A few years ago, I read a book called The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I. This book purported to be “The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time” and presented stories published in the 1930s to the 1960s in order to showcase these “greatest” stores that were published before they could win a Hugo Award that they so obviously deserved. Two things became immediately obvious upon reading this book:
- Out of the 21 stories presented, only one was written by a woman. And that was the least sexist thing about this volume.
- Some of the “greatest” science fiction writers of their time could not imagine a world where women had names. Or speaking roles. Or didn’t exist simply to keep house and get the coffee.
The utter lack of any idea that the social elements of a country might change along with the technological elements echoed through those stories like the dog that didn’t bark. It isn’t like these writers didn’t know that culture changes. They lived through the first world war or the second or Korea or the Cold War. They1 saw their world change, sometimes dramatically, during the course of their lives. And yet? They could not see the role of women change much if at all in the futures that they wrote about.
This comes to mind now because I’ve been watching and enjoying the various DC television series, often called the Arrowverse. These shows are fun and some of the most progressive shows on television from a social standpoint: diverse characters, inclusive storylines, strong women in positions of leadership and authority. We have Sarah Lance leading the Legends and next year we’ll have Supergirl’s adoptive sister Alex leading the DEO. White man Barry Allen married Iris West, a black woman. Two of the smartest people in the universe are Felicity Smoak (a woman, and also Jewish) and Cisco Ramon (Puerto Rican) and they come through to save the main heroes every episode.
Just on Supergirl we have gay characters planning their wedding, a black hero/vigilante afraid to take off his mask because cops kill people like him, the chauvinism of how the world affords much more respect to SuperMAN than SuperGIRL, and a huge crossover series where the ultimate point of the storyline was to punch Nazis. And yet?
And yet they can not conceive of relationships as anything other than monogamous.2
What brought this to mind was the storyline on Supergirl over the last two seasons between Kara and Mon-El. It started off traditionally enough and, in true Superhero fashion, ended tragically (so we thought) when Mon-El had to leave earth. We open season three with Kara mourning the loss of her sweetie just seven months prior and dreaming about him. So of course, before she’s fully healed from the tragic and sudden end of her relationship with Mon-El, before she’s stopped loving him, he returns. From 1000 years in the future. With his wife.
For him it has been seven years and he’s “moved on.” But of course, he hasn’t. In good 3 television fashion, the writers set up a potential love triangle between Kara, Mon-El, and his wife Imra. It’s obvious to everyone that all three are conflicted about what’s going on. Kara respects the fact that it has been seven years for him, but it hasn’t for her and she tries to deal with that by not telling him how she feels because she ‘respects’ his marriage. Mon-El begins to remember what it was that he had loved about Kara in the first place but doesn’t say anything for Reasons and lies to Imra when she asks him how he feels. Imra sees that there is conflict and wants to know what her place is because 31st century woman passively wait for the guy to choose just one.
Why? Because in the 31st century they still have 20th century idealized relationship structures?
We’ve seen relationships change, radically, even within my lifetime. Divorce and gay marriage just two of the most obvious changes, not to mention singledom and cohabiting without marriage or even plans for marriage, all of which are part of the Arrowverse. And yet, one thousand years from now, the very ideal of coupledom as the sole basis for relationships hasn’t changed? At all? Not even a little bit?
I’m not saying that the characters would eventually choose polyamory or even that they should. But I am saying that the very concept that love is boundless should be given some screen time. Because even now, in the 21st century, ethical nonmonogamy is a thing, practiced by uncounted thousands of people in the US alone. More and more people recognize that attraction and love can happen without it being the end to a current, agreed-upon relationship structure. No, I’m not suggesting that in 1000 years everyone will be poly. I am suggesting that the writers of Supergirl might have found a progressive way of writing a storyline involving three people that wasn’t trite, overdone, completely predictable, and the least progressive thing about the show.
- As noted, these authors were almost all men. You’d think that ‘the male gaze’ would have at least noticed flapper dresses. ↩
- Maybe the writers can imagine such a thing. Chances are that some of the writers may even practice ethical nonmonogamy themselves. But that’s one social element that has not made it to the screen. ↩
- And by that I mean boring, unimaginative, and predictable. ↩
Edited to remove typos and to clarify some of the text.