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When Holocaust Themes Don’t Work

A recent episode of ‘Supergirl’ invoked imagery that felt exploitive and uncreative

Sarah Meira Rosenberg
February 03, 2016

Let’s play Name That Show for a minute. Identify this monologue:

“They herded us into camps. I swore that no matter what, I would protect my family. I would survive. But when we got through the gates, they took the women and children. The men were forced into labor. The others went to the furnace. My wife and daughters…burned.”

Would it help if I added that the speaker’s voice is transposed over shots of barbed wire fences and dozens of half-clothed bodies lying dead in a ditch?

If you guessed The Man in the High CastleAmazon’s new show that recently found itself in hot water because its advertising campaign used Nazi imagery, you’re wrong. (Sorry, but thanks for playing.)

Actually, the show in question is CBS’s effervescent Supergirl and an episode called Strange Visitor from Another Planet, which aired last Monday. In fact, the bodies in the aforementioned narration are not from a scene that re-imagines the Holocaust. Those bodies are green CGI aliens. And the camps? They’re on Mars. The story being narrated is by Supergirl’s government handler, a (spoiler alert!) 300-year-old shape-shifting green Martian. And the enemy is not Nazi Germany, but another shape-shifting race known only as the “White Martians,” who were determined to wipe out the green ones, for no reason other than that they were green.

It may be my 18 years of Yeshiva education showing, but I can’t hear a monologue like that or see images like that and think anything but “Holocaust.”

As viewers we know that Supergirl, aka Kara Danvers, is not the freeloading sort; she only came to Earth to protect her cousin, Superman. But when that became unnecessary, Supergirl attempted to live a normal life—that is, until she was forced to reveal her powers when her sister’s life was threatened, at which point she decided to become a full-fledged superheroine. She decided to continue to help those in need. This recent episode details the crusade of a senator against aliens like Supergirl, who Senator Crane claims are dangerous freeloaders that want to suck up Earth’s resources and take over the planet (I can’t imagine which current politician the show may be referencing).

It seems to me that the show’s writers clearly wanted to remind viewers that xenophobia and bigotry are wrong and harmful. But the thing is, Supergirl is a silly show. It is! It’s light and fluffy and comic-book ridiculous (did I mention shape-shifting Martians yet?). It’s not a serious drama, not dark or gritty in any way, and, as a result, when something huge and heavy like the Holocaust is dropped into the mix, it doesn’t lend weight to the story. Rather, it trivializes and lightens the catastrophe being borrowed, rendering it nothing more than tragic backstory for a fairly absurd fictional character.

Some incarnations of superheroes nowadays are framed in dark enough ways that themes like genocide and ethnic cleansing might fit into that universe without cheapening their horrors—Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga, for instance, and perhaps early seasons of DC Comics’ other hit show, Arrow. V for Vendetta, while not a classic superhero story, depicted a lone vigilante fighting a totalitarian regime and used Holocaust-type imagery quite effectively in his origin story. When award-winning writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, invokes the Holocaust as an analogue for the way his people and other Native American tribes have suffered, it feels right and earned. When Supergirl does it, it feels cheap.

To be fair, there is no foolproof rubric for determining when using the highly specific imagery of the Holocaust is appropriate and when it is not. Often audience reactions can be polarized. For example, I have seen critical responses decrying an episode of Star Trek’s original series for its use of Nazism, whereas I, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, loved that episode because to me it was hilarious and cathartic to watch Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner run around outsmarting Space Nazis.

I think it would behoove Supergirl to remember that while some of its characters work for Catco—a multimedia conglomerate that is desperate to sell papers and keep viewers coming back by almost any means necessary, no matter how cheap or exploitative—its success is predicated on its silliness and optimism. Its audience isn’t tuning in for tragedy porn. I understand that entertainment writers need to take risks, but there are many other ways to depict extreme racism without going straight to Holocaust tropes. Doing so reduces one of the worst chapters in human history to a fictional prop. Supergirl can afford to be a little more creative.

Sarah Meira (SM) Rosenberg (@FloatingSpirals) is a writer and copy editor who took a brief detour as an auto mechanic before returning to the written word. Her commentary and fiction can be found on her blog and at Amazon.

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