It’s a beautiful day. The sun is out, families are strolling around the river, everything seems quite normal until Ashayla Webster confidently strolls down from the city. Already in full costume people can’t seem to get enough of the cosplayer. Heads turn as we make our way around Perth’s Elizabeth Quay, parents whisper to their children that “Supergirl is here”, while the more brazen yell something out, none of which seems to bother her at all as we sit down for lunch. Ashayla is surprising to say the least, an ex-paramedic turned writer and social media consultant she has been doing cosplay for the past few years and gained quite the following, despite this though she is as down to Earth as they come. She happily orders anything that has chicken and pineapple as we start to discuss the merits of comic book TV shows, movies, and the idea of “geek” in general. It’s not long until it becomes clear that Ashayla is someone who cares a great deal about the roles women play in all of this and the effect that has on audiences in general. For that reason we decided to skip the interview and give the floor to Ashayla to talk about something close to her heart, Supergirl.
I’ve never been a huge Superman fan, in fact, when I was first introduced to comics, I downright disliked the guy. The draw of superheroes, to me, is their dichotic natures. They’re badass crime fighting heroes who risk their lives to save others, but they’re deeply flawed people. They’re running from something, hiding from something, battling their demons and consciences and often struggling to live a normal life. I can relate to that. Superman was different though. He was the all-American boy, ray of sunshine and woefully free of so much of the turmoil others faced. In other words, he was boring. His cousin on the other hand, was much more my speed.
Supergirl was everything Superman was and more. Whilst she stood for hope, peace and love, she had a temper and a darkness to her. Unlike Superman, she didn’t grow up on planet Earth, she’d lived a different life before arriving. Here was a young woman, already having to deal with the mess that is puberty, thrust into another world and culture after watching her planet die. At such a young age, she was given a mission of utmost importance, a mission that should never fall to a child; protect your family…only to arrive in another time and find her task redundant. She had lost everything, her home, her family, her life, her mission and she found herself in an entirely foreign realm. To top it all off, suddenly she has super powers. She had to learn to live as a human and hide her true identity as a Kryptonian and super powered teen. As Executive Producer of the Supergirl television show, Sarah Schechter, said: “I still maintain there’s nothing more frightening or terrifying in the whole universe than being a 13-year-old girl. Period. So, for her to have to go that and try to fit in, and in trying to fit in, she suppresses all the things that make her different.” I’d be an emotional wreck too.
When I heard they were bringing this dynamic and severely underrated character to the small screen in a new television series, this super-fan was excited. There was trepidation though. Would they treat such a developed and layered character with the respect she deserved, or would they turn her into what so many other female superheroes have been portrayed as? As fluffy cheesecake pinups, truly only serving the purpose of looking good. Would they skimpify her outfit and simply not take her seriously because she’s not the big-name hero that Superman is? Would the show be something worth watching and not a filler to meet ‘diversity requirements’? All of this filled my mind as I sat down to watch the first episode…and all of it was washed away by the end.
Supergirl may be a bit blatant in its messages, but I truly believe this is not a show directed to the adult male geek population. It’s directed to women and, most importantly, it’s pitched to young women. It’s the kind of show a mother can watch with her daughter and both can enjoy. It’s a show about strong women, be they the hero or the villain. They handle situations as women so often do, by planning, by deliberation and assessing strengths and weaknesses, not by running in guns blazing. Despite its bright and airy feel, the show hits some deep cultural topics, such as racial discrimination and registration laws.
It’s a show that truly shakes the conventions of the superhero genre and does so unapologetically. Instead of tiptoeing around the feminist nature of the show, it tackles the topics of equality and women in authority head on. Supergirl isn’t treated cinema graphically like a female character, she’s treated like a male lead. This is evident in the fact that the show literally does not pull punches; in many shows, when a woman is being beaten, the camera pans away, but in Supergirl it doesn’t. As Schechter put it, “I think if a female kicking ass makes you uncomfortable, it’s a good opportunity for you to look at yourself.” The same can be said by the relationships of the female characters. They’re debates and differences aren’t petty, they aren’t about men and they’re not about competing with each other, if they’re fighting, they’re fighting over moral and philosophical differences.
It’s not just Supergirl breaking down the barriers either, the entire supporting cast plays a role. There’s James Olsen, a six foot plus black man, played by Mehcad Brooks, who is trying to prove he’s more than just Superman’s friend, being saved by Supergirl and entering his own journey of growth. There’s Kara’s sister, Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), attempting to protect the world from alien threat, without superpowers, whilst battling with her sexuality, societal norms and her feelings for her adoptive sister. There’s the sassy and sarcastic Cat Grant, played by Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame, reminding us that we are women, hear us roar. And there are the badass ass villains, all with different personalities and goals, with two of particular note being Queen Rhea (Teri Hatcher) and Lillian Luthor (Brend Strong), showing a different side to motherhood. Nerdist’s Carly Lane best covered this particular breed of villain: “the combination of protective maternal instincts and the need to act in what they believe to be their children’s best interests allows for motives that are more complex than the need to create chaos, and characters like Lillian Luthor and Queen Rhea of Daxam are proof that older women can be just as much forces to be reckoned with as some of the most terrifying baddies around.”
There are certainly those within the geek community who see this show as pandering and childish, for others it just makes them uncomfortable, but for me, I see the character I wish I had growing up. Today I see young girls running around with Supergirl dolls, I see them in Supergirl t-shirts and dresses and donning capes, proclaiming themselves heroes, because they see someone they can identify with doing just that. They see a woman battling evil and saving the world and they think, I can do that too. Whether I enjoyed the show or not, this is the outcome that matters the most to me. As Cat Grant so elegantly put it, “if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”
Ashayla Webster is a Perth based cosplayer/volunteer/model/pineapple queen.