When I was a kid, I knew about Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, but the character I most associated with having superpowers wasn’t the last son of a dying planet, or a vigilante billionaire or a teenager bit by a radioactive spider. Rather, it was a teenage girl named Alex Mack, the main character on the Nickelodeon TV show The Secret World of Alex Mack. Debuting in 1994, the show followed Alex (Larisa Oleynik) as she deals with the normal pitfalls of adolescence, on top of having superpowers. The show lasted 4 seasons, and was a staple on Nickelodeon’s primetime programming block for most of its run.
It’s strange for me to look back now and wonder, nearly 20 years after the fact, and wonder why I was so enthralled with the show. After all, the main character was a girl and when I was watching it, I was still very much at the age where girls still had cooties. Why was it the type of show that crossed boundaries, that kids of both genders could be invested in what was happening? I think what strikes me, even watching the show now, is that Alex is always treated as a character first and foremost, and there’s a sense of almost-universal relatability. Much like Spider-Man before her, there is a sense that she’s an average kid thrust into unusual circumstances. The opening narration to the show even has Alex state “I guess I’m not so average anymore,” and the sense that Alex really could be anyone, boy or girl, was something that really endeared the series to me and to kids all over the world. But above that, she always remained an inherently interesting and ultimately a good, well written character. I have often told friends that I believe that my love of strong female characters, from Clarice Starling to Agent Scully, from Hermione Granger to Daenerys Targaryen, started with that initial exposure of what a strong female character could be from Alex Mack.
Cut to almost 20 years later, and we’re still talking about young women with superpowers. This time, it concerns the launch of CBS’s new show Supergirl. The show deals with Superman’s cousin, Kara Zor-El (who goes by the secret identity Kara Danvers) who assumes the superhero mantle while dealing with typical 20-something frustrations like jobs, relationships, etc. Many critics have praised Supergirl, with particular attention given to the performance of actress Melissa Benoist in the lead role. As Caroline Siede of The A.V. Club says “Much as Supergirl carries a plane on her back, Benoist single-handedly elevates this show with a performance that's bubbly and bright with a core of inner strength.”
In this article, I will compare the similar plot points and formats in the pilot episodes of both The Secret World of Alex Mack and Supergirl, and how both their similarities and differences point to larger issues in depictions of female superheroes on television.
“Can you believe it? A female hero. Nice to have someone like that for my daughter to look up to.”- Waitress, Supergirl
Alex Mack debuted in a veritable “golden age” for kids’ television programming. Cable channels like Nickelodeon were creating bold, risky television shows for children that went above and beyond what their counterparts were doing on other networks. Nickelodeon, in particular, was developing a lot of live-action content for children and young adults, including The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Salute Your Shorts, and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, the latter being notable as one of the network’s first entries into genre television. Alex Mack was also likely made as a response to another popular show for children from the mid-90s, Power Rangers. Power Rangers was criticized for the levels of violence in what was seemingly a children’s television show. In contrast, Alex Mack is almost never violent, nor does Alex transform into a superhero the way the Rangers do.
Similarly, much attention was given to the fact that Supergirl is a TV show about a female superhero arriving in what is typically seen as a male-dominated genre. It too comes at a time when risky, genre television is succeeding on television, examples being other popular superhero shows like The Flash, Arrow, and the Batman-prequel Gotham. However, there seems to be movement in terms of a cultural shift, as both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. are planning female-starring superhero movies starring Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, respectively. Recently, another female-superhero show on Netflix, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, arrived to much attention and rave reviews from critics.
The plots and powers
The plots and powers
The premises of these two respective pilots are pretty cut-and-dry: female superheroine either gains (in the case of Alex Mack) or learns to utilize (in the case of Supergirl) powers, confides in those close to her about said powers, and ultimately makes a decision about what to do with her powers. The only major differences are how they gain their powers and their differing decisions on how best to manage them.
Alex gains her powers through a chemical spill of a mysterious substance called GC-161. The effects of this spill give Alex the powers of telekinesis, the ability to shoot electricity out of her fingers, and the ability to turn into a sentient liquid puddle. Supergirl, who like her cousin Superman, was born on planet Krypton and escaped to Earth before its destruction. Once on Earth, she develops powers similar to those of her iconic cousin, including flight, super-strength, invulnerability, ice breath, heightened senses (like super-hearing and x-ray vision) and heat vision.
The main arc of the pilot episode of Supergirl is Kara embracing the role of hero after hiding her abilities for so long, and taking on the mantle of Supergirl. The climax of the pilot episode is Kara confronting and ultimately triumphing over an alien supervillain named Vartox. In contrast, the decision made in the pilot of Alex Mack is for Alex to hide her secrets from the nefarious chemical plant responsible for the accident which gave her powers.
“[The Danvers] had a daughter, Alex. Despite being born on different planets, we both shared one things: we knew our lives would never be the same again.”- Kara, Supergirl
“My sister Annie thinks I’m a science experiment.”- The Secret World of Alex Mack opening narrationIn both shows, a sister plays an important part. Alex’s older sister Annie (Meredith Bishop) is a whiz-kid who helps her sister deal with the ramifications of her powers by using her knowledge of science, while Kara’s adoptive sister Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) is protective of her sister. Later, it’s revealed that Alex Danvers has been recruited by a government agency that tracks superhuman threats. Both shows feature the superheroine having a bit of antagonism with sister. Annie belittles and mocks Alex in a very sister-like way, and Kara is upset that Alex Danvers lied about her job. However, both shows end their respective pilot episodes with the respective pairs of sisters being on good terms, and promising to help one another come what may.
“You’re… you’re her…”- Winn, Supergirl
“My best friend Ray thinks it’s cool.”- The Secret World of Alex Mack opening narration
In Alex Mack, Alex’s platonic best-male-friend is Ray (Darris Love). Ray is the only one besides Annie that Alex confides her secret to. At least in the pilot, no hint of attraction is shown by either one of them. Ray is a supportive friend who goes as far as to spy on chemical-plant employees who are going door-to-door looking for Alex.
On Supergirl, the role of the “male B.F.F.” is split between James Olson (Mehcad Brooks) and Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan). James, formerly “Jimmy” Olson, is known as Superman’s good friend and confident, and helps guide Kara with advice based on his experiences with her cousin. Winn is shown initially to have more of a crush on Kara, until she confides her secret with him. Winn is the one who helps to design Kara’s costume. At the end of the pilot episode, Kara says that she will disclose the details of her battle with Vartox to him soon, ensuring that she believes Winn is and will continue to be an important part of her life. To what extent Winn has been “friendzoned” by Kara is debatable.
The villainous older woman in a role of authority
The villainous older woman in a role of authority
“Have a good night’s sleep, kid. You won’t have many more. You slipped through my fingers for now, but tomorrow is another day.” –Danielle Atron, The Secret World of Alex Mack
“It’s not that I don’t see your frown, it’s just that I don’t care enough to ask why it’s there.”-Cat Grant, Supergirl
On Alex Mack, the antagonist is Danielle Atron (Louan Gideon), the head of the chemical company whose accident granted Alex her powers. She is shown to be a ruthless leader who would rather deny the chemical spill that granted Alex her powers than accept the responsibility and consequences that come with it.
While she is not the antagonist of the show per se, Kara frequently butts heads with her boss, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart). Grant is shown to be a bossy, self-absorbed leader, not unlike (and more than likely based on) Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly from the film The Devil Wears Prada. Grant cares little for those beneath her until they can provide her something they want, be it information, access to Supergirl, or prestige.
Having a female villain (or, in the case of Supergirl, an unlikeable female boss) in what are typically seen as male-dominated positions in male-dominated industries are very interesting and very deliberate choices. Perhaps it is indicative that we, as a society, would feel like if men were in these roles, it would not be an even match with our female protagonist. Perhaps this is just a bastardization of the trope of princesses having to fight their “wicked stepmothers” in popular fairy tales. Or it could be that we simply don’t want an older male competing or scuffling with a young protagonist, and all the cultural baggage that comes with that. Whatever the case may be, the deliberate nature of the decision to make older characters in authority both women and have them square off against the protagonist of the show is a bold choice.
“I’m not flying around saving people in this thing. I wouldn’t even wear it to the beach.”- Kara, Supergirl
Perhaps one of the ways both shows are relatively unique in the current media landscape is because of their focus on female protagonist. Both shows realize that superheroes are a typically male-dominated genre. Much attention is given in Alex Mack to the fact that Alex is a tomboy, from her name typically associated as a nickname for the male name Alexander, to her masculine-looking outfit, complete with a very-90s flannel jacket and backwards-turned baseball cap. Her tomboy attitude is referred to by Ray in one memorable scene from the pilot:
“Besides, maybe I’ll meet some girls.”However, there is one strange scene where Alex turns into a puddle for the first time and reforms as herself, only completely naked. I go as far as to wonder if this scene would have been included had the character been a male. (To the best of my knowledge, none of the best-known male superheroes have an origin story which involves nudity.)
“Well, I’m a girl.”
“Girl-type girls, Alex!”
In Supergirl, there is much more of a focus on the character’s sexuality. Kara is independent and single, frustrated seemingly a parade of ungentlemanly suitors. But Kara’s feminist ideals don’t extend to just the realm of dating. She also refuses to wear what she perceives as a skimpy costume that Winn designs for her. Moreover, Kara is much more direct about the gender issues she perceives. There’s even an argument between Cat Grant and Kara as to why Cat has christened the new superheroine Supergirl and not Superwoman.
“I’m just so excited, I can’t believe I did it… Now, it’s like, I’m not sure what comes next, or maybe I am sure and I’m just afraid of what it means, and if it means what I think it means.”- Kara, Supergirl
“Everything has changed, Alex. You were just this average kid headed for this life of inconsequence and boredom. And now look at you.”- Annie, The Secret World of Alex Mack
The thing that interests me the most about these two shows is how they subvert the typical formula utilized by many male superheroes. We are used to the origins of male superheroes, be they extraterrestrial, billionaire vigilante, or the product of radioactive experiments. We know that these heroes need a love interest, allies to help in their mission, and a tragic event (usually the death of a parent or a loved one) that motivates them to use their abilities for good. In contrast, with both shows, there isn’t a call to action event. No one dies. (Well, beyond the citizens of Planet Krypton, that is.) There is no love interest. Kara’s powers come naturally, Alex’s by mere happenstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not only that, but both superheroines have to balance and account for the role these superpowers will have on their “real lives,” with the implication being their “real lives” might be considered more important. While more than 10 years separates the 13-year-old Alex and the 24-year-old Kara in age, you can see them both struggling with how to balance these new abilities with their social lives trying to navigate the awkward middle-to-high-school years relatively unscathed or as a young woman in a big city, respectively.
Do these similarities point to a common cultural template on how we talk about superheroines in popular culture? After all, one must remember that despite these numerous similarities, these shows are still different, trying to appeal to widely different audiences. Supergirl at its core is still an action-heavy, family-friendly sci-fi show, while Alex Mack is a somewhat-comedic children’s show with sci-fi elements. However, there are simply too many similarities between the two shows for it to be dismissed as coincidence. Both shows use a common language to convey things to the audience. For example, the use of the presence of the male friends shows that this isn’t simply a show for a female audience. But additionally, the presence of the sisters and villainous, authoritative older women characters on both shows conveys that feminism and femininity will be important aspects to the shows’ respective premises.
When I think about these two shows and especially their two lead characters, I am struck by how they use the universal language of the superheroine to each achieve different needs. I believe that Alex Mack was meant to be a much more subversive show. Things like the use of making Alex a tomboy or her hiding of her abilities are trying very deliberately to subvert the widely pervasive gender norms and ideas about what a young person with superpowers should be. In an era where Power Rangers dominated kids’ television ratings and imaginations, Alex Mack was trying to a much smaller, more character-driven story. With Alex hiding her powers, overwhelmed and slightly embarrassed by them, as well as her relatively young age during the series, the show could also be seen a metaphor for the struggles of puberty. It was a radical move for the showrunners and Nickelodeon to do this. (I cannot think of another mainstream children's show that so directly dealt with puberty, metaphor or not.) There is more of a prominent and deliberate sense of wanting to be unique in Alex Mack than in Supergirl, despite Supergirl coming 20 years afterwards and their obviously different genres.
I would argue that Supergirl, on the other hand, is a more progressive show. It fizzles with “lean-in” (a phrase popularized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg from her book of the same name) feminist energy as Kara tries to “have it all” while still fitting in time for her new role as Supergirl. From fighting the alien Vartox, who says things like “on my planet, females bow before males” and “fighting you is just exercise,” to the people in the government agency constantly saying that Kara “isn’t strong enough,” she proves them wrong time and time again. As Kara saves people and stops crime to a montage set to Carl Carlton’s song “She’s a Bad Mama Jama,” the message is clear: Supergirl, both the character and the show, is here to be an alternative to the other male-driven superhero TV shows and movies. She’s going to take a firm stance for feminism and prominent female characters on television, and nothing from sex appeal to misogynistic aliens are going to stand in her way.
The feminist themes of each of these shows can’t be ignored. Given the pop-culture landscapes they arrived in and their similarities, both shows seem to be about something bigger. Both shows are ultimately about gifts, how best to utilize these gifts, and how these gifts and abilities make the lead characters unique. I believe many popular superheroines use the idea of “power” and “abilities” to make statements. I believe one of the reasons Wonder Woman has been so popular for 70 years is because she asks to what extent femininity is power in a male-dominated world. Similarly, I posit that Alex Mack and Supergirl are asking about to what extent womanhood is a gift. From Alex’s powers arriving around the time she’s pubescent, to Kara embracing a role she’s previously shied away from, both shows are ultimately about young women embracing powers. But more importantly, I think in their own unique ways, the “powers” become metaphors for womanhood itself: complicated, stressful, full of transformation that is both emotional and physical, but ultimately gifts that should be cherished. Despite their obvious differences, both The Secret World of Alex Mack and Supergirl play with these conventions in their own way but arrive at this same conclusion: womanhood is a gift, and it’s up to you to decide how best to utilize it.