“Lois Lane had to survive in this man’s world and it’s important to understand the times and attitudes toward women when this story was written.”
I wasn’t planning on submitting an article for the Lois Lane celebration, because there are so many others better suited for the task. However, after reading this submission, I felt compelled to respond. Though, I’d like to clarify that my intent is not to say I’m “right” and the original poster is “wrong”. In many ways this is a highly subjective conversation, based on our own life experiences which color how we process the media we read. My story? I’ve been reading comics for approximately 44 years. My dad bought me my first comic book when I was five, it was Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane and I was hooked. I grew up reading Bronze Age books which is my childhood reference point. I’m by nature and training an engineer, I always had trouble in English class when asked to pick the “best” answer. What? Who decides what is best? Certainly not me. So if anybody is looking to this article to prove anything other than why I personally disagree with the original poster’s premise, I’m sorry to say that this won’t be a satisfying read!
I’ve always felt when I read books or watch movies which were written in a different era than mine, that it’s a history lesson beyond the story itself. These stories are written by people who were raised in a different world than I was.
I think Action #1 is very much the product of the time, written by people who were born in the early 20th century. Both Siegel and Shuster were born in 1914, a very different world than even 50 years later, 1964, when I was born. They wrote their stories steeped in the world they grew up and lived in. Action #1 is not meant to be judged by the world as it is 75 years later, but more as a window in to the world as it was.
When we see Superman threaten villains, it’s important to remember this was a world pre Miranda rights (1966 Miranda V Arizona). This was the world of Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, the rough and tumble man. Frontier justice wasn’t a myth to the culture; the seniors remembered those days and shared these stories with their grandchildren. Superman is not going to show his softer side because that just wasn’t how it was done.
Lois Lane had to survive in this man’s world and it’s important to understand the times and attitudes toward women when this story was written. Note this panel below: Lois is left to her own devices in a pre-liberated society. This was a time men were expected to give up their seats and open doors for women while women were taught to defer to men. Lois Lane didn’t follow those conventions. She walked the proverbial walk of a tough career woman. Meanwhile, Clark in his mild mannered disguise did not protect her and in fact enabled what the bad guys were doing. It’s important to note the narration box “Reluctantly, Kent adheres to his role of a weakling”. The reader isn’t asked to sympathize with Clark, but instead we’re shown he’s not behaving honorably. However we also know he does so knowing full well Lois wasn’t going to stand for it, which is why we see his internal dialogue (contradicting what he says out loud) cheering Lois along. “Good for you Lois”. He wouldn’t have “adhered” to his disguise without understanding or expecting Lois could and would stand up for herself.
He knew full well Lois was going to walk away from him in anger and doesn’t begrudge her this because he understands she has cause. He says “Wait, Lois,” in his disguise not really believing she’s going to be anything but disgusted. As Superman, he himself treats the criminals in the same way Lois does, and has little respect for the guy who “faints” (his version of Lois’s ‘Clark’ ). The culture as a whole didn’t respect the guy Superman was disguising himself as, which is clear watching any 30s or 40s film noir or screwball comedy and how the ‘weakling’ character is treated on screen.
Career women back then, portrayed in media at least, were shown as wise cracking “dames” like Rosaland Russell, Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyk, Bette Davis, and so many more. These were very strong willed women who wouldn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. Watch His Girl Friday and you will see Lois Lane walk off the pages of the magazine. In the movie, Hildy is angry with Walter (Cary Grant) and says this: “Listen to me, you great big bubble-headed baboon!” She’s angry and Walter doesn’t hold it against her, he understands why she’s angry, but is this something you’d expect anybody to say today? No. That isn’t the way anybody expresses themselves. 75 years from now I don’t expect anybody will be saying “WTF” “Cray Cray” or “Pro”.
Expecting these characters written so many years ago to behave in ways we understand gender roles or behavior today is to, frankly, not understand history.
There also is a specific genre these stories are steeped in. Watching movies in the 1930s and 1940s (It Happened One Night, Thin Man, His Girl Friday, Bringing up Baby, Woman of the Year, and more) you can see that the banter between the male and female leads is at times contentious, and you can see that influence on page, in stories from that era.
For example, David in Bringing up Baby says to Susan, “Now it isn’t that I don’t like you, Susan, because, after all, in moments of quiet, I’m strangely drawn toward you, but – well, there haven’t been any quiet moments.” This is in response to all the crazy things that happen when he’s around her. You can trace this type of dialogue to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and the famous “Merry War” between Beatrice and Benedick. As Benedick says to Beatrice in Act 5 Scene II, “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably”
It fascinates me that Siegel and Shuster planned to evolve the story past this initial triangle and have Lois find out Clark is a disguise, but DC editorial nixed the idea. You can read the story here. By the end, Lois is none too happy with Clark, and we’re left with a setup where Superman is going to have to work to get back in her good graces.
Moving on to the Silver Age, I do think Lois, and women in general got a very raw deal in the 1950s. I feel Lois Lane was gutted and she became a punch line. Everyone knows the image; Lois Lane wearing her apron, dreaming of marrying Superman and usually humiliated in some way or the other by him.
Where did the 1930s wise cracking, career driven Rosalind Russellesque woman go? In her place was this pale imitation.
A lot of what happened to Lois was, I think, a byproduct of the 1950s culture. Mystery Science 3000 did some hilarious (for me at least) riffs on the shorts of that era. It was a time when women were taught they should dream of finding a husband, taking care of him, the house and the kids, and not wish for anything more. I wonder if it wasn’t a response to World War 2, with people trying to reset the culture to more traditional roles? During the war, women were in the work force and performing a lot of traditionally male jobs. The 1950s seemed like an attempt to get everyone back in to their respective seats, if you will, but then I’m neither a sociologist nor historian.
Yet, even taking into account the times, there is still something very disrespectful in what was done to Lois Lane. She was turned in to a caricature of herself. The full burden of the triangle for two was put on her shoulders. Clark Kent was the disguise, and his disguise was a caricature. He was timid, not a go getter, and often portrayed as afraid of his own shadow. Lois was strong, but 1950s Lois’s strength wasn’t celebrated the way it was in 1938. Instead it was held up as a flaw. Readers were expected to believe that because Lois was attracted to the man Clark really was, aka Superman, she was some kind of power hungry gold digger. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that Lois doesn’t love the man, she only loves his powers, I’d have enough money to buy DC Comics. Oh that I did, and could! It infuriates me. On one hand the story tells me that Superman is the real man, but on the other hand, because Lois refuses to settle for the disguise she’s somehow a terrible person. Why? Who amongst us would settle for a caricature?
Superman was not the innocent victim in these stories. He led Lois on, over and over again, and every single time his Clark Kent mask fell, and she saw the strong man hiding beneath, she was interested in Clark Kent. So then what does Superman do? He sabotages himself, but in a way that makes Lois look the fool. Lois could never win. If she saw beneath Clark’s meek disguise she was made to look foolish, but if she went after Superman, she was a man hungry gold digging harpy. Superman escaped all responsibility. Years later, through the lens of the modern age a site was started to celebrate what his behavior really was: Superdickery.
The 70s narrative, the Bronze age, treated Lois with more respect, most likely because of women’s liberation and the changing attitudes towards women and their long term role in society. Exploring those changes, however, is a separate post in itself.
I feel Lois Lane has been a lightning rod since she was introduced. She has very much been a reflection of each era, or at least a reflection of how the media portrayed women in those eras.
Finally, I strongly recommend this guest post on DCWKA which documents the evolution of Lois Lane before she even made it on the page of Action #1, I think it shows Lois was always meant to be a fully realized character with her own agency. Hopefully her future caretakers will celebrate her in the way Siegel and Shuster clearly meant for her to be.