Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Women and (super)Men

Let's try to take a look at Action Comics #1 (the 1938 one, not the New 52 one) from a feminist perspective, and see what we come up with.

The first thing to note, of course, is that Superman is gendered.  That might seem like a stupid thing to point out; of course Superman is gendered. Isn't everyone?  There's no such thing as a gender-neutral person, is there?  But there are two important things to notice here.  Firstly, the division of all of humanity into one of two gender categories is not necessarily as obvious as it may seem--we'll leave that point to the side for now--but secondly, there's no reason that the "man" part of Superman has to be there.  Superman has had such an influence on superhero nomenclature (Batman, Spider-man, Aquaman, Hawkman, Plastic Man, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Giant-Man, X-Men, not to mention Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Hawkgirl, Power Girl, etc) that we can easily forget that there's no inherent reason why a superhero's name needs to be gendered.  But Superman is not just a super person, he's a super MAN, and it is implicit in his identity from the beginning that whatever else he is he is a figure of idealized hyper-masculinity.

Superman's first real appearance in the comic (real appearance as opposed to a brief expositional flashback) shows him carrying a woman who has been bound and gagged.  The gender politics of that first image should be clear, the (super)man is in motion and has full agency, while the woman is completely powerless.  We later learn that this bound woman is a "murderess," and Superman's hurry here is to convince the governor to pardon an innocent woman who is about to be executed in favour of having this blonde woman arrested.

A few pages later Superman has a second--indirect--interaction with a woman.  Clark Kent, in his role as a reporter, has been called to report on "a phoned tip" of "a wife-beating."  He arrives as Superman:

The paradigm set up here is of woman as either criminal or victim.  Although it is true that Superhero comics tend to be populated with many criminals and victims in general, by this point in the comic we have seen sixteen male figures of whom one is a criminal and four female figures of whom two were victims and one was a criminal. Women here mostly conform to the "damsels in distress" trope, and they exist fundamentally so that the figure of hypermasculinity will have someone appropriately weak to rescue.

Lois Lane is both a famous example of this tendency in Superman comics and also a subversion of it.  On one hand here and for much of her presence in Superman stories in all media Lois is Superman's built-in damsel-in-distress.

On the other hand Lois' character is, even in this first outing, a more developed character than are the other damsels/victims, and her relationship to Clark/Superman is not limited to being rescued.  Lois is one of the vertices of a love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman.  Clark loves Lois, but she spurns him. Lois loves Superman.  In this first comic the love triangle is barely developed--certainly Lois' affection for Superman is not yet established.  But here is what we do see:

Lois is established here as symbolic of an unattainable woman.  Clark pursues her--and the "for once" line lets us know that he makes a habit of it--but he is usually ineffective.  She's cold and aloof yet desirable, and while we might say that this is partly because she is not a human character but an object Clark wishes to possess, we might also note that she is given real agency and a real personality here.

Lois avoids Clark because he's a coward, and we see here that Lois' strength is one of the things Clark admires about her.  The preoccupation with strength is a theme in Superman comics, especially as created by Siegel and Shuster.  The emphasis on strength is part of an emphasis on masculinity, and Siegel and Shuster define manliness as strength.

And there you have it: a preliminary examination of some of the gender politics in Action Comics #1; a feminist reading of Superman.

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