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Superladies in Waiting: How the Female Hero Almost Emerges in Science Fiction
Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, No. 58 (Summer 1993)

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A more successful and celebrated television pilot in which an emerging female hero was quickly suppressed, of course, is Star Trek's "The Cage" (1966).5 Reasonably postulating a future society of sexual equality, creator Gene Roddenberry established a woman as second in command of the Enterprise, and Number One was depicted as extremely intelligent, calm, and perfectly capable of commanding the ship when its then-captain Pike was captured by aliens. When network officials objected, the character was eliminated in the second pilot; but the actress who played the part, Majel Barrett, later returned to the series wearing a blonde wig and playing a nurse. Symbolically, then, a powerful female hero was reduced in status, changed in appearance to conform to American male concepts of female attractiveness, and assigned to a submissive and subordinate occupation.

Furthermore, while its attitudes towards women have certainly improved, the Star Trek universe has carried on the pattern of building up, and then eliminating or humbling, strong female figures. The striking bald alien played by Persis Khambatta in Star Trek: The Motion Picture was prominently featured—and then killed—during that film, and two potentially assertive companions to Captain Kirk—his ex-wife in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and a marine biologist in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home—later vanish from the film series without comment. The female Vulcan Saavik is introduced in the second film playing the part of Enterprise captain during a training exercise—announcing her status as a future replacement for Kirk or Spock—and, as played by Kirstie Alley, Saavik was a strong and independent character. However, this character was effectively destroyed when producers refused to meet Alley's salary demands and recast the role in the next two films with a spectacularly untalented and vacuous actress, Robyn Curtis, transforming Saavik from a woman warrior to a wallflower. And in the new series Star Trek: The Next Generation, while the more conventionally feminine characters played by Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis have endured, the tough-as-nails security officer played by Denise Crosby was quickly killed off.

Perhaps the most interesting case of the emerging female hero who is not allowed to emerge would be Supergirl, whose odyssey through comic books and one film provides scathing commentary on the treatment of female heroes in science fiction.

The writers originally associated with the creation of Supergirl, it should be noted, all had strong ties to science fiction. The editor of the Superman stories was Mort Weisinger, former science fiction writer and one-time editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories; the author of most of her adventures was Otto Binder, a noted science fiction writer who used the pseudonym Eando Binder (originally referring to him and his brother Earl Binder as co-authors—"E and O Binder"—though later stories under the pseudonym were written solely by Otto); and a few Supergirl stories were written by none other than Jerry Siegel, the fervent science fiction fan who originally co-created the character of Superman with artist Jerry Shuster). Although the story of Supergirl's origin was influenced in part by the need to conform to the existing Superman legend, Weisinger and Binder, perhaps influenced by earlier patterns in science fiction, interestingly provided her with a background that made her a potentially stronger character than Superman.

As explained in the first Supergirl story, "The Supergirl from Krypton," Supergirl was born on Argo City, a Kryptonian city that survived the planet's explosion on a large chunk of rock, and grew up to the age of fifteen with her natural parents, enjoying the benefits of a stable upbringing and a superior Kryptonian education. When Argo City itself is doomed by a meteor shower that shatters its lead barrier against the rock's deadly kryptonite radiation, the end is gradual, allowing Supergirl a month to adjust to the coming death of her parents and their culture, to put on a Supergirl costume they devise, and to prepare for her life on Earth. When she arrives, she is greeted by Superman—revealed to be her cousin—who offers to train her in the use of super-powers and the ways of Earth culture while she lives in an orphanage with a secret identity. In "The Supergirl from Krypton," Supergirl speaks to Superman calmly, even cheerfully, as she accepts his plans and looks forward to her new life. She is soon adopted by two loving parents and also discovers that her natural parents survived the death of Argo City by moving into another dimension; and although they move to Kandor, the tiny Kryptonian city in a bottle, they remain available for occasional visits, so she can reach adulthood enjoying emotional support from two sets of parents.

In contrast, Superman was wrenched away from his natural parents as a small child, arrives on Earth with no knowledge of his background and only gradually learns about his Kryptonian heritage, is adopted by loving parents who nonetheless suppress the boy by forcing him to conceal his super-powers, and finally must endure the deaths of his adoptive parents, once again leaving him alone in the world. Thus, while everything in Superman's background would seemingly tend to make him an emotional wreck, Supergirl's upbringing—despite the interruption of one major crisis—would seem to provide her with strong emotional stability.

In addition to her superior preparation, Supergirl also appears to be more powerful than Superman. In one early adventure, "The Three Magic Wishes," she cuts her own hair with her fingernails; but in "The Untold Story of Red Kryptonite," where Superman's hair grows very long and must be cut, he cannot do it himself and must ask Supergirl and Krypto the super-dog to use their combined heat vision to cut his hair. Evidently, Superman's fingernails are either not as strong or not as sharp as Supergirl's. Also, in several adventures Supergirl is explicitly described as possessing one super-power Superman himself lacks—"super-intuition," the ability to mysteriously sense events before they occur. Even though this ability is merely an exaggeration of the stereotypical—and in some ways degrading—old concept of "feminine intuition," it does make Supergirl a superior hero; in a tense situation, Supergirl can anticipate and respond more quickly to impending problems, while Superman may not be aware of them until it is too late.

Finally, Supergirl seems to bring to the role of hero a better attitude than Superman's. While she is at the orphanage, she repeatedly shows sympathy for the other children there and uses her super-powers to help them. In one story, for example, when a professional golfer pondering whether to adopt a boy takes him out for a round of golf, Supergirl uses her super-breath to make three of his shots holes-in-one, convincing the golfer to adopt the boy as his protégé. In "The Three Magic Wishes," the problem is that a mean little boy is disrupting the orphanage story-telling sessions and ridiculing the fairy tales. Supergirl responds by dressing up like a magic fairy, appearing before the children, and granting the boy three magic wishes—secretly accomplished with super-powers—to convince him to take fairy tales seriously. And how would Superman deal with the situation? First, it is by no means clear that he would regard it as a problem worth addressing; second, if he did deign to deal with it, Superman would probably just talk to the boy sternly and tell him to change his behavior. In contrast, Supergirl sees the boy's disparaging attitude towards fairy tales as a significant problem, and she solves it with imaginative and gentle persuasion, not confrontation.

Supergirl's superiority as a hero, however, is best demonstrated by the stories in which her existence is finally revealed to the world, "The World's Greatest Heroine" and "The Infinite Monster." This coming-out party is, as in other cases, preceded by a major crisis—a symbolic death and rebirth—as Supergirl mysteriously loses her super-powers at the moment when Superman originally planned to announce her, so for several months she endures life as a powerless, unheralded mortal until her powers return. When the world does learn about Supergirl, their response is enthusiastic and supportive: she is honored by a ticker-tape parade, and the United Nations grants her a universal passport like the one given to Superman. To indicate that she has now achieved equal status, Superman then declares that he is leaving on a mission to the future, and that Supergirl will be responsible for protecting the world until he returns.

Predictably, a major crisis immediately occurs: a scientifically created space warp brings to Earth an immeasurably immense monster, so huge that as it walks on the ground, only its gigantic feet and legs can be seen. When Supergirl attacks the monster, she finds it is protected by an invulnerable force field; she attempts to pick it up and hurl it away, but the being is too large. While the world wonders if Supergirl is really up to the task of being a hero, she quickly devises a way to cope with the problem. A message to Brainiac 5, a hero of the thirtieth century, causes him to send her a shrinking ray similar to the one developed by his sinister ancestor Brainiac; although the monster smashes the machine, Supergirl manages to skillfully rebuild it using her photographic memory; and she uses the ray to shrink the monster to a few inches in height, so it can be put in a bottle and peacefully dealt with.

Again, consider the model of heroism that this adventure suggests. While Superman generally prefers to work by himself, Supergirl has no hesitation in seeking assistance from her friends. While Superman tends to confront menaces with brute force, Supergirl uses her intelligence to find a harmonious solution. Literally and figuratively, she domesticates the monster instead of demolishing it. We see, then, a female hero who is every bit as strong as the corresponding male hero—perhaps stronger in some ways—who also displays a greater willingness to work with others to solve problems, a natural compassion even towards beings who are threatening, and a knack for resolving matters without violence.

At this point, therefore, Supergirl has completed her apprenticeship, survived her major crisis, and demonstrated her superior ability. Logically, she should now emerge as the major hero while her former tutor Superman fades into the background. In fact, this becomes a standard projection of their futures: in one 1960 story, "The Old Man of Metropolis," Superman dreams of a future Metropolis where he is a decrepit, powerless old man while an adult Superwoman protects the city in his place. Also, when the DC super-heroes of the 1940s were recast as residents of an alternate world called Earth-2, the Superman of that era was drawn as an older man with greying temples who was generally inactive, while the newly created Supergirl of that world, called Power Girl, took his place as a member of the Justice Society.

Although the chroniclers of Superman could accept this picture as their hero's eventual fate, they could not present it as an accomplished fact in their hero's present; thus, although Supergirl had seemed to achieve a position at least equivalent to Superman, it now became necessary to force her back to a secondary status.

This was accomplished in a number of ways. First, there was one series of stories which reduced Supergirl's physical powers: "Supergirl has a big problem—she now has on-and-off super-power. She never knows when it will work and when it won't" ("Suspicion" 1). The most common strategy of weakening Supergirl, however, involved her emotional stability: simply put, Supergirl/Linda Danvers cannot decide to do with her life, and she repeatedly makes utterly bizarre shifts in her career and lifestyle in an effort to find happiness. In later stories, struggles against villains and aliens become subplots in ongoing serial adventures which feature Linda Danvers's struggles with problems and stressful events in her everyday life.

A full chronicle of Linda Danvers's various careers would take some time, but a brief overview will suffice. First, Linda leaves the security of Midvale and Midvale High School to go to Stanhope College; then, after graduating, Superman/Clark Kent gets her a job as a television reporter at a news station in San Francisco. Dissatisfied with that career, she goes back to Vandyre University as a graduate student studying acting. Then she moves to Miami to take a job as a special student advisor at New Athens Experimental School. She next moves to New York, somehow becomes an actress in a soap opera, and achieves national fame portraying a prominent villainess. At this point, all efforts to maintain continuity in the character were abandoned as she was abruptly returned to the age of nineteen and sent back to college, this time to Lake Shore University in Chicago.

To accompany these bewildering changes in her life, the costume of Supergirl also changes repeatedly. Initially, Supergirl wore a blue shirt like Superman's and a red skirt; it was then revealed that the skirt was reversible, with blue on the other side, and the blue skirt became standard. The shirt evolved into a loose-fitting, low-cut blouse with the "S" reduced in size and moved to her left breast; then the blouse and skirt were changed into in a short dress, and Supergirl added a fancy belt with bangles and thigh-high boots to her wardrobe. During these changes, Supergirl's hair grows longer and fuller, her breasts increase to more than respectable dimensions, and her lips get wider. At a late stage in her career, she added a red headband and the "S" was re-expanded to become something like a decoration around her neck. To add to the confusion, Supergirl once suffered the indignity of being the subject of a contest in which readers were invited to send in their own sketches of what they thought would be Supergirl's ideal costume; those designs were then employed in a series of adventures. I recall one issue where Supergirl had to fight evil dressed in a strikingly unattractive blue body stocking that covered her entire body.

To the extent that there is any pattern at all in all these changes in appearance, one observes Supergirl changing from her original tomboyish look to that of a Playboy centerfold; and as her character is physically "bimbo-ized," her mental state also deteriorates. Supergirl sometimes wonders if she really wants to be a hero: she tells Superman at one point, "I've told you how I feel before, Superman…. How I'd rather be a genuine flesh-and-blood woman than a Supergirl. I mean, it was a kick at first—the fame… concealing my secret identity—but it was all piled on my shoulders the day I landed on Earth… and… well, I'm just not the world-saver you were born to be" ("Princess of the Golden Sun" 2; author's italics and ellipses). Her later move to Chicago is specifically framed as an effort to find herself: "There's nothing selfish about wanting to get into yourself for a while instead of thinking about the whole blasted world! I do enough of that as Supergirl—and wasn't the whole reason for this move to give myself space to be just plain Linda Danvers?… I feel like I've totally lost hold of the part of me that doesn't scoot around the universe in shorts and a cape! I've forgotten what it feels like to be just a person… instead of a symbol!" ("A Very Strange and Special Girl" 5; author's italics; first ellipsis mine, second ellipsis author's). No matter what she finds herself doing, she always gets dissatisfied and goes on to something else; she is distracted during her battles with evil by various problems in her personal life and in her relationships to other people; she is particularly prone to schoolgirl crushes on various attractive men. Finally, it should be noted that her various changes in occupation also contrive to reduce her status, as she is repeatedly either sent back to school—further symbolic apprenticeship—or she is trapped in traditionally female occupations—reporter, teacher, actress.

Even readers of the time began to notice how the character of Supergirl was being toyed with and weakened. "Supergirl has sure gone through a lot of drastic changes since her debut in ACTION COMICS #252," one reader commented ("The Superman Family Circle," Superman Family No. 218, [47]). Another remarked, "Supergirl/Linda may find herself a new job, but will she still be treated like a child? Will she still pine away over idiots or will she become involved in more mature relationships?… I hope that the new beginning for Supergirl will carry with it some real changes. Please quit trivializing her" ("The Superman Family Circle," Superman Family No. 211, inside front cover).

In sum, while Supergirl develops no physical weaknesses not shared by Superman, she develops one super-weakness that never troubled Superman: emotional instability. Shunted from life to life, continually moving through a sea of strange faces, unable to find any happiness or contentment in her life, her life in fact starts to resemble a continuing soap opera, and a stereotypical sexist attitude—that women do not have the emotional strength and solidity to compete with men—becomes embedded in her character. And that becomes the unstated reason why she fails to fulfill her destiny and supplant Superman.

Still, the character was provided with a chance for redemption in the 1984 film Supergirl. Continuity is again abandoned as Supergirl begins as the resident of a thriving Argo City who voluntarily goes to Earth to retrieve a magical object accidentally teleported to Earth. Superman is nowhere to be seen—officially, he is said to be off on a space mission—so that Supergirl can occupy center stage. She successfully battles with a powerful villainess, Selena, and at one point she must defeat Selena to rescue a dumb but attractive man who has fallen into her clutches. It seems, then, that the female hero has finally achieved equal status in a world where powerful women fight to decide the fate of helpless men.

However, only a plot summary of Supergirl can be defended as a feminist fable; the film itself is a disastrous joke. Certainly, that was the attitude of Faye Dunaway, the actress who played Selena in the manner of outrageous "camp." By casting Supergirl simply as a visitor from an unthreatened Argo City, all of the interesting depth in her character was removed, and her exploits display neither any particular power nor any particular intelligence. When trapped in the Phantom Zone, she is reduced to despair until a helpful man, Zaltar, appears to inspire her and lead her to an escape route. In sum, more so than her worst moments in the comics, Supergirl is portrayed in the film as weak, vacuous, and impossible to take seriously; she is not a true female hero, but rather a weak parody of a male hero.6

After the film proved a failure, Supergirl was deemed an expendable character, and in 1985, she was killed off in "Beyond the Silent Night" battling the evil Anti-Monitor.7 Sgnificantly, she essentially gives up her own life to save Superman; dying, she tells him, "I knew what I was doing…I wanted … wanted you to be safe … You mean so much to me … so much to the world" (39; author's italics). Thus, while Supergirl was once a character with the potential to be strong and independent, she found herself increasingly burdened with clichéd and stereotypical female traits and makes her curtain call as the ultimate female cliché—the self-sacrificing martyr.

The entire career of Supergirl, by the way, is interestingly foreshadowed in the very first "Supergirl" story, "The Girl of Steel" (1958). In an adventure obviously designed as a trial balloon for the Supergirl character, Jimmy Olsen obtains a magic amulet and wishes into existence a female companion to Superman, whose blonde hair and red-and-blue costume exactly anticipate the appearance of Supergirl (although when the story was reprinted in Superman Annual #8, her hair was colored auburn and her costume green-and-orange, to minimize the similarity). However, Supergirl, who is inexperienced and thoughtless, turns out to be nothing more than a problem for Superman, and after she dooms herself by rescuing Superman from Kryptonite, she asks Jimmy Olsen to end her life: "I was no help to Superman anyway! It is best that I go!" (10) Thus, like the later Supergirl, she is introduced as Superman's potential equal, revealed as overly emotional and incompetent, and finally allowed to kill herself to save a man's life.

It is also interesting that Supergirl's career follows—in reverse order—the three stages in depictions of women listed by Eric S. Rabkin in "Science Fiction Women before Liberation." First, in her appearance she becomes a "sex object," the third stage; then, with her numerous crushes of the 1970s, she becomes "the lovestruck female," the second stage; and in her death she becomes a "woman exploited through her selflessness," the first stage (15, 14). So the entire pattern of her career following its high point in 1962 is one of regression and return.

Asked about these repeated changes in Supergirl's life and her ultimate fate, her writers and artists would no doubt reply that her sales were slipping, and some revamping of the character seemed necessary; and when repeated efforts failed, the only logical step was to eliminate the character. But the explanation is disingenuous. Maintaining a successful hero requires both periodic revision and a commitment to basic continuity in the character. At times, Superman's sales were also slipping, and new teams of writers and artists have been called in to update his character. But their changes were all careful minor surgery: Superman's powers were slightly reduced, he changed from being a newspaper reporter to a television anchorman, he gained a new boss named Morgan Edge, Lex Luthor was recast as a scheming corporate tycoon, and so on. But through it all, Clark Kent always lived in Metropolis, always worked as a journalist, and always kept the same circle of friends. No one ever suggested boosting Superman's popularity by having Clark Kent move to Aspen, get a job as a skiing instructor, and meet a group of glamorous new friends. But that is exactly the sort of wrenching transformation that Supergirl repeatedly had to endure. And all these incoherent changes suggest not an attempt to strengthen her character but rather a perverse—perhaps subconscious—effort to destroy her character. In addition, there were many ways to remove Supergirl from the scene without killing her, such as an extended visit to the Kryptonian city Kandor, a temporary loss of her super-powers, or a sudden decision to go into retirement; the decision to slaughter the character suggests latest sadism.8

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