Book Smugglers Publishing Quarterly Almanac The Novella Initiative

Girl Reporter: Tansy Rayner Roberts on Inspirations and Influences

“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.

Tomorrow, we publish the last novella of 2017 in our ongoing initiative–this time, a superhero-laden tale about a girl reporter, the legacy of her mother, and saving the world. So, today, we are delighted to have the one and only Tansy Rayner Roberts as our guest to talk about her inspirations and influences behind the novella. (Girl Reporter is set in the same world as Cookie Cutter Superhero (available in our Quarterly Almanac and Kid Dark Against the Machine, but can be read as a standalone novella.)

Give it up for Tansy, folks!

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Tina Valentina is not Lois Lane

Clark Kent: Uh, Lois, could you hand me a nail file?

Lois Lane: Why do men always assume that women have nail files with them?

Clark Kent: I’m sorry, but do you have a nail file?

Lois Lane: Actually, I do, but only because it’s part of my pocket knife.

(Lois & Clark, 1993-1997)

This story is not about Lois Lane.

For as long as there have been superhero stories, there have been reporters running around, trying to make the headlines and break the secret identities of these mysterious god-like figures in spandex.

Many of those reporters, journalists and broadcasters have been women, though they get referred to as girls long after reaching the age of womanhood—the media is a patronising industry.

Lois Lane and her endless quest to expose, date and win a Pulitzer for writing about Superman, not necessarily in that order, has a long history as the original Girl Reporter In Superhero Story, but she’s far from the only example.

Vicki Vale, Iris West-Allen, Linda Park, Tana Moon, April O’Neill, Trish Tilby, Cat Grant, Chloe Sullivan, Jessica Jones, Trish Walker, Karen Page, Roxanne Ritchi…

Many of these women are also romantically involved in some way with the superheroes (and often the villains too) that they report on—in a tangled web of dating, pining, requited vs. unrequited love, and even occasionally marriage. This might not make a lot of sense professionally, but these are fictional characters—the only sense it has to make is narrative sense. Journalists and reporters are often brought in as love interests for superhero characters because there’s a delicious tension between one half of a potential romantic pairing keeping a secret, and the other half being professionally obligated to dig up and reveal said secrets.

In the case of Lois Lane (yes, I said this wasn’t about her), that tension has lasted since 1938.

The “girl reporter” archetype might be a staple of superhero comics, but she has her origins beyond the supernatural spandex. Jane Arden was a plucky, spunky, pesky, utterly ruthless investigative reporter with her own comics in the 1920s, who did it all in cute dresses and high heels, and was popular enough to get her own radio series. Then there’s films like His Girl Friday (1940), featuring Rosalind Russell as a woman caught between what she thinks she ought to want (a husband, a home, children) and the career she is passionate about. This character came about because of a gender swapped script—Hildy Johnson was a man in the original stageplay—but the independence and fierce skills of Russell’s Hildy acting opposite Cary Grant’s ethically bankrupt editor Walter, has cemented this film as one of the all time great romantic comedies. (The romance is actually a threesome between Walter, Hildy and their newspaper)

My fascination with fictional lady journalists (cough, Lynda Day from Press Gang, cough, Jo and her sisters making fake newspapers in Little Women, cough, all the women in Drop the Dead Donkey) isn’t the only thing that sparked off my story. I’ve been an Australian woman consuming media since the 80’s, and I’ve been noticing things.

Like the decades when it was accepted that a female newsreader would gracefully retire in her thirties, while her male counterpart would keep creaking along until literal death at the desk.

The way that women who were popular in the media (or extended any professional interest beyond their media origins) would be treated as figures of fun, which meant that their fans were likewise being mocked. We were told that we should care whether or not they’ve dropped a few dress sizes, rather than which boards they were running, which charities they were promoting, and which gender inequities they were toppling.

Australia has had some pretty fascinating women working behind the scenes and in front of the camera over the years. Tina Valentina’s rise through the media landscape to build an empire of success has its origins in the careers of people like Ita Buttrose, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Donna Hay, Lisa Wilkinson, Lee Lin Chin, and more. Overseas, one of the most inspiring figures I know is Geena Davis, who got sick of not being offered decent acting parts as she grew older, and poured all her wealth and attention into vital work actually researching and exposing all the gender bullshit in the TV and film industries, with particular attention to children’s entertainment.

There’s just… so much bullshit out there.

Friday, of course, represents the younger generation of women fighting against media while also taking part in it. She’s the DIY generation of bloggers and entertainers and YouTube stars. She’s Felicia Day and Anita Sarkeesian, and a whole bunch of younger women who I’m officially not cool enough to know about, though I bet my daughter could list them.

Friday is the Millennial who’s killing the housing market because of avocado toast, and she has several highly sarcastic tweets queued up about why that’s ridiculous.

 

Back to Lois Lane.

Yeah, it’s all about her.

As the most iconic and famous female reporter of superhero narratives, Lois also has her own superpower: she has been eternally young for eighty years.

EIGHTY YEARS.

And sure that means she’s not likely to be bumped from her job as top reporter because her crow’s feet don’t match with “the current preferred aesthetic of women in the media,” but it also means that she’s constantly about five years too young from the mythical age where women get to be taken seriously.

Spoiler: we never reach that age. We just leap over it and end up on the other side, where we’re too old to be relevant…

The history of Lois Lane is not just the history of Superman, or of superhero comics. Her character has changed over the years to reflect changing popular archetypes for women, and the changing ideas about women in a) the media b) careers generally c) female characters in comic books, movies and fiction.

Our original 1930s-’40s Lois was a face-slapping, man-despising career wench who openly mocked Clark and was far more interested in getting Superman on her front page than between her sheets (though she didn’t object to that either).

In the ’50s and ’60s, post-war Lois became far more of an obsessive Suzy Homemaker, so desperate to marry Superman that she would go to crazed, I Love Lucy levels of slapstick in order to catch her man. By the ’70s, this version of Lois was so standard that there was a Superman Family title, often featuring Alt Universes where she and Clark were happily married and/or mermaids.

The ’80s were a bad time for women in DC Comics, in many ways. The popularity of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and The Killing Joke meant a push towards dark, violent stories appealing mostly to older male readers. Fun, younger female characters like Supergirl and Batgirl were violently sacrificed. Female characters were more likely to be raped than get their own title (or in the case of rebooted characters like Helena Bertinelli’s The Huntress, acquire a new rape backstory AND her own title, but only a mini-series, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here).

Somehow, Lois Lane managed to survive this darker, post-Crisis DC Comicsverse with her head held high and some serious character development along the way. This may have had a lot to do with the popularity of Margot Kidder’s depiction of Lois in the movies, plus some luck of the draw when it came to her writers and artists.

Lois in the late ’80s and early ’90s was clearly based on Kidder’s interpretation—still sassy and professional, she was allowed to be a more serious, accomplished journalist. Her relationship with Clark developed into something mature as she learned his secret, agreed to marry him, and mourned his death before he returned to her in the massive The Death of Superman/Reign of the Supermen event.

Lois Lane knowing Clark’s secret was a fantastic move which meant she could move on professionally from covering the Superman story, even if she sometimes was called upon to cover up her fiance’s identity. In an era where female journalists were finally being accorded some respect in hardhitting areas such as war reporting, Lois took on this more hardcore role too.

TV versions continued this trend. The ’90s romantic comedy Lois & Clark revamped Lois into the hardnosed, competent, career-obsessed Golden Age girl reporter while Clark mostly wrote emotional puff pieces and followed her around like a pupppy. This version is perhaps one of the most iconic and successful takes on Lois, not only because of Teri Hatcher’s sharp, uncompromising portrayal of the character, but also because it combined many of the different eras and interpretations of Lois, her friendship with Clark, her romantic interest in Superman, and her determination to do her damned job better than anyone else.

The only downside, as with most versions of Lois, was the way that her inability to figure out her best friend and her would-be boyfriend were played by the same actor made her look consistently stupid, even as the narrative worked to show us how great she was with everything else.

I longed for at least one season of Lois & Clark in which she had figured out the truth, but hadn’t told him, so that she got to smirk at his constant (and in retrospect, dumb as a box of hammers) antics to preserve his secret. I still feel cheated this didn’t happen, though the show did finally pull off The Reveal.

The Smallville Lois, while excellent, faltered a little because so many of her key characteristics had already appeared in the show as part of the original character Chloe Sullivan; a lack of interest in journalism (which only developed later) did allow Lois to shine as a character in other ways, with a focus on her army brat history, her family, her uncompromising sassiness and her nose for investigation without a newspaper holding her back.

The mostly terrible recent movie iterations of Superman have had Amy Adams’ Lois as their only bright spot: a flak-jacketed, utterly brave adrenaline junkie who figured out Clark was Superman instantly upon meeting him.

Lois Lane has been so many different women in media over the years. But she has (and should have) a life beyond the superhero who usually gets to be the main character.

If there’s one piece of Lois Lane’s history which most inspired me to write Girl Reporter, it’s Wonder Woman #170 (“She’s A Wonder” in which she trails Wonder Woman around for the day, in order to write a profile on the most famous female superhero of all time. I love this single issue’s focus on Lois as a person and as a professional, and also the idea that the thing she knows best, after all these years, is superheroes… not just one superhero, but the whole world of superheroes.

Once you know them as people, your outlook is different. What makes “She’s A Wonder” work so well is that we see Lois attempting to learn everything she can about Diana of Themiscyra—as superhero, public figure, powerful female archetype and most beautiful woman in the universe who also happens to be the close platonic friend of the man Lois loves.

Most recently, Lois Lane has had her own series of YA novels by Gwenda Bond. Like Smallville, they present a teen version of the iconic character … and just as Lois did not appear for the first four years of Smallville, the Lois Lane novels Fallout, Double Down, and Triple Threat present us with a feisty teenage reporter who is not yet defined by her love for and fascination with Superman.

The current TV show Supergirl has not yet introduced us to their version of Lois Lane, but instead the first season revolved around a magnificent interpretation of Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), who struts around her media empire making sharp feminist observations based on her long history as a woman building a career despite the misogynist bullshit that the media throws at women constantly.

This Cat Grant shapes Supergirl’s PR image while mentoring Supergirl’s alter ego Kara Danvers, and has an incredible influence over how Kara comes to terms with her dual role as superhero and young woman working in the media. It’s a fascinating story to watch unfold (sadly only in Season 1) because it’s the Superman/Lois Lane story without the overt romance (cough, not that there isn’t the potential for that there) and a very different power dynamic.

 

Tina Valentina is not Lois Lane, not even a little bit. But she exists because Lois exists, as a mirror to the history of women journalists as depicted in fiction as well as on our news broadcasts and in our magazines.

Tina Valentina is not Lois; and neither is Friday Valentina. But I think the three of them would have a fascinating conversation together about their careers past and future, and what it’s like to be a woman in the world today.

I’d love to be a fly on the wall if they did.

Tansy Rayner Roberts lives in Tasmania, Australia with her partner and two daughters. She has written and edited various science fiction and fantasy books including the Mocklore Chronicles, the Creature Court trilogy, Musketeer Space and Cranky Ladies of History. She is a host on three podcasts: Galactic Suburbia, Verity! and Sheep Might Fly, and has won two Hugo Awards, for Best Fan Writer and Best Fancast. You can find Tansy on Twitter (@tansyrr) and at her blog tansyrr.com which features fiction, feminist essays, comics reviews and pop culture criticism.

How to Get the Novella

Girl Reporter will be published officially on December 19, 2017. You can purchase the paperback edition and DRM-free ebook (EPUB, MOBI) that contains the story as well as an essay from the author available for purchase on all major ebook retail sites.

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