Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Where Are You, Lois Lane?

Some time back I poked fun at how my wife was sorta-kinda depicted in the movie "Runaway Train." It was an example of how Hollywood - more accurately the writers, directors, and producers - take great liberties with real life in order to make a movie so middling you probably have to look up "Runaway Train" just to get this reference. In the credits, the character is listed as "Findlay Reporter."

My wife chased a train halfway across Ohio because it was her job, not out of any desire to "get the story." Oh yeah, she wanted the story, and she knew as long as the train was in rural Hardin County the story was hers to be had. About the only thrills or humor to come out of the whole thing was when she returned to the news room to hear somebody say, "I'm sorry. She can't come to the phone. She left to catch a train."

News reporters don't get a very accurate portrayal in movies or on TV, but then again neither do cops, lawyers, surgeons, and advertising executives. Still Neda Semnani's article on Hollywood's depiction of female reporters is worth a read and further thought. Her listing of fictional female reporters leaves out one important figure in our pop culture: Lois Lane. Sure, Lois is a product of the comic books, but by the 1950's she was every bit as much a television character as Lucy, an entire generation thinks of Lois Lane as she was portrayed by Margot Kidder in the movies.

Lois played an important part in those golden age Superman stories, she gave Superman somebody to rescue. In the very first Superman comic she also provided a little eye candy with the dress-strap-falling-off-the-shoulder look. She was more pneumatically enhanced in the early days, and her snubbing of Clark Kent could be downright frigid. Over the years, she warmed up, but remained a competitor to Clark. Her first depiction in Hollywood actually wasn't from Hollywood. Superman cartoons were produced during the WWII era by the Max Fleischer studio in Miami, Florida. I those adventures, Lois Lane fired a machine gun at a gang of thieves, flew a plane, and basically bullied into any dangerous situation so that Clark could say "This looks like a job for Superman."

It was a variation of the Perils of Pauline formula, but somehow I usually didn't detect the sexism that normally comes with that formula. In the first Superman animated cartoon, Clark admonishes the editor for sending Lois out alone to interview a mad scientist. "Don't you think that's a little dangerous?" You can almost hear the "for a woman" waiting to end that sentence, but it's not there. The fact is it was more than a little dangerous... for anyone. This is followed by Lois piloting her own plane to the mad scientist's lab. (Apparently, she looked up his address in the phone book under "Scientists, Mad.")

Lois Lane evolved with the times to become a consistent representation of the female journalist. I'll stop short of calling her a role model only because I assume most women actually want to avoid needing to be rescued from mad scientists. But she was an influence. In an era when a woman's choices beyond the kitchen were limited, Lois Lane was a career woman in a respected occupation.

So what happened? Why have female reporters in movies and on TV become fluffy airheads? Have scriptwriters grown lazy and simply go to the first thing they think of? Are there not enough female writers in Hollywood to set the record straight? Or could it be that in an era when Kathy Lee and Hoda fill an entire hour on "Today," when networks hire and give soft soap assignments to the daughters of former presidents' daughters who don't possess the voice over skills of even a small market rookie, and when anchors of once proud network news divisions prattle on with the latest unconfirmed rumor or something somebody said on Twitter during live coverage in Boston... maybe Hollywood isn't that far off.

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