The Immigrant from the Stars

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: With their home and very lives in danger, two desperate parents devise a plan to protect their child. They send them to a place where they can only hope the child will be safe, sacrificing their own chance to escape. This is the story of Superman, but it’s also the story of his cousin Supergirl, the story of Moses, the story of the Jewish refugees following World War II, and the story of the Syrian refugees right now. Characters like Superman and Supergirl are American icons. These characters became icons because they represent what is best about America. They are immigrants and refugees, people without a home who arrived in this country and made it a better place.

When CBS’ SUPERGIRL TV series dropped its first trailer, the response was mixed at best. People were quick to judge the series as THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA with superpowers, drawing pithy comparisons to SNL’s Black Widow romantic comedy spoof trailer. Fans were willing to write the series off as insultingly pandering to a female audience. Those who did missed out on a series that explores the progressive ideology of the Superman mythos better than any adaptation has before it. By embracing the immigrant story of Kara Zor-El, SUPERGIRL has become one of the most politically relevant superhero shows currently on television in its portrayal of immigrants and their relationship to America.

Supergirl, played in the series by the superb Melissa Benoist, has an interesting role within the larger Superman mythology. She isn’t a sidekick in the traditional sense, like Robin is to Batman. She tends to exist in a more independent role in the comics, despite sharing a namesake and costume design with her cousin. They have a more or less identical origin story with one major difference. Kal-El, Superman, was put into a rocket by his parents when he was only a baby. Baby Kal-El arrives on Earth with no understanding of his Kryptonian heritage. He spends his entire childhood and adolescent years completely assimilated into Earth culture. It’s not until he begins to develop superpowers due to Earth’s yellow sun that he begins to suspect his alien origins. The origin of Superman is a pretty unassailable classic of comics, but it does seem irresponsible of Jor-El and Lara-El to just shoot their infant into space and hope whatever unevolved creatures that lived on the back-water planet they were rocketing him towards wouldn’t kill him on sight.

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Enter: Supergirl. Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl, is the older cousin of Superman who was also sent to Earth just before Krypton’s destruction. Beyond wanting their child to survive, Kara’s parents hoped that she would be able to protect her baby cousin. However, Supergirl’s escape pod is knocked off course and crashes to Earth decades late. Kara remained unchanged in stasis, while Clark Kent grew up, making him older than his cousin was when she initially left Krypton. Kara finds herself without a purpose on this new Earth until she decides to take on the same mantle of heroism as her cousin.

For Supergirl, the destruction of Krypton takes on a deeper level of tragedy. Her cousin left a world he would never know, while Supergirl left behind a family, friends, and an entire culture. Superman’s pride in his heritage comes easily to him. He maintains various identities that express his comfort within each of his cultures. He has spent most of his life on Earth and therefore can embrace humanity as Clark Kent while still being Superman, who is defined by Kryptonian heritage with the symbol of the House of El as his crest.

Within the context of the SUPERGIRL TV series, Kara experiences assimilation in vastly different ways. When the series begins, we learn Kara has chosen hide her identity as a Kryptonian and instead blends in with human culture.

Supergirl vs. Assimilation

Just as Kara struggles in this new culture, immigrants in the real world often struggle to adapt to new surroundings. In his article on the psychological effects of migration, “Migration, distress, and cultural identity,” professor Dinesh Bhugra states that when someone migrates away from their established culture they “experienc[e] at first a sense of loss, dislocation, alienation and isolation…” Kara’s isolation and sense of loss manifests itself in her desire to simply blend in and be a “normal” human. She doesn’t want to embrace the memories of Krypton like Superman. Instead, she isolates herself through her job and melts into the banal army of office workers. In order to feel human, she has undergone a process of deculturation to remove all of her Kryptonian identity and push herself towards an Earthly, and specifically American, identity.

So what causes this culture shock that leads to negative psychological effects? Often it can be the differences in ethos between the country the immigrants leave compared to the country they arrive in. Kara’s cultural transition is likely distressing because of, as Bhugra also discusses in his article, the difference in Krypton’s collectivist society and America’s individualist society.

Krypton vs. The United States of America

In the series, Kara repeats the House of El’s family motto: “Stronger together.” This saying, and its deep significance to Kara’s belief system, reinforces the idea that Krypton functions as a collectivist society. Bhugra defines collectivist societies as ones that “prioritize common good and social harmony over individual interests.” If that’s not the textbook definition of Superman’s code then I don’t know what is. Unfortunately for Kara, America is a country that is far more socially rooted in individualism. The principle of America is that it is a place where any person can achieve their dream if they have the ambition and drive. This idealistic view has defined America as the “land of opportunity” for generations of immigrants.

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The dark side to this society is that the focus on individual goals and aspirations creates a culture of selfishness where the pursuit of success becomes more valuable and respected than helping and supporting fellow members of the community. Bhugra hypothesizes that the psychological stresses of this type of societal shift may contribute to the detrimental effect on self-esteem and isolation from the larger society. This stress is reflected in the episodes “Seeing Red” and “Falling,” both of which show that Supergirl may love her adopted home planet, but the cultural shift has had negative effects on the state of her mental health.

The episode “Falling” updates the classic Silver Age concept of red kryptonite, a variation on kryptonite that unleashes the dark impulses of the person exposed, turning them into an “evil” version of themselves. In this episode, Kara has suppressed a great deal of resentment and anger towards certain people in her life. Her pointed barbs at Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), in particular, express her frustration over the cultural differences between Kara’s beliefs and those of her new planet. “You’re the most arrogant, self-serving, mean-spirited person I know,” she tells Cat.

Cat acts as a stand-in for the individualist nature of America in this scene. Kara, as the outsider, recognizes the hypocrisy in the promise of America to immigrants. The country will open its doors, but then will treat those who enter with bigotry and xenophobia. As the country becomes more accepting of immigrants, individuals overcome that prejudice to find success in this country. Unfortunately, that success doesn’t guarantee the end of all bigotry within the culture. The portrayal of bigotry against immigrants is reflected in the reactions to Supergirl by the general populace versus the reactions to Superman. Supergirl’s cousin has been embraced by society, but the moral licensing of Americans makes them hesitant to accept her as well.

License to Ill(-informed Opinions)

True social change and acceptance always comes slowly, but there is real progressive change happening in the world. As more people classified as the “minority” move into positions of power, moral licensing will confuse people into thinking that one positive change can erase generations of negative behavior. The concept of moral licensing acts as a justification for individuals to perpetuate bigotry.

Let’s look at the presidency of Barack Obama as an example. Many people will proclaim we live in a post-racial society because we have a black president and use that as an excuse to maintain racist attitudes and behaviors. In reality, the electing of a black president is merely one step forward in the eradication of racism rather than the definitive cure. It would be like saying, “Well, I ran the first mile, so I finished the whole marathon.”

In SUPERGIRL, Superman has already been well-established as a hero and is loved by the people of the world. Supergirl’s primary struggle is to define herself outside of her cousin’s shadow and overcome the mistrust people may have for her. The characters in SUPERGIRL have already shown they can perform a good action (trust of an immigrant like Superman) and therefore they can’t recognize the bigotry in their own actions (mistrust of Supergirl).

CLICK: Want to know more about the characters from SUPERGIRL? Click here for our character spotlights!

There’s also some subtle sexism involved here that is reflected in the current presidential race. It was easy for people to accept a male, black president, but factions of Democrats seem unable to trust a female, white candidate for president. While Hillary Clinton’s record may not be spotless (how many times can we utter the phrase “missing emails” until it just sounds like weird gibberish?), there’s plenty of evidence of sexism in the way people react to her and her campaign. That lack of trust based on gender is identical to the kind of attitudes Supergirl faces.

In the episode “Red Faced,” Supergirl feels the pressures of earning that trust, particularly while in the presence of General Sam Lane (Glenn Morshower), a notorious xenophobe who won’t even give Superman the benefit of the doubt. Supergirl shouldn’t have to “prove” her worth anymore than immigrants entering this country should, but the mistrust for “outsiders” within the American population won’t allow immigrants to achieve their potential as members of the society. The struggles of Supergirl reflect the struggles of immigrants, but the series goes a step further to explore how the race of immigrants impacts their treatment and ability to assimilate into a culture.

The Martian: Race and Assimilation

One of the big reveals in the first season of SUPERGIRL is that Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) is actually J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. J’onn was a perfect addition to the series because of the show’s portrayal of refugees and immigrants in America. J’onn is also the last survivor of an alien race, the green Martians of Mars. He sought asylum on Earth after his people were wiped out in a genocide carried out by the white Martians. The addition of J’onn into the series allows a further exploration of immigration and assimilation. Supergirl’s advantage in assimilating into Earth culture is that she looks like an ordinary human being. Contrast that with J’onn, whose natural appearance is that of a large, green man who is distinctly inhuman. Kara’s easy assimilation can be interpreted as an aspect of the real world: Eurocentric privilege that is reinforced by Eurocentric beauty standards around the world.

This racist phenomenon of holding “lighter” and “European” appearances as the ideal has a disturbing amount of presence in the both the cosmetic industry (where skin lightening products are sold throughout the world) and in the entertainment industry (where photos of actresses of color are frequently doctored to alter their skin tone). This idea is explored through J’onn’s ability to shapeshift. His need to change in order to fit in becomes a metaphor in this context for assimilation into a Eurocentric ideal. He has to fully alter his appearance to avoid fear and hatred in his new American society.

In many science fiction television shows, there is an unfortunate trend of using aliens to stand in for people of color. However, the SUPERGIRL television show uses that trope to further explore the barriers of assimilation that immigrants of color face. When J’onn shifts into his human form of Hank Henshaw, he is taking on the appearance of a black man in America. Even when assimilated, J’onn can still be classified as the “other” in American society, just as someone who is from a fourth, fifth, or sixth generation of Americans might still be confused as a “fresh off the boat” immigrant because of unconscious bias.

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Superman has become the great American icon because his story resonates so strongly within the immigrant experience and the ideals of America. SUPERGIRL not only carries on that legacy, but manages to find new ways to explore that metaphor within our modern world. The most important thing the series does is present two immigrants, Supergirl and J’onn J’onzz, as people who found a home in America and will always do the right thing to make it a better place. SUPERGIRL’s message of acceptance and tolerance have come at a time where the world, and especially America, needs to hear them most. The show’s premiere came three weeks before the Paris attacks occurred and we were reminded that we don’t live in a world with superheroes. It was also a reminder of just how racially divided our world has become. Right away, the blame for the event shifted towards Muslim refugees and immigrants, as well as Muslim people who have lived in their countries for generations. The division in the world and the rejection of refugees have caused ripple effects in the political sphere that are becoming more divisive. The question that remains: how do we fix it?

“I believe that we are better than this”: SUPERGIRL’s Message of Hope

The recent attacks in Paris and Orlando are ripple effects from even larger events like 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. These attacks have made many in the world want to turn its back on groups of refugees and immigrants who desperately need our help. In the United States, a worn leather messenger bag that somehow gained sentience and is now running for president stoked the fires of bigotry by claiming he would prevent all Muslims from entering the country. Enough people in the entire country of Great Britain this week voted to separate from the European Union in part to keep out refugees. This is fear, plain and simple, forcing people to make myopic decisions that will lead to their ruin.

This fear was also addressed in SUPERGIRL, as if the series had a premonition about what was to come in the next year. On December 6th, 2015, the episode “Human for a Day” aired. In the episode, Supergirl, completely powerless, faces down a looter pointing a gun at her. In a moment of metafictional providence that would make Grant Morrison weep, she delivers a speech to the looter and to each and every one of us after the Paris attacks that still matters now in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, Florida:

“I know you’re scared. We all are. You want to save yourself, your family. But don’t you see that we’re all in this together? There’s about a dozen ways I could stop you right now, but I don’t think I have to. Because this is not you. It isn’t any of you. I believe that we are better than this. We choose who we want to be. And I know you’re going to choose to be a better man.”

That’s not Supergirl the superhero speaking; that’s the refugee from the stars who came to this country with nothing and found a home. The speech acts as a reminder to not permit fear to excuse us giving up on the people who seek safety in our borders. We need to foster hope rather than sow fear. The message at the heart of SUPERGIRL is that a country that provides all people with opportunity will allow all people to soar. As the girl of steel herself says, we need to choose to be better. Sure, a television show isn’t going to change things over night, but what is the point of superheroes if they aren’t going to remind us that we each contain the potential for good?

I hope that Supergirl is right about us.

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