The newspaperman, and newspaperwoman, have long captured the American imagination – and reporters, anchors, and even photojournalists have served as the protagonists in comics, animation, television and film.
As a woman writer and pop culture herstorian I can’t help but be drawn to places in pop culture where women and journalism intersect – and that means I absolutely adore Lois Lane.
She is not the first woman reporter in popular culture, but Lois is likely the most recognizable – and certainly the longest lasting in the American cultural consciousness, having debuted alongside Superman and Clark Kent in 1938.
Like many real-life women reporters of her day, Lois Lane began her career writing romance columns and covering other “women’s news.” Rather than spend her career as a “sob sister”, she was anxious to tackle more challenging material, but her editor assigned the hard-hitting stories to Lois’ journalistic rival, Clark Kent, and insisted the work was too important for “a girl.”
Many dismiss Lois Lane as a secondary character, and indeed, as audience we are supposed to privilege the Man of Steel’s perspective.
BUT, Lois is the most important character in Superman’s mythos other than himself and, as such, deserves better attention, particularly as she has always reflected conflicting attitudes toward women, especially talented, independent women. In fact, though Wonder Woman is rightly recognized as an icon of female empowerment, Lois Lane serves as a much better representative of changing ideas about women’s roles than the Amazon Princess.
Additionally, Lois may be the love interest, and is often in need of rescuing, but she’s no damsel in distress. Rather it’s her attempts at proving herself to her sexist male co-workers that lead her to the trouble she’s so famous for getting into.
Superman’s writer Jerry Siegel, who co-created Lois with illustrator Joe Shuster, had modeled her feistiness on the film character, Torchy Blane.
Glenda Farrell defined the character with her fast-talk and confidence, though in the series of nine B movies, two other women, Lola Lane and Jane Wyman each starred as the title character. (Quite obviously, Lola Lane provided inspiration too.)
“You’re wrong, boys. Hold-ups and murder are my meat. Here’s the open sesame that swings wide all portals - my press pass. Torchy Blane of the Star.” - Torchy Blane in Panama
The image of the female reporter was inspirational and exciting. It provided meaty roles for actresses, who enjoyed the opportunity to play aggressive, independent, and ambitious professionals rather than simply love interests or femme fatales (even if the women were usually softened by romance at the film’s end).
“A reporter has the right to do things an ordinary person shouldn’t.” – Nancy Drew
One of the most famous woman reporters in film, is of course, Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940) – a remake of The Front Page (1931) with the role of Hildy changed from a male character to a female one.
Lois was voiced by Joan Alexander – who had also voiced the character on the Superman Radio show.
With the end of the Second World War came decreased interest in superheroes. Other comics genres, such as romance and adventure, took the place of superheroes on newsstands. And, as we know, the 1950s were generally a terrible time for representations of women in pop culture so it should come as no surprise that Lois Lane was stifled in the comics of that era and lost some of her exciting autonomy.
But she did fare better in film serials and on television.
Noel Neill was the first woman to play Lois Lane on screen, and starred opposite Kirk Alyn’s Superman in the movie serials. In the first season of the television series Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), as well as the movie Superman and the Mole Men (1951), she was played by Phyllis Coates.
While Neill was cute as a button, Coates presented a savvy, no-nonsense woman you did not want to mess with.
During an extended break in shooting, Coates was offered another job and when the television series returned Noel Neill was asked to reprise the role. She starred as Lois until the series’s cancellation in 1958.
Are you hooked on Lois? I hope so! Stay tuned for Part Two coming at ya this Wednesday!