The world mourns the loss of actress Margot Kidder, taken from us at only 69. As the announcements made clear to anyone, she was best known for her role of Lois Lane in 1978’s Superman: The Movie and its sequels. I adored the first movie when it came out, just like so many others; I thought it was an exciting and beautiful production.
So I’ve tried to allow a sufficient amount of time to pass, in order to respectfully say: Alas, I have never thought of Margot Kidder, as so many have described her, as the “iconic” Lois Lane. Please let me clarify that this is in no way a reflection of Kidder’s acting ability; it is a personal dissatisfaction with the role she was given, which I was never fond of, and an icon that was born in a very different era.
There have been a lot, a lot, A LOT of Lois Lanes over the years; Google it sometime, and even die-hard Superman fans may be surprised at those they’ve forgotten. When Superman first appeared in Action comics, Lois Lane was more than just a female reporter: She was one of the original super-feminists. Probably born at roughly the time American women earned the right to vote, Lois was a second-generation suffragette, the kind of woman who was not only good at her job, but she was clearly convinced that she was better at it than any man. She was apparently the only female reporter at the Planet, at a time when most American women were housewives and few had attained better than secretarial, waitress or maid roles in American business.
And you could tell from Lois’ actions how self-assured, to the point of arrogance, she was. She would ignore the advice of men, and the orders of her boss, to go and do what she wanted. Sometimes that got her into trouble, but other than thanking Superman for inevitably getting her out of it, she never considered whether her actions had been ill-conceived in the first place… even if someone, including Superman, had specifically told her not to do it.
You had the impression that the reason she never guessed Clark Kent was Superman was… she never really looked at Clark. Or any man, for that matter. Men were all essentially beneath her notice.
This attitude continued through the years and many iterations of the Superman cast, right into the sixties: Lois was the ultra-feminist of the early twentieth century, smoking cigars with the boys, proving herself an equal or superior to everyone in the room. If she got in trouble, well, only Superman could get her out of it. And that was the original source of her attraction to Superman: She was convinced that he was the only man in the world who was actually worthy of her love. And clearly Superman (or Clark Kent) considered her to be a superior specimen of woman, hence, the mutual attraction.
Over the years, Lois would change from the suffragette feminist to the Julia Steinham feminist, flaunting her beauty while emphasizing her brains. The Lois of the sixties comics also started to get paradoxically obsessive about Superman, and briefly became a True Romance damsel doing anything she could to win Superman’s hand. But even then, she was convinced of her innate superiority and worthiness to be Superman’s only love.
But when we got to 1978’s Superman: The Movie, the various and constantly-juggled writing teams, starting with Mario Puzo and ending with director Richard Donner, crafted two-dimensional comic book caricatures instead of more realistic characters. Lois received perhaps the most striking change of all the popular characters of the Superman mythos: Her feminista had been severely curtailed, and her superiority was watered down by camp incompetence. Sure, she thought she deserved a Pulitzer… but she could barely spell the word. She did the “city beat,” but judging from the movie’s dialog snippets, like calling out to Jimmy Olsen to get the spelling of “bloodletting,” her writing was apparently sensationalist trash. And she wasn’t acting so much dismissive of everyone else, as she was too distracted to notice anyone else. The feminist had been de-fanged, and a barely-competent 70’s working girl/stereotypical love interest remained.
All of this doesn’t quite make her a Valley Girl… but it sure isn’t the strong, rightfully-assured feminist that was the traditional Lois. The movie Lois was not as strong or capable as she pretended to be, and approached Superman as just another beefcake to infatuate over. When she got the chance to interview him, her questions were embarrassingly lightweight; they were barely above first date questions (which, judging by her dress, was exactly what she thought it was). The iconic female ace reporter was reduced to being a crushing fangirl, and it wasn’t Lois’ best look.
And in the movie, when Superman flew her around Metropolis and Kidder’s voiceover recited “Can you read my mind?” I might have been cringing because it was a corny bit… or maybe because I was sure her mind was filled with nothing but the many sexual positions she wanted to try out with him…
When I watched Kidder’s Lois, I felt cheated out of the woman who not only knew her superior worth, but who would understand why a man like Superman should drool over her: Her strength of will and abilities should make her worthy of a super man. I wished they’d made Lois more capable, more arrogant, more independent, more curious about the origins of Superman, and more dismissive of Clark as one more bumbling farmboy to push out of her way.
The superior and deservedly-self-assured Lois was revived for the animated series The Superman Adventures, years later… the ultra-feminist was back, new and improved. This Lois still belittled Clark, giving him the nickname “Smallville” just to mess with him… but there was no real malice involved, more poking fun at the big farmboy. This Lois was also brave enough to pursue stories, even if she hadn’t been given them… but she was also free of the whims of traditional male writers who tried to rein in her feminism with bouts of weakness or stupidity, making her less prone to becoming a damsel in distress and an object for Superman to save before he vanquishes the bad guys. This Lois was smart and confident… she knew she was a great reporter, but she didn’t feel the need to prove herself or browbeat a man about it. Since then, many other strong Loises have appeared in various movies and TV series; but for me, the animated character voiced by Dana Delany became the modern ideal of Lois Lane that I prefer to this day.
Again I reiterate that I see this as the fault of the movie’s writers and directors, not of Kidder or her acting abilities. They chose to make caricatures out of all their primary and secondary characters—including the comically-bumbling Clark Kent that, admittedly, Christopher Reeve pulled off so well—but unlike Reeve’s Clark, I never thought Kidder’s Lois, nor most of the other caricatures in the movie, worked well at all. But maybe I’m seeing her through a lens tarnished with age, a lens that hasn’t been changed since the original Superman appeared.
To be fair, there’s a lot about that original Superman that makes little or no sense in the modern era. Maybe Lois’ ultra-feminist streak is one of them. Maybe it’s okay now to depict Lois, not as a feminist, but as a just plain jerk, like any man can be. But if it’s okay to depict an alien who looks just like a human, running around in a circus strongman’s union suit, flying through space, lifting ocean liners like they’re 2-by-4s and seeing radio waves… why couldn’t we have had an ultra-feminist Lois Lane in 1978? Imagine what that Superman: The Movie would’ve looked like.