It’s not a new observation to make that Superman is, fundamentally, the story of a refugee – the last son of a dying planet, making a new home for himself elsewhere. Superman is also the embodiment of the American Dream, really; an immigrant is able to forge a new identity and better himself because of the opportunities afforded him by America.
It’s certainly a powerful story, and one that’s especially resonant today with the ongoing refugee crisis; in many ways, now is the perfect time for a Superman story that examines his status as a refugee, building on these themes to create a powerful and poignant piece of drama.
While we don’t have a regular Superman show on television, we do have Supergirl. It’s perhaps one of the most progressive programmes on television at the moment, routinely living up to its promise to provide “a hero for everyone”. As a result, I’d argue that it’s particularly well poised to deal with these issues, tackling the theme of immigration and how we respond to it.
Indeed, it seems that the writers are inclined to agree with me on this point, having recently broached the topic on the show itself. Supergirl season 2 has touched upon themes of immigration and refugees at several points in the series; this has been alongside a slight retooling for the programme that sees a large number of alien characters living in secret on Earth, many of whom are presented as refugees. Most notable in that regard is the second season’s third episode, Welcome to Earth – a story about the US President declaring America a place of refuge for any alien asylum seekers, openly espousing views of acceptance and tolerance, with a clear commentary on current events. Fundamentally, Supergirl is trying to say that immigration is good, refugees deserve to be granted asylum, and to hold prejudice against either is wrong if not evil.
Supergirl isn’t quite able to make this message work, though – and that’s down to the nature of their allegory.
The show is exploring the theme of immigration through their various dispossessed alien characters – an entirely understandable choice. It’s attempting to convey the message, basically, that there’s no need to be suspicious of refugees, and to treat them with acceptance and tolerance – an entirely admirable decision. It’s not, however, conveyed particularly effectively, because many of these same dispossessed aliens end up being the ‘threat of the week’ – while the episode is saying one thing about refugees, while demonstrating another through its plot. This paradox was painfully evident in the aforementioned episode Welcome to Earth, wherein one of the alien refugees does turn out to be evil, despite frequent insistence that this wouldn’t be the case – it’s a frustrating lapse that undercuts the message that Supergirl is reaching for.
What makes this particularly frustrating, though, is that there are several other avenues open to the writers from which to explore this concept – many of them more effective than the direction they opted for.
Most obviously, there’s Kara herself – much like Superman, she escaped Krypton before it exploded, making her a refugee much like he is. (There is an interesting nuance there which separates Kara from Superman, of course – the fact that she lived on Krypton, and remembers what it was like there, adds another dimension to this portrayal.) Similarly, there’s both Martian Manhunter and Miss Martian; again, they’re refugees from a planet that was ravaged by war. However, there’s another interesting angle to their story which could be explored – both of them are shape shifters, who have to live as Hank Henshaw and Megan Morse respectively, rather than in their natural form. Shape shifting forms a clear parallel for assimilation into different cultures, of course – something that can be contrasted quite interestingly with Kara’s position, given that she doesn’t need to shapeshift to fit in in the same way.
I’m fairly open about my love of Supergirl – it’s a confident programme that really captures that bright and cheerful optimism that, to my mind, is so essential for a hero. It’s an unabashedly optimistic and positive show, and makes a strong case for the intrinsic value of heroism motivated by compassion – it’s a programme in which the heroes really are super. And, as already established, this is a show that is genuinely progressive, often to the point of helping enact meaningful change; you may have seen recently the story of a young girl who was able to accept her identity because of Supergirl.
That’s the sort of power this show has, and that’s why this is a programme that’s not just well suited to handling these themes, but one that should – it can contribute a bit more positivity and optimism to the discussion, and maybe change the tone of the debate just a little.
Supergirl just has to make sure it gets it right.
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