Tube Tied: Towards a Feminist Theory of Superheroes: "No Ordinary Family"
It's been an abnormally bad year for new shows—there are few I'm sticking with past one episode. But so far, I'm still watching No Ordinary Family, a little one-hour drama from ABC that will air its third episode tonight. The premise is fairly simple: distracted, over-committed modern nuclear family goes on family vacation. They get into a plane crash in the jungle, mingle with jet fuel, and voilà: superpowers. In other words, it's a sort of live-action version of The Incredibles. The show is pretty well cast—you'll recognize faces from Dexter, The Shield, and Weeds. (And, umm, Seventh Heaven, but I guess someone's trying to break away from typecasting so let's not rib him too much for that.) The dialogue is pedestrian, but not painfully so. In other words, it's not yet some kind of heir to Heroes or Lost—the pilot simply isn't as strong as either of those shows' was—but the rest could be.
What makes the show potentially interesting from a feminist perspective is that the superhero gloss on this show is not purely supernatural or even just epically oriented: so far, at least, it's partially being used as a way to comment on family dynamics. Although his strength superpowers do point, for example, patriarch Jim (Michael Chiklis) immediately towards a life of crime fighting, they compensate for his sense that he has somehow been a "weak" participant in the family as the stay-at-home parent (and a failed artist!). Working mom Stephanie (Julie Benz) acquires super-speed, which she seems to interpret largely as a way to enable her to be more present for the other family members. Son JJ's (Jimmy Bennett) learning disability—which has made him feel like, he says, a kind of lesser member of the family—is magically overcome by a suddenly high mathematical aptitude. And daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) can read minds, which helps her feel a bit more sure-footed as she navigates the social minefields of high school.
The tone of the show is nonetheless quite uneven, and it's difficult to tell at this point if it is going to get beyond these broadly cast observations (and frankly very abstractly drawn, archetypal characters) into some real allegory and depth. And there are, of course, some problems with the gendered framing of some of the characters' insecurities: why is the daughter only concerned with boys? Why does the show appear to agree wholeheartedly that a woman who focuses on her career is necessarily shortchanging her family? Must she near-exclusively devote her superpowers to being a "supermom" within the home while the father gets to self-actualize in the more "public" role of crimefighter?
As a result, I am thinking that No Ordinary Family is heading for the blunt ground of a regular superhero show. In the first two episodes it has devoted most of its energies to identifying an enemy for the season, rather than drilling down on the types it has set up. And there have been the sort of fight scenes whose mechanics feel like a certain kind of teenage boy might spend a lot of his time analyzing and debating with like-minded action scene devotees. (I offer no verdict on these; I'm not qualified.)
That's a shame, because No Ordinary Family's concept could, in the right hands, have been really smart, drawing an extended metaphor about the ways in which it is a Heraculean kind of thing, in modern circumstances to hold together a healthy family dynamic. Plain superhero stories are a dime a dozen—they vary in skill of execution, sure, but the formula is the comforting, though lazy, part of them, the easiest part to do well. But to do something that transcends another comic book story, to make human the people who have these superpowers, as opposed to getting obsessed with pyrotechnics and fight choreography, to me, anyway, that's the real challenge. It's that, in my view, that separates the Buffys and the Aliases from the pack of crappy supernatural shows that come and go each season. It's also, as you may have noticed by my choice of examples there, the kind of show that ends up with the best roles, the best depictions even, of women. The more a show's approach requires that characters are given full human status, the less women can only be onscreen arm candy to be plucked from suspension bridges at the end of the battle. But then, of course, that requires more careful work.
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