America has changed a lot over the years, and its images of masculinity have changed with it. Superman
was created sixty-four years ago, and continues to evolve even today. He is a prime example of the fluid nature of masculinity
. Masculinity is all in the eye of the beholder
. No two people define masculinity in the same way, and men across America are considered masculine sometimes for very different reasons. Between the many incarnations of Superman, there is one concept that remains central to his story. Superman is the epitome of American masculinity
The character began in Action Comics #1 as just a man from another planet who was abnormally strong because of the environment he was born in. As time went on, his ability to jump large distances has evolved into the ability to fly, and he can now breathe cold air, shoot lasers from his eyes, and see through anything that isn't made of lead. He has enormous strength and is nearly invulnerable. He knows no boundaries; he can fly into space, not needing to breathe for hours at a time. He is America's ideal man. Every man wishes he could be Superman. Superman's only weakness, Kryptonite, is well defined. It is a physical object, and easy to fight. Unlike real men, where their weaknesses are many and ambiguous, we like Superman because his weakness is so simple and so easy to overcome. Men everywhere are jealous of his Fortress of Solitude. Superman has an entire place all to himself where he knows no one may disturb him, because he's just that powerful.
Superman could easily take over the world, but he doesn't. Herein lies part of the paradox of masculinity. While Superman's incredible power is essential to his masculinity, so also is his desire to use it to protect innocent people. Superman is an icon of American and Christian virtue. He does not willingly kill humans, because to do so would violate his code of ethics. He insists upon protecting life whenever he can. He does not steal even though he could obviously get away with it, and he does not use his X-Ray vision to see through women's clothing as he could. To be an acceptable idol of American masculinity, Superman must have both the power to exert his will and the morality to have his will match the will of the people. Superman is such an important image of American masculinity that in one of the episodes featuring George Reeves, the episode was funded by the United States Treasury department and was aimed to advocate saving stamps and bonds. The villain in the episode admitted that he was robbing a jewelry store because he was never good at saving money.
The popularity of this image of excessive manhood has led to several television series and movies. These images are always different, however, and they reflect America's ideas of masculinity at the time. Kirk Alyn and George Reeves, the first two men to play Superman in the late 1940s-1950s, are outdated images of masculinity. Kirk Alyn's hat, a popular example of masculine attire at the time, would be seen as bizarre in modern television. In the picture where George Reeves is staring off into the sky, he seems to have a John Wayne look about him. These two images are very outdated, and while they are surely very masculine for the time, they would not be accepted in mainstream American television and cinema today.
Between these two stars and the modern image of Superman lies Christopher Reeve, star of the Superman movies of the '70s and '80s. Christopher Reeve is perhaps the most interesting of all of the incarnations of Superman. The primary thing that sets him apart from the others is his portrayal of Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent. Reeve portrays Clark Kent as the polar opposite of Superman. Superman is our idea of masculinity, while Clark Kent is dorky and shy. The only thing that the two have in common is their love for Lois Lane. Lois Lane takes an important role in this version, which is a diversion from the older episodes, and Superman changes accordingly to be a romantic man.
Beyond his representation of Superman, though, Reeve has persisted as an example of masculinity. Reeve was paralyzed in 1995 by an equestrian accident. Doctors said that he probably would not be able to move ever again. However, because of his persistent physical therapy, he now has limited control over his body. This has created a very mixed attitude towards Reeve's masculinity. He is masculine because of his persistence, but on the other hand his body is severely inhibited and he's more physically vulnerable than a woman. There is a large dissonance Reeve's vulnerability and the image of Superman, and this sets Reeve apart as an example of the impossibility of truly being able to achieve the supreme masculinity that Superman entails.
Much more recently, the popular "Lois and Clark" was created. As can be seen by the name, the image of Superman shifted drastically here. Where Superman was a lone hero before with Lois' role seriously underplayed, Lois now becomes a very important character. This is a reflection of the shifting attitude towards women in American society. Lois becomes just as important as Superman, and on many occasions she is the one saving him. Superman is still very much a man with his super strength and speed, and now he has the added pressure of being a breadwinner when he marries Lois, which he also fills more than adequately.
Finally, it should be noted that there are three more series that are designed for children. "Superfriends" is radically different from all the other interpretations of Superman. In this, Superman teams up with many other superheroes, and it's not at all about action. "Superfriends" is designed for very young children, and I feel that its use as a moral guide is inadequate in discussing Superman as an image of masculinity.
The next animated version of Superman by the WB network is vastly different and targeted towards a slightly older audience. Superman here is once again the excessively masculine hero from former incarnations. Now, however, because of the miracle of animation, he is ridiculously masculine. He wears expensive suits, so now he fits not only the bodybuilder image, but also the successful businessman image. His broad shoulders resting above his skinny legs create a body type even more impossible than Barbie. Superman achieves the true incarnation of his excessively masculine image only in a world that isn't based on real people. It should also be noted that, as this is a show for kids, the romantic aspects of Superman were removed. At the same time, though, Lois Lane is portrayed as important and aggressive, the current popular image of women in America.
The final series, "Smallville", chronicles Superman's life as a teenager. Once again Clark Kent (having not yet developed the Superman persona) is very masculine, and his romantic side is stressed. The series is targeted towards teenagers and the image is focused more on the sexual side of things as such. He has become slightly rebellious and is no longer the symbol of great morality. He is now subject to temptation. This radical departure from the older images of the great moral hero suggests a current and future image of masculinity that is likely to arise.
Masculinity is becoming a diverse image that has no single clear-cut definition, and the changing images of Superman seem to be changing with masculinity. This trend will likely continue into the future, and Superman will continue to represent society's ideals of masculinity for years to come.