From the announcement last year that Supergirl would add Dreamer, the first trans superhero on TV, to their roster, all eyes have been on the show to see how they handled the character. The casting of actress and activist Nicole Maines showed Supergirl was serious about getting things right.
Throughout this season, we’ve come to know and love Nia Nal, the slightly narcoleptic cub reporter that Kara Danvers mentors, who happens to be trans.
We’re at a turning point for trans representation in media right now. There is increasing pushback to casting cis actors in trans roles, most recently with Diego Luna in Berlin, I Love You, but the political firestorm around trans issues is showing no signs of stopping, with the Supreme Court recently allowing the trans military ban to go into effect.
In this climate, it’s such a refreshing and affirming thing to see how Supergirl is using and exploring the character of Nia, and they way they’ve worked with Maines to create an accurate but also inspiring trans portrayal. We were on set back in November during the filming of last Sunday’s pivotal episode for Nia, and talked to Maines and crew about her role and more.
After coming out as trans to James in an early episode of the season, to share her perspective on why CatCo should push back against the anti-alien sentiment that has taken hold, Nia’s trans identity has been mainly a non-issue. This has actually been great to see, because Nia is not defined solely by being trans, any more than she is defined by her youth, or the fact she’s a half-alien.
“Nia’s transness is a big part of her identity,” Maines said, noting this was something she deeply identified with as a trans woman. “It’s not our only defining feature but it is a defining feature … Not every episode or every Nia storyline is focusing on her transness which I like.”
But in last Sunday’s episode, “Blood Memory,” Nia and her identity were at the forefront. Still hurting over removing her identity as Supergirl from Alex’s mind, Kara joined Nia for a weekend trip to Nia’s home town. Nia was born in a haven for alien-human coexistence called Parthas, where her mother met her human father after a dream led her there.
Nia shared with Kara that she wasn’t expecting to receive the dream powers, even though they were a legacy of her family, because they were passed down from mother to daughter, and in the process, she came out as trans to Kara.
In Parthas, Nia was forced to deal with the fact that her cis sister, Maeve, had been expecting to receive the dreamer powers, and then she failed to interpret a dream to have enough warning for her mother’s death. In this way, as Maines shared, Nia’s “transness plays a really big bit part in her powers … Now we have her superheroism directly tie into her transness.” Nia is not just a hero who is trans; she is a hero because she’s trans.
The choice to have Nia’s powers transferred from mother to daughter was a beautiful story element, and allowed for soulful and difficult scenes with Nia’s family. Nia was destined to be a daughter and a hero. This is who she is, and even though her sister is upset by the outcome, Nia’s parents are supportive and loving to her. So is Kara, who chose to come out herself this episode, revealing she’s Supergirl to show Nia she can truly relate to being the sister with powers, and her faith that sisterly love will overcome the obstacles between Nia and her sister, as well as Kara and Alex.
Maines, who has been an activist far longer than an actress, brings so much to Nia, and it’s clear that the she and the writers consulted on the best way to tell this story. “My acting and activism go hand in hand, and they really support one another,” Maines shared, “and so to be able to bring attention to the current political climate and current issues … I feel really really lucky to be able to bring my experience with activism into my acting.”
I was certainly impressed by Maines’ talent and composure, and I wasn’t alone. Supergirl herself, Melissa Benoist, agrees: “I have to say, I’m so impressed by Nicole Maines. Her poise. She’s so wise beyond her years. She is just an amazing human. I feel like me, as Melissa, I’m learning from Nicole.”
The introduction of Nia is one of several elements of Supergirl this season meant as a direct commentary and response to what’s happening in our real world. Kara and co. are up against their most insidious enemies yet, because the enemy can’t just be defeated with a punch.
“She’s embodying what I think a lot of Americans feel right now, that helplessness and a really very hopeful and optimistic soul being tried, that her feelings of hope and positivity are waning and she has to really grasp exactly what she believes in to overcome it,” Benoist shared. “I think fear, more than anything—Agent Liberty is our big bad of the season, but fear as an entity is more of our villain this season.” Bringing a trans hero to the forefront, who is overcoming her own fears and doubts, is a great way to fight that enemy.
It also can’t be ignored that Nia has a romantic subplot going on, as she continues to flirt with Brainy (Jesse Rath), with often hilarious results. “I feel like talking to a wall is easier than flirting with brainy!” Maines laughed, but the very fact that Brainaic 5, who was a love interest for Supergirl in the comics, has his attentions focused on Nia is quietly revolutionary.
It matters to viewers not just to see Nia as a heroic woman, but a woman worthy of romantic attention and love, even if it may be from the most awkward 12th level intellect this side of the galaxy. As fellow outsiders, Nia and Brainy connect, and that also helps Nia to be a hero for persecuted aliens, as both a half alien and a trans woman. “I think it’s really really valuable to be using her experience as a member of another marginalized community to help lift up and support another marginalized community.”
One person seeing a huge amount of support is Maines herself: “The response from young folks and especially young trans folks who are seeing themselves as superheroes for the first time … that has been so heartwarming. It’s really good. It makes me really happy. I have a hard time kind of finding the words for it cause it’s just good.”
And Nia’s story is only beginning. Next week, we’ll finally see her suited up and fighting alongside Kara, and it’s more than fans could even dream of.
Supergirl airs Sundays at 8:00 pm on The CW.
(image: Diyah Pera/The CW)
Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.
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