Sanvers Breakup Roundtable: Media Manipulation and Lasting Impressions

LGBTFDB Sanvers Breakup Roundtable

**Spoilers for Supergirl through S03E05**

In the third of our ongoing roundtable series about topical issues surrounding positive LGBTQ+ representation, we have gathered a group of volunteers to discuss the recent departure of the lesbian character Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima) and the resulting end of the popular f/f couple of Maggie and Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) known as “Sanvers” on the second season of the CW/DC program Supergirl.

Joining moderator Jess from LGBT Fans Deserve Better is Mel (CEO, LGBTFDB) as well as contributors Steph (Social Media Coordinator, LGBTFDB) and fan volunteer SMFirefly as they give their impressions on this issue. A lightly edited version of the discussion is below.

Jess: Thanks for joining us today. To start us off, what happened on Supergirl in the past few weeks that caused the outrage? Why are some viewers upset with Supergirl?

SMFirefly: We’re here to discuss and determine if the Sanvers relationship storyline within Supergirl, containing two women in a romantic relationship was presented honestly, as a realistic response to losing an actor during the show by the writers, and if the method and execution of influencing the audience to accept these changes in the relationship narrative progressed the characters and ultimately moved their plot forward or hindered it.

Mel: I think there are a few reasons why people are so upset by the Sanvers breakup. The important thing to remember is that it isn’t just because the couple broke up or the end of a popular “ship”, but it’s also how it was handled both on the show and outside of it by the producers that caused the level of outrage we saw from fans.

Steph: I can’t speak much to how the show handled dealing with fans leading up to it (I mostly just watch while trying to avoid too many spoilers online). However, from what I’ve read the show ended the first season knowing they would need to negotiate a new contract with Floriana, and were hopeful that they’d be able to secure her as a regular and set forth the engagement storyline. Because of casting announcements, of course fans knew going into this season that the actress would only be recurring, and therefore appearing in a handful of episodes, so immediately there was some upset about being presented a hopeful engagement/marriage plot without them having secured her as a regular.

As a result, the choices they had for where to go with the relationship became somewhat limited and I know some fans expressed feelings of being “baited” or misled by the show’s decision to keep the engagement storyline, while seemingly already knowing they wouldn’t retain the actress.

Mel: Yeah, the proposal and Maggie’s accepting smile, coupled with off-screen comments by the producers like, “…we love Sanvers and we are dedicated to them forever” (Jessica Queller) as well as assurances from Executive Producer Greg Berlanti, when being asked if her departure meant a lesser presence for the duo, he replied with “I don’t think so.” Those are the things that made fans think that even with Floriana not in every episode, maybe they’d get married and she’d still be around.

SMFirefly: My impression of the Sanvers storyline progression was affected more, I think, by the fact that I didn’t pay much attention to the media surrounding it, other than to discover a good deal later it was likely going to end. I’ve been relying a great deal on the actual on-screen story to know what’s going on, so the media dropping that hint of how their relationship would end seemed preposterous to me, especially when I watched it play out on screen.

I did, however, see some people labeling what Supergirl did as queerbaiting, which I don’t agree with. The the definition of queerbaiting (which we as an LGBTQ group helped to define), is this:

“Queerbaiting is the practice (mainly in film or television writing) to hint at, but then to not actually depict, a potential same-sex romantic relationship between fictional characters. The potential romance may be ignored, explicitly rejected or made fun of. The derogatory term “queerbaiting” is meant to imply that this is done for the purpose of attracting (“baiting”) a queer audience with the ultimately unrealized suggestion of relationships that appeal to them.[1]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queerbaiting)

The Sanvers relationship, when compared to the definition of queerbaiting, does not meet the criteria of an “unrealized” relationship. The Sanvers relationship began from first meeting, progressed with realization of the character, Alex Danvers, discovering of her nature as a lesbian, and made it all the way to planning a wedding between two loving women before the show changed course in narrative. This is the opposite of “unrealized”, and therefore, not queerbaiting.

However, the manner in which the show handled the exit of the beloved character, Maggie Sawyer can certainly be questioned for validity and authenticity.

Jess: So you’re saying that even not paying attention to comments from the creators, you don’t think the lead up to the break up was handled in the correct manner?

SMFirefly: Absolutely not. Nothing in their storyline, specifically Alex’s storyline, ever indicated to me that she wanted children in that way. The way she described her need for a family, to be a mother, was like describing the certainty one has of whether they feel like a woman or a man, something essential. That is a profoundly obvious characteristic that we should have been aware of as an audience already.

Steph: I actually wasn’t that bothered by learning about this part of Alex’s character by now, and I think others could have had the same criticism about her coming to terms with her sexuality after a season into the show. I think that’s the nature of continual character development in episodic television, that we’re constantly learning more about them, the more time we spend with them over a series. Purely to keep things interesting, by creative design of course.

Mel: My issue is that we were presented last year with a couple who communicated extremely well and encouraged each other to be open. And yet, we find out in a throw away line at the end of episode 2 that they have this fundamental difference, only mentioned in passing twice, and then all of a sudden they’re breaking up? I’m not saying that this isn’t a legitimate reason for couples to break up, on the contrary, I thought Grey’s Anatomy did a great job with it. But in that show they also took the time it deserves to see each character’s perspective. Here, we only really saw this from Alex’s side, her struggle, and nothing from Maggie.

Steph: I’ll agree with that last point, Mel. The part of this storyline I’d have found more interesting would be seeing a woman discuss her reasons for not wanting to have children. I think that’s something we don’t see much of on television.

SMFirefly: I’m thinking now that the visit from Maggie’s father was supposed to create an impression regarding her view on family, that we would then apply to the reason for their breakup. Unfortunately, they did not use that as a reference point during any of the dialogue, because at least that would’ve made some sort of sense.

Mel: Yep, they explicitly made sure to mention her upbringing had nothing to do with it.

SMFirefly: Definitely a true statement, Steph. We don’t see enough reasonable exploration of why it is okay not to have children when you are a woman. That is a stigma that continues to be ignored.

Mel: And Steph, I agree with you regarding Alex. Not at all phased by her wanting kids, it actually makes sense considering how protective she is of Kara.

Steph: To go back to what Mel referenced earlier though, I have to say that last season, I definitely felt a little critical of how quickly the relationship was moving and I remember feeling like I wanted to see a little more development in the progression of the relationship. At times it felt like writers were just ticking boxes, and moving them along.

Interestingly enough, now having gotten to where they end up with this relationship, I can see it making sense. For a character like Alex, it’s believable that she’d be ALL IN for her first serious relationship after coming out, and that in getting caught up that (forgive the tired U-Haul trope here) might rush into such a serious commitment without realizing that there were probably a few discussions that should have happened sooner.

SMFirefly: Steph, I agree with the idea that Alex is an “all in” person. I do think though that there were many ways they could have shown, or at least explored her feelings for a family of her own well before this if having a child of her own was the natural progression in her storyline. At the end of the last season, for me anyway, the proposal and engagement felt rushed. It is an unfortunate pivot in narrative to use that situation for ending relationships. It’s like holding up a sign saying, look! Look how good this is! Savor it now because you’re about to lose it!

Steph: If the comments from the writers (which I only saw after the episode aired in a few articles—particularly Variety and EW) are true, and they had intentions of following through with the story I find it harder to fault them for keeping it in, if they genuinely thought they’d be able to reach contract negotiations that would allow it.

I definitely understand why fans are/were upset about being presented the possibility of marriage between Alex and Maggie, but in terms of the “baiting” it’s hard for me to qualify teasing a relationship or content of the show as “baiting” versus teasing a storyline that would not be explored. The engagement, and resulting relationship issues stemming from that did end up being explored in the show, just not ending with a marriage.

Mel: See, here’s the thing. I don’t buy it. Fandom was hearing rumors that Floriana was leaving well before the finale aired (I think they started in March). If we were hearing rumors, then they had to already know she may be a question mark.

SMFirefly: That is an excellent point, Mel. And regardless of why they chose what they did, they absolutely had enough time to come up with a good reason for Maggie Sawyer to leave the show that would fit with both of the characters in a way that the audience would understand. I’m going to have to say that the storyline did not have the necessary investment of Alex wanting children to the point of it being a deal breaker between her and Maggie. Nothing about Alex having children or Maggie not wanting them was previously explored. It simply wasn’t there before they decided to throw it at us with a preemptive PR ploy, and that meant the relationship was going to fall apart for a invalid reason for those specific characters. It is definitely a valid reason to end a relationship, but it’s execution in this storyline made no sense.

Mel: Plainly, the execution was severely lacking. When you end the season with a proposal, then say “We love this relationship we’ve created. With that, we’re going to be telling a story – a modern day love story – that really honors the relationship that will hopefully resonate, and I think will be very satisfying” (from series creator Andrew Kreisberg), don’t be surprised when people assume you’re going to find a way to keep her around. Because for most fans, no matter how well a break up is done, satisfying is not a word that would ever be used to describe one.

Steph: I know I’m in the minority here, but again, having a little distance from the episode now, when I think about the full arc of their relationship it feels like a legitimate journey for the characters to have taken, and a story worth being told–aside from all the other factors that impacted the how/why it ended up this way.

Sanvers

Image: FarFarAway

Jess: That begs the question then, as we’ve had a couple of controversies surrounding how a character was written out of a show after the actor was leaving, what would be the best way to write out a character like Maggie where options for the writers are limited or, for whatever reason, it appears to be out of their control?

Steph: Whether or not fans feel like it fit these particular characters, I don’t think the cause the writers chose for the break-up is an unreasonable one. Again, I think it’s a legitimate deal-breaker that affects couples in real life and it IS incredibly difficult to realize the future you have in mind might not be the same as the one your partner envisions. I know some fans were upset about not seeing more of the dramatic conversations (the “days of turmoil” mentioned leading up to where we join them in the show) I’m actually kind of glad we skipped some of that. Ultimately, it provided one of the most civil breakups I’ve ever seen on television, which I’m actually a little grateful for. Neither character felt damaged by the discussions they had, and there’s something to be said for letting the characters part still very much loving the other—just unable to continue on the same path together.

It might not be great television, in terms of your typical break-up drama, but I really appreciated seeing some characters handle the end of a relationship like adults with mutual respect and care for each other. There are definitely worse ways to exit a show.

BTW, that last comment is NOT an endorsement of the “at least they didn’t kill her” argument. I’m just referring to other instances where the love fans have for a character or relationship might be damaged by the way to a break-up is written, or behavior of one of the characters involved that got them to that point.

SMFirefly: I have no idea why the actress actually needed to leave this show or at this time. The ploy used to allow her exit had an unauthentic feel to it and for me, I think to accept their chosen ending, I would’ve needed something rather simple, an extra bit of dialogue that would’ve tied in why we never saw Alex interact with kids, and why the audience never got to see a conversation take place between these two women that involve children. To me, this would have lent some credibility for why the audience may never have witnessed the very normal and expected conversation of children that absolutely should have come between two women in a loving and committed relationship a long time ago. It’s not enough to fix the disconnective storyline really, but it would have helped a little bit.

Mel: I agree with you, Steph, in how civil the break up was. But they could have accomplished the exact same thing with Maggie saying no to the proposal, that they don’t know each well enough. And then they realize their differences regarding kids and you have the exact same break up without the dangling of a wedding. And honestly, Maggie putting the brakes on it would have been way more in character than her going along with the rushed proposal.

Jess: It didn’t appear to be a breakup full of animosity, as you mention can be the typical tv path, and yet fans were still upset at the end of the relationship. Do you see this as a problem of having so few LGBT+ relationships on tv, that even a civil breakup where characters part on good terms, adds to the heartbreak of so few happy endings?

Steph: Absolutely. I think the thing to keep in mind is that there’s still hope for that and this is by no means the “end” for Alex or her gayness. It’s just unfortunate that (at this point anyway) it doesn’t appear that will be the case for her with Maggie, specifically.

Mel: How many lesbian weddings have we seen on TV? Pretty sure I can count the number on either one or two hands and it could be years before we even get close enough to see another one. I think that’s part of it. People want to see themselves getting to that place in a relationship so that they can have hope that it’ll happen in their own lives.

SMFirefly: It isn’t just that, Mel. We rarely get to see what it looks like afterward either. There is no bliss at the end of the rainbow according to TV shows.

Mel: That’s a great point.

Steph: Agreed. And in trying to address Jess’s last question, I think this situation on this show is a clear example of why we do need more of those happy endings. Or like SMFirefly is referring to, not just the happy “ending” of a story, but continuous happy healthy LGBTQ+ relationships on screen. It wouldn’t have felt so unfulfilling, if there were more examples of the alternatives for fans to still hold dear.

SMFirefly: I’ll be honest with you and say that their civility during the breakup, probably made sense because it was really coming from a place of sadness rather than what most breakups look like, but it still surprised me that it happened that way. It took me a moment to consider their situation and realize that this was the kind of breakup that should happen in a situation like that. And that is an example of the fact we never see this on TV, and rarely even see it in real life.

But it still didn’t feel like a realistic breakup to me, probably because it didn’t feel like a realistic reason for Alex Danvers as we know her to be having this conflict. It was never there before the need to allow the character Maggie to leave the show was expressed through the media first. The use of media to soften the blow may have been wise, I think, but the act of replacing it with something that felt unrealistic as a pivot point is ill done and bad storytelling management.

Mel: I think because of how few couples there are, each break up is even more painful. I do, however, strongly feel the outrage here would not be as big as it has been if the show had done a better job of telling not only the Sanvers story, but Maggie’s as well. I was thinking about it the other day, and I realized I think I know just as much about Maggie, who was a series regular, as I do about M’gann (J’onn’s love interest last year) and Lyra (Winn’s love interest). Neither were in more than 10 episodes.

Jess: Great discussion and lots to think about. Thanks for joining us, and we’ll wrap it up with a final question – where would you like to see Alex’s story go?

Steph: For Alex, I’m looking forward to seeing her explore dating as an older but still relatively newly out lesbian (not right away of course! I don’t love seeing Alex unhappy, but I know Chyler will slay any grieving that’s coming our way). I’d also love to see Maggie pop up in again in the future, as it sounds like the show has left the door open for her to return as a guest, and see how these two would interact. Either as friends, or the possibility for more if situations have changed.

SMFirefly: If she learns and grows from this experience, I hope Alex gets to have a relationship later that will allow her to have children. I think we could all benefit from seeing how a woman with a child can still be a hero. Moms ARE real-life heroes, after all.

Mel: I love Alex Danvers, so mainly, I just want to see her story. I don’t want to just HEAR about how sad she is, I want to SEE it. And that goes for any other aspect of her life.

Steph: Yes. Just MORE Alex Danvers sums it up nicely.

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2017-11-26T21:18:53+00:00 November 26th, 2017|