There’s film stuff in this old cultural studies paper–so I’m going to throw this up here and see if it sticks. . . . (And, again, WordPress did not properly format the block quotes, so I apologize.)

by Matt

This project aims to study a convergence of a broad historical and cultural phenomenon that will be named here as the lost girl and one of many potential intersections of that phenomenon with a more specific, contemporary representation in culture seen in the comic book character and franchise known as Supergirl.

First and foremost a dilemma is apparent as to what precise artifact(s) to study for a paper with restrictions of length and time. The figure of Supergirl has made numerous appearances through several different media or cultural artifacts: a feature film, Supergirl (1984), both animated and live action television series (the latter being the recent Smallville series), an array of merchandise (lunchboxes, action figures, etc.), and, of course, comics. Perhaps such a choice can better be arrived at with some consideration of exactly what this project intends to do with the Supergirl artifact(s), what or how to work with Supergirl—especially through the lost girl phenomenon.

First, this paper needs to provide additional introductory information for both the lost girl and Supergirl—as well as to note some bridges between the two. The operational definition of the lost girl will be a somewhat contradictory one: it provides 1) specific criteria from the research of Mercia Eliade with his perceived patterns of descent (from a “universal” program grounded in history, anthropologic ritual, and myth); and 2) that although these patterns do indeed appear to exist, they are so utterly susceptible to change that the lost girl is much more than simply a universal, stable, mythic phenomenon—she, like her latter representation in Supergirl, is rather a cultural phenomenon. In fact, this project ultimately seeks to demonstrate how each can inform the other; but, perhaps more primarily, it aims to show how the figure of Supergirl may inform and illuminate how such an apparently timeless phenomenon like the lost girl with her ancient, mythic roots is actually a very timely, transitory one. For example, Mike Madrid’s “Supergirl and the Ballad of American Youth” already provides exactly that kind of evidence by seeing the correlations between significant fluctuations in Supergirl over mere decades (largely via the comics) and changes in another even more prevalent popular culture occurrence, largely female pop music sensations—all of which very efficiently provides some useful historical cultural conditions for Supergirl over the years. But, to be sure, Madrid’s essay, recently collected into a similarly themed book, The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines (2009), is a rare one. Whereas surprisingly little research has been done on the lost girl phenomenon, especially phrased as thus, so, too, the total apparent lack of critical writing focused on the popular figure of Supergirl is fragmented and dispersed at best. Such a dearth of critical attention to the cultural figure of Supergirl may owe something to a rather uneven track record in both the published comic book form and the live action film medium (the 1984 feature film being an absolute flop with critics and at the box office).

Nevertheless, not unlike Supergirl, the lost girl rides the waves of cultural change; and even during a timeframe of mere years and decades, both display changes in very visible ways. Such changes are exemplified in 1) the vast variations or at least different  renditions in their numerous cultural appearances; 2) after the efficacious leap that connects the lost girl with Supergirl, the shifting signification of Supergirl, composed of likewise changing signifiers such as Supergirl’s costume with the ever problematic short red skirt and their signifieds in Supergirl’s thus particularly imaged femininity; and 3) the *gradually* moving cultural binaries of the lost girl’s still evolving femininity, which this project supposes significantly influence such signifiers and signifieds—and thus lost girl artifacts such as the cultural one of Supergirl. Therefore, this project will attend to what scholars like Stuart Hall or Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott might call this “moving signifier” of Supergirl—an exemplar of that likewise greater, mobile one of the lost girl (Hall 11; Bennett and Woollacott ?). To do so, amidst some historical contextualizing, the project will thus sample from both an array of potential lost girl artifacts and—then moving to Supergirl—even more select artifacts in Supergirl comics, the Smallville television series, and the Supergirl feature film—all of which will address 1), 2), and 3), above.

Lastly, and of no small significance, what do actual people think of Supergirl? If the historical context and select artifacts suggest that a lost girl figure such as Supergirl is itself a moving signifier across time, what do readers, viewers, and others with even a cursory knowledge of the Supergirl figure think about her? If—as this paper argues—through her history and manifold artifacts Supergirl has demonstrated some progressive cultural and political change(s) relevant to the times, do people perceive this as such? Very much at heart of this inquiry is the same question that others have in fact already asked—and conveniently so for these purposes: “Is Supergirl a feminist icon?”[1] In other words, considering Supergirl’s rather dubious roots as any even remotely possible feminist figure in the late 1950s and early 1960s under a then patently more patriarchal version of her cousin, Superman, has there been significant change? Has Supergirl done enough cultural and political work; or, rather visa versa, has enough cultural and political work been done on Supergirl over the years for actual readers, fans, and others familiar with her highly visible status in popular culture so that Supergirl may now be considered an image of female empowerment? These are some potential purposes in an initial study of Supergirl—via a prevalent, though mutable cultural phenomenon of the lost girl, which this paper will introduce and proceed to work with in the fashion as thus outlined.

What is a Lost Girl?

The lost girl is a prevalent phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that is evidenced by both the specific rhetoric of that phrase and particular junctures and images occurring throughout many artifacts across an expanse of time and culture. If not always shifting per se, it is at least an unstable phenomenon, as demonstrated by its variety, manifold renditions, and evolution throughout select cases and artifacts. In addition, the phenomenon evidenced in these artifacts may well be traceable to myths of descent. Some early, largely anthropologically based work from Eliade attests to this, though under the research of religious (and societal) “rituals” of descent in his Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries (1957). Eliade’s criteria are unfortunately often termed with the essentialist language of being “universal,” though the sheer variety of potential descent narrative artifacts again demonstrates an element of instability as the phenomenon travels across history and culture. Nevertheless, as will be seen and applied later, the criteria is an extremely useful starting point for beginning to understand the images and narratives of a phenomenon more particularly and contemporarily named as that of the lost girl. Therefore, this project sees an extremely close correlation between the lost girl and such patterns or narratives of descent; and hopefully that connection will become apparent in the following.

In addition, the lost girl phenomenon and its specific rhetorical phrase may be partly “traced” via references in other artifacts. Herein, the phenomenon may also be traceable to myths of descent. Yet apart from the cultural context provided below, there is little time for an additional trajectory fixated on mythic origins; and Eliade’s criteria, though just specific enough, is also paradoxically sufficiently broad, too, so to operate as a map of sorts—which will be seen in the later application and “leap” from lost girl to Supergirl. However, at least one myth is briefly suggested in the following historical context of the lost girl: the myth of Demeter-Persephone.

Lastly, the lost girl belongs to that half of a dualistic conception of femininity: as Judith Butler would likely help us to understand from her deconstruction of the binaries of sex and gender in Gender Trouble (1990), the lost girl in her often innocent and vulnerable depictions is one half of a binary femininity forged in gender opposition. So despite a significant difference from Butler’s main program, this paper also aims to address some binary gender oppositions—but within that dualistic construct of femininity that scholars like Butler, Sylvia Perera, Helen Luke, Estella Lauter, Julie Grossman, and many others have attended to in one form or another. The lost girl is thus that “good girl” to the “dark lady,” that socially more acceptable above-ground femininity to the threatening, darker version underground.

A History of the Lost Girl: in Media, Myth, and Literature

First, what is the trajectory of the very phrase, lost girl, and what does it connote? Maybe foremost in the collective conscious of a mass-media-immersed society such as the U.S., the young female celebrity comes immediately to mind. Frequently this lost girl celeb is the troubled Hollywood actress, already in “the public eye” by virtue of a career appearing in mass media, cast by television and tabloid journalism in a role of the media’s own making—that role typically being a somewhat sordid one. This specific practice, in fact, has a long history dating back to Hollywood’s earliest days, as Robert Sklar notes the phenomenon in Movie-Made America: a Cultural History of American Movies (1994). Sklar documents the public’s ceaseless fascination (and horror) with the sensational murder case of the young woman lost in what was perceived as one communal boudoir of Hollywood sin, as demonstrated by the scandalous death of Virginia  Rappe, “a minor actress,” at a weekend binge party hosted by the famous comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (78). Ensuing soon after was the mysterious case of the murdered director William Desmond Taylor, where this time the “popular comedienne,” Mabel Normand, (coincidentally also connected with Arbuckle from her days at Keystone productions) was the initial suspect before being cleared in the ultimately unsolved case. Still more followed: “a young actress committed suicide,” as well as several publicized “divorces and quick remarriages” (79). Indeed, “Hollywood stars [and particularly starlets] . . . became objects of another kind of curiosity: How sinful were their lives?”

Today, attention for the Hollywood lost girl can be attained with far less than a murder scandal—but with surprisingly similar coverage and spectacle. Improper diet, possibly poor life choice in a spouse, and further otherwise banal topics balloon in a kind of fabricated significance. The ever-present candid camera is so often such a magnifying lens—and a monomaniacal one, at least until the next big celebrity story. In one brief but insightful (and incisive) piece, “Lost Girls” (2005), entertainment columnist Wendy McClure incredulously asks, “When did we start watching the lives of young women celebrities like goddamn after-school specials?” (20). According to Sklar, quite some time ago. In addition, McClure realizes one of the most important aspects of the lost girl: when a young girl is “lost,” then that necessarily anticipates she needs to be “found” or “saved,” which goes to the heart of many stories about lost girls.

Yet scores of other “real” lost girls exist beyond those Hollywood cases that Sklar mentions and McClure’s own Lindsay Lohan, Olson twins, and Katie Holmes examples. An online “work in progress” by Edgar award-winning mystery novelist, Susan Chehak, (under a pseudonym, Kathryn Dow) prolifically outlines the lost girls portrayed in the mass media. The epic catalogue of these lost girls also offers a suggestive commentary—via some interesting categories—of different media portrayals of these young women as being either more clear-cut and innocent lost girls or darker, more threatening lost girls with more personal responsibility and culpability: as in the case of “19-year-old Leslie Van Houten, . . . the youngest of Charlie Manson’s female followers”; the “real-life ‘Long Island Lolita’” of Amy Fisher; the notorious Patty Hearst; several widely reported stories of neglected, abused, and/or abducted “‘Savage’” lost girls found in the wild, dating back to 1731 with Memmie le Blanc of Champagne, France; and the case of Brenda Spencer, one of the earliest and most publicized U.S. school shootings in the twenty-first century in white, middle-class America. Still other, additionally curious exigencies—though rarer still—may yield a “real” lost girl whose portrayal in mass media news and tabloid coverage coincidentally merges with her fictional film roles. Thus Jean Shinoda Bolen cites the early acting and modeling career of Brook Shields: “in the film Pretty Baby [(1978)], . . . Shields played the archetypal child-woman—a virginal, desirable, twelve-year-old girl in a brothel,” an image which largely continued in some of her additional films “and in her advertisements for Calvin Klein jeans” (202). To complete the parallel personas, “at the same time, the media described her as a sheltered and obedient Persephone-type daughter of a Demeter mother”—the Persephone myth being perhaps one of the earliest and best-known fictional accounts of a lost girl.

D. H. Lawrence appears to make the first known explicit reference to the Persephone myth as a lost girl narrative with his novel, The Lost Girl (1920). In it, Lawrence refers and makes extended allusion to that “youthful goddess who, while gathering flowers in a lush meadow, was abducted and raped by Pluto, Lord of the Dead . . . [and taken to] the subterranean world of Hades,” which Andrew Radford helpfully clarifies in his book chapters on lost girls in the works of Thomas Hardy and Lawrence (2007).

The lost girl concept—indeed the very phrase—continues to occur in a variety of artifacts of fiction (and otherwise) but with such a dispersion that little doubt can be left as to not only the multitudinous quality but its multiplicity that suggests significant political and cultural space for the phenomenon to evolve. Be it maturation, sexual knowledge, or other self-awareness developments, the “rites of passage” theme that many critics have noted in Persephone’s story appears in children’s tales like Galina Demykina’s illustrated and translated The Lost Girl and the Scallywags (1983).[2] Likewise, personal growth and physical maturation—as well as familiar descent and water well imagery—populate Elizabeth McFarland’s “Lost Girl” poem. In another poem: just as the earth swallowed up Persephone, so the world of “weakly let offices . . . phonebook wallets and ship-anchor bags and . . . municipal staticky slacks or pantsuit nightmares” is feared to have done the same to the apparently vanished and nameless idealized young woman of Eliot Khalil Wilson’s “Lost Girl Ballad” (lns 21, 24-26). Catherine Hanrahan’s Lost Girls and Love Hotels (2006) novel (dis)places her Canadian protagonist in the apparently intoxicating underbelly of Tokyo’s “‘nightmare of modernity’” chockfull of gangsters, trysts in theme rooms of those title love hotels, and “high-end Japanese youth culture.”[3] Furthermore, Hanrahan’s novel may share something along with Lawrence’s The Lost Girl, Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996), and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), which all uproot their English-speaking heroines and send the protagonist of discernibly Western traditions and background off to a foreign land as part of some descent, awakening, but ultimately transformative experience.[4]

To follow even further contemporary popular brainstorming of the lost girl concept: Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s graphic novel, Lost Girls (2006), seems to intuit some connection between a lost girl status and the prominent children’s story figures of Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy who are presented in a highly eroticized reworking of those famous works by, respectively, Lewis Carroll, Frank Baum, and J. M. Barrie.[5] Similarly drawing upon influences of such children’s story figures and their dreamscapes or rather nightmare terrains—as with previous allusions and homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939) in Wild at Heart (1990)—David Lynch’s curiously named “Lost Girl” character in Inland Empire (2006) appears in a central role amidst both broadly arcing yet, again, potentially pluralistic concepts of what it means to be a lost girl.

Yet most noteworthy are the largely problematic political and cultural messages regarding femininity when considering the continued interest in these lost girls, the multiple media incarnations they inspire, and the overall historical prevalence of the phenomenon—the latter of which, hopefully, has been clearly demonstrated. It is a particular brand of femininity that posits a lost girl in a predominantly innocent and vulnerable role in a mean and dangerous world from which she requires salvation and protection. Although this paper agrees with Butler’s argument in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” that “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original” (sic) or true form and is thus performative, the lost girl frequently appears as far more a performance of a politically patriarchal and culturally constructed role (230). In other words, performative is a more positive notion for the playing or acting out of gender with often, as Butler encourages, subversive potential; performance, on the other hand, suggests a rather rigid adherence to a culturally assigned gender role. But, finally, what should also be readily apparent from this historical context of the lost girl phenomenon is the degree of space, variation, and mobility that the lost girl is potentially afforded throughout the cultural artifacts and the manifold representations in history and fiction. The lost girl phenomenon, in its many forms, has room to evolve. This is not unlike one of the main arguments made in Bennett and Woollacott’s research on the popular hero of James Bond in Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987). And like Bond, Supergirl—as a closer examination of the lost girl phenomenon—will similarly be shown to “open up a certain cultural space” as well as “certain movements and reformations . . . [and] movements whose direction has varied with different moments” (5). Those ideological “reformations” that this paper emphasizes relate largely to femininity and its potential changes within a gradually shifting system of patriarchy. So while this paper argues that Supergirl is among the many representations of the lost girl, just like that phenomenon, Supergirl is every bit (if not more so) a visibly “moving signifier” throughout culture—and thankfully, too, considering her rather dismally patriarchal beginnings in American comic book publication.

The Leap from Lost Girl to Supergirl

Again, this project sees a close correlation between the lost girl phenomenon and patterns or narratives of descent, especially as outlined by Eliade. A brief overview of Eliade’s criteria for a descent ritual will thus provide 1) further clarification as to what may constitute a lost girl narrative or artifact before 2) applying the criteria to show how Supergirl can be regarded as part of this not simply mythic or “timeless” but rather cultural phenomenon.

According to Mircea Eliade there are “traditional rituals of descent,” which often appear as widespread “pattern[s]” that follow: “(1) separation from the family; (2) regression to a pre-natal state, the cosmic night; (3) death, dismemberment, suffering; (4) rebirth; and (5) killing of another” (Eliade 197-200; Wolkenstein 156). Here, as Diane Wolkenstein helpfully indicates, the mythic quality is certainly significant; but equally so is the fact that, when consulting Eliade’s work directly, Eliade reveals how these “characteristic features” of “mysteries of initiation” may actually “enable us to elucidate the relations between this and that cultural structure and the types of initiation” (my emphasis, Eliade 197). In other words, it is important to understand mythological studies such as Eliade’s as being grounded in anthropological and, at least by association, culturally relevant study.

However, two addendums to Eliade are suggested. First: relevant to the lost girl phenomenon, Eliade’s initial three patterns often occur via images of the dark (as he indicates) but also the underground and/or acts of rape—whether suggested, attempted, and perhaps even figurative. Several scholars such as Perera, Radford, Maureen Murdock, Christine Downing, and others have already indicated these attributes in descent myths. Second: nearly as often, more literal or visual images of descent appear to surface in these potential lost girl texts (i.e. getting lost in labyrinthine structures, falling down a hole, falling through a tornado in the sky, and some curious inversions of descent, namely as in ascents with climbing a stairway or scaling a cliff to either demonstrate irony or dramatically highlight the previous descent just triumphed over). Ultimately, with these additional points in mind, Eliade’s “characteristic features” will prove efficacious for better clarifying what is the lost girl phenomenon and briefly examining the following Supergirl artifacts.

Throughout her lengthy and varied existence in the cheaply printed pages of comic books, appearances in animated and live action television series, and a feature film, the DC comics Supergirl character offers several images and narrative junctures relevant to the pattern of descent criteria. Due to the film’s relatively composite nature of key attributes collected from the comics, Supergirl (1984) is an artifact worthy of primary attention. 1) Much like her cousin, Superman, Supergirl travels to earth alone and is thus cut off from her family, friends, and her entire alien civilization. To further aggravate the situation of isolation, in the 1959 debut issue for the Supergirl character, # 252 of Action Comics, Superman essentially casts off his female cousin and leaves her in an orphanage, which many contemporary readers have criticized. 2) A repeated, significant narrative point for Supergirl also occurs across her varied media representations through “the phantom zone”—perhaps best visualized in the feature film. Persephone’s Hades may easily be recalled here in this blustery, rocky desert realm largely devoid of life where Supergirl curiously finds herself anchored and lost with more frequency than her male cousin (even though this strange galactic dimension of punishment is familiar to them both). The transformation in her own appearance is noteworthy as well: suddenly from immaculately clean and blonde, she changes to swarthy dust-caked skin and dirty hair. Sans brightly colored garb, her costume also darkens by degrees. Likewise, the phantom zone in the eighth episode of season eight of Smallville (2001-2009) cloaks her dramatically all in black. 3) And just as with Persephone in the underworld, so, too, Supergirl seems to experience her darkest, most difficult moments under the scorched and gloomy skies of the phantom zone—a place, unlike earth, where she is utterly susceptible to pain and bleeds when she falls down on its jagged rocks. Certainly blood and other red colors and symbols are potentially significant in descent narratives that often chart a female rite of passage and offer symbolic images of menstruation. 4) Yet from this murky atmosphere once more she ascends, her silhouetted figure rising before the opening of white light after a long and arduous climb out of a cavernous abyss. 5) And after the trials of her descent, of course the evil villain is handily destroyed by this female superhero often given the moniker, “Maid of Might.”

Numerous additional and useful characteristics may be apparent when examining Supergirl as a lost girl and even reading her potential mythic connections. In fact, director Jeannot Szwarc explicitly notes the subtle mythic qualities he perceived in the Supergirl narrative and his efforts to imbue as much in the feature film, particularly regarding the dark matriarchal figure of Faye Dunaway’s Selena and her cultish, ancient ways: Szwarc discusses her practices in the black arts, as well as the demon’s morphing figurine and statue with its symbolic connection to her Id. Also, referring to distinct “mirror, mirror on the wall” visuals and monologues, Szwarc notes his intention to link Selena with the queen from “Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1869), another potential lost girl artifact. One last interesting, though perhaps coincidental, detail to note is Supergirl’s Kryptonian name, Kara, which carries a remarkable likeness to one of Persephone’s other well-known names, Kora. More curious still is the Greek meaning of Kore as literally “girl” or even “maid” when considering that nom de plume, Maid of Might.[6] And certainly there is no dearth of literature on the ways comic book characters in general often owe significant origins to mythic figures. Thus the Supergirl character is in many respects not only a descent narrative but another potential representation of the lost girl phenomenon—a prevalent phenomenon that, despite likely mythic roots, possesses the capacity for significant ideological movement and gender work, particularly upon closer examination of Supergirl’s place in culture.

A History of Supergirl: in Comics, Television, and Film

Again, where surprisingly little research has been done on the lost girl phenomenon, so, too, the bulk of critical work on the popular figure of Supergirl is fragmented and dispersed. The Madrid essay, “Supergirl and the Ballad of American Youth,” is a rare critical publication but one that attempts to glibly historicize along the lines of strategically selected chronicles of popular music. Meanwhile, the internet also offers some help with several devoted blogs, fan sites, and forums that provide impressively in-depth accounts of Supergirl’s history. Yet another perhaps more indispensible and reputable source has recently been made available: With Supergirl’s introduction to the popular live-action Smallville television series, a panel of sorts of “industry experts” was assembled for a special featurette on the character—namely to discuss in a conveniently concise narrative Supergirl’s evolution across a rather intimidating expanse of comics and mass media. The following historical account of Supergirl works largely from a transcription of that special television program, Supergirl: The Last Daughter of Krypton (2008), which uniquely elucidates the gender and patriarchal politics heavily involved in Supergirl’s career—a career that, as an exemplar in closer examination of the lost girl phenomenon, has been one of significant cultural and political movement in conjunction with the times. Because in that apparent movement, Supergirl suggests traveling in a direction not only away from that innocent, vulnerable, and lost girl half of a problematic and dualistically conceived femininity; actually, Supergirl appears not even moving toward that socially unacceptable other binary half of a threatening, “dark lady,” and more masculine underground femininity. Rather, Supergirl ultimately moves beyond a binary conception of femininity—for how else could people be starting to perceive her as a “feminist icon?” And if Supergirl is yet another potential representation of the lost girl, it stands to reason that, through Supergirl, the lost girl in some of her manifold images and versions is showing signs of ideological and specifically gender “reformation” as well.

First, the problematic patriarchal gendering of Supergirl in her early comics from the late 1950s and early 1960s is abundantly apparent. Eddie Berganza, a DC comics editor with a background in the film industry, fully acknowledges the “very secondary and permissive” characterizations of the early Supergirl that were much in keeping with the cultural status quo of femininity during those times. Those early comics thus presented the notion that “even supergirls needed a man” to protect them. This social and gender positioning as Supergirl as utterly secondary to her male counterpart of Superman is exemplified in several early Supergirl stories, such as “Supergirl’s Farewell to Earth” in Action Comics #258 where Superman is clearly positioned in the more powerful social role as tutor, chastiser, and punisher when he harshly accuses his young cousin for “coming out” of the Super-closet so to speak and revealing her Supergirl identity to the mere superdog, Krypto. “You disobeyed my orders!” he yells at Supergirl (3). “You must be taught a lesson for breaking my rule!” he commands like a true figure of the patriarchy before lastly terrorizing this incredibly vulnerable, weepy Supergirl by hurling her in a capsule to outer space and temporarily banishing her to an asteroid! And, to backtrack to the debut issue of the original Kara Zor-El Supergirl (there have been many versions of Supergirl), another excellent example is provided. The manner in which immediately upon Supergirl’s arrival Superman simply drops his young cousin off at an orphanage because he cannot be bothered to deal with her presence also offers, as Berganza notes, a kind of “you’re gonna hide out here until you’re ready” treatment of Supergirl. Indeed, according to the patriarchal practices of the times, Supergirl “kowtowed” to Superman, in effect saying “Superman, I promise I’ll never let the world know I exist, unless you give me permission” (sic). This incredibly accurate sentiment that Berganza recalls is likely a reference to that first Supergirl story in Action Comics #252, which concludes with Supergirl placed in the care of the orphanage and very willingly accepting her fate when she promises, “I’ll keep my presence on Earth a complete secret from everyone” (6). In addition, Eisner-award-winning comic book editor, Diana Schutz laments how Supergirl’s early adventures “weren’t exciting—they were day-to-day kind of things.” With hindsight, Schutz further notes this everyday quality but with a degree of paradox in how Supergirl “physically is the strongest female on the planet. And yet she’s gentle and sweet . . . and quick to tears as any ordinary girl.”

Even three years after Supergirl’s introductory issue when in Action Comics #285 Supergirl finally gets to reveal her identity and powers to the world—an otherwise incredible moment for female readers of the Supergirl character—a fair degree of confusion still lingered about the direction of the character. In as much, comic book writer, Joe Kelly, addresses the long-popular dilemma among both creators and readers of Supergirl: “Was she just Superman in a skirt?” (For many readers, that red skirt is one of the most noted of many problematic features of Supergirl’s costume, which has undergone several alterations, revisions, yet reversions over the years.) Kelly also admits the difficulty with the Supergirl character and stories when he makes the not uncommon observation of even some female fans that, early on, it simply appeared “she was the female Superman.” Ultimately, the lack of direction plagued the Supergirl comics. The time-line from web author Jessica Plummer in her Supergirl resources neatly sums up the next couple of decades for Supergirl thusly:

Kara had great success as the backup story in Action Comics until June 1969, when she swapped places with Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes and got the cover-featured starring gig in Adventure Comics, which in turn was so successful that she got her own series, Supergirl, in November 1972. Unfortunately, here the Supergirl juggernaut petered out a bit. The series only lasted ten issues before it got folded into Superman Family.[7]

It was not until The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl that Supergirl “had another go at a solo series a decade later in November 1982.”

Yet just when in the early 1980s Supergirl seemed to be fairing better with another series and even the publicity and promise of a major motion picture, the rather uneven career continued. The feature film, starring a young Helen Slater, was an utter financial failure. Paul Levitz (a former writer, editor, publisher, and recent president at DC comics) notes of the film that “the material was largely faithful to the core DC mythology.” Director Szwarc also remarks how the idea was “to replace strength and force with grace and something more fluid”—and certainly Supergirl has an interesting air-ballet quality to it. But comic book writer, Elliot Maggin, speculates that the film’s failure was partly because it was “a chick-flick with superpowers,” which may speak more of Maggin and his still patriarchally representative comic book industry. Moreover, Szwarc reminisces on the significant cultural and political changes that have continued to occur only in the last couple of decades since the Supergirl film—with the U.S. now well into its third wave of feminism. If the film were to remade, “today it would be a whole different film . . . she would be much more aggressive [and] there would be more sexuality”—both of which the Smallville series Supergirl actually possesses. Lastly, “She’d be much more comfortable with her identity and who she is.” These, too, are qualities perceivable in the latest and perhaps best-known incarnation of Supergirl with the live-action series; these also seem a stark contrast to those early appearances of Supergirl in the issues of Action Comics, which present an obedient and barely pubescent girl. In fact, Laura Vandervoort’s authoring of Supergirl in Smallville suggests a rather fiery young woman with considerably more agency than the mere girl from those previous versions. However, it is worth noting that, with the “movie franchise dead,” the Supergirl character was first “officially let . . . go” for some time with her self-sacrificial death in the Crisis on Infinite Earths #7. Curiously, to many, like comic book editor Matt Idelson, “when she sacrificed herself . . . that was just a great moment [where she] went from being a knockoff of Superman to being her own person.”

Yet this is an especially interesting sacrificial death in the historical context of the lost girl phenomenon’s numerous movements and variations on sacrifice: Eliade indicates the sacrificial quality in many “mysteries of initiation,” upon which many mythic and later narratives of descent are based. Again, both Eliade and Wolkenstein cite the sacrificial “killing of another”—i.e. not the hero or heroine—in such descent patterns. And, lastly, Walter Burkert notes the connection(s) in the ritual animal sacrifices of pigs in the ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria so inextricably tied to Demeter’s lost girl of Persephone / Kore, whose virginity is sacrificed by Zeus (Persephone’s own father) to his brother, Pluto / Hades (242-243). So in yet another potential variation with the Crisis on Infinite Earths sacrifice where Supergirl dies so that her fellow heroes can later save the universe, Supergirl is certainly given agency in choosing to sacrifice herself, which is a notable change from patriarchal myths like that of Persephone’s abduction and even many of those contemporary lost girl artifacts. However, in her sacrifice, the publishers and editors at DC Comics ensured Supergirl’s departure: she was effectively “erased . . . and remained absent for nearly 20 years”—certainly not very promising or progressive.

Still, by the time of her latest appearance on the popular Smallville television series, it is readily apparent that significant cultural work has been done on Supergirl via her movement(s) through the years—namely with noticeable patriarchal and gender modifications. As far as Supergirl’s physical appearance goes, several changes have occurred over the years. Surely many male superheroes in comics undergo numerous alterations in physique and costume; but from considerations of patriarchy and gender, some additional politics seem to weigh in on the conception(s) of femininity in a female superhero like Supergirl. Dan Didio, Executive editor at DC comics, implies as much with the admission that “we over exaggerate muscles of the [male] heroes, to the sexuality of the female characters.”[8] Therefore a brief analysis of the shifting signifiers in Supergirl’s appearance reveals the likewise gradually changing signifieds of a cultural femininity. From the original Supergirl of Kara Zor-El of the late 1950s through 1960s: the signifiers are a modest-length, at times pleated blue skirt part of an otherwise one-piece costume with a relatively loose-fitting long-sleeved blouse in an all-blue color scheme. After numerous versions with even solicitations of ideas from readers, the 1970s Supergirl largely settles on an equally timely look, which Plummer again neatly describes:

Finally Kara settled on what is probably her most infamous costume: the hot pants. The shorts, which appear to be pantaloons with gold elastic bands around the thighs, possibly embellished with lace (or maybe barbed wire – it’s hard to tell) were paired off with a V-necked blouse with billowing sleeves and a small S-shield over Supergirl’s left breast. The cape sometimes seemed to come from the blouse and sometimes from the choker, which . . . wouldn’t bother an invulnerable neck. In its first appearance, . . . the costume ended in ballet slippers with laces, much like the Wonder Woman of old; the laces soon disappeared and the slippers were eventually replaced by classic Superboots.

Hundreds of comic book issues featuring Supergirl exist. Thus numerous other changes are noticeable, but there is scant time to discuss them in detail here. A good amount of room remains for further analysis of Supergirl as herself a moving sign; possessing mobile signifiers in her colorful garb with also mobile signifieds of femininity; and/or being another moving signifier of and perhaps away from the brand of femininity discussed in the lost girl phenomenon. Yet an innocent, vulnerable binary half of femininity seems gradually elided here: Supergirl is no lost girl anymore. And there are few if any indications that she is merely moving to another conventional mode of that dualistic conception. No socially underground form, no “dark lady,” and no femme fatale seem suggested. Certainly, over the years cultural and political work has visibly increased Supergirl’s breast size; shaped her already sparkling blond and rather Barbie physique to impossible new standards, and likely underweight; and continued to play with so many sexually objectifying form-fitting skirts, “boyshort” and “mid-scoop” bottom cuts (and, yes, those “hot pants”), as well as bare midriffs. Yet despite or in spite of further sexualizing of an evolving Supergirl, a degree of granted liberation may also be evident in these shifting signifiers. Because suggested are nonetheless shifting signifieds from 1) a prim and properly obedient school girl Supergirl who follows Superman’s commands to 2) a decidedly more sexualized, often “booty shorts” clad Supergirl—sans signifier of skirt—but with significantly more agency and empowerment, as evident in an increasingly confrontational relationship with that previous symbol of the dominant patriarchy, her older cousin, Superman.

In fact, Vandervoort’s Supergirl on Smallville is a clear example of all of this movement through culture and Supergirl’s roughly fifty-year history. Idelson notes the resulting palpable change: “We’ve gotten her to a point where she can finally confront Superman and say ‘I don’t have to answer to you’ and Superman essentially admitting ‘we’re on equal footing here’ . . . certainly a difference from the way the original Supergirl was portrayed” (sic). Szwarc agrees with this assessment of this more recent Supergirl in how “she has become more independent . . . stepped out of her cousin’s shadow . . . [and] reflects the evolution of women in our society.” Of her contemporary Supergirl, Vandervoort expands on this much-altered relationship between the two cousins: “they just—[almost] like any brother and sister—fight.” Yet Smallville’s Supergirl offers another fascinating patriarchal and gender shift: according to producer and writer, Al Gough, the series offers “a weird role reversal” in that Supergirl “was sent to protect him” (sic). In addition, Szwarc sees that where in older models of femininity a woman needs constant encouragement and “always has to be told ‘you can,’” with the Smallville Supergirl “she comes here already saying ‘I can.’” Ultimately, it certainly does appear to be “a reversal of roles . . . [in that] she’s doing to Clark what most men used to do to women.” Vandervoort is thus justified when she claims “she stands for what all women should—which is you can be your own woman and you don’t need anybody. You can be strong and defend yourself and be intelligent and still kick ass.” And in doing such, it is perhaps of no small consequence that, while Smallville’s young Superman is far less powerful and still bound to the ground, Vandervoort’s Supergirl is significantly stronger and quite capable of flight—and, opting for plain denim shorts instead, she doesn’t need booty shorts or a skirt to do so.

Supergirl: What People Have to Say

A historical context and an extensive commentary mostly from the production side of the Supergirl franchise suggests significant cultural and political movement relevant to Supergirl and a shifting signified femininity. But what are the thoughts of real people, readers, and fans on the subject of Supergirl as a heroine that has progressively evolved?

Few, if any, would argue that the early Supergirl of the late 1950s and early 1960s possessed notable feminist qualities. And surely this paper does not intend to negate the continual sexual objectifying of Supergirl’s often problematic costume designs, rather unrealistic physique, and other physical and personality attributes in the comic books. In fact, Supergirl continues to receive considerable scrutiny and criticism, as apparent from visits to any number of relevant online forums where such comments and discussions are readily available. Furthermore, that Supergirl remains the product of the largely patriarchal publishing and entertainment leviathan of DC Comics should be evident from the dramatically uneven female editorial input provided above, as well as a mere glance at the current DC Comics masthead which lists only 6 female employees in those key company positions, versus 19 males.

Yet a visit to—one of the more popular forums specializing in discussions on the subject of female superheroes and Supergirl herself—suggests that, despite some of those persistent problematics, people do perceive cultural and political potential in Supergirl. Specifically, within a still prevalently patriarchal society such as the U.S., notable progress in feminist and gender politics is evidenced in the Supergirl franchise itself and even in that publishing format of the comic book, which is known to garner mostly male readership.[9] Otherwise, considering all of the patriarchal and gender baggage discussed so far, how could the very question even be posed to fellow board members, “Is Supergirl a feminist icon?”

One of the most revealing responses to this topic question (incidentally, initiated with a post by Plummer under her avatar of “Poison Ivory”) is by a member named “michelle” (sic). This member replies:

My fan concept of Supergirl was formed at a very young age with very little reference to the canon [, and I] never read a comic until I was 18. . . . I saw a girl with the same heritage, powers, strength, invulnerability, as Superman, and assumed she would be considered an equal to Superman. Hey, I was only 7: I hadn’t yet learned that women were second class citizens and had to be twice as good as men to get the same amount of respect. . . . To answer the question: Is Supergirl a feminist icon? I think the concept is, but DC will never treat her that way.

The response certainly betrays a degree of inner-struggle with this member as to the question. And such conflict even seems in line with the varied responses and debate under this forum topic. Yet Supergirl’s remarkable popular status in culture-at-large is clear when, even as a child without ever having read a comic, “michelle” was nevertheless quite amenable to the “powers, strength, invulnerability” of the heroine. Actually, it seems that Supergirl or the cultural “concept of Supergirl” was even more progressive than subsequent bitter patriarchal realities that “michelle” would face as a young woman.

“Mary” seems to completely agree with the potential Supergirl holds as a “concept” and more a figure in culture-at-large—because, again, Supergirl is a spanning franchise and figure with complex ideological and gender mechanisms by no means limited to comic books or, for that matter, any single material form:

I personally tend to think of Supergirl in the same way I think of Peter Pan. Sure, there’s an actual ‘central’ text, but the relevancy of that text to the general perception of the character-as-icon is fairly tenuous. . . . Supergirl is Superman’s cousin from an alien world, she fights crime and flies; Peter Pan is a boy who lives on a island, battles Captain Hook, and hangs out with Tinker Bell . . . . It doesn’t seem to matter very much to the characters’ currency how widely read or not their ‘real’ books are. “Peter Pan and Wendy” surprised a lot of people by being a disappointment . . . as a book, and the current Supergirl book is unarguably a disaster, but Peter and Supergirl somehow don’t seem to end up tarnished when things like that happen.

Moreover, this type of response is not only indicative of Supergirl’s potential as a moving signifier, but it also begins to reveal that promise so often elucidated in cultural studies where readers and audiences can do their own significant negotiated or even resistant “work” with communication messages and cultural products.

Still other people more wholeheartedly agree that Supergirl, again as a larger “concept” in culture, has gradually shifted and become a feminist icon. And, again, where a reader or audience possesses the agency to negotiate or resist a given message of patriarchal production, one member, “furikku,” articulates an action even closer to an oppositional reading—to simply “ignore” particular attributes, knowing exactly where those problematic gender messages come from, namely patriarchy’s “cultural teachings”:

I agree that “Supergirl” as a basic concept is a good icon of feminism, since it implies superpowers + female. The implication that she’s somehow subservient to or beneath Superman is probably more related to cultural teachings, so it could be ignored.

Yet another member, “soyo-erika,” largely agrees with Supergirl’s promise as a feminist icon. Although “soyo-erika” once more reveals some of the complexities in any community debate like this one—the notion of a Supergirl vs. Superwoman, as well as a lamentable lack of feminist role models for young women—she actually sides more with a Supergirl and, again, reminds about Supergirl’s potential positive impact as an inspiring figure for young girls.[10]

I’ve seen a lot of blog entries where women talk about how Supergirl inspired them when they were young . . . . In this case, her status as “girl” may even be an asset. I remember that as a kid I identified with characters because of age as well as gender, so a “Superwoman” may well have bored me back then. . . . Ultimately, I think Supergirl can be a feminist icon for a young audience. This is awesome, and should be encouraged. The problem is that there are fewer feminist icons for young girls to turn to as they become young women . . . .

More members concur—like “starline,” who adds:

She was definitely an icon to me when I was a teenager. I didn’t collect comics at the time, but I was a huge fan of DC’s Superman/Batman animated series. I was so psyched the day they introduced her. She was so gung-ho about wanting to be a hero like Supes.

A member called “living word” puts it simply that, “[I] love the idea of Supergirl but [I]  have not read too many her comic books . . . this being said . . . she was a icon to me when [I]  was [a]  kid.” Another member, “ealperin” again agrees with the notion of Supergirl as a feminist figure:

I think she’s a feminist Icon . . . I actually watched the Supergirl movie . . . and admired that she’s the complete opposite of Superman…Superman’s muscle and brawn where as Supergirl is graceful . . .

Yet there is no need to see Supergirl as “the complete opposite of Superman.” Actually, some insights are offered on this matter elsewhere. For example, one member, “extraordinarysupergirlfan,” reiterates the utter belief in Supergirl as a feminist icon and, in the argument, references journalist and activist, Gloria Steinem. Rather than fixating only on the comic books, the comments also continue to focus more on the larger presence of Supergirl in popular culture and mass media images such as the film, Supergirl:

I believe very much so that Supergirl is a feminist icon. For me, my first exposure to the character was the Supergirl movie, which is an excellent film in my opinion. I realize that some regard it as a lousy film since the plot has holes in it, and the dialogue is bad. . . . But the message I got from the film I believe is more important. This film was my first exposure to a female hero, and I think the film sends a great message how women are just as strong, heroic, intelligent, and courageous as men. While these traits can be seen as masculine, Kara proves that this should not be so. Kara had all those traits plus her youthful spirit and kindness to aid her against the villains. . . . Gloria Steinem has said that the goal of feminism is full humanity for everybody, and I believe Kara embodies that ideal very much. I don’t believe it so much that Kara as a teenage girl kicking ass with superpowers and taking names is what make her a feminist icon as much as her true inner powers do.

A pivotal point to note here is that if a woman is “just as strong, heroic, intelligent, and courageous as men,” then that should by no means necessarily relegate her to that socially unacceptable “masculine” half of a binary femininity. (Again, such gender oppositions within a conception of femininity only support those larger, dominant, and conventional binaries of gender and sex.) Therefore, this member clearly sees that Supergirl / Kara utterly elides that binary as well: “While these traits can be seen as masculine, Kara proves that this should not be so.”


The brief concentration on the members and comments of the selected web forum is not intended as a representative sample with any “statistical significance.” Indeed, there are some individuals even in that particular community who are hesitant to or disagree with the notion of Supergirl as a feminist icon. And, again, those opinions side with the notions of sexual objectifying and still problematic aspects of physical appearance and personality that surface in the comics and other Supergirl representations and products—which has already been addressed.

However, there are several fans, readers, and others familiar with Supergirl’s place and images in popular culture who see that Supergirl has gradually evolved from her original brand of an obedient, vulnerable, and innocent femininity—a binary half of femininity closely linked with the lost girl phenomenon. Yet if Supergirl was at one time or more connected to that phenomenon and those descent narratives of likely ancient anthropological and mythic roots, then both the “producers” and “consumers” of Supergirl see that significant cultural work has been done on and/or by Supergirl in the realm of patriarchal and gender politics. For Supergirl clearly possesses the shifting signifiers in her costume and signifieds of her own changing femininity; and Supergirl herself may well be a moving signifier of a larger, shifting cultural femininity. Lastly, since Supergirl began in comics, it may be appropriate to conclude with the special note: much to the relief and delight of many Supergirl enthusiasts, even further recent changes have been made with Supergirl’s shifting costume in the current comic book series. As of the date of this writing, Supergirl still wears the skirt, but now she wears shorts, too.

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[1] This pointed question that has drawn a fair amount of response was actually asked on the Supergirl forum, a sub-forum of the boards at, whose hip, political slogan reminds visitors that “Capes aren’t just for boys.”

[2] Quoting children’s book review by Lisa Castillo (76).

[3] Quoting book review by Kirkus Reviews.

[4] Although likely a mere coincidence, it may be worth a passing notice that both Lawrence and Bertolucci choose Italy as their setting; whereas, Hanrahan and Coppola choose settings in the East.

[5] Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Baum’s Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), and Barrie’s Wendy in Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904).

[6] See entries for Kore, Kora, Core, or Cora—The Oxford English Dictionary Online.

[7] Actually, Plummer’s resources are very well-researched and helpful for an initial cultural study of Supergirl, and Plummer completed a senior thesis on Supergirl during her studies at Barnard.

[8] Curiously, an odd gap of ambient sound takes the place of the conspicuously missing qualifier, “male,” in Didio’s rather frank (even remarkable) admission.

[9] The largely male readership of mainstream American comic books is common information across the industry. And while publishing companies in general are extremely protective about their “secret” demographics, Valerie D’Orazio, publishing insider and president of Friends of Lulu (“a national organization whose main purpose is to promote and encourage female readership and participation in the comic book industry”) recently cited on her blog the staggering figure that “more than 90% of the readers of mainstream superhero comics are male.”

[10] She: It is an educated guess that “soyo-erika” is female, because the gender of members is not explicitly revealed in their forum profiles. Yet the suggestive avatar here (“-erika”) and avatars elsewhere in the forum, as well as the specific dedication of the community “to female characters and creators in mainstream comics” indicates a largely—but certainly not completely—female demographic. (All of which seems to offer *some* contradiction to D’Orazio’s information noted above.)


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