Supergirl Takes on the Prison Industrial Complex and Falls Short
Supergirl's glowing endorsement of prison worker programs shows how ill-equipped the show is to tackle systemic injustice in a meaningful way.
This SUPERGIRL article contains spoilers for Season 6, Episode 9, “Dream Weaver.”
Supergirl Season 6 Episode 9
A number of much-loved shows are coming to an end, or have recently, that in some ways could have pushed their luck, but in other ways were a product of a moment – a moment that they looked up to find had passed. VEEP stands out as a clear example, as does Brooklyn 99, which is doing its best to be a fun cop show that knows cops aren’t good guys without – losing all its levity or becoming a documentary. While many of us will miss Supergirl, and we might even struggle with the calculus of losing the show just as Superman and Lois came on the scene, this episode serves as a reminder that the titular character’s overwhelmingly positive worldview – one that the show at large and many of the Super Friends all adopt – can come into conflict with another cornerstone of the show’s storytelling, her dedication to justice.
The main events of the episode concern an orphaned alien, Joey, living under the thumb of an obviously unfit foster parent at a group home, and a string of robberies for bomb components, perpetrated by aliens who don’t normally work together. One hopes the Supergirl writers aren’t going for subtly here, as the obvious connection between the two is the little boy’s incarcerated older brother, Orlando, who shows signs of overusing his powers during his work release program, which is clearly a front for the robberies that the prison authorities force the incarcerated folks to participate in.
That’s all well and good, and it opens an excellent door for Kelly Olsen to put her own spin on the Guardian mantle that her brother set down when he left the show to go back to their hometown to give back in a different way. As a Black social worker, Kelly sees another angle of humanity that needs help. She does a great job, and hopefully there will be more to come during the remaining episodes, in that spiffy new helmet that her brother sent over.
What’s concerning is that while various characters reference “the system” being stacked against folks, there are multiple ways that Supergirl/Kara Danvers are complicit in that system, which the show itself doesn’t acknowledge. Throughout the episode, Supergirl repeatedly endorses the notion that this prisoner work release program is an unequivocally good thing. (It is unquestioned that Kara believes Earth prison is good, even if she did question the space prison her aunt and uncle built.) Kara was excited about the program when Kelly mentioned it, and she repeatedly explains its features in glowing terms. Her love of the program is how the warden tries to stop Kara from writing her story to blow the whistle on the robberies. Supergirl endorses the program live on air and says she hopes it will continue under new leadership at the end of the episode. The idea that these programs are good – for incarcerated individuals themselves, not just for the rest of us – isn’t merely an assumption, it’s a driving aspect of the narrative.
While the shiny happy world of Supergirl talks about building skills for incarcerated folks that can help them after release, the reality is often another story. Prison worker programs have been compared to modern day slavery, often paying pennies on the dollar, if any money at all. Ava DuVernay and John Oliver have both taken on this system. It’s incredibly difficult for returning citizens to find work after incarceration for many reasons, including stigma and the fact that in many states, they’re required to check a box saying they were previously incarcerated. And those skills everyone kept mentioning? The jobs are typically incredibly low-skilled, or even shoveling snow or battling forest fires. The idea that this is being celebrated on a show like Supergirl is concerning.
When Kara spoke about her story on the prison work program, she said it looked like a great, safe program, referencing her interview with the warden. Why did she only speak to the person in power about the program? Would a prison warden ever tell you if one of his programs was anything other than great and safe? This sets up a story so that the powerful are seen as the truth, the voice of reason, and the factual record, with anyone else as a deviation. Far too often it’s the standard, as we see with reporters writing the views of police as unquestionable facts, even in cases where they may have a vested interest in misleading the public. There’s been more pushback about this standard in newsrooms nationwide in the last year, and it would have been interesting to see Kara and her colleagues deal with their past biases, rather than simply wring their hands and go back to business as usual.
The assumption that everything is fine and the people in charge are correct is an insidious one that goes beyond members of the media. After the team knew about the bomb and that the prison program was connected, Alex said, “Well it’s obvious someone has infiltrated the prison program.” Is that obvious? Why would it be? For-profit prisons, prisoner abuse, prison corruption and the abuse inherent to prison labor programs are rampant and incredibly well documented. J’onn and Kara said it didn’t even make sense for these aliens to work together. Occam’s razor brings us to the idea that the prison labor program itself is bad news, but because Alex, like many white people, is biased toward authority and against incarcerated people and people of color (even if unconsciously), she jumped to the more convoluted conclusion that an outside element infiltrated the program.
At the end of the episode, after seeing how corrupt this prison is, Kara’s whole plan was to…bring these men back to that same prison? It’s not surprising they tried to run. It’s pretty gross that her best argument to them against running was that the authorities would never stop hunting them. Even Supergirl with her boundless optimism knows there’s not a compelling argument otherwise, though she does try (yet again) with her “I’m not white, I’m an alien” speech. Everything ends all neat and tidy with Orlando getting released early due to the injustice of it all, though it’s hard for anyone with eyeballs and a pulse in America to imagine that’s how it would really go down. Where is the line between wish fulfillment for a better world and gas lighting us about the one we’re currently living in?
Of course, with Supergirl as with Brooklyn 99, the reality that makes these pollyana-esque takes on our carceral system hard to watch isn’t actually new. Even the notion that these shows are problematic now (but were totally cool before?) is a very white one. Meanwhile any system, such as a prison work program, which exploits incarcerated folks is inherently racist, as we incarcerate people of color at disproportionate rates.
Stories can and should include biases and shortcomings like these; perfect characters are uninteresting and unrealistic. But what happens when these biases are shown but not explored? Was Supergirl really delving into them knowingly, or merely reproducing them, perhaps because they belong to the folks who create the show itself? While there’s a lot to love about Supergirl, this episode’s glowing endorsement of an unjust, racist system like prison worker programs shows how ill-equipped the show is to tackle systemic injustice in a meaningful way, especially as mainstream media is forced to integrate systemic racism and the failings of our carceral system into its programming.