'Supergirl' takes a leap for women on TV

Story highlights

  • The high-profile TV series "Supergirl" premieres Monday
  • Those behind the show emphasize Supergirl the character as opposed to her gender

(CNN)Why "Supergirl," not "Superwoman"?

That question is addressed early on in the first episode of CBS' new super series, as Calista Flockhart's Cat Grant tells her assistant Kara Danvers (Supergirl's secret identity, played by Melissa Benoist) her opinion on the matter.
"What do you think is so bad about 'girl'?" she asks. "I'm a girl and your boss and powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn't the real problem you?"
    And in some ways, that comment is aimed at the audience for "Supergirl," which premieres Monday night after months of hype (including a brief mention that made headlines in the presidential campaign).
    "We really wanted to be protective of the name of the show," executive producer Greg Berlanti said. "We wanted to have a conversation with our characters that we believe the audience would be having and that others might be having in terms of saying, 'Well, she's an adult woman. Why isn't she called 'Superwoman'?"
    Marvel TV has given us "Agent Carter" (and soon coming to Netflix, "Jessica Jones"), but the powers that be at DC Entertainment (a Time Warner company like CNN) are making their mark in prime time with the first full-fledged superhero series centered around a woman since Lynda Carter donned Wonder Woman's costume in the 1970s.
    But this fact isn't something the producers and actors want to focus on too much.
    "She probably has the same responsibility as any superhero, but because she's got a skirt, maybe there's an additional responsibility to say, 'Yes, of course we're equal,' " executive producer Ali Adler said recently at New York Comic Con.
    "But then we can put that behind us, because who cares at the end of the day? ... It's important that she's female, but it's also important that it doesn't matter that she's female. It's a conversation we'd like to get out of the way, because we'd just like to get on to her kicking ass and having fun and having love and exploring who she is."
    "Supergirl" is surely aimed at attracting a large audience of young women and girls, making the character a potential role model for them.
    Benoist addressed how she tackles that responsibility: "How I approach it, every day, is that as long as Kara and Supergirl are enjoying themselves and are finding the joy in being a hero and the joy in finally using her powers after so long, everything stems from that.
    "I just always keep in mind her bravery, her hope, her positivity and her strength. I think that it will be hard for girls not to look up to that," she said.
    Adler added that what Benoist brings to the role will "hopefully inspire men and women."
    One thing that observers have pointed out is that the show isn't backing away from the character of Kara Zor-El (Supergirl's real name) being feminine.
    "I love how Melissa Benoist tackles the character," comic book and pop culture historian Alan Kistler said.
    "I think it's fantastic that (in the show), you have four formidable women with very different goals, personalities and resources, who can all show young people of any gender that there is more than one way for a woman to be interesting and strong."
    Sam Maggs, author of "The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy," also notes that the series is "not afraid to bash down the walls of the Strong Female Character archetype."
    "You don't have to be stoic or humorless to be a superheroine; you can be into boys and clothes and shopping," she added.
    "Sure, that wouldn't work for Black Widow, because that's just fundamentally not who Natasha Romanoff is; but shocking, I know -- all women are different and can like different things. Just because Kara is a little more traditionally feminine doesn't mean she can't also kick ass and take names."
    Mehcad Brooks, an African-American actor, adds to the diversity of the series as Jimmy Olsen. He too sees the importance of what "Supergirl" means to television and culture as a whole.
    "There have been women superheroes for a long time, but I think our society is getting ready to see it in prime time," he said.
    "I'm happy we're kicking the door down and glad to be a part of it. To empower women is long overdue."