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Between new shows like Jessica Jones and Legends of Tomorrow, and the ever-expanding casts of Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and more, you can’t throw a rock at this year’s TV lineup without hitting a brand-new superhero. But none of those caped crusaders are under quite as much scrutiny as Melissa Benoist’s Kara Zor-El on Supergirl. When the show debuts Monday night on CBS, she will become the first female superhero to lead a show in nearly 40 years—yes, since Lynda Carter’sWonder Woman went off the air. Glee alum Benoist is naturally excited about all the buzz her show has generated and willingly embraces the role of vanguard in a new era of female comic-book characters, but she’s also hoping that one day we’ll focus more on the “super” and less on the “girl.”

“People are crazy for Kryptonians!” Benoist says of the hundreds of costumed people—men, women, and children alike—who flocked to her panel at San Diego’s Comic-Con this year. But along with that anticipation comes added pressure, on everything from the overall Superman legacy to that rite of passage for the modern filmed superhero: debuting the costume design online. Did Benoist think her costume was more heavily criticized than that of her male counterparts, like The Flash’s Grant Gustin or Arrow’s Stephen Amell? “It felt that way. It definitely did,” Benoist says. “You’re going to get some people who want it to be more revealing. Because it’s a girl and because they have different bodies than men I think people were really picky about it.”

The muted tones of the Colleen Atwood design are a palette match for Henry Cavill’s cinematic Superman, and there’s nothing about Benoist’s suit that plunges, clings, or hikes up. The skirt may be short, but the tights are opaque and further photos reveal a low, sensible heel on those red leather boots. Benoist thinks she made out much better than some female superheroes before her. “I think it’s modest in that you can believe someone could fight for their lives in that suit without having a wardrobe malfunction and something popping out. That’s what I never understood about Wonder Woman. I’m like, ‘How does she fight?’”

The online debate over Benoist’s costume was anticipated by a scene in the pilot, in a montage that recalls the famous “no capes!” scene from Pixar’s The Incredibles. When Kara Zor-El emerges with the bare torso so many costumed female fighters have had to endure in the past, her character says firmly while covering up her exposed skin, “I’m not flying around saving people in this. I wouldn’t even wear it to the beach.” Benoist says, “The moment in the two-piece, I think that was our nod to people who might want that, and that was their one chance to see it, and we’re never doing it again.”

It’s not the only meta-nod to the conversation around the show that made its way into the pilot. Calista Flockhart’s media-mogul character, Cat Grant ,is the one responsible for branding Kara as Supergirl. When the use of “girl” is questioned by Kara herself, Grant replies, “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? 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?” It’s a little on the nose, but as Benoist points out “just the fact that Supergirl exists is feminist.”

If both Supergirl and its darker Netflix counterpart, Jessica Jones, are a hit with audiences, we can expect them to pave the way for even more on-screen female superheroes beyond the Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel films currently in the works at Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios. Of those long-awaited films, Benoist says, “I don’t really understand why people haven’t always been ready for this. I think there are so many really successful franchises right now like Hunger Games, and I was a huge Buffy fan. I wish there were more of a pattern and more of a consistency to there being really strong female-driven stories.”

And with that lack of consistency comes the major hype, and pressure, on something like Supergirl, where Kara Zor-El’s gender matters far more than it ever would for Superman. When asked if focusing so much on gender in Supergirl frustrated her, the actress replied, “You know, I hate to say that I do because I consider myself a feminist. I’m very proud to be a woman. But I do think focusing on it so much that you forget that it’s a story about humanity and what it means to be saving people’s lives. I don’t know if it’s frustrating, but I don’t know the word for it.”

As for the future of female superheroes in television, Benoist takes the long view. “Even after this show stops airing I hope that more and more strong females keep coming. If there were great parts for women on every other show then we wouldn’t even have to have this conversation at all.”




 

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