Supergirl, Superman, and Kryptonian Identity

Warning: Spoilers below for Supergirl seasons 1–4, including the Elseworlds crossover episodes!

If you had asked me who my favorite superhero was three years ago, I would have answered without hesitation, “Superman.” When people complained that the man of steel is “too overpowered,” I would encourage them to look beyond his superpowers if they truly wanted to appreciate him. Integral to his story is an immigrant narrative about belonging and identity. To me, Superman had potential to be radically reimagined as a character who stood against oppression and injustice, no matter who perpetrated it. It seemed possible to imagine an iteration of the character where he wasn’t a symbol of U.S. nationalism, but rather an outsider who stood up for all of humankind, most especially the marginalized and downtrodden.

Many commentators have pointed out that Superman can serve as an allegory for undocumented immigrants (watch Hari Kondabolu’s brilliant video about that here). An episode on Smallvilleaddressed this directly when Clark helps an undocumented Mexican immigrant teen. At one point, Clark declares to his Earth-mom, Martha, that he himself is an “illegal alien.” The moment in the show was certainly a subversive one. Not only did it challenge Clark/Superman’s typical “boy scout” image, it also gave us a glimpse of who Superman could be if he was detached from his patriotic allegiance to the U.S. nation-state. Often times, Superman is described as representing “the best in all of us,” but what complicates this characterization is the contradictory forces of being a “good person” and aligning one’s self with a country that perpetuates oppression. Black Panther touched upon this struggle when T’Chaka tells his son T’Challa, “You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”

As compelling as the aforementioned episode of Smallville was, what remained disappointing about the film and TV depictions of Superman is that any exploration of an immigrant allegory relied on liberal ideas of patriotism and national identity. In other words, the underlying theme with Superman seemed to be more about assimilation than anything. One can draw parallels between Superman’s relationship with his Kryptonian heritage and racial/ethnic identity among people of color in the U.S. As entertainment blogger/journalist Monique Jones writes:

Superman exhibits a wrestle with the Model Minority stereotype… [H]e is an immigrant who can go unnoticed, in a sense, in white society. Because he has the ability to do that, it’s assumed that Superman will always play by the rules and uphold the ladder of racial privilege.

Furthermore, she argues that Superman’s “journey is very much one of a person who slowly becomes much more empowered by their ancestral history.” I’ve been longing to see a depiction of Superman that reflects this statement for a long time, and while there are moments where we’ve seen him be more embracing of his Kryptonian heritage, I’ve felt that it’s always his Americanness that emerges as the dominant identity. Zack Snyder took this even further in 2013’s Man of Steel where Superman willfully refuses to save anything remaining of his homeworld of Krypton. In the scene (that I continue to dread), Zod pleads with Superman to not destroy the ship because it carries the ability to recreate Krypton. Superman’s eyes light up red and he bellows, almost demonically, “Krypton had its chance!” With his teeth gritting, he screams and shoots laser beams into the ship.

If we understand assimilation as a violent process that is detrimental to one’s psychological well-being, as French-Algerian revolutionary scholar and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argued, then we can acknowledge the larger implications for Superman’s violent response to Zod. As psychologist Chi-Ah Chun and sociologist Jung Min Choi attest, assimilation not only involves people of color internalizing “norms that undermine their identities and histories,” but it also leads to them “fleeing from themselves.” In the powerful documentary, Color of Fear, a Black male participant, Victor Lewis, describes the violence of assimilation into U.S. society:

There is no American ethnicity. You have to throw away your ethnicity to become American. That’s what it means. You give up who you are to become American. And you can pretend that it’s ok because you’re white. When we give up who we are to become American, we know that we’re dying from it.

When applying this framework of assimilation to Superman, a character who is from another planet and adopts Earth as his new home, his destruction of Zod’s ship in Man of Steel symbolizes violent severance of one’s roots. In order to become an Earthling (which is basically code for “American” in the larger narrative), he must destroy the Kryptonian within. Historically, we have seen how assimilation played an integral role in cultural genocide against Indigenous Peoples, specifically through the U.S. boarding school system where it was instructed to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

It wasn’t until I watched the Supergirl TV show when I realized that her character is much closer thematically and politically to how I wished Superman was. While it definitely doesn’t take a radical leftist approach to her character, there are aspects of the show that I believe are worth engaging with.

For starters, the show makes an important distinction about the immigrant parable. In the most recent season, Supergirl is reframed as a refugee, not an immigrant. The difference between the terms is significant and it makes sense when we consider that both Supergirl and her cousin, Superman, didn’t choose to leave Krypton, but rather fled as their world was being destroyed.

Supergirl’s real Kryptonian name is Kara Zor-El, and while she adopts the surname “Danvers” from her Earth parents, she doesn’t change her first name. Superman on the other hand didn’t know his Kryptonian name until he was older, so he went by his Earth name, Clark Kent. In the early seasons of Smallville, after Clark finds out that his birth name is actually Kal-El, he is fiercely against people addressing him as such.

Unlike Superman, Kara grew up on Krypton and was 13 years old when escaping the dying planet. Although Kara was taken in by the Danvers family on Earth, she still holds on to her Kryptonian heritage. Whereas Clark initially runs away from his Kryptonian roots, Kara embraces them. In her adulthood, we see that she practices the Kryptonian faith (Raoism), speaks the Kryptonian language fluently, and has fond memories of living on Krypton. Kara still struggles with reconciling her Kryptonian and Earth identities, but it takes on a different form than Clark’s.

During season 3, Kara discovers that her home city, Argo City, had survived Krypton’s destruction and was floating on an asteroid thanks to technology developed by her father, Zor-El. She also learns that her mother, Alura Zor-El, is alive and well. Kara decides to move back to Argo City because it is, after all, home to her. Of course, her stay on Argo City didn’t last long as she needed to return to save Earth. This was predictable, but it was nice to see Kara reconnect with Kryptonian friends and family.

The episodes on Argo City reminded me of an arc on Lois & Clarkwhere Kryptonian survivors tell Clark that he needs to leave Earth and join them on New Krypton to stop a civil war. By the end of the arc, Lois asks Clark, “Did any part of meeting up with your roots feel good? Was it satisfying in any way or was it disappointing to you?” Clark replied, “Maybe all of those. I kept waiting for this incredible feeling of connection and like I was exactly where I belong, but that’s only happened once in my life.”

The one moment of connection that Clark refers to is the time he met Lois. As romantic as the scene is, it was also a disappointing one for me. Again, if we’re looking at Superman as an undocumented immigrant struggling to fit in, the lesson here seems to be, it doesn’t matter where you came from because your Americanness erases all of that. But the narrative was already set up that way since there was nothing likable or sympathetic about the way Kryptonians were portrayed. In contrast, what was unique in Supergirl was that it was the first time we saw a Kryptonian protagonist valuing and appreciating their culture. If the lesson in Lois & Clark is to forget your roots, one could make the argument that Supergirl promotes embracing one’s identity and history.

What’s interesting with Supergirl is that it introduced Clark/Superman in the second season. Consistent with the show’s appreciation for Kryptonian culture, Clark asks Kara at one point if she would share stories with him about Krypton. This is quite different from the Clark we’ve seen in other versions. Moreover, during the Elseworlds crossover event, Clark reveals that Lois is pregnant and that both of them have decided to move to Argo City for a while. In addition to it being safer for Lois’ pregnancy, the move to Argo City also gives Clark the opportunity to reconnect with his lost heritage. Some fans are critical of Clark making this decision because it may seem like he’s “abandoning” the people of Earth, but as he says in the episode, he trusts his cousin Kara to protect the planet.

But like all TV shows and movies, Supergirl is not without its issues. Back during season 2, I wrote a critique on Facebook of the show’s social and political commentary on immigrants and refugees. It was similar to X-Men except it focused on the human persecution of aliens instead of mutants. An anti-alien organization known as Project Cadmus created an “Alien Registry” that reminded me of Trump’s calls for a “Muslim registry” (the show has been addressing issues that are very consistent with current events, so I don’t believe for a second that these references are coincidental). Cadmus’ plan was to deport all aliens off Earth. Sound familiar?

While I appreciated the show’s positive intentions, what frustrated me about season 2 is that it utilized a “Good Alien/Bad Alien” binary. Just like the “Good Muslim” is the state-friendly citizen who doesn’t speak out against Islamophobia and imperialism, the “Good Alien” in Supergirl cooperates with the Department of Extra-Normal Operations (DEO), a secret government organization that deals with extra-terrestrial threats, reminiscent of Homeland Security. Whereas Democrats and Republicans fantasize Muslims to be the “eyes and ears” on the “front lines” in U.S. wars against Muslim-majority countries, the DEO view “Good Aliens” (particularly the Good Kryptonian, Supergirl) as their best defense against the “Bad Aliens.” When the DEO want to catch the “Bad Aliens,” they rely on the “Good Aliens” (and sometimes interrogate and torture them) to give them information (because all aliens know each other, right?). This carried unsettling implications for communities of color, suggesting that our value is only within the context of national security.

By season 4, I think Supergirl has made some significant improvements. Where the show deserves credit is that its allegory doesn’t fall into the trap of imagining a world that is post-racial and post-gender (unlike the X-Men films). In other words, the show acknowledges that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia still exist. This season introduced the show’s first transgender woman superhero, Nia Nal. Last season, during the 19th episode, the show addressed police brutality against Black people. The show’s Black superhero, James Olsen (or Guardian), tries to stop the kidnapping of a young Black woman named Tanya, but when the police arrive, they point their guns at him while perceiving the white kidnappers to be the victims. Olsen is ordered to his knees and the white characters are asked if they’re ok. Despite Tanya telling the police, “This is Guardian!” they refuse to listen to her — which seemed to be a case of misogynoir. Later in the episode, Olsen opens up to Lena Luthor about his experiences as a Black man, including the time when he was arrested by police at the age of 7.

There are still some missed opportunities on the show when it comes to race and gender. For example, at the beginning of season 4, J’onn Jonzz tells Kara that she doesn’t experience anti-alien prejudice because she “passes as human.” As true as this statement is, it’s not specific enough. What would have been more accurate is if Jonzz said, “You pass as a white human.” The show established before that Jonzz has experienced anti-Black racism despite being able to pass as human. What makes his experience different from Kara’s is that he embodies a Black man. This may sound like a trivial critique to some, but details like this matter to me.

Season 4 is undoubtedly about Trump and extremist right-wing groups. Instead of being white supremacists, the Children of Liberty are a group of anti-alien fascists who preach human supremacy and take up arms against extra-terrestrials. There is much to appreciate about this season, but there are also some issues with it, particularly the way the writers inaccurately imagine the radical left. That critique is better suited for another blog post!

In closing, what I appreciate about Supergirl is that it features an extra-terrestrial superhero who is not ashamed of her cultural roots. This is the Superman I wanted to see. It’s not a perfect narrative by any means — whereas Superman represented the problematic “melting pot” perspective on diversity, Supergirl represents problematic notions of “multiculturalism” (I recommend reading Sunera Thobani’s critique of multiculturalism for clarification on this point). As with most mainstream TV shows, I don’t expect anything radical, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t things I appreciate about the show and its efforts to tackle important issues.

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