For as long as I can remember, I've loved superhero stories. As a kid, I watched the cartoons. Later on, I rarely missed a major superhero movie midnight release. Eventually, I read comics and graphic novels, too, but most of my early superhero intake happened in front of screens. But the superhero movies and shows I loved so obsessively never told stories about women like me, never told stories about women who fell in love with other women.
When I saw queer women on Twitter rejoicing because a character on Supergirl had come out as gay, I told my girlfriend we had a new show to start. In the second season, Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), the human foster sister of the crime-fighting alien Supergirl (Melissa Benoist), falls in love with a woman: her occasional work partner Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima). In the span of a few episodes, Alex goes through the beginning stages of realizing she isn't straight and then starts coming out to the people she loves most. In this character, I saw myself. I saw a coming-out story that looked like my own: complicated and confusing without being dire or damning.
Television usually defaults to coming out stories when it comes to queer narratives. In recent years, there have been more and more examples of queer characters who transcend the typical "coming-out story." How to Get Away with Murder introduced an ex-girlfriend for Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in season two with little fanfare. New Girl was similarly casual in how it established Cece Parekh (Hannah Simone) as queer. In both instances, the characters didn't have to come out because it was just part of their backstory. On The 100, young queer characters didn't have to come out because the sci-fi show is set in a world where heteronormativity is not the law of the land. But most gay characters on television, especially young ones, usually are treated to some sort of coming out story.
It makes sense: Coming out is an action, a process that easily translates to character development and plot. But by presenting "coming out" as a character arc, television reinforces the idea that coming out is a linear, easily defined process. In reality, coming out is more complicated and perpetual than a three-episode arc could ever capture. I come out all the time: to extended family members, to friends, to co-workers, to my hairdressers, to strangers on planes and in bars. Heteronormativity ensures that I'm constantly having to correct people when they ask if I have a boyfriend. But even those beginning stages of coming out—when you're first acknowledging it for yourself and first telling the people closest to you—can be messy and hard to portray authentically on television.
Supergirl digs into those nuances. Even with the little screen time given to Alex's personal life, the show manages to capture the uncertainty, anxiety, and paradoxes that come with first realizing you're gay. When Maggie first asks Alex if she's gay, she outright denies it. But her denial eventually opens up into introspection, and Alex makes small realizations about her life.
Everyone's coming out story is different, so not everyone will relate to Alex Danvers, but I saw myself in her—especially in those initial moments when she's first realizing things and connecting the dots. That's the part of coming out that television struggles with the most, which is understandable, because it's full of contradictions and nuances. If you're queer, you get pretty accustomed to straight people asking the question: "When did you know?" They want a clear answer, a specific moment, a big AHA!
It would be easier if there were a clear and transcendent moment of realization, but it's mostly just muddled and overwhelming. It's possible to both know and not know at the same time. For years, I was actively dating girls and still insisting I was straight. Kara is perplexed when Alex tries to tell her she's gay, and asks if Alex has ever even been with a girl, another thing straight people tend to do, suggesting that you need experience to really know, that you need to prove your queerness.
Alex starts remembering things differently. She recalls her intimate friendship with a best friend when they were young girls and the emotional falling out they went through. She didn't know then, but now, she can see what was really going on. I have those small realizations all the time. Oh, that's why I stole my dad's ties to wear to school. That's why when my best friend in sixth grade told me she had a boyfriend, I reacted as if I were being dumped. That's why I always shared a bed with my friends at sleepovers, even though there was always a spare. We didn't know then, but we can see it now. I started putting it together in college. Alex started putting it together a little later.
Supergirl's coming-out story stands out because of Alex's age. Coming-out stories on television most often involve high school and college-aged kids— Glee, Degrassi, The Fosters, Pretty Little Liars—but that's not everyone's story. Later-in-life coming-out stories widen the scope of queer representation on television. Coming out as an adult—Callie Torres on Grey's Anatomy, several women on The L Word, Darryl Whitefeather on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—comes with its own complexities. Denial can be powerful and lasting, brought on by societal pressures to be straight. Alex Danvers grew up wanting to be the perfect daughter, wanting to do everything the "right" way, and she internalized the idea that queerness deviated from that mission. I grew up wanting to follow rules, scared to break them. I internalized the idea that heterosexuality was a rule to follow.
Supergirl strikes a crucial balance with Alex, showing that coming out can be hard without making it seem too dire. Coming out can be scary even if you have supportive surroundings or if you know doing so won't put you in immediate danger. Like Alex, I have a liberal and caring family and didn't grow up surrounded by homophobia, so it surprised a lot of people—my family included—that it took me so long to come out to them. Alex has to knock back several glasses of wine to get to the point where she's comfortable to broach the subject with her mother, which is extremely relatable (minus the part where she gets interrupted by a rip in time and space caused by Barry Allen a.k.a. The Flash—though I'd be delighted if that happened the next time I end up talking about being gay at the dinner table).
Even the most well-intentioned straight people can be hard to come out to, because even they reinforce heteronormative ideas, unknowingly constructing the closet so many of us hide in for so long. My family eventually assumed my lack of interest in boys could be chalked up to general nerdiness; Alex, when coming out to Kara, reiterates, "It isn't because I haven't found the right guy." It's striking to watch Alex process in real time. Chyler Leigh gives an understated but crackling performance, sucking us into the character's inner turmoil but also evoking a sense of relief. Coming out can be simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.
As limiting as coming-out stories can sometimes be, we still need them on television. I can't help but think that if Supergirl had come around a little earlier in my life, I may have come out to myself and others a little earlier. Alex Danvers could have been the superhero I needed as an anxious, closeted, strong but vulnerable teen. An employee at a comic-book store in Indiana recently shared a story on Twitter of how a queer teenage girl found strength, resilience, and self-love by watching Alex Danvers be queer and kick ass. Nuanced queer storylines—that don't end in death—matter. Coming out is hard, nebulous, ongoing. Supergirl gets it.
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