Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Jimmy Olsen, a girl? Why not?

Several comics news websites are reporting the rumour that the male character, Jimmy Olsen will be changed to a female character in the upcoming Superman movie by director Zack Snyder, Man of Steel. Jimmy has been one of Superman’s main supporting characters since 1941, and has been portrayed on screen by such actors as Jack Larson, Marc McClure, Justin Whalin, and Sam Huntingdon. But rumour has it that in Man of Steel, Rebecca Buller will be playing a character called Jenny Olsen. Personally, if this is true I'm all for it. In fact, I think Jimmy should become Jenny in the comics too.

Originally in the Superman comics, Jimmy Olsen served a role similar to that of Batman’s kid sidekick, Robin. Here was a character the young readers of the comic could identify with. With Jimmy, DC Comics were saying to their young fans, “Look, here’s a kid just like you, and he’s Superman’s best pal! If Superman were real, that could be you!” Jimmy even had his own comic, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, in which he would get himself into all manner of bizarre scrapes but inevitably use his supersonic signal watch to call his best friend, Superman, to help him out.

Times changed however, and so did Superman’s audience. Superman’s fans, and fans of comics in general, grew older, and as far back as the Seventies DC Comics’ creators began to search for a new take on Jimmy. For example, in the early 70s, comics legend Jack Kirby took over Jimmy’s comic and took him further away from his traditional depiction as Superman’s Number One fan. Jimmy was now embroiled in adventures involving the mysterious D.N.A Project and its genetically mutated creations, and Superman was as much along for the ride as Jimmy was.

Since the mid ’80s Jimmy has also been affected by the changing role of Lois Lane. Traditionally, Jimmy was “Superman’s Pal”, while Lois was “Superman’s Girlfriend”. By the ’80s creators and fans had finally realised that “girlfriend” and “pal” are not mutually exclusive. It is not impossible for someone’s romantic partner to be their best friend too, in fact, it’s probably essential! And so, as Superman and Lois became engaged and eventually married, Lois quite rightly became Superman’s trusted confidant, and Jimmy’s role became even less clearly defined. Even in DC’s recently rebooted Universe, where Superman has never been married to Lois, Lois is still referred to as Clark Kent’s best friend, leaving Jimmy’s role still as unclear as it has been for years.

There have been some great stories involving Jimmy over the past few decades but I would argue that they have mostly been reinterpretations of very old depictions of Jimmy. Throughout the late 80s and 90s Jimmy was forever encountering rebooted versions of Kirby’s 70s creations. Recent depictions of Jimmy by such great writers as Grant Morrison and Nick Spencer have been fun but drew heavily on the style and ideas of those early Jimmy stories from the 50s and 60s. I would argue that Jimmy Olsen has not been a truly interesting character for the past two decades, and I’d be hard pressed to think of a Superman story from that period that would have truly suffered from Jimmy’s exclusion. Sam Huntingdon’s portrayal of Jimmy in the Bryan Singer’s 2006 film, Superman Returns sums up the problem with the character quite neatly. In that film he is depicted as a bow-tie wearing, “gee-whiz”, throwback. It was fun, but not really essential to the film, or recognisable as any sort of person who’s ever existed in real life. That pretty much sums up Jimmy Olsen these days.

So, why not make him a girl?

Let’s list Jimmy’s defining characteristics. He’s a photographer, or sometimes a reporter. He’s young, usually late teens or early twenties. He’s Superman’s pal and he idolises Clark Kent and Lois Lane. He’s brave. Would any of these characteristics be lost or changed if Jimmy became Jenny? No, and changing Jimmy to Jenny could potentially open up the character to some story avenues that had not been possible before. We’d lose nothing, and potentially gain more.

If DC Comics were to ever perform such a switch I would imagine it would be done by some cosmic, time altering story telling device, or perhaps a multi-part, much hyped, DEATH OF JIMMY OLSEN storyline, in which Jimmy would die and be replaced by a cousin or a sister. But here’s a thought. Why not have a storyline in the comic where Jimmy decides that from now on he wants to live as Jenny? Remember, the whole DC Universe has recently been rebooted. We’ve seen very little of this version of Jimmy so far that would contradict a storyline where Jimmy reveals that his gender identity is different from his sex, and that he would now like to live as Jenny Olsen.

We live in a society that has a long way to go in its understanding and acceptance of transgender people. If handled properly, a prominent trans character in something as iconic as the Superman comics could go some way towards helping and educating us all. At the very least it opens up the possibility of a story that we’ve never seen told before in a mainstream superhero comic and it contradicts none of the defining characteristics I listed above. In fact, one of the defining characteristics I listed was ‘brave’. Choosing to live as you feel you truly are even if it means facing a world that may not understand or approve of your decision? Sounds pretty brave to me.

(A version of this article appears on worldofsuperheroes.com)

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