Due to the oath I took as a comic book columnist to steer clear of discussions in unfamiliar parts of the internet, I can only assume that there is wild, unrestrained outrage being banged out on a keyboard in response to the rumors that Superman’s best pal, Jimmy Olsen, will be Jenny Olsen in Zack Snyder’s upcoming “Man of Steel” film. To that imagined outrage I say, “Thank you for being dependable, outrage-spewer.” And to the rumored gender switch I just say, “Thank you.”
I have not made my lack of Super-enthusiasm a secret (although I have since read “All-Star Superman,” John Byrne’s “Man of Steel” and the first half of “Birthright” and, I have to say, thems some good readins). This isn’t one of my precious X-People having something previously unquestionable to their character swapped out (unless we’re counting the time Brett Ratner swapped out “make a good X-Men film” for very much the opposite). Maybe I have too much distance to really care, but I still see this as nothing but positive.
Comic book fans are resistant to change. That’s a fact, and that’s not an inherently bad thing. Our resistance to change means that a lot of us fans have been reading comics for decades, and have also most likely been keeping this industry afloat through some very lean years. We’re loyal. But that same resistance to change is coupled with a very problematic historical fact; all comic books were created when straight, white males unquestionably determined everything. They gave us every big superhero from DC and Marvel, who all happened to be straight, white males (with a classy dame thrown in for romantic needs as necessary).
The times have changed. And our culture’s unwillingness to change has kept a lot of these newer minority heroes from catching on. Wonder Woman is the only character that can challenge Batman, Superman and Spider-Man in terms of notoriety. That’s not for lack of trying on both DC and Marvel’s part, and both companies have been working especially hard in the last year to increase the presence of women in their comics to something mirroring what our society actually looks like. This is all great. Jenny Olsen, if the rumors are true, is the next step.
This isn’t political correctness; it’s just correctness. The idea that making diversification a priority is some sort of evil coup being done to persecute the white man is an idea perpetuated by those in power. It’s perpetuated by those who have always been represented in every form of media and therefore have no idea what it’s like to be habitually excluded.
Growing up in Tennessee, the only exposure I had to gay men was through network television, which at the time was a medium averse to depicting that minority in anything beyond a wacky situation that the sitcom lead had to overcome that week. Going through my teens and college years with the absence of a well-developed, non-stereotypical gay male in media kept me in the dark about who I really was. “There’s no way I’m gay, because obviously all gay men have to be like Will and Jack from that show!” If I had had a show like “Happy Endings” a decade ago, which features a lead gay character much closer to my everything, my world would have been expanded greatly. The point is, media reaches places that diversification doesn’t. Media is influential. Media has to educate and represent our diverse culture.
However many gay men are on television, there are hundreds of more women. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a member of a minority (one that’s actually a majority) and see myself, more often than not, in restrictive, no-dimensional roles constantly defined by relationships to men. But that’s what female superhero fans have had to put up with forever.
When I try to think of female characters in superhero films that are not involved in a romantic subplot, the list is ridiculously short. Black Widow, Maria Hill, Storm, Aunt May…is that it? Lois Lane, Jean Grey, Catwoman, Rogue, Elektra, Kitty Pryde…all of these characters have dozens of stories in the comics that feature them as the lead, but on screen they all have to be attached to a male. Of course, “Elektra” and “Catwoman” both got their own films…but…they had their share of problems. The big success, one that I hope Zack Snyder is willing to pull off, of having Superman’s best pal be Jenny instead of Jimmy is that the character is, by its nature, his best pal.
I am beyond fine with characters having their ethnicities and genders and backgrounds and powers and hair colors and whatevers changed as long as that change serves the story and does not interfere with the basic spirit of the character. If Snyder doesn’t break that one rule that I have (and have faxed him about daily, daily, I tell you!), then Superman is going to have a super-platonic relationship with a woman. Jenny Olsen has a chance to be a female character on the big screen that is void of a love triangle and any expectations that she has to totally get it on with the male lead. She should have as much admiration for Superman as Jimmy Olsen does, but it has to stop there. If it had remained Jimmy Olsen, it would not be expected for him to get gaga eyes over Superman, and the same has to hold true for this Jenny character.
Diversity is not the enemy, but the truth. I fully support any and all decisions made to inject some truth into these myths. If anything, this rumor has caused me to care just a little bit more about Superman.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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