Last time on The Near-Apocalypse of ’09: Superman got married twice in the same day, soap operas and superhero comics are basically the same thing, and Lois and Clark makes an excellent metaphor for the inherent and irreconcilable contradictions of liberalism.
Superman exists in tension between two fundamentally contradictory ideals. This is true of all superheroes, and it’s a tension we’ve already explored: the near-apocalypse. We want change and we fear chaos, want to be both free and protected, unbounded and restrained, and superheroes embody that contradiction. This plays out very visibly in Lois and Clark, because the show is likewise caught between parallel, contradictory ideals, namely that it clearly wants both to be progressive and to be accepted as a family show, which is to say a show that parents and children watch together–and as fully subject to puritanism and reproductive futurism as that implies.
So, for example, we get Lois Lane, tough career woman, who in classic 90s Strong Independent Woman fashion proves how feminist she is by using gendered insults rooted in misogyny–telling people to “man up,” for example. The show clearly wants to be on her side–she gets higher billing than Superman in a Superman show!–but it cannot get away from traditional gender roles without earning the ire of parents’ groups worried about The Children. Thus (as its humor betrays) it cannot escape the idea that feminists are “trying to be men” or in some sense masculinized–the very first shot of Lois has her disguised as a man!
Gender roles are not the only place this tension exists. Sex in particular is subject to it: on the one hand, the show is built around the title characters’ relationship as it progresses from coworkers to friends to romance. On the other, The Children cannot be permitted to see unmarried heroic characters who have (or even might be suspected to have) sex, or who knows what kinds of premarital hankies-panky* might ensue. So we get characters like Cat Grant, who spends the first season being slut-shamed and then vanishes from the show entirely, while Jimmy Olson changes girlfriends on an almost weekly basis, which is deemed perfectly acceptable. More precisely, while there are jokes about Jimmy’s dating habits, they paint him as failing in ability (to keep a girlfriend), where Cat is depicted as failing morally (and correspondingly shallow and materialistic). This tension about sex is most notable, appropriately enough, in sexual tension. Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain have immense chemistry together, and where the dialogue occasionally struggles to convey that these are two people fighting their romantic feelings for one another, the performances consistently and convincingly portray two people who would very much like to have sex with each other.
Nonetheless, the show periodically reminds viewers that Lois definitely does not and has not ever fucked, with both her fiancés (Luthor and Clark) noting in their respective (failed) wedding episodes that Lois wants to “wait until marriage” so that “it will be special.” Very familiar phrases when I was a teenager watching this show and subjected to mid-90s Virginia politicians’ ideas of Sex Ed; one half-expects Lois to bus out the old “when you have sex with someone, you’re having sex with every person they had sex with” canard.
This puritanical attitude is balanced, however, by the show’s clear awareness that its stars are sexy people good at acting like they want to have sex with each other. Only a few episodes in, characters are already being subjected to inhibition-removing chemicals that cause them to pursue each other, Luthor’s schemes soon become as much or more about getting Lois to love him as killing Supeman, and once Lois and Clark actually do get married, they are very strongly implied to be fucking like bunnies. (Once they get the literal curse preventing it out of the way.)
But the strongest tension is one we’ve already discussed with Batman: Superman is a protector fantasy and therefore cannot promote meaningful change. When H.G. Wells arrives in his time machine (which is a thing that happens more than once in the course of the series) with stories of a future utopia built on the ideals of Superman and Lois Lane, no indication is given of how this happens. There is, reportedly, no crime, but what exactly this means, how crime is defined in utopia, is given no answer. We are simply assured that if we trust in the protector, utopia will eventually occur–but how can it, when the protector insists on doing nothing beyond catching criminals (as defined by our decidedly non-utopian system of law) and handing them over to the equally non-utopian criminal justice system?
Which is precisely what Superman insists on doing, as explicitly stated in “Faster Than a Speeding Vixen.” A new superhero appears in town (who for some reason is named Vixen, despite being a white American woman with speed powers) and begins attacking and killing criminals (and, secretly, select businessmen). Superman specifically states that she should capture the criminals unharmed and hand them over for the police and courts to deal with. Eventually she turns out to be a robot and he kills her by reflecting her attack, because moral dilemmas and alternate approaches cannot be permitted in a family show, apparently.
Or utopia, for that matter, as apparently the only dissenter in the perfect future is a man named Tempus, who is essentially the American version of Doctor Who‘s Master that the (roughly contemporary) TV Movie failed so badly to present: he is a scenery-chewing, pompous, smarmy, self-aware, selfish, amoral, fourth wall-breaking cartoon supervillain and easily the best thing to come out of Lois and Clark. In one two-parter (his final appearance), he manages to presage both the 2007 Doctor Who finale and the 2016 election by hacking the phone system to mind-control the population into electing him President pretty much entirely out of spite, gunning down a homeless man in the street, and transforming the US into a fascist state. Alternate-universe Superman, HG Wells, and Lois valiantly battle him, the real Superman having been imprisoned in a dimension of bad CGI, and save America, restoring the status quo.
But what is the alternative? No matter what political position Superman espouses, he is Superman. It’s right there in the name: he is a superior, singular individual, physically, mentally, and (the show would have us believe) morally. This is essentially what Tempus programmed the American electorate to think of him, and his rise to power was the birth of an authoritarian state–not because he is evil (though he gloriously, campily is), but because the idea that superior and inferior people exist is in itself authoritarian. There is no way Superman can fix our problems and bring about utopia; whether he kills or not, hands people over to the police or throws them into the Realm of Bad CGI, chooses his targets based on law or a moral code or whim, acts as a vigilante or joins a government organization, the story is still one of a superior man imposing his will upon the world.
Which is where the dilemma of the superhero, the dilemma of the show, and the dilemma of liberalism stand revealed as one. Superheroes are trapped because, as (presumably) “the good guys” they must oppose authoritarianism, yet by their very nature as heroes are themselves authoritarian. The show is trapped between its desire to be progressive (and, in particular, feminist), and the regressive reproductive futurism that arises from its status as a family show.
This is liberalism. Liberalism wants to be the good guys, to be on the side of freedom and equality and a better tomorrow, but shies away from revolution. It wants to be polite and friendly and liked by everyone, which in practice means objecting to Nazis getting punched. It is built on self-contradiction, the creation of slave-holders who wanted freedom, genocidal colonists who wanted independence, and rich white men who talked about equality while not allowing women, black people, or the poor to vote. It insists that the system of government these rich white men built is somehow capable of freedom and equality for all (because they said so, which means it must be true), if we could just catch the villains and put the right people in charge. No need for, say, reparations for the descendants of victims of genocide and slavery; after all, we’ve been doing nothing whatsoever about the ensuing inequality and injustice for generations, so obviously it has to have fixed itself by now in our most perfect of all possible governments, right?
This is the trap, the inescapable tension at the heart of Superman. Where Batman is a conservative hero, motivated by the desire to punish the guilty and maintain the structures of power, Superman is a liberal hero, motivated by the wish for people to be nice to one another. He’ll oppose the KKK, but carefully ignore the fact that our prisons are just slavery in a new guise. He’ll try to foil Lex Luthor’s schemes, but won’t take him in unless he breaks the laws written by the politicians Luthor owns–and even then, Luthor is a rich white man, unlikely to have too bad a time of it in the criminal justice system.
We can’t gradually slide into utopia thanks to one good man getting rid of the bad men. Utopia can only happen in the wake of apocalypse; unfortunately, it’s far from the most likely outcome. And therein lies our own tension: are things bad enough for us to be willing to risk the possibility of worse?
*The even more glorious plural of the glorious phrase “premarital hanky-panky,” both coined by cartoonist David Willis, about whom more in a very, very long time.
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