This article appears in our 2017 Spring issue, Family Values. Subscribe today!
At the end of a recent episode of Supergirl, we learn that the new “big bad,” the evil leader of Cadmus, an underground movement against illegal aliens, is none other than the mother of the notorious Lex Luthor.
This plot twist—drumming up generational tension between mothers and daughters—is familiar territory for the show. In season one, Supergirl/Kara Danvers is pitted against her aunt Astra, the evil identical twin of her dead Kryptonian mother. It also echoes a broader trend in women-centered science fiction and fantasy stories, especially those that revolve around heroic young women: the use of the dead-mother trope—the demonization, dismissal, and erasure of maternal figures—to enshrine young women as champions of the oppressed.
Supergirl recreates a propensity that is, as Frances Early and Kathleen Kennedy wrote in the 2003 book Athena’s Daughters: Television’s New Women Warriors, characteristic of films and shows that deploy the archetype of the woman warrior. This figure essentially re-genders the age-old metaphor of the “just male warrior,” an empowered and selfless savior who possesses agency, defends the democratic state through violence, and sheds blood for the good of all—sometimes even sacrificing his own life.
Stories about just male warriors typically exclude or diminish women’s agency, and they often depict women as the main threat to the social order. The abject, menacing outsider—the “Other”—against which the warrior defines himself often takes the form of a dominant maternal figure. Stories depicting men battling women who represent threats to society are too numerous to count. They go as far back as Beowulf fighting Grendel’s mother. But they also stand out in hero/villain stories as recent as the original Ghostbusters—a film in which a group of men, in an erotically charged act of homosocial, “bromantic” love, cross the streams of phallic weaponry to vaporize Gozer the Gozerian, a genderless god who nonetheless takes the form of an ancient woman.
In its most successful incarnations, the woman warrior reclaims the originally masculinist trope to critique patriarchy and to emphasize women’s agency without perpetuating the conflation of “Other” and “mother.” Two vivid illustrations of this are recent adaptations of initially male-centric film franchises: the Ghostbusters reboot, in which a new team of paranormal investigators, all of whom are women, defeats a creepy mra troll who attempts to bring about the apocalypse; and Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Imperator Furiosa takes down patriarch Immortan Joe and emerges as the new protagonist in a film series that originally centered on Max Rockatansky, one of the most cherished macho action heroes in all dystopian fiction.
But it is difficult to rewrite originally masculinist tropes without significant snags. Thus, while films such as Mad Max: Fury Road name patriarchy as the root of women’s oppression and celebrate women who fight male authority, many seemingly feminist portrayals of women warriors tend to reproduce the story of male hero versus villainous mother. Consider the Alien sequel, Covenant. In the film, Ellen Ripley, arguably one of the most affirmative depictions of badass women who fight “The Man,” discovers that the real danger to her and her surrogate daughter, Newt, is not the invasive, phallic monster featured in the original movie but rather the Alien Queen, an egg-laying mother. Aliens effectively rewrites the threat of male sexual violence as the threat of the mother, a dangerous reproductive animal or “bitch,” as Ripley calls her.
More recent stories about women warriors similarly perpetuate the image of mother as “Other.” The Hunger Games and Divergent series stage clashes between heroic daughters and villainous maternal figures. In these film adaptations, mothers appear not as aliens or monsters but as totalitarian leaders whose corruption and ability to manipulate the public sets them in contrast to the heroes. In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, Katniss kills Alma Coin, the rebellion leader who promised to restore Panem to democracy but whose thirst for power and disregard for innocent lives revealed her to be an even worse despot than President Snow. In the Divergent series, Tris squares off against two villainous mothers. In first film, she thwarts the hyperintelligent demagogue Jeanine Matthews, the Erudite faction leader who brainwashes the Dauntless faction in an attempt at a military coup. In the second film, when Matthews is defeated, her death makes way for another maternal dictator: Tobias’s mother, Evelyn, who is also eventually killed off.
The path to heroism for young women warriors like Katniss and Tris requires not only taking down “bad mothers” such as Coin and Matthews; but displacing relatively “good” ones. In The Hunger Games, Katniss replaces her own distant and ineffectual mother, feeding the family and acting as primary caregiver to her sister. In Divergent, Tris’s mother, Natalie, helps her daughter escape the Erudite takeover at the end of the first film. But her bravery isn’t enough to salvage her storyline, which ends suddenly when she takes a bullet to save Tris. Natalie’s death reduces her to a mere plot device. It is a tragic loss that serves less to accentuate the self-sacrificial heroism of the mother than it does to increase the dramatic stakes of her daughter’s narrative.
Supergirl’s representation of mothers and daughters hasn’t fared much better than these films. The show has progressive moments, which include a Wonder Woman president who is secretly an alien and an understanding mother who is a scientist (and alive, at least for now). But it often undermines its own efforts by reproducing the patriarchal fusion of “Other” and mother and by twisting a meaningful attempt to address our fear of outsiders into a fear of women’s authority.
Supergirl tends to be apolitical, cashing in on the superficial sentiment of “girl power” at the cost of a more genuinely empowering story for women. For instance, in episode 16, a widely cited example of the show’s feminism, Supergirl gets exposed to red kryptonite and act outs, frightening the public of National City and the people closest to her. As others have noted, the episode deals with our culture’s fear of erratic, angry women and with the vilification of those who deviate from the norm of receptive, compliant, demure behavior that we often impose on women.
Yet the episode seems to perpetuate that norm rather than challenge it. It concludes with a contrite Supergirl who regrets her behavior and wants to apologize for being outspoken, direct, and even aggressive about what she wants. In other words, she feels compunction for expressing herself in ways that we celebrate in male superheroes such as Iron Man. While there is still time to turn it around, so far the writers seem to be doubling down on this antifeminist pattern in the second season—if unwittingly. The season opened with the departure of Cat Grant, Supergirl’s boss, the charismatic, self-possessed media tycoon who embodied the strength, wit, and acerbity of a “nasty woman.”
While we can expect Cat to pop in from time to time, the character was written off the show—albeit for scheduling reasons unrelated to the story. Rather than working to fill the void left by Cat’s absence, the showrunners continue to villainize mature women to create dramatic tension between daughters and mothers—both those who are alien (Aunt Astra) and those who would wall them out (Mother Luthor). Indeed, it seems the show is keeping consistent with other pop culture representations of heroic young women: In Supergirl, the only good mothers—those who are strong, fierce defenders of justice like Supergirl’s biological mother, Alura—are dead mothers. Or, in the case of the newly departed Cat Grant, absent ones.
The persistence of the villainous or dead mother trope exposes the ways in which patriarchal sensibilities continue to seep into even the most ostensibly progressive pop culture representations of women as defenders of the social order. This is cause for concern. While we are ultimately talking about entertainment, the recent presidential election alone should be enough to remind us of the profound burden we all bear when some of our most cherished depictions of women’s agency rely on the demonization of an older generation of women, especially those—like Coin, Matthews, or Astra—who aspire to lead. What we need now more than ever are women warriors who espouse mature women in power rather than criminalize them and who see them as a source of liberating strength rather than oppressive corruption.