JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Clark as the ideal pastoral boy.

Clark’s adolescent innocence is often fetishized — here he looks particularly pensive in the tub.  This scene recalls screen icons like Rock Hudson who also had scenes in the bathtub (in Party Line, with Doris Day).

Note the intimate distance between Clark and Lex.

Jonathan looks as if Clark brought home a bad boyfriend.

Clark and Lex seem to be the only two people in this shot — everyone else has disappeared from the frame.

This is Clark’s "long-suffering Lex" expression.

Clark breathes life into Lex.

Lex stares up at his rescuer.

Lex stares at Clark with a peculiar expression — envy, perhaps?

Lex and his father in a cold embrace.

The horror of Superman’s wounded body — the Kryptonite bullet becomes phallic in its unlawful penetration of the normally impregnable Clark.

Lex pathologized.

Lex and his father have some Oedipal issues to work out.

Clark’s body is branded by the Superman icon.

Clark and Lex embrace — flannel nostalgia meets urban decay. Look closely at their opposing expressions...

... Clark looks innocently happy, but Lex appears almost childlike, completely lost in the physical gesture (previous picture).

The Clark/Lex economy of weighty glances.

The Lex action figure — note his obsession with technology.

Butch Cassidy and the Metropolitan Kid.

 

The Kryptonite closet:
Silence and queer secrecy
in Smallville

by Jes Battis

“'Closetedness' itself is a performance initiated as such by the speech act of a silence — not a particular silence, but a silence that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it.”
— Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, p. 3

“It’s just an allegory, Lex.”
— Clark Kent, Smallville, 3.20 (Talisman)

Smallville is a show about secrets and silences. Its multiple narrative threads depend upon a vast and thriving network of lies, secrets, deferrals, misrepresentations, backward glances, and half truths — all of which coalesce, in one way or another, around the character of Clark Kent. Clark’s personal secrets become a vitiating force within the show, a force beyond his control, which expands to adversely affect his friends, family, and loved ones. Furthermore, it seems that the more Clark attempts to conceal about himself, the more he puts those people closest to him in routinely life-threatening danger.

Although Smallville appears to revolve around one "big" secret — Clark’s identity as an alien from the planet Krypton — this actually depends upon a much more complicated discourse of secrets, a web of competing speech-acts that transform and distend Clark’s own super-closet into an array of silences that actually come to define a whole constellation of identities for him. Kryptonite, as the title of this article suggests, is an intimate part of Clark’s own state of closetedness — it is the opposite side of his extraterrestrial secret, the secret of his sole weakness that he must obscure at all cost. It is difficult, then, if not impossible, to separate Clark from his secrets, or to determine the invisible lines that divide Clark the teenager from Clark the alien. But the character who most often attempts to invoke this act of separation — who frequently and sometimes violently attempts to rip Clark’s secrets out of the private realm — is none other than his closest friend, Lex Luthor.

I intend, in this article, to read the relationship between Clark and Lex as one that is rich with possibilities (both erotic and ideological). I am particularly interested in the erotic potential emerging from this relationship, with Clark’s eroticism rooted in pastoral traditions, and Lex’s eroticism emerging from urbanity. I am not a historian searching for empirical proof of same-sex desire. By the same token, I agree with Rictor Norton’s caveat within queer studies that “the critic of ‘homosexual literature’ is under no special obligation to be an expert sleuth in detecting erotic innuendo” (Norton 127). What I do want is to discuss the spectrum of really fascinating ways in which the Clark/Lex relationship has been rewritten by Smallville, transformed from the traditional antagonistic pairing between hero and villain [1] that Superman comic-lovers recognize, to a far more ambiguous friendship between two highly secretive and vulnerable men.

That Smallville is often cited as a "family" show continues to surprise me, given its routine depictions of violence, sexuality, horror elements, murders, drugs, damning family secrets, and attractive, semi-naked teen bodies. The whiteness, heterosexuality, and alleged "wholesomeness" [2]of those bodies is what, in all probability, manages to give Smallville its reputation as a family-friendly television program. But the show does, in fact, possess what I think can be easily read as much more subversive elements. In fact, it is Smallville’s very innocuous nature as a family-oriented, Dawson’s Creek-like program that gives it an unexpected potential for reversing stereotypes and destabilizing some familiar oppressions on television.

Smallville’s setting within a close-knit, rural Kansas town (which is actually Cloverdale, BC, less than an hour from where I live in downtown Vancouver), makes it a sort of remediation of pastoral traditions. It is an ideal site for visually renovating what was once a pre-eminent English literary form (and which remains a unique genre for expressing social anarchy, while cloaking that anarchy through careful anachronism and the invocation of golden ages "now passed away") Several primetime shows have emerged within the last few years that utilize the nostalgic image of the small town in order to create an ideal site of secrecy and betrayal, including Dawson’s Creek, as well as more recent offerings such as One Tree Hill and Everwood. What all of these shows have in common is their depiction of white, attractive, able-bodied and heterosexual characters, all ostensibly chaffing at their own small-town ideologies, while more accurately using their disaffection as an excuse to have lots of sex with each other. [3]

What makes Smallville different is its unique celebration of the pastoral, its connection of Clark’s life as a farm-boy with his own superior moral development, and its continuing valorization of his parents’ indestructible marriage (as opposed to the various broken family models from which his friends have emerged). Other shows celebrate only the close-knit friendships that often emerge within small towns, while reinscribing the towns themselves as dens of entertaining emotional dysfunction. In contrast, Smallville actually celebrates the physical site of the town as an alternative to the morally suspect realm of Metropolis, which looms less than three hours away (or a few minutes away, if, like Clark, you have super-speed). Clark’s character becomes inextricably tied to images of farm life and domestic happiness, sharing traditional bacon-and-egg breakfasts with his loving family on the Kent Farm, just as Lex becomes inescapably associated with the broken promises, crime syndicates, and suspect financial dealings of Metropolis. As comic book characters, these two have always been iconic. But Smallville does its best to complicate that iconicity by insisting simultaneously that Clark and Lex can never be wholly "normal," yet they can never be completely allegorical, either.

If Smallville exists at all, it is because Lois and Clark paved the way for it, bringing the Superman myth "down to earth," so to speak, by exploring the fraught romantic relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. The show’s placement of “Lois” before “Clark” seemed to augur a surprising and welcome narrative emphasis on Lois Lane, but spectators soon came to realize that this was a show very much about "being" Clark Kent. While Lois and Clark explored the tension between living as both Clark Kent and Superman, Smallville set out to explore the pre-Superman years instead, the angst-ridden existence of Superman as an adolescent.

Clark’s problems on Smallville are legion: he is gorgeous, white, athletic, surrounded by loyal friends, the product of a loving and supportive family, the confidante of a young billionaire (Lex), and the love object of two women, Lana Lang and Chloe Sullivan. Smallville attempts to defuse this privilege by claiming that it is meaningless, or at the very least complicated, since Clark has to keep secrets from the people closest to him. But spectators who do not have billionaire friends (or supportive families) must suspect that Clark still has an eerily perfect life for a self-proclaimed outcast.

We have to keep in mind, however, that Smallville has a highly powerful and enduring originary text with which to contend — a superhero myth that it can adapt but not irrevocably change. Clark Kent on Smallville has to be pretty, white, and straight, because Clark Kent within the Superman comics is pretty, white, and straight. And being pretty, white, and straight is an oppressive prerequisite for most popular television shows in North America. Once Smallville fulfills this prerequisite (which itself needs to be continually challenged by media critics with strong political investments, and which I am challenging here), it is then free to place its characters in a broad array of situations which trouble or threaten their own systems of privilege. Rather than upbraiding Smallville for being so much like other shows aesthetically, I am more interested in looking at what it tries to do (and sometimes does accidentally) in terms of actually challenging televisual stereotypes.

Structurally, Smallville owes a lot to previous shows that have been acclaimed as "transgressive," such as Buffy and X-Files. It attempts to incorporate much of the rapid-fire and linguistically inventive dialogue that made Buffy famous, although Chloe is the only character who really talks enough within the show to pull this off. And her delivery is often so rapid-fire that spectators can miss the cleverness of what she’s saying (or not saying, or trying to say). While Buffy thrived on complex dialogic relations, Smallville thrives on what isn’t said, what gets left out, the blanks and dark spaces that its characters carefully step around. As such, it can never really be as "hip" as other shows because it isn’t actually trying to be hip — it’s trying to be allegorical.

The pilot episode actually conveys a great deal of disturbingly gothic imagery, including the sight of Clark Kent strung up in a cornfield, cataclysmic meteors crashing into the town, and a teenage villain who returns to his old school (Smallville High) Carrie-style to enact electrical vengeance on the kids who once tortured him. The image of Clark as a scarecrow is a great deal more troubling than it first seems. For queer viewers, this can bring back memories of the murder of Matthew Shepherd, a gay teen who was fatally beaten, tied to a fence, and then left to die in a similarly rural area outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Shepherd’s death, in 1998, occurred just three years prior to the debut of Smallville in 2001, and although the majority of the show’s audience may have conveniently forgotten about the Shepherd case by then, most queer spectators could not possibly have. The result is a peculiar hijacking of real hate-crime imagery, the adaptation (whether unconscious on the part of the writers or not) of an actual murder in order to create as disturbing an image as possible. Most online discussion of this episode reads the Clark/Scarecrow image as a crucifixion, and hence a presage of his eventual salvific potential as Superman. I think, however, that it needs to be read as a profoundly disturbing mixture of both.

At its heart, and despite its many missteps, Smallville is just as critical and interrogative as shows like Buffy and X-Files; although it is not always as well-written, and not always as successful in its various interrogations of American ideological practices. Like other shows that draw upon the gothic tradition, it suggests that there is something highly sinister lying beneath the foundations of middle-America, beneath the conservative rural core of the countryside, rotting out its Fordist assumptions like a ravenous macrophage. Beneath the town of Smallville lies a cache of radioactive material, Kryptonite[4], which has the power to mutate normal human development (and contributes to the town’s skyrocketing mortality rate). Less visibly, Smallville itself subsists upon a diet of secrets and lies, of failed relationships and obscured realities, of empty promises, twisted sentiments, and powerful etiolations (to use an Austinian term, which means literally “withering”) of the social interactions that should produce "truth." In this sense, we need to see the show not just as another pretty white offering within the WB lineup (which also gave us Buffy), or as a "gothic lite" program like Aaron Spelling’s Charmed, but as a show that gestures to an American mythology composed almost entirely of secrecy and deception.

With this framework for looking at Smallville in place, let us now turn to the relationship between Clark and Lex, upon which so many of the show’s narratives depend. It is a bit unusual to find an SF (science fiction) show (although Smallville fits more under Darko Suvin’s heading of “science fantasy”: a mixture of the speculative elements of SF with the mythological elements of fantasy) which focuses so intensely on a friendship between two men. Although most mainstream SF texts have a male hero pitted against a male villain, few explore the conflicted relationship from which their mutual antagonism must emerge. Smallville operates on several overlapping principles of dramatic irony, because it depends upon its audiences to know the backstory between Clark and Lex. What makes their relationship even more complicated is the spectatorial foreknowledge that they will eventually become bitter enemies. Unlike Lois and Clark, which had Clark and Lex opposed to each other from the very first episode, Smallville is more interested in exploring what first brought these characters together rather than what will someday tear them apart. When Lex, after saving the Kent farm from financial ruin, says that “I just hope you’ll consider me part of the family” (Phoenix, 3.02), audiences are left to wonder how a surrogate member of Clark’s own family could possibly turn against him.

Lex himself seems to understand his fatalistic role as the show’s antagonist, even as he tries daily to fight it. When Clark asks why their friendship is so important (in the aptly named episode, Devoted), Lex’s reply is somewhat enigmatic:

"There’s a darkness in me that I can’t always control...I can feel [it] creeping over the corners. Your friendship helps keep it at bay" (Devoted, 4.04).

Although Clark never explicitly states it thus, he seems to trust Lex, to continually renew his friendship with the troubled young billionaire, because he sees an opportunity to morally recuperate Lex; and Lex seems to be looking for just that kind of moral recuperation from Clark. Although Lex is older by about six years, Clark is the one who appears to be educating him. Yet Lex is also educating Clark, just as a Machiavellian prince might educate his naive young pupil in the ways of cynical society. Both projects, if they are that, seem doomed to fail, since we all know that Lex eventually turns on Clark, and that Clark never exhibits the urbane cynicism, nor the alacrity of self-expression, that Lex is famous for. What we don’t know, and what we may never know entirely, is why this happens, and by what complicated circumstances these characters’ relationship is so radically and irreversibly transformed.

The Clark/Lex friendship begins with a bang when Lex, speeding as usual, hits Clark with his Porsche (going 80 mph), and both of them tumble off a bridge (Pilot 1.01). Their first interaction is not verbal at all, but entirely physical. Clark rescues Lex, of course, by peeling open the youth's car like a can of tuna — a feat that Lex spends the next three years trying to explain, since Clark later denies that it ever happened. In fact, Clark makes a regular habit of saving Lex from various threatening forces, so much so that Lex himself becomes more of a damsel in distress than either Lana or Chloe. Although Lana is often Clark’s primary "savee," Lex requires a sort of multi-layered saving, since Clark is constantly trying to rescue him from both physical and moral peril. And it strikes me as profoundly interesting that, although it takes Clark the entire first season of Smallville before he ever dares to kiss Lana, he kisses Lex in the very first episode. Granted, he is performing artificial respiration, but this is still, arguably, the show’s very first kiss between two principle characters. And it remains rare, except on a program like E.R. or Baywatch, to see a man resuscitating another man.

Lex assumes the role of patron shortly after this event when he tries to give Clark a new car in return for saving his life. This system of exchange, Lex’s money (and other financial resources) for Clark’s love and attention, becomes a dominant marker within their relationship, continually reframing them as partners within a fiduciary contract rather than merely as best friends. In fact, it is the character of Pete [5] who most often refers to himself as Clark’s best friend, although Chloe claims this position as well. Lex, we must assume, is something different. Even as late as the fourth season, Clark is still trying to explain to Lex that their friendship does not exist solely within these financial parameters. When Lex buys new uniforms for the Smallville Crows football team (branded, interestingly enough, with the Luthorcorp logo, just as the stadium itself is branded somewhat transparently by “Old Spice”), Clark tells Lex that “you can’t buy back my friendship” (4.04).

Yet Clark sounds more long-suffering than exasperated when he says this, as if he is merely going through the discursive motions by scolding Lex for his pragmatic understanding of the world. It is difficult to determine whether Clark simply trusts in Lex too much to really cut Lex out of his life, or if, as Lex hopes, Clark's friendship truly is so thoroughly implicated within their own system of patronage that it really is for sale.

The paranoiac bonds within Smallville (and particularly those between Clark and Lex) emerge from the closed-in conditions of the town itself. Although Smallville is surrounded by untapped pastoral wilderness, as exemplified by the pioneering Kent farmers, the town of Smallville is an anxious fusion of pastoral and urban that produces both nostalgic and dystopic reactions from its citizens. They are in love with the close-knit atmosphere of Smallville, yet constantly straining against its boundaries and trying to penetrate into the wilderness beyond. [6]

Lex originally comes to Smallville because he has been exiled there by his father, Lionel Luthor. Lionel tells him, “Caesars would send their sons to the furthermost corners of the empire so they could get an appreciation of how the world works,” but Lex is unimpressed at having to manage his father’s fertilizer plant in Smallville, which he calls the “crap factory” (Hothead, 1.03). This grounding of Lex within classical metaphors — the emperor’s son being exiled, the fierce Oedipal relationship between father and son, and Lex’s very name, which is short for Alexander (the Great) — only serves to cement his role as the liberal-humanist influence on farmboy Clark. It also serves to align Lex’s own avarice and well-honed sense of pragmatism with his “Renaissance man” education, while aligning Clark’s naiveté with his purity as a pastoral laborer. The primary antagonists within Smallville, Lex and Lionel, both have a firm grounding in classical and Renaissance scholarship, whereas even Chloe has a hard time keeping her Greek myths straight, and prefers to rely on her “reporter’s instinct” for empirical truth rather than on mythological allegories.

But Lex is not simply a walking allegory (although, as the quote that I began this article with suggests, there are all sorts of important allegories within Smallville.) If we want to stay within the classical tradition, then his shortened name, Lex, is also a version of the Latinate word for “language.” Lex himself is a word, and a word that is constantly being renovated and redacted, always changing, submitting to the ethical/editorial attempts of Clark and his friends. Lex is not simply the conquering figure of Alexander the Great, just as Clark is not simply Kal-El, who is “sent to conquer” by his biological father Jor-El (Rosetta, 2.17). Lex, through a relationship of patronage that constantly wanders into the territory of erotic friendship, is in effect trying to teach Clark a new lexia, a new language, which will modify his wide-eyed and unfailingly optimistic view of the world outside of Smallville. Or, he is trying to replace Clark’s language with his own, to mold Clark into an utilizable tool. Either way, it is more a question of translation, and less a question of conquering. And if Clark is the only person who can keep Lex’s darkness at bay, it remains to be seen why Lex — if he is, indeed, a conqueror — would wish to constrain that darkness in the first place, rather than embracing it as Lionel has.

(Continued on next page)


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