On Icons: Supergirl

Supergirl - MatrixYesterday I read an absolutely wonderful post over at Ami Angelwing’s Blog about why Supergirl matters. It’s a brilliant post that looks at the cultural significance of Superman and Supergirl. She talks about how Superman isn’t actually a man, he’s an icon. Everyone knows what it means to be a Superman and everyone knows the icon images associated with him (the red “S” symbol, pulling open the button-down shirt to reveal the costume, the raised arm as he leaps into flight, etc.).

Superman and his imagery is, in fact, so iconic that it can be borrowed freely by other superheroes because it is the essence of being a good superhero. Ami pointed out that Peter Parker does the shirt opening move (complete with upturned heroic-looking face) in the Spider-Man movies, which I hadn’t even noticed as being particularly reminiscent of Superman. But it is, of course. The Blue Boy Scout was the first to do it and it is a move we only ever see either good guys do or bad guys who are trying very hard to look like good guys do (but then they always get something about it wrong – usually the perfect upturned heroic facial expression). Superman made it what it is.

Supergirl - LindaI have never been particularly fond of Superman, to be perfectly honest with you. He just never really appealed to me. And yet I feel very protective of him anyway, he’s a real part of my childhood. I don’t like people messing with his image, even if I do think he’s kind of an idiot much of the time. He’s still the iconic superhero. I think maybe part of me was just upset because my expectations for his stories were high because he was so important and when your expectations are that high, you’re bound to be disappointed. I’ve found good stories with him as an adult, but somehow that kid-resentment stuck.

When you watch little boys play, they mimic Superman. Even if they are officially pretending to be Batman or Spider-man, they still use those Superman poses. And somehow, even if they have imaginary baterangs or spiderwebbing, they still fly with an upraised arm or two. And you know what? Little girls do it too. If every little boy wants, in some way, to be a Superman, then it is equally true that every little girl wants, in the same way, to be a Supergirl. You see, she shares his iconic status. She wears that same red “S” and does those same things. She fights for the same reasons (or the iconic version does) Superman does – to be a good person and to make the world a better place. She is a strong person who can protect herself and save the people she loves and generally do what she wants, but it’s ok, since she always wants what’s good. That’s a really powerful idea when you’re a kid. And from the point of view of a girl, Supergirl has a pretty appealing image – she’s strong, independent and beautiful. Who wouldn’t want that?

Supergirl CostumeI think it’s great that Supergirl is an icon and I agree with Ami that this is absolutely why she’s important. Supergirl is an enduring character. She’s had many different incarnations and people always want her back whenever DC creates a storyline where she gets killed or something (the history of Supergirl is somewhat complicated), she’s obviously not going anywhere.

More than that, Supergirl is a part of the public consciousness beyond just the people who read comics. There are any number of products based around Supergirl that clearly have nothing to do with the current incarnation and are being sold to people who are very far from the readership of the comic, and those products sell quite well. I see girls with Supergirl clothing all the time. Sometimes it’s just a pink shirt with the “S” logo, but other times they have her name across their chests or even an image of her (usually of the classic Matrix costume – top image above – and never the current incarnation). There are school supplies, journals, jewelry, and I don’t even know what else. On top of that, there’s now a designer clothing and jewelry line based on Supergirl at a boutique in L.A., which shows that there is a real adult market for dressing up as Supergirl!

This is a cultural image that obviously matters to a lot of girls. It’s not to say that there aren’t other characters who matter to us, but it takes a lot to become an icon. I’m not sure even Wonder Woman is quite at the level of iconic status that Superman and Supergirl are. Not yet, anyway. I just wish Supergirl’s current comic reflected the desire for little girls to be her, the iconic image, the Super-family legacy that she carries. But it really doesn’t. The fact that it doesn’t have many female readers is a big tip off that something is wrong. Supergirl, first and foremost, should appeal to girls.

I should be able to hand Supergirl books to the girls who come into my store, but as it is, I absolutely can’t do that. And I wish I could. I wish I could give them the power that comes from having not just an icon to identify with, but one whose world you can actually see and read about and enter with your imagination. I wish I could give them what would make Supergirl more than just a symbol – what would make her a real heroine. I’m thrilled that they are “supergirls”, but wouldn’t it be great if they could read about Supergirl herself? I can hand boys Spider-man, some of the Superman books that are out there, and even some Batman! But there’s no Supergirl.

Please bring back a Supergirl that I can share with girls! I wouldn’t mind if they kept the current book if they really want, that’s fine, as long as there’s another book going about the character that is different – targeted younger and more of what the icon of Supergirl, the icon Superman and his legacy built, should be! Please!

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