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
— Danny Horn