The Relatable Feminism of Powerless

As a committed browncoat and someone who instantly begins bawling when I hear the phrase “a leaf on the wind,” I was super excited when I first heard that Alan Tudyk was going to co-star in the NBC series Powerless. But as undeniably awesome as Tudyk is, he’s not even the best part of this show, and that’s saying something!

The half-hour sitcom, which takes place in the DC Universe, stars the also awesome Vanessa Hudgens as Emily, a small-town girl who moves to the big city, where she works for a company that creates devices to protect ordinary people from the fallout of superhero battles.

It’s a cute premise, and it could have been just a cute, little show. Which would have been well and good. But there’s something more going on here. Emily is a character who challenges a lot of the tropes we’ve come to expect when it comes to female leads in comedies. Think of the romantic comedy heroine who’s adorably awkward, a little socially inept, and unflinchingly optimistic despite the fact that she can’t seem to get her life together. Contrast that boring caricature with Emily, who’s very much the wide-eyed girlie girl, but is also highly competent and confident.

 

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Now, let’s bring to mind one of the other female stereotypes we see a lot in comedies. The ambitious, career-driven woman who claims not to care about love because she puts her professional life first – but who secretly feels empty until she finds a man to fulfill her. Think Sara [Eva Mendes] in Hitch. But unlike Sara, Emily has the ambition, she’s successful in her field, but she’s not portrayed as a coldhearted bitch (nor is she waiting for a man to complete her). When you look across the landscape of comedies starring women, you realize that Hollywood is essentially telling us that women can either be likable and incompetent, or successful and bitchy. But Powerless gives us a female protagonist who’s both highly skilled professionally and extremely likable (not that being likable is the end-all for women by any means, but that’s a topic that could fill a blog of its own).

Emily is great because she’s a much needed reminder that in real life, women are more than just character types. She’s not an ice queen who claims not to want a relationship. In fact, we see her dating on the show. But at the same time, she doesn’t need a man to feel like a whole person.

In episode four, Emily starts dating a guy whom she doesn’t realize is a henchman for an evil villain. She’s really into the guy at first, but once she figures out what he does for a living, she breaks it off. It’s a healthy approach to dating. She’s open to meeting new people and allows herself to enjoy it, but she respects herself enough to call it off when it becomes clear that this guy’s not right for her. She doesn’t need to be dating some dude to feel like she has her life in order.

What’s more, we see Emily facing many of the same issues that a lot of real women face in the workplace. When she’s first brought on, the team that reports to her doesn’t respect her. This is, unfortunately, still the case far too often in real-world companies, where women aren’t seen as leaders or authority figures in the same way that men are. In addition, her boss Van, played by Tudyk, is clearly far less qualified than she is, and only has his position because he’s a member of the Wayne family. He doesn’t recognize the privilege he has as a straight, white man. Whereas Van is handed his success, Emily has to work hard to earn hers. But despite the inherently unequal playing field, she continues to outshine Van and demonstrate her superior skill.

Of course, the show isn’t perfect when it comes to representation. And it does occasionally fall back on various sitcom tropes (most notably with the character Ron, played by Ron Fuches). But for the most part, it does a good job of portraying Emily as a multi-dimensional woman whom a lot of viewers can relate to. She’s awkward, but also successful and ambitious. She wants love, but she’s not dependent upon it. And she navigates the challenges that too many of us have to deal with on a daily basis. Essentially, she’s written in a way that feels true and real – she’s not just a generic, female archetype.

 

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