Guest Post: Lois Lane’s Cry For Help

“Silver Age Lois didn’t seem to have any feminist gumption, but her readers may have found a subversive message among her tears.”

Tim Hanley and Lori Wozney

At first glance, the Silver Age Lois Lane had a lot going for her. She was an ace reporter for the Daily Planet, appeared regularly in various Super-books, and in 1958 she launched her very own series. Unfortunately, that series was called Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane. She didn’t even get top billing on her own book, and the stories consisted of Superman regularly setting up elaborate ruses to teach the impetuous and reckless Lois the error of her ways. Superman’s chastisement often reduced Lois to tears, and she spent most of the Silver Age sobbing.

Long gone was the plucky Lois Lane of the Golden Age. Back then, she was a spunky reporter who climbed her way up from the lovelorn column to the front page. During Lois’ first encounter with Superman, the Man of Steel cautioned Lois: “I’d advise you not to print this little episode”, but the very next morning she was at her editor’s desk trying to get the story published. While her progress may have been slow, Lois fought tooth and nail against anyone who tried to keep her down. In comparison, the Silver Age Lois came off as a whimpering pushover, which leads many today to write off Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane as typical 1950s patriarchal, marriage-centric schlock. The Silver Age Lois didn’t seem to have any feminist gumption, but her readers may have found a subversive message among her tears.

In the “Letters to Lois” column in SGFLL #38, a reader named Jim summed up the situation: “Dear Editor: Why does Lois always cry, cry, cry?” Frankly, it was hard to miss, even from the first issue: Lois cried in every single story in SGFLL #1. She sobbed when she thought her actions led to the death of a Count (it was all a ruse by Superman), bawled when Superman didn’t like her cooking enough to fall in love with her, and wept when she thought she’d turned into a witch (another ruse from Superman). Lois’ tears were a hallmark of the book from day one.

Lois cried for a lot of reasons, but there were two typical sobbing scenarios. First, Lois would cry because she didn’t think she was desirable enough for Superman. In SGFLL #5, a growth ray turned Lois into “The Fattest Girl in Metropolis”, and she worried that Superman won’t love her because of her appearance:

Lois Lane 75th Anniversary Post FINAL_html_m799aacd3 In SGFLL #13, Lois was hypnotized into thinking she had the face of a cat, so she encased her head in a lead box, quit her job, and tried to avoid Superman forever lest he be disgusted by her:

Lois Lane 75th Anniversary Post FINAL_html_62b515fb An ad for Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane stated that Lois’ ambition in life was “To become Mrs. Superman”, so anything that jeopardized her marriage prospects sent Lois in a downward spiral. Ultimately, Superman remedied both of these situations, reversing the growth ray and snapping her out of her hypnosis, all while lecturing Lois about how she deserved to get into these predicaments because she was such a nosy reporter.

The other typical sobbing scenario centered on hurting Superman in some way. In SGFLL #9, the Daily Planet published an article Lois wrote that claimed Clark Kent was Superman. Lois had stuck the article in a drawer, not intending to publish it, but it showed up on the front page and Superman was furious. Poor Lois was distraught:

Lois Lane 75th Anniversary Post FINAL_html_794915d1

In SGFLL #16, Superman brought a box of alien artifacts to the Daily Planet to be photographed, telling Lois not to touch them. She did touch them, of course, and as a result she developed Kryptonite vision that harmed Superman every time she looked at him. It didn’t go over well:

Lois Lane 75th Anniversary Post FINAL_html_m353e342e

Her automatic reaction in both incidents was to leave Metropolis. In the Kryptonite vision adventure Lois cried through the entire issue then moved to Alaska to avoid hurting the man she loved. Ultimately, Clark and Jimmy showed up with an “antidote” that took away the Kryptonite vision. Nobody told her that Superman had planned the whole thing. He brought in the artifacts knowing that Lois would touch them and develop a harmless green eye ray. He then pretended to be hurt by it, and let her feel awful and move away, all to teach her not to touch his stuff. Ignorant of the entire scheme, the story ended with Lois flying home to Metropolis, eager to again see the man she loved.

Superman didn’t even have to get upset for Lois to burst into tears; she would cry in anticipation of his displeasure. Superman berated her so often that she just expected it at every turn. Sometimes she’d even chastise herself before Superman had the chance: When the Count was “shot” in SGFLL #1, Lois exclaimed “How stupid I was to try a hoax like that! I’ll never do it again!” Lois was never mad at Superman for setting up these elaborate ruses. She was only ever mad at herself for not being what Superman wanted her to be.

It’s clear that Lois’ frustration and despondency showcased a systemic problem. The series served as a mirror that distilled and reflected back a hyper-reality to the reader that exposed the cruelty and aggravations of the patriarchal, limiting world of the 1950s. Lois was trapped in a very small box, expected to be a demure, complacent woman and be happy in this narrow role, but she wasn’t. Rather than reinforcing the value of conformity, issue after issue showed Lois’ attempts to achieve that ideal brought her nothing but pain and suffering. What readers saw was an ambitious, hard-working woman trying to win over the man she loved who was constantly in tears. Any time she tried to take initiative and go after her “dream” life, patriarchy in blue tights showed up to tell her she was stupid or, even worse, disobedient. Lois cried because it was all she could do to show that she was stuck in an oppressive system that she clearly hated. Tears were the only weapon Lois had.

Now, none of this subversion was intentional on the part of the series’ writers or artists. When Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane debuted, the industry was still in the early days of the new Comics Code Authority. Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency that implicated comic books had just rocked the industry and publishers clung to their new content code for dear life to avoid further scrutiny. All of their comics were as innocuous as possible, strongly reflecting the dominant values of the time so as to be as completely unobjectionable. They stuck to rules like “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage” and “Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered.” No one was trying to incite any rebellion against authority. Instead, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane was the quintessential Silver Age comic, perfectly encapsulating the gender dynamics, campiness, and strict adherence to dominant values that characterized the post-Comics Code years.

This unintentional subversion is all a very modern reading of an old comic, but there was some evidence that female readers at the time were questioning Lois’ treatment in the series. A few writers to the “Letters to Lois” column expressed their frustration, and some even offered alternative stories for Lois:

  • “Don’t you think it’s time Lois Lane gave SUPERMAN the air and got herself a new boyfriend, one who appreciates her?” – “Blissful Betty”, SGFLL #9
  • “I think it’s awful the way you insult women, and particularly the way you heap abuse upon Lois. You’re always saying she’s snoopy, inquisitive, curious, a pest, and can’t keep a secret. Well, men aren’t angels, either!” – Judith, SGFLL #16
  • “Dear Editor: Why do you persist in making Lois Lane look so stupid?” – Lynda, SGFLL #22
  • “I am sick and tired of the way Superman is teaching Lois and Lana lessons all the time for being inquisitive or for being too reckless. How about a story in which Lois and Lana teach the Man of Steel a thing or two?” – Karen, SGFLL #45

It took some time, but readers like these eventually got to see some big changes for Lois.

In 1972, Dorothy Woolfolk took over the editorial duties for Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, along with new writer Cary Bates. In their first issue, SGFLL #121, Lois quit her job at the Daily Planet to become a freelance journalist and write the social justice stories she cared about, moved into an apartment with three other girls, and broke up with Superman:

 Lois Lane 75th Anniversary Post FINAL_html_m77251a8b

This new, independent Lois wanted nothing to do with Superman’s meddling, and instead worked with her girlfriends to get good stories and escape dangerous situations together. While Lois ended up with Superman years later, a shift had occurred. Lois was her own woman, even when she dated Superman again, and in 1978, Margot Kidder’s brash and assertive Lois Lane cemented this image in Superman: The Movie.

The new take on Lois in 1972 was clearly inspired by the many women taking to the streets to demand their rights as part of the women’s liberation movement. But in turn, the women’s liberation movement was fueled by the tears of Lois Lane. The girls who read Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in the 1950s and saw her despair with the oppressive, patriarchal systems of the time were the same generation who grew up to protest these systems in the early 1970s. It wasn’t just Lois, of course. It was every book, magazine, and TV show that reflected these values back at them, as well as their own lived experiences chafing under limiting expectations. At first glance, it’s easy to roll our eyes at the Silver Age Lois and instead focus on her more progressive, assertive incarnations as we celebrate her 75th anniversary, but we shouldn’t dismiss this era and the lasting lessons her tears held for her young readers.

* * *

Tim Hanley blogs at Straitened Circumstances and writes the monthly Gendercrunching column at Bleeding Cool. Lori Wozney is a PhD in educational technology and writes about sci-fi, comics and cultural studies.