Finally meeting cheerleaders (Little Girl Lost)

It’s May 2, 1998. The top song is Next with “Too Close”; Shania Twain, Montell Jordan, K-Ci & JoJo, and Madonna also chart. The top movie is He Got Game; City of Angels, Titanic, and Lost In Space are also in the top ten. According to my extensive research of the news for this period (skimming the Wikipedia page for “1998”), the only newsworthy event is the death of musician Hideto Matsumoto, a.k.a. hide.

As I said the last time we discussed Superman: The Animated Series, this episode, despite being ostensibly the end of the second season, “Little Girl Lost” functions more like a season premiere: after a few months without any STAS, we get the introduction of a new recurring character intertwined with a continuation of the Intergang/Apokolips story arc that ended its first phase with “Apokolips… NOW!”

Supergirl herself is the focus of this two-parter, however, much as Batgirl was introduced in a Batman: The Animated Series two-parter. Supergirl is peculiarly framed, however: she is introduced as a literal anti-fridging, both in the sense of a reveal that she is alive when all Kryptonians and Argosians (other than Superman and denizens of the Phantom Zone) are presumed dead, and in the sense that she has been frozen and must be thawed.

When next we see her, she is awash in warm sunlight, playfully zooming about the Kansas sky in a scene that at once calls back to and contrasts heavily with Superman’s first flight in “Last Son of Krypton.” Superman’s flight was depicted as a culmination of a series of increasingly prodigious leaps–a feat of strength, in other words. Supergirl, by contrast, is depicted as looping and curving through the air, playing with geese and water, while music swells–a display of innocent grace that resembles nothing so much as the buildup to a Disney princess about to sing her “I want” song.

And much like the princesses of the Disney Renaissance, Supergirl is a complicated cluster of competing creative impulses. She shares the same pinup Good Girl face and body as every young woman Bruce Timm designs, and this first flight of hers exemplifies that aesthetic: she is clearly being presented for the male gaze, barelegged, -armed, and midriffed as she arches her back and stretches out her limbs, but diegetically she is simply flying with no intent of appearing sexualized. She is an ingenue balanced carefully between sexuality and innocence, trying to appeal to and convey both at once. At the same time, she is immensely physically strong, on par with Superman himself, but subordinate to him, both in the sense that she is younger than him and in the sense that this is his show.

She is full of tensions: between appealing to the male gaze and avoiding the ire of censors, depicting a competent superhero with exciting adventures and preserving the fragile egos of male superhero fans, and most of all between her Madonna-like framing and her strength. After all, as Utena told us, “a girl who cannot become a princess is doomed to become a witch.”

Supergirl definitely cannot become a princess–her people and her world are gone, after all. This episode, however, expands very slightly from the Madonna-whore binary Utena explores, merging it with the “triple goddess” archetype to give us three different women: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Other–that last combining elements of Crone and whore, while the other two both take on different aspects of the Madonna, one being the Virgin and the other, well, the Mother.

The Mother gets the least time, as Lois briefly occupies the role early in Part One, acting as a parental guide-and-setter-of-limits on Jimmy, a deliberate parallel to Superman’s strict limitation of Kara. Kara, meanwhile, is a Maiden trying to break out of that inherently infantilizing role: as long as she remains at the Kents’, she can only play with her powers, never genuinely explore the potential she possesses. But Superman sees only the danger to her, fencing her into a cage–a sun-dappled cage full of rolling hills and wide blue skies, but a cage nonetheless.

The only one who recognizes Kara’s strength is the Other, Granny Goodness, a withered old hag possessed of great power, a servant of the devil (or Darkseid, which is close enough) who corrupts the young and turns them into less Crone-like, more whore-like Others themselves, the Female Furies. Unlike Granny, they are sexualized (especially Lashina) while at the same time retaining elements of the grotesque–Lashina’s mask, Mad Harriet’s catlike features, Stompa’s size–that clearly mark them as women who cross boundaries.

But so too is Supergirl. She says it herself, when Amy expresses awe and a little horror at the idea of weapons from another planet: “Hey, I’m from another planet. It happens.” She is inherently Other; as I said above, she cannot ever be a princess, and therefore must become a witch–or else break out of the narrow, confining narrative trap in which we place women. That, then, is another tension within her: between Other and other, between being an outsider that doesn’t challenge the way we construct “inside” and “outside,” or one that does.

None of this is actually resolved within the episode. Supergirl remains a point of enormous tension, never quite resolving one way or the other. She is too active, too resistant to Superman’s attempts to control her “for her own good,” to quite be a maiden, but too much the ingenue to be the Other. Yet she is too much of both those familiar archetypes to break free of archetypes altogether.

She is, in short, aptly named. In the episode, questioned on being Supergirl, she points at the logo on her chest and says “Super,” then simpers and says “girl.” She has so much potential to transcend the limitations placed on her, but ultimately is still trapped within limiting, sexist narratives of what a young woman can be and who she is for.

And yet she is able to remain. She strains against the narrative and it strains to contain her, but still it holds. A woman who is powerful and good, who defies the rules placed on her without being vilified, can exist within the confines of this world, without being reduced to a femme fatale like Poison Ivy was. The price, unfortunately, is that this world is strong enough to contain her without breaking: she is contained, and remains still mostly a Madonna-figure, without challenging that binary.

Somewhere, Harley is laughing.


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