Representation is Not Enough
Representation matters. I see that phrase a lot: in reviews, in memoirs, on twitter and beyond. After having seen Wonder Woman and The CW’s Supergirl, I am convinced more than ever of the truth behind that statement—but it’s not enough.
I didn’t read superhero comic books as a kid, nor do I go out of my way to see films about Batman or Iron Man (not that I’d have to go too far—Marvel movies are everywhere). I have nothing against them, I just don’t tend to relate to them; I see The Hulk on screen and feel annoyed at the redundancy more than I do inspired. However, when I watch Supergirl and Wonder Woman, I feel empowered. Not just because there are women on screen, but because there are badass, interesting women on screen. We don’t purely need representation, we need good representation, and in the world of television and film, there is a huge difference.
Unfortunately, many tv series and movies simply portray stereotypes of women, particularly when it comes to queer women. Some have avoided doing so, one of which is Supergirl. The two main characters, Kara and Alex Danvers, are complicated, intelligent, strong and inspiring. They are human. (Actually Kara is Kryptonian, but that’s besides the point). In season two, Kara’s sister Alex realizes she is gay and comes out to her friends and family. When Alex comes out to Kara, Kara says, “I know how it feels to keep a part of yourself shut off, to keep it inside. And I know how lonely that can make you feel. But Alex, you are not alone.” I watched this at the age of 17, after I’d already come out, and it brought tears to my eyes. I imagined a young girl watching the episode and thinking, “I am not alone. Supergirl’s sister is gay and she is amazing, I can be too.” Perhaps this thinking is a bit simplistic, but the reality is that what we see on our screens affects how we feel about ourselves and others.
Characters’ sexualities often defines them, or in the case of many bisexual characters, encourages bad behavior. In Supergirl, Alex’s coming out story is a central storyline and is handled with care, but her newfound identity does not define her. Alex’s character has already developed quite a bit before we even learn about her orientation, and although it is a big part of who she is, it is not all she is. Alex is a caring, stubborn and loyal alien-hunter who kicks ass on the daily. Her gayness is not her only identity, but it’s not an afterthought either.
Many recent tv shows and movies represent women well, but we still have a long way to go. For now, we can look to Wonder Woman and Supergirl for examples of good representation in the world of superheros. They make me (and presumably others) want to own my power and success, train and get strong, and more than anything else, be myself. There is enormous power behind the creation of entertainment, and when it is put to good use, movies and television shows can have a widespread, positive effect.