Man of Steel's Lois Lane Is a 'Modern' Heroine—Just Like the Lois Lanes Before

Reading the scholarly literature on how changing ideas about women have affected the leading ladies of Superman
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TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: In Man of Steel, Amy Adams plays a "tougher and cooler," "more modern" version of Lois Lane, critics say. This past weekend's record-setting No. 1 movie transforms Superman's iconic reporter girlfriend into a bolder, braver heroine who shoots bad guys, asks if her uncooperative sources are done "dick-measuring," and gets writer's block when she's not wearing a flak jacket.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOMEONE WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: While Adams's Lois Lane is probably the most 2013-friendly vision of Lois, the character she plays has been reinvented and retooled a few times before to reflect what the "modern" woman looked and acted like at different points in the 20th century. The same goes for some other females in Superman, most notably Lois's romantic rival and Daily Planet colleague Lana Lang.

In its original 1930s comic-book incarnation, Superman "synthesized two opposing strands of thought regarding female autonomy," J.P. Williams, of Wayne State University's Speech Communication and Journalism department, wrote in a 1990 Journal of Popular Culture article about female rivalry in Superman. "While the comic book's female protagonist, reporter Lois Lane, represented a positive image for that portion of the audience which expected to see strong, independent women portrayed in popular culture, the outcome of these stories frequently reinforced the idea that female autonomy was temporary and illusory."

In other words, despite the progressive portrayal of Lois Lane as a single woman with an outside-the-home career, Superman's adventures often derailed her work pursuits. Often, the Man of Steel even disapproved of how aggressive Lois could be. As females rapidly entered into the work force during World War II, Lois remained "never quite as self-sufficient as she believed," Williams writes, reinforcing the notion that "women who were surviving during the 1940s without the help of men would have to fall back onto traditional relationships when the war ended."

Mort Weisinger then took over as the editor of Superman in the early 1950s, and Lana Lang made her debut shortly after. Lana had appeared as a supporting character--Clark's childhood next-door neighbor—in Superboy, a series about Clark Kent as a young boy discovering his powers (and starting in 2001, she was teenage Clark's love interest on the WB's Smallville, played by Kristin Kreuk). The adult Lana arrived in Metropolis in 1952 and asked Clark to help her find a job; with help from Lois Lane, she became a TV reporter. The two women then spent much of the rest of the 1950s and 1960s competing over who would become Superman's wife. Williams points out that Superman, meanwhile, regarded both women as "annoyances, whose feuding kept him from work."

Lana and Lois spent much of the 1950s and 1960s competing over who would become Superman's wife. Superman, meanwhile, regarded both women as "annoyances, whose feuding kept him from work."

By contrast, Lois's desire to succeed in journalism took a backseat to her desire to marry Superman (and stop Lana from doing so first). Williams points out that in 1959's "The Girl Atlas," the story begins with Lois chasing the "story of the century," in which a scientist has invented a formula that will give humans superpowers—but then Lana appears on the third page of the comic and mentions to Lois that if she (Lana) bathes in the formula, "Superman would know my life could never be in danger from his enemies—and we could get married!" And from that point on, the "story of the century" plotline falls away and the story becomes about Lois and Lana's competition over Superman.

These portrayals of Lois and Lana, Williams points out, are identifiable products of their era:

This characterization of Lois as flighty, impulsive and frivolous was in tune with the attitudes of post-war America, the era of what Betty Friedan has called 'the feminine mystique.' Women, according to the feminine mystique, attained personal fulfillment only through marriage, motherhood, and homemaking. ... On the surface, Lois Lane because just such a woman. In her feud with Lana over who Superman loved (and in her obsession with Superman's secret identity), Lois seemed intent on proving that she could be just as silly and frivolous as the feminine mystique required.

Lana, Williams notes, was depicted as far more "feminine" than Lois. Comic-book creators drew her into the foreground of the comic strip far more often than they did Lois. They also depicted her as using gender-coded nicknames (calling Lois "darling," and, um, "scheming hussy") and more extravagantly "girly" gestures, like tending to her hair. As Williams explains, the two were foils in their representations of femaleness:

Together, Lois and Lana presented two extremes of female behavior: Lois represented women as impulsive, curious, emotional; Lana represented women as calculating, manipulative and cunning.

Although Clark did, as Williams writes, sometimes turn to Lana when "Lois became too demanding," he didn't settle on either woman until the late 1970s, after Lana and Lois's relationship had undergone some transformations. (Spoiler alert: He picked Lois.) Lana was written out of the series for several years; convinced that Lois had won Superman's heart, Lana left Metropolis to become a foreign correspondent. When she returned, "she [was] much the same as before: more traditionally feminine than Lois, with the same heightened concern for her appearance and the same obsession with marrying Superman." But according to Williams, Lana's ways weren't as charming in the age of women's lib:

While in the 1950s such behavior is depicted as one possible means of obtaining Superman's affection, the 1970s comic books portray Lana as being inferior to Lois. With the less cartoonish art of Curt Swan replacing Schaffenberger's rendition of Lois and Lana, Lana's exaggeratedly feminine appearance and gestures seem especially anachronistic. In addition, Lana's style of speaking has remained essentially the same as in the 1950s. In 1978, such speech is presented as an affectation which the other characters are sometimes tempted to ridicule.

But even once Lois had gotten the guy, she abruptly discovered she couldn't exactly have it all. In the 1970s, Williams writes, she faced having to juggle both a career and a private life with Superman—so Lois was again representative of a national conversation about the role of women (one that continues today). According to Williams,

Feminist theory during this time increasingly stressed the need to examine how a patriarchal order affects women's daily lives. The slogan "the personal is the political" summarized the viewpoint seeing a connection between political structures and personal relationships in describing an inequality "so deep as to be invisible." ... In Superman, certainly the changes on the surface simply masked the continuing imbalance in Clark and Lois's relationship, with Lois having to make the majority of concessions.

And thus, Williams writes, for decades afterward, Lois continued to be part of a tradition in which "heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure, duty, and fulfillment."

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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