Golden Age Lois and the psychology of superhero romance.
I’m thrilled that Lois Lane is getting her own celebration during the 75th Anniversary of Action Comics #1, but I haven’t always felt that way. It took me a long time to warm up to her. Some of that is my fault, but most of the blame falls on the storytellers who’ve made comics about her over the years. I can take responsibility for my own lack of empathy, but in order for readers to feel something about a character, there first has to be some effort from the creators to make a character worth having feelings for. Lois hasn’t always had that, and the problem goes all the way back to her first appearance.
To be fair, Action Comics wasn’t created for adults to read and analyze. No one involved in it had any idea that any person ever would be looking at it with a critical eye towards social commentary and gender issues. It was made for kids and the relationships are all very straightforward. Everything is centered around Superman, of course. He’s the protagonist and readers are supposed to root for him without questioning it. Even when he breaks the law – which he did nearly every single issue in the early days – it’s understood that he’s doing it on behalf of the oppressed and needy. Anyone who helps Superman or cheers him on is a good person. Anyone who gets in Superman’s way is bad. Unfortunately, Lois fell into that second category for decades.
It’s not quite as simple as that. Even in its childishness, Action Comics presented Lois as a confusing character. Superman desires her, but has no idea how to treat her. By creating the outrageously meek persona of Clark Kent (and in those early comics, it was definitely Clark who was the fabricated personality, not Superman), Superman intentionally pushes Lois away with his timid behavior. But whenever he has an opportunity to relate to her as Superman, he still gets in his own way by being snobbish and indifferent to her, if not outright hostile.
Young boys with a developing interest in girls would be able to relate to what Superman’s doing of course. Clark represents the way they fear being treated by the girls they want to get to know. Superman, on the other hand, represents how they wish things were: a flipping of roles so that the boy has the upper hand and is able to reject the girl. The Clark/Lois/Superman triangle makes complete sense in that context. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of how healthy, functional adults really act.
If these fantasy characters were real people, Superman would be acting like a complete lunatic. He wants a relationship with Lois, but sabotages any chance at that at every possible turn. Lois is at least consistent and understandable. Her anger towards Clark seems harsh at times, especially when she calls him things like “unbearable coward” and “spineless worm,” but she’s committed to her contempt. And she’s just as unswerving in her adoration of Superman. For that reason, she feels a lot more real than Superman does.
The irony is that she’s not the main character and not the one that readers are intended to identify with. And recognizing one’s self in Superman means seeing Lois as an obstacle. If one of Superman’s goals is to be with Lois, then he should be. Young boys aren’t going to see his dysfunctional nature as the problem. If there’s something preventing his relationship with Lois, it must be her. So she’s seen either as a judgmental harpy with Clark or a fawning gold-digger with Superman. Either way, she’s not worthy of him. The problem is her.
Stated another way, Lois is a victim of being the supporting character in Superman’s story. As she was introduced and written for decades, she wasn’t a fully developed character with her own dreams and reasons for doing things. She was just an obstacle in Superman’s getting what he wanted. And it wasn’t just that she got in the way of his having a relationship with her, either. She constantly tried to sabotage his career as a journalist by stealing his stories. She tried to undermine his superhero work by proving that Clark Kent and Superman were the same person. She jeopardized his mission to save the world by constantly getting in trouble and so monopolizing his attention.
This role for Lois carried into future stories – including those in other media – so that even once Superman had corrected some of his childish behavior, Lois was still an antagonist. A perfect example is the 1948 movie serial starring Kirk Alyn (which was based on the radio show that had started in 1940). Alyn plays Clark Kent as a gentle character, but he’s not as cartoonishly pathetic as Siegel and Shuster depicted him. In order to keep the Lois/Superman relationship intact though, Lois still has to dislike Clark, but it’s not as clear in the serial why that is. She’s been promoted from writing sentimental human-interest stories (her job in Action Comics #1) to being an ace reporter, but she’s still threatened enough by the novice Clark Kent that she actively interferes with his proving himself a capable journalist.
Lois’ situation would only get worse in the comics, especially when she (sort of) got her own series. As the title suggests, Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane continued to focus on Lois in relation to her connection with Superman. Her being in love with him from the early issues of Action Comics reached ridiculous levels and continued even when she’d gotten to know him well enough to see what a jerk he often was to her.
In short, later writers (in comics and other media alike) amplified elements of what was already a problematic, juvenile relationship as depicted by Siegel and Shuster. And since Superman was the hero, Lois was the one who came off looking horrible. As I said above, the creators didn’t make any effort to present Lois in a way that inspired feelings for her as an individual.
As comics fans began to age – and as it began to be apparent that not only boys were reading these stories – readers started seeing Lois differently. Instead of simply a cog in Superman’s story machine, she was a character all her own, and a pretty awesome one. She was a reporter during a time when there weren’t a lot of women reporters. She was actually the cool, consistent, and sane person in the Clark/Lois/Superman relationship. All those times where she got into trouble could also be seen as brave and heroic.
Some of those older, more thoughtful readers became writers. And some of those got to write Superman comics and reveal a different side of Lois Lane. That began spilling into other media, too. What was sort of noticeable in Superman: The Movie was absolutely obvious in the TV show, Lois and Clark. Lois had the potential to be hardcore and badass. Completing the cycle, the comics began reflecting this even more.
It’s a tough transition to make for fans who grew up on old depictions of Lois Lane. Because of that, she still has a long way to go before she’s fully accepted as a complete character who should be allowed to function as the protagonist in her own story. Even if the story has Superman’s name on the cover, Lois is important enough to his world that 75 years later she should have her own set of goals and motivations beyond just affecting Superman’s actions.
And she often does; I’m not saying that it never happens. It just needs to happen more. Because when storytellers begin consistently treating Lois as a real character and not just someone who gets in Superman’s way, more readers will be better able to see her that way too.
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