How "Supergirl" is Changing the Game for Transgender Youth
UNLV professor Erika Abad on the history of LGBTQ people in comics, television, film, and other media, and why TV's latest superhero is just what we need.
Newswise — It's a bird. It's a plane. It's mainstream television's first transgender superhero.
On Oct. 14, The CW will debut "Supergirl" character Dreamer, also known as Nia Nal, on the show's fourth season. What's more, the character will be portrayed by actress Nicole Maines, who is transgender herself. Maines made headlines in 2014 when she won the right to use the female bathroom at her high school in a landmark Maine Supreme Judicial Court case.
To put this in context, we sat down with Erika Abad, a gender and sexuality studies professor whose research and courses, such as “Hashtags, Fandoms, and Social Movements,” look closely at the nature of LGBTQ portrayal in film and television. She has been a noted presenter at ClexaCon, an international multi-fandom convention held annually in Las Vegas and London to champion LGBTQ representation in TV, film, web series, comics, books, and other arts.
It seems that only in the last decade or so that transgender people — Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, for example — are gaining visibility in media. What impact does having a transgender character on a show that caters to a younger generation have on society?
Before Supergirl’s announcement during this past Comic-Con, there had been other transgender characters on television shows, beyond the roles Laverne Cox has had. Supergirl’s character differs in that the character caters to a younger audience than "Orange is the New Black" or the film "Transamerica." The youth of the character speaks to the gender diversity of fandom and popular culture marketing, which are a result of the success of earlier forms of representation.
When she first came out to her parents a decade ago, actress Nicole Maines said the only examples of trans people on television were portrayed by cis men as sex workers and drug addicts or men in dresses. She'll now be portraying a character described by producers as a "soulful young transgender woman with a fierce drive to protect others." How does this role contribute to changing the conversation about transgender people?
My research has shown that a majority of LGBTQ characters in film or television are either portrayed as villains or minor players who tend to die early in a series or film. Having a transgender character who is not a criminal, a sex worker, or a drug addict adds to the breadth of representation. Pending the development of the show and the staying power of the character, she can normalize the resilience of trans youth and young adults' transgender fandom in need of positive, “fierce” representation.
Is The CW (or other networks) known for diverse characters? Does "Supergirl" introducing a trans character/actor on a traditional/mainstream network versus cable or a streaming channel make the moment even more monumental?
Mainstream streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon are addressing ethnic, sexual orientation, and gender diversity, and there are LGBT streaming sites like Revry that specialize in shows that focus on racial, ethnic, and gender diversity from the onset. Regarding transgender representation, it is important to note that FX's "Pose" features transwomen actresses. While the show caters to an adult audience, it explores the history of New York's ballroom scene, an important aspect of queer of color communities in the late 20th century.
The CW is catching up with where others have been headed. It has only been in the last few years that the network introduced diverse characters in leading or supporting roles on shows like "Jane the Virgin" and "Black Lightning." Other CW shows, like "The Vampire Diaries" and "The 100," had lesbian couples, but both shows killed one or both of the women in the relationships. The death of a popular lesbian character on "The 100" served as the catalyst for ClexaCon — as “Clexa” is a portmanteau that blends the names of character Clarke and her girlfriend Lexa, who died. I suspect the combined backlash against The CW for dropping the character and the groundswell of support for Lexa and other characters like her is part of what prompted The CW to create this new "Supergirl" character.
Controversy has erupted over past comic book characters whose real-life counterparts diverged from their fictional backstories in terms of race. Nia Nal appears to be a new take on the DC character Nura Nal also known as Dream Girl. Some sites say Nia Nal diverges from the original character’s cisgender canon. How has the general public received news of a character with a different gender identity?
The racial rewriting that has taken place in film and television whitens the character and takes away otherwise positive representations of Asian-American and African-American heroes. That some of the Black characters in comic-based films are “straight-washed” also has raised concerns with fans who have relied on positive representations to escape from the discrimination they face daily.
There may be fans who are uncomfortable or feel betrayed with moves towards racial and gender diversity, along with more open representations of same-sex relationships in comics and the films or television shows they inspire. (But at the same time) existing LGBT and people of color representations offer escape, release, and hope for fans from marginalized communities. The communities that fans build and sustain at [comic conventions] across the country provide senses of affinity and empowerment that they may not get anywhere else.
According to the New York Times, the number of transgender characters in the comics world is limited but growing. In the comic Batgirl, the title character’s best friend Alysia Yeoh is a transgender woman. And Chalice, a transgender superhero, made her debut in Alters in 2016. Does this represent progress or is there still a long way to go?
While these are great representations, there remains a long way to go given the limited representation of trans men, gender-non-conforming, and agender characters, among other limited representations of the LGBTIQAA+ community. In addition, body size representation continues to be an issue given the unrealistic body structures in comic art. Comic-based television shows and movies rarely, if ever, address this.
While these characters are speaking to the diversifying market of comic and fantasy fans, African-American/black comic fans and journalists have taught me that representation also needs to take into account who is in the drawing and writing room. It is not enough to label a character with a marginalized identity if and when that’s as far as the industry will go.
One of the things I have enjoyed about the growth of Vegas-based ClexaCon has been meeting lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and otherwise queer content creators who are promoting their work and other community members’ work. Because ClexaCon organizers are invested in supporting diversity, we hope that providing students an opportunity to attend or volunteer at ClexaCon gives students access to engage and actively participate in the dialogue regarding how best to diversify all forms of representation in print and on screen.