How central to the first Superman story is the man part of the character’s name…? Darren Reid looks at the gender politics of the Superman story from Action Comics #1 (The original, 1938 version):
Contemporary stereotypes do indeed abound throughout Action Comics #1 but the victimhood of the women featured therein is associated not necessarily with weakness, but oppression. Such a distinction is important because it suggests that Siegel and Shuster recognised that the place reserved for women in society was not necessarily the result of weakness on their part but the willingness of men to oppress and abuse them. At the very least, this association –particularly in the context of the domestic violence depicted in this story– suggests that women deserved protection from men who might otherwise use them for their own selfish, destructive ends.
Few of the male characters in this issue, Superman aside, are represented in positive terms with most instead depicted as thoroughly villainous in nature (1938: 12-14). Although superheroes tend to be associated with super villains, in this story men in general fulfil the corrupted, oppressive role that these larger-than-life characters would eventually come to embody and exaggerate. In contrast, the women in this tale tend to be victims not necessarily of the stereotypical weaknesses this story references but of the men who seek to dominate their lives and affairs.
It’s telling, perhaps, that the villainous man who tries to force Lois to dance with him is called “Butch.” I’d snark about subtlety, but I don’t think I’d noticed any of this before…