Supergirl is a delightful, frothy sorbet mingling the sweetness of a family drama (both in the sense of being about family, and suitable for families with older children), the stronger flavours of an action series, and just a dash of Feminism 101. Its special effects are on the ropey side, some of the acting is a bit rough, and it wears its heart and subtexts on its sleeve.
I love it.
I especially love Cat Grant, self-made media mogul, employer of Kara Danvers and creator of Supergirl’s media persona. Cat’s storylines deal with the complexities of being a woman in a masculine business, being an older woman in an ageist society, and more. She is a wonderful character who says true things about the challenges facing women in the workforce. She calls out mansplainers and takes no crap from people who look down on her because she’s a single mother who started out as a gossip columnist. She is, in many ways, a feminist role model.
She’s just not mine.
Cat is a wonderful, complex character, but I tend to watch her scenes from behind the sofa, with a handy cushion on hand if I need to cringe and hide.
We see over and over again that Cat is a terrible boss. She mentors young women if they remind her of herself, but everyone else is lucky if she remembers their names. She actively belittles her colleagues and staff, from board members to lowly assistants.
And I have trouble watching that because until recently, I basically worked for her. A recent episode had Cat hiring a new assistant when Kara takes time off, then making the two women compete for the job — my former boss literally did that. It was before my time, but I’ve met both women and their predecessor, and they confirmed the story.
It’s played for laughs in the show, and it is funny, because obviously no sane employer would do that, and no sane employee would put up with it. Except, yaknow…
Needless to say, I’m a bit hypersensitive about appropriate employer behaviour these days.
A lot of fans see Cat as a great feminist character. And they make good arguments, but for me, the character’s feminism is completely undermined by her treatment of her staff. Yes, she’s an equal opportunity belittler, but, uhhhh, employers aren’t supposed to be belittlers at all.
Cat’s feminism is the type that’s more about putting women on corporate boards and in CEO roles than empowering the truly vulnerable. In the real world, she would be saying that women should be supporting Hillary purely because we share a gender. In her fictional universe, she probably wrote the DC equivalent of Lean In. Her feminism is capitalistic and largely aimed at women who are like herself.
(Is Cat a White Feminist? Difficult to say, because there are barely any women of colour in the show. Okay, yes, Cat is a White Feminist because Supergirl is a White Feminist series.)
And even the series isn’t completely sold on Cat as feminist role model. Although Kara admires her, and to a strong extent sees her through rose coloured glasses, Kara picks and chooses what to emulate. Most importantly, Cat isn’t Kara’s only female mentor: there is also the holographic AI with her mother’s personality; her memories of her actual mother; her aunt (okay, SPOILERS, but still); her sister; and even Lucy Lane, whom she genuinely likes and admires despite their romantic rivalry.
It’s really the fandom that has wholeheartedly embraced Cat as the uberfeminist, and I find that disquieting, because we can do better.
None of this is to say that Cat is a bad character — she’s incredibly well-written, and functions on a lot of layers, both textual and intertextual. For example, we know a huge amount about her diet and food preferences, which cannot be an accident, given that she is played by Calista Flockhart, whose weight and diet have been scrutinised since she became famous. And that fame was for playing Ally McBeal, a character with a similarly ambiguous feminism.
(Ambiguous in this case is not a criticism — I like that the writers aren’t too concerned about making Cat likeable or ideologically pure. I just have a hard time with the idea that we as fans should wholeheartedly embrace her feminism.)
Probably in a few years, I’ll revisit Cat and wonder why I was so down on her. This is very much a personal subjective reaction based on a fairly unique experience.
But until the anxiety dreams pass and I stop panicking when my work phone rings, I’m keeping Cat, and her feminism, at arm’s length.