Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Lois Lane

My thoughts and prayers are with the family of Margot Kidder, who passed away yesterday at the age of sixty-nine.  She is perhaps best known for her role as Lois Lane in Superman: The Movie.  Her Lois Lane was a definitive performance, bringing the character back to her Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday, roots.  She played Lois as a strong, fiercely independent and competitive reporter who fought her own crusade for truth, justice, and the American way.  She could balance her cynicism and strength with true awe and wonder in the sight of Superman.  One of the many reasons the film is still a delight.

The news of her passing started me thinking on Lois Lane as a character and more broadly about women's roles in film and media.

Like Superman, Lois Lane has turned eighty years old this year.  And through her continued presence in the comics and other media, she has gone through a lot of reinventions.

At her inception, Lois was a tough as nails investigative reporter in a male dominated workforce, who was not afraid to put herself in danger to get her story.  She was Clark Kent's rival, not love-struck over Superman, and not a damsel in distress.  She only needed saving when she intentionally put herself in harm's way to get her story.  She fit in that pre-code Hollywood version of a leading lady.  Influenced heavily by Glenda Farrell and the Torchy Blane series of movies.  This version of Lois is probably best represented in the Fleischer cartoons, where Lois repeatedly works to crack the story on her own.  Her newspaper strip had Lois defeating bad guys and getting the front page headline without any help from Superman.  She was truly the star.

Unfortunately, in the 1950s and 1960s, Lois became a love-struck, marriage obsessed, girlfriend whose number one goal was to discover Superman's secret identity.  The fiercely independent reporter was gone.  All of her stories revolved around a love triangle with Superman and Lana Lang, or about discovering Superman's identity, even in her own comic, Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane.  Reading through these comics today is often a chore, as it is hard not to read overt misogyny into the repeated times Lois is the butt of the joke, even in a title where she is the nominal star.  They do not call this period Superdickery for nothing.

Thankfully, in the years since, Lois Lane has evolved with the times to become a complex and well-rounded character again.  Truthfully, in her current status, married to Superman and mother to Jon, she is one of the most interesting DC characters today.  Still daring and adventurous, still chasing the truth, and now fiercely protective of her family.   And its her role, as a constant seeker of the truth that makes her a perfect companion for Superman. She is perhaps the most recognizable DC comics character who does not have her own title.

And that is a shame.  I have heard several writers and artists who would love to take on a modern Lois Lane comic, male and female.  I would be all over a Greg Rucka written Lois Lane, Reporter comic.

But despite her history and prominence, she is still relegated to a supporting character, primarily in two books.

Her history feels like it parallels the over all role of women in media through the 20th and 21st centuries.  If you look at Hollywood in particular, it is very revealing.  In 2013, women accounted for only 15% of all protagonists and only 30% of all speaking roles, despite representing 50% of the population.  It's strange that this is an area we have regressed in.  Women dominated Hollywood from 1917 to 1923.  Even in the heyday of the Golden Age from the 1930s into the early 1940s, all that mattered was star power regardless of gender.  Betty Davis practically ran Warner Brothers over Jack.

The early investigative Lois represented this spirit.  And her character waned as women in film similarly faded with the Hays code and the changes in social norms through the 1950s and 1960s.  Very few films from that time could even pass the Bechdel test, with large numbers of film where the women in the film never talk to each other.  Things are improving, and the response to the Wonder Woman film last year proves that there is a demand for a change.  There is still a long way to go, though.

We need Lois Lane again, front and center.  Searching for the truth, revealing it to the world.  It's what made Superman fall in love with her.  She could look at Clark Kent, Superman's bumbling alter ego representing the worst of his flaws, see right through it, and know that he was Superman.

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