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tv ‘Supergirl’ Leads a Wave of Female Heroes

When “Supergirl” has its premiere on Oct. 26, it will enter a cultural landscape where female superheroes are better represented than ever before: where they have nearly as much opportunity to right wrongs and fight crime – and to play the central roles in their own stories — as their muscle-bound male counterparts.

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Melissa Benoist in "Supergirl," a new series on CBS., Darren Michaels
In a scene from the debut episode of “Supergirl,” the CBS series based on that DC Comics character, an overworked news-media assistant named Kara Danvers (who is secretly the title heroine) challenges her boss, Cat Grant, with an important semantic question: Shouldn’t they call her Superwoman instead?
“If we call her Supergirl,” asks Kara (Melissa Benoist), “something less than what she is, doesn’t that make us guilty of being anti-feminist?”
Pointing out that she, too, is a girl — one who is powerful, intelligent and attractive — Cat (Calista Flockhart) responds, “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’?”
“If you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent,” Cat asks, “isn’t the real problem you?”
This partly screwball, partly sincere debate from “Supergirl” mirrors a larger, ongoing conversation that has been happening in comic books, television, film and wherever women wear capes, fly through the sky and throw colossal punches.
When “Supergirl” has its premiere on Oct. 26, it will enter a cultural landscape where female superheroes are better represented than ever before: where they have nearly as much opportunity to right wrongs and fight crime – and to play the central roles in their own stories — as their muscle-bound male counterparts.
In the half-century since Supergirl was introduced as the less-seasoned Kryptonian cousin of Superman, the publishing industry has teemed with female heroes and villains who carry their own comic books.
These fictional women are still scrutinized for how they represent their gender in a way that supermen generally are not, and the inclusivity they have enjoyed on the page isn’t close to being equaled on screen. Though “Supergirl” will be joined on TV this fall by Netflix’s “Jessica Jones,” new movies based on DC and Marvel’s female superheroes are not planned for several more years.
But creators and producers across these media agree that there has been progress, and that audiences’ appetites for these female champions is being met by a growing supply of characters and narratives.
“I don’t think it’s a new thing that women are powerful,” said Ali Adler, an executive producer of “Supergirl.” “I think we’re all finally in agreement that we’re not going to keep this a secret anymore.”
At the pre-World War II birth of superhero comics, there was little question that characters like the unapologetically authoritative Wonder Woman could be the stars of these stories, and not depicted simply as love interests or damsels in distress.
“They were aggressive, they were take-charge, and they had their own adventures,” said Gail Simone, who has written for DC series like Batgirl and Wonder Woman.
But over time, Ms. Simone said, these characters “were defanged.”
“Lois Lane just became a character where all she wanted to do was marry Superman,” she said.
Aside from the star-spangled “Wonder Woman” series of the 1970s, the formative film and TV adaptations of these comics were largely focused on male protagonists like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man.
When Hollywood’s occasional attempts at female-centered blockbusters were flops, all women took the blame.
Melissa Rosenberg, the show runner of “Jessica Jones,” the Netflix series about a superhero and private investigator, recalls once being told by a movie producer that “women can’t open at the box office.”
Ms. Rosenberg, who wrote the screenplays for the “Twilight” movies and was a writer-producer of the Showtime thriller “Dexter,” said that when she asked him for proof, “He cited ‘Catwoman’ and ‘Elektra.’ I told him, ‘You just cited two not-very-good movies.’ ”
But a female readership continued to thrive in comics fandom, and a desire for representation in narratives – which for a time had to be satisfied by action-adventure shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Alias” — eventually yielded tangible results in the publications.
In the early 2000s, when Ms. Simone took over the DC series Birds of Prey (which teamed up the female heroes Oracle, Black Canary and the Huntress), it became one of the era’s most influential comics.
“I said out loud to my publisher and editors that I was going to prove that these female characters were more valuable to the company than just props for the male characters,” Ms. Simone said.
“They could have a buddy-cop story line,” she said, “and not fight over boyfriend and actually go out and complete missions.”
Today, DC has hit titles led by women like Batgirl, Black Canary and Harley Quinn, while Marvel has found success with female versions of Spider-Man and Thor, and a teenage Muslim incarnation of Ms. Marvel.
G. Willow Wilson, the writer of Ms. Marvel, said that such a series would not have been possible even a few years ago.
“If you wanted to work in the business, you kept your head down – you did not want to be seen as having an agenda,” she said. “I would never have pitched that, because I frankly would have worried that it would have prevented me from getting other work.”
Ms. Rosenberg said that in her desire to give the screen its version of “the female Tony Soprano or the female Iron Man,” she had to be proactive.
When Marvel presented her with the opportunity to write a show based on Jessica Jones, a superpowered New York private investigator (played by Krysten Ritter) unraveling her own traumatic past, she eagerly embraced it.
But ABC, the network for which the series was originally intended, was not necessarily receptive to the noirish tones of a story about mean streets and an emotionally broken lead character.
“I tried rewriting it so that the awnings of buildings were really cheery,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “It’s not rainy, it’s sunny – it’s blue skies.”
“That ain’t gonna do it in terms of the storytelling,” she said — at least not until a streaming service like Netflix was more willing to embrace all of these elements for the show, which will be released on Nov. 20.
The creators of “Supergirl” say they were not specifically looking for a series that would bring a female character to the screen but rather a way to bring the universally recognized iconography of Superman back to television.
“That big red ‘S’ alone seemed like the most valuable commodity that anybody could offer us in making a show,” said Greg Berlanti, an executive producer who developed the series with Ms. Adler and Andrew Kreisberg.
Mr. Berlanti, who also produces the comic-book adaptations “Arrow,” “The Flash” and “Legends of Tomorrow” for CW, said that the “scope and epicness” inherent in the Supergirl character “seemed like a real chance to do something even bigger” — one that would play to the larger audience that a CBS series requires.
While “Supergirl” offers a mix of action set pieces, thought to be the domain of male viewers, and workplace and relationship drama — usually regarded as a beacon for female audiences — Mr. Berlanti said that early testing of the series had shown that these presumed boundaries were not so rigid.
“Women are just as excited by the action, and men are just as excited by the emotional stories,” he said. “They all have the capacity to cross the gender borderlines.”
On TV, female heroes are gradually getting title billing in shows like ABC’s “Agent Carter.” At the movies, their representation lags further behind: Marvel recently announced a new film featuring Ant-Man and the Wasp for 2018, while pushing back the screen debut of another female lead, Captain Marvel, to 2019.
Meanwhile, DC’s Wonder Woman will finally have her big-screen introduction (though not her own film) next year in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” — some 75 years after she first appeared in comics.
Ultimately, Mr. Berlanti said there was still more that popular culture could be doing to spotlight these characters and that it was at least one sure sign that they hadn’t achieved parity with their male equivalents.
“There should be so many that everybody’s as tired of female superheroes as they claim they are of male superheroes,” he said with a laugh. “But clearly that hasn’t happened yet.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 18, 2015, on page AR21 of the New York edition with the headline: She’s More Than Ready to Right Wrongs.