Lois & Clark & Consent: Romance and Rape Culture in Man of Steel

18 Jul

Disclaimer the first: Spoilers ahead! I really can’t discuss what I want to without discussing specific incidents and plot points, so consider this your warning.

Disclaimer the second: I am by no means an expert in the Superman canon, but most of what I’m going to discuss is not heavily canon-dependent. Also, fun fact: canon is not sacred, especially in comics. See this post by saathi1013 on tumblr for a more eloquent argument than I can draft; the last few paragraphs talk about canon in comics.

Probably the best superhero promo image EVER. Click for a tumblr discussion of why it’s so awesome.

I saw Man of Steel a few weeks ago, and some things have been percolating in my brain since. There’s the usual – Henry Cavill is hot, Zack Snyder is allergic to transitions, Hollywood fails at science, where are the Kryptonians of Color? – but what’s really been bugging me is Lois.

Here’s the thing; I actually like a lot of what they did with Lois in the film. Her clothes are always professional, practical (excepting the Spike Heels O’ Doom, which I’ll forgive because without them Amy Adams would have been talking to Henry Cavill’s navel the whole film), and on her body. No stupid underwear/nightie/flimsy hospital gown scenes to suffer through or plunging necklines and miniskirts to roll our eyes at. Awesome.

It’s almost like she’s a professional woman who works for a respectable newspaper or something.

I also love, love, love that she knew Supes’ true identity before he even became Superman. I adore it. And I love that that he immediately trusts her to keep his secrets and describes her as a friend. He trusts her with his identity, and later on with his Kryptonian thumb drive (and doesn’t that sound like a euphemism). This does a lot to set Lois and Clark up as equals, as partners. Clark’s respect for and trust in Lois makes their relationship believable. You cannot have a real relationship that means anything if one partner his hiding 90% of their identity from the other. The trust thing – it’s just – awesome. So, so awesome. And because they’ve established this level of mutual trust and respect, the scene where Lois comforts Clark after he kills Zod feels sincere (or as sincere as anything in the film does). It could have been the magical “I see this man is sad! I will comfort him with my womanliness!” crap that we see a lot, but it wasn’t – it was, “this person that I love just did something that broke his heart, and I know this because I actually know who he is and what’s going on. I think I will give him a hug.” Partnership. Trust. Affection. Don’t mind me; I’ve just melted into a puddle of romantic goo.

Also, the kiss scene: Clark kisses Lois after rescuing her. So it’s not Lois going, “oh I’m so grateful you big manly hero!” but Clark going, “wow that was scary and I like you and you like me and I was worried about you LETS MAKE OUT.” Which might not seem like a big difference, but my hormones like the second one a hell of a lot more. (Not that I have any problem with women initiating sexytimes; I just prefer my sexytimes with FEELINGS rather than gratitude-repayment bullshit.)

And hand-holding. Love me some hand-holding.

And yeah, she does a lot of screaming. But you know what? If I were falling from a skyscraper-sized alien terraforming machine, I would probably be screaming too, especially if I knew there was a flying alien with superhearing nearby. And you can bet I’d be freaking the fuck out if I were trapped in a flaming escape pod burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. So there’s a lot of screaming Lois being rescued by Clark, but at least they’re situations that warrant a lot of screaming and rescue.

Also awesome: both Lois and Clark experience the alien mind probe, but we only see Clark’s mind probe – no helpless Lois strapped to a table struggling and whimpering. Depicting the hero and not the heroine as the victim of the rape-analog plot device? Excuse me while I retrieve my jaw from the floor.

However. While the movie did a nice job of subverting rape culture there, it failed MISERABLY in their first encounter. Let’s run through it quickly, from Lois’ perspective (I tried to find screencaps but could not):

Lois follows Mysterious Man into alien spaceship. Lois encounters Floaty Metal Death Thing. Floaty Metal Death Thing tries to kill her. Mysterious Man crushes Floaty Metal Death Thing with bare hands. Mysterious Man looms over Lois and pins her hands to floor. Mysterious Man starts removing Lois’ clothes.

Did you catch the point where things started to go Very Wrong Indeed?

Jesus fucking Christ.

Look, the whole “someone is freaking out, I must physically restrain them for their own good!” thing is incredibly overdone and problematic, but I will grant that there are times when, yes, you do need to physically restrain someone to keep them from harming themselves. However, they could have chosen a better way to go about it than to have Lois lying on the ground with Clark looming over her, pinning her hands down. You cannot get more rapey than that.

Oh, wait, yes you can. Once Lois finally calms down a bit, Clark starts opening her clothes. WHAT. THE. FLYING. FUCK. Yes, he’s checking her injury. But Lois doesn’t know this. From her perspective, his is still Schrödinger’s Rapist, and P(rapist) is a lot bigger than P(not.rapist) at this point. And he has literally said nothing to her at this point besides maybe some soothing nonsense. Does he ask her permission to remove her clothes? Does he even bother to give her a heads-up, like, “I need to look at your injury?” No. He just starts taking off her clothes, while still looming over her like Rapey McRaperson.

Oh and then he has to hold her down again while he injures her for her own good.

FOR FUCK’S SAKE. Yes, I get that she was bleeding and that cauterizing a bleeding wound is good field medicine (except I’m 99% sure he said she was bleeding internally and I’m pretty sure cauterizing someone’s internal organs is not a good idea. Any medical professionals out there want to weigh in?) However, in light of everything that just happened…

Look, you do not want me to be on the verge of throwing up when your Hero and Heroine first meet. If one of the most hopeless romantics in your audience is icked out and squicked out and all of her alarm bells are ringing, you are doing teh romance wrong.

I’m sorry; I can’t concentrate on your so-called ‘romance’ when I have the Star Trek RED ALERT klaxon blaring at 200 decibels in my head.

And I can hear the counterarguments:

  • He’s Superman, he would never do that!
  • It was for her own good!
  • He’s an alien, it doesn’t occur to him to ask permission!
  • It would totally ruin the mood if he stopped to ask her permission!

To which I say:

  • We know that, but Lois doesn’t. From her perspective, he is getting rapey-er by the second.
  • Fuck that shit. She’s still a human being with a right to informed consent!
  • He was raised from infancy in the US of A; he should know better!
  • How fucked up is it that basic human courtesy would ‘ruin the mood’ of a supposedly-romantic scene?

Seriously, on the last one. We’ve been trained to think that talking is not sexy, that communicating with your partner is not sexy, that asking for and giving consent is not sexy. That Twu Wuv means you can magically read your partner’s mind (at least if you’re a dude; the chicks can’t magically read their men’s minds or else we couldn’t have the whole tragic man!pain of “I’m leaving you/hurting you/making you hate me for your own good!”).


Can you tell this scene really touched a nerve? I am SO. GODSDAMNED. TIRED. of being told that rapey-ness is sexy and romantic. It’s not. End of story.

And it would have been so much easier to make this scene work without the rapey-ness. Try it like this:

Lois follows Mysterious Man into alien spaceship. Lois encounters Floaty Metal Death Thing. Floaty Metal Death Thing tries to kill her. Mysterious Man crushes Floaty Metal Death Thing with bare hands. Lois has backed herself against the wall – sitting, not lying down – and is freaking out; Mysterious Man crouches down a few feet away, hands out in the universal gesture of “I’m unarmed and don’t want to hurt you.” Lois calms herself down but is still wary. Mysterious Man says, “You’re injured,” with a look of concern. “May I?” he asks, reaching out a hand but not touching Lois until she nods. Mysterious Man examines injury, magically diagnoses it, and says, “I need to cauterize the wound to stop the bleeding.” “Okay,” says Lois. “This is going to hurt; try not to move,” Mysterious Man warns. “Okay,” says Lois, bracing her hands against the floor.

Not perfect, maybe, but infinitely better than the crap they actually put in. Also more in line with the portrayal of Lois- and Clark’s relationship throughout the rest of the film. And, for me, infinitely more romantic. Clark respects Lois’ personhood. Lois actually talks. Agency! Consent! Communication! Partnership! Awesomesauce!

Don’t mind us; we’re just casually flirting in front of the entire US military. NBD.

What I gave up there is a little lackluster; more of an outline than anything else, since I was deliberately repeating the outline of the actual scene I wrote above. But I would love to see this scene rewritten. I’m not ficcing anymore myself, but if anybody has any recommendations for (or wants to write) a fic with a better meet-cute, I’d love to read it!

I don’t have a good way to end this post, so to summarize:

Hooray!: Partnership! Trust! Communication! Consent! Agency! Affection! Understanding!

Not hooray!: Silence! Lack of consent! General rapey-ness!

Hollywood, take note. It’s really not that hard.


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