By Anna F. Peppard
When I was twelve years old, I wanted to be Lois Lane. Specifically, the Teri Hatcher version of the character from the TV show Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97), which tween me was deeply, irrationally in love with. Lois was beautiful and brave and got to have it all—a co-worker/best friend/lover who was both a spandex-clad boytoy and a new age sensitive man plus a career that made her famous for doing good.
When I was twelve years old, I also hated Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane. She was always getting kidnapped and her co-worker/best friend/lover convincing her he was two different people made the world feel like a joke at her expense. I was especially uncomfortable with the trajectory of her life after her marriage to Clark/Superman, which saw her forgo her city apartment for a big suburban house with a white picket fence, where she spends a lot of time lamenting her domestic failures and becomes very focused on having a baby.
Hopefully it goes without saying, but just in case—there’s nothing wrong with wanting babies. Same goes for white picket fences; they are charming and don’t deserve their bad rap. But even as a starry-eyed tween I suspected there was something off about Lois’s character arc, which seemed to confuse moving forward with becoming more like everyone else.
But this is a comics website, so this essay isn’t really about Lois & Clark. It is, however, about Lois and Clark, and a comic book series that must, for better or worse, be considered a progenitor of my former favorite TV show: Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane, a humor/romance/superhero comic published with considerable success between 1958 and 1974. The specific story on the docket is “Babe of Steel” from Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane #3, in which Lois adopts a toddler and hates it. She hates it so much. Within a day, she returns the kid to the orphanage, ranting about how he’s ruined her life. She does this despite knowing the toddler is really her prospective boyfriend Superman, de-aged by time travel. Yet Superman gets the first and last laugh. As Superbaby, he repeatedly humiliates Lois. And the story concludes with a re-adultified Clark Kent dressing up as a baby to taunt her—or seduce her? There’s exposed thigh and a sexy hip tilt involved. Lois is horrified. Clark merely smiles.
“Babe of Steel” is a terrible Lois Lane story. It’s a misogynist screed in which Lois is a bad reporter because she’s a bad mother and a bad mother because she’s a bad reporter. “Babe of Steel” is also a quintessential Lois Lane story. She is irrepressible in the face of overwhelming odds, including a patriarchal world gamed against her. The story’s misogyny is also shot through with contradictions, fired by the superhero genre’s historically weird relationship with heteronormativity and Lois’s weird relationship with that relationship.
The 1954 Comics Code stipulates, “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.” The birth of the Code and the emphasis on traditional family values within it reflects the cultural priorities of the era. During WWII, it was okay for men to wear splashy costumes and love their comrades in arms because patriotism pairs well with loyalty and spectacle. Similarly, it was okay for a woman in an eagle-branded bustier and star-spangled shorts to ensnare evil patriarchs and patriarchally poisoned women in her lasso of truth because most of those patriarchs and poisoned women were Nazis. But in the 50s, the battle shifted to the homefront, pitting American realties against fantasies of itself. Much of postwar American society and culture responded to ongoing domestic and global upheavals by retreating into traditionalism. As such, the preferred hero of the 50s was the nuclear family.
Post-Code superhero comics dutifully foregrounded family, with new love interests, sisters, and cousins as well as newly prominent parents and even a bevy of super-pets. Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane is part of this domestic trend. While the series features plenty of action and aliens, the title emphasizes romance and conventional gender roles, framing Lois as a love interest rather than a protagonist in her own right. Moreover, many stories are centrally animated by the pursuit of heteronormativity, with Lois frequently scheming to convince Superman to marry her.
Yet the fact Lois usually has to trick Superman into marrying her speaks to the weirdness underpinning this supposedly heteronormative storyworld. In the superhero comics of the 50s, domestic bliss is dangled but deferred and often actively resisted, because of secret identities hidden in closets and caves or because the protagonist’s love interest is a mermaid or merman or a centaur transformed into a horse. But interspecies romance is a topic for another time. Lois becoming her prospective boyfriend’s mother is weird enough for now.
The weird parts of “Babe of Steel” are the best parts of “Babe of Steel.” The plot alone is chock-full of fabulous IDGAF nonsense. Lois and Clark investigate an unspecified story at the Bright Home Orphanage, which has recently, for unknown reasons, relocated from Smallville to Metropolis. Naturally, the orphanage has a pair of baby booties that once belonged to Clark. Naturally, these baby booties are made from indestructible alien fabric. Naturally, Lois will discover this and deduce Clark is Superman. Naturally, Clark must travel back in time to prevent this from happening, which is something he can apparently just do, whenever he wants. Naturally, this replaces him in the present with a toddler version of himself. Naturally, Lois sees the child, recognizes him as Superman, and realizes he travelled back in time. Naturally, she adopts Superbaby. Naturally, she does so not to protect him, but to exploit him. Naturally, this plan spectacularly backfires.
But the fun of this weirdness is undercut by that misogyny I mentioned before. Lois’s attempt to exploit Superbaby evokes the 1950s moral panic about controlling mothers. This panic is often linked to Philip Wylie’s 1943 essay collection Generation of Vipers, which experienced a surge in popularity following a 1955 reprinting. Wylie was already important to the history of the superhero genre; his 1930 science fiction novel Gladiator, about the life and death of a tragic super-strongman, is often cited as a significant influence on the creation of Superman. But his theory of “Momism” from the Vipers essay “Common Women” is more directly relevant to the story at hand.
According to Wylie, controlling mothers were dooming the nation by sapping the virile energy of American men. In the words of writer Emily Harnett, “Like a misogynist retelling of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Wylie’s ‘Common Women’ indicts the cult of domesticity while framing men as its primary victims.” Continues Harnett: “‘Common Women’ was to be a Jungian exorcism: by expelling Mom’s possessing spirit from the collective psyche, the nation would finally achieve a state of manly self-knowledge and defeat its enemies abroad.”
Because she’s a working woman rather than a stay-at-mom mother, Lois doesn’t precisely align with Wylie’s Momism. But her conniving-ness and comeuppance can be read in its shadow. Moments after discovering Superbaby, Lois cocks a maniacal eyebrow as her thought bubble announces her diabolical plan: “I’ll get Superbaby to like me, and then I’ll trick him to use his super-powers so I can get the biggest scoops of my career!” In other words, Lois schemes to garner motherly devotion, then use that devotion to steal her male child’s powers/power. The fact Lois’s child is also her boyfriend hammers home the Freudian undertones (or overtones?). In this story, Lois is framed as both a social and sexual threat, trying to capitalize on Superman’s diminishment to further emasculate him.
“Trying” being the optimum word. Superbaby’s inevitable albeit innocent rebellion continuously and decisively thwarts Lois’s plans. Lois tries to win Superbaby over by buying him toys; Superbaby throws a tantrum and makes a store clerk faint by effortlessly lifting a life-size train. Lois makes Superbaby fly her to a mountaintop in search of a nefarious super-scientist; Superbaby forces Lois to flee by befriending a pair of rattlesnakes. Lois attempts to use Superbaby’s invulnerability to prove a Superman-themed carnival ride is unsafe; but when the ride malfunctions, Superbaby flies instead of falling, and the nearsighted policeman doesn’t see the broken cable.
When Superbaby’s tiny fist of steel punches a hole in Lois’s “best cookie jar,” the intrepid reporter finally snaps and resorts to corporal punishment. But in hurling Superbaby over her knee and vigorously spanking him, she only succeeds in injuring her hand. At that point, Lois declares it’s been “the worst day of [her] life,” and takes Superbaby back to the orphanage. There, in front of the smiling administrator, she tells Superbaby he’s been “a living nightmare,” “a super-delinquent,” and “an ingrate,” and declares, “If I never see you again it’ll be too soon.” As Lois rants, a caption box describes Superbaby as “growing larger and larger” until he resumes his adult form, lending phallic symbolism to the final restoration of proper (i.e. patriarchal) gender roles.
But there’s still time for one final humiliation, in the form of Clark’s baby dress-up act, which occupies the last panel of the story. In response to Clark’s high-waisted shorts, bonnet, lace-trimmed shirt fastened with an elegant bow, and saucily positioned rattle, Lois, wide-eyed with visible circles under her eyes, is reduced to stuttering confusion: “Clark! Y-you’re n-not becoming a baby, are you?” Clark characterizes his costume, which he plans to wear to The Daily Planet’s masquerade ball, as both “cute” and “a gag.” This conscious performance of emasculating childishness introduces subversive possibilities, but Lois’s horrified reaction shuts them down. Clark’s costume becomes just another joke at Lois’s expense.
Then again, there’s something very identifiable, and even heroic, about Lois’s dogged refusal to be gamed. I like Lois’s determination in this story. I like her uncompromising pursuit of scoops and glory. I like her demure but stylish skirt suit and her helmet-hard, black-as-ink bob with its Bettie Page bangs. I like her rage and I even like her objectively terrible behavior. Sure, she manipulates, endangers, and cruelly berates a child. But I get where she’s coming from. The child is Superman and Superman is sometimes an asshole. Lois has to fight hard and dirty to keep existing as a non-superhero woman in a superhero world and not be relegated to a desk or kitchen. If she was any less ruthless, she’d die or disappear.
Don’t believe me? Take Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane, who enjoys all the social and cultural benefits of second-wave feminism yet still finds herself sent back to the kitchen, where a domestically gifted ghost played by Kathy Kinney teaches her how to scramble eggs for her super-husband’s breakfast (yes, this is an actual thing that happens). In a way, Lois & Clark ends where “Babe of Steel” begins. In the final episode, fittingly titled “The Family Hour,” a mysterious infant wrapped in a Superman blanket—in other words, a Superbaby—is left on the title characters’ suburban doorstep.
Had Lois & Clark continued, how would Lois have navigated motherhood? Subsequent comics, movies, TV shows, and fanfiction epics offer many possibilities, some more encouraging than others. But because I loved Hatcher’s Lois first and best, I still wonder about her specific future. Would she be angry at her superpowered husband, flying off to save the world while she’s left holding the (diaper) bag for a baby she didn’t fully choose to have? Would she be allowed to be angry? For all its flaws, “Babe of Steel” at least grants Lois that. The Lois of “Babe of Steel” also gets to be selfish—to decide when to become a mother and not to, while always putting her career first. She’s punished for it, but still—she does it, and never doubts what she deserves. I like that a lot, too.
No one deserves cruelty. Yet some people deserve anger. And everyone deserves love, a fulfilling career, and a family, on their terms, if they want them. But like most versions of Lois, many of us have to fight for what we deserve. The battlelines change, but some changes are superficial, barely disguising the same misogynist bullshit that says women can’t ever be trusted with anything, from news reporting to leadership to everything involving sex and babies.
Sometimes, I love wondering about the Lois I wanted to be. Sometimes, I hate how much I wonder.
Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #3
Writer: Otto Binder
Artist: Kurt Schaffenberger
Anna is a writer, talker, and PhD-haver. She’s published widely on representations of race, gender, and sexuality within a variety of popular media genres and forms, including action-adventure television, superhero comics, professional wrestling, and sports culture. She’s the editor of the anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero and co-hosts the podcasts Three Panel Contrast (a monthly discussion of comics classics) and The Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! Podcast (a weekly, issue-by-issue re-read of Marvel’s classic Excalibur series).
This post was made possible thanks to the Shelfdust Patreon! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!
I’m vaguely aware of how bonkers a lot of the old comics are but this is something else
LikeLiked by 1 person