copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

The Kryptonite closet:
Silence and queer secrecy in

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.

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,

“both Latin and Greek literature provided the educated men of the Renaissance with knowledge about various kinds of homoeroticism...[and] many Renaissance writers used classical models to construct their own homoerotic discourses” (Guy-Bray 5).

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,

“The pastoral’s juxtaposition of natural and unnatural might prompt us to consider how it is that we decide which things go in which of those two categories” (18).

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,

“Superman also has a long-standing gay male following. Alternately parodied and revered on television series Queer as Folk, Superman presents a prototypical case for why superheroes’ lives share important parallels with gay culture. His personality rigidly bifurcated between an ordinary public face and a secret identity kept hidden at any cost, Superman’s penchant for changing clothes in small enclosed spaces (phone booths, closets) as he changes personas may metaphorically resemble the closeting of gay identity” (Kustritz: 2005).

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:

"his immaculate business best, but the tie's off and curled loosely in one fist, two buttons of the collar undone, revealing traces of pale skin. Pale purple shadows curve beneath his eyes, almost a match for his shirt. Mouth set in a hard line" (2005).

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 [7]. 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.


1. We should also remember that the obsessive relations between male heroes and villains within the comic book tradition emerge from a sort of covert homoeroticism. The villain is obsessed with the hero’s body, with finding his weakness, with penetrating or shattering or inflicting violence upon him. The villain thus becomes a failed version of the hero who must eradicate the hero in order to validate his own perverse ethical agenda. It is never just about "ruling the world," but also about ruling the hero’s body.

2. "Wholesome" tends to be the death-knell for media analysis, and the glass ceiling against which pop-culture scholarship is continually thrust against. Generally, for a show to be deemed worthy of academic attention, it needs to encode some sort of exilic, anarchic, or troubling potential (labeled as "transgression"), and it is this potential that the analysis is interested in, not the show itself. Once a show is deemed to be too wholesome, or too mainstream (the two are often synonymous), all bets are off in terms of scholarship, and the text is abandoned. The necessary alternative is to study media texts for, rather than in spite of, their mainstream inclinations, since the transgressive and the mainstream exist in a mutually co-constitutive relationship, and neither could survive without the other. Just because Disney movies are wholesome doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be worried about their ideological messages, nor that we should discount them as being completely devoid of oppositional potential.

3. Smallville tends to shy away from sexual intercourse, but has no problem with putting its characters in a lot of heavy make-out sessions. Generally, sex is something that happens to Clark, rather than something that he invites. He can only be sexually aggressive when he is under the influence of red Kryptonite (which functions much like alcohol), or when he is within the (relative) safety of a dream. Both of his most intense physical encounters with Lana occur either within a dream (Slumber, 3.04) or within a dream-like memory (Relic, 3.06) whose 1950s backdrop is itself pastoral and nostalgic.

4. Kryptonite, or “meteor rock” as those not-in-the-know call it, is not just Clark’s only real weakness (aside from magic, which doesn’t really get explored until the fourth season) — it is also a transparent and valuable plot device that serves as an explanation for every paranormal occurrence in Smallville. In this sense, it is really no different from alien intervention on X-Files, or mystical power on Buffy. Every SF show needs its explanatory substance.

5. What can we say about Pete? Like the character Kendra in Buffy, he is apparently the only black person living in Smallville, and none of his storylines involve race elements at all. It appears that rural Kansas is the place to live in order to experience racial harmony, since Pete never appears to encounter racism in any form. Pete’s chronic lack of narrative attention on the show (does anyone even notice when he leaves?) suggests that neither the audiences nor the writers were interested in a character who was actually honest, forthright, and dependable, unless that character was Clark.

6. The town of Smallville appears to consist of one main street, which contains the Talon (with its prominently displayed U.S. flag), a jewellery store, an antique shop, and a few apartments. Like Sunnydale or Capeside, Smallville is designed as a network of safe spaces within which its characters can communicate, if slightly illogical from a city-planning point of view. Metropolis, in general, is represented synechdochally by the Luthorcorp building, which is actually a government building in downtown Vancouver shot low to the ground in order to make it appear as a towering skyscraper. No one appears to live comfortably in either of these spaces — characters are always trying to escape Metropolis for the pastoral safety of Smallville, or trying to escape the repressive confines of Smallville for the free-living of Metropolis.

7. In most of the scenes between Lex and Clark, Lex is the one who verbally communicates his own vulnerability, while Clark tends to use ambiguous body language, gestural communication, and positioning. Clark suffers in silence a lot, and is the least emotionally expressive character in the show. He rarely gets angry, and while Lex often seems visibly upset or on the verge of tears, Clark is confined to a perpetually moist expression as he hugs his friends, telling them that everything will be all right. The suggestion here is that Clark doesn’t have the luxury of breaking down, since he has a cosmic/comic responsibility to protect his friends, loved ones, and the world in general. But I also suspect that rendering Clark so visibly emotional would disrupt his mythological potential, and thus disrupt certain entrenched American ideological practices around heroic democracy and the dream of rugged individualism that Superman represents.

Works cited

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jenn. “Sleep While I Drive.” Level Three Records Room—Smallville Fanfic., Sept 2005.

Kustritz, Anne. “Smallville’s Sexual Symbolism: From Queer Repression to Fans’ Queered Expressions.” Refractory. Vol 8 (1): Fall 2005.

Lande, Carl. “Intro.” Steffen Schmidt, ed. Friends, Followers, and Factions. Berkley: University of California, 1977.

Martines, Lauro. Strong Words: Writing and Social Strain in the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2001.

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Penley, Constance. NASA/Trek: Popular Sex and Science in America. NY: Verso, 1997.

Robinson, Michael G. "The Day Superman Changed.” Refractory, vol 6, 2004: 1-15.

Sedgwick, Eve K. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkley: University of California, 1990.

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TV Tome: Smallville

Wilcox, Rhonda. “Lois’s Locks: Truth and Representation in Lois and Clark.” Elyce Rae Helford, ed. Fantasy Girls. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000: 91-114.

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2001.

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