Few TV shows in the modern era attempt to truly divorce themselves from current events and reality – even fantasy series Game of Thrones has found cause to make a topical reference here and there (evil King Joffrey muses about a desire to criminalize homosexuality) while popular children’s cartoons routinely make the case for certain causes (Steven Universe is built on a foundation of LGBTQ themes, gender-fluid protagonists and nontraditional families). But keeping pace with real world events can come at a price – namely, when reality takes a sudden turn away from the direction showrunners were making their plans around.
Some background: When Supergirl began its second season, it did so by kicking off a series of storylines that drew explicit parallels both to then-current hot button political issues and prominent public figures in the real world. The main running thematic subplot of the season has been the cultural and legal arguments flaring up over the issue of ongoing immigration to Earth by various alien species, with the main character (and her more famous cousin) being aliens themselves and our heroine’s partnership (both professional and familial, through her sister Alex) with the D.E.O. – a government agency that monitors alien activity.
The storyline was, rather decisively, not subtle at all about making an explicit connection between this “alien immigrant” scenario and the very real controversies involving immigration laws, border security and refugee-asylum issues that were dominating much of the political discussion, amid what was also the then-ongoing United States presidential election. Supergirl came out hard in support of her fellow immigrants to Earth, Detective Maggie Sawyer compared the plight of discriminated aliens to her own experiences growing up as a “not white, not straight” teenager in the Midwest, and Superman himself chided the D.E.O. for keeping a supply of Kryptonite onhand “just in case.” On the other side, CADMUS – an alien-hating paramilitary organization led by Lex Luthor’s mom – uses social media propaganda to rail against alien rights, stockpiles weapons, and tells “normal” citizens that they’ve got every right to be paranoid about a changing population.
But no political reference was more explicit (or explicitly telegraphed) than Lynda Carter’s role as Olivia Marsden, the recently-elected (in Supergirl-Universe continuity) first female President of The United States. Marsden is introduced having run on a platform that in part espoused equal rights for all including alien immigrants, and makes clear her plan to push for an amnesty citizenship for all aliens living in the U.S.. This position makes her a target for CADMUS-aligned villainy and an instant ally of Supergirl and company. Oh, she’s also seemingly an alien in disguise herself; though the full implications of that are yet unclear.
What is very clear, though, is that Marsden (whose name is believed to be a reference to Elizabeth Holloway-Marston and Olive Byrne, respectively the wife of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton-Marston and the couple’s purported mutual romantic partner; both regarded as key figures in the character’s creation in their own right) was very much a stand-in for then-Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton… and that the makers of Supergirl were very much planning on continuing their storyline under a Hillary Clinton presidency.
But, as you might have heard… that didn’t happen.
To say that the election of Donald Trump came as a surprise to most of the United States (indeed most of the world) would be an understatement; especially where the media and entertainment industry were concerned: Trump’s candidacy had been wracked by scandal and public outrage over controversial statements both past and present, and he’d polled solidly behind Clinton (despite controversies of her own) for much of the campaign. By some accounts, even Trump himself was surprised by his own victory. And while we don’t know exactly what Supergirl’s full plans were for their ersatz President Clinton, it now looks like the groundwork being laid was meant to set up a future that now looks a lot further removed from reality than they’d planned.
Not only does President Trump’s real-world presence highlight the fiction of Supergirl’s female-president storyline (Clinton’s campaign was heavily focused on the historical impact of a prospective female president, in a tone that was very much of a kind to Supergirl’s “This is our time!” brand of feminism); it renders the political angle of the Supergirl/Marsden relationship ever further removed from political reality than that – wherever it was meant to go. At the minimum, said relationship was at least starting from a place of Supergirl being aligned with a U.S. political leader who shared her views and goals, and much of the show’s other “issue” subplots were fixed in a similarly optimistic direction.
Yes, it’s most obvious in that President Trump ran a campaign widely characterized by his opponents as being overwhelmingly anti-immigrant, with appeals to economic-protectionism and a promise to build a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico – views that (whatever voters may think of them) Supergirl has unmistakably equated with the ideology of CADMUS – a villainous group that engages in everything from assassination to kidnapping to human experimentation. In Supergirl’s universe, CADMUS and those so aligned are depicted as a minority of troublemakers pitted against a government that opposes their views… and as of four days ago, while the subject is more “topical” than ever before, the TV superheroine version now represents a fully alternate reality moreso than a “parallel” one.
That’s not to suggest that Supergirl (or any similar series) is somehow required to reflect political realities in order to tell politically-themed storylines. But what’s both fascinating and awkward about this scenario is the degree to which it feels like the fact of a Trump presidency simply has to change at least the tone (if not the plans) for those storylines going forward. Superman-family stories aren’t generally about insurgency and rebellion – that’s kind of hard to do when your main characters are godlike superhumans who win most fights simply by virtue of showing up. The default worldview in the adventures of Kara Zor-El and/or her cousin from Kansas is typically an optimistic one, where the moral outlook of the heroes is positioned as both the correct and upward-ascendant state of the world – a presumed-decent status quo in which the heroes protect from troublemakers and evildoers who want to knock that order down.
A big part of what Supergirl rather openly (and, seemingly, very intentionally) shared with the Clinton campaign was an outlook “narrative” that held feminism, globalist/cosmopolitan diversity, and other so-called “social justice” causes as battles that had already been “won” – at least on a cultural level – and now had to be defended from an angry minority that wanted to see those victories reversed. In Supergirl, that angry minority is CADMUS, and they lose their fights on a semi-weekly basis. In reality, the views and movements CADMUS is framed as an analog to just pushed their candidate into the White House.
Whether you agreed or disagreed with that assessment of the U.S. cultural landscape from the Clinton camp, a defeat by the extreme-opposite policies and candidacy of Donald Trump complicates that narrative both in reality and in Supergirl. To use just one example: In Supergirl’s vision of American life, the main obstacle to Alex Danvers’ happiness and security in coming out as a lesbian to her friends and family have been her own insecurities; but in reality, Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence – one of the most staunchly anti-gay figures in U.S. politics – is now the second most powerful politician in the country.
Does this mean that Supergirl is obligated to change its tone (or it’s storylines) now that the real-world basis for a lot of its topical reference-points has undergone a substantive (and clearly unexpected) paradigm shift? Certainly not – and not just because it probably couldn’t if it wanted to: Supergirl (along with the bulk of The CW’s DC Extended Universe superhero lineup) has pointedly planted its flag as a proudly feminist, pro-diversity, pro-LGBTQ, globally-minded series aimed at the open-minded sensibilities of a Millennial target audience. Its heroes are diverse, forward-looking, and have earned devout fans not just based on their actions but what they represent: Supergirl the immigrant, Martian Manhunter the refugee, Alex the newly self-realized gay woman, Maggie the proudly LGBTQ/minority cop, James Olsen the black media boss fighting crime with technology,
Bottom line: Whatever becomes of the President Marsden storyline, Kara is probably not going to head into season 3 thinking “Y’know, maybe CADMUS has a point about kicking people like me off the planet.” And as if there was any lingering doubt about that, Supergirl actress Melissa Benoist recently took to social media to make her feelings on the incoming Trump Administration crystal-clear:
But if Supergirl and company are going to continue exploring these themes (and stumping for their attendant causes) in a meaningful way, it does mean that the tone and approach are probably going to have to change going forward. Whatever you thought of the specifics, the hopeful, victorious poise that put the story of Kara’s ascendancy so neatly in sync with the Clinton campaign’s was a perfect fit for a “traditional” Super-family storyline… but the immediate impact of Trump would indicate (at least) that it doesn’t precisely line up with the state of the world that potential viewers of either political stripe turned out to actually be living in.
If Supergirl wants to continue in its self-appointed role as a superhero vanguard of feminism, diversity and general forward-looking Millennial idealism in the age of President Trump, it’s going to have to offer those like-minded audiences more than optimistic cheerleading at their presumed inheritance of the cultural omnipresence. It’s going to have to offer to them a more difficult, less reflexively-optimistic vision of how to endure when the “other side” pushes back, gains ground or even works its way back into a position of authority – when you have to consider (correctly or not) the possibility that the people with real-world power to wield are diametrically opposed to ideas that may well define not just your politics but your personhood.
That’s easier said than done when your main character is (literally) as invulnerable as many such viewers were told they were supposed to feel (whether they believed it or not) growing up under an Obama presidency that cheerfully bathed the White House in rainbow lights to celebrate the legalization of Gay Marriage – Benoist’s interpretation of Kara Zor-el is many things, but an underdog isn’t one of them. But giving hope to people who feel alone and overwhelmed by forces too big to conceive, let alone resist, is exactly what DC’s flagship heroes (or, in this case, their spunky upstart cousins) were created to do.
In other words: This looks like a job for Supergirl.