Somewhere, there is a person.
A person who decides which characters play love interests on the show Supergirl.
This is an open letter to that person.
Hey. You don’t know me, but I’m a huge fan of your show. You’ve created some of my favorite characters on television, and Supergirl is one of only three shows I’ve watched this year. I want to sincerely thank you for all the hard work you’ve put into it; it’s gotten me through some very dark times.
I’m writing because word on the street is you’re shipping Lena & James. If that’s not true, stop reading! You’re awesome and I’m really happy with how you handled Mon-El’s return.
If you are going full-tilt on #GuardianCorp, I’m asking you as a friend: please don’t. Really. I’m sure you have reasons to do it, even some great ideas you’re super excited about. This is a sincere heads-up that, unless this is an elaborate ruse on Lena’s part to make Kara jealous (which I am 100% on board with), or a bump in the road and learning experience for Lena & Kara, #GuardianCorp is going to hurt and upset a lot of people. And I’m sure that’s not what you woke up this morning excited to do.
My goal here is to share some context around why shipping Lena & James won’t go over well with a very important part of Supergirl’s fanbase. Not just the LGBTQ fanbase, who are still ugly-crying over Sanvers. This is going to upset the feminist fanbase.
You know, like these people.
If you don’t watch Supergirl, here’s what you need to know to roll into this conversation swinging. Supergirl is a TV show following the adventures (heroic and emotional) of Kara Danvers, Catco reporter by day and superhero by…every time the bat signal goes off, so like every five minutes. (It’s unclear how she’s still employed.) Kara’s best friend is Lena Luthor sister of Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor, a brilliant billionaire and the hypercompetent CEO of the Fortune 500 company L-Corp. They eyefuck regularly and the possibility of their romantic coupling is known by legions of their wistful fans as #Supercorp.
Lena’s adoptive mother hated her growing up, so she’s desperate for an approving maternal figure, to the point that she invents teleportation and almost destroys the world. She also struggles with insecurity and self-loathing due to the widespread distrust of the Luthor name. No matter how many sacrifices she makes for the good of the city, everyone hates her by default and turns on her at the drop of a hat. The sole exception is Kara, who never once doubts her and defends her at every turn.
In the opposite corner, we have James Olsen. He’s Superman’s best friend, moonlights as the vigilante Guardian, and is the interim head of Catco.
James is generally a cool guy, but he was the most vocal “we can’t trust Lena, she’s a Luthor!” dumbhead in season two. At the start of that season, he was all set to date Kara when their relationship was suddenly, inexplicably and disappointingly kiboshed. There’s debate over why the relationship fizzled, but whatever the reason, it made room for Kara’s new love interest, Mon-El.
Mon-El is the most controversial figure in the Supergirl fandom. Like Kara, he’s a crash-landed alien, but whereas she’s from the stuck-up and sanctimonious planet of Krypton, he’s from the free-wheeling and decadent planet of Daxam, where orgies, fighting for sport and owning slaves are the norm. He’s good-natured, charming, super cute, and occasionally a loan sharking, womanizing douchebro.
Kara loves him, kind of like a bad puppy, but he disagrees with her frequently, defies her direct orders, and typically makes the situation worse with his self-centered “I know better than Kara” shenanigans. For example, when Kara jumps into a portal on a rescue mission, she tells Mon-El to stay behind and go get help. Characteristically, he jumps right in after her because, as he says in an offended tone, “I thought you might need my help.” Also characteristically, he ends up being no help whatsoever.
Mon-El is often overprotective of Kara, and perpetually doubts whether she can take care of herself. His first words in episode 3.8 are “I heard there was a fight. Is Kara okay?” To which her sister Alex side-eyes, “She’s fine. She’s Supergirl.” Ardent #Karamel fans point to his sincere efforts to become a better person and his more adorable pancake-y moments. Meanwhile, the Kara & Lena-shipping #Supercorp contingent rants over rosé about his broken-record Kara-condescending.
Caught up on the drama? Hokay. Here we go.
The reason the idea of Lena & James upsets me personally as a feminist boils down to this:
- Supergirl is a feminist show, one of the few primetime shows mainly for women.
- James, who is normally a stand-up guy, has a history of interactions with or about Lena that have been disrespectful, distrusting and at times borderline-hostile.
- Suggesting Lena should fall for someone who won’t help her grow and has a history of disrespecting her sends a negative message to women.
- We already went through this with Mon-El, who is great as a goofy side-kick and Winn-bro, but a terrible model for a healthy relationship. We gave feedback. We stuck it out and hoped for better. Lena & James would be like saying “You don’t think Mon-El deserved Kara? Hold my beer.”
Let’s go through these points one at a time.
Supergirl is a feminist show
Whatever Jeb Bush thinks, the point of Supergirl isn’t for men to watch Melissa Benoist fly around in a mini-skirt. It’s for women to watch Supergirl kick ass, take names, and save the day. It’s to cheer on Kara Danvers as she fights for truth, justice, and Leaning In as a reporter. It’s to roar as Alex lights up with the big guns, rolls up on her Ducati and leaps off buildings; to giggle while Cat Grant eviscerates the unworthy with a clapback and withering scorn. It’s to swoon over a couple called Sanvers who are equal parts fluff, angst and processing, with just a dash of hot damn. This is a show about and for powerful women.
Until, like, two episodes ago, James was very anti-Lena
Here’s what James said about Lena in season two, episode 12: Luthors.
- “Well, the Luthors have never shied away from doing awful things.”
- “See, using her friends, that’s exactly what I’m worried about.”
- “If she can betray her own mother, what is to stop her from pulling a long con on you? Okay, I know she’s your friend Kara, but Lena’s bad news.”
- Kara: “Lena is not Lex.”
James: “But they grew up in the same house, Kara. I don’t understand why you keep defending her. And you have so much faith in her but none in me as Guardian.”
In addition to the canon-frowned-upon “All Luthors are bad” mentality, James comes across as jealous of Kara & Lena’s friendship. We start season three in a very similar place, when Lena buys Catco and takes over as CEO. James immediately assumes bad intent as she tries to ramp up her first day and says defensively “I consider myself the person who’s been running this company for a year.” Despite his disrespectful attitude, the show tries to convince us Lena is impressed by his masculine assertiveness. We remain unconvinced.
During a crisis, even as James says he doesn’t see her as an extension of her brother, he suggests she should step down from Catco (putting him back in charge). Kara, on the other hand, says “No, that would look like an admission of guilt” and fights to convince Lena not to assume she’s the problem. Lena goes full-on self-loathing and says in a public speech no one should trust her, while James nods solemnly and Kara frowns in disagreement. His efforts may be well-intentioned, but James plays on Lena’s insecurities, weakening her as a character. This alarming development makes their chemistry irrelevant; Katie McGrath could have chemistry with a phone book, but that doesn’t mean she should date one, especially if it amplifies her self-doubts.
You can argue that enemies-to-lovers is a classic romance. That doesn’t feel applicable here. First, it should require a LOT of effort for James to get Lena to give him a chance, giving how deep a hole he’s dug for himself in the past. If the best argument is “they had a couple kind of friendly conversations” and “he stood up for her and tried to protect her once or twice”, then Lena should have proposed to Kara AND Supergirl a long, long time ago.
This flirtation has also felt extremely rushed. Within three episodes of Lena/James interactions, we’ve gone from him belligerently taking offense at not being invited to meetings to Kara teasing Lena about her & James’ chemistry. It’s like Kara’s completely forgotten all the things James said about Lena in 2.12 (which apparently the writers wish we had–we haven’t). The writers aren’t showing us, they’re telling us, force-feeding us and I’m sorry to say I’m gagging on it. If this was supposed to be an enemies-to-lovers arc, it’s missing an awfully large middle section, a giant plot hole asking us to bungee-jump our suspension of disbelief into the void. And even if it is enemies-to-lovers…
Women should date people who empower them; they shouldn’t date people who disrespect them
Why would Lena date James? Lena’s emotional growth areas are all about mommy issues and not feeling unconditionally loved or trusted. James hasn’t shown any particular strength in those subjects, unlike, say, a certain cinnamon roll of a reporter whose adoptive mother has grown into the model of healthy mother-daughter relationships. Lena might put up with some level of “this is a fixer-upper relationship” (as Kara had with Mon-El) if James were exactly her type. It’s hard to believe that her type is “guys who have said they don’t like or trust me, say I should give up my power to them and treat me like I can’t protect myself.”
I simply can’t think of any ways James, god love him, would help Lena grow as a person. Unless she has secret aspirations to become Batwoman or take up photography, he has little to offer to empower her. The only “advantage” James has over Kara is he has a dick, and unlike James, Kara respects, loves, supports and encourages Lena. Lena deserves someone like Kara, not someone who calls her “bad news.”
Furthermore, having our feminist idols date people who disrespect them sends the message to women that it’s okay if a boy is mean to you! That just means he likes you. And it’s more important for you to be liked than for you to be with someone who helps you like yourself. If women accept this message, it normalizes many toxic real-world relationships. This is not feminist. Nor is it feminist to suggest that, no matter how incredibly powerful a woman is, she needs a James or a Mon-El to protect her.
Take deep breaths and think of Kara punching Mon-El….
Speaking of which…
This was exactly our issue with Mon-El; it’d be a massive disappointment if no lessons were learned
What’s the best way to provide constructive feedback on this show? I can’t believe there’s a soul on Twitter who doesn’t know how a lot of the fanbase felt about Mon-El’s treatment of Kara. It’s hard to reconcile the passion and volume of that feedback with even the suggestion that James might be Mon-El 2.0. How can we as a fandom be more effective in the future?
Lena & James has some alarming parallels to Kara & Mon-El. In both cases, the men are initially very suspicious of the women. They don’t trust the women’s motives and bristle when the women assert themselves. They take for granted they know better than women who objectively have more experience and success in their chosen fields. They don’t believe the women can defend themselves, and step in to protect them when their help is both unneeded and unwanted. When Lena tells James she’s suspects the villain Morgan Edge in a recent disaster, James says “Well, I think it’s time to pay that Don Johnson wannabe a visit.” Lena: “No, I was going to go on my own.” James: “Not a chance.” I’m going to start calling him James-El.
The Mon-El parallels make it hard to trust that #GuardianCorp is going to be a “Lena learns she deserves better” short-term mistake. Why? Because the show never acknowledged that Mon-El was not a good boyfriend for Kara. This led to a huge and very saddening rift in the fandom. Because the show never punished Mon-El for his behavior, thousands of teenagers fawned over #Karamel, while us thirty-somethings looked on in horror. Whereas #Karamels thought “He makes her breakfast in bed, he’s such a good boyfriend!”, we thought “God damn it, he just risked her life again because he doesn’t believe she can take care of herself! Why won’t he listen when she stands up for herself?!?”
If the show had explicitly pointed out how Mon-El’s actions did not model a healthy relationship, we could accept #Karamel, not as end-game, but as character development. We could see the relationship as an opportunity for Kara to realize that her yearning for Krypton doesn’t mean she should date the next best alien that comes along. The show never does this. It shows Kara falling deeper and deeper for him and that she is 100% devastated when he leaves. The only thing that keeps them from getting back together is the fact that he’s married, not the fact that his absence should have showed her how much better off she is without him.
Even if Kara’s blinded by love, the show could have had Kara’s fiercely-protective sister Alex call him out for his behavior. What does Alex do instead? Encourages Kara to pursue a relationship with him. The show goes out of its way to suggest this is an epic romance to be pursued and idolized, rather than a toxic relationship that teenage fans should learn to recognize and avoid.
Without more explicit acknowledgment in the show that Mon-El’s treatment of Kara was unacceptable, it’s very hard to trust the show won’t do the same with James & Lena. If #GuardianCorp has to happen, I hope it lets Kara see in others what was wrong about her relationship with Mon-El, and finally gives us payoff for a very expensive lesson in fan service. I hope it leads her to step in to save Lena from her own low self-worth, showing again how Kara is just as much a hero in a cardigan as she is in a cape. #GuardianCorp can be one of life’s lessons, but a Super and a Luthor should be end-game. All it takes is for Kara to learn that she can have both a career and a relationship, and for Lena to learn that she deserves to be and can accept being loved unconditionally.
I’d like to reiterate that I like James as a character and was hella on board with #Karolsen. James was very supportive of Kara in season one, and before Lena came along, he was the best of her options- from the first time she laid eyes on him, I could see the chemistry. As a senior reporter, he could help her grow in her career, and as a friend of Superman he could understand her better than most. I was also down for James & Lucy Lane, and I would be totally in favor of bringing a new lady into his life. He deserves someone who is uniquely right for him and inspires him to grow and be happy.
On the other hand, I get a gut-wrenching, physical sinking feeling in my stomach when I see screenshots and episode descriptions suggesting Lena should be with James. Imagine how I felt during the latest episode when they flirted and kissed. With the huge plot hole in the enemies-to-lovers arc and no apparent reason why this helps the development of either character, it feels (and words can’t express how much I hope this isn’t the case) like the main reason for #GuardianCorp is the writers are trying to discourage #Supercorp shippers by throwing Lena at the nearest available male character. My ardent hope is that if #GuardianCorp is happening, it’s a short-lived mistake that helps all parties grow and a simmering catalyst kicking off the end-game of #Supercorp.
Alexandra Ressler has read every #Supercorp fic on AO3, up to and including the ones without grammar. If you enjoyed this rant, please follow her on Twitter at @aeressler so she isn’t just screaming and flailing into the void.