Earlier Tuesday morning, rumors began to circulate on the interwebs that the character of Jimmy Olsen in Man of Steel would have a gender swap. The reaction so far has varied widely, which is fair considering that this is still just an unconfirmed rumor. Though, what if it isn’t? Zack Snyder has proven he is willing to mix it up when he made a minor cosmetic change by casting Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White.
Why then has the Internet gone crazy over a simple gender swap from Jimmy to Jenny? Is it because Rebecca Buller, listed on IMDB as “Jenny Olsen”, isn’t fair haired? Are freckles and a Y chromosome that integral to the makeup of what makes the character of Jimmy Olsen great? I don’t think so.
In the litany of “bad ideas”, fans most frequently list a gender swap at the top of the list. We commonly hear the standard refrains: “It won’t work,” “It’s only a gimmick,” and of course my favorite: “They’ve run out of good ideas.” At the same time though, when a gender swap is successful such as the characters of Starbuck and Boomer on Battlestar Galactica, fans applaud forward thinking creators for their ingenuity and breathing new life into old concepts.
So let’s clear the air. Swapping a character’s gender is a pretty silly thing to get upset about. These are fictional characters meant to grow and adjust to the times they represent. When Jimmy Olsen was first created, the newsroom was the heart of the American nervous system: it was how everyone got their news, it was the word of the people, and the journalists working there were men. While there were exceptions, like Lois Lane, reporters were frequently called “Newsmen”. This was a fair depiction of the 1930s newsroom when Superman was originally created.
Over time though, that same newsroom changed. Women became a sizable portion of the workforce; in fact by 2007 over 40% of all newsroom/reporting positions were held by women. Yet in the Superman mythos, out of the four major characters in the Daily Planet only one was a female: Lois Lane. The other three: Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White were all male. Since Superman is a myth meant to represent the times in which his story is told, why not have a gender swap? This would give equal footing to both genders amongst the main characters at the Planet.
It simply makes sense.
“But Jimmy Olsen is supposed to be Superman’s Pal,” you might cry out. Why does gender preclude that as an option? Seriously. Think about it for a moment. Superman is an ideal of how we should all act. He treats everyone fairly; he looks past simple differences such as gender, race and religion. So with this in mind, why would Superman ever intentionally snub a girl from being his friend? He would not.
In fact, while he is known as Superman’s pal, it’s far more common to see Jimmy hang around with Lois Lane on assignments as they are teamed up constantly. With this in mind if he was made into a she, nothing changes. In fact, it gives Jenny a more compelling reason to follow Lois around. She is not only a role model for journalists, but also how a woman can make a name for herself in the dog-eat-dog world of the 24-hour news cycle. This allows us to see Olsen in a brand new light, it allows Lois and Jenny to bond and changes the dynamic in fresh new ways.
Additionally, this also creates potential new depth for Superman. In his career, Jimmy Olsen has always been depicted as a young man who has an almost immeasurable crush on “The Man of Steel”. While this isn’t ever sexualized or meant to imply anything other than a friendship between two companions, Jimmy’s reverence can sometimes come off a little creepy. “Gee gosh golly Superman, you’re the best and I’m so glad you’re my pal.” *cue creepy stalker music*
Now imagine the same setup except we’re dealing with Jenny now. Of course she has a crush on the Man of Steel! Who wouldn’t? All of a sudden, Jenny becomes a more compelling character. While she may never act on this crush, it can be played as subtext, especially if this becomes a successful franchise. As Superman becomes publicly affectionate towards Lois Lane, how would another woman close to him react? Would she be a shrinking violet? Would she understand that this was fate? Or would she be jealous and make poor choices that could lead into more interesting situations?
A great Drama isn’t about how everything is perfect. It’s about showing us a beautiful scene and then destroying it as much as possible before rebuilding it. The scene will never be the same, but the emotional journey we take with the characters increases our fondness for them. It’s always been difficult to write compelling dramas for Superman, as he is so physically and morally powerful. But there is one story that rarely gets challenged by writers: his absolute love for Lois Lane. In fact, this story is so absolute that it’s almost understood that these two should be together no matter what.
But what if there was someone else? What if Jenny didn’t see how perfect they were together? What if she felt hurt, betrayed or angry? As a member of Superman’s circle, Jenny has access to information that could be used to hurt him. Now just imagine if Lex Luthor approached Jenny after Superman had to let her down. What would happen? You see? That’s great Drama.
In the end, what really matters is not Jimmy Olsen’s potential gender swap. Instead, we should hope that, no matter the character’s gender, the creative team behind Man of Steel creates compelling characters that make us want to revisit this world. So bring on Jenny Olsen! I just hope she can outrun that building….