It’s November 23, 1996. The top movie is Star Trek: First Contact, a solid time travel adventure that’s had a decent zombie movie and a boring, cliche Star Trek Does Moby Dick for the Nth Time smashed into it. Space Jam and Jingle All the Way also chart. The top song is still “No Diggety,” but the Macarena and Donna Lewis have finally been knocked out of the top five by Merrill Bainbridge (with “Mouth”) and Keith Sweat feat. Athena Cage, which is an amazing pair of names. In the news this week, bird expert Tony Silva goes to prison for running a parrot smuggling ring, Romania and Zambia hold their presidential elections, and Angola joins the WTO.
“My Girl” may be the best early showcase of how well Harley Quinn’s apocalyptic spell has worked. Lana Lang arrives in the episode as a redhead in a slinky green dress, on the arm of a powerful man. She is confident, sexy, smart enough to figure out that Clark is Superman on her own (a feat otherwise matched only by Batman), independent, and successful. She owns her sexuality, blatantly trying multiple times to seduce Clark, and her power, commenting on her ability to get others to do what she wants. In short, she is a near-perfect mirror of Poison Ivy in “Pretty Poison,” her introductory Batman: The Animated Series episode, with one critical difference: Lana is not depicted as dangerous or evil.
Lana has all the traits of the “bad girl” without being bad. Alternatively, she is able to be the “good girl” without a trace of submissiveness, foolishness, or weakness. She does get herself into trouble, and does need rescuing, but this isn’t because she’s weak, but rather because her strengths lie elsewhere. At the end of the episode she is still a successful, globetrotting fashion designer, still confident and powerful; she simply isn’t a crimefighter, and comes to that conclusion on her own, without losing one whit of her power or confidence.
This is not, of course, the first time the DCAU has presented us with a woman who breaks the Madonna/whore complex by being both good and powerful. Renee Montoya is the first, most obvious example, but (in sharp contrast to the comics) Montoya is never shown in any context other than her work as a police officer. She is given no life outside that work, and in particular does not display any hint of sexuality, so her ability to serve as a contrast to Poison Ivy’s femme fatale is limited. Batgirl might be a better example; she owns her sexuality in the sense that she feels free to say “no” to her father’s picks, which is good as far as it goes, but in combination with being Batgirl the implication is of an ingenue, a young woman who can be an object of attraction but lacks experience and independence.
Remember that the root of the Madonna/whore complex is a fear of feminine sexuality, and more importantly of women’s sexual agency–a fear that women can and will make their own choices about their sexual activity, based on their own desires and needs. This fear applies powerfully to Poison Ivy because she weaponizes her sexuality to destructive ends. By contrast, Montoya is not frightening because (in the DCAU) she demonstrates no sexuality; Batgirl is not frightening because, the sexual agency demonstrated by rejecting her father’s choice of suitors notwithstanding, she pursues no one and accepts a subordinate (and infantilized) position as one of Batman’s sidekicks.
Lana, by contrast, owns herself and her sexuality, and the episode treats this with respect. For example, there is a male gaze-y shot early in the episode of Lana’s rear and legs as she ascends a staircase; however, where in “Pretty Poison” a similar shot had every man in the room seemingly irresistibly drawn to watch Lana, here the cut to a watching Lex Luthor makes clear that the male gaze is specifically his–that is, that it’s the supervillain who has reduced Lana to a butt with legs with his eyes. The universalized male gaze in “Pretty Poison” implied a helplessness on the part of the men, that the ability to draw their gaze was a dangerous power Ivy possessed; here, looking at Lana in a sexualized, objectifying way is a choice made by the episode’s villain. She owns her own sexuality; how others respond is their own choice and their own responsibility.
In this respect, the episode’s ending has implications of the beginning of a character arc for Clark. Lana is still attracted to him, but recognizes that their lives are on different trajectories, so she tells him that someday he’ll find the woman that’s right for him, describing that woman (in contrast to herself) as quiet, understanding, and patient. However, Clark is called away by Lois, who shouts across the office, demanding he come immediately, either not noticing or not caring that he is having a fairly important personal conversation with his ex.
This is simple dramatic irony; the audience knows that Lois Lane is famously Superman’s primary love interest, and here she is being loud, impatient, and a bit insensitive, not at all the woman Lana described. But Lana is an intelligent and perceptive woman who knows Clark extremely well; she is correct that right now he is looking for someone quiet, understanding, and patient. (Someone rather like his parents, actually.) There is a reason for this: his body language and tone throughout the scene where Lana tries to seduce him most directly, in her suite after he rescues her from the thieves in the elevator, is profoundly uncomfortable. Her open, mildly aggressive sexuality unnerves and intimidates him.
By contrast, Luthor enjoys that same attitude. He clearly has genuine feelings for Lana: he is excited by her, seeming to relish the challenge she represents, as when he speaks approvingly of her curiosity after Mercy catches her spying on him. It is only after she clearly chooses Superman over him that he turns against her, at which point he tries to have her killed. Even then he is the most upset we have ever seen him, unwilling even to hear Mercy’s snarky comments.
Luthor overreacts, but it is an in-character response to understandable feelings: Lana is cheating on him, and he naturally feels angry, hurt, and betrayed. This doesn’t justify murder in the slightest, but he’s a comic-book supervillain, and murder is how he deals with those kinds of feelings. Ultimately, however, his problem is that he misread Lana as a “bad girl,” assuming that her defiance of patriarchal convention also meant that she would ignore his defiance of basic morality.
Clark, meanwhile, struggles with the fact that Lana isn’t a traditional “good girl.” Contrasted to a Neanderthal like Lobo last episode, Superman comes across as the more progressive figure, but he’s still a small-town boy from rural Kansas new-come to the big city, while Lana has presumably been traveling the world for quite some time, if she’s already made enough of a name for herself as a designer to command the kind of show we see at the episode’s beginning. He lacks experience with confident, sexual, powerful women willing to take charge, and therefore has not yet realized that that is what he truly wants in a partner.
He is, in short, not ready to love Lois. He is still too immature, still too rooted in patriarchal traditions. He has some growing up to do. Time around Lois will help, but one suspects something–someone–more extreme and less familiar is needed, and unfortunately it will be several years before she arrives.
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