Supergirl’s Adoption Lens: Swooping Past Stereotypes

supergirl cbsApril 14, 2016 Most know Superman and Supergirl are adopted, along with Peter Parker as Spiderman, Dick Grayson as Robin, and heck even Bamm Bamm Rubble from the Flintstones…but all too often in media, characters depicted as adopted get the ‘cartoon’ treatment even when they’re not cartoons.

From language used in journalism coverage, to controversial  Avengers punchlines in films, fighting adoption stereotypes could use the force of a cartoon “Ka-Pow” given the proliferation of media representation identifying as “other” time and again. Studies show media bias and misleading portrayal of adoption can foul up the works, so it makes me wonder why we haven’t seen more “guidelines for accurate journalism reporting” not to mention diversity of family experiences in content creation to reframe public perception, and paint with a larger brush on a bigger canvas.

supergirl-logo large“Credit where due” goes to Supergirl’s writing and producing team for the nuanced sibling dialogue and interchanges that delve beneath the surface to broaden the scope beyond troubling tropes trotted out which often end up in a bizarre ‘one step forward, two steps back’ cha-cha to produce ‘drama’ and hype ratings over plotline performance.

There are “top adoption family film” listicles and entire review sites dedicated to covering adoption at the movies, complete with annual awards of merit, deconstructing drama and using media literacy to open conversations with kids…but all too often there is glacial change in depicting multi-faceted family situations without being heavy handed or preachy.

pop culture heroEnter adoptive mom and writer Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied, a co-founder of Pop Culture Hero Coalition, and Chicago Now blogger, who writes extensively about the nuanced experiences of so many different families on her helpful site, Portrait of an Adoption.

Carrie joins us today to applaud Supergirl (both the show and the stars) conveying the power of media’s potential to rise above the 2D cardboard cartoonish portrayals of adoption to tap into the nuanced layers of family feelings with authenticity that can help uncork conversations about complex social emotional experiences instead of put a lid on them.

I’ve written about Carrie Goldman before when her daughter Katie ended up under a galactic media spotlight as a gender defender of all things Star Wars. Upstanding Is A Force Field! Feel The Anti-Bullying Gravitational Pull is all about what happens when a pop culture global fan community comes to the aid of a child who was given black and white parameters and let out a rebel yell. Today, we’re talking about what happens when media content itself becomes the ‘superhero,’ capable of blasting away at misguided mythology to achieve a more accurate, worthy depiction of adoption and sibling scenarios, in this case with the love between the sisters in the hit show Supergirl.

supergirl sig melissa-benoist-e1458663110656Granted, Carrie Goldman’s girls were able to encounter the show’s stars themselves at C2E2 in a “comic con” context that revealed Supergirl’s celebrities exemplify the kindness and civility we’d all like to see elevate the human condition beyond the bratification and humiliation so popular in sitcom and film fodder (and darker, snarky superhero portrayals themselves these days).

That’s a “win” in itself, to have clear, positive, upbeat ‘role models’ especially for girls, guiding kids toward healthy fantasy play wrapping young minds around right and wrong, as this CNN article “Superheroes Help Kids Soar” points out. As a writer, that nod of appreciation goes to Supergirl’s creative staff for lacing in authentic, relatable life lessons that many a young girl watching Supergirl can ponder long after credits role. Example?

Supergirl: Heroes Can Help Girls Soar

After reading Carrie Goldman’s open letter about Supergirl appealing to ALL THREE ages and stages of girls in her household, I purposely rewatched the episode where Supergirl’s exposure to a Kryptonite derivative altered her brain chemistry to turn her into the ultimate ‘mean girl’ persona, with sardonic wit and a snippy, almost sadistic side that surfaced to the wide-eyed horror of National City.

supergirl star sig chyler-leigh-e1458663191150I shuddered a bit, because this show is a much needed “girl power” boost of strength, integrity, physicality, smarts, heart and hope (which so far triumphs over treacly) and there are already WAY too many media tropes pitting females against one another like a cage fight with relational aggression and ‘tongue as power tool’ lambasting one another in verbal lashings…

I held my breath in ‘here we go again’ mode, wondering if they were trying to go after the darker edgier Gotham ratings pool. Instead? The sibling exchanges were pithy but moving, even poignant in their authentic angst mashed up with familial love and rivalry, adoptive or not.

Supergirl star Melissa Benoist resplendently spewed prickly psychological venom as if the emotions were coursing through her soul just beneath the surface, and that cut like a blade akin to many a middle school dust up, making it relatable far beyond adoptive siblings and family foibles.

Maybe it’s Pollyanna of me to say, but it was as if the writers chose to say, “See? Even Supergirl is capable of hurling spiteful anger and hurtful, damaging rawness, the power is within YOU to flip that darkness towards good.” I was concerned the red Kryptonite excuse would give Supergirl a formulaic ‘easy out’ in the script due to the ‘special K’ but instead they used it to add dimension with no pat answers, no easy redemption, and a heckuva tough slog back into gaining trust after wounding an entire city so profoundly with wince-worthy meanness, despite genuine contrition.

supergirl logoThat goes a long way in teaching wee ones “sorry” often doesn’t cut it once words and actions wound deeply.

As Melissa Benoist shared in this article mentioning the real life impact of the show,

“I feel an incredible amount of pride for what we’re doing. I feel that people were ready to see a strong female heroine, the way that Supergirl is,” says Melissa Benoist, who plays the character. “I get to experience that every time a little girl comes on set, or just any child, really.” Exactly. 

Safety, Anger and Unconditional Love

I loved that episode’s portrayal of genuine sibling relational aggression with her adoptive sister, airing some ugly, searing sibling truths bubbling beneath the emotional surface, acknowledging the giant hairball of complicated family entanglements and flinging doors wide open for important conversations.

Viva la familia and brava, Supergirl…That outcome and characterization not only normalized adoptive familial bonds, it quite possibly created new ones among young girls relating to the predicaments and learning how to acknowledge and navigate the roiling emotion of what author Rachel Simmons calls the Curse of the Good Girl.

Without further ado, here’s Carrie Goldman’s fabulous thank you to the Supergirl stars, cross-posted with full permissions. May it be renewed to inspire for yet another season!

An Open Letter To Supergirl Stars Melissa Benoist

and Chyler Leigh, From An Adoptive Mom

by Carrie Goldman

Carrie Goldman headshotDear Melissa Benoist and Chyler Leigh,

You met thousands of people last weekend. I want to tell you about your impact on three of them. Three little girls, specifically, who were all wearing Superman pajamas and were camped out at the front of the autograph lines on Saturday morning. (I would love to get them Supergirl pajamas, but we couldn’t find any. DC should really get on that).

Supergirl is the first show that our entire family watches together. After dinner on Monday nights, the younger two girls always race upstairs to put on pajamas and brush teeth, so as not to be late for the opening credits.

But it’s our oldest daughter that has gained the most from Supergirl. She identifies strongly with Kara Danvers. Like Kara, our girl has long blonde hair; she wears glasses; she was adopted. And just as Kara does, our girl misses her first family, and she struggles with feeling alien at times.

Over the past year, our oldest girl has grown more independent. She is in middle school now and prefers to hang out in her room with the door shut, listening to music, watching YouTube videos and reading YA books. Her dad and I and her two younger sisters feel wistful for the days when she plopped herself front and center into every family interaction.

But her intense (and developmentally normal) desire to separate from the family melts away for an hour on Monday nights, when she curls up beside us on the couch as we all snuggle together to watch Supergirl. During commercials, she loves to run across the room, pulling off her glasses and shouting, “I Am Supergirl!” while her younger sisters sit giggling in delight. She is proud to be adopted, just like Kara Danvers.

Her relationship with her younger sisters is complicated. They are our biological daughters, and this creates deep and unavoidable conflict for her. No matter how much we reassure her that we love her the same as the younger girls, she tests us.

During the scenes in Supergirl where Alex and Kara explore the painful aspects of their relationship as sisters through adoption, our whole family absorbs every word, every expression, because seeing this dynamic on mainstream television makes our family feel less alone. The fact that both Alex and Kara are kickass, strong, smart, flawed, beautiful women who work hard, cry, laugh, yell, fight, and make mistakes has been an incredible model for all of our girls.

When your family is built through adoption, you rarely see nuanced portrayals of adoptive families in the media. It’s all about extremes. Fairy tales and fantasy shows usually resort to the trope of the evil step-parents or the abusive adoptive parents, with the adoptees depicted as mistreated victims. On the other end, modern stories often present the adoptive parents as saviors who rescued abandoned orphans and gave them the perfect life. In reality, neither of these fits our adoptive family. Watching Supergirl has normalized our experience, where some parts of adoption are amazing and other parts are really difficult, but what never changes is that we are family, and we love each other. Thank you for that.

On Saturday morning, our middle daughter was having a rough time as we were trying to leave the house to come see you. Often, in these situations, our oldest daughter can act as an agitator, which escalates the problems. I pulled my oldest aside and said, “We are going to meet Supergirl. How do you think she would respond to her sister?” Instead of falling into the typical sibling patterns, she swooped over to her younger sister and comforted her. The effect of her behavior was instant and soothing. She was her best self when she was trying to be the Supergirl within.

Since I was working at a booth at C2E2, I was able to get the girls in early, and we made a beeline for the autograph area. Our plan was to get into Melissa’s line first and then head to Chyler’s. The girls grew impatient after an hour, but we plied them with hot pretzels and books to read.

When you both arrived, all three of my daughters leaped up from the floor with shining eyes. Our five-year-old is so small that my husband carried her in his arms so she see could over the autograph table. Melissa, you were the first one we met.

“Hi, guys!” you said with a big smile, taking in the three girls dressed alike. When we explained to you that our oldest likes to pretend she is you, because she is adopted and wears glasses and has long blonde hair, you went with it without missing a beat, addressing her as Supergirl.

Our oldest told you how excited she is for the upcoming episode with The Flash, and your face lit up as you expressed how you, too, couldn’t wait. Our younger girls wanted to talk about how you went bad in the previous episode after being exposed to Red Kryptonite. You looked at them and saw the concern in their faces and said with empathy, “Wasn’t that awful?” Your warmth immediately reassured them that you are the kind-hearted Supergirl that they adore.

pop culture hero screenshotAfter you signed an autograph for my daughters, I asked you to sign a piece of paper for our bullying prevention nonprofit, the Pop Culture Hero Coalition, and you did. I couldn’t wait to show my colleagues. Meeting you and Chyler was the highlight of my own personal C2E2 experience, I will admit!

After you gave everyone high fives and smiles, we said goodbye and headed to meet Chyler.

Chyler, you were amazing, so approachable, so kind. You asked each girl her name and age; you told me that you are also a mom of three kids. “We would have a lot to talk about,” you said to me, making me feel as if you could be a friend and not just a television star. My middle daughter explained that whereas our oldest is Supergirl, she likes to think of herself as Alex. You nodded and agreed that she is Alex.

When I asked you to sign a paper for the Pop Culture Hero Coalition, you enthused about how important bullying prevention is. The girls chatted with you about how awesome Alex is, and you could not have been easier to talk to. After high fives all around and autographs, we left.

Melissa and Chyler, your reflected glow surrounded all five of us for the rest of the day. Merging fantasy with reality is always fraught with expectations, but you both were the heroines our girls have grown to love.

Last night, when we all settled in to watch the latest episode of Supergirl, there was a different feel. “Hi, Kara!” the girls shouted at the screen. “Hi, Alex!” they yelled. “We know you!!!!” We plan to frame your autographs and hang them right over the television, a forever reminder of the day we met the Danvers sisters, an adoptive family that strikes a responsive chord with ours.

jazzys questCarrie Goldman has garnered national and international acclaim for her work on bullying and social conflict.

Most recently, her eight year old daughter Annie Rose called out Hasbro for leaving Rey out of the merchandising mix, so clearly her tribe of three daughters are insistent on championing change at a variety of levels.

In addition to her award-winning book Bullied, she recently co-authored Jazzy’s Quest: Adopted and Amazing with LCSW Juliet Bond.

Though I’ve yet to meet Carrie in person, she is one of our “Brave Girls Alliance” partner organizations working toward positive media change. 

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