All Commentary
Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Supergirl Needs a Mentor

Some Real-World Advice for a Fictional Hero

I can take or leave the new Supergirl. As played by Melissa Benoist, Supergirl is a fledgling hero. She struggles with defining herself in the shadow of her famous cousin, Superman, and with balancing her secret identity with her other life as Kara Danvers, a standard-issue chick-flick heroine. The feigned geekiness that throws Superman’s heroics into high relief seems, in Supergirl, to relegate her to the kind of rom-com klutzy-but-cute role that we’ve all seen enough of by now. She drops things, daydreams in meetings, and gets tongue-tied around cute guys. It was a clever innovation for Superman. It’s just another stereotype for Supergirl.

But that’s okay.

Because Supergirl is clearly not the hero of the series Supergirl. Cat Grant is.

Power and influence are about actions and character, not about job title.

Grant is played by Calista Flockhart. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Flockhart became famous playing Ally MacBeal, the same sort of hapless romantic female lead Kara Danvers reminds me of.

In Supergirl, though, Flockhart is all grown up. She’s “the most powerful woman in National City,” the head of her own media conglomerate, and generally recognizable as a clone of Miranda Priestly — the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada. Her first entrance tracks her impeccably clad walk through the office as she complains about being forced to use the public elevator, an employee’s oppressive cologne, and the temperature of her latte, while instructing Kara to handwrite a series of termination letters for the employees of the National City newspaper, the Tribune.

There is obviously nothing to like about her.

And yet, I like Cat Grant.

I like her because she is precisely as irritated by Kara Danvers’s meek and awkward schtick as many of us are by the countless female characters we have seen presented the same way. (And what a disappointment she is after my recent delight in Ms. Marvel!) When Kara responds to the instruction to write termination letters with some big-eyed pouting about the futures of the people who will be laid off, and notes that the Daily Planet (the Metropolis paper for which Clark Kent works, and which covers Superman’s adventures) doesn’t have to downsize, Grant responds with an acid, “Metropolis has a person who puts on a cape and flies around performing heroic acts. The Planet puts this superlative man on their cover 54 percent of the time. You wanna save the Trib? Go find me a hero, Kara.”

Cat Grant is, in other words, well aware of the costs of downsizing, but also aware of the need to do so. She knows what the solution is, but since no caped hero seems to be flying over National City, she will do what she needs to do to keep her business running. And when Supergirl does appear, Cat instantly recognizes her as “exactly what I need to save the Tribune.”

Well before the series aired, there was quite a bit of media coverage of the scene where Cat and Kara tangle over the decision to dub the new caped hero “Supergirl.”

Danvers: “Shouldn’t she be called Super … woman?”

Grant: “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?”

I’m not a fan of using the word “girl” for adult women, but, like many commenters, I found Grant’s defense of it an interesting one, and one that serves to remind Kara that power and influence are about actions and character, not about job title.

And it is Grant’s sharp-edged and acerbic mentoring of Kara that I really enjoy.

When Kara appears to be letting a male colleague step in and explain how the Tribune has just obtained the first real picture of Supergirl, Grant snaps, “If you can’t take credit for it when you do something well, you are going to be at the bottom of the pile forever.”

Supergirl is the kind of rom-com klutzy-but-cute role that we’ve all seen enough of by now. 

When Kara’s heroic escapades are distracting her from her job at CatCo, she is told, “Do you really think I don’t know what’s going on with you? … Honestly, I don’t care, but whatever it is, it’s affecting you at the office. Now you need to join a gym, see a shrink, whatever, but get your head out of the clouds and back behind the desk where it belongs.”

Most interesting of all is when Supergirl flubs a few rescues. When Kara objects to the disparaging news coverage from the Tribune because even Superman made mistakes when he got started, Grant responds with a line that will be familiar to nearly every working woman. “He he he, him him him. I am so sick of hearing about the Man of Steel. Every woman worth her salt knows that we have to work twice as hard as a man to be thought of as half as good.”

She follows that up with some sharp advice about Supergirl — advice that might be of use to nearly any young person starting out in business.

She’s taking on way too much way too fast … screwing everything up. This inexperienced idiot has barely had a run in her tights, and yet there she is at the epicenter of danger. What’s next, “I think I’ll catch the meteor that’s headed straight for the White House? Ohhh … whoopsie.” No, no, no. There is a learning curve. You don’t just walk through the front door and suddenly own the company. Every step of the way I had to fight. To work hard. To get better. To come out ahead.

It’s not fun advice. It’s not advice that will endear Cat Grant to her hapless assistant. But it’s the advice that Kara needs to hear. And it’s advice that is as pertinent to the business world as it is to the world of superheroes and villains.

That’s how good mentoring is supposed to work — whether the intern wears a cape or not.