“We’re in the drama business.” Jessica Queller is, at face value, more or less correct. As one of the showrunners of the upcoming Supergirl Season 3, it is indeed her job to get viewers interested and keep them engaged. But while her words make sense when discussing the overarching plot and arc of a TV show, they make a great deal less sense when directed at romantic relationships on said TV show.
She is in the drama business, yes, but that does not rid her and the rest of the Supergirl team of the responsibility to be socially conscious and aware when creating drama.
Date Your Friends
Season 1 of Supergirl built up Kara and James, dubbed Karolsen, for a large part of the season. And yet, in the very beginning of Season 2, the relationship was cut short, ended because Kara wanted to remain friends.
Friendship is, of course, important. From the much-loved game nights to Kara and Alex’s incredible sister bond, some of the best Supergirl moments have been when Kara is allowed to—and encouraged to—rely on her friends. Yet it is also an easy excuse; when fans voiced disappointment at the end of Karolsen, others pointed out that friendship is important too. When fans speak out in support of Supercorp—Kara and Lena Luthor—cast members are quick to point out that they are friends, just friends, and that such a friendship is important to Kara.
It is, and yet that misses the larger issue. If shows hold friendships to higher standards than relationships by including more diversity and insisting on genuine support and love between the characters, then shows are fundamentally misunderstanding what romantic relationships should be.
It is pointedly incorrect to insist that Kara and James cannot be romantically involved because they are just friends when it was made clear in Season 1 that they could be both. If a character is dating someone they fundamentally do not get along with, then why have them date in the first place? Creating a divide between platonic and romantic relationships by making them into mutually exclusive entities breeds unhealthy romantic relationships.
Additionally, why do they never talk about how genuinely funny some of the early Season 2 moments with Kara and Mon-El were, before a romantic relationship was even starting to form? Why is friendship only important when a person of color is involved, or a potential relationship between two women is on the table?
Essentially, why is Mon-El’s friendship not important to Kara the way James’ and Lena’s are? I think the answer is very clear.
Friendship is beautiful, and important, and all of those things, and I am entirely supportive of Supergirl portraying strong friendships, especially between women. But using friendship as an argument to silence people who want relationships that include people who aren’t straight and white is not truly appreciating friendship at all.
The Problem With Drama
“There wasn’t a lot of drama.”
–Jessica Queller about Kara/James
As discussed, media contains drama. It has to: that is the core of what makes a viewer tune in again and again. It is what keeps us engaged.
But writers and showrunners have a responsibility greater than simply gaining viewers, especially on a show like Supergirl—one of the only female-led action shows. Media affects how we see and relate to the world in big ways.
For one, children have been shown to learn from the television they watch. Additionally, unhealthy romance narratives do indeed affect how women normalize the violence they face in real-world relationships.
The effects pop culture have on us are studied and documented well, and they are profound. Now, I am not saying television needs to be perfect. If anything, I want the opposite, for I believe showing unhealthy dynamics, relationships, and actions can be done powerfully and done well. However, that requires the condemnation of such actions and dynamics rather than the romanticization of them.
For a show that prides itself on its feminism—or appearance of feminism—it is achingly obvious when they use Kara as a plot device, turn her into a vehicle for helping a man grow, or forget to give her a plot entirely.
It is not enough to compare Mon-El’s family to the Trump administration offhandedly and then have Kara turn around in the next episode and forgive Mon-El for lying, admitting he was never going to tell the truth, and putting the people she cares about in danger. That is not feminist, no matter what Power To The Girls shirt Kara is wearing this time.
It is not enough to say the show is feminist when every action it takes proves otherwise. And the reason I am still here, still writing, is because I know they can do better. It is because I love Supergirl—I really do—and I can see the shreds of greatness. And it hurts to think that so many people feel disrespected, sidelined, and forgotten simply because the showrunners wanted drama.
“I love how they bicker.”
–Chris Wood on what he likes about Kara/Mon-El
Of course, this is what The CW does: see Arrow, The Flash, or any other show on the network. Romantic relationships have been used again and again as sources of tension and conflict. In the end, though, it feels cheap. On a show about superheroes, the biggest issue should not be Kara’s continued arguments with her boyfriend. When that happens, Kara cannot grow as a person or hero separate from her relationship.
It Can Be Done
Now, of course, a well-done romantic relationship can make a show.
Fringe began with a great deal of tension between Peter Bishop and Olivia Dunham; by the end of its five-season run, their love had saved the universe. That is perhaps an overly vague summary of what is a very complicated show, but the point stands: romantic relationships can contain tension without being unhealthy.
But even more importantly, drama simply does not have to involve romantic relationships all the time. Alex’s relationship with Kara in Season 2 was far less developed than it was in Season 1, and the vast majority of the conflict between them revolved around—you guessed it!—their respective romantic partners. That is fine to some extent, but why did we not have a single sister night?
Part of the reason Lena is so popular is because her storyline tends to bring Kara in rather than push Kara out. When Lena grows, so does Kara. When Mon-El grows, that’s the end. The former is drama done well, the latter isn’t.
In Wonder Woman, Diana’s plot is hers. She and Steve fall for each other, but it is never a source of pain. It is the opposite: a source of comfort in the midst of a war. When it comes to Supergirl, as Kara’s life gets increasingly complicated, her relationship should be one of the nice parts of her life, as it was with Diana. The fact that it was painted as one of the bigger challenges she had this past season is troubling.
The Supergirl showrunners claim Kara and James’s shared nobility and heroic nature is a reason they cannot be together, and that neither looks good for Mon-El nor bodes well for Kara. It is known that women do the vast majority of the emotional labor in heterosexual relationships; why must Kara have to continue that trend? In fact, if they truly are seeking drama, why not defy a social norm or two? Their slogan, after all, is Dare to Defy.
A lot of shows—Wynonna Earp, The Bold Type, and many others—manage to write and show heterosexual relationships that benefit both partners. And that should not be a lot to ask.
Drama is fine. Drama is necessary, even. But drama for drama’s sake infantilizes the viewers and ignores just and sensible complaints in the name of “fun TV.” In my mind, TV is much more fun when I feel respected and safe viewing it.
So, Jessica Queller, you are in the drama business. But I am in the viewer business, and I want you to know that healthy relationships aren’t—and will never be—boring.