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‘Supergirl’ and the superheroine scarcity problem

MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry Show” was kind enough to have me on as a guest over Memorial Day weekend to talk pop culture, including sexual assault on “Game of Thrones,” the challenges of getting to gender parity in the director’s chair and the trailer for CBS’ “Supergirl.”

During this part of the show, Janet Mock made a point I’d brought up during our commercial break: that we tend to judge superheroines more harshly than their male counterparts because there are simply so few of them and we load them up with the freight of expectations that are impossible even for super-powered people to carry. This is an argument Linda Holmes made with particular eloquence after the recent kerfuffles over the portrayal of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

“There’s nothing wrong with stories about women who are housewives or stories about women who struggle because they were forcibly prevented from having kids as a condition of whatever mission they chose to undertake,” Holmes wrote. “The problem is that with so few women in superhero movies, each of these portrayals stands not only for the choices (director Joss) Whedon made, but for all the choices he and many others didn’t and don’t make.”

As I approach “Supergirl,” I’m trying a different thought experiment: considering Kara and her journey not simply in the narrow subset of stories about female superheroes, but in the superhero marketplace as a whole. And the trailer for the show gives us a number of things superhero stories could use more of.

I appreciate Kara’s sheer joy in her powers and the ability to do good, a set of feelings that’s often limited to a single cathartic scene (as in “Man of Steel”) or that ebbs as a franchise goes on (see Tony Stark’s present psychological torments after the initial delights of “Iron Man” or Spider-Man’s descent into darkness in two consecutive trilogies). That sensibility has been creeping back into superhero projects like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Flash,” but it’s a welcome counterbalance to the idea that with great power comes great grimness. And frankly, I also enjoy that Kara doesn’t seem to be keeping her identity particularly secret: There are only so many tortured revelations and feelings of betrayal that the superhero genre can stand.

Similarly, I kind of like that the trailer at least seems to be leaning into criticisms that Kara ought to be Super Woman rather than Supergirl, and into the specific femaleness of the character in general. If Clark Kent’s glasses were never a particularly effective way of downplaying Superman’s handsomeness and physical strength, it’s all too true that awkward girls in glasses aren’t considered to have real power: either they’re genuinely hopeless or playing at it.

We need more of these specific stories in the same way the Avengers lineup gives us many perspectives on masculinity. But young women are so thoroughly maligned, whether they’re presented as slutty, conniving journalists or hopeless naifs, that I’m all for a show that tackles this particular way of being female. We’ve long been convinced that a man can fly. Now it’s time for us to learn that a young woman can blast off into space with the same heart and power.