The first trans superhero is a win, but the fight isn’t over for LGBTQI representation
Fans keeping up with Greg Berlanti’s ever-expanding Arrowverse will already be aware of the chatter concerning the introduction of a transgender character to Supergirl. In May, a public casting call was put out for a transgender actress to play Nia Nal, a character described as being “A confident, wunderkind of a fashionista” and “the newest addition to the Catco investigative reporting team.” In the casting call, Nia is further outlined as harboring a “sparkling wit and biting humor” that otherwise hide the “soulful young woman” beneath her chic quip-ready facade.
Over the weekend, Nicole Maines was announced as being cast in the role during the Supergirl panel at San Diego Comic-Con, with the actress joining the rest of the cast on stage. “It seems only fitting that we have a trans superhero for trans kids to look up to,” Maines told the audience to rapturous applause. “I wish there was a trans superhero when I was little.” The actress additionally highlighted that her new character “has this ferocious drive to protect people and to fight against discrimination and hatred.”
The addition of Maines and her character to the cast of Supergirl seems to be a conspicuous effort to boost trans representation within the young adult shared universe. At the beginning of the year, Berlanti commiserated the fact that the Arrowverse was lacking in trans representation – particularly as his ABC series Dirty, Sexy, Money featured trans actress Candis Cayne in a recurring role from 2007 to 2009.
Sharing his concerns with an audience at a DC in D.C. event, Berlanti mused, “We don’t have an active trans character across the shows, you know. And we had a trans actress playing a trans (character) in a show I did that was not a superhero show, eleven years ago. And so I still feel behind the times every day on that issue.” But it’s worth noting that by all accounts the casting of the character sounds to be far more than simply a superficial exercise in representation.
Aside from the casting call details and the character name, information regarding Nia Nal (a.k.a. The Dreamer) remains scarce. However, it’s worth noting that the character shares a last name with the DC Comics character Nura Nal (a.k.a. Dream Girl), a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes with the tragic power to foresee the deaths of others. Whether the two characters are connected in some way (and how) remains unknown at this point in time, but it seems possible Nia and Nura may be at least related on some level and could share similar powers of clairvoyance.
With that in mind, Nia doesn’t sound like a throwaway addition but more like a pivotal character with some foundational credibility within the overall DC canon. In S4 of Supergirl, her journey is said to be similar to that of Kara’s (Melissa Benoist) arc to becoming Supergirl, with Nia looking to fulfil her destiny as the superhero Dreamer. By all accounts, it sounds like the character isn’t being tokenized or crafted around her identity as a transgender woman, making her addition to the cast all the more powerful.
Maines is an ideal candidate for the role of a superhero based on her groundbreaking activism efforts that have made headlines around the globe. In 2014, Maines successfully sued her school district in a landmark case based on her being denied access to the girl’s restroom at her school, so if anyone deserves to be wearing a cape, it’s this young woman. However, her addition to the Supergirl cast, though terrific, signals a need for further representation within the industry.
Speaking to Variety, Maines revealed that she came out to her parents in the late 90s and early 00s at time when trans women were largely depicted as either sex workers or drug addicts and portrayed by cisgender men. Highlighting how the subsequent image of trans women as “men in dresses” was “damaging for a long time” to the way the transgender community are represented and accepted, Maines shared her hopes that the Supergirl casting would contribute to a larger wave of the “right representation” of transgender people. “I think we’re in a time right now where more than ever representation in the media matters. And what we see on television has a very dramatic effect on our society.”
In recent years that wave of “right representation” has been gaining momentum, with shows like Pose and Transparent showcasing the multi-talents of the transgender community in front of and behind the camera. Change is certainly afoot in the industry, but it’s still a little too slow for our liking. Especially as Berlanti pointed out in his statement regarding Cayne in Dirty, Sexy, Money that positive representation of transgender people isn’t suddenly a new issue just because it has increased visibility – transgender men and women have been fighting for this within the industry (and society) for decades.
Though we’re delighted to celebrate positive representation of the transgender community within all forms of entertainment, we also long for a time when casting announcements involving transgender stars are the norm and not treated as a novelty. We long to see actors reported about without an adjective before their name – gay, lesbian, transgender, or non-binary – and when they can simply be cast based on their talent.
Increased visibility and positive representation within mainstream media are no doubt helping the industry to get to this point. But it’s been a slow crawl so far and for the LGBTQI community it’s meant a hell of a wait just to be treated with an equal level of dignity, respect, acceptance, and pervasiveness on screen as their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts.