Smallville’s Sexual Symbolism: From Queer Repression to Fans’ Queered Expressions – Anne Kustritz

In 1938 the United States’ economic recovery from the 1929 stock market crash, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression was well underway.  Ideologically, President Roosevelt’s New Deal was an attempt not only to bolster the economy and cushion rising unemployment, but also to restore the American people’s trust in democracy, capitalism, and the efficacy of their government.  However, after ten years of downsizing, farm foreclosures, and unstable investments, reestablishing the people’s trust would not be an easy task.  In this grim historical moment artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster couldn’t offer economic security, or a solution to the mounting tensions in Europe which would shortly produce the Second World War.  Instead, they created a hero willing and able to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way,” thereby demonstrating that America was still worth fighting for and defending.  In the first issue of Action Comics Siegel and Shuster introduced Superman, an alien with incredible powers, orphaned on Earth, and raised by human parents on a farm in Smallville, Kansas.  Although constantly engaged in epic battles with an array of villains, Superman’s greatest super-human feat may be his uncanny ability to survive the notoriously fickle cycles of popular culture, in various incarnations remaining a central figure of American popular mythology for over seventy years.  Often appearing at moments of cultural crisis, in his numerous appearances Superman saves “average citizens,” thus helping to define which citizens deserve to be saved, which acts warrant punishment, and what constitutes the “American Way.”  This well known, readily recognizable imagery has made Superman a key symbol which may be called upon and appropriated by both culture industry professionals and fans to substantiate any number of claims about the American nation and national identity. In the uncontrolled cyberspaces of the internet Superman’s repressed queer subtext returns to public consciousness, circulated among communities of fans and refashioned to articulate claims about identity and sexuality.

Superman’s astounding success and longevity may at least in part result from metaphorical parallels between his mythological confrontations and contemporary political struggles.  When first introduced Superman helped to reestablish trust in and attachment to “traditional” American culture, symbolized by the honest and hard working farmers who raised him and his imposition of their values onto the “degenerate” city where he worked as an adult.  Especially from the perspective of 1930s politics, these structuring principles of Superman’s biography resonate with the goals and ideologies of agrarian populism.  From the late 1800s the populist movement, generated largely by working class anger toward corporate greed as exemplified in trusts and monopolies, called for wide ranging economic reforms including public ownership of utilities, collective bargaining for farmers and laborers, and the silver rather than gold currency standard.  Populism’s economic radicalism was not, however, mirrored by a similarly radical social policy.  Rather, working class values, and particularly farm life, became the center of an ideological struggle; pre-extant discourses about pastoral Edens allowed for the construction of the American Midwest as an innocent, wholesome heartland, as of yet untainted but constantly besieged by the threat of urban, Eastern greed, industrialization, and sin.  The Superman of 1938 Action Comics thus served as a moral arbiter, socialized in the populist farmland of Kansas, to remind cynical city dwellers that the American nation ought to be defined by the idealistic good sense of the working class.

Screen versions of Superman remained similarly responsive to contemporary political concerns.  In the 1960s and 70s several television and film versions of Superman premiered in a Cold War context which linked Superman’s fight to preserve and protect “the American Way” to rhetoric surrounding the United States’ struggle against the USSR and the global spread of Communism.[1]  Superman’s original economic radicalism had to realign itself to a new political climate in which populism likely sounded dangerously close to socialism.  In 1978 it was therefore not the economic tyranny of billionaire villain Lex Luthor which represented a threat to social order in the first of four Superman films starring Christopher Reeve.[2]  Rather, his megalomaniacal desire to conquer the world may instead have struck a chord of recognition with a public daily reminded that Russians in particular and Communists in general had similar sweeping global domination in mind.  Luthor’s release of two missiles targeted to explode on American soil at the film’s climax mirrored American anxieties about Russia’s constantly looming nuclear threat, perhaps specifically evoking memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  Superman’s clean-cut, old-fashioned Midwestern charm no longer represented the class interests of working Americans, but rather his characteristic innocence and goodness were mobilized as representative of all Americans.  As his heroic adventures safeguarded the urban engines of the American economy, Superman came to symbolically defend a way of life inextricably tied to capitalism.

When Superman returned to television in 2001, writers and producers again carefully combined Siegel and Shuster’s original vision with modern political imperatives.  Although the show premiered on October 16 of 2001, Smallville, a series devoted solely to Clark Kent’s adolescence in Smallville, Kansas, before the full development of his superhuman powers, had been written and developed before the September 11th terrorist attacks.  Before September 11th, 2001, Smallville writers drew upon a political climate characterized by uncertainty as the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union left few direct threats while the Oklahoma City bombing provided evidence of domestic danger and unrest.  As the economic boom of the 1990s waned the United States also faced an uncertain fiscal future, especially once the dot com stock market bust crushed investors’ cyberdreams.

Thus, as opposed to the Superman of the past who fought against a series of arch-evil villains whose corporate greed and megalomaniacal plans for world domination mirrored the demonized corporate trusts of the 20s and the red scare of later years, the Clark Kent of Smallville found himself protecting the good, honest people of his farm community from each other.  There are few clear cut villains in Smallville and “evil” rarely appears where it can be expected; traditionally a villain, Lex Luthor becomes Clark’s best friend in the series and often attempts to protect the Kent family and their struggling farm from financial ruin.  Rather, the program’s main antagonists are the meteors which came to Earth with Clark, scattering all throughout Smallville when his home-planet exploded.  Exposure to the rocks (known in most versions of Superman mythology simply as Kryptonite) remains Clark’s only fatal flaw while exposure for human beings under certain circumstances creates mutations which grotesquely amplify preexisting “deviances.”  Thus on Smallville Clark battles a series of meteor-mutated neighbors and the symbolic hyper-presence of fairly commonplace human foibles.  Clark’s inability to reproduce the usual maxim when asked what he stands for in a first season episode entitled
“Drone,” instead tentatively citing “truth, justice, and other stuff,”[3] highlights a general sense of confusion about his place in this ambiguous world and a larger cultural inability to collectively define the American Way.  In an era without obvious enemies, when domestic terrorism and internal threats weighed heavily in public memory, Smallville placed Clark Kent, a boy just beginning to discover his powers and destiny as America ’s avatar, in an uncertain world wherein everyone presented a potential danger.

After the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York City’s World Trade Center, Smallville’s premise gained new meaning.  Although a product of the era before the attacks, Smallville’s symbolism and mythology fit perfectly within new discourses produced by American politicians and news media in the following months.  Thus, both connections with the circumstances of early 2001 and accidental similarity to the political climate of late 2001 fuelled Smallville’s incredible financial and critical success.  Echoing post-9-11 anxieties regarding the security of American borders, the meteor rocks on Smallville exert a hidden, destructive alien influence on the local population after insinuating themselves into the very soil that makes the Midwest an ideal farming region.  Post-9-11 political rhetoric simultaneously reinforces the constant danger posed by hidden enemies and potentially deceitful allies, emphasizing uncertainty over which countries and which citizens of the United States may become threatening, while also establishing new measures and standards for judging who ought to be considered “with us” or “against us.”   The FBI, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security have used the sweeping latitude given to them by the Bush administration via the Patriot Act to investigate the private lives of U.S. citizens in an effort to redraw clear lines between ordinary people and evildoers; as the political climate created by the Patriot Act and the White House council’s tacit approval of torture as an interrogation technique suggest that the threat of future terrorist attacks may excuse departures from the usual rule of law and protection of civil liberties, small deviances have become enough to make one immediately suspect.

In the similarly confusing town of Smallville, meteor mutants’ grotesque deviances from social norms make even slightly deviant behavior questionable, emphasizing the importance of rigid adherence to “traditional” morality.  Particularly in Smallville’s first season, an average episode revealed a usually adolescent community member’s violation of social norms and hierarchies.  As the episode progressed the violation’s scope and intensity magnified until manifesting itself as an inhuman power, the hyper-presence of a fairly banal and common condition.  Clark intervened to protect “normal” citizens once the hyper-magnified deviance presented a clear danger by fighting, capturing, and punishing the mutant, then containing or eliminating the threat he or she posed.  Mutations have included an overweight girl who ate only smoothies laced with dust from the meteor rocks which caused her to lose weight at such a rapid rate that she had to kill and eat the people around her to sustain herself;[4] a promiscuous football player who came into contact with the rocks and as a result required close body contact to stay warm, which froze his victims to death;[5] a woman who had premarital sex while the meteors came to Earth whose pheromones were then amplified to the point that she could use them to control men;[6] a boy too introverted to stand up for himself who temporarily stole Clark’s powers, using them to revenge perceived slights upon all the people who belittled him and took him for granted;[7] an unpopular girl, previously stung by meteor-laced bees, who wanted to be class president and used her control over the meteor-enhanced beehive to eliminate her competition;[8] a reclusive bug enthusiast who was bitten by his own meteor-laced bugs and then slowly became a bug himself;[9] and a scholastic over-achiever who doubled his study time by splitting himself into two.[10]  In each case the mutant in question deviated from both community standards as well as the law, and therefore their punishments reflect a repudiation of both the legal and moral infractions.  In Smallville, normal is a state to be devoutly desired as Clark repeatedly complains that he wants a “normal life” and his adoptive father nostalgically recalls the town’s bucolic past, stating, “It was the day of the meteor shower when I realized that nothing was going to be normal around here again.”[11]  As noted by Michael Warner in his book The Trouble With Normal, on Smallville normal is a proscriptive moral imperative rather than a statistical description of a social average.[12]  Abnormality isn’t just unusual in Smallville, it’s evil.

As in previous Superman mythologies, Smallville draws upon middle-America’s wholesome cultural cache to substantiate the unquestionable virtue of Clark Kent’s moral upbringing and education.  Tom Welling, who plays Clark Kent on Smallville, had modeling rather than acting experience, thus his appearance likely became a deciding factor in his casting.  Welling’s broad and sturdy frame, smooth rather than body-builder defined musculature, and peaches and cream complexion tell their own story about a body bred in the mythological wholesomeness of a Midwestern farm.  Ever responsive to the changing times, the Kent’s Smallville farm cultivates only pesticide-free, organic produce and livestock, thus Clark himself, like the fictional Heidi whose feeble body was restored to health by Swiss Alp rural life,[13] takes on meanings associated with the foods raised around him.  His is an organic body and as a model rather than an actor, Welling’s presence always precedes his actions; what he is, literally bred from goodness and purity, defines what he does.  Thus the climax of later seasons repeatedly dramatize Clark’s repudiation of his birth father’s alien influence, and his supposed genetic destiny to rule Earth, by reaffirming that his adoptive Earth parents’ love and heartland values define him as a person and guide his moral decisions.  Smallville’s annual struggles between American virtue and a foreign destructive will to power cyclically redefine Clark Kent as the quintessential essence of American goodness.

Most of the characteristics which define Clark as good thus have little direct political meaning, and rather more to do with the basic clean/dirty binary (organic/chemical, innocent/degenerate, pure/tainted).  However, once Smallville symbolically established Clark’s inherent, inalienable integrity, those meanings could then be mobilized to make political arguments about the nation through Clark’s, and thus America’s, decisions regarding who constitutes a danger to the community, and who deserves to be saved from danger.  Thomas Frank’s political analysis in
his book What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America bears perhaps surprising relevance to understanding Smallville’s fictional Kansas community.[14]  As the label “heartland” deeply reveals the Midwest’s importance in defining the symbolic “heart” of the nation, Frank reports that Kansas represents American normality both in common citizens’ imaginations and for market research companies who depend on Kansas as a product testing ground with the understanding that as goes Kansas, so goes the nation.  Thus, Frank’s concern with political machinations in Kansas extends to a more general concern about the future of the country.  Frank argues that the modern Republican Party and the Bush administration have inverted turn of the century agrarian populism by calling upon the Midwestern cultural cache of honesty, innocence, and “traditional” values to fuel culture wars regarding “moral” issues.  This “values” agenda and the massive battles which ensue, according to Frank, divert public attention from the party’s economic agenda which favors deregulation, privatization, and lower taxes for wealthier people; in short, Frank characterizes the party’s economic plan as disastrous for the lives of working people in the region because it advances goals diametrically opposed to those forwarded by early populism.

Thus, in addition to a general post-9-11 suspicion toward any minor deviation from social norms, Frank contextualizes current moral panic directed toward gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia as a concerted effort by politicians to define “American Values” through these issues rather than, for example, through civil liberties, legal checks and balances, or economic safety nets.  Smallville implicitly echoes the language of “values issues” in constructing meteor mutants’ deviances from social hierarchies and norms, particularly those to do with gender and sexuality, as grotesquely monstrous and evil.  In more explicit echoes, the villain in an episode entitled “Reaper” gained the ability to kill with a touch to end the suffering of terminally ill patients, starting with his own cancer ridden mother,[15] and in “Unsafe,” after a meteor related mishap led a drugged Clark to elope in Las Vegas, then quickly annul his marriage, his adoptive mother scolded him saying “I’m upset, but more than that I’m disappointed…  Marriage is sacred, Clark . . . I thought we had taught you that.”[16]  The slogan “marriage is sacred” comes directly from movements opposing gay marriage, thus in a move highly favored by Smallville writers, homosexuality may be reputed without ever directly appearing.

In an allusion to Michel Foucault’s influential adage on the meaning of silence, “we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things,”[17] in her commentary on heteronormativity and the implicit social assumption of that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise, Eve Sedgewick explored deliberate ways of not knowing such things when she wrote, “ignorance is ignorance of a knowledge.”[18]  Smallville’s writers and producers have become masters of not knowing such things, developing a pattern of ignoring, denying, and repressing queer subtext.  Publicity photos for the show’s first season depict Clark, clear blue eyes staring grimly off into the distance, naked to the waist with an “S” spray painted on his chest, arms tightly bound to a wooden cross, surrounded by rows of corn, and left defenseless by the green meteor pendant around his neck.  In their DVD commentary creators, writers, and producers Miles Millar and Al Gough along with director David Nutter describe the iconic image as an effort to show Superman “stripped down to the basics.”[19]  The image comes from Smallville’s pilot episode[20] wherein Clark, a freshman, falls prey to the high school football team’s fall ritual sacrifice; each year the football players choose one freshman boy to strip, adorn with a red “S” for Smallville, and crucify in one of the many surrounding corn fields, in mythological exchange for a victorious sports season.  Jeremy Creek, the episode’s villain, spent twelve years in a vegetative state due to close contact with the green meteor rocks when the 1989 “scarecrow ritual” left him completely exposed to the meteor shower that brought Clark to earth.  Over the course of the episode Jeremy regains consciousness, acquiring a mutation which allows him to absorb electricity through the medical equipment that maintained his life, and to release it in controlled bursts, and hunts down the football players who assaulted him in high school.  After falling prey to the same ritual through the weakening effects of a meteor rock necklace worn by Lana Lang, the football captain’s girlfriend, Clark then saves his own tormenters by incapacitating Jeremy.

In their enthusiasm for the crucifixion scene’s return to “basics” Miller, Gogh, and Nutter fail to acknowledge events which give the image such powerful resonance.  The immediate reference to Christ’s crucifixion connects the scene to discourses on righteous suffering, noble sacrifice, and resurrection.  However, given that when the pilot aired it had been only three years, nearly to the day, that another rural American boy had been beaten, tied to a fence in a remote field, and left for dead, the scarecrow ritual bears unmistakable similarity to the murder of Matthew Shepard.  Widely discussed as the basis for campaigns to create hate crime legislation, Matthew Shepard’s October 6th, 1998 kidnapping, torture, and murder followed his admission of homosexuality in a Wyoming bar.[21]  Described by his father as “small for his age – weighing, at the most, 110 pounds,”[22] actor Adrian McMorran’s character Jeremy Creek bears strong physical resemblance to Shepard and the social meanings concerning which boys are likely to be victimized by football players in high school suggests that the hierarchies of masculinity involved in Smallville’s crucifixion scenes mimic gay bashing.

The Pilot episode’s use of a metaphorical bashing victim as a villain requires that Clark, in thwarting Jeremy’s vengeance, lend validity and approval to Smallville’s ritual metaphorical homophobia.  As a victim himself, Clark’s refusal to seek any kind of legal redress for his or Jeremy’s assault signals his disidentification from the role of victim, and his overall intention to support and reinforce the social order of the culture which produces the annual attack.  In the program’s fourth season Clark joins the football team and enjoys the increased status and privilege that position produces.  Even after Clark becomes a football player, the scarecrow never reappears on screen, and Clark never stops future generations of football players from performing the ritual, which by implication continues uninterrupted.  Just as television characters rarely appear to sleep, eat full meals, or use the bathroom, the possibility certainly remains open that Clark could have rescued the second, third, and fourth season crucifixion victim off-screen, but lack of reference to the ritual speaks loudly for Smallville’s residents’, and writing staff’s, abilit
y to learn how to no longer speak or know such things after the Pilot’s resolution.  Harkening back well before the meteor shower to times when “things were normal,” Smallville High’s symbolic queer bashing thus receives approval by association with the wholesome Midwest and by it’s immunity from Clark’s punishment; like hard work, honesty, and integrity, Smallville thereby constructs homophobia as a traditional American value.

However, at least one character arc much more directly eliminated the perceived threat of homosexuality.  When Tina Greer, the first mutant to appear in two separate episodes, premiered in the first season she was obsessed with the program’s central “popular girl,” cheerleader Lana Lang.[23]  Pretty, well liked, and the captain of the football team’s girlfriend, Lana left crowds of infatuated admirers everywhere she went, including Clark Kent.  Tina attempted to win Lana’s friendship, dress like Lana, act like Lana, and even move in with Lana’s family; in effect Tina wanted to become Lana.  Unfortunately for Tina, in every high school social hierarchy there can be only one Homecoming Queen, and on Smallville Lana Lang filled that role.  Tina’s attempts at impersonation not only constantly fell comically short, but her discontent eventually became a threat to the stability of the social order; morally, therefore, Tina had to be punished for trying to become the popular prom queen when her character’s insecurity and inadequate looks clearly suggested she ought to be a misfit and a geek.  “Ugly” girls who want to become pretty often serve as villains on Smallville as in a first season mutant whose meteor-laced diet shakes led to cannibalism[24] and a fourth season girl whose meteor-laced plastic surgery drained the life of anyone her newfound good looks attracted.[25]  Tina’s desire to become someone else manifested itself as the ability to shape-shift and take on the appearance of any other person, in addition to an inhuman strength.  After a failed attempt to kill Lana and take her place permanently, Clark caught Tina and she was taken into custody at a mental institution.

Apparently some unresolved threat lingered after her first appearance because in the second season, Tina returned.  After spending a year at the asylum Tina apparently realized that, as in the psychoanalytic edict, the desire to be and the desire to have are similar and easy to confuse.  Coming to the realization that she didn’t really want to be Lana Lang and steal her identity, in an episode called “Visage,” Tina set out to have Lana Lang and steal her away from her boyfriend.[26]  At the end of the first season Lana’s boyfriend Whitney joined the marines and left the country to fight in Indonesia, where reports classified him as missing in action.  “Visage” aired on January 14th, 2003, over a year after the September 11th attacks and the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan, as well as during rising anxiety regarding war in Iraq.  “Indonesia” could easily serve as a metaphorical substitution for any number of locations around the world where American troops had been or could have soon been deployed.  Lana, the most desired female character on the program and thereby the symbol of ideal virginal womanhood, in close running with Lex Luthor not only for best alliterative name but also for the position of Smallville citizen most frequently in danger, had therefore been left alone and undefended.  At the opening of “Visage” Tina escaped from the mental institution, killed the marine bringing word that Whitney’s body had found, and assumed Whitney’s persona.  In a sequence which could easily serve as a recruitment commercial for the Marines, Tina, as Whitney, triumphantly marched down the Smallville high school halls to reunite with Lana Lang.

Tina’s abilities and the war in “Indonesia” present clear parallels with post-9-11 fears regarding the possibility of an enemy capable of penetrating American borders, infiltrating the country, undetected.  Paranoia regarding the ability of terrorists from abroad to slip through existing defenses has been rampant since the World Trade Center attacks.  Further, Lana and the real Whitney formed a classic ideal American couple, the Homecoming queen and the captain of the football team.  In her work on “right to life” discourses Lauren Berlant discusses the movement’s use of a rhetorical technique she labels “futurity.”[27]  Berlant writes that anti-abortion activists frame fetal development as a natural progression that inevitably produces a healthy baby, thus casting themselves in a position of detached inaction.  Discourses of futurity construct intervention as a tragic interruption in the normal flow of progress.  More broadly, Berlant suggests that the logic of futurity leads toward a politics which discourages dealing with present problems, instead preferring to trust that problems will just spontaneously go away if everyone allows the future to naturally unfold without intervention, an argument, in other words, for deregulation and private citizens’ political detachment.  As the best, brightest, and prettiest youth that Smallville High had to offer, Lana and Whitney’s potential union, and the children they may have produced, symbolized a kind of futurity for America. 

Lana and Whitney’s possible literal reproduction implied a cultural reproduction of the social hierarchy they dominated and the nuclear family structure they would have inhabited.  Political rhetoric common after the 9-11 attacks often attempted to link terrorism to a desire for the complete destruction of the American way of life, the destruction of America itself and America’s future.  In the language of Purity and Danger author Mary Douglas,[28] by taking Whitney’s place Tina’s lesbianism threatened to pollute Lana Lang, thereby perverting and diverting the futurity that Lana and Whitney represented. Once again, Tina’s attempts to overstep her place resulted in severe infractions against Smallville’s moral code.  Especially in an era of heightened patriotism, she was not worthy of the culturally sacred war hero persona she adopted, nor of Lana Lang, who, in the literary and historical tradition of men who marry upon their return from combat, should have been Whitney’s reward for service to the state.  The metaphorical future of the nation was at stake in “Visage’s” social upheaval and to protect America’s futurity Clark neutralized Tina once and for all.  In the final battle of the episode Tina adopted Clark’s body, but her unnatural ability to become a man and her implicitly unnatural desire to take on a male role were ultimately punished by death.  Not only does the episode conflate gender orientation with object choice, but it can hardly be considered accidental that Clark inadvertently killed the program’s only acknowledged, canonically lesbian character by impalement.

Yet, despite Smallville’s history of suppressing, denying, and eradicating queer subtext, those themes most strenuously repressed often have a way of returning at unexpected moments and in unexpected forms.  Television Without Pity’s (TWoP hereafter)[29] internet forums host scathing weekly critiques of a nu
mber of popular television programs and a series of discussion boards where anyone can post reactions to TWoP’s critiques or to the television show in general.  TWoP gained enough notoriety to merit an article in the New York Times when it became apparent that television writers and producers had been reading the comments of TWoP critics and discussion board contributors.[30]  In some instances the name of the TWoP reviewer became a character on the television program that he or she reviewed.  In others, characters began to carry bags or coffee mugs with the TWoP logo, and writers and producers reported made plot changes and decisions as a direct result of TWoP commentary. Suggestions of Smallville TWoP reviewer Omar Gallaga (known as Omar G) may indeed have had similar impact on later seasons of Smallville, however, most of his commentary has little chance of official incorporation.  Perhaps most famous among fans for popularization of the term “Ho-Yay” or “Homosexuality, Yay!”, Gallaga’s weekly recaps reveled in the homoerotic subtext created by the first season of Smallville’s focus on Clark Kent and Lex Luthor’s budding, but always rocky, friendship.  Like many literary theorists who explore the potentially homoerotic underpinnings of homosocial male bonding, Gallaga ruthlessly brought to light all those looks of longing, casual touches, and furtive glances which gave Clark and Lex’s screen relationship its undeniable emotional charge.[31]  Each week Gallaga selects one scene as “The Gayest Look of the Episode” and in one review commented, “If this show were any gayer, it would be about an interior design firm in San Francisco.”[32]  Although certainly not all fans of Smallville or even all readers of Gallaga’s column believe that Clark and Lex’s true love will overcome previous Superman representations’ tendency to set the characters at odds, the premise does have a significant number of very vocal and devoted supporters.

Given the program’s hyper-heteronormativity, it is perhaps unsurprising that fans’ attachment to homoerotic subtext has not exactly been met with shouts of glee by the show’s creators, Al Gough and Miles Millar.  When asked about subtext between Clark and Lex in an interview by Gallaga for a special TWoP extra column, Gough replied, “Lex is obviously older than Clark and lives by himself in this castle. It is genuine friendship. It’s not supposed to be gay. It has taken on a life of its own.”[33]  Even overlooking the implication that homosexual relationships can’t also be genuine friendships, as in his DVD commentary during Clark’s crucifixion scene Gough once again ignores the show’s queer subtext despite what Gallaga, TWoP message board commentators, and at times even the program’s actors label overwhelming evidence[34].

However, Gough’s denials and silences may be a deliberate ignorance, targeted only toward avoidance of public acknowledgement.  The WB network, which hosts Smallville, thrives on a family-friendly, teen and pre-teen oriented image.[35]  Perhaps in an effort to structure and thus control, limit, and define its own fan base, the WB invited fans to join its “street team,” creating an unprecedented web of fan forums and activities aimed toward facilitating interactions with fans.  By publishing fan letters on the official WB site, the corporation attempted to model proper fan behavior directed toward Clark’s heterosexual love interests.  In her book The Anatomy of National Fantasy Lauren Berlant describes the incredible power given to those who control what can be said in public.  Particularly with regard to public speech about the country, Berlant defines a “National Symbolic” as a set of commonly known symbols and icons which can be called upon to represent the nation.[36]  For decades Superman has been a potent, well-known, recognizable symbol of American virtue, licensed for use by comic book artists, musicians, and film and television producers to substantiate claims regarding the good of the country.  Yet Superman’s very omnipresence and familiarity also mean that his cultural force remains vulnerable to appropriation by fans and lay critics whose public discussion and amateur art forms may use Superman symbolism to construct radically different counter-claims about the nation and national identity.  Recuperating Superman’s ideological power to define what constitutes American citizenship, unauthorized mobilizations of Superman mythology like Gallaga’s TWoP recaps can redefine sexuality and gender to suggest that defense of queer citizens and pleasures is not only worth saving, but central to the characterization of a benevolent nation.

As opposed to the largely female fans of chemistry between Smallville’s Clark and Lex, who often draw upon the pair to imagine gender-neutral or gender-transcendent, and thus potentially more equitable, erotic and romantic relationships,[37] Superman also has a long-standing gay male following.  Alternately parodied and revered on television series Queer as Folk,[38] Superman presents a prototypical case for why superheroes’ lives share important parallels with gay culture.  His personality rigidly bifurcated between an ordinary public face and a secret identity kept hidden at any cost, Superman’s penchant for changing clothes in small enclosed spaces (phone booths, closets) as he changes personas may metaphorically resemble the closeting of gay identity.  As a result of such imagery, combined with superheroes’ tendency toward well developed physiques and skin-tight clothing, comic books presented an opportunity for some young men’s early identification of their gay identity.

However, more profoundly, knowledge of queer subtext, whether in classic Superman comics or in the angst-ridden undertones of Lex’s longing gaze on Smallville, situates some readers as a specialty in-group with unique counter-knowledge.  In his book Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner discusses the critical importance of shared interpretive frames and public spaces for the discussion and enactment of sexual identity.[39]  Like the gay male public sexual cultures Warner describes, fan artistic and analytic discourses help shape unique sites for alternative, amateur meaning production, what Warner labels a “world-making project.”[40]  Just as communal in-group knowledge of Superman comics’ closeting metaphors facilitated the articulation of a shared identity for generations of gay men, so too does the rebirth of Smallville’s repressed queer subtext allow the recognition of likeminded fellow viewers and the articulation of a counter-representational aesthetic which privileges polymorphous play with identity and identification rather than rote heteronormativity.  While the TWoP forum became conspicuous after the New York Times publicized its power in the industry, fans meet in numerous more or less discreet forums, e-mail lists, and websites.  Although constantly besieged by legal and corporate attempts to recuperate and normalize viewership patterns, fan discursive networks always exceed the boundaries of direct corporate control; dissolving and reforming further underground
when detected, fan communities and systems of circulation remain notoriously impossible to eradicate, always one step beyond producers’ reach, and consistently committed to speaking, knowing, and imagining hidden meanings suppressed by national public culture.

Superman’s super-human ability to resonate with over 70 years of popular audiences results partly from producers’ negotiation between creators Siegel and Shuster’s original vision and the political contingencies of a given era.  Whether as a populist representative of the working class, capitalist crusader for democracy, or confused teen absorbed by hidden internal threats, in his numerous appearances Superman saves “average citizens,” thus participating in the public reinvention of American identity and the “American Way.”  As a widely recognized symbol of American virtue, Superman imagery supports claims made by both professionals and amateurs in competing attempts to define the good of the nation.  Although vehemently suppressed and denied by Smallville’s narrative structure, rogue queer counter-knowledges regarding Superman mythology continue to proliferate and circulate far beyond professionals’ intentions, interpolating and calling into being communities based on shared interpretive frames.  As Kansas lends the fictional town of Smallville its power to define American’s imagination of a national “normal,” like all stories about superheroes, the fate of the country hangs in the balance, while this potent weapon remains at the center of one among many sites in producers’ and consumers’ ongoing struggle for cultural dominance.


[1] Bellem, Robert; Ellsworth, Whitney; Schiller, Wilton. Superman. Dir. George; Gerstad Blair, Harry; Landers, Lew, 1973. Ed. Warner Brothers.

[2] Benton, Robert; Newman, David; Newman, Leslie; and Puzo, Mario. Superman. Dir. Richard Donner: Warner Brothers, 1978. Ed. Alexander Salkind Dovemead Films, Film Export A.G., and International Film Production. Newman, David; Newman, Leslie; Puzo, Mario. Superman II. Dir. Richard Lester: Warner Brothers, 1980. Ed. Warner Brothers and Dovemead Films. Newman, David and Newman, Leslie. Superman III. Dir. Richard Lester: Warner Brothers, 1983. Ed. Warner Brothers and Dovemead Films. Konner, Lawrence; Rosenthal, Mark; and Reeve, Christopher. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  Dir. Sidney Furie: Warner Brothers, RCA/Columbia, 1987. Ed. Golan-Globus Warner Brothers, and Cannon Films.

[3] Green, Michael and Levens, Philip. “Drone, 1-18.” Smallville. Dir. Michael Katleman: The WB Television Network, April 30, 2002. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[4] Green, Michael. “Craving, 1-7.” Smallville. Dir. Phil Sgriccia: The WB Television Network, November 27, 2001. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[5] Green, Michael. “Cool, 1-5.” Smallville. Dir. James Contner: The WB Television Network, November 13, 2001. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[6] Verheiden, Mark. “Heat, 2-2.” Smallville. Dir. James Marshall: The WB Television Network, October 1, 2002. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[7] Schlattmann, Tim. “Leech, 1-12.” Smallville. Dir. Greg Beeman: The WB Television Network, February 12, 2002. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[8] Green, Michael and Levens, Philip. “Drone, 1-18.” Smallville. Dir. Michael Katleman: The WB Television Network, April 30, 2002. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[9] Gough, Al and Millar, Miles. “Metamorphosis, 1-2.” Smallville. Dir. David Nutter: The WB Television Network, October 23, 2001. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[10] Verheiden, Mark. “Dichotic, 2-9.” Smallville. Dir. Craig Zisk: The WB Television Network, November 19, 2002. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[11] Gough, Al and Millar, Miles. “Pilot, 1-1.” Smallville. Dir. David Nutter: The WB Television Network, October 16, 2001. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[12] Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethnics of Queer Life. New York: The Free Press, 1999.

[13] Spyri, Johanna. Heidi. 1880. Trans. Helen B. Dole. New York: Grosset, 1945.

[14] Frank, Thomas. What’s the Matter with Kansas? : How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

[15] Litvack, Cameron. “Reaper, 1-17.” Smallville. Dir. Terrence O’Hara: The WB Television Network, April 23, 2002. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[16] DeKnight, Steven, and Loeb, Jeph. “Unsafe, 4-11.” Smallville. Dir. Greg Beeman: The WB Television Network, January 26, 2005. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[17] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Random House, 1976.  27.

[18] Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.  8.

[19] Miller, Miles; Gough, Al; and Nutter, David. “Pilot DVD Commentary,” Smallville Season 1 DVD Collection. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2003.

[20] Gough, Al and Millar, Miles. “Pilot, 1-1.” Smallville. Dir. David Nutter: The WB Television Network, October 16, 2001. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[21] Rerucha, Cal, Prosecuting Attorney. Criminal Charges Filed against Aaron Mckinney, Russell Henderson, Kristen Price, and Chasity Pasley.  October 12, 1998. The Smoking Gun Archive. Available: 2005.

[22] Shepard, Dennis. Dennis Shepard’s Statement to the Court.  November 4, 1999. Matthew Shepard Online Resources, Available: 2005.

[23] Verheiden, Mark. “X-Ray, 1-4.” Smallville. Dir. James Frawley: The WB Television Network, November 6, 2001. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[24] Green, Michael. “Craving, 1-7.” Smallville. Dir. Phil Sgriccia: The WB Television Network, November 27, 2001. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[25] Harold, Holly. “Facade, 4-3.” Smallville. Dir. David Carson: The WB Television Network, October 6, 2004. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[26] Slavkin, Todd and Swimmer, Darren. “Visage, 2-11.” Smallville. Dir. Bill Gereghty: The WB Television Network, January 14, 2003. Ed. Smallville Films Warner Brothers, and Tollin/Robbins Productions.

[27] Berlant, Lauren. “America, ‘Fat,’ the Fetus,” The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.  83-144.

[28] Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 1966.

[29] Ariano, Tara; Bunting, Sarah; and Cole, David. Television Without Pity.  1999-2005. Uber Interactive and Early Girl. Available: 2005.

[30] Sella, Marshall. “The Remote Controllers.” Magazine Desk. The New York Times October 20, 2002, Sunday October 20, 2002, Late Edition – Final ed., sec. 6: 68.

[31] Fielder, Leslie. “Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck Honey.” Partisan Review.June (1948). Lamb, Patricia Frazer and Vieth, Dianna L. “Romantic Myth, Trancendence, and Star Trek Zines.”  Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature. Ed. Donald Palumbo. New York: Greenwood, 1986. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

[32] Gallaga, Omar. Omar on Recapping Smallville the TWoP Way.  June 18, 2002. TWoP. Available: 3553&page=7&sort=stype&limit=all. 2005.

[33] Gallaga, Omar. The Al Gough Interview.  May 6, 2002. TWoP. Available: =3347&page=6&sort=stype&limit=all. 2005.

[34] Hedegaard cites Smallville actor Michael Rosenbaum’s play with homoerotic subtext. Hedegaard, Erik. “Tall Tales from Smallville.” Rolling Stone March 28, 2002: 42-46, 80.

[35] In the 2001-2002 television cycle the Parents Television Council voted Smallville one of the most family friendly television programs available. Bauder, David. “Parents Group Rates ‘Doc’ Most Family-Friendly TV Show, ‘Buffy’ Least Family-Friendly.” The Associated Press August 21, 2002, sec. Entertainment News.

[36] Berlant, Lauren. The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

[37] For more on slash, female fans’ artistic and analytic discourses on non-canon erotic and romantic relationships between same-sexed professionally published characters, see: Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Jenkins, Henry. “ ‘Welcome to Besixuality, Captain Kirk’: Slash and the Fan Writing Community,” Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Ro
utledge, 1992.  185-223. Kustritz, Anne. “Slashing the Romance Narrative.” The Journal of American Culture 6.23 (September 2003): 371-84. Lamb, Patricia Frazer and Vieth, Dianna L. “Romantic Myth, Trancendence, and Star Trek Zines.”  Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature. Ed. Donald Palumbo. New York: Greenwood, 1986. Penley, Constance. “Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology.”  Technoculture. Ed. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross. Vol. 3. Cultural Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. 135-62. Penley, Constance. “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Popular Culture.”  Cultural Studies. Ed. Grossberg et all. New York: Routledge, 1992. 479-500.Russ, JoAnna. “Pornography by Women for Women, with Love.”  Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1985. 79-99.

[38] Davies, Russell. Queer as Folk (USA). Showtime Networks, Showcase Television, and Warner Television, December 2000-. SJ2 Entertainment Cowlip Productions, Tony Jonas Productions, QAF III Productions, Showtime Networks, and Dufferin Gate Productions.

[39] Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York and Cambridge: Zone Books and MIT Press, 2002.  21-124, 187-208.

[40] Ibid., 198.

Author Biography

Anne Kustritz has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and cultural studies from the University of Minnesota , and is currently pursuing a PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan .  Her research focuses fan appropriation of mass media texts using methods and theory from anthropology, post-structuralism, and feminism.
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