In yesterday’s post on the workout, I talked about the process of transforming Christopher Reeve from stringbean to superhero as a core part of the behind-the-scenes mythology of Superman: The Movie, which was widely discussed during and after release.
Partly, the description of building Reeve’s body was another way for the Salkinds to secure more funding — a story that they could tell potential investors in order to convince them that this was going to be a high-quality movie. It was also a marketing tool, meant to assure the ticket-buyers that they’ll see a real Superman on the screen, not just a guy in a padded suit.
This is an act of objectification, making Reeve’s musculature an object of discussion and concern. Reeve talks about building his body as a way of mentally getting into the character, but for everybody else, it’s a mechanical process: insert steak dinners and protein shakes, mix with barbells and squats, and out comes the result — 24 more pounds of muscle mass.
So the workout is a story about Christopher Reeve as meat, with the happy ending being an increase and redistribution of that meat into a shape that we like better. But the interesting thing is that nobody talks about Margot Kidder that way, and here I was, thinking that women were usually more objectified than men.
I mean, obviously a large part of these casting decisions are based on the actress’ physical appearance: Kidder is a beautiful, thin woman who’s in good shape, and she looks nice in a dress. But she’s not presented to us as a physical object up for inspection, in the way that Reeve is. She wears skirts, but there aren’t shots specifically set up to focus on her legs, the way that there are for Mariel Hemingway’s legs in Superman IV.
It’s Eve Teschmacher, the movie’s other major female character, who gets the objectification treatment. The first costume that we see Eve wearing is comically revealing, with a hole in the top specifically designed to showcase her cleavage in a manner that’s willfully eccentric, like the rest of the set dressing in Luthor’s lair. In another scene, she’s lying under a sunlamp in a skimpy bathing suit, essentially laid out on a display case.
There’s also a scene coming up, during the missile convoy sequence, where there’s an entire comedy routine built around Eve’s unconscious body splayed out suggestively on the ground, with a squad of soldiers bickering about who gets to put their mouth on her.
Lois isn’t treated like that at all. She’s a screwball comedy heroine, whose power derives from her confidence, her wit and the pace of her dialogue. In this balcony interview scene, she gets flighty and flustered, but that’s played as a direct response to the enormous piece of extraterrestrial meat that just landed on her terrace. Superman doesn’t ogle Lois that way; he looks her in the eyes, and adores her just for being Lois.
So Lois is definitely leading, in this will-they-won’t-they dance; she’s the one that initiates the discussions about romance and sex. She starts the interview/first date by asking if he’s got a wife or a girlfriend, and then moves on to “how big are you?” After that, her next question is “How much do you weigh?” which is basically a way of gauging his recommended serving size.
And it’s Lois who makes the not-very-sub subtext even less sub, in the middle of quizzing him about his superpowers. “What color underwear am I wearing?” she asks, focusing his attention on the matter at hand.
He hesitates, and there’s an adorable will-they-won’t-they moment where she thinks that she’s pushed too far, and she apologizes. Naturally, the only possible response to that is for Superman to lean in even further on the flirting, to show that he’s not embarrassed.
This is also the moment when Tom Mankiewicz skilfully deploys a plot point that needed a new home, after they decided to cut the Gauntlet sequence. In the shooting script, the Gauntlet was the way that Lex Luthor learned that Superman can’t see through lead, so when they cut that scene, Mankiewicz planted the information about Superman’s weakness right here, so that Luthor could learn about it in tomorrow’s newspaper.
That was an extremely clever idea, because using the lead planter helps to set up an adorable moment of pure screwball comedy dialogue.
Lois: What color underwear am I wearing?
Superman: (looks down) Hmm.
Lois: Oh, I’m sorry, I embarrassed you, didn’t I?
Superman: Oh, no!
Lois: I did…
Superman: No, no, no, not at all Miss Lane, it’s that — this planter must be made of lead.
Lois: Yes, it is. So?
Superman: Well, you see, I sort of have a problem seeing through lead.
Lois: Oh, that’s interesting! (writes in her notebook) Problem seeing through lead… Hm. Do you have a first name?
Superman: What do you mean, like, Ralph or something?
Lois: (pacing away from the planter) No, I mean, like, uh —
Lois: (turns around) Huh?
Superman: (nods at her underwear area, and raises his eyebrows playfully) Pink.
(She looks down, understands what just happened, and blushes a little.)
Superman: I’m sorry, Miss Lane, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.
Lois shrugs and chuckles, and says, “No, you didn’t embarrass me,” and then he looks at her, and he is desperately, helplessly in love with her.
A moment later, while she’s trying unsuccessfuly to spell Krypton, she slips in the question, “Do you like… pink?” She’s looking down at her notebook as she says it, and she hesitates as she looks up, not sure how he’ll take it.
He looks her straight in the eyes — with the pure, honest, loving stare that only Superman is able to use — and says, “I like pink very much, Lois.” And the music, which had been taking a break for the last few minutes, strikes up the Love theme.
This moment is specifically structured as a reward for Lois’ boldness. If she had kept up the pretense that this was just an interview, she wouldn’t have gotten a declaration of love like this. Through the scene, it is her expression of desire that moves the story forward.
Superman — as an enormous, indestructible slab of steak dinners — couldn’t possibly be the one making the moves here. The dynamic would be off-putting, clouding the scene with the lingering feeling that she could just be going along with what he wants. Instead, she’s the one who poses the question, and all he needs to do is just be honest about how he feels.
That’s how she earns a flight on First Date Airlines, a five-minute sex scene disguised as a blockbuster special-effects spectacle.
Lois: Clark… said that you’re just a figment of somebody’s imagination. Like Peter Pan.
Superman: Clark, uh… who’s that, your boyfriend?
Lois: Clark? Oh, Clark! No, he’s nothing, he’s just a —
Superman: Peter Pan, huh?
Lois: Uh huh.
Superman: Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.
And with a knowing smile on both of their faces, they rise into the air, and put some distance between themselves and a children’s movie.
Superman trains a new co-pilot
1.73: The Takeoff
6 thoughts on “Superman 1.72: The Color of Underwear”
The appropriate moment to remind all and sundry that on radio, Superman tended to refer to taking a human (man, woman, or child) into the air with him as “Superman Express.” (Like many elements of 40s radio, it takes on a different complexion now. That’s not even counting the fact that radio Robin routinely calls radio Batman “Pappy.”)
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“And with a knowing smile on both of their faces, they rise into the air, and put some distance between themselves and a children’s movie.” I can’t quite agree with you there. The pre-pubescent children in the audience may not have caught on to all the innuendo in this dialogue when the movie was first shown, but as none-too-sophisticated eight year old I got more than enough to know what was going on, and most of my fellow third graders got even more than that. It was acceptable to boys like us because Lois wasn’t all dopey ‘n’ stuff- her relationship with Supey is about falling off buildings and flying through the air and grabbing bombs, and even when they get into boyfriend/ girlfriend situations it isn’t dull like a soap opera or mushy like a love story- watching their sparring is almost like watching a sporting event. Granted, the “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence was nauseating to us, but that was a small price to pay, all things considered.
Lex and Miss Teschmacher were acceptable to us for a different reason. We’d all seen enough leftover movie comedies from the 60s on TV to be familiar with the trope of the executive who installs a bimbo in his office as his secretary, so we knew what was supposed to be going on there. We could also see, even if we didn’t stop to put it into words, that Lex doesn’t need a secretary, that he doesn’t have a wife or anyone else from whom he has a rational motive to hide the true nature of his relationship with Miss Teschmacher, and therefore that insisting on calling her “Miss Teschmacher” is part of a role-playing game where he pretends to be one of those executives. Laughing at this kink of his was our way of laughing at the adult world’s insistence on sticking sexual themes into stories that would otherwise be interesting to us. The scenes you mention where Miss Teschmacher’s sexiness makes her an object of ridicule gave us another opportunity to react against the same thing.
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Lois and Miss Teschmacher are two sides of the Screwball Heroine coin–the latter being a combination of brassy sexuality and humor that diffuses it, the former kind of muting female sexuality underneath brashness and wit.
Both women are beautiful, but neither are really *objectified.* That may sound silly in Miss T’s case (see above screenshot) but there’s a long history of playing up women’s physiques–especially their boobs–for laughs. It’s a way of using humor to protect audience members from feeling uncomfortable levels of desire or inadequacy. If you can laugh, you can relax, and her va va va voom body isn’t going to demand anything of you you may not be prepared to give.
Lois is played kind of New York Sexy, in that her go-getting style, husky voice and constant energy is supposed to be bewildering enough to powerful people that they are led into saying more than they mean, and she can talk her way in and out of dangerous situations, but she isn’t portrayed as using sex itself as a skill or weapon.
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“Do you know what Freud said about dreams of flying? It means you’re really dreaming about having sex.”
“Indeed? Tell me, then, what does it mean when you dream about having sex?
Neil Gaiman, The Doll’s House (The Sandman, #2)
I know it’s not a dream. I just thought of this scene when I read that.
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It’s amazing how much agency they give Lois here! Superman’s level of power has to always be accessed by someone else in order to not be ruthlessly intimidating, but in a way that makes it clear that the power is still his, and this scene does it brilliantly.
For people who ridicule the idea that “consent is sexy,” Superman proves them wrong in spades.
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I disagree that Miss Teschmacher is in any way objectified in this movie. I think something entirely different is going on with her character, but I’ll have to forge ahead in catching up with these blog entries before I know if you caught it.