Over the past several days, a rumor, based on both still photos and IMDb credits for Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman movie Man of Steel, has spread throughout the nerdosphere: that Snyder’s made an important change to the Superman canon, turning Superman’s pal, cub reporter Jimmy Olsen, into a girl. Some observers have suggested that the switch, if it proves to be true, would have some basis in Superman comics, given Jimmy’s habit of dressing up like a woman. But if Snyder really is gender-bending Olsen, I hope he’s thinking about what a permanent sex change might mean for the character—and what it would mean for Superman to have a close female friend.
Superman writer and comics commentator Grant Morrison has suggested that Jimmy Olsen turned to drag in response to his essential uselessness to Superman. “Jimmy Olsen could barely stand to be himself for more than five pages,” Morrison wrote in his book Supergods. “Prefiguring David Bowie and Madonna, his life became a shifting parade of costume changes and reinventions of identity.” Jimmy may have gotten power from dressing up like a woman, but those transformations underscored the extent to which Jimmy as himself wasn’t much use to Superman, and in fact, often ended up in need of rescue.
If Jimmy’s going to become Jenny, it would be nice if Snyder swapped out not just the name but also the helplessness. And if Man of Steel is going to chronicle the rise of a young Clark Kent to manhood and superherodom, why not make Jenny Olsen, say, an experienced reporter at the Daily Planet who helps show him the ropes, rather than a cub reporter who looks up to Clark Kent as a journalist and Superman as a higher being? With Amy Adams playing Lois Lane, Superman’s love interest slot is handily filled. How great would it be to see Jenny as a true partner to Superman?
It’s sad that it would be radical to have a woman in a big superhero movie who isn’t a secretary, glorified or otherwise, a love interest, or both. But in a world where we can’t even get a Wonder Woman movie or television show off the ground, a smart Jenny Olsen would actually represent progress.