Thursday, July 06, 2006

The New Superman: Not Necessarily Gay, but Definitely Queer

Once back in Port Macquarie after travlin’ north, I took the opportunity one Sunday afternoon to see Superman Returns with members of my family.

We were all especially curious to see the film’s depiction of the boyhood farm of Clark Kent/Superman as these scenes were filmed on the plains near the village of Breeza, 25 miles south of our hometown of Gunnedah, New South Wales.

As the June 22 Namoi Valley Independent reports: “At the heart of the film is Superman’s boyhood home, recreated on a property in the Breeza district, where hundreds of film crew, stunt artists, construction workers, caterers and others spent several months on location. Several Gunnedah businesses were involved in the Breeza filming – among them HE Silos and Torrens Plumbing. Gunnedah Shire Council also played a role, constructing gravel and sealed roads in the vicinity of the farmhouse. The sets included a farmhouse and barn, silos and a crop of corn grown specifically for the film.”

The paper also notes that "the [film’s] storyline [begins with] Superman [played by newcomer
Brandon Routh] returning to the boyhood home of his adoptive parents, the Kents, [after five years away in search of the remains of his home planet, Krypton].

Though filmed in rural Australia, the farm scenes are meant to make audiences think they’re viewing the American heartland. My Dad, however, observed that the radio in Martha Kent’s kitchen is actually an old-style Australian radio – complete with abbreviations for the various Australian states on its dial, for example, QLD for Queensland.

Apart from the film’s links to my hometown, there was another reason why I was interested in seeing Superman Returns. Recently, the US magazine The Advocate posed the provocative question: “How gay is Superman?”, and suggested that the new Superman film (like the latest X-Men movie) “flaunt[s] a bold queer spirit.”

Okay, but does flaunting a “queer spirit” necessarily make Superman “gay”? Does “gay” always equate with “queer”? How are these terms understood? How are they related?

These were some of the questions I found myself pondering in light of the furore (in the US, at least) over the new Superman being “too gay” – a charge that made me wonder: had Superman been only a little gay, would things be okay?

But first, the film itself: My family and I agreed that though not a total disappointment, Superman Returns is nevertheless marred by problems with pacing, holes in the plot, and character development. Perhaps none of this is surprising given the “super problems” of the film as recently reported by Sydney Morning Herald writer Rob Lowing.

“Right from the start”, says Lowing, “Superman Returns was plagued by exiting directors and irate fans.” The studio apparently spent “11 years and a reported $52 million on failed Superman movies: including a 1996 project which would have the man of steel fighting polar bears, giant spiders and a gay robot [!]; a Tim Burton-directed version with Nicolas Cage (a proposal savaged by fans), and a Batman vs Superman movie.”

Then in 2004, notes Lowing “assigned Rush Hour director
Brett Ratner quit, to be replaced by X-Men's Bryan Singer. Ironically, Ratner went off to make X-Men: The Last Stand.” All of this was followed by problems on the set of Superman Returns, with reports of an “exhausted Singer plagued by back pain”.

Lowing also notes that “fans on websites like hotly debated the size (too small) of the ‘S’ on Superman’s costume and the traditional blue tights and red cape (some wanted all black).” And lastly, “contrary to fan gossip,” reports Lowing, “Superman’s crotch did not have to be digitally reduced for being ‘too super’, as Empire magazine amusingly described it: “a special flattening-cup kept matters discreet.”

All of which brings to mind’s take on the supposed “queering” of the new Superman: “Joel Schumacher and George Clooney,” notes the website, “might have made great strides by reimagining Batman as a rubber-nippled, impressively cod-pieced bondage queen, but we don't think the tag-team of Bryan Singer and the previously obscure Brandon Routh are quite up to the task of delivering Gay Superman until at least the second installment of the revived franchise.”

So how gay (or queer) is the new Superman? Well, from the onset, it needs to be acknowledged that for many people – including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people – the trials of comic book superheroes are often perceived to reflect their own struggle to be who they really are in a world that fears and misunderstands them.

“When I was a teenager,” one gay man told Gerard Jones, author of the book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, “superheroes were obviously about being queer. Clark Kent shedding that hideous suit and shooting into the sky in his tights? What else [could it be about]?”

GLBT people also relate to Superman’s “outsider” status. In Superman Returns, the “man of steel” is often depicted as feeling alone and dejected in a world full of people who are not like him. GLBT people’s “outsider” status stems from the ostracism and rejection many of them experience as a result of society’s imposition of heterosexual ideals. For GLBT youth in particular, such feelings of isolation and rejection can often make them feel as if they’re all alone in their suffering.

Of course, it’s not so much their sexual orientation that sets GLBT people apart, but society’s homophobic attitudes and actions. As novelist and essayist Philip Hensher writes: homosexuality has acquired “a sort of social history, because it was rarely allowed to rest as simply a biological variation, but was turned into a sin, a disease or a crime by society at large.”

And the punishment for this “crime” of being different has often been brutal and cruel. Superman Returns graphically depicts this in the scene where the kryptonite -weakened Superman is violently bashed by Lex Luther’s henchmen. I must admit I had a hard time watching this particular scene. In his flamboyantly colored outfit (complete with dress-like cape) and his vulnerable state, Superman seemed reminiscent of a drag queen or a “pretty boy” set upon by heterosexual thugs – their vindictive rage fuelled by irrational fears and intolerance of anything or anyone deemed to be outside the bounds of normality.

And perhaps that’s the queerest aspect of Superman: his “otherness” which sets him apart, makes him different. That, after all, is the most fundamental meaning of “queer”, which, according to the Collins Australian Dictionary, means “not normal or usual”. Thus one doesn’t have to be gay to be queer.

So what does it mean to be queer? I'd like to suggest that to be queer is to attempt to expand or go beyond (in thought, word or deed) the parameters of gender, race, heterosexuality, patriarchy, and other socially-constructed (or manipulated) concepts.

Brandon Routh (right) – out of his Superman costume
and clearly in a playful mood.

To be queer is to also recognize and embrace the “outlaws” of such “transgressions” (be these outlaws oneself or others) as members of the human family, and thus part of our shared human condition. And once at this level of consciousness (and to be sure, it’s a Christic level), we can all take heart in Superman’s parting words: “Sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you will never be alone.”

Of course, this is all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with the obsession of many in the United States with the idea of a “gay Superman”?

Well, let's be clear about one thing: the film doesn't imply anything as obvious as an interest on Superman's part in, say, Lois Lane’s handsome male partner. Rather, I think what's happening is that many viewing the film are sensing that this new Superman reflects the openness, inclusiveness, and vulnerability of being queer – qualities that not only allow us to transcend such things as gender and sexuality, but a construct like nationality as well.

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that the new Superman is being branded not only as “too gay”, but also as “un-American” by those firmly entrenched in the social (and thus sexual) status quo. As one Australian newspaper puts it: the US is “angry” that Superman has “lost his way”, i.e. conservatives in the US are pissed off that this particular interpretation of Superman is taking both the main character and audiences beyond their way of viewing the world - a view that insists on the superiority of not only men and heterosexuality, but the US as a moral power in the world.

For we cannot forget, as Gerard Jones (rather wistfully) reminds us in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece, that Superman, in an earlier era, was loved by many in the US because he “was the simplest and purest of his type . . . [He] found his greatest success with a good-humored smugness and an ethical system as primary as his costume's palette . . . Superman was all about resolution.”

More often than not, however, such “resolution” reflected and served a decidedly American view of the world; a view that saw only “good guys” and “bad guys,” and which never acknowledged the disturbing reality of American empire and the US government’s complicity in covert political and military operations which, to this day, serve to protect and expand such imperial hegemony.

This ugly reality is often draped and disguised in the distracting and flowery language of “the American way.” Superman, of course, fought for truth, justice, and the American way – and, in the case of the latter, so much so that in the contemporary world of comic book superheroes, Batman now dismisses Superman as a lackey of the US government and nicknames him “boy scout”.

Yet as Nick Papps of the Sunday Telegraph of Sydney reports, the return of Superman to the big screen has caused “controversy” because he is “no longer fighting for the American way”. Truth and justice remain but the once familiar “American way” catch phrase has been dropped from the new film because, according to Superman Returns co-writer Dan Harris, it’s “no longer appropriate for today’s Superman”.

“The world is a different place,” says Harris. “The truth is [Superman is] an alien. He was sent from another planet. He landed on Earth, and he is here for everybody. He’s an international superhero’.”

How unusual for an all-American icon like Superman. How queer!

Said another way, Superman’s now a universal superhero. And putting it this way brings a smile to my face, because another word for universal is, of course, catholic! Things just keep getting queerer!

Not surprisingly such a queer and, by extension, universal understanding of Superman has angered many right-wingers in the US. They correctly sense that something has shifted, but they’ve failed to grasp the true significance of the issue. Rather, they’ve only scratched the surface by (mistakenly) claiming, in an always vague and unsubstantiated way, that the character of Superman is “too gay”.

Yet although being gay may be for them the most obvious expression of queerness, it’s by no means the only expression. And to be sure it’s queerness, in all it’s boundary-breaking, soul-searching, and transcending power, that the new Superman embodies.

Nowhere in the film is this more beautifully depicted than when Superman breaks through the upper atmosphere and gently floats above the planet, at one with the myriad of different voices and languages emanating from the Earth.

It’s a powerful image. For in a world where sectarianism, domination, and violence are increasingly perceived as the norm, it’s an image that exudes interconnectedness, inclusiveness, and hope.

Such qualities (“unusual” as they are in today’s world) ensure that the image of the listening and responsive Superman, at one with the diversity of humanity, is a profoundly religious image.

And when you think about it, that’s simply another way of saying it’s queer.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
What the Vatican Can Learn From the X-Men


Anonymous said...

I was just doing some researching on the character of Superman and well...this was very well written.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

And good luck with your research.