Loving the Alien: Superman and Masculinity

LTA clark kent thumbSince alex, Chris and I decided to write about masculinity this month, I’ve been thinking about Superman. Actually, I’ve been thinking and rethinking Superman almost as long as I’ve been writing for The Cultural Gutter. I began really thinking about him while watching Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. I’ve spent most of my life—and certainly my childhood and teen years—ambivalent about him. I grew up with the stodgy, daddish Superman of SuperFriendsSuperman represented truth, justice and the American Way, a way that seemed all about straight white masculinity of the most rigid, hegemonic sort—a way that didn’t seem to include me. Whether as aspirational hero or adolescent power fantasy, it’s easy to see Superman as The Man.

But my feelings about Superman have changed. Some of it is seeing other takes—Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s Superman,  Fleischer Studio’s Superman cartoons, and Superman in DC/Warner Bros.’ animated tv series and movies. Some of it is, as I’ve said before, I recognize my own power and my own ability to injure others now that I’m an adult. I was reminded of this while playing with my toddler nephew who employed all his strength all the time, while I don’t remember the last time I used all mine with another person. And so, I’ve come to see Superman’s greatest powers as not his strength or heat vision, but his restraint and his theatricality both in restraining that power while pretending to fight as hard as he can and in passing as Clark Kent.* As I see him now, Superman is always performing one way or another. And that theatricality makes Superman more playful, which I enjoy.

In The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer writes more negatively about Clark Kent:

In [Superman’s] case, Clark Kent was the put-on. The fellow with the eyeglasses and the acne and the walk girls laughed at wasn’t real, didn’t exist, was a sacrificial disguise, an act of discreet martyrdom. Had they but known!…The truth may be that Kent existed not for the purposes of the story but for the reader. He is Superman’s opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we, the noncriminal element, were really like. For if that wasn’t really us, if there were no Clark Kents, only lots of glasses and cheap suits which, when removed, revealed all of us in our true identities—what a hell of an improved world it would have been! [Emphasis Feiffer’s] ((New York: The Dial Press, 1965: 19)

I see what Feiffer describes, but, again, I also see Superman’s performance more playfully: “Hello, fellow human. I’m a man. I’m Clark Kent. Check me out!” And this playfulness transforms Clark from judgmental “pointed caricature” into something else, something a little Victor Victoria. Clark is Superman’s drag. He’s an alien playing a superhero playing a man playing a journalist. He’s performing a masculinity that undercuts normative masculinity while embracing it. Superman employs gender as a social identity performed for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is that Superman enjoys it. For me, there is something liberating in a comic that acknowledges, even subtextually, that so much of the social self, while real, is performative. I find this less alienating than straight up attempts at a “relatable” Superman, because those often classify people like me as one of the girls who laugh at Clark and wouldn’t, had I but known!

superman likes games

Feiffer draws a hard line between Superman and Clark. Others have strong opinions about whether Clark or Kal-El is Superman’s real identity. The thing is, they all are. Superman is: a superhero; an alien’s idea of a human; a human idea of a man; Kal-El, the last son of  Krypton; a star reporter for The Daily Planet; and a guy raised by Ma and Pa Kent in Kansas.  Clark is a disguise, but he’s Superman’s disguise whether Superman’s idea of a regular Joe or his opportunity to live a mundane life.  And so while Clark Kent might’ve begun as cover or a literary device, in the end he’s real. Superman contains multitudes.

And Superman’s masculinity is intertwined with the largely ill-defined, “American Way.” He’s an intriguing creation for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both Jewish, Midwesterners and one a Canadian immigrant. (Canadians, like Kryptonians, can pass as, and even become, American).  Siegel and Shuster imagine a hero and a masculinity that is not only a power fantasy, but a fantasy of inclusion—a stranger is not only welcomed, but aided in creating himself, becoming an ideal.  As an ideal man and ideal American, Superman stands for what’s right.

man of tomorrow

In 1946, Superman stood for “decent American qualities” against the “ignorant hatemongers” and “intolerant bigots” of the Ku Klux Klan, and their “un-American credo: One Race, One Religion, One Color” in the The Adventures of Superman storyline, “The Clan of the Fiery Cross.” Yes, 1946.**

In the story, Superman protects Tommy Lee’s family from the clan after “star pitcher” Tommy accidentally “beans” another player, Chuck Rigg, during baseball practice. Chuck had been belligerent and was “crowding the plate” despite warnings.  Tommy apologizes to Chuck and offers to shake hands—to the gathered boys’ vocal approval. But Chuck’s uncle is the Clan of the Fiery Cross’ Grand Scorpion and uses the accident to rile up his followers against Tommy and Tommy’s father, Dr. Won Lee, Metropolis’ City Bacteriologist. Rigg begins by setting a cross alight in the Lee’s yard.  For his part, Superman is disgusted by the bigotry and works as Clark Kent to unmask the clan and put the “hate-mongers” in prison. He asks Dr. Lee to stay in Metropolis and help break the clan. After the clan attempts to kill Tommy and cub reporter Jim Olsen, Dr. Lee vows to stay in Metropolis and help put the murderous thugs in jail. Clark responds, “A fighting attitude is the best antidote for a poison like the Clan of the Fiery Cross.”

And we know that Clark isn’t just speaking to Dr. Lee, but to all of us.

And, boy, do the people of Metropolis agree. So many characters compare the clan to homegrown Nazism.  The Daily Planet editor, Perry White, writes front page editorials “pointing out the un-American bigotry of this organization” and offers a reward.  White declares, “Real men don’t hide behind sheets and gang on someone because he goes to a different church or because his skin happens to be a different color.”  White says the same to the Grand Scorpion’s face, while Jim chimes in with, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Rat.”  Reading Clark Kent’s front page plea asking a boy with information about the clan to come forward, Chuck’s mom says that she couldn’t have a cowardly boy who wouldn’t come forward in her house. She adds that if his father were still alive, he would be out fighting them as he had fought the Nazis.

In “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” there are a lot of messages about what being a man means—standing up for what’s right even when you are afraid, protecting the vulnerable, being responsible for your words and actions, fair play, respecting others, being responsible for your community and the world, helping others, apologizing for a wrong, not holding a grudge, eschewing vengeance and showing restraint.

All those lessons about being a man are translated into being an adult for me and, I think, for a lot of people who are not white, straight, male, Midwestern, American or Kryptonian.  Superman and masculinity and all of us contain multitudes. So here is where I end, in my glasses and cheap suit, standing with Superman and hoping for a hell of an improved world.

LTA ASS panel

*I’m grateful for this insight to David Hopkins’ essay, “History of Violence” in The Man From Krypton: A Closer Look At Superman.

**While writing this piece, I discovered that Richard Bowers wrote a book devoted to “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” Superman vs. The Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, the code words and the rites revealed in the episode were faithful to Klan signs and rites at the time. The writers, producers and actors jumped at the chance to use their show to demystify the Klan and hopefully reducing its power. Metroactive Books reports on the response to the episode.


Carol Borden decided she must turn her titanic strength into channels that would benefit all humankind!

5 replies »

  1. When I was young, I found Superman pleasant but a little dull. Yes, living god, yadda yadda, but I’d seen that before. I mean Aslan was a LION for pity’s sake.

    The first thing to really change my mind was – don’t laugh – the TV series ‘Lois And Clark’. I caught an episode in which Clark said, “Clark is who I AM; Superman is what I can DO”.


    That totally changed my perception Superman. Suddenly I could recognize he had many iterations and was, in fact, an archetype rather than a stereotype. Multitudes, indeed.


  2. Why would someone laugh? “Lois and Clark” was a great show.

    And that’s really the missing piece in all of this and the piece that ties it all together.

    It’s Lois. She is the one he loves both as Clark Kent the man and as Superman the hero.

    In well written stories, she loves him both as Clark Kent Farmboy turned reporter and as the beacon of hope for the world.

    Lois is the glue that holds the dual identity of Superman together and their love, when written right, is the soul of who he is.


  3. I agree, “Lois and Clark” was a great show. Allow me to hint at how interested I’d be in anything you wrote about it, Chris…

    It is fascinating to think of Lois as a/the link between the man and the superhero. Thanks, Audrey!

    I’d like to write about Lois sometime, but the new take has had me down, I admit.


  4. An interesting this is how much this crystalizes some of the vague feelings I’ve been having that the concept of masculinity in the U.S. has been changing (and not necessarily in a good way).

    The part where you write “standing up for what’s right even when you are afraid, protecting the vulnerable, being responsible for your words and actions, fair play, respecting others, being responsible for your community and the world, helping others, apologizing for a wrong, not holding a grudge, eschewing vengeance and showing restraint.” clashes so strongly with the proponents of the “Stand Your Ground” laws and the like.

    I don’t mean this to become overly political, but I feel like the notion of the strong male personified by Superman before the 1980’s, or John Wayne is not the same as the strong man personified by Clint Eastwood and that really laid the differences bare for me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s