With all that’s been happening on Supergirl recently, small scenarios and interactions can quickly get lost in the shuffle. The dominance of one particular character especially has taken focus away from minor characters. One such character I think has gotten overlooked is Winn’s new girlfriend, Lyra Strayd. And that’s who I want to talk about, because I (and one of my friends) get some fascinating subtext from her character that no one else is talking about.
Who is Lyra Strayd?
What do we know about her? Lyra (played by Tamzin Merchant) is an alien from Starhaven, a planet with connections to the Anasazi culture in the post-Crisis comics. They also have wings and can survive in space without oxygen in the comics (due to genetic engineering), though none of these aspects seem to have made it into the Supergirl adaptation. Not that this lack of tie in to the comics is entirely new for the show, given that Alex doesn’t exist in the comics nor are Kara’s parents scientists and engineers. Just because something doesn’t make it from comic to screen doesn’t mean it’s an intentional slight. Supergirl the show ≠ the comics in more ways than it actually resembles them.
Anyway, Lyra as we see her on screen has escaped a planetary crises on Starhaven and found a home as a refugee on Earth. She’s skilled in hand-to-hand combat, forthright in her sexual and romantic preferences, not at all ashamed to take the lead in a relationship, and also a huge nerd.
All that’s pretty clear just from her on screen presence.
It’s also clear that Supergirl has specific linguistic coding around most of it’s alien characters. Season 1 J’onn and Kara spoke about being aliens and superheroes in terms reminiscent of being LGBT+. Both also discuss their status as aliens in ways that touch on human racism, something also true of M’gann given her choice to live as a woman of color. Moreover, J’onn and M’gann’s story has pretty explicit layers of Jewish coding, what with the literal holocaust the White Martians enacted against the Greens. This season, aliens are pretty clearly spoken about as refugees and immigrants, coding that points to the culturally relevant discussion of the plight of Muslim refugees coming to America.
So there are layers already built into Lyra’s character just from the way other alien characters are spoken about. But there was one scene with Lyra in “Mr. & Mrs. Mxyzptlk” that stood out to me as potentially signaling that more than the standard alien coding was at play here. And actually, I have to thank my friend (lets call them Kay for the time being) for pointing me in this direction. They and I had a conversation on Tumblr that sparked this connection, so if not for that, I never would have hopped along this rather fascinating and fruitful rabbit trail.
So what is this trail? Well, it’s that Lyra is quite possibly subtextually coded as trans. Hear me out, okay? Because I think there’s a lot of narrative power in this possibility and something really beautiful, too. It happens in the scene toward the end of 2×13 where she meets Winn at the restaurant. It’s not a long scene, so the dialogue is worth quoting in full.
Lyra: Everyone’s staring at me.
Winn: Let ‘em stare. You, I mean, you look just…beautiful.
Lyra: I didn’t think you’d call.
Winn: Why? Last night was, like, beyond amazing on just so many levels.
Lyra: I figured it was a one-time thing for you. An experience. I’ve never met a human that was actually up for dating an alien.
Winn: Well, now you have. Look, I’m not I’m not naive, okay? I know that there are lots of people who don’t think that humans and aliens should mix. If we’re being super honest, potentially falling for an alien is not what scares me. It’s falling for anyone. Just have kind of had my heart trampled on a few times.
Lyra: Me, too.
Winn: You aren’t like some experience to me, okay? You’re a potentially real, fulfilling, challenging relationship and that’s just way too much chaos.That’s too fast. Whoo-hoo. Just gonna, um, what do you say we just We take it slow?
Lyra: Slow…Take me to where you live.
Winn: Yes, ma’am.
It all begins when she enters the restaurant. She’s physically uncomfortable even before she notices, and comments on, everyone staring at her. And they are staring at her, and not in a positive way. There’s judgment and discomfort written all over the other customers’ faces, like they don’t want to be in the same room, much less so close to Lyra.
There’s a whole lot of discomfort in that image. As my friend Kay pointed out, Lyra’s face was a familiar one: “Maybe it’s my genderfluidity speaking, but the look on her face when she walked into the restaurant was really familiar to the one I’ve seen in the mirror when I put on a dress.”
Moreover, if you’re paying attention, the sound changes once Lyra enters the restaurant. The ambient conversation and music drops to almost nothing, yet another clue to Lyra’s ‘Otherness’. Everyone stops speaking when she enters the room, then they begin whispering once she moves to Winn. You can even see the couple behind Winn react to Lyra’s entrance by going completely still for a split second. In other words, the scene frames her entrance as momentous; people are discomfited by her presence. Sound and sight reinforce her Otherness to the other characters in the scene.
She, in turn, is visibly upset that people are staring, confused that Winn wants to know more about her, and, most telling of all to me, she considers herself an ‘experience’ for human men. The way she says ‘experience’, drawing it out with an undertone of bitterness, as if it leaves a bad taste in her mouth. That’s specific direction.
And who better would understand themselves as little more than an experiment or one-time experience for men than trans women? I’ve actually heard this language used by trans women before when they open up about dating certain men. Though Kay personally has not had to deal with men treating them as ‘an experience’; they agreed this is a term that stood out as coded in that way. The phraseology feels too specific to me for it to be just a way to talk about bigotry against aliens in general. It’s too pointed at Lyra herself, especially since we know that there are characters on the show who have dated aliens with no fanfare or discomfort (Maggie Sawyer).
The level of body awareness Lyra shows is also telling. She’s hyper aware of people staring at her, and hunches down to avoid scrutiny both as she’s walking and when she’s in her seat. She’s trying to hide in plain sight to avoid the staring. As my friend Kay explained to me, the last thing anyone who displays a gender identity other than cis wants to do is draw attention to themselves. No matter how they are in private or how comfortable they are in their own skin, they don’t want the spotlight. The questions “Can they tell I’m not cis?” or “Can they tell I’m not a man/woman?” (depending on their personal situation) will constantly play in the back of their minds and can manifest as physical unease when people give them more attention than they’re comfortable with.
Which to both my friend Kay (who is genderfluid) and to me (I’m cis) is precisely what Lyra’s body language looked like. Only for Lyra, there was the added level of “they can tell I’m different” given her facial features.
It is also worth noting that Lyra’s level of discomfort visibly decreases once Winn calls her beautiful. She’s much more at ease at once and seems to no longer notice the people around her staring. His efforts to make her comfortable work. She switches from fear to surprise, with a touch of being flattered and grateful. His acceptance of her, no questions asked, and his dismissal of other people’s perception eases her own insecurities. She gets even more comfortable once she learns he thinks of her as being more than just an ‘experience’ and actually wants to have a relationship with her.
Comfort in Safe Spaces
Back to the scene. The fact that Lyra is only uncomfortable out in public, in human spaces reinforces the point, at least to me. She’s perfectly at ease in the alien bar. Why? Because that’s a safe space, and not just any safe space. The bar is a safe space that’s very much been coded as an LGBT+ bar since the moment we were introduced to it. Who did we spend most of the first half of this season interacting with in the bar? Maggie and Alex. Two wlw characters.
Yes, it’s now more of a spot for the entire gang to hang out, but when the bar was first used as a safe space for two queer female human characters. And aliens, who, as I’ve mentioned have had LGBT+ coding attached to them since season 1. The show also has a tendency to juxtapose Winn/Lyra scenes with Maggie/Alex scenes, which could be a visual cue that Winn/Lyra are intended as yet another non-heteronormative relationship.
As if that weren’t enough, Lyra’s not the only character on Supergirl from Starhaven. And this is where things get even more interesting to me. Season 1 gave us another Starhavenite in the form of Alphonze Luzano, aka Prisoner #2445 in 1×14 (“Truth, Justice, and The American Way”). And this is what he looks like:
Quite different from Lyra, right? It’s possible that this is laziness or forgetfulness on the writers’ part. They simply forgot the physicality they’d already given to a previously mentioned Starhavenite. But that’s not the kind of problem Supergirl usually has. Game of Thrones? Yes. But Supergirl? I doubt it.
This means she’s intentionally depicted as physically different from Luzano. Now, it could be that Luzano chooses to purposefully hide facial differences or had surgery to remove them and help him blend in. Or, there are multiple races of people from Starhaven, one of which has Lyra’s facial features, another that look humanoid like Luzano. Or, Lyra is a product of genetic engineering (which is a part of Starhaven in the comics) in a way Luzano wasn’t. We simply don’t know because it hasn’t been explained in universe yet.
Regardless of the actual explanation, Lyra’s physicality sets her apart both from humanity and from what we’ve already seen of Starhavenites. She’s markedly and visibly different in her presentation. It’s also, interestingly enough (at least to me), specifically her face that sets her apart. From talking with my friend Kay, facial features such as makeup (or lack thereof) and facial hair can be one of the ‘telltale giveaways’ for a trans woman, even if she has fully completed transitioning. Supergirl could have chosen several other ways to distinguish Lyra from Luzano if they wanted a physical distinction between them. That they chose her face feels, once again, like a subtle clue that they’re doing something intentional here.
Moreover, we’ve seen other alien characters with physical differences walking around in broad daylight and/or in mixed alien and human company without the same level of discomfort and body awareness that Lyra evinces. Brian, the blue alien constantly getting in trouble for betting, has zero problem living as whatever species he is out in the open. That the show draws attention to Lyra specifically, with her facial differences and acute awareness of her physicality in human dominated spaces, feels intentional.
It All Adds Up To…
Each one of these on it’s own may not look like much, but when you put it all together, it looks remarkably like coding for a trans woman’s experience. The staring, Lyra’s uncomfortable physicality and desire to hide, the fact that her physical differences are specifically located on her face. Add to that the canon Starhavenite who looks different, her comment about being an ‘experience’, and the level of comfort she has being in a safe space coded for LGBT+ persons and, well, you can see why my friend Kay and I find this compelling.
When Lyra was first introduced, I’d seen complaints about “yet another” white actor depicting an alien who is supposed to represent racial minorities. But aliens are so much more than that. Supergirl has shown remarkable fluidity and intersectionality with the coding of alien characters. Whether it be LGBT+, Jewish, Muslim, refugee, people of color, or immigrants, all of the coding surrounding alien characters has one thing in common. They’re all marginalized groups. Aliens on Supergirl then, are an intersection of various marginalized experiences rather than representing one specific group.
And what better than to add one more aspect of intersectionality to alien experience, than that of being trans? Myself and my friend Kay happen to agree that we think this was purposeful. That the writers intended to subtly code Lyra with features of trans experience. But, even if it wasn’t, it’s still a remarkably accurate representation of what being trans or genderfluid can be like. And with such an adorable, nerdy, powerful, strong female character, too! And a love interest!
Seriously, I love Lyra. I have a lot of other things I love about her, too. Like how she’s sexual, but not sexualized. She’s a lover of pleasure and a ‘live in the moment’ kind of gal without feeling tokenized or negatively stereotyped. Her clothing choices, her nerdiness, her badass fighting skills. Seriously, I can’t get enough of her. And if the writers are being intentional with coding her with a trans woman’s experience? That adds yet another layer of amazingness to an already awesome character.
I can’t wait to see more of her in the coming season. #TeamSchotthaven