Nobody’s Perfect, Superman

Attack of the Misplaced Genitalia!

Attack of the Misplaced Genitalia!

The gays have long enjoyed a playful relationship with gender.  And why not?  Since many of us have already disregarded rules like “That’s an exit, not an entrance”, “No spitting tobacco juice on the sidewalk”, “The booty dance is not for white people”, and “Go to church!”, it’s not hard to understand how the social mores that rigidify and categorize human experience wouldn’t be much to our liking, either.  Gender rebels abound in the gay world, in fact.  Witness drag maven RuPaul and her Drag Race dynasty, a reality show that takes boys and turns them into men who will kick your ass if you have a problem with them looking like fabulous flamingo women.  Witness the mullet, a manishly short in the front, lady-long in the back hairstyle popular amongst rural lesbians that says “I fix trucks real good, hoss.”

While my own particular stripe of gender rebellion is confined mostly to the wearing of men’s shoes and, on occasion, men’s pants (with its hilarious phantom bulge), I’ve always been a fan of gender envelope pushery demonstrated in music and film.  When done right, depictions of male/female turnabout can really launch a flaming arrow into the methane-bloated sacred cow of  gender.  Take for example Some Like It Hot (the 1959 Billy Wilder film, not the 1985 Power Station tune):  this film is a multi-faceted gem that hilariously lampoons the cultural tyranny that defines and limits human beings based on outward appearances.  By dressing its lady-killer protagonists (Tony Curtis and the phenomenal Jack Lemmon) as women and setting them loose in an all-girl band with a gig at a resort, Wilder shows us that walking the straight and narrow path defined by your perceived gender is a bitch if you happen to suck at walking in high heels.  This struggle is most clearly epitomized by the train scene  in which the phenomenal Jack Lemmon, disguised as “Daphne”, struggles to maintain his feminine cover while Marilyn Monroe and a cast of dozens of women practically crawl all over him.  He tries to offset the torture of turn-on with the mantra “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl!”, but it doesn’t work.  The scene rings with a truth that any gender transcender can immediately identify: you can try to wear the “right” uniform and  obey the rules, but you can still lose the game.  The train scene is especially compelling from a lesbian perspective:  people bearing female visual signifiers are not supposed to be aroused by other girls, but as Some Like It Hot points out sometimes they are, no matter what they tell themselves, and the only thing a girl in this situation can do to stay out of trouble  and remain true to the expectations imposed upon her gender is to pull the brakes on the whole soul train.  Another of my favorite cultural salvos against gender tyranny is the song “Lola” by The Kinks, an ode to an amazing creature who “walks like a woman and talks like a man”.  In record time, (about 4 minutes) the song  gives voice to the assertion that gender conformity is only for the naive and self-deluded.  Lola’s love interest, a bloke who “left home about a week before and… never, ever kissed a woman before” becomes a man only by accepting the less-than-manly side of his nature. It’s worth remembering that “Lola” is an artifact of the ’70’s, a time when the rigidity of the 50’s (without which the incendiary Some Like It Hot would not be possible) was briefly defeated and all its proponents cast as squares who don’t get it.  I love “Lola” and  Some Like It Hot because they depict the gender transcender point of view with witty insight and compassion.

And then there’s Superman #349, “The Turnabout Trap”.  I can’t believe I missed Superman #349 when it was published in the summer of 1980.  The issue came to my attention nearly 30 years post-publication courtesy of The Gift Shop At The Statue Of Corrupted Endeavor, the superbly icono-smart-ass-clastic gift app created for Facebook by my brother.  When I received the gift of  Superman #349’s cover, complete with Hank’s tagline “part one of the never completed ‘Superman; Under A Pink Sun’ epic” I did what any self-respecting aging Gen-Xer would do when confronted with a missing artifact of their childhood, which was to hit that “Buy It Now” button on eBay with a quickness that rivalled that of the proverbial speeding bullet.  Having grown up loving Some Like It Hot and “Lola”, how could I possibly resist an opportunity to experience Wonder Woman as a studly dude or Superman as a delicious female badass?  In the end, I have to say I’m glad I missed it the first time around.  Let’s break it down, shall we?

In Superman #349: “The Turnabout Trap”, our big blue boy scout  returns to Earth from an outer space adventure only to be surrounded by gender-opposite versions of everyone he knows, including himself.  Handsome Louis Lane stands in for Superman’s lady-love Lois Lane, Penny White calls the shots at “The Daily Planet” instead of Perry White and (Great Scott!) the entire Justice League of America has apparently undergone gender reassignment surgery!   But to the obsessive careful reader, there’s another twist to be found within this twist: these gender-opposite substitutes actually manifest the gender of their original counterparts in subtle but very telling ways.  The ladies sport mannish threads  and the gents flounce some decidedly femmey fashions.  Jenny Olson retains Jimmy’s blazer and bow tie, as well as his boyish slouch.  Clark Kent counterpart Clara Kent researches the “Daily Planet”‘s morgues, crisply attired in suit skirt and her hair swept up off her butchy shoulder pads.  And frankly, the only thing that differentiates puffy-sleeve-rocking Superboy from Supergirl is a scant couple inches of hair and maybe a few months’ worth of hormone treatments.   These characters are not cross dressers, really,  so much as they are androgynous winksters.

Ladyfellas and girlymen:  hmmm…this looks pretty gay to me.  The creative team behind the issue tries to play it safe with the radical premise of gender contraires and the result is utter sidewalk-spitting, booty dancing gayness.  It could be said that the gayness of  Superman #349’s gender romp is likely an accidental by-product of the continuity efforts of creative team behind the issue.  After all, comics are allegedly for children, and therefore it would make sense that in order for “the kids” to understand that, for example, the lady with the red hair is supposed to be Jimmy Olson, that same red-haired woman should also retain a certain Jimmy sais quois, such as his bow tie.  Such androgynous flourishes not only serve as useful visual cues to help tip-off young readers as to the true identity of the turnabout twins, they also subtly and homophobically reassure them that Clark Kent may be wearing a skirt, but he’s no sissy.  But despite the creative team’s “best” efforts to assert underlying gender normality, the gayness of this world cannot be denied.  Any doubt of this can be assuaged by the brief appearance (as well as the appearance of the briefs) of Black Condor, the male version of Black Canary.  In attempting to reinforce his “actual” gender by way of deep-cuffed pirate go-go boots and tight black plum-smuggler shorts, Black Condor’s creators reassure the reader of nothing but Black Condor’s place in the Hot Piece Hall of Fame.

“Girls will be boys/And boys will be girls/It’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook up world…”: Superman #349 is “Lola” come to 5 color life, with the notable omission of the brilliant insight conveyed by the line “except for Lola.”  The issue could learn quite a bit from the song, as Superman #349  lacks appreciation for the fact that gender transgression is ultimately most troubling to those who blindly follow the rules of gender with no inner reflection towards the possibility that not all of the rules are right for everyone, themselves included.  As Ray Davies points out, the only beacon of clarity and order in such a chaotic world is Lola herself.  At first glance, a she-male like Lola would personify confusion, yet she is exempt from it because she knows who she is.  Her existence agitates confusion only amongst those who don’t really know who they are themselves.  When confronted with such a world, Superman instantly assumes “someone” is out to drive him “crazy”.  Of course.  It’s in this assumption we know exactly where our hero is coming from: the 50’s.  The openness of his mind  to diversity measures a whopping “Zero” on the six-point Kinsey Scale.  So I guess it goes without saying that it doesn’t even occur to Superman to notice how hot he is as a woman.  In the hands of the #349 creative team, gender discrepancies are wrongs for Superman to right.  Interestingly, these wrongs are the products of magic and guess what?  In one of those comic book caveats as inspired and enduring as a “let’s pretend” playtime loophole, Superman is powerless against magic!  (Probably because he’s such a fucking square.)  So it’s up to his powers of logic and deductive reasoning to find a way out of this “Turnabout Trap.”  It takes only a few pages for Superman to sus out the perpetrator: one Mr. Mxyzptlk.

Mr. Mxyzptlk is a classic Superman adversary, a bald little sprite who’s not dangerous as much as he is mischievous, has always been on hand to lend the Superman saga a much-needed element of imaginative fun.  It’s too bad he was recruited to personify the lack of it in this issue.   As the stand-in creator of the chaos created by the 349 team, Mr. M doubles as an enforcer of the gender norms underlying the issue.  As the mouthpiece of its politics and presumptions, Mr. M. is eventually called to task by Superman with mind-bendingly disappointing results.  The sorry cards are laid on the table in the issue’s final pages when Superman confronts Mr. M and learns that this magical world of gender reassignment was created not to challenge Superman’s narrow-mindedness, but to (and this is baffling to me) punish him.  Superman’s crime: he has something that Mr. M doesn’t– a successful love life.  Needless to say, this explanation ranks right up there with A Christmas Story‘s “Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine” as a Classic Kid Culture Rip-Off Golden Moment.  In fact, I’m pretty sure my reaction was exactly as foul-mouthed as Ralphie’s.  What I found especially bull-worthy about Mr. M’s revenge on Superman was that he basically gave the entire planet a sex change so that Superman wouldn’t have Lois Lane to smooch on. Why go to all the trouble? Why didn’t he just turn her into a toaster or something?  The sex-change premise of the issue is sensationalistic in its inception and executed with bad writing.   Utter crap!  That gender rebels were exploited to the tune of 40 cents an issue was at first pretty irksome to me, and then I thought about it some more and got even more pissed off.

Okay, so Mr. M wanted revenge, and he went about it in a really big and poorly written way.  Superman’s cross-examination of Mr. M (and by proxy), the 349 creative team fails to ask the real question and that is “Why is this revenge so gay?”  That this question is never asked is indicative of the very real likelihood that it was probably considered too dumb to even be asked.  Asking why a gay world is a worthy weapon against “good” is like questioning Lex Luthor why death rays are useful in killing good people.  The question goes unasked because asking it would call to task the issue’s very foundation, that foundation being the presumption that the limiting and inhibiting rules of gender connote a world as it “should” be, and those who transgress are  not natural and not right.  In its way, this ending is to me is the turnabout twin of  the sublime last scene in in Some Like It Hot.  The end of the film finds Jack Lemmon’s Daphne riding off in the sunset with her beau, a rich gentleman by the name of Osgood (played with uncanny comic timing by Joe E. Brown) and into another cover-compromising pickle: imminent marriage.  Daphne, frantic to extricate herself from this situation, pummels Osgood with numerous reasons why he shouldn’t marry her but the cheerfully enamored Osgood shrugs them off, one by one.    Even when Daphne hammers Osgood with the most compelling reason she can think of: “I’m a man”, Osgood is unswayed.  “Nobody’s perfect”, he responds.  With just these two words, Some Like It Hot shows itself to be the opposite of Superman #349 because it says gender really doesn’t matter and the joke is on anyone who thinks it does.

Post Script: Gender Transcendence is alive and well today:  Check out Cecilia Bartoli’s Sacrificium album and Dana Baitz or just get your Google freak on and find it yourself.

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