Since its premiere last October, Supergirl has become a welcome addition to the Arrowverse and proven itself as a show that — though still finding its narrative footing at times — has incredible heart and nuanced characters. After season 1 introduced us to Kara’s world and its extraordinary inhabitants, season 2 is now taking some time to tell us more about those close to Supergirl. Most notably, Alex Danvers, Kara’s adoptive sister, recently received a character upgrade when the show revealed that Alex’s lack of a personal life wasn’t simply a matter of one-dimensional workaholism, but a byproduct of a larger internal battle.
Though fans of the show knew Alex (an original character created for the show and thus absent from the Supergirl comics) as a hard-working operative for the DEO, a government agency that monitors alien activity, her lack of social life was a glaring omission from the show’s narrative. Though an admitted perfectionist with some childhood hang-ups, Alex is otherwise a sensitive, caring woman, as evidenced by her multiple stints as Kara’s most reliable support system. Her lack of any kind of love life, then, just didn’t add up — that is, until Alex connected the dots herself in the season 2 episode, “Changing.”
When Alex realized her feelings for her gay friend Maggie Sawyer at the tail end of episode 5, fans were wondering how long they’d have to wait for developments on that subplot, and confirmation of Alex’s own LGBT identity. Luckily, a heartfelt exploration of Alex’s inner struggle came along just one week later, when she admitted her feelings to Maggie and came out to Kara, the latter of which led to some deeply moving and revelatory conversations between the sisters.
As an adult coming out later in life and realizing how her feelings for women have subtly colored her past, Alex’s narrative is a uniquely honest and realistic portrayal of coming out. This character development is not only important because of how it depicts the coming out process, but also because Alex herself represents a major step forward in LGBT storytelling on TV overall. Alex’s coming out narrative subverts a number of tired on-screen LGBT tropes, instead promoting a realistic, yet little-heard narrative for a larger audience.
Cognizant sci-fi/fantasy fans are undoubtedly aware of the Bury Your Gays trope and the surrounding discussion. This unfortunate trend, which came into public consciousness this year after The 100 controversially killed off its lesbian protagonist, Lexa, has been a fixture of on-screen LGBT representation for decades. The Bury Your Gays trope occurs when a TV show or film kills off their (often beloved) LGBT characters, usually for shock value. While it could be countered that all sorts of characters are killed off for shock value on TV – death itself being the ultimate storytelling trope – the statistics show that the grim reaper (as written on TV) has a disproportionate preference for LGBT women.
A study of TV character deaths in the 2015′-16 season by Vox found that approximately 10% of all deaths were LGBT female characters, despite the fact that they make up less than 2% of all characters on TV. Moreover, because there are relatively few LGBT characters on TV, the death of any one of those characters has a proportionally greater impact on representation; a recent report by GLAAD found that, in 2016, the number of lesbian characters on broadcast TV had been almost halved compared to the year before – from 33% of all LGBT characters down to 17%.
Backlash to the Bury Your Gays trope has been raging ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer broke boundaries by featuring lesbian couple Willow and Tara — and then unceremoniously killed off Tara. Other oft-discussed examples include Battlestar Galactica (for killing Captain Helena Cain), House of Cards (Rachel Posner), The Walking Dead (Lizzie and Denise), and Supernatural (Charlie).
Thankfully, Supergirl seems destined to defy this all-too-common trope. Executive producer Andrew Kreisberg went on record to denounce its relevance to Alex’s story, saying, “Well, [Alex and Maggie are] not dying, either of them, so we’re really not thinking about that right now.” LGBT-specificity aside, killing off Alex would be a great disservice to Supergirl, who has thus far been treated less like a sidekick and more like her own character. Alex regularly carries her own subplots, and — because of the character’s perfectionist nature — actually tries not to rely on Kara, something that was discussed frankly during her coming out arc.
Most of all, though, Bury Your Gays seems inappropriate for a show that would take the time and care to produce a coming out narrative as thoughtful as Alex’s. While any character coming out in a beloved TV show is celebration-worthy, many LGBT fans have recognized and appreciated Alex’s arc for its nuance and subtlety. Though Maggie is the driving force behind Alex’s realization, the discussions she has with both Maggie and Kara about her feelings reveal a deeper story. Alex admits feelings she had — and mishandled — for her best friend in high school, and says she grew up internalizing her distaste for heterosexual dating as a kind of personal failing.
Though simple by themselves, these details about Alex paint a richer picture of her experiences as a gay character, especially one coming out later in life. Alex was never actively suppressing her attraction for women, and she has no simplistic “born this way” origin story. Rather, in a world dominated by heterosexual romance, she just never saw being gay as a viable option. The unique social pressure that demands women be heterosexual (and thus sexually available to men), leads to a real-world phenomenon not unlike Alex’s fictionalized experiences. The theory of compulsory heterosexuality, popularized by essayist Adrienne Rich in the late 1980s, supports the idea that gay people, especially gay women, can subconsciously deny their same-sex attraction without realizing what they are doing.
It’s important that a mainstream show like Supergirl has such a thoughtful depiction of coming out, as Alex’s story can resonate with so many LGBT fans who have yet to see their own stories represented on screen. Even other characters’ reactions to Alex’s coming out represent skillful storytelling. Rather than being universally accepted or rejected by those she comes out to, Alex faces personal hardships — misunderstandings with her sister, and romantic rejection — as a result of admitting her feelings. In canonically establishing an LGBT character, the show also works to undo its own borderline-insensitive treatment of the LGBT experience: namely, the show’s assertion (via Kara) that telling people you’re an alien is somehow comparable to coming out as a lesbian.
It’s no surprise to see Supergirl handle a coming out narrative this well, though, as the show has tackled a number of political issues since its inception without sacrificing the overall narrative or tone. Between taking a decidedly pro-immigration and environmentalist stance, electing Lynda Carter as its fictional female president, acknowledging the different ways in which the public receives Superman and Supergirl, and overall celebrating positive female relationships of all kinds, the moral ethos of Supergirl has always been decidedly liberal. However, given The CW’s track record with progressive original programming like My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin, plus the LGBT characters featured in fellow DCEU TV shows The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, it’s nice to see that Supergirl isn’t alone in its artful breakthroughs.
In the words of Supergirl herself, “Change is good, when you finally become who you were meant to be.” So far, this addition to Supergirl‘s narrative has proven to be nothing but positive. Though Alex had previously enjoyed the rare privilege of being a female character without a romantic subplot, her new evolution does not tie her down to romance so much as it develops her through a romantic lens. It looks like fans are in for more of the same action-packed Danvers escapades, but now with some heartfelt pauses thrown in for good measure: tonight’s episode, for instance, will see Alex struggling to come out to her mother. Supergirl has proven itself capable of accurately depicting the coming out process, resistant to the idea of killing off its gay characters, and eager to continue promoting progressive themes.
Really, all LGBT fans can ask for is more of this honest, groundbreaking storytelling — which will come next in the form of a Kara/Lena romance, if Greg Berlanti really has been reading my dream journal.