That’s right, the Man of Steel is starring in a fashion spread in Vogue magazine this month. My co-blogger Jeff Trexler pointed this out first, and suggested that I take it up.
I might seem like an odd choice to write about this, since the only Superman comic I’ve ever read is Kingdom Come, but that’s sort of the point. I’m fairly sure Vogue doesn’t assume its readers are comic fans (though more of them might be than they think).
Instead, Superman was chosen because he’s a cultural icon. In many ways, superheroes are our American myths. We know from the money made by movies like The Dark Knight and shows like Smallville that many more people are fans of superheroes than are buying the comics each month, and each superhero evokes a different feeling, a different part of our collective psyche.
As Jeff noted, the spread shows a woman in 1950s clothing and a child dressed similarly, interacting with Superman, while the notes evoke a “mood of American optimism.” The issue also features a multipage photo spread of the Obamas, and conspicuously avoids talking much about the current economic crisis.
Superman, here, then, is evoked along with the Obamas as a way out of the dark night (yes, pun intended) of Bush-era America. The Dark Knight, most likely the best superhero movie ever made, was as clearly about the Bush era as this issue of Vogue is about looking forward to an Obama era. The last panel of the spread features the (pretty, blonde) woman and child walking forward, while the note mentions the “Camelot years.” The end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s, with the Kennedys taking the White House, in other words.
Superman is part of that optimistic mood, that idea of a “good America” that has been lost lately. You hear echoes of it in Obama’s call to “restore our moral leadership.” Superman is always good. Batman, well, you all saw the movie.
However, I find some of this a bit problematic. The spread is titled “Supermom,” yet the mom is standing by while Superman performs his super-feats–pushing a car, lifting the child on one palm, taking flight. The evocation of 1950s clothing and a pretty nuclear family (mommy, daddy, child) brings back more than just optimism, it brings back a certain batch of gender norms as well.
It might’ve been too obvious for the characters in the photo spread to be African-American, like the Obamas, so of course we have the blonde woman standing in for “American optimism.” And she’s standing by while Superman does all of the hard work.
Yes, I’m reading a lot into a simple fashion shoot. But Superman is as potent a symbol as symbols get in our culture, and like Jeff, I don’t think it’s accidental that post-Depression and post-WWII icons are being dredged up now. I’m as optimistic, post-election, as I have been for this country in a while, but I wonder if we’re looking too hard for our own Superman to save us.