Supergirl is a fantastic piece of television. From queer coding, normalizing said queerness, struggling with heteronormativity, survivor’s guilt, female empowerment and about a thousand other things, the CW has one hell of a gem on their hands.
In fact, you may be delighted to know that this incarnation of Supergirl is one of, if not the best interpretation over her entire 57 years of existence. And that’s not as subjective an opinion as it may seem. The current Supergirl comic, written by Steve Orlando, lifted the vast majority of the show for DC Rebirth since it “gets everything right, [they] just understand Supergirl.”
A Canon Immigrant scenario, when a character or narrative aspect created in a different medium is imported back to the source, is hardly unprecedented. Kryptonite, the Batcave, Superman’s ability to fly, Renee Montoya, X-23, Mr. Freeze’s origin story, the entire concept of Batman Beyond and even Harley Quinn were all originally created for adapted media.
But Supergirl isn’t like most adaptations.
No, Supergirl has the massive, built-in hurdle of, well, being about Supergirl and her supporting cast. Neither of which have ever been consistent for more than a year or so. And that’s what makes Supergirl all the more impressive for what it’s managed to do, a topic that was briefly touched upon in this week’s Fanwankers.
As Ian and Wendy so aptly pointed out, the problem with Supergirl, historically, has been that she’s not separated enough from her cousin to stand on her own. Even though she actually grew up on Krypton, which in theory should be more than enough to set her apart. Considering how this is an issue that everyone else seems to have solved long ago, it’s rather odd that it didn’t.
Here, have some examples!
- Batgirl (all of them, but especially Steph)
- Batwoman (Batman’s cousin on her father’s side; spooky, right?)
- Miss Martian
- Ms. Marvel
- Midnighter (gay Batman, in love with Apollo)
- Apollo (gay Superman, in love with Midnighter)
- Robin (all five of them; including Steph!)
- Zatanna Zatara
- Superboy (all of them)
- Blue Beetle
- Miss America
- The Question
- Wolverine (X-23/Laura Kinney)
- Batman (there have been four)
- Superwoman (Lana Lang; go read it!)
- Wonder Girl (both?)
- Catman (no, really. He’s the world’s greatest tracker)
- Dr. Light (the second one)
- The Flash (all of them)
- Kid Flash (all of them, again)
- Jesse Quick
- Captain America (the one who isn’t a Nazi)
- Lena Luthor
- Red Arrow/Arsenal
- Green Lantern (all seven human members; Alan Scott technically counts)
- Black Canary
Okay I’ll stop, but you get the point. It is very much a solvable problem. Seriously, if every Robin managed to do it, what’s so different about Kara? Despite numerous long-running solo books, reinventions, and revivals, Supergirl, as a concept, has yet to really stick as something integral to the DCU. She’s around, but that’s about it.
So, the question is, how did the CW manage to do what over half a century of creators arguably couldn’t? What pieces did they move around to make all of this happen? Why, and how, does it all work together? And, most importantly, did they retain the essence of the mythology, even if they changed the specifics?
Short answer: Very Yes, and it all comes down to the characters. Also, the DEO.
Supergirl/Kara Zor-El/Kara Danvers
This is by far the most astounding feat. Because, oh, God. Oh my God.
Supergirl is an absolute mess. Oftentimes literally.
Look, there have been four Supergirls. And by four I mean five, because let’s not forget Power Girl. That’s her doppelganger from Earth-2/the Pre-Crisis era/Pre-Flashpoint Earth-2/Post-Flashpoint Earth-2/Post-Convergence Earth-2/Post-Cohesion Earth-2/Rebirth Earth-2. No, I’m not making this up, I swear.
Anyway, the origin story that Supergirl chose to go with was, thankfully, not the original 1959 version. Nor was it the Post-Crisis version, where DC Editorial wouldn’t let her be an actual kryptonian so they merged a college student with an interdimensional alien thing. Again, not making it up.
They also didn’t use the one after that, which was…never explained? I think? I know Darkseid was involved, and they made an animated movie about it. I think they just wanted the “real” Supergirl back, even though that caused some chronic pain/rage issues for Power Girl. Who was also around. Something about vibrational frequencies.
Simply put: everytime they touched, Power Girl would get this feeling to go all murder-y on Kara. Like an immune system attacking a disease. Or something.
So, from what I can gather, Supergirl is using a pretty heavily adapted version of the New 52 origin. Also known as the “wow this could have been so much worse” origin. Already a teenager when she left Krypton, but circled the Earth’s sun in stasis for like 30 years until she smashed into Siberia.
Basically they just kept the time dilation part, changed the reasoning and pulled the Phantom Zone along for the ride. The mentor/protector thing is, as far as I can tell, a wholly new idea for Kara and it’s one I very much like. Though it’s important to note that, as far as I’ve been able to find, Kara has never gone by Kara Danvers until this show.
Her original secret identity, so that she could attend college, was Linda Danvers. Ironically, Linda Danvers was also the name of the third Supergirl. Except she wasn’t Kryptonian, but instead the result of being merged with some sort of fallen angel/parallel universe shapeshifting protoplasm thing named Matrix. Who was also the second Supergirl. Like I said before, DC Editorial was really pushing the Last Son of Krypton thing at the time.
Kara, as stated and showcased above, has a consistency problem. Sometimes she’s enthralled by Darkseid and takes out the entire Justice League. Occasionally she has amnesia. Other times, she’s a college student and a member of the Teen Titans. Or she’s an unstoppable rage monster who vomits acid blood.
And sometimes she’s a member of the Legion of Superheroes because Superboy-Prime punched reality itself and knocked her into the 31st century. That last one is way more awesome than it sounds, but the fact of the matter here is that, for Kara, the writers had very little to go on. Or, more accurately, a lot to go on but very little of it…workable.
The idealistic, inspiring, earnest and genuine Kara Zor-El we have gracing our screens each week might appear to be the most obvious way to write her, but it wasn’t. Even the Justice League cartoon depicted her as someone with a big chip on her shoulder. It’s a little ironic that, in trying to help Kara Zor-El stand on her own merits, they made her mentality closer to that of her cousin’s.
It says quite a bit, then, that the closest thing that Supergirl had to her DCU counterpart was the Red Kryptonite episode. Yes, the one that has our title character acting like a massive jerk to everyone around her is typically how she’s depicted.
Isn’t it great that they didn’t do that?
Honestly, a case could be made that it’s the creation of Kara’s adoptive sister that makes Supergirl work more than anything else. As I’ve said, one of the biggest obstacles is finding a way to really cement Kara as someone who isn’t just a one-note Distaff Counterpart of her cousin. She’s had adoptive parents before named Danvers, but she’s never had a sister.
Well, aside from that time she lived with the Amazons, but that’s hardly the same.
Alex Danvers is nothing short of phenomenal. To be frank, she was the one who made me stick with this show before it truly found its groove. She’s great at what she does, and she genuinely finds fulfillment in it. Also she’s a badass secret agent who wears practical gear and clothing.
It’s like Boob Armor. Every time I don’t see it, I smile because nobody’s ribs are going to get shattered.
Not only is she her own character, and a great one at that, but her relationship with Kara is what sets her apart from Superman in a huge way. Superman has his own supporting cast, sure, but the closest thing he’s ever had to a sibling was—excluding his clone Kon-El aka Superboy—Kara herself. And she, simply put, isn’t. She’s his cousin.
That disconnect is what allows Alex to truly shine in Supergirl, as she grew up with Kara. They matured side-by-side, fostering a level of emotional intimacy and trust rarely seen in even the best of people. No matter how bad things get, and yes they have gotten pretty bad, like that time Alex killed Kara’s aunt, they’ll always be there for one another.
Even if one of them is going through a soul-crushing and validating existential crisis.
Yes, Alex and Kara have some friction between them at times, regarding the environment in which they were raised and how Kara’s secret pulled much of their parents’ attention to her, but they’re working on it.
And why shouldn’t it be as simple as that? It’s a common and relatable problem that springs up between siblings. That conflict humanizes Kara far more effectively than anything else really could, and it elevates Alex to an entirely different level. She can keep up with Supergirl, because she needs to be able to keep up with her sister.
Plus, she snuck up on and killed a Kryptonian.
The race of people who can hear for thousands of miles in every direction, see through everything except lead, and possess reflexes almost as fast as the Flash. To sneak up on them is all but impossible.
There are maybe six people in the DCU who could pull that off: Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Lady Shiva, Cassandra Cain, Deathstroke, and the Spectre.
Guess we’ll have to add Alex Danvers to that now, huh?
Once I realized that I’d have to touch upon the madness that is Jimmy Olsen, I started to have second thoughts on this piece. Then third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and so on, alllll the way up to fifty-one.
I suppose you could say it was a…Countdown of sorts. One that lead to a Final Crisis of fortitude where I decided to write this anyway and ignore those other fifty-one thoughts.
Jimmy Olsen, also known as Superman’s Pal since he had a long-running book of the same name, is a photojournalist for the Daily Planet. He’s a hard worker and a good reporter. He also has a signal watch that emits a frequency only Superman can hear. And that’s about it. He’s more or less the same guy there that he is on TV.
Except he’s black and has a way better job!
Jimmy’s initial purpose on Supergirl was to help root the show in with a pre-established Superman mythos that we weren’t shown. His transfer from Metropolis to National City grants the narrative a certain level of credibility that it otherwise wouldn’t have. At least, not initially. Think of him like a crossover character from another show that doesn’t technically exist.
Even the intro to every episode of Supergirl goes over how, yes, Superman’s around, but this isn’t that story. So, really, you get rid of Jimmy, you lose a pretty important part of this show’s foundation. I don’t think they’re going to do that, but y’know, something to keep in mind.
However, being Superman’s Pal isn’t really his claim to fame, as it were. Back in the Silver Age, he had a habit of acquiring random superpowers/transforming into strange creatures and then shortly reverting back to normal. I’m bringing this up because putting Jimmy in the role of Guardian is a far more natural fit than you might expect.
He’s been in and out of the Superhero game about as many times as we’ve seen the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Which is a lot. For him to actually stick with it for once, and not call himself Mister Action, is a pretty clever subversion.
Jimmy’s debut as Guardian is probably the biggest boost in notoriety the mantle has ever received. Even his brief stint on Young Justice didn’t do all that much. Guardian just isn’t a very popular character, since he’s a non-powered street level vigilante operating in Metropolis. Which is pretty silly if you take a moment to think about it. The fact that the name is still around at all is probably because he was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in the Golden Age.
Respect for the those who came before, and all that.
You know how some shows have a Breakout Character that effortlessly overshadows everyone at all times? Even when the title character is basically a demigod? Cat Grant is that character, but you already knew that. What you may not have known is that, well…she has never been this awesome.
The sass was always there, but the intelligence and justified sense of accomplishment weren’t. Only delusions. Until DC Rebirth, she didn’t have a media empire, and instead of demanding Supergirl do better she just insulted and blackmailed her. Constantly. Which, of course, made her into a bit of a sad punchline even when the jokes themselves weren’t very funny.
It probably goes without saying that she was really, really, really, really sexualized. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it becomes problematic when nobody does anything with it. She tried to use it to her advantage, but nobody took her seriously. Cat was a bully before she got implants, and even more of one afterward. She also acted as a massive propaganda pandering tool who exploited everyone around her for fame and notoriety. That’s it. No ulterior motive or justification that re-contextualizes everything, like she does on Supergirl. Just a bully who demands attention.
And then there was, I dunno, some New 52 stuff in there with a website and quitting the Daily Planet with Clark Kent after some speech about journalistic integrity—look none of it made sense, okay?
All of this is, of course, in stark contrast to the Cat Grant we have on Supergirl. Instead of a washed up has-been, we got a damn Empress who possesses Dr.Cox-ian levels of sass, intellect, wit and inspiration. Or, at the very least course correction.
Just as Kara is meant to be a positive role model for young girls, Cat is designed to be Kara’s. The effect this had on the first season, as Kara tried over and over and over again to be a better hero, employee and overall person was palpable. She improved. She grew.
Kara became someone worthy of the title of Supergirl, one which Cat gave her in the first place, and most importantly she’s fully aware of that. It’s something she has successfully internalized because Cat Grant kept pushing her in every facet of her life.
Without Cat, there wouldn’t be a Supergirl.
It’s a shame that she’s in a limited role this season, but thankfully that air time has been filled with something rather curious.
This is, hands down, one of the most interesting cases of intellectual property law I’ve ever seen. If you’re not a massive DC comics nerd, this is something you probably wouldn’t pick up on. Even then, not a guarantee. Now, you may think it strange that I’m zeroing in on a character that’s only got three episodes under her belt, but can you really blame me for attributing some of Supergirl’s continued success to her?
I mean, good lord, she just oozes charm and stage presence. Floriana Lima jumps into the fray and locks herself in from minute one, and that’s just fantastic. Yes, her primary role here is to expand the mythos, bringing in a “normal” perspective to the DEO zany-ness and establishing all that fun stuff about aliens. And boy, oh boy, does she ever knock that one out of the park.
She’s gay, she’s Latina, she’s tough and she’s smart. She loves the job, loves the people and always goes the extra thirty miles—okay I can’t not.
Take a moment to consider that I haven’t even said her name in this section. Y’see, I wasn’t kidding about the IP rights, and that crossed out name isn’t entirely a joke.
There’s another reason the showrunners wanted a lesbian cop on their show, aside from the whole “Alex Danvers Almost 30 Coming Out” plotline. The folks who make Supergirl wanted somebody that would allow them to connect classical racism and homophobia to extraterrestrial otherness. And they clearly wanted to do that with a heaping bowl of charm and snark.
Maggie is neither of those things. She’s blunt, sincere and loyal to a fault but rarely charming and never snarky.
However, there are two other characters off the top of my head who could fit that bill, and Fox owns the broadcasting rights to both. Renee Montoya and Kate Kane, with Kate’s Judaism subbing in for Renee’s race as a point of prejudice. Obviously, Kate wouldn’t work for a lot of reasons—she’d have to show up as Batwoman, she wouldn’t be away from Gotham for long, and then Batman would need to cameo, just to name a few—so you default to Renee.
But, again, can’t use her. Gotham had her run around in its first season, and then dropped her entirely.
So, you’ve got this great plotline and this awesome social commentary that you want to explore. Except you can’t because you’re missing that final piece. You could always just make up a new character, but you’re adapting from an absurdly expansive source material so that’d be ridiculous. And then it hits you. The only thing you can’t use is her name. You can lift her entire character, her essence, and call her something else.
Warner Brothers actually did something similar for The Dark Knight. They wanted to use Renee but the plot demanded that she became one of the corrupt cops—out of desperation, not greed—under Joker’s control. As that’s something Renee quite literally destroyed her entire professional and personal life to not be, they renamed her Anna Ramirez and called it a day. Though, if they hadn’t, it’s ironic that she’s the only detective Two-Face didn’t kill in that movie.
Lucky for everyone, it just so happens that there’s another lesbian cop in the DCU who, despite being part of 16 years worth of stories in Gotham, was originally a Superman character.
Now, I would never in a thousand lifetimes say these two are interchangeable. They are not, nor will they ever be. I am, however, saying that this was a brilliant move from so many perspectives. Brand recognition for one, even if most people only know who Maggie is because DC wouldn’t let her marry Batwoman. Remember how psyched people got that an “out and proud” non-white lesbian cop was going to be a series regular on Supergirl? Remember how we’re all still psyched, because she’s beyond awesome?
Of course you do.
Supergirl needed—yes, needed—Renee Montoya to make this work, and they didn’t just give up once they realized they couldn’t win that legal battle. They pushed some pieces around, did their homework, scrubbed away the trauma that comes with growing up in Gotham and trusted that the audience would respond to this character regardless of her name. Since, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what they call her. What matters is if they stuck the landing on the narrative they’re trying to tell.
So far? Holy hell, yes.
The Department of Extra-Normal Operations
The Department of Extra-Normal Operations has a strange history. They’re DC’s attempt at an organization like SHIELD, with one important foundational difference. They’re designed from the ground up to sound just as boring as the FBI or the NSA. As if it were a typical “alphabet agency”. There are times when it does work, like during the Janus Directive crossover event from the late 80s. Or, during the aptly named yet short-lived solo series Chase starring Cameron Chase.
They even hire attorneys to handle meta-human cases, representing both heroes and villains. There was even a time when Wonder Woman was on trial for the murder of Maxwell Lord, which was broadcasted live worldwide.
The murder, not the trial.
Can you believe a jury acquitted her for that? I mean, the trial focused on the fact that Max was still a federal agent when she killed him, even though he went super-duper-ultra-rogue. But hey, it was the only way to stop him from mind-controlling Superman into killing everybody.
Also he’s a massive jerk who killed his best friend, so in the words of the at-the-time late Ted Kord: Rot in hell, Max.
Anyway, there are also instances when the DEO just comes off as blatantly evil. Like that time they blackmailed Batwoman by threatening to throw her father in prison if she didn’t act as an operative. Of course, when she does call their bluff, it turns out they’ve been holding her long-thought-dead-all-over-again twin sister hostage.
The DEO in Supergirl are actually the good guys, and it took me a few episodes to understand that. I kept expecting them to be evil, but that never really happened. They watch the skies and keep people safe from the things that defy explanation, so who better to serve right alongside them than Supergirl?
It’s an inspired choice for adaptation. Especially when you consider how government-backed superheroes are typically depicted in the DCU.
In short, rarely positive.
Superman from The Dark Knight Returns became nothing more than a puppet for President Totally-Not-Reagan. Captain Atom often has standing orders to take down Superman should he ever go rogue. The Force of July are a team of meta-humans sponsored by the government tasked with performing hyper-jingoistic clandestine operations. The Justice League of America, in some instances, are sanctioned by the United States government.
There’s also that whole thing with the Colony, an army of soldiers trained to operate like Batman but with military precision. And that’s not even touching Task Force X, aka the Suicide Squad. Contrary to popular belief, they did often have members who aren’t super-villains.
So, for Supergirl to be serving with the United States government in an official capacity, and in a manner that doesn’t make her a living weapon…it’s a pretty big deal. It’s the kind of thing her cousin would, and does, typically avoid like the plague. Kara found purpose and success working with the DEO, which only legitimizes Kara even more.
See, Superman is still a vigilante. Kara? She’s officially sanctioned.
When Supergirl punches something into the sun, she does so with authority. When she speaks about hope and unity, she’s addressing everyone in a way her cousin can’t. In this continuity, he doesn’t quite have as big a leg to stand on in that regard. There’s no JLA or JSA. He’s not part of a team because he doesn’t think there is one.
Kara, however, found and made one through her sister. Through the DEO and the Manhunter from Mars. If there is to be a Justice League on her Earth, it wouldn’t form around Superman.
It’d form around Supergirl.
After all, as everyone knows, you can’t have a Justice League without the Martian Manhunter.
In Case You Were Wondering, J’onn J’onzz Requires No Further Explanation
The show works. Against all odds, and over half a century of storytelling Supergirl works. From Kara’s recharacterization, Alex’s creation, Cat Grant’s reinvention, the DEO’s restructuring to
Maggie Renee Maggie Renee Maggie Renee Maggie’s inclusion, it all just flows together. Sure, it can be campy, and sometimes it stumbles, but that’s just the nature of episodic storytelling.
Not every tale is solid gold, and not every message is perfect. Still, I, and I assume you as well, want to know what happens next. And that’s the biggest key. Same with comics. Would you keep watching if you didn’t care? Would you keep reading?
No, you wouldn’t. Good money’s on that you already do, and that you’re watching Supergirl. But if you’re not, I don’t think I can make a better argument than this.
Images courtesy of DC Comics and The CW
Crazy Ex Girlfriend is Masterfully Deconstructing its Core
Here at The Fandomentals, it’s not hard to tell when we begin to fall in love with a show. You may recall the windfall of Black Sails articles surrounding its series finale, our rather overzealous coverage of Supergirl a year ago, or the way Steven Universe creeps into every podcast we record. We dig in and frenetically try to explain exactly the reasons why you should be so enthused as well.
Then there’s shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, where I find myself unable to say anything at all, since it’s more or less perfect.
I know what I’m setting myself up for when I say this, because I’ve felt the let-down quite keenly many times before. That’s part of why I’ve been so hesitant to write anything at all. The other part is that I truly feel my explanations won’t do anything justice; watch it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
Is Rebecca Bunch’s character the answer to my prayers for jewish women in media? Absolutely. Do we all need Paula Proctors in our life? You bet we do. Is this finally the bridge between musical theater, sitcoms, and dramatic TV? Without a doubt. Hell, it’s a show whose entire premise involves calling attention to the tropes and storytelling conventions we bemoan, and then digging in and flipping them on their heads. All of this I could easily write dissertation-length papers on, while feeling that none of it is adequately explaining what is so great here.
So it’s only now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend is tackling one of the most important issues in our society, and doing it with a remarkably skillful hand, that I’m forcing myself to write out my thoughts. Because honestly? It’s a shondeh if I don’t at least try to spread the love at this point.
As a warning, there will be spoilers for major plot beats through the most recent episode, 3×06 “Josh is Irrelevant.” Which sure, may be a weird way to convince people into watching something, but as I’ve articulated a few times…knowing what’s coming and what a show explores actually makes me more prone to dig into it. If you disagree, let me just leave you with this before you bow out: the “crazy” in the title of the show is exactly why I didn’t watch it for a couple of years. And boy was that a mistake, because it is so intentional, and exactly what’s being explored now in one of the most nuanced and validating ways possible.
Yup, showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna are tackling mental health navigation and stigmatization. In the most recent episode, Rebecca Bunch receives a formal diagnosis (and even sings a song about getting one), and it’s made clear that all two and a half seasons were leading to this moment—not because of the diagnosis as an end in itself, but as a means to equip our character with the tools and understanding that empower her to push for a healthier state of mind. It is a show about a mentally ill woman lacking in traditional heroic qualities (dare I say antihero?). Yet instead of reveling in her moral greyness and watching her “oh my god” dissent, we are encouraged to actively empathize with her, and root for her to find balance. Because at its core, this show takes on a more positive view of humanity. We’re all just…trying to do okay with what we have, even if our weaknesses and anxieties can manifest in ways that hurt ourselves and those around us.
If that sounds interesting to you, watch the show. But for real now, explicit spoilers from here on out.
Rebecca Bunch was always meant to be a challenging character to the viewer. She makes an impulsive decision in the pilot episode to move to West Covina and pursue an old flame. Convinced this will make her instantly a happier person, she gleefully dumps her medicine down her garbage disposal (we’re unsure specifically what she took, though we do know anti-anxieties were in the mix) while whistling a merry tune. It’s clear this isn’t the healthiest thing you can do and she’s romanticizing the situation (and hilariously, the location as well).
At the same time, it’s also made clear that Rebecca truly was in an unhappy state in New York City, and her methods of coping through heavy medication and excessive work only fed into that. By midway through the first season, Rebecca tries to seek out a therapist to get new drugs, only to be told that she might actually need to explore her issues.
Rebecca: Those are the meds I was on in New York.
Dr. Akopian: Oh, my God. How did your body react to all this medication? You must not have been able to feel a thing.
Rebecca: Exactly. Numb as they come. So scribble scribble on your pizzle pad.
Dr. Akopian: Rebecca, your doctor in New York is a quack. He gave you a Band-Aid, not a cure. My method would be to do some digging and figure out what’s really going on inside your mind. And then we can discuss the appropriate medications.
Rebecca: So that’s great, but I need to be better by Monday.
The driving story continues to be about Rebecca’s quest for her fairy tale romance—a narrative that lives in her mind but not reality. Each romcom trope is broken down, from “unlikely suitor she actually falls for” (he turns out to be a fucking mess and leaves to be able to deal with his own issues in a healthy manner), to “the perfect prince who was always meant to be” (they both approach the relationship merely wanting to be in a relationship, without actually having a stable grasp on what they both need/want in life), to even the “screw men, we’ll just have a fun girl group and that’s enough” (Josh has a new girlfriend they need to stalk!).
However, it is always in the forefront that Rebecca is actively spinning the happenings in her life to fit whatever story she wants, all while resisting the core of what’s at her unhappiness.
Paula: Just let both of them go.
Rebecca: I don’t know who I am without them. I know that’s pathetic. I know it’s pathetic, but it’s true. Who am I supposed to be now?
Paula: Honey, be yourself.
Rebecca: What?! Who? No! Ew. Ugh! Who wants to be that?!
This becomes the most obvious when she enters into a relationship with Josh, but is not magically happier about everything. Rebecca very nearly has a breakthrough with Dr. Akopian to this point, only to be interrupted by Josh’s wedding proposal. Then from there, we get a tale as old as time: Rebecca stops feeling magical feelings about Josh, freaks out and kisses her boss in an elevator, freaks out from that and pushes their wedding date up to two weeks from that day, and then after not sleeping and going in full bridezilla mode, gets left at the altar because Josh begins to feel that he doesn’t truly know Rebecca. We also learn that Rebecca had previously wanted to marry another man in her past (Robert, a former professor of hers), but upon being broken up with by him, burned down his apartment and then was committed to a psychiatric institution for a time.
This is where Season 3 picks up, and in truth, I was very nervous about the Robert reveal. “Oh, so she really is ‘crazy’? That’s the point?” No. the point is that Rebecca is a troubled character who hasn’t received the help she’s needed. She has characteristics we all can relate to, from her self-deprecating thoughts to her struggle to feel ‘normal,’ even if we wouldn’t have necessarily made the same choices she did.
Season 3 shows her in crisis mode. Instead of confronting her insecurities, she lashes out at her friends, and even returns home to stay with her mother for a bit, despite their history with Naomi’s selfish and often inappropriate or harmful behavior. However, when her mom sneaks her anti-anxieties (out of fear of Rebecca wanting to commit suicide), Rebecca feels as though she has no one she can count on anymore, especially since she thinks she alienated everyone else. At the end of 3×05, Rebecca tries to commit suicide on a plane by taking a bottle full of anti-anxiety meds one a time, before telling the flight attendant that she needs help.
Other media has tried to depict suicide before, but it is so often done in a way that’s meant to shock, or even (distressingly) in a way that almost romanticizes the behavior. Hell, Life is Strange actually makes a student’s suicide a playable level, where if you’re just observant enough, you can stop it (for points!). Crazy Ex Girlfriend walked the impossible line of depicting the suicide attempt in a realistic manner—it was easy to track Rebecca’s feeling of hopelessness and isolation—without any sort of glamorization. She was in a rough, unhealthy state, and the audience was encouraged to root for that to change.
Better yet, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna made themselves available on Twitter immediately afterwards. That, in addition to a suicide helpline message which appeared on the screen following the episode, demonstrated that they were being as thoughtful as possible when approaching such a potentially triggering subject. It was difficult to watch, no question. But shying away from these topics doesn’t give equip us with the tools to handle them. We’ve praised Jessica Jones for starkly examining rape and rape apology; Crazy Ex Girlfriend is a show that should receive similar acclaim, particularly given how usual portrayals of suicide and mental health tend towards victim blaming.
Even that aspect was highlighted in the newest episode; Rebecca continually apologizes for the “hassle” she’s caused, and how bad she feels that everyone’s normal routine has been interrupted since like…her friends want to make sure she’s okay. It’s just so true-to-life. Too often our media has something *happen* to a character, and then it disappears an episode later. Rebecca’s deeply-felt self-loathing and general unworthiness isn’t gone just because her stomach was pumped, however. And that kind of consistency is important. Life doesn’t make narrative sense, so even though there’s a clear story that’s being told, it’s told in way that feels refreshingly familiar. Because it mirrors life.
Add to this the diagnosis. Rachel Bloom has talked openly about her own mental health numerous times. She also said this last week:
It’s clear this was written from a place of understanding, and with an attempt to be as validating and healing as possible. Rebecca sings a boisterous song about getting a diagnosis that will be her golden ticket to happiness (she’ll finally fit in somewhere), which amazingly captures the awareness of stigmatization alongside the often unreasonable weight people attached to their diagnoses. I just say this as a woman with OCD and general anxiety disorder, and I don’t want to speak for everyone ‘neurodivergent’, for lack of a better umbrella term. But in my opinion, the episode’s greatest strength was the way in which both of Rebecca’s doctors talked about her diagnosis. It’s not an identity, nor is it a fix; it’s a tool of understanding behavior, and one that can help guide treatment in a way that makes the most sense for her.
At the same time, Rebecca possesses the traits which define Borderline Personality Disorder. This was something I’ve said (mostly to Julia) for a long time, and something I’ve been scared for the show to tackle. I have intimate experience with this disorder, and without sugarcoating anything, some hurt as well. I have never seen proper depiction of it before this show, and I never in a million years thought it would actually be labeled, then fully described in a way that’s so accessible to an uninformed audience.
“A person with BPD is essentially a person that has difficulty regulating their emotions. Someone that lacks the protective emotional skin to feel comfortable in the world.”
It’s clear that Rebecca’s world is one that’s scary to be in. She never feels she fits, she has a terror of abandonment, and her impulsive actions that she does in order to control situations or feel accepted (be it breaking into Josh’s house to delete an embarrassing text, rushing to a wedding because she had a moment of doubt, or even sleeping with her ex’s dad because he was the only person being nice to her) have outcomes that usually result in more unhappiness. To be able to know that she’s not alone in this struggle is validating.
Though of course, and again realistically, the show doesn’t make the BPD simple or straightforward. Rebecca immediately Googles BPD and hates what she reads: that treatment can be lifelong, that there’s no “cure”, and even that 10% of people with BPD do kill themselves. She pushes against this diagnosis, even telling Dr. Akopian that she was bullied by the other doctor into agreeing with him on it, until Akopian whips out the DSM and goes through the checklist to see if Rebecca matches the criteria. Every point applies, and the show brilliantly provides flashbacks as these are read off. Rebecca sinks into despair, calling herself “certifiably crazy,”
Like…yeah. This is it. This is what happens. I was watching, half wanting to cry because of how easy it is to feel for Rebecca in that moment, and half wanting to laugh because finally what I’ve seen and experienced (second-handedly)—what I’ve even questioned and doubted—is on my screen for the first time, ever. We talk a lot about why fiction and representation matters, yet it’s almost unthinkable that the diagnostic process has been rarely been shown on our screens. Certainly not in this much detail.
The episode does end on a hopeful note, with Rebecca saying that she doesn’t want to ever feel like she did on the plane again. She goes to a group therapy, and gets a book to read afterwards. It’s not the end, nor was it ever meant to be. But it’s the means of getting her to a healthy place, and in that process, we see a lot of our own realities, from the hilarious to the uncomfortable.
That’s the story that matters, and that’s the story that was always being told. We’re just finally at the place where the characters see it too.
Images courtesy of the CW
A Bride’s Story is the Women’s Story You Were Waiting For
A Bride’s Story is a manga by Kaoru Mori (also responsible for Emma). Started in 2008, the series is still running and counts 9 volumes. It takes place in 19th century central Asia and follows several characters in their daily lives. The story is mainly focused on women of the region, but there is also the point of view Henry Smith, an English researcher. Anything else notable? Oh, I just remembered: it is really good.
Talking about a really good manga series could be enough on its own. But you know what’s even better? It is focused on women and their lives. Different women, with different lives, their work, their achievements, their pains. And it is written in a total love of all women. A good manga series, written by a woman about women? What else could we be asking for?
The Story of A Bride’s Story:
I am starting to not like this choice of title very much. But anyway, the manga opens on Amir and Karluk’s wedding. Amir is twenty whereas her husband is twelve (don’t worry there is no weird sexual content between the two). It is not the only thing that separates them. Karluk comes from a mainly sedentary village. Amir’s tribe still has a pretty nomadic way of life. Both spouses are pretty different so the first chapters of the manga follow their adaptation to each other (and to her in-laws in the case of Amir). The presence of Smith also allows the point of view of an outsider into the family.
The story then expands to other members of the family, friends, and neighbors, as well as people Smith will meet during his travels. Yet the story isn’t all over the place. We follow their lives and emotional development. And when Kaoru Mori focuses on one character she takes the time to tell their story. Even if she has to leave aside other characters for some time. But this is not a problem, as it is crystal clear she loves all her characters and will do them justice in time.
A Bride’s Story is going to focus on every aspect of the characters’ lives. There is high drama(military attack of one family on another) but also daily life (learning how to sew, finding your vocation).
In short A Bride’s Story is a really good read. But it is not the only thing that draws you in the narrative.
Art so gorgeous it sucks you in the story:
Another strings to Kaoru Mori’s bow which help you being completely absorbed in her world is that…
Which, considering the time we spend speaking about craftsmanship, is important. Having a visual representation worthy of the script is only doing it justice. If you don’t want to travel to central Asia to discover their handicraft after reading A Bride’s Story you are a liar, and that’s all there is to it. The characters and the details are insanely comprehensive. But we are also given amazing and dynamic action scenes.
This incredible art and interesting story combine to give us a narrative uplifting women at every turn.
An Hymn to women’s lives:
A Bride’s Story focuses, as its name clearly spells out, on brides. Sometimes young brides, sometimes bride-to-be, sometimes widows, but always women facing married life. And no it is not reductive. During the 19th century, marriage was (and still is in some cultures) one of the main events of a woman’s life. It was a literal change of family, of environment, and the real beginning of her adult life. So focusing around this event is not reductive. Quite the contrary. It reminds us that, as long as she is a good person, every woman’s life is worth telling.
Kaoru Mori spends a lot of time on women’s daily activity. Sewing of course (if the manga doesn’t give you a mighty need to start sewing you are a liar), but also cooking, taking care of the herd etc. Everything is worth the author’s attention, and ours. Do you know why? Because it is important work done with care. And this ask for our interest and respect.
Another thing which is incredibly well done in A Bride’s Story is the relationship between this women. They are supportive of each other. There is a mother-in-law ready to sacrifice herself to save her daughter-in-law. When Amir learns that she should go back to her family to marry another man because all the brides they have sent are dead (killed by their husband) she is not only crying because she is terrified. She is crying because she knew both of this girls and is devastated by their death. And the person reassuring her and saying that she is « not going anywhere » is her husband’s grandmother.
There are as many positive women relationship in there as there is stars in the sky. And not always just filial relationship. But also mentorship, friendship and emh…
And the icing on the cake is that every single one of these women is different from the others.
No wrong way of being a woman:
Truly it is refreshing to read about women helping each other. It is even better when they are allowed to be different. Because let’s be real, often in fiction women are created to oppose each other. The “good” kind of woman opposing the “wrong” kind of women. Just look at The White Queen and The White Princess, in which motherhood is glorified and “good” women are rewarded with it whereas “bad” women, women having a “man’s” ambition, became sterile and loveless.
Well, in A Bride’s Story we have traditionally feminine women who are soft gentle and love sewing. We have unconventional women who like to hunt and ride but are still good at feminine tasks (but let’s be real Amir is an amazement in universe too) and others which are not. We also have what other media often depicts as “failing” women, but are just unsure of who they are.
In short, Kaoru Mori is standing on her mountain screaming “They are all my daughters and I love them all!”. And trust me ,it feels good to be, as a reader, welcomed into this story.
To the surprise of no one, I heartily recommend reading A Bride’s Story. As a first manga, if it is your first, it might be putting the bar a bit high for future dives into the medium. But there are worse problems to have. Just to add to all I’ve said above, we also have good and interesting siblings relationships (my passion), making this manga almost without fault. It is worth a try. It really is.
All images courtesy of Yen Press.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Excels Because It Knows Its History
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a phenomenal game. It has an inordinate amount to say about racism, anti semitism, the cycle of abuse, ableism, eugenics, homophobia, fat shaming, PTSD, war, violence, and just about everything else under the sun. And developer MachineGames does all of that with this wonderfully strange combination of hyper-meticulous tact, high production values, and auteur confidence. Of course, none of that would have been possible if the setting surrounding the narrative didn’t work, and holy shit does it ever.
The newest iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise take place in an alternate 1960—leading into ‘61 for the second game—where the Nazis won the war. 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was a game framed around the “how” of the world. How did the Nazis win? How do they keep their conquered states in check? How have things changed in this reality? How do we stop them from gaining more power? How do we fight back against a near global, yet also interplanetary, regime?
Throughout the game, you come across newspaper clippings and records (The Beatles sort of still exist) that fill the gaps between 1946 and 1960. The result is a fully realized world that isn’t just a horrifying coat of paint over reality; it’s how things would have happened…with a few super-science-y liberties thrown in because why wouldn’t the Nazis a moon base or fire breathing robot dogs? And, of course, the greatest twist of all: the Nazis’ inexplicable sci-fi advancement, the whole reason they won the war, was built on the backs of stolen technology from a secret society of Jewish science wizards. There’s even a sequence where the protagonist, William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, breaks into a high security compound and finds ancient schematics written in Hebrew, which he knows how to read.
We also knew, in broad strokes, what had happened to the other parts of the world. America had surrendered completely after Manhattan was obliterated by an atomic bomb, mirroring the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Nazis had yet to conquer the vast majority of Africa, as organized resistance was proving far more effective than they were willing to recognize. London was kept in line by a skyscraper-sized robot called the London Monitor, which you get to blow up.
Wolfenstein: The New Order took place almost entirely in western Europe (with a brief sojourn to the moon, of course) and exploring how the one region of the world that was, at one time, actually conquered by the Nazis, ended up being just familiar enough to what it was back then to what it became in their alternate history. It’s this foundation, this deep uprooting and deconstruction of history, that allows its sequel, The New Colossus, to head straight into the United States. We were shown what was comfortably familiar to us, so it was time to show what was uncomfortably familiar.
An America subjugated and ruled by the Nazis.
Enemy Of The State Of Affairs
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is a game about “why”. Why do we fight against oppression when society around us punishes those who do? Why do we push back against systemic hatred, even when it has no bearing on us? Why does a man like William Joseph “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the perfect aesthetic poster boy for Aryan supremacy, reject those who would treat him like a king?
Why has America submitted to Nazi rule? The short answer is: giant airship. The long answer? Well, that one’s not so complicated.
Relatively early in the game, you meet up with a New York City resistance cell lead by a black woman named Grace, a survivor of the Manhattan bombing. In fact, all but one of her members are black with the exception of her partner Super Spesh. Their character designs explicitly invoke imagery of the Black Panthers and the overall Black Power movement.
The first game had you run around helping the Kreisau Circle, the Berlin-based Nazi resistance group that eventually cut the head off the Nazi war machine and stopping them from developing new weapons. This cell was lead by Caroline Decker, a paraplegic veteran. But, in the opening of this game, Caroline is executed by the main antagonist, Frau Engel, leaving a gaping hole in leadership that Grace fits perfectly. Who better to represent a 1960s violent uprising of the oppressed than a black woman in America?
She even goes so far as to move into Caroline’s old cabin in their captured Super U-Boat. From the start of the narrative, Wolfenstein is showing us that America is very different from a conquered Europe. For one, the English language is being banned, hearkening back to that old adage of “If the Nazis won, we’d all be speaking German”.
The largest among the differences though is that, just as Grace says above, America never stopped fighting the Nazis. The military did, yes, and the vast majority of the white population, including a South-governed KKK, but the fact that there is a dedicated anti-gravity airship, the Ausmerzer, whose sole role is to travel the country and crush resistance factions for the past decade tells us in no uncertain terms that the hold the Nazis have over America isn’t as ironclad as they believe it to be.
Even if they are able to put on one hell of a show.
We find newspaper clippings within the game describing resistance cells crushed by the Ausmerzer, and there’s even a moment during a trip to Roswell where you’re recognized (you’re the Reich’s most wanted, after all) by a local resident who, in a terrified act of defiance, whispers that he believes in what you’re doing when just seconds prior he was selling newspaper propaganda with glee.
The cap to this, however, is the final scene of the final mission of the game where you ambush Frau Engel’s live appearance on a talk show. You sneak through the bleachers and into the rafters, noting that every single person in the audience is a cardboard cutout. The show may be being broadcasted to every living room in the world, but it stands to reason that if people aren’t going to the live show…they’re not buying into the lies.
America is being crushed under the heel of the Nazis, yes, but it has yet to be crushed. Good people are still out there in the world, but they’ve forgotten how to resist. Those who were already filled with hate jumped on board, the minority, while everyone else is either putting their head in the sand or just trying to survive.
On the other side of the table, though, is how white America perceives the Nazis. I’ve already mentioned that the KKK controls the south, but it goes a whole lot deeper than that. Slavery has been legalized once more, and auctions are the talk of the town. We find out that, in true Nazi form, they rounded up the country’s degenerates—Jews, queer folk and people of color—and either purged them or sent them off to die in New Orleans…which is now a massive ghetto, Escape from New York style.
And if you “named names”, you were rewarded with what those same people left behind. Land rights, mansions, savings; everything they owned was either seized by the state or given as a gift to those who betrayed their friends and neighbors. This is not something we discover on a broad scale; it’s personal to B.J.
He visits his childhood home after nuking Area 52 (it wasn’t aliens, just ancient Jewish Techno Wizard secrets) and finds his abusive father, Rip, waiting for him, having heard he was in the area and assumed he’d come around. Rip, as we learned from flashbacks, was physically and emotionally abusive to both his son and his wife Zofia, a Jewish Polish immigrant. That, and he was a hardcore White Supremacist, having only married Zofia because he believed her father would be a business asset. He bemoans that no one knows what it is like to suffer as he does, thinking that everyone is trying to steal everything from the White Man.
In short, he represents everything that B.J. has spent his entire adult life fighting against.
When asked what happened to his mother, Rip admits that he sold her out to the Nazis and they took her away. The confrontation ends with B.J. killing his father after he presses a shotgun to his son’s forehead, but through their entire conversation he’d been on the phone with the Nazis. He’d sold out his son, too.
That’s the state of the world in Wolfenstein, and in The New Colossus you blow it the fuck up.
Terror-Billy Goes America All Over Everybody’s Ass
While the game’s marketing may have been pointing towards a parallel with the American Revolution as for how the country ousts the Nazis, I posit that the historical context is far more evocative of our 1960s.
Grace’s existence and design are already evidence of this, but it’s the rest of the resistance that makes this all the more clear. The second big group you recruit, aptly enough from the New Orleans ghetto itself, is lead by a man named Horton. He organizes a group of communists, socialists and anarchists who you’d think wouldn’t fit in with Grace and her people. These are the people that dodged the draft, even if they did push the concept of equal rights earlier than most. Horton even flat out cites their attempted push for a civil rights movement in an argument with B.J.
Of course, there’s a key difference between refusing to fight on foreign soil in a war that benefits the military industrial complex and what’s happening to them now. Horton’s group draws upon sentiment from both the end of the Great War and the counterculture movements of the 1960s.
Again, many of them were draft dodging pacifists, but that goes right out the window when it comes to Nazis. It’s one thing to refuse to fight a foreign enemy on foreign lands when victory would have only spread what you’re rebelling against. It’s quite another to sit by and accept fascism in the very country that allowed, though not always encouraged, you to believe what you saw in your heart as just.
It’s at the end of the game, however, in the ending cinematic, that this entire idea solidifies. That this historical context isn’t an accident, and the frankly unbelievable amount of homework MachineGames must have done paid off in spades. Mere moments after B.J. kills Frau Engel on live television, Grace and Horton speak directly into the cameras and ignite a violent revolution. The Kreisau Circle may be organized like a guerilla military operation, but the American people aren’t. They don’t need to be.
It’s an angry, raw, improvised and imperfect call to arms, but that’s what makes it perfect. Violent uprisings don’t start with eloquence or deep debating over the justification to fight against those who oppress you. They start with whatever you’ve got on hand. The Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots and the general counterculture protests that dominated the 60s are clear influences on Wolfenstein’s depiction of “retaking America”. Seriously, if it didn’t sink in already, they blast a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over the end credits coupled with imagery of violent rioting and uprisings across the nation.
Wolfenstein does not attempt to hold a mirror to our world today, even if it does so inadvertently. It tries to make us look back, so that we remember how to keep moving forward. It’s message is clear because it knows what it’s talking about, no matter how over-the-top the presentation:
Equality is not a debate; it’s a right. Those without it won’t stop until they have it, because for them it’s literally “Fight, or Die”. So the best thing you can do, if you’ve already got it, is to pick them up with you. And if you don’t? If you keep trying to push others down? It’s gonna get bloody, just like it always does, and chances are it won’t be them who’s dying.
Images courtesy of MachineGames
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