The Secret Identity Trope Is Turning Supergirl Gay

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I’ve got a really bad habit, and I bet you do, too—a sapphic double standard that should revile every feminist bone in our respective bodies. I absolutely adore it when two women engage in sexist romantic tropes. When Gabrielle shouts “Save me, Xena!” I swoon but when Kagome cries out for Inuyasha my eyes roll so hard I hurt something. Supergirl is my current stupidly offensive bag of tropes. Superpowered Kara Danvers is determined to hide her powers from exactly one person, Cat Grant, and I’m fanning myself like a 19th-century debutante. And fandom is too.

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The secret identity trope—where a hero hides their identity from the people they love—is one of the original “squee” tropes. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and Superman all hid their identity from lovers. It was intended, especially in Superman’s case, to create some romantic drama between a perfect hero and the love of their life.

Superman is a romantic ideal, but his notoriety means he has to keep Lois Lane at arm’s length. The only way they can be together is when he’s Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter Lois can barely stand. For nearly 50 years there was a very rigid love triangle in place between Lois and Clark and Superman. She’d swoon at Superman, he’d lie to her while thinking about how much he loves her, and then she’d drag Clark like she was Nicki and he was Miley.

John Byrne collapsed the triangle in the late ‘80s by turning Clark into a hero every bit as attractive as Superman. He became a daring reporter that Lois quickly found herself falling for and the live-action show, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, aped that story. Then it went a step further. When Clark was finally outed as Superman to Lois in the beginning of Season 3, it set off a series of honest conversations that delved into the emotional truth of that kind of lie.

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Seeing how wounded Lois was by the lie, and how dishonest Clark’s secret identity made him ruined the cute factor. The show’s aggressively realistic approach to a love story between a superhero and a hotshot reporter effectively scuttled the romanticism of the Secret Identity Trope.

That, naturally, didn’t end the use of the trope. Because when a show calls out a narrative habit for being a big pile of sexist drivel naturally writers have to double down. Bruce Wayne grimaced and looked away so Rachel wouldn’t know his identity and Peter Parker acted like a toolbag to Mary Jane and in Superman Returns Lois got to be the chief idiot of idiotsville, having a kid with Superman without ever learning he was also Clark Kent (girl, what the hell?).

Things managed a little better on TV. All the superhero cartoons carefully sidestepped the trope altogether, and Smallville, the Superman origin story on CW, attempted to subvert the trope by turning it into a haphazard allegory for coming out.

Clark’s identity stays secret because he’s worried how Lois and other will react–not because of any mortal danger the knowledge might put them in. When Lois does figure it out she’s a good little ally who sits on the knowledge and waits for Clark to come to her. It was a cool approach to the Secret Identity trope, but unfortunately, it appeared on a show straighter than the 2016 GOP Primary lineup.

The most recent superhero shows, Supergirl excluded, have ignored all the lessons Lois and Clark taught us about secret identities and have gone back to the tried and true 80-plus-year-old trope, health of their romantic relationships be damned. On The CW, the heroes of Arrow and The Flash go out of their way to hide their superhero identities from prospective love interests as if it’s a requirement on these women’s Tinder profiles.  

Applying 1938’s idea of hot and heavy romance to a relationship between a modern woman and man is absolutely absurd and with each attempt at using the Secret Identity Trope it has felt less like an attempt to protect a love interest and more like an attempt to assert some control over the women—corralling them into very specific sections of the hero’s lives. Consequently, both Arrow and The Flash have received a lot of flack.

And made no attempt to fix the problem. Arrow now sidesteps it by keeping the romance all in the family and The Flash just ignores the criticism and continues full speed ahead letting woman after woman look like an idiot while her boyfriend runs speedy circles around her.

As sexist as the Secret Identity trope can be there’s still something thrillingly romantic about it. The angst of a well-meaning secret, the eventual reveal, and the ghost of 80 years of Lois and Clark romances linger around the trope. As awful as it is we’re culturally wired to swoon when a superhero steps close to their wide-eyed amore and pretends to be someone else.

On the next page: The gayness of “Supergirl.”

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