In Defense of Silver Age Lois Lane

I love Lois Lane. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. When I was little I’d go with my dad to the drug store and he’d buy the Sunday paper for himself and a Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane comic for me.

When I had my kids I thought I could share my comics and my favorite character. Well. The joke was on me. They were not interested beyond the animated and live action.

The young adult novel Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond was an unexpected meeting point.

My daughter read Fallout and said to me “About that Lois Lane book?” I braced myself to hear what would break my heart. Then? “I loved it.” I can’t even tell you how excited I was. However, I remained outwardly calm as we talked about the book and the character in general.

In talking about Lois Lane with my daughter I realized how much the culture has changed from when I was her age. I grew up in the shadow of the late 60s and 70s Women Liberation movement. This is all ancient history to her. So my old Lois Lane comics are somewhat baffling.

Especially the sexism of the Silver Age.

I realized how easy it is to dismiss those stories as long ago foolishness. However, I feel to do so is a disservice not just to the character but to the women of that era. Silver Age Lois Lane is modern day Lois’s grandmother. I believe she deserves our empathy and understanding for the attitudes which shaped her.

As I told my daughter, we are all prisoners of our own time. If we want to understand the character beyond the punchline then we have to understand the historical context.

Lois Lane was introduced in Action #1 in 1938. She, Superman and Clark Kent were the three original characters and they live on today. Her longevity, however, is double-edged because her history is filled with arcane attitudes toward women.

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It’s so easy to forget that when Siegel and Shuster wrote that women had the right to vote for less than twenty years. Women were still considered the weaker sex. Gentlemen were expected to open doors and give up their seats.

From the lens of the present day, it’s hard to understand why Clark’s behavior is such a problem. It was. He’s behaving badly by the norms of his society. The people reading this back then knew it. Clark wasn’t the victim. In case the reader misses this, the narration further explains: “Reluctantly, Kent adheres to his role of a weakling”. Weakling isn’t a complement. Superman isn’t proud of himself acting this way. He is reluctantly staying in disguise.

“Good for you Lois,” he cheers while he keeps in character knowing Lois will take care of herself.

These types of scenarios were also common in the movies of the time. Actresses like Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn played heroines embodied with these traits. Smart, sassy with a take no prisoner attitude. They were pared with strong men who understood and respected them. Weaklings were a subject of scorn.

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There was a shift post-World War II. The men came home from war and reentered the workforce. The women no longer needed to work while the men fought. They returned to the role of homemaker and mother. The media reflected this shift. The wisecracking career dames of the 1930s and 1940s were replaced by a different type of heroine. Young girls were taught that getting married and having a family was the ultimate dream. Lois Lane was no different.

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Meanwhile, her strengths that were celebrated ten years earlier were now treated as flaws. Her driving concern was no longer her story but how she could make Superman marry her. She pursued this goal with the traditional Lois Lane tenacity, except she was written as anything but sympathetic. More often than not was written as obsessive and became a caricature of the Golden Age character.

Superman spent a lot of time sabotaging her, often needlessly and almost gleefully, made her look foolish. Lois could never win.

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On one hand, Lois was written as a thorn in Superman’s side always trying to marry him and trick him into telling her his secret. On the other hand, she is a fool because she can’t see through the disguise. Never mind she often did, but Superman went out of his way to trick her in order to convince her otherwise.

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When I was a young girl these stories were already dated. The bronze age began to reflect feminism and moved Lois away from these types of stories. However, I think the damage had been done. I think she is still trying to overcome the Silver Age culture both in perception and in tone. How many times have people said with a straight face that Lois is only after Superman because of his powers? Even when it’s clearly shown otherwise on page or screen.

Why? I think it’s because of the Silver Age and her campaign to marry Superman.

She wanted to marry him because she loved him. Clark Kent was not the personality. He was a caricature. A cardboard cut out. Superman purposely acted the buffoon as Clark not only for his disguise but to needle Lois. Then there was the problem that every time she showed interest in Clark, he’d pull the rug from under her.

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image copyright DC Comics

The hypocrisy of the times in general with regards to the messages sent to girls is fascinating in retrospect. Women were chasing their man trying to get them to marry and have babies while the men were doing everything they could to avoid the fate. Young women were being told that being a homemaker and mother is the ultimate dream, yet the young men were being told to run as far and fast as they can. The messages sent to the genders were conflicting at best.

I know it’s easy to cringe or laugh at the sexism of the era. How Lois was written in particular. However, I think it’s a very important part of Lois Lane’s history. She was demeaned and ridiculed. I empathize with her. She wasn’t taken seriously or given a voice. Though once in a while there would be moments when the roadblocks she faced would be sympathetically presented through her eyes.

Superman's Girl Friend #23 - Page 30 Copyright DC Comics

This, I tell my kids, is why feminism is so important. I see Lois Lane in the Silver Age as a time capsule of the inequities and indignities of the era. She is frozen in time as a beacon to all who read her story. Stories which capture some (not all) of the feelings toward strong women of that time.

When Silver Age Lois is used as an example to show she’s a pest? Or that she’s obsessed with Superman? Or she’s a harpy and all other manners of derogatory commentary around the character? I’m reminded of a quote from Persuasion by Jane Austen

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

Silver Age Lois Lane’s story was told mostly by men raised in a world with very different views toward women and their role in society.

I am so thankful times have changed. No longer are the attitudes found in these comic books acceptable in general society. The stories my daughter reads, like Fallout, treat Lois with dignity and respect. She is celebrated for her strong will and passion for justice.

I think we should embrace Silver Age Lois. Not run from her. She will forever stand as an example of how far we’ve all come.

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I'm a 52 year old mother of two teenagers. I'm also an electrical engineer. I love comic books, single malt whisky, wine and The Grateful Dead.