Supergirl: "Reality Bytes"
Dreamer stars in this powerful trans-focused episode
The Supergirl TV series has been a champion for the underrepresented since it started. Primarily, it's been about feminism and immigration; it's main character is, after all, a woman who arrived on Earth as a refugee. The series has used extraterrestrials as a stand-in for earthly immigrants (what the American authorities call aliens) throughout, and has an exceptional array of strong female characters. Over the course of its run so far, the series has tackled racism, far right extremism, sexuality and corporate greed.
Since its fourth season, Supergirl has taken on the issue of trans rights, with the huge step of employing a trans actor to portray a trans superhero. Gender nonconforming characters are rare enough in comics; to have a trans superhero on screen is unheard of. Nia Nal, aka Dreamer, happens to also be an alien immigrant, and so deals with a lot of prejudice in the world of Supergirl. Some women from her species, the Naltorians, inherit psychic powers that include precognitive dreams, astral projections and energy manipulation. Nia is based on the comics character Nura Nal, aka Dream Girl, from the Legion of Superheroes (who are based in the future – Nia is Nura's ancestor).
Nia is played by Nicole Maines, a young woman still quite new to acting, When she was still at school, she became a trans activist, successfully lobbying for the right to use the girls' bathroom in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the first time a state court made such a decision. She's been a trans activist ever since, vocally outspoken against the harassment and discrimination trans people continue to face. She's proven to be a talented, likeable young actor and has already earned a legion of loyal fans.
It wasn't until late in Supergirl's fifth season in 2020 that the series faced trans rights head on. Nia had already faced her share of hostility, most heartbreakingly when her own sister turned against her for inheriting the family powers when she's "not even a real woman." It was "Reality Bytes" that brought the struggles and threats faced by trans people into focus, though. In the series, Nia lives with another trans woman, Yvette (the fabulous Roxy Wood), who has been chatting to a man on Upswipz, the DC/CW own-brand version of Tinder. Nia's dealing with her own break-up and Yvette talks her into coming along on her first date with "Angus," who turns out to be a man using the app to trick trans women into meeting him so that he can attack them.
Yvette suffers a vicious attack at the hands of Gregory Bauer (Pierson Fode), who states that his mission is to force Dreamer to stop being a superhero, and that he'll keep attacking trans women until she does. The scenes are painful to watch, with Yvette left feeling utterly betrayed and powerless, and scared to even attempt to meet anyone again. That Yvette is also a woman of colour is vital; while trans people of all colours suffer violence disproportionately, trans women of colour are among the most targeted groups in the United States, suffering physical and sexual violence, and frequently murder. There's a tacit understanding that Yvette was lucky that Bauer only wanted to hurt her, not kill her.
While Yvette feels powerless, Nia is powerful, and enraged by the man's actions and threat. Kara (Melissa Benoist), Supergirl herself, tries to talk her down from her impulse to hunt Bauer down and punish him. She succeeds, briefly, even though Nia knows that the police won't prioritise the investigation. (A fair assumption, although she actually misjudges the officer on the case, who genuinely appears to be trying to find the attacker.) Kara's attempt to calm Nia down is the standard superhero lesson of not stooping to the villain's level. While Kara's words come from a place of caring, she is angrily rebuked by Nia, in a powerful exchange:
"Kara, I love you, but do not tell me what I can and can't do right now. There is no catching this guy and redeeming him. There is no hope speech that can make this better... Look, my community is vulnerable. This happens more than you could possibly know. And there are guys like this jerk out there who want to hurt us. They want us to hide and to be afraid of who we are. They want us to disappear, and it happens every day."
That's the crux of it, of course. If you're not part of the persecuted group, you don't get to tell that group how to fight. Of course, in the end, Nia finds and subdues the transphobic bastard, and manages to resist the urge to kill him for his crimes. The expected superhero bonding occurs between Nia and Kara, with Nia wrestling with how close she came to crossing the line, but the vital element is that she made the decision, no one was allowed to make it for her. Still, there's a part of me that wanted Nia to "bury" the guy as she vowed... but there's no way they'd make sweet, beautiful Dreamer a killer. She's not that kind of hero.
Nonetheless, the message of the episode is powerful. Kara is stunned by the statistic of twenty-four trans women murdered in the States so far that year, before it's pointed out to her that it's probably much higher in reality. (In our world, there have been thirty reported trans murders in the States so far this year.) The reality is that trans people, particularly trans women of colour, face an enormous amount of prejudice, hatred and violence that dogs them through their lives, and only by listening to them can we understand and move forward. Maines didn't write the script, but is understood to work with the showrunners in their story development when it comes to trans issues.
"Reality Bytes" could perhaps have gone further, and allowed the issue to dominate the episode without having to share the time with a b-plot, but it nonetheless makes a powerful stand in illustrating the struggles trans people face. As Dreamer, Nicole Maines is one of the most visible trans artists in the world, granting her a platform to continue her advocacy. There is, sadly, only one more season of Supergirl to come, but hopefully the showrunners will use that time to highlight more of Nia' story.