The Clark/Lex relationship has a dynamic of love/ hostility, and it serves as one of the most passionate sites in the show.
Note the ornate background and Victorian character of the Luthor mansion — Lex often seems associated with a kind of arabesque indulgence and sensuality.
Lex has completely come undone as a male subject here.
The Kent family often has an eerily Stepford vibe.
Clark can’t quite pull off "butch" here.
The pain of Clark’s iconic inscription.
Note the spatial opposition. Are they in the middle of a breakup?
Lex’s father needs to erase his memories (and his sexuality).
Lionel is both tender and monstrous here.
The ultimate parental betrayal — the only ethical figure that Lex seems to have in his life now is Clark.
Clark seems very nervous about entering the shower.
Although Tom Welling was originally chosen for the role because of his resemblance to a young Christopher Reeves, his sculpted body departs from the more classical ideal of the comic book superhero.
Clark and Lex appear to be on a blind date.
Clark is enmeshed in U.S. ideologies that resist queer sexuality — the pastoral, the football hero, and the family man.
A bit of S/M visibility complicates the Superman myth here.
The show often presents female eroticism as incredibly aggressive, supernatural, or uncontrollable.
Chloe seems about to enter Clark’s fortress of solitude.
This coding of Lex as a Renaissance aesthete, and as Clark’s cultural educator, also situates him within a queer symbolic tradition that has long been adapted through both classical and pastoral literary modes. Stephen Guy-Bray, in Homoerotic Space, observes,
Although, as Eve Sedgwick insists, we are told: “Don’t ask; You shouldn’t know; It didn’t happen” (Sedgwick 53) when looking at homoeroticism within premodern literature, the simple fact is that classical myth provides a vast storehouse of queer imagery that cannot simply be written off as “fraternal,” or worse, as “pre-homosexual,” since homosexuality “did not exist” prior to its inaugural citation during the nineteenth century. Although homosexuality may not have existed as a specific category, same-sex desire has existed for as long as we have historically recorded any type of erotic relationship. And it has existed, at various times, as a constitutive force for heterosexuality, or in definitional partnership with it, rather than simply as a transgressive force opposed to it.
I am not saying that Lex’s alignment with classical literary models renders him queer by default. But it does situate him within a tradition that has historically (and often covertly) transmitted queer expression, particularly by fixing the male body in a desiring gaze. Clark’s queerness, on the other hand, emerges from the pastoral tradition, which Guy-Bray characterizes as a “safe, because carefully demarcated, zone in which homoeroticism can appear” (Guy-Bray 15). The pastoral poet can express a potentially legible queer desire because s/he is talking about a “golden age” now passed away, a natural utopia that no longer exists, and a community of poor people (pastoral laborers) whose relations occur beyond the pale of aristocratic influence or interest.
Despite its reputation as an apolitical literary mode, Guy-Bray argues that pastoral writing is, if anything, over-politicized, given its unique configurations of legal and civic apparati against a backdrop of unspoiled nature. He suggests,
Clark’s natural grounding within this world pits him against Lex’s unnatural civic education, and the full complexity of their relationship is allowed to emerge only within Smallville’s pastoral environment. This clash of worlds is evident from the pilot episode, when a nine-year-old Lex, being ferried from Metropolis in his father’s company car, is caught in the famous meteor shower (which delivered Clark to Earth) and ends up lying, bald and unconscious, in the middle of a cornfield. Lex is in a position of intense vulnerability. He is a tiny presence curled up within the vast expanse of the cornfield, now bald (as a result of Kryptonian radiation), with just a few strands of orange hair left clinging to the bare skin of his head. Clearly, his ruthless education at the hands of Lionel has not prepared him for this confrontation with nature on a cosmic scale.
Clark, however, emerges from his tiny craft as an already-formed pastoral subject, perfectly comfortable as he walks barefoot through the ruined field, smiling, reaching out with his small hands to the Kents in a gesture of welcome rather than desperation. It is Jonathan Kent who finds Lex in his semiconscious state, and who, we later learn, acts quickly to save Lex while Lionel is still in a state of shock (Lineage, 2.07). As, in a moment of rare conjunction, both the Kents and the Luthors cram into Jonathan’s truck in order to drive Lex to the hospital, we see that a bond exists between Clark and Lex that pre-dates their reunion (and what Clark thinks is their first meeting) so many years later. As Lex, cradled in Lionel’s arms, slips in and out of consciousness, three-year-old Clark reaches out and gently strokes his bald head. Lex seems confused and comforted at the same time, but Clark’s look is surprisingly omniscient. He seems to know even this early what Lex clarifies when they are both much older: “Trust me, Clark — our friendship will become the stuff of legends” (Hug, 1.11). Yet this legendary relationship begins with a very small gesture of love on Clark’s part, a wise child’s attempt to ease Lex’s suffering with the barest of touches. We have to assume that even Jonathan, despite his vocal mistrust of Lex, remembers the moment of quiet and unexpected tenderness that first connected them.
As their friendship matures, it begins to organize itself around a complex system of economic exchange, wherein each commodity that changes hands is also limned with traces of emotional desire. Lex offers Clark money on multiple occasions, and specifically offers to buy the Kent farm — which he eventually does in order to keep it from being foreclosed. He lets Clark borrow his Porsche (not quite openly, but he doesn’t exactly stand in his way, either) in the episode Velocity (3.13), and lends him a limousine for his first date with Lana. Although he often frowns upon Clark's snooping around Luthorcorp, he basically gives him an all-access pass to the company grounds, and rarely, if ever, asks him to leave. Clark has similar access to Lex’s mansion, particularly his intimate office space, and is allowed to come and go — at all hours of the night — as he pleases without Lex so much as raising an eyebrow. Smallville seems especially prone to life-threatening plagues (or character-specific illnesses), but whenever anyone close to Clark so much as develops a cough, Lex offers them free medical care. And when Clark loses his vision in the episode Whisper, Lex quickly states that he can make “the world’s top ophthalmologists” available to Clark (3.10). It is one thing give your friend the phone number of a competent ophthalmologist, but it is quite another to send a team of the “world’s top” experts practically to his doorstep.
It may seem, at first, as if Clark is getting a lot more out of this contractual relationship than Lex. But it remains quite difficult to determine exactly what both men are getting out of it, or if they are indeed "getting" something measurable at all. For, if anything, the more wealth and material goods that Lex offers up to Clark and the Kent family, the less substantial all of it seems. And the more Clark tries to pull Lex back from the “darkness” that he sees within himself, the closer Lex seems to move toward it. Yet neither character is wholly willing to sever the relationship, and it is Lex, ever the communicator, who says to Clark: “Don’t give up on me” (Bound, 4.09).
This plea comes after Clark has learned of Lex’s various sexual liaisons with women whose names he never bothered to learn — and one woman in particular who decides to punish him for what she perceives as his own inexcusable chauvinism. The episode actually backfires in its feminist intent, repeating hackneyed phrases such as “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” in order to pathologize Lex’s female inquisitor. It recuperates Lex in the end as a tragic figure whose own sexism emerges from his complex problems with intimacy (rather than from the patriarchal atmosphere that inflects most of Smallville’s gender relations, or the unconscious patriarchy of the show’s virtually all-male writing staff). Bound, thus, comes to be more about the fraught friendship between Clark and Lex than it is about Lex’s mistreatment of women.
It seems, then, that Lex should be saying “don’t give up on me” to the various women in his life — but he says it to Clark. In this sense, his relationship with Clark becomes in part a projection of his failed sexual relationships with women, but also something different. Their friendship has produced a vast and thriving archive of slash (same-sex male pairing) fan fiction on the Internet, which suggests that, even if Smallville’s writers never intended the relationship itself to be erotic, many of the show’s fans are nonetheless reading it that way. In terms of queer studies and its potential for opening up traditional texts, Guy-Bray notes that, as with queer “misreadings” of classical and Renaissance literature, “a misreading of this kind may on occasion be more productive than a more correct meaning” (Guy-Bray 8). Although fans may be “misreading” the Clark/Lex relationship as one charged with erotic potential, their misreading reveals a great deal about the show, and is potentially a lot more interesting than the heterosexually “correct” reading of these two characters as close male friends.
The slash tradition—that is, the same-sex pairing of romantic characters, both male and female—emerged from the K/S (Kirk and Spok) slashers who recast the homosocial relationship between Kirk and Spock on the original Star Trek. The K/S slash community produced an amazing network of erotic zines, made all the more impressive by the fact that they only had access to the most conventional of fan technology — a VCR, a printer, a public photocopier, etc. Constance Penley discusses this fan community in detail in her book Nasa/Trek, describing how the slashers, who are primarily heterosexual women, don’t radically reposition Kirk and Spock so much as give their relationship the nudge from "homosocial" to "homoerotic" — which always remains the impossible boundary to cross in network television (Penley: 1997). Keep in mind, too, that Kirk was also raised as a farmboy, a corn-fed Iowa kid like Clark, which makes his "queering" all the more devious and enjoyable to the fans.
In her article “Smallville’s Sexual Symbolism: From Queer Repression to Fans’ Queered Expressions,” Anne Kustritz notes the link between superman and gay culture. She observes,
The Clark/Lex relationship in slash fiction takes this one step further, repositioning both the hero and the villain within a queer space that will allow them to express their (and the fans’) covert erotic desires. Much of the slash fiction devoted to Clark and Lex seems particularly intent on preserving the pastoral/urban binary between the two of them, which leads me to believe that fans (including myself) see the characters’ sexuality as being peculiarly embedded within their own public spaces and economic backgrounds. In “Sleep While I Drive,” written by jenn, Lex is described as wearing:
Throughout this story, Clark remains easy-going, almost doggishness in his warmth and amiability, while Lex is continually skeptical, edgy, quick to start, always keeping one blue eye on Clark and everyone else. Obviously, his sexuality here is linked to his civic/urban identity, his position as a sly renaissance man, whereas Clark’s erotic life is indelibly connected to the farm, to family, and to his celebrated naiveté.
I am not trying, with this discussion, explicitly to queer Lex and Clark, but rather, through their ambiguous and productive relationship, to queer the notion of “close male friends” in general. Patronage systems depended upon male friendships identical to the one shared between Clark and Lex, and were equally ambiguous in their language, cultural positioning, and physical expression. It is, I think, manifestly impossible to say of any pairing, same-sex or opposite-sex, that they are “just friends,” because “just friends,” like “just pastoral” or “just classical,” is a fiction that heterosexist and patriarchal culture depends upon for its very survival. The first step in erasing a relationship’s transgressive potential is to explain it away through cultural anachronism, through mythical allegory, or through misplaced optimism on the part of the reader.
It is possible that fans see queerness in the Clark/Lex pairing because they want to see it — that I see it because I want to see it. But, consider the wealth of long pauses, significant looks, intimate spatial positioning, physical contact, and amatory language that exists between these characters . It seems more difficult not to see an erotic potential emerging from their friendship, as it must emerge from any close friendship. What makes this particular friendship even more interesting is that it is inscribed within traditional models of patronage, and that it is a deliberate re-reading of the mythic Superman/Lex Luthor rivalry as set down within the comic tradition. How far we want to take this re-reading is up to us, but the show itself has set the wheels of adaptation in motion by rewriting an antagonistic conflict into an intimate friendship doomed to fail.
This is not to say, however, that a show revolving around masculine secrecy is necessarily a bad thing. Smallville is a wonderfully engaging show, and part of what makes it engaging is its troubling deferrals and manipulations of the truth. As the quotation by Eve Sedgwick that I began this article with states, “closetedness” as a state of being is not founded upon an inaugural or originary silence, but upon a discourse of multiple competing and constituting silences that unite to produce the closet. It is not simply performed through speech acts. Rather, it is uniquely articulated through a whole network of secrets, half-truths, unspoken definitions, withheld knowledges, and even hesitations, all of which form the substance of the closet itself. Although it remains historically and politically specific to queer communities (and must remain so), it is also a broader concept that has structured much of homophobic western discourse for the past several centuries. As Sedgwick observes in Epistemology of the Closet, “a whole cluster of the most crucial sites for the contestation of meaning in twentieth-century western culture” are linked to “the historical specificity of homosocial/homosexual definition...[including] the pairings secrecy/disclosure and private/public” (Sedgwick 72). Both Clark and Lex have very deep closets, and both live within those closets on a daily basis. What many queer and female fans of the Clark/Lex relationship have done is simply illuminate the obvious conflation of queerness/secrecy that exists within the cultural metaphor of the closet, linking the characters’ secrets with their own unvoiced sexuality.
The question, are they or aren’t they, is ultimately not important. What is important is Smallville’s willingness to render these two male characters as vulnerable, as well as its willingness to celebrate their close friendship without shutting down its erotic potential through masculine stereotyping. Most male characters within SF texts, we must remember, barely have a physical relationship with their wives and girlfriends, let alone with other men. For Smallville to focus so strongly on a friendship that Lex predicts will be “the stuff of legends” is a risky move in itself, but it is a move that has paid off over four season’s worth of fascinating narrative (with a fifth season in production). While Clark remains the invulnerable man who elicits horror from audiences when his body is actually violated (as in the episode Extinction, 3.03, when Clark is hit with a Kryptonite bullet), Lex’s body is constantly being bruised, battered, and assaulted. Lex practically dies in the pilot episode, and is constantly being tied up, shot at, or placed on the receiving end of retributive violence (usually at the hands of someone whose life he inadvertently ruined). Clark is, of course, the one who routinely comes to Lex's rescue. But not even Clark can save Lex from his father, whose attempt to erase Lex’s memory through shock-treatment in the episode Asylum (3.09) is startlingly brutal. It may seem like a hackneyed supervillain move on Lionel’s part, but it is actually a horrific betrayal that devastates Lionel even as it ruthlessly violates Lex’s own body.
This continual pathologizing of the father/son relationship between Lex and Lionel is directly the opposite of the rock-solid relationship between Jonathan and Clark. In this way, Smallville presents us with two very real versions of fatherhood, while infusing both with a mixture of ire and tenderness, openness and indecipherability. And, in this particular episode, it juxtaposes Lionel’s nearly unbelievable cruelty with a moment of strangely innocent affection between Clark and Lex. Clark is clearly dreading his meeting with Lex after the shock "therapy," since he knows what violence has been inflicted upon Lex’s body, whereas Lex is now blissfully unaware of what happened. Yet Lex meets Clark’s apprehension with the same curious, almost extraterrestrial certainty that Clark himself demonstrated when, as a child, he first gently touched Lex on the face. “There is one thing I’ll never forget,” Lex says, “how important your friendship is to me.” The two men embrace, and while Clark is visibly anxious, Lex closes his eyes like a child who is totally at peace. Their friendship, whatever it may mean, becomes the one cipher that Lionel’s therapeutic invasions cannot eradicate.
By extending the Clark/Lex relationship into an ambiguous and enduring friendship, Smallville has effectively rewritten the Superman myth without visibly disrupting it. Although its many attempts to humanize Clark seem at first to emerge from his much-foiled relationship with Lana, Clark seems to be at his most vulnerable when he is interacting with Lex. His connection with Lex remains the one that he trusts, even when Lex has given him no reason to trust it. Their friendship is based upon mutual secrecy, yet it works in a variety of interesting ways, and ways that perhaps the creators of Smallville never intended.
It is easy to write off this focus on close male friendship as an antifeminist move on the show’s part, or as simply one more gesture to remove Superman from potentially threatening feminine influence. But the relationship between Clark and Lex remains as ambiguous as the one between Clark and Lana, or Clark and Chloe, and we need to acknowledge them as interconnected articulations within the engine of secrecy that powers Smallville as a show. The female characters on Smallville have the same capacity for both vulnerability and heroism as the male characters, and although Lana and Chloe often need to be saved by Clark, he makes it clear again and again that he would be nowhere without the love and support of his friends. And if his friendship serves to keep Lex’s darkness at bay, then perhaps Lex also serves to keep Clark’s own darkness at bay — for in saving Lex from "himself," Clark is also continually rejecting his role as the conquering Kal-El in favor of the emotionally-connected Clark Kent. Lex is, after all, not a megalomaniac following in the footsteps of his father, but a son who, more than anything else, wants his father to love him (3.18). Smallville may never tell us who the "real" hero and villain of this legendary friendship is, but the more we watch that friendship develop, and fracture, and mend, and fracture again, the less able we are to empirically separate hero from villain. It is a secret that will have to remain in Lex’s locked room, in Clark’s fortress of solitude, and in the peculiar closet that forms their connection to each other.