'Supergirl' has a diminutive name but could have a big impact on diversity

The new CBS TV series highlights the difficulties of working with old properties in a modern world

In the pilot episode of "Supergirl," CBS deftly highlighted the glaring issue of its main character’s anachronistic name, choosing none other than Ally McBeal (née Calista Flockhart) to argue for the defense.

"What do you think is so bad about ‘girl?’ Huh? I'm a girl. And your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot and smart," says Flockhart as Cat Grant, founder and owner of the eponymous media conglomerate CatCo. "So if you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn't the real problem you?"

Certainly, CBS isn’t the first to embrace the "girl" moniker. The Girl Scouts have long been at the vanguard of women’s empowerment, the Always "Like a Girl" campaign won the first Glass Lion at Cannes this year and a generation of children grew up watching the Powerpuff Girls kick butt.

The Super Girl Scouts of Oklahoma dropped by National City today... #girlscouts

A photo posted by Melissa Benoist (@melissabenoist) on

But the way CBS chose to handle the inevitable questions about "Supergirl" exemplifies a problem many companies face when dealing with comic book media — a growing challenge in our comics-saturated culture. Namely, how does one reflect the diversity and values of the audience while remaining true to source material that is often decades behind the times?

"We sort of wanted to have a conversation with our characters that we believed that the audience would be having, and that others might be having in terms of saying, ‘Well, she’s an adult woman  —  why isn’t it called Superwoman?’" executive producer Andrew Kreisberg said in a conference call after the pilot aired. "The temptation is there by executives to alter things that are, I think, just part of the DNA of what was so great about the comic book, and so we really wanted to be protective about the name of the show."

It’s a name with plenty of history. Supergirl was introduced in 1959 as part of a pattern of young sidekicks to established male superheroes. Power Girl — an alternate universe version of Supergirl known for her particularly revealing costume — appeared in 1976. Janet van Dyne was a founding member of the Avengers in 1963, and T’Challa debuted as Black Panther in 1966.

So historically, comics properties haven’t been very diverse, and that’s reflected in present-day casting choices. Batman and Superman are both played by white men, as are five of the six original Marvel Cinematic Universe Avengers. "It’s still a white, middle-class, cisgender world in comics, but there has been some improvement," said Alyson Buckman, an associate professor at California State University, Sacramento who teaches pop culture and multiculturalism and edited the book "Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Confounding Purpose, Confusing Identity."

But what is a studio or a TV network to do?

In most cases, they simply run with it. Hollywood is pretty white anyway (all 20 of the 2015 Oscar acting nominations went to white actors), and diverse casting changes can sometimes backfire. A black Batman, for example, might justifiably be viewed as pandering, but less-than-iconic characters have proven to be more malleable. "Supergirl" recasts red-haired, freckle-faced cub photographer Jimmy Olsen as award-winning African-American photojournalist James Olsen. "It just kind of goes to show you that all things are possible, that we can reimagine what our great-grandfathers didn't," Mehcad Brooks, who plays the updated Olsen, told IGN at San Diego Comic-Con this summer. Black British actor Idris Elba portrays Heimdall the Asgardian (aliens based on the ancient Norse gods) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In CBS’ case, they already had a popular female character with a difficult publication history (at one point, the comics simply wrote her out of existence) and a child’s name. Fans would have resisted a name change for someone so well-known that hadn’t already been telegraphed in the comics. Yet it would have pushed the bounds of believability to have the show’s millennial characters refrain from commenting on the old-fashioned name. The only choice CBS had was to call it out and explain it away. Results were mixed.

"I reacted to the ‘Supergirl’ conversation in the pilot as a post-feminist moment: we’re all just girls here!" Buckman said. "Calling a woman over the age of 18 ‘girl’ is insulting, though they’re not going to change the name." While Buckman understands the reasoning behind that decision, she said the negative consequences remain. "Clark Kent gets to be a ‘man,’ while his cousin remains infantilized due to her gender."

That post-feminist feeling was intentional. "In today's world it kind of doesn't matter that she's female. She's just a powerful, incredible person," said executive producer Ali Adler at New York Comic-Con last month. "If we were to have a female president, we'd talk about her gender first, but ultimately we're going to see her as the president, and I think that's the same thing with Supergirl. She just is an incredible, strong, brave, smart ass-kicker, and so it's great that she's female, but she's really just getting the bad guy every week."

Still, "Supergirl" does get credit for being more diverse than most shows. "It’s unusual to have four powerful women: the two Danvers women, Supergirl’s aunt and the newspaper boss," Buckman added. "I also like that they made Jimmy/James Olsen into a black man who is smart and insightful."

An alternative to reimagining characters is to elevate lesser-known but diverse characters to prominence. In 2011, DC Comics made Cyborg — a black athlete turned human/machine hybrid after a serious accident — a founding member of the Justice League, making him a close colleague of the holy trinity of comics: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. War Machine, Falcon and Scarlet Witch are now full-fledged Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel also took the bit character Peggy Carter and fleshed her out as a fully capable secret agent. After a starring role in "Captain America: The First Avenger," the character (as well as the actress, Hayley Atwell) went on to headline her own series. "I’ve really enjoyed ‘Agent Carter,’" Buckman said of that show. "She’s smart, resourceful, and physically capable."

Of course, even when minority characters appear in comics, they’re not always represented well. Consider the kerfuffle over "Supergirl" star Melissa Benoist’s costume. No exposed midriff, dark tights — a far cry from the more traditional cheerleader outfit Kara Zor-El usually sports. One of the first TV-to-comics characters was Joker-sidekick Harley Quinn, who first appeared on "Batman: The Animated Series" in the 1990s, but she’s become more a caricature and sex object than relatable woman. Still, the character is very popular, and Margot Robbie could bring depth to the role in the upcoming 2016 film "Suicide Squad."

The other, more difficult, more expensive option is to create new, more diverse characters. But that requires the will to invest in creative processes that value new and different viewpoints. There’s evidence that it pays off, in time. The superpowered private investigator Jessica Jones first appeared in comics in 2001, but the much-anticipated Marvel series debuts on Netflix later this month.

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