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How Lois Lane has reflected our view of empowered women over the years

Contributed by
Mar 26, 2018

Lois Lane is a character often viewed entirely in context to her long-standing relationship with Superman. However, in the 80 years since she was created, her portrayal in comics has been less than consistent — shifting from an advice columnist to a cool, award-winning journalist who scoops a bumbling Clark Kent at every turn to a neurotic, overly jealous, obsessive woman with very little grounding in reality as she attempts to get Superman's attention at all costs.

In this way, Lois Lane is unique among Superman's cast of characters; Jimmy Olsen, for example, has stayed almost exactly the same for decades. The Daily Planet crew (and even Superman himself) have been, for the most part, very similar to their original incarnations with very few deviations. Lois' frequent changes, however, were very seldom due to organic character growth, consistently due to editorial mandate, and entirely based on how predominantly (and often exclusively) male editors and publishers viewed empowered women at the given time.

From 1936 to 1937 — a far cry from the glittering, glamorous life Hollywood promised its stars — actor Glenda Farrell was hanging out in newsrooms, interviewing and observing women on the job to research her new character, Torchy Blane. Adapted from the MacBride and Kennedy stories by Frederick Nebel, Torchy became a wisecracking female reporter who was certainly more career-oriented than man-obsessive. Once cast in the role, Farrell said that she was "determined to create a real human being—and not an exaggerated comedy type.” Ultimately, her hard work paid off. The tag for Torchy Blane's first appearance in Smart Blonde, the first of nine movies based around her character (seven of which would star Farrell), was “The lady bloodhound with a nose for news!” The films were surprise successes, and Torchy Blane has been often cited as the inspiration for Lois Lane, whose character was introduced in 1938 alongside Superman in Action Comics #1.

Not only did Farrell's portrayal help to bring in the concept of a fast-talking newswoman, it influenced a big trend over the next few years. Torchy Blane and Lois Lane weren't the sole fictional characters to reflect the archetype of a fast-talking female reporter. When Howard Hawks began production on his version of the play The Front Page, ultimately to be released as His Girl Friday, he decided to make the reporter character a female role. Rosalind Russell, who played Hildy Johnson, made some sleight-of-hand career moves worthy of Lois herself; as a response to co-star Cary Grant being given more and better lines, she secretly hired her own writer to "punch up" her dialogue in the script and would show up on set with several ad libs, most of which made their way into the film. Today, due in no small part to Russell's ingenuity, His Girl Friday is considered one of the greatest comedy films of all time.

To all things there is an ebb and flow, and as the years shifted from the 1940s into the 1950s, there was an incredible change towards the way the United States viewed empowered women. In the early 1940s, during America's involvement in World War II, strong women were often championed in film, publishing and the everyday world. Women were needed to take on the jobs of men while men went to war, and the expectation was that they would hold down the homefront and raise their children as well. When the war ended in 1945, many men returned home and women had to struggle against the grain to keep the positions they had earned. During that decade, Lois Lane shifted from her original career as a front-page, award-winning journalist to merely being Superman's girlfriend who happened to work at the Daily Planet alongside Clark Kent.

Compare the cover of Superman #27 from 1944 to that of Superman #36 from 1945.

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The shift is evident. Rather than Lois confidently leaning over Superman to check his work, we see an impatient, moody Lois standing in front of an open refrigerator and a chuckling Superman. While the change in Lois Lane's characterization has often been blamed on the desire to appease the Comics Code Authority by providing more “wholesome” reading material, the Code wasn't formed until 1954 — and the campaigns and public trials against comic creators that brought it about had only begun a few years before that. The mid-1950s saw upswings in the careers of Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds, who were famous for playing parts that were comically puritanical and obsessed with pleasing men at all costs — all while remaining “good girls.” In comics of the time, Lois was by then heading her own series as Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane and exhibits many of the same personality traits as the "good girls" of Hollywood, while Superman comes across as a gloating Rock Hudson, maintaining the upper hand through subtle emotional manipulation.

From the late 1960s into the 1970s, Lois began to take on a more empowered stance in response to the women's lib and Civil Rights movements happening around the country. Not only did her series temporarily gain a female editor in Dorothy Woolfolk, but Lois was known to break up with Superman, take on more daring cases, and generally prioritize her career in a way readers hadn't seen since the early '40s. With the casting of Margot Kidder in 1978's Superman: The Movie, who played Lois as smart and empowered but lacking the pushiness and independence we had seen the character exhibit often in recent years, we saw a new take on the character. When the DC universe was turned inside out in the mid-'80s with Crisis on Infinite Earths, that version of Lois became more consistent with the one we saw in the comics.

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In the 1990s, Lois was portrayed by Teri Hatcher in the series Lois & Clark, where the themes of her being smart and empowered continued to shine. In the comics, she wasn't always faring so well, with DC editors choosing to marry her to Superman in an attempt to appeal to more female readers. The assumption that women primarily read comics to read about female characters getting married wasn't exactly the most progressive stance, despite having female creators like Louise Simonson on the titles at the time. Meanwhile, in shows, songs, and media of the 1990s, there are several examples of how Lois isn't taken seriously or winds up somewhat fetishized by men. Consider the Spin Doctors' “Jimmy Olsen Blues,” in which Lois isn't so much a character but rather a representation of the woman that the writer (a Jimmy Olsen stand-in), can never have. In Seinfeld, Jerry's references to Lois are almost always based on his attraction to the archetype.

In the same way Wonder Woman has been considered a feminist icon with the occasional about-face over the years, Lois Lane doesn't always have women writing or illustrating her as a character. On the other hand, Lois not only enjoyed a brief stint as Superwoman more recently, but has taken on a stronger role in the Superman series as his wife while maintaining the writing career she has often been defined by. Culturally, Lois Lane has often been viewed through a male lens —but, not long ago, in an episode of 30 Rock, when Jack asks Liz Lemon how she would feel about writing a screenplay for the greatest love story ever told, Liz's response is, “You mean Lois Lane's love affair with journalism?”

Some people just get it.

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