I’ll be honest, I’m kind of tired of gay coming out arcs on TV by now. The angst, the panic, and the not knowing how their family and friends will react to the gay character aren’t really appealing to me anymore (I’ve had enough of that in my own life). I want to see LGBTQ+ characters living their lives, working, dating, asserting their identities, and standing up to bigotry. However, coming out remains an experience most of us, LGBTQ+ folks, share. And even though representation on mainstream media is disappointing more often than not, it seems that once in a while it’s still possible to be pleasantly surprised and moved to tears by a character figuring out their sexuality on a superhero show, of all places. I am talking, as you can tell by the title, about Alex Danvers—one of the main characters on Supergirl—and her character arc in the first half of the second season.
Spoilers for the Supergirl TV show below.
Supergirl focuses a lot on relationships between women: sisters, friends, mentors, mothers, bosses, enemies. The first season was lacking perhaps just a bit in the friendship department, but the second season immediately introduces Lena Luthor, who becomes good friends with Supergirl/Kara Danvers. Unfortunately, all these women appeared to be straight and there were no romantic relationships between any of them, which was a bit disappointing. However, the second season also introduces Maggie Sawyer, a cop who starts working with Alex Danvers, and they become friends. It’s quickly established that Maggie has a girlfriend and Alex has a strange contemplative reaction to that, which is an almost universal sign that a character is about to start questioning their sexuality. Despite the slightly cliché beginning, what follows is, in my opinion, one of the most nuanced and touching coming out arcs on television of recent years.
An important point to note is the fact that Alex is in her late twenties, with an established career. Coming out arcs generally feature younger characters: teenagers and college students. Older queer characters are often established as already being open and comfortable with their sexuality, but a lot of people don’t figure these things out until later in life. Yet older characters who haven’t yet figured things out are exceedingly rare. I can only think of a couple examples, most notably Callie Torres (Grey’s Anatomy). As such, Alex’s coming out is already an important story.
Additionally, the story seems written with great care. At first, when confronted with “I didn’t know you were into girls” from Maggie, Alex denies it and all but runs away. She later returns to Maggie and admits that “there may be some truth to what you said.” During this exchange, Maggie clearly tries to get Alex to say the word gay, but she avoids it, apparently still unable to say it out loud. I think this experience feels very relatable to a lot of us (I know it is to me)—it can take a long time until you can say the word gay or lesbian or bisexual in relation to yourself.
During this same exchange, Alex explains that she has been striving for perfection her whole life: she wants to excel at her studies and her job and be a good sister, but she’s never been able to nail down romantic relationships—she didn’t like dating or being intimate. She started thinking that “it’s just not the way that I was built.” The part about perfection is not something everyone can relate to, but it certainly struck a cord with me and perhaps some of you, readers. It’s this image that you have of how you should be, based on expectations and societal pressure, and you feel like you have to achieve it, even if you feel like there’s something within you fundamentally preventing it. It didn’t even occur to Alex that the reason she didn’t like dating was because she was dating the wrong gender. Heteronormativity is ingrained so deep, especially within girls and women, that it often doesn’t even occur to us that heterosexuality isn’t the only option.
Alex’s panic doesn’t last too long and even though she still appears uncomfortable labeling herself, she comes out to Kara. Although Kara asks a few awkward questions, in general, I really like how she reacts. Alex tells Kara that she might have had feelings for girls before but has pushed them and those memories away, so Kara goes on to apologize to Alex for monopolizing their talks with her problems and not creating an environment where Alex felt she could talk about her feelings. It’s a small thing, but one type of reaction to someone coming out that I kind of hate is when the person reacts in a dismissive sort of manner, implying that the queer person didn’t have anything to fear and should have come out sooner. It belittles the stress and the difficulty the queer person went through as they mustered the courage to come out, which is needed precisely because the other person hasn’t made them feel safe enough to do so.
Finally, I want to talk about Maggie Sawyer and her relationship with Alex, as she is a catalyst of sorts for Alex’s coming out. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Alex develops feelings for Maggie, who has broken up with her girlfriend by then. This feels a bit contrived, smells like obligatory queer dating, and is really perhaps the only disappointing part of this whole arc. I mean, the romantic relationship Maggie and Alex develop is really sweet: they support each other and communicate their feelings, and they were friends first (friends-to-lovers is my favorite romantic trope). But I wish queer characters would be allowed to have platonic relationships with other queer characters. We’re still queer when we’re not dating and we look for the friendship of other queer people. It would help if the show had more queer characters who weren’t all dating each other, but unfortunately, Maggie and Alex are the only ones (Maggie’s previous girlfriend was on screen for maybe two seconds and we never saw her again).
That being said, before they get together, Maggie is very supportive to Alex throughout the coming out process, although her suggestion that Alex start coming out to her family right away does feel a little pushy, especially given that Alex is quite enamored with Maggie at this point and would likely do anything Maggie tells her, even over her own discomfort. In turn, Alex’s coming out at first was mostly about her feelings for Maggie, which were really intense (and Maggie actually warned her about that). But then Maggie rejected Alex because she didn’t want to have a relationship with someone who just came out since they “never work out.” These words coming from Maggie, who showed such a sensible attitude before, was rather surprising and very hurtful to Alex (and me) because this is something a lot of queer newly out queer women have to deal with, especially if they’re coming out at an older age. This kind of relationship being a new experience doesn’t negate the emotional maturity one already has. Although things feeling heightened and intense makes it more difficult, an adult can still deal with these new feelings in a reasonable way. Luckily, the writers managed to dig themselves out of this negative trope somewhat. They allowed Alex to figure out that her sexuality is not just about Maggie, but about her and her “new normal.” Also, Maggie revealed that the real reason she rejected Alex was because she felt like it was too much pressure to be the reason Alex came out. While I do think that Maggie/the writers could have handled the situation better and that Alex was in a more vulnerable position, in my opinion, it’s perfectly fair to refuse a relationship that feels too intense. Maggie felt that Alex would need more from her than she could give in a romantic relationship, but she still offered to support her as a friend and that’s perfectly fine.
I have become quite jaded by LGBTQ+ representation on mainstream TV. Our stories end either in heartbreak or death too often, especially where gay women are concerned. Coming out arcs are too often more about the queer character fearing rejection than actual exploration of the character’s thoughts and feelings and growing self-awareness. However, Supergirl, a show whose feminist messages in the first season had all the subtlety of a hammer, presents us with one of the most nuanced coming out stories that I have ever seen. Alex Danvers, a woman in her late twenties, goes from confusion to realization and from being uncomfortable saying the word gay to developing a healthy romantic relationship with a woman, reflecting experiences that are painfully relatable to me and probably a lot of you, readers, as well. Part of me is worried because queer female characters are much more likely to die. But the show has handled Alex’s coming out with such care and the creators have expressed their wish for her to be happy, which makes me feel optimistic that we’ll get to see her grow as a character even more and, most importantly, be happy, giving hope to us all.