The Basement The Politic

Social Justice Warriors Among Us, Part 3: The Feminism of Superman

In part 3 of our examination of social justice in comic books, we examine how the various writers of Superman have been one step ahead of real life in expanding gender equality

The concept of feminism in the confines of comic books and related media has been a divisive and toxic subject of late as some fans have taken issue with female characters being written as equals to their male counterparts. They loath even more that these characters speak the language of equality as they stand alone or side by side with their leading men. For example, few characters are as despised by toxic fandom as The Flash‘s Iris West. Rooted in the fact actress Candance Patton is an African-American , the character is the target for some pretty vitriolic attacks because of a statement she made in season 4, ep. 23, “We are the Flash.” Anyone with an elementary understanding of figurative language knows she was stating the two of them run their team as one. And the team is, after all, called ‘Team Flash.’ But not the bottom feeders that occupy 4chan and other dark corners of fandom. To them, that meant Iris was being uppity, positioning herself in a station above their superhero. And they just couldn’t accept that!

But like any minority group that has had to wage political and social battles for every small step in their journey from second-class status, many women aren’t shy about speaking out on issues of equality. Naturally, that tendency has permeated popular culture as more and more entertainment producers have recognized it as an integral component of a growing segment of their current and potential audiences. Writers for shows like Supergirl, Batwoman, and Arrow write feminist-tinged dialogue and plots for their female characters because women identify with it and the majority of new superhero / comic book fans these days aren’t actually men. They’re women .

When it comes to comic books and comic book media, this is nothing new. Like other issues pertaining to social justice, comics took the lead in injecting concepts of gender equality into the essence of their female and male characters literally from day one. Though this wasn’t the case in every instance, just as it isn’t now, the times it did happen were quite obvious. This is a historical fact. Only Wonder Woman demonstrates this better than Superman, both in standalone actions, the status his mother held in Kryptonian culture, and in his relationship with Lois Lane.

SUPERMAN – CHAMPION OF THE OPPRESSED

Jerry Siegel’s and Joe Shuster’s treatment of women, and the reasons for it, in the pages of their early superman adventures have seldom been explored. So to understand the level at which they embedded what would later be recognized as feminist allegory into their creation, one only needs to look back to the very beginning.

One of the Man of Steel’s first heroic acts in Action Comics #1 is stopping a wife-beater. Of course, protecting a woman from a bully doesn’t necessarily equate to being a feminist but at the time wife beating was still acceptable to many, having only been made illegal in the 1920s and, even then, arrests were rare. Only since the 1970s has the criminal justice system begun to treat domestic violence as a serious crime, not as a private family matter.  So this was a provocative plot device because many readers undoubtedly would view this as an intrusion of domestic privacy and it elevated a woman’s welfare to the level of  a man’s.

Another such example was him saving a woman from being executed at the 11th hour. Just as a point of reference, compared to men women rarely reach death row and executions are even rarer so such a story-line was, indeed, interesting. Siegel could have just as easily made that death row character a male without altering the general theme of the story but he chose to make it a woman.  He later commented on his decision to make the character female, stating it made more sense considering Superman was “champion of the oppressed,”  a tacit admission of his feelings about women’s place in society. Siegel revisited these metaphors for society’s treatment of women in the 1930s, and Superman’s resolve to correct such behavior, several times in his tenure as writer of the character.

Don’t think Siegel was a deep thinker on social justice topics like that? Go back and read his quotes on racism and Nazis. In his high school newspaper, The Torch, there is an article that delves into Jerry’s feelings on white supremacy. We know, too, that the Nazis saw Superman as a propagandist threat and made racist threats about Siegel in the SS-run Das schwarze Korps newspaper in 1940, threats that were eerily similar to the language used today by the alt-right influenced comicsgate.  Siegel brushed off his Nazi detractors, though, and continued to subtly and overtly inject elements of gender and racial equality into his Superman story-lines.

Lois Lane
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” – Lao-Tzu

Lois Lane’s feminism wasn’t a mere reflection of the changing times in depression-era America. Siegel  and Shuster intentionally baked it into her DNA from the very start for obvious reasons. Women were taking a much more empowered role in the workforce during the waning years of the great depression and the lead up to America’s entry into World War II and Hollywood was introducing a bevy of smart, independent actresses. On top of that, Siegel had a particular attraction to such women. According to writer Trevor Hunnicutt of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Superman was created with the traits Siegel wished he had to attract a strong woman like Lois Lane.

In 1936 actress Glenda Farrell was researching a character she’d be portraying in the movie Smart Blonde, about a career-oriented female reporter named Torchy Blane. Farrell said she was “determined to create a real human being—and not an exaggerated comedy type.” The tag for the film, the first of nine movies based on the character, was “The lady bloodhound with a nose for news!” The character would soon develop into one of the first proto-feminists in American cinema history, a career-driven woman that rivaled – and often bested – the men around her. The films were successes, and Torchy Blane is recognized as the inspiration for Lois Lane, whose character was introduced in  Action Comics #1 alongside Superman. The year was 1938.

In 1937’s Fly Away Baby, Torchy’s fiancé tells her, “Running down criminals is a man’s job. It takes a masculine mind and years of experience to crack these cases. So you just go back to your office and write a nice little story about what the women’s clubs are doing to promote world peace, and then I’ll take you out to dinner…” Of course she proceeds to outsmart him minutes later. Part of the series’ template is that sexism abounds but Torchy is not deterred and we, the audience, know she’ll upturn every condescending remark.

Speaking about the creation of Lois Lane, Jerry Siegel said, “what inspired me was Glenda Farrell, the movie star who portrayed Torchy Blane, a gutsy, beautiful headline-hunting reporter, in a series of exciting motion pictures. Because the name of another actress in the role, Lola Lane, appealed to me, I called my character Lois Lane.”

In comics throughout the golden and silver ages of comics, Lois Lane is described as “courageous” (Act No. 27, Aug 1940), “headstrong” (Act No. 43, Dec 1941), “audacious” (WF No. 64, May/Jun 1953:”The Death of Lois Lane”), “impetuous” and “impulsive” (Act No. 262, Mar 1960: “When Superman Lost His Powers!”), and “inquisitive” (Act No. 269, Oct 1960: “The Truth Mirror!”). She is outspoken, sometimes to the point of abrasiveness, in defense of her convictions (S No. 16/4, May/Jun 1942: “Racket on Delivery”; and others), and she is adored by her co-workers for her “heart of gold”(WF No. 36, Sep/Oct 1948: “Lois Lane, Sleeping Beauty”). “That Lane dame has more spunk,” remarks an anonymous helicopter pilot in November 1963, “than a squad of marines!” (S No. 165/1: pts. I-II—”Beauty and the Super-Beast!”; “Circe’s Super-Slave”).

From the Encyclopedia of Superman: Lois Lane has always harbored strong convictions concerning the equality, if not outright superiority, of women, and has bridled at the suggestion that any reportorial assignment, no matter how hazardous, is “no job for a girl!” (Act No. 5, Oct 1938; and others). These convictions could easily be regarded as hypocritical in light of the constant professional assistance that Lois receives from Superman, but Lois has no apparent difficulty resolving the discrepancy between her independent views and her frequently dependent behavior. In March 1951, for example, when she is on the verge of being disqualified from a Daily Planet sponsored contest designed to determine “who’s more able to live alone under primitive conditions: the man or the woman” because of her having accepted unauthorized assistance from Superman, Lois makes this remark: “Wait…! admit getting help from Superman, but.. .that actually proves women’s superiority! Don’t you see?. ..Women’s strength has lain in their ability to get men to help them!” It is a tribute to Lois Lane’s persuasive powers that the judges on this occasion withdraw their threat of disqualification and declare her the winner (Act No. 154: “Miss Robinson Crusoe!”).

Lara Lor-Van
“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.” – Barbara Kingsolver

The fact Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster injected elements of their Jewish faith and their experiences as sons of immigrants in the creation of Superman is obvious and well-documented. Though later incarnations of the character took on more of a Christ-like persona, he was originally conceived as a Moses-figure. Those who recall their Sunday School lessons know Moses was born into a world where people faced a cataclysmic event. As an infant, Moses is placed in a small basket by his mother and sent down the Nile River. He’s rescued by a daughter of the pharaoh in Eqypt where he’s raised as one of them but has to conceal his true identity.

Even though the duo never fully fleshed out the Last Son of Krypton’s origin story as later writers would, they were always quick to include his mother, Lara (or Lora) by his father Jor-El’s side when referring to his unearthly origins and ultimate arrival on Earth. This equal status given to her also has roots in Siegel and Shuster’s Jewish upbringing.  The position of women in halakhah (Jewish Law), dating back to Biblical times, was better in many ways than that of American women’s in the year Superman was created. As Jewish families, it’s likely Siegel’s and Shuster’s mothers shared something approaching equal power with the fathers in their households, something a bit uncommon with American families in the 1930s. As Judaism 101 points out, many of the important feminist leaders of the 20th century (Gloria Steinem, for example, and Betty Friedan) are Jewish, and this is no coincidence: the respect accorded to women in Jewish tradition was a part of their ethnic culture.

Lara, being the first ‘mother’ in the Superhero era, could be considered a feminist archetype because, ironically, details of her life are grounded solidly in her creator’s religious tradition that tends to elevate women, as opposed to other major faiths that relegate them to mere ‘helpers’ of men (to put it mildly.) “Women are for the most part seen as separate but equal,” states Judaism 101. “women’s obligations and responsibilities are different from men’s, but no less important.”

Though most tellings credit Jor-El with being the initiator and ultimate decision maker regarding of Kal-El’s journey to earth, Lara’s role has expanded over the decades to better reflect her status in Jewish, um, Kryptonian culture, depending on the writer, of course. For example, in 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Lara questions the wisdom of sending Kal to earth and she and Jor-El then have the kind of spirited debate any co-equal parents would regarding the welfare of their child.

In the 1979 miniseries The World of Krypton, Lara was a promising astronaut in Krypton’s space program. Soon thereafter, Lara meets scientist Jor-El and gives birth to the couple’s only child, Kal-El, but not before the Guardians of the Universe consider recruiting her into the Green Lantern Corp.

Putting this into perspective, the first American woman in space didn’t happen until 1983.

Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel pays homage to Lara’s empowered history. Not only did she defy the society’s  artificial birth culture by giving birth to her son naturally, she was the one that pressed the button and launched his rocket to earth.

A final point on the evolving role of women in Superman’s history: David S. Goyer’s writing in the recently ended series Krypton clearly shows a society where women were equal, and at times, occupied higher ranks in society than men.  Ironically, this series was pretty well recieved by the very dark corners of fandom that typically complain about messages of gender equality.

BUT WHAT ABOUT…?

The author is quite aware that during the immediate aftermath of Fredric Wertham’s anti-comics book Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate hearings that followed, women’s roles in the medium were diminished to appease the conservative mentality of the day. By the mid-60s, however, key female characters were restored to their previous powerful and independent incarnations.

Catch up! Read Social Justice Warriors Among Us: Comics and Freedom of the Press and Social Justice Warriors Among Us: Golden Age Superman and Gun Control, both of which got this author banned from several comic book Facebook groups.

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About the author

Joey Davis

Joey is a former rock star, former DJ, comic book & political historian, and novelist who once read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlocked the secrets of the universe.

1 Comment

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  • I really love this article about how Superman’s origins related to stopping domestic abuse and even the false execution of the woman. Truly inspiring and it’s why he’s lasted so long by helping individuals, especially women as his base, including against violent crimes… We need to see more of that…

    I added a link to it in the support Amber Heard petition:

    “Our petition was encouraged by The Geek Buzz, a supporter of the 1938 comic issue of Superman stopping domestic violence.

    We hope for Amber’s success and thank her for her causes! It’s changed lives for the better.

    Gathering data and leading for change is exactly what Amber Heard should have done!
    It’s an assault against all women to silence Amber or other victims for speaking out against violence either in spoken words or Op-Eds.”

    Support Amber Heard’s Life and Public Safety Systems!
    https://www.change.org/p/we-support-amber-heard-in-aquaman-2-her-life-and-public-safety-to-save-lives

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