with both the personal gains and costs that entails. (Sure, The CW can’t afford Calista Flockhart like CBS did, but I look forward to those guest appearances!)

Just as Superman’s story related to immigrants in 1939, Supergirl uses the alien as immigrant metaphor as well. We exist now in a renewed furor over “illegal” immigrants and refugees that walks arm-in-arm with nativism and xenophobia, with walls and registration lists advocated in the White House. Supergirl spins a world in which an alien minority is here, but many of them live underground or in the shadows. In its cheery, ultimately inclusive atmosphere, the president – played by Lynda Carter! – offers amnesty to off-worlders.

Kara’s adoption by the Danvers family has brought up issues related to adoption, particularly its effect on siblings. While all of the Danverses were tasked by Superman with keeping Kara Zor-El secret and safe, the responsibility fell even harder on big sister Alex. But the show also allows itself to think through Kara’s own survivor’s guilt, her own handling of her Kryptonian family’s legacy through her mother and aunt – the jailor and organizer of a xenoweapon, and the terrorist looking to rebuild Krypton on Earth, respectively.

Through Kara and James Olsen, who is recast as a black man, the show also did not skirt around gender and race issues. When Kara worked through her anger problems in the episode “Red Faced,” both she and James bond over living in a society that prohibits them from expressing that anger because they are female, or black. And the climax of the episode comes in Supergirl realizes that her emotion also is a superpower, as her anger is channeled into her heat vision. Which always looks like it hurts a lot.

While all of that would be enough for any show to tackle, Supergirl didn’t stop there. In Alex Danvers, the show has turned out the most authentic, realistic coming-out story I’ve ever seen. The nonlinear progress of her coming out, the stuffing-down of attractions that ruined a friendship in childhood, the wild energy of realization, Maggie’s apprehension of being the experienced one and de-facto guide to Alex’s transition, all feel deeply personal.

But what sends it over the top is how this fundamental aspect to Alex’s life now is interacting with the other things that make her who she is. Just in this week’s episode, Alex nearly drives Maggie away again because of her protectiveness of Kara and inability to compartmentalize her feelings, once it is discovered that Supergirl is missing on another planet.

Furthermore, Supergirl even shows interest in intersectionality; that is, where the issues of one class meet with the issues of another. Maggie Sawyer, a longtime DC character who also is openly gay, entered the show in season two, but her race was changed to a Latina. The character’s experience as a gay woman of color, adopted by a Nebraska family, color her affinity with the alien community. After all, they too know about hiding who they are for the sake of a prejudiced society.

This rich complexity of identity extends to J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. The last Green Martian, a victim of genocide, is accidentally brought to Earth. He assumes the identity of alien-hating secret agent Hank Henshaw, also recast as a black man. Not only does J’onn have to learn how to be a human, he also learns what it means to be a black one, living a double consciousness under double bigotries.

Supergirl also has tackled prejudice through Kara’s distrust of Mon-El because he is from the planet Daxam, while setting up some true moral differences between Kryptonian and Daxamite cultures. And  Supergirl at least has flirted the problems in working alongside a black-ops government organization in the DEO better than how The Flash keeps a secret prison in S.T.A.R. Labs that nobody questions.

Like many a great story from her more famous cousin, Supergirl shines when she shows how her great strength comes from her heart more than her force. In “Human for a Day,” a powerless Supergirl stands in front of a loaded gun with only the power of her convictions, to ask him to choose a different path. “We choose who we want to be. And I know you’re gonna choose to be a better man.”

It was Supergirl’s own moment of when her cousin talked a suicidal girl off a ledge in All Star Superman #10. The moment the only power that works is compassion.

I could use some more compassion these days. And the same resolve and resilience as a pussy made of steel.

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