Women of Speculative Fiction: Lois Lane

You might ask, if I’m going to explore women in comic books, why not Wonder Woman? Or any of the other female characters with genuine superpowers? The simple answer is that Lois Lane is my personal favorite. Nothing against Wonder Woman and her important role in comic book feminism; I just like Lois a lot.  Here’s why.

My liking is, of course, related to the fact that Superman is my favorite superhero. (So this post will probably be equal parts analysis and fangirling, let’s be honest.) And I’ve always appreciated the fact that his love interest is far more than just a pretty face or a damsel in need of rescue. She manages to be his equal match without having any superpowers. If Superman is in awe of her, she must be pretty spectacular.

Now, as we’re talking about comic books, I should clarify that Lois Lane has appeared in perhaps hundreds of varied incarnations. Her portrayal differs depending on the specific writers, the social mores of the particular time period, and the overall dynamics of each version of Superman’s story. Some of the portrayals have been downright awful. She’s been made into a silly woman whose driving motivation is to get Superman to marry her; she’s been set up as an idiot fooled by nothing more than a pair of glasses, perpetually oblivious to Clark Kent’s other identity. Those are, obviously, not my favorite renditions of Lois.

But let’s start with the beginning. One thing I love about Lois is that she’s there in the original issue of Action Comics, an integral part of Superman’s story from the start. Lex Luthor came later; the details of Superman’s origins and childhood were fleshed out over the years. But Action Comics #1 introduced Lois right alongside Superman. And they made her tough. Back in 1938, there weren’t a ton of job options for women other than menial labor, but one acceptable profession was a newspaper reporter. So they made Lois a reporter, and a very good one. She was inspired partly by the real-life Nellie Bly as well as Torchy Blane, a reporter from a 1930s serial. (Her name was inspired by Lola Lane, one of the actresses who portrayed that character.)

She doesn’t exist merely to provide Superman or Clark with a romance. She has her own motivations; she wants to get headlines and she’s good at it. She’s no-nonsense, aggressive, determined. Most of the time that she ends up in trouble needing to be rescued, it’s because she’s out looking for a story. And sometimes she goes ahead and rescues herself.

With regards to Superman’s alter ego, her suspicions of his secret varied in relation to her own character’s portrayal. She was pretty sure he and Clark Kent were the same during the Silver Age of comics in the 50s and 60s, but Superman (being a bit of a jerk during that era) delighted in foiling her schemes to reveal him. When they rebooted his character somewhat in the 70s and 80s, Lois herself was less concerned with such schemes and more focused on her job. Clark has voluntarily revealed his secret to her in multiple storylines, sometimes to her surprise and sometimes less so. The best versions, to me, are the ones that have Lois shown to be smart, perceptive and perfectly at east with Superman’s need to hide his mild-mannered alter ego. When she is one of his secret-keepers, it showcases the strength of their partnership.

Which brings us to the portrayal of their romance. Let’s just ignore the husband-hungry Lois of the 50s and focus on the stories that grant her more respect. So, why is Lois a good match for a super-powered alien?

To me, the essence of Superman is not his Kryptonian heritage or his tremendous powers, though those do of course inform his character. It is his goodness, his passion for seeking truth and justice, and his simple upbringing on a Kansas farm. His adoptive parents helped to ground him, to feel like a human even if he wasn’t one, and to value virtue rather than power or glory. Lois Lane matches those ideals in every regard. She too has a passion for truth (it’s why she’s a reporter) and justice (she’s constantly pursuing stories that uncover corruption). She is a human who proves that humans are extraordinary not because of what they can do, but because of what they are and what they believe in. Lois represents everything that Clark values about the inhabitants of his adoptive planet, and why he decides to become a benevolent superhero.

In the 80s and 90s comics, there was a new emphasis on Clark Kent as a real identity, while Superman was his hero persona. He wasn’t pretending to be a dorky guy with glasses; he needed to live an ordinary human life in order to be a better superhero when it was needed. Lois had a crush on Superman, but she fell in love with Clark. He proposed, revealed his secret, and they were married (after a long series of complications, of course, because those are required in comic books). For quite a few years of DC comic book continuity, they were a happily married couple, supporting each other, working through their differences, well-matched in their personalities regardless of their vast physical differences.

Then they rebooted the continuity again to make a universe where they weren’t a couple. Well, on the one hand, I appreciate the idea of developing Lois’s character outside the context of a relationship with Clark/Superman. On the other hand, seeing how they pretty much immediately paired him up with Wonder Woman, I can’t help wondering if it was motivated by a bunch of impassioned Superman/Wonder Woman shippers who always resented Lois.

Of course all of this is mere speculation, and since I have neither the time nor brainpower to follow every detail of comic book plots, I have no idea where this reboot is headed right now. It’s more of a general annoyance whenever people match up Superman and Wonder Woman because they have similar superpowers – as mentioned previously, I don’t feel Superman’s powers form the core of his character or what makes him most interesting, and I think his attraction to Lois emphasizes the importance of character over superficial, external characteristics. That’s not to say that Wonder Woman isn’t a strong, virtuous character in her own right, but I’d hate to think that they’re pitting female characters against each other merely as romantic rivals.

In any case, the resolution (or lack thereof) of Superman and Lois’s romance and the revelation of his identity have played out in quite a few ways outside of comic books. In the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Marogt Kidder played her behavior with Clark and with Superman into two extremes – the first, with the dismissiveness she would show toward someone who had an unrequited crush on her, and the second, with the gushing adoration of her having a crush. It’s mostly comedic, though it takes a turn into melodrama in the second film when he reveals his secret and then has to decide whether to give up his powers to be with Lois or remain Superman. His eventual decision, to regain his powers and erase Lois’s memory with the dubious plot device of a mind-blowing kiss? Yeah, I remember being enraged watching that, even as a kid. Lois isn’t granted much agency at all.

Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, on the other hand, was written specifically as a romantic comedy, with the obvious intent of bringing Lois and Clark together. Lois is breathlessly enamored with Superman, but she’s also attracted to Clark, however she tries to deny it. They really played with the whole love-triangle-for-two concept, with Clark sort of jealous of his own alter ego. In this scenario, Clark is who he is, and Superman is just what he does. He doesn’t want Lois to have a crush on Superman; he wants her to like the guy right across from her in the newsroom. And then he’ll tell her his secret. As it happens, she figures it out on her own (though it takes two years, so she still comes across as pretty oblivious for a while) and the remaining two seasons of the show involve them navigating marriage plans and such while also having Lois adjust to her new role as secret-keeper. It was far from perfect, but there were some great moments for Lois.

I never would have expected it, but one of my favorite portrayals of Lois Lane ended up being by Erica Durance on Smallville, the angst-drenched prequel with a mopey teenaged Clark. She doesn’t show up until the fourth season, and doesn’t become a regular until the fifth, but she’s like a breath of fresh air in a show that usually takes itself way too seriously. She’s brash, pushy and has no patience for Clark’s moping. A flawed character, yes, and so much more interesting than the sweet but unfortunately rather bland Lana Lang that Clark has been pining after for way too many seasons.

Since it’s set in the years before Clark dons the cape, they refrain from making Lois his love interest right away. This is really to the benefit of her character – she has time for developments in other non-romantic areas. That’s not to say that she doesn’t have romantic plots, as they match her up with everyone from Green Arrow to a clone of Lex Luthor’s deceased brother (don’t ask – the show is rife with that sort of convoluted nonsense) but they also give her storylines that show her overcoming various missteps in her young adult life and gradually gravitating toward a career in journalism, determined to prove herself. And she spends the last few seasons as Clark’s mentor at the Daily Planet.

When they do finally start revving up the romance, they put in an interesting twist: she falls for Clark first. Not just before she falls for Superman, but before Clark falls for her. In most renditions, Clark finds himself smitten with Lois long before she starts to grant him much notice. Here, she has to deal with potentially unrequited feelings, and struggles with that vulnerability.

They also put a fresh spin on the Clark/Lois/Superman triangle, since he hasn’t fully donned his superhero persona yet. He’s a mysterious there-and-gone figure that people call “the Blur.” He starts making phone calls to Lois as that persona (with a voice modulator), at first to throw her a bone because she desperately wants a front-page story about the Blur, but then he discovers having her for a confidante is very helpful for him. When he starts dating Lois as Clark, he find himself jealous that the Blur does something for her that he can’t – even though it’s really him! It’s not exactly a romantic connection, either – it’s more the idea of serving a higher purpose. Of course the obvious solution is to just tell her the truth, but he drags his feet for another season, while Lois herself acknowledges that if the Blur told her who he was, it would put her in greater danger. Eventually she figures it out, and when Clark tells her his secret she asks with a grin, “What took you so long?” It’s pretty darn charming, and I was willing to put up with a lot of convoluted plot-lines and tortured overwrought angst just to see their relationship to its conclusion.

The new Man of Steel, with Amy Adams, also did some nice things with Lois’s investigative skills, leading her from a chance encounter with Superman (before he has the official title or persona) to a trail that leads to his childhood home in Smallville. She isn’t duped for a second, and when he shows up as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent at the end, she’s fully in on the secret. Their romance is perhaps a bit rushed, but it’s clear why both of them are drawn to each other. I’m not sure if they’ll have much room to further develop Lois’s character when the new film has such a dominating figure as Batman overshadowing everything else, but I’m hoping for at least a few tidbits of Lois being awesome.

I’m aware that even at her best, Lois will generally be considered an appendage to Superman’s story. She’s still iconic in her own right. Tough, competent, brave, and determined, she sets a high standard for all the leading ladies of comic books and female characters in general.


2 thoughts on “Women of Speculative Fiction: Lois Lane

  1. I was raised on Superman, so I’ve followed every one of his incarnations over the years. A majority of my comic books are Superman titles and I recently finished “Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years” which covers both the good and the bad times of Lois’ evolution. My favorite non-comics versions of Lois are Lana Delany’s voice over in “Superman: The Animated Series” and Amy Adams in “Man of Steel”. I’ve always felt that Superman has never gotten the credit he deserves as a feminist icon because that always goes to Lois and Wonder Woman (and rightly so).

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