Transgender Identity and Superman’s Pal
Rumor has it that in the upcoming Man of Steel picture, Superman’s lovable ginger bro won’t be a bro anymore. Although no formal announcement has been made, all signs point to Olsen’s character swapping genders. That’s right: no more Jimmy Olsen. From now on, it’s Jenny Olsen.
As to whether this is a good thing or not, an ever-concerned and engaged comic book community appears to be split right down the middle. On its face, I think it’s great that comic book entertainment is making an effort to include female characters other than damsels in distress and femme fatales. Female characters who are, you know, just people who are part of the story.
But more interesting is the bizarre and sexually ambiguous history of the Jimmy Olsen character itself. True, the character’s upcoming sex change may seem somewhat random and abrupt to most observers. But you’ll be intrigued to know that, in fact, identity experimentation, and specifically transvestism, is a well-grounded, but recently forgotten, feature of Jimmy Olsen’s characterization.
In classic 1950s Superman comics, the otherwise mediocre young man at some point acquired the ability to shape-shift. He’d cycle through various physical configurations, all the while struggling to “find” himself.
But truthfully, Jimmy Olsen’s favorite thing to be wasn’t an alien or a monster or a mutant.
It was a girl.
As noted comics writer and historian Grant Morrison puts it,
Jimmy Olsen could barely stand to be himself for more than five pages…Prefiguring David Bowie and Madonna, his life became a shifting parade of costume changes and reinventions of identity. And long before those two performers were challenging the boundaries of masculine and feminine, Olsen was deconstructing the macho stereotype in a sequence of soft-core gender-bending adventures for children that beggar belief when read today.
As Morrison suggests further, Jimmy’s overt experimentation with his sexual identity may be connected with a more obscure movement in the 1950s: transvestite erotic fiction.
According to the late Dr. Robert J. Stoller, psychoanalytic theorist at UCLA’s Gender Identity Clinic:
"[I]n all samples of this genre of transvestite pornography the fundamentals are the same: the heterosexual young man, unquestionably totally male, innocent, is captured by females who do so not by physical power but by the mysterious power inherent in femaleness and femininity. Humiliated, he is forced by them into women’s clothes…with the women’s help, the man’s humiliation is changed to a pleasurable non-erotic state, when the women openly accept him as a man, a male who has remained a man and a male but who looks pretty and graceful in women’s clothes.”
Indeed, to an interesting degree, Jimmy’s transvestism tracks this paradigmatic fantasy. Over and over, Jimmy is confronted by his own effete helplessness opposite Superman, the supreme masculine archetype. To cope, he finds one implausible excuse after another to put on a dress and makeup. Inexplicably, transvestitism was the recurring solution to the various challenges he faced. It’s simply his fascinating, perverse way of coexisting alongside Superman’s overwhelming machismo. And each time, as some of these examples show, Jimmy’s embracement of his female alter-ego was nothing if not vastly empowering.
While this all no doubt sounds far-fetched, consider for a moment that back in “the day,” often some of the same seedy characters involved in publishing comics were also involved in publishing pornography and erotic fiction. This was a natural, albeit disconcerting alliance, since back then both genres were marginalized, dingy sectors of the underground publishing community. Back then, it wasn’t the booming industry it is now. It was a relatively small group of weirdos.
Superman co-creator Joe Shuster himself was at one point employed by bondage illustrator Eric Stanton. Maybe that’s surprising. Then again, maybe it’s not surprising at all. Take a look at this Pinterest board to get an idea of how vibrant and ridiculous queer pulp fiction used to be. Comic-booky, to say the least.
Of comics, Grant Morrison says it plainly: “Clearly these stories were written by perverts with an intent to pervert the young. They were entirely successful.”
So when you hear people talking about stupid it is that they made Jimmy Olsen a girl in the new Superman movie, now you’ll know the truth. They didn’t change anything.
He’s always been a girl.