Supergirl Deserves Pay
Why the Girl of Steel should start a Patreon.
Two years ago, the Internet groaned at the first trailer for Supergirl. SNL had just done a sketch imagining a Black Widow romcom, and people cringed at the thought of Kara Zor-El having a Devil Wears Prada type job. I’m happy to say I got it from the word go. If Supergirl lived in our world maintaining a secret identity, of course she’d be a college graduate who fetched coffee. Kara Danvers would be one more millennial, overqualified, overworked and underpaid, and I hoped that would be the series’ point: next to paying your way at twenty-four, saving the world is a doddle.
Supergirl turned out to be fun, and it’s never delivered on that idea. In a recent story, Kara admonishes Mon-El, the hedonist from her sister planet, for not getting a job and moonlighting as a hero. The show ends up acknowledging that she’s been abrasive—their early arc is about her realising the way she does things isn’t for everyone—but it also flags up one of the show’s biggest blind spots. Kara is young, professional and shown as politically progressive: her job and work-life balance are key parts of her ongoing storyline, but her problems are never shown as economic ones.
Dull job or not, Kara has an impressive apartment; kind heart or not, Cat Grant is a demeaning boss. We handwave these away as conceits of television, but the series claims a liberal ethos. Supergirl is pro-immigrant, pro-gay and all about consent; she idolises a president based on Hillary Clinton, asking who voted for the other guy, and in her world Bernie Sanders still lost—presumably on a platform backed by voters her age. Given all that, you’d think the impact of two full-time jobs would be a theme in Kara’s life, but Supergirl never treats work as work.
Materialist politics on a show like this might seem a big ask, but it’s been done. One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s themes is that saving the world is a shit job: in season six, after her mother’s death and being pulled out of heaven, Buffy—now a dropout—has to work at a fast food joint to make ends meet, sliding rapidly into depression. When she and I discuss the show, one of Greta Christina’s gripes is always that the Slayer isn’t paid, and Buffy often makes a point of the labour conditions its hero has to accept. Which brings me back to Supergirl.
Like Buffy, Kara Zor-El takes weekly beatings in the course of her job. While she has Superman’s abilities, her enemies have strength equal to hers, powers that still affect her or awareness of her weaknesses, and she tends to end up on a sickbed. Even adventures that don’t injure her are painful, stressful and emotionally testing, and she’s on call twenty-four hours a day—and because girl of steel is an unpaid position, she still has to get up for a day job. Why does Supergirl tell Mon-El that anyone with powers like theirs is obliged to put themselves in harm’s way—and why is there no salary?
Kara is bulletproof, but her emotional and mental health seem to work just like anyone’s; there are ways for her to-self harm and to self-medicate. In the long term, would it be surprising if someone in her place—doing two stressful and demanding jobs, with no down time or independent social life—began to crack? Would we even want someone like that to have superpowers? I buy wholesale that Kara Danvers loves being Supergirl, but I can’t buy that her disposition would survive the labour market. With every flight making her paid job more soul-destroying, Kara would fall apart.
And that’s the Supergirl story I want: a series in which millennial work-related stress destroys her life, in the same vein as Bruce Wayne’s trauma or Tony Stark’s alcoholism. I’d like to see Kara Zor-El face bullets, bombs and kryptonite like she’s asleep, then go months without sleep trying to pay the bills; Kara on autopilot, dissociating and forgetting to care; Kara grown sloppy in the field, a danger to herself and others; Kara slumping into self-destruction and depression, losing her job, holed up in the fortress of solitude, too far gone to take flight again. Then I’d like to see her recovery.
I’m not sure who’d tell Supergirl saving the world should be her full time job, and that she deserved to be paid for it: not Superman, but perhaps Lois Lane. Kara would never dream of invoicing people she saved, and I doubt she’d take government money—too many covert plots, not enough trust. Though she’d resist, I can see National City convincing her to start a Patreon. Being a hero could be hard, the page would say, and even people with powers had rent to pay. Underneath, donors would keep leaving one message: This time, Supergirl, it was our turn to help you.