Superman II 2.33: Who You Callin’ Kleenex?

You have to be careful with stories, especially the big mythological ones.

If you leave them sitting around in people’s brains for long enough, stories become ideas, and then ideas become attitudes, which become worldviews. And that’s not a linear process, obviously. Your attitudes affect how you interpret stories, and how you choose the kinds of stories you’re interested in engaging with.

At a certain point, you’re not telling stories anymore. The stories are telling you.

Now, I’m bringing this up because this is the scene where we see Superman and Lois Lane in bed together, being cozy and presumably post-coital, and that means someone is going to bring up “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.” There’s nothing we can do about it; it’s just the way that the world works.

“Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” is a clever and funny short essay by science-fiction writer Larry Niven, first published in 1969 in Knight: The Magazine for the Adult Male. It’s a tongue-in-cheek pseudo-scientific exploration of how Superman could keep the Kryptonian species alive, without destroying the woman who’s conceiving and carrying his child.

The essay sets that stage by reflecting on Superman’s psychology, and genetic makeup.

What turns on a Kryptonian?

Superman is an alien, an extraterrestrial. His humanoid frame is doubtless the result of parallel evolution, as the marsupials of Australia resemble their mammalian counterparts. A specific niche in the ecology calls for a certain shape, a certain size, certain capabilities, certain eating habits.

Be not deceived by appearances. Superman is no relative to homo sapiens.

What arouses Kal-El’s mating urge? Did kryptonian women carry some subtle mating cue at appropriate times of the year? Whatever it is, Lois Lane probably didn’t have it. We may speculate that she smells wrong, less like a kryptonian woman than like a terrestrial monkey. A mating between Superman and Lois Lane would feel like sodomy — and would be, of course, by church and common law.

So that’s the tone: taking the concept of a superpowered extraterrestrial that looks like a human at its face, and then following the logical consequences.

Here’s the best-known passage in the essay, and the one that inspires the title:

The problem is this. Electroencephalograms taken of men and women during sexual intercourse show that orgasm resembles “a kind of pleasurable epileptic attack.” One loses control over one’s muscles.

Superman has been known to leave his fingerprints in steel and in hardened concrete, accidentally. What would he do to the woman in his arms during what amounts to an epileptic fit?

Consider the driving urge between a man and a woman, the monomaniacal urge to achieve greater and greater penetration. Remember also that we are dealing with kryptonian muscles.

Superman would literally crush LL’s body in his arms, while simultaneously ripping her open from crotch to sternum, gutting her like a trout.

Lastly, he’d blow off the top of her head.

Ejaculation of semen is entirely involuntary in the human male, and in all other forms of terrestrial life. It would be unreasonable to assume otherwise for a kryptonian. But with kryptonian muscles behind it, Kal-El’s semen would emerge with the muzzle velocity of a machine gun bullet.

In view of the foregoing, normal sex is impossible between LL and Superman.

It’s a funny piece, but there’s something that feels a little odd about the pleasure that people take in quoting and retelling this story. That passage describes, in intentionally upsetting detail, the disassembly of a woman’s body through the “involuntary” expression of hypermasculine sexual violence. It is told as a joke, and then retold again, passed down through the generations, whenever somebody brings up Superman and Lois’ romantic future.

Now, I don’t want to be the guy who takes a joke too seriously; I consider myself mainly a comedy type person. But it says “gutting her like a fish”. The joke is an expression of schadenfreude, and the pain that we are taking pleasure in is a woman’s messy, painful death at the other end of an exploding penis.

So my question is: what does this story say about us?

I’m asking that because I think there are several ways to interpret the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, and this is one of the incorrect ones.

The concept behind “Woman of Kleenex” is that Superman is more powerful than Lois Lane. He is not.

Yes, he can fly. He can run really fast. He can pick up heavy things. He can punch people so hard that there isn’t anything left of them to punch. He has really good eyesight. He can, I guess, blow on stuff really hard. And it is impossible to physically hurt him.

So why is Lois more powerful than he is? Because she’s Lois fucking Lane, that’s why. And because style is more important than physical strength.

Take a look at the “Long Walk” scene from the first movie, where Lois is acting like the screwball comedy heroine that she is always meant to be. She’s the one who’s at home in the Daily Planet newsroom, an entire environment that is built specifically around her.

She’s walking out of the office, and Superman is asking if she’d like to go to dinner. “Oh, gosh, Clark, I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m booked. Air Force One’s landing at the airport, and this kid’s going to be there to make sure that you-know-who answers a few questions that he’d rather duck.”

That’s Lois’ evening. She’s going to change her clothes, take an elevator up to what might as well be her personal heliport, and chase down the President of the United States, who is afraid of her. And she’s going to do it in heels and a new hat. Now tell me who’s more powerful.

And there’s Superman, the guy who can pick up a car if anyone needs him to, which at the moment we don’t, and he’s following her like a lovesick puppy, and all he can think about is how much he adores her, and how good she smells.

This is important, because the concept “Superman is powerful, and Lois is not” is fundamentally unsound as the premise for interesting narrative. It’s like telling the story of David vs Goliath, in which Goliath punches David really hard and David dies. “Strong person dominates weak person” is not a story worth telling. For anyone who disagrees, I have a late-breaking bulletin: Ya basic.

On the other hand, the concept “Superman is the most powerful person in the world, and Lois is even more powerful than that” is interesting and funny and unpredictable. And it also happens to be a more accurate way to describe the world, because it opens up the concept of “power” as being about more than just the ability to lift things.

I mean, let’s say that there’s someone who’s the single best athlete in the world, to the point that they are actually better than all other athletes. They’re stronger and faster, and no matter what the competition is, they win every game. This is impressive, and admirable. That person would be respected and looked up to around the world, and they would have more and better sex than you could ever hope for.

But they wouldn’t be the most powerful person in the world, because that’s not how power works. Nobody is the most powerful person in the world. The world is always more powerful than you are.

And honestly, the idea that Kryptonians are more powerful and therefore better than humans is clearly not the case, especially in these movies. Kryptonians are elderly white people who huddle inside big empty rooms under a crystal dome that they had to build because their planet sucks and they couldn’t think of a better way to handle that.

And their technology is clearly not better than ours. For one thing, their earthquake detection system is beyond flawed, and they’re way too defensive about it. They don’t know how to build rockets — apparently the only one ever made on the planet was in the shape of a pointy crystal star, which is not aerodynamic, and the only thing it can do is crash-land somewhere and fall to pieces, hopefully within walking distance of someone who feels like dealing with a random abandoned two-year-old. Their education system is ridiculous, and there is no evidence in this movie that Superman knows anything more about algebra, Chinese philosophy or lyric poetry than anybody else who went to regular school.

In fact, if you’re really invested in the fictional idea that Kryptonians are inherently superior to humans, then that is kind of sad and indicates that you may have some issues to work through. People who are physically stronger and have different technology are not superior to you. You are fine.

So the “Woman of Kleenex” essay is funny, but it shouldn’t be used as the basis for telling or interpreting Superman stories. Modern Superman comics and television shows take Lois Lane seriously, and the relationship between Superman and Lois is depicted as a partnership between equals.

Obviously, there are some aspects in their life together that he is better at and in charge of, like running off somewhere to protect people from an exploding volcano or whatever. And then there are other aspects that she is in charge of, which is basically everything besides exploding volcanoes.

That is who Lois Lane is. If you think that you’re going to gut her like a trout and blow her head off with your magic powerful penis, then you can go ahead and try, but you are going to learn some very important life lessons which it would behoove you to heed.

The White House is lightly under siege in
2.34: Mars Attacks

Movie list

— Danny Horn

22 thoughts on “Superman II 2.33: Who You Callin’ Kleenex?

  1. This is what I was getting at with my comment on yesterday’s post. You obviously said it much more eloquently. Beware of those who — when the topic of sex between a Kryptonian male and an Earth woman — immediately go to a place of destruction.

    As much as I adore Donner and Mankiewicz’s take on Superman, I’ve always really disliked Superman II, and this approach (if this is indeed what their thought process was) is one of the reasons.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. There were plenty of ways to take the “must become as the humans” angle that weren’t as annoying, such as the Highlander premise, where the immortal protagonist remains the same as his loved ones age and die (although those films and Superman have the same problem in that said immortals hit young adulthood and just stop there, except if they are played by Sean Connery,) or even that Superman is sick and tired of the whole deal and wants to run off with the woman he loves and live a peaceful, anonymous life.

      If the creators ever conceived of an intimate relationship between two adults who care for each other actually having a damn conversation, the two sides of this coin could make for an enthralling story. Lois, as Danny says, is every bit Clark/Superman’s equal in every way he cares about, and a scene where she puts him firmly in place for even thinking of renouncing his powers “for her” would be glorious.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I would’ve loved to see dramatic sparks fly about this between Kidder and Reeve at their best.

        Something like, “You know I love how you can defy our gravity and all that. But giving that up just because crystal videos from now-dead people told you to? Even from your parents, that was lousy advice not based on how things really are for you here and now! Your giving up your powers for me and not even asking what I would actually want done for me… ooh, that shows such a lack of judgement! If you make decisions that unwise, I’m not sure if I can trust you or want to be with you that way! If we’re going to be more than just friends with your saving me now and then, you’ve got to step it up, buster!”

        Liked by 3 people

      2. That’s not actually how it worked in Highlander. They only stop ageing after their first “death” and revival.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Aha, that makes sense–Sean Connery must have been one canny ol’ Immortal to get to his age before another one managed to knock his noggin off.


      4. If it had been the classic 1950s/60s Lois, then after Superman renounced his powers she’d go “What, you’re not Superman anymore? Actually I don’t really fancy you now!”

        Liked by 2 people

  2. The whole thing is based on the idea that Superman can’t control his own strength, which is BS. Look, we all learn as we’re growing up that you should exert less force in your hand when you’re picking up an egg than when you’re picking up a rock. Once you reach adulthood this process has become so instinctual that you don’t even think about it anymore. In fact, most people default to gentleness; exerting great force – to tackle an opponent in a football game for instance – requires a conscious act of will. Now, if Kal-El had come to Earth as an adult it may have taken him a while to learn this, but since he’s spent virtually his entire life living as a human the “managing your own strength” thing would’ve developed as naturally for him as it would for any native.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Heh, I made this point in a much more vulgar fashion in the last post! Everybody in Smallville apparently lived through Clarks toddlerhood and puberty, so there’s no reason to think he can’t control his–functions.

      Now, granted, sexual congress isn’t the same as not ripping doors off their hinges or accidentally throwing a car into the sun, but he’s a healthy adult male who clearly feels sexual urges and yet everyone around him is alive and well. He understands restraint.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. The Nivens essay is goofy fun but it is annoying that people take it seriously. Niven concedes that a truly alien species should not find a human physically attractive yet he then skips to the literal impossibility of the act. But if you can make the leap that puts them in the same bed, then you can assume that the sex act is safe.

        Liked by 5 people

    2. Yes!

      To answer Niven, the Superman mythos explains that Kryptonian cells are no more powerful than Earth human cells, until exposure to a yellow sun’s light makes Kryptonians gain powers. Supe’s sperm cells are never exposed to yellow sunlight.

      The mythos also explains that a Kryptonian raised on Earth can readily control their powers, to live in a peaceful and harmless way amid earth humans. No reason to suppose that a super-orgasm turns Supe uncontrollably violent, any more than that some springtime pollen in his super-nose makes him destroy the whole block with a super-sneeze.

      For human beings, epilepsy doesn’t make people randomly, violently hit and hurt all the people around them. For human males, every orgasm doesn’t make us beat up and bruise our partners, even if the man is strong enough that he could do that at his worst.

      For a cheap laugh, Niven wanted us to suppose that Superman’s much worse than an ordinary man. That when he most needs to be able to get along with a human, he can’t.

      It’s ironically inconsistent with the “Flying Boy Scout” image, so it gets the cheap laugh. But only a cheap laugh. The snickers should have died out by ’72 or so.

      Great storytelling comes from consistency. In great stories, when characters change their fundamental attitude and actions, it’s from challenging experiences. Not from writers randomly discarding all we’ve seen about a character in one scene, without explanation, only to randomly bring it back in the next, without explanation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “So my question is: what does this story say about us?”
    Sex sells?

    I did notice that post got more comments than any other about Superman II by a wide margin. (Currently 44 to 32 for “First Contact”). The next-highest is “The Empire Strikes Back” post which actually has fewer than I would have expected.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. In the context of Superman II, what strikes me about the phrase “Man of Steel” is its analogy with “Wooden Boy.” Superman is Pinocchio in this movie, and to be a match for Lois he’ll have to become a real boy. I think Niven, and the generations of schoolyard wits who explored the same topic before and after him, are getting at the same thing- as a Kryptonian living on earth, Superman has great physical power, but is absolutely alone.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, there are story types that make sense for what Superman II tries to achieve, but they don’t make emotional for the larger Superman story. As a parent, I would not send my child off to live a solitary, miserable existence. Kal-El’s parents should want to find a world for their son where he could fit in and be happy. The powers should be an advantage not a curse.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. That’s another reason to be glad we don’t see Brando or Smallville in this movie. The sad parts are easy enough to figure out that you don’t really have to think about them, at least not beyond “Gosh, must be mighty lonesome for the big guy.” But make those things explicit and the movie winds up hitting you over the head with how bleak Superman’s time on earth is, and it just isn’t fun to watch.


  5. This great essay of yours really ties together lots worth saying, Danny!

    “Take a look at the “Long Walk” scene from the first movie, where Lois is acting like the screwball comedy heroine that she is always meant to be.”
    And compare that to the screen shot of “Lois Says Ewww” in yesterday’s post!

    The original pair of scripts had Jor-El’s consistent character. His whole point is, Krypton works when Kryptonians work together for the common good.
    Together, let’s banish the evil trio who revolted against our reasonable way of life.
    Together, let’s deal with the planet’s damaged core.
    Kid, if you’re going to go gaga on just one Earth human instead of serving all of them, you’re no Kryptonian in my eyes.
    Kid, if you came to your senses and realize your destiny is to serve all of them, now I see you’re a Kryptonian again in your heart. I’ll make my last sacrifice for you, knowing that through you, it’s for the common good.
    My guess is that this all came from Puzo! Everything that works in the Godfather stories comes from character driving behavior!

    Characteristics are consistent, unless we’re compelled to change.
    Puzo and Mankievicz get that.
    The unsatisfying moments in this film are when its rewriters didn’t get it.

    Nothing happened to make Lois no longer the intrepid reporter with moxie. The screwball comedy chatterbox. The endlessly bold and daring asker of difficult questions to the powerful. The resourceful risk-taker who takes charge in an uncertain and scary situation.

    Put her with her boss, with the President, with Jimmy the camera kid, with the space angel, with Le Cop, and she’s the same woman. Now we’re supposed to believe, just because you put her in Supe’s palace with correspondence course video crystals, all she can do is stare and gasp, “Ewww.”

    In a comic book film, characteristics also include superpowers. Just like personality traits, skills, interests, typical ways of doing things, powers also come from innate nature, and/or from life experience. Origin stories show how they got that way. Lester’s worst moments are when character traits and powers alike randomly change for no reason, for a momentary laugh or gasp. The Beatles were presented as randomly madcap lads, so randomly madcap events are consistent. It doesn’t work here.

    That’s where your essay – and comic book characters like Lois – turn inspiring for those of us without super-powers. Lois’s natural strengths are her relentless inquisitiveness, her courage in the face of danger, her standing tall in the face of the powerful. She found into a career where her strengths make her a winner, and her bad spelling and brusque nosiness don’t hold her back. She took the elevator to the top of the Planet at work and to the Terrace Penthouse at home. And she’s a true plot equal of even a Kryptonian space angel.

    If her own natural human strengths, just being herself, is enough for her to figure out and boss around Krypton’s Best as an equal plot participant – than maybe my own strengths, just being myself, could be good enough for my own life! That’s a nice message for a kid of any age. And one the rewriters of this film stole from us.


  6. It’s an interesting question whether the venue drove the tone of Niven’s essay or vice versa, the extent to which any misogyny in the essay relates to Niven’s membership in a fairly conservative right-wing group of science fictions writers (Heinlein, Pournelle, etc.), and what perhaps it says about me that I never really thought very deeply about the level of middle-/high-school locker room conversation tone to the essay. Those are fully worthy topics of discussion (not that anyone needs me to validate that).

    I just want to talk about Kryptonian/human hybrids. At this point:

    (1) It is (as far as I can tell) absolutely canon that Kryptonians (or at least, Clark) can produce offspring with humans (or at least, Lois). (By the way, Danny, can I assume we will have a 3-4 post series at some point on changing fan and creator attitudes towards issues of canon and continuity?) This totally invalidates Niven’s point about bestiality (he says sodomy, but bestiality is what he clearly means). Their ability to produce offspring (without getting really nit-picky about mules and Tygons) functionally makes Clark and Lois members of the same species.

    (2) Clark’s physical resemblance to a typical human male is sufficiently close to have passed unnoticed in the locker room after high school gym class.

    This leaves us with two choices: either sing the MST3k theme song (“If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes/and other science facts (la la la)/just repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show/I should really just relax…'”), or actually wrestle with what this implies. Point 1 eliminates convergent evolution as an explanation, even if you’re willing to accept the somewhat far fetched possibility of it being so convergent that Clark could pass the locker room test. That leaves common ancestry or some form of intelligent design.

    There are two problems with common ancestry: first, even if the common ancestor was some form of hominid Kryptonians and Earthings have apparently been reproductively isolated for a very long period of time — just random genetic drift over time would make them separate species incapable of interbreeding. Second, given that humans are clearly genetically related to all other Earth life, that common ancestor would have to be something like the earliest unicellular life form (which brings us back to the convergent evolution problem — bats and birds don’t make bards or birts).

    That leaves intelligent design of some sort. Let’s look back at Jor-El and Lara’s dialogue quoted in post 1.10:

    Lara: But why Earth, Jor-El? They’re primitives, thousands of years behind us!

    Jor-El: He will need that advantage to survive. Their atmosphere will… will sustain him.

    Lara: He will defy their gravity.

    Jor-El: He will look like one of them.

    Lara: He won’t be one of them.

    Jor-El: No. His dense molecular structure will make him strong.

    Lara: He’ll be odd. Different.

    Jor-El: He will be fast. Virtually invulnerable.

    Lara: Isolated. Alone.

    Suppose Lara decided to do some quickie gene therapy to make it possible for Kal-El to not be so alone — including to be able to connect in the most intimate possible way with another person by creating a new life with them. Bear in mind that she’s doing this on-the-fly with her planet on the verge of exploding, and maybe she wasn’t able to come up with something that would work without Kal-El losing the benefits he derives from Earth’s yellow sun. Or maybe she just thinks those differences will make it too difficult — look again at those last few lines: “He will look like one of them.”/”He won’t be one of them.” “His dense molecular structure will make him strong.”/”He’ll be odd. Different.” “He will be fast. Virtually invulnerable.”/”Isolated. Alone.” Maybe she genuinely thought giving up those differences was the only way he could really sustain a long term connection with a human partner.

    That’s my new head canon, and I’m sticking with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I wonder if they considered the biological incompatibility when they made the old Earth 2 “Mr and Mrs Superman” stories around this time in the Superman Family comic. Since, despite having had a long and happy marriage, the Clark and Lois of Earth-2 never had children.

    Another take on the subject was John Byrne’s Generations story in the late 90s. In that story the pregnant Lois always wore a kryptonite pendant – small enough that it did no harm, but enough that a ‘super baby’ wouldn’t damage her.


  8. Ah, see, the writing on this blog is so very good, but every once in a while we inevitably have to bear one of these “everything is *-ist” takes 🙂 Let’s try to parse this subject rationally without insisting on finding something problematic.

    Obviously most people are aware that Superman is ridiculously strong, so it can be a little frightening to think about him interacting with normal people. When Clark hugs Ma Kent goodbye in Superman I, it’s natural that part of us is thinking, “Easy does it, Clark, don’t hug TOO hard.” Of course he doesn’t — he never does — because perfect bodily control is canonically one of Superman’s abilities.

    But it’s a natural thought which has nothing to do with unhealthy attitudes towards sex, women, power or race. We see a godlike man who could crush a boulder effortlessly (and who turns coal into a diamond in Superman III) and we’re naturally concerned for whoever is on the receiving end of his passionate embrace. That’s all there is to it.

    It’s not even an unhealthy preoccupation with a hard sci-fi take on what is not meant to be hard sci-fi. Niven’s essay simply put down in lurid detail what everyone was already thinking, thus it makes a useful referent; instead of explaining at length all of the dangerous aspects of a god-man making love to a woman, we can simply say, “Remember that essay?”.


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