Friday, October 6, 2017

Supergirl: A Transgender Girl's Thoughts

Like I think a growing number of Americans, I'm kind of tired of superheroes. It seems like there's way too many TV shows and movies and  they're all pretty formulaic. But, I had run out of shows to watch, and I thought I'd give the CW's Supergirl series a try. At first, I thought it was a bit of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer wannabe (BtVS is one of my absolute favorite shows ever). But the performances on Supergirl were good, especially Melissa Benoist who you could just tell was having a ton of fun with the role, so I kept watching. There's no more Buffy after all, so even a watered down version was worth sticking with. Needless to say, I was wrong and I got hooked pretty quickly. And now Supergirl is a show I love. It's brought me to tears many times with its amazing portrayals of strong women. 

The biggest reason that I love this show is that it has used its story lines as metaphors to discuss important social issues like the refugee crisis, immigration, xenophobia, and of course, LGBTQ rights. With the third season of the show coming out soon, I thought this would a good time to discuss how I think Supergirl touches on the transgender experience in ways that really resonated me with me, even if that wasn't necessarily the intention of the writers. 

In the first episode we meet mild-mannered executive assistant Kara Danvers. The only thing is that Kara has a secret that she can't tell anyone. No, she's not transgender. She's actually an alien from the planet Krypton. Unlike her famous cousin, she's not out as who she really is. For her whole life, Kara has had to hide who she really is. But, when a plane carrying her sister threatens to crash, Kara realizes that she can no longer hide her true self from the world.

We then see Kara struggle to find the courage to come out to friends and coworkers. We see how being her real self changes her relationships with those in her life. She's overjoyed to be able to come out to her best friend Winn, but worries about what will happen if she comes out to her crush James or her boss Ms. Grant. Kara's own sister thinks it's a bad idea to come out, that people will judge her or that she won't be safe.

Kara struggles to accept who is she really is and to understand what that means for her identity. When her loved ones tell her hide her true identity, when the world seems to hate her for who she is, we see Kara work to meet every challenge with a smile.

As a transgender woman, Kara's story in the first few season one episodes really resonated with me. When Kara felt the joy of coming out and being her real self with her friends, that reminded me of the happiness I felt coming out transgender to my friends, or being able to hang out and let people see the real me. And yes, I know the fear and worry of having to hide who you are. If my boss finds out will I lose my job? If my significant other finds out will they dump me?

And of course, there's also something else that a lot of non-LGBT people don't see. Despite the challenges in our lives, we are often expected to face them with a smile. And that isn't always easy.

Later in season two, Kara's friend Winn began dating Lyra, an alien woman. After they hook up the first time, Lyra is worried that Winn isn't really interested in her a person, just as an experience. Apparently a lot of guys in the show's universe like to hook up with an alien girl just once as a fetish but aren't actually interested in treating them like equals. It reminded me of the guys in our universe who are quite affectionately called "tranny chasers." And I've known of many transgirls who have worried about being treated as an object or check mark on a list rather than as a human being. Thankfully Winn was not that kind of guy and actually liked Lyra as an equal.

With the story of Kara’s sister Alex, Supergirl gave viewers the most realistic coming out story arc I've ever seen. Alex develops feelings for another woman Maggie. And while Alex is pretty sure she knows she likes Maggie, she also isn't really sure what liking Maggie would mean for her life.

My heart broke watching Alex explain to Maggie how she had never really liked dating or being intimate with men and thought that that was just how she was. Slowly, we see Alex come to terms with her own feelings. As Alex comes out, we see how coming out means risking rejection from important people in our lives, be they romantic partners, family members or others. Actor Chyler Leigh did such a great job that almost every other scene in this story arc brought me to tears.

What Supregirl really did correctly, and I think uniquely, was show a character who was confused. Too often, when a character comes out we see someone who absolutely knows they're gay and fully understands what that means. But for many LGBTQ people, coming out is a long, slow process that starts with confusion, and then proceeds to only more confusion.

When Alex comes out to her sister Kara, she seems to answer almost every one of Kara's questions with a "I don't know." Coming out doesn't come with a guide or a road map and neither do our identities. I grew up knowing I felt something, but without having the language to really be able to express what it meant to feel gender dysphoria or be transgender. If I would have honestly answered the question "Are you gay?" I would have had to say "I don't know." Figuring out who you are is a long and difficult process and I love that Supergirl showed how messy and difficult this process really can be.

Growing up in a marginalized group, finding positive media portrayals of your group can be nearly impossible. In that vacuum, metaphors can become an important surrogate for a discussion on the struggles marginalized groups face. So I've always found transgender themes in music, or movies, or TV shows whether or not they were there on the surface. In Supergirl I found a show that I think really resonated with what I was feeling as a transgender woman. And I'm looking forward to seeing what the third season brings.

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