‘Supergirl’, ‘Batwoman’, and the False Feminism of Replacement

I’ve seen a ton of comments about how the Supergirl movie that’s supposedly in development won’t work without Clark, and they frustrate me a lot, because I both agree with the idea that Kara and Clark need and play off each other in interesting ways and disagree with the idea that either of them is necessary for the other to have a story. Here’s the thing: as confused as her backstory is and as many different versions of her there are, Supergirl is not nor will she ever be Batgirl. It was Batgirl that was inspired by Batman, Batgirl who might have been a hero in a world without Batman, but certainly not one that went by a bat theme, Batgirl whose story cannot exist without Batman preceding her. That same principle doesn’t apply to Supergirl and Superman. Supergirl doesn’t need Superman to exist. He doesn’t matter for her origin story. The symbol is part of her family just as much as his. So a Supergirl movie can most certainly exist without needing Clark there as a character for Kara to look up to and want to emulate. The problem that actually exists is if any story tries to replace Clark with Kara because they’re both Supers. That’s a problem because they’re different people that fill different roles, their stories aren’t interchangeable, and whenever people try to substitute her in for him, they’ll get a pale imitation. That’s a large part of what’s wrong with the show.

Comics Kara Zor El knew both that she was Kryptonian and what it meant to be Kryptonian because she spent more of her life on Krypton than on Earth! She was a genius by the standards of this hugely technologically advanced society that was on track to join the science guild. She was a teenager that had lost everything she knew – her planet, her species, her culture – and landed on a planet so different from her own that she had to learn everything from scratch. What did the Supergirl show do with that? Why, it completely ignored her scientific background, added a bunch of original characters to give the scientific knowledge to so they could erase her intelligence, and aged her up so they could make her a reporter for no actual reason.

I stopped watching the show somewhere in season two. But from what I remember, this erasing of Kara’s scientific background was a large part of the reason why it felt like CW Kara was pretty much just female Clark, rather than actually Kara. She has his job. She has the same personality. There’s very little that distinguishes her as Kara. And since they aged her up, there’s not even any reason for her to be called Supergirl. So much of her show-verse background was so ill-conceived, it ended up seeming like the people responsible for the show didn’t actually want to be making a show about Kara.

Batwoman looks like it’s going to be similar. As controversial an opinion as this might be, Kate is not a member of the Batfamily in the comics. She’s Bruce’s cousin, sure, but that does not mean they were ever close (for all that it was revealed that she comforted him at his parents’ funeral, that closeness had never been brought up before or since). She operates alone, with her own supporting cast and own villains. She didn’t even know Bruce was Batman. She is absolutely not the person Bruce calls when he needs help or that takes responsibility for Gotham in his absence. But in the show, she’s apparently going to be facing off against multiple Batman villains, including Thomas Elliot – you know, the guy whose whole schtick revolves around being obsessed with Bruce.

I’ve seen attempts at justifying this by saying things like, “of course Bruce’s villains didn’t just leave when he vanished! It makes sense with the premise of the show that she’s fighting them!” To that, I kind of have to say…well, yeah! That’s the problem! This isn’t a Batwoman show! They’re making her replacement Batman, and there’s frankly no point in doing that. Taking an existing character and turning her into female Batman defeats the purpose. Doing that will always get you a pale imitation of a character, not a real one. With Kate, it ends up seeming even worse than with Kara. With Kara, the missteps and verging into Clark territory come across as accidental, as people that did genuinely want to write about Kara, but didn’t spend much time considering what makes her unique. The Batwoman writers – judging by what we know about the show before the release – aren’t actually interested in Kate. They like the bat image, they like the idea of tapping into the idea of feminism as a part of the cultural zeitgeist rather than actual feminist themes, they like Gotham. Kate as Kate? Not so much.

There was a time in comics where the next generation was leading the Justice League. Dick was Batman. Donna and Kara had replaced Diana and Clark respectively. And you know what? It most certainly wasn’t that they were just acting as the symbols, because what mattered was the Dick, Donna, and Kara of it. It was a very deliberate writing choice to have a Bat, a Wonder, and a Super on the team. It was an even more deliberate choice to have them succeed by being themselves. That was a cool exploration of what it means to step up to fill your mentor’s shoes, to represent a symbol that means a lot to a lot of people, and it worked as it did because it let characters that had an important relationship with their predecessors and the symbols they wore embrace those symbols on their own terms. None of that holds true for Kate.

Kara and Kate are both amazing characters with a lot to love about them. Kara has decades of deeply, deeply confusing material that can be pulled from, including a different but just as valid understanding of what the symbol she wears means to her. Kate doesn’t have as much history or as many stories, but she has her own set of villains and a supporting cast and a rich backstory featuring a healthy amount of her own motivation that has nothing to do with Gotham as a city or bats as a specific motif. Those are all things that can be drawn upon to create great stories about women becoming heroes. Having Kate and Kara replace Clark and Bruce, though? That doesn’t a great story make. That fails to understand who these characters are and pretends as if the only thing separating Superman from Supergirl or Batman from Batwoman is gender. That’s untrue and does an enormous disservice to all four characters. Writers…you can do better than that.

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