So meta it burns. (Kinda.)

the new adventures of the over-emotional superman

When I was young—much younger than I originally thought, to judge by the 1993-1997 run dates—I watched a lot of Lois and Clark, though more because my parents were watching it and I wandered in than because of any predilection toward comic books or superheroes. (I gather, in fact, from contemporary comics fans that they were scandalized by this series and its camp, and they abhor its treatment of the beloved Superman franchise…though I’m a pretty big fan of camp and have been disappointed in all other renderings of the character, which tend to lack it.)

One of the earliest journal entries I can remember writing about something outside my narrow, family-and-school focused world revolved around this episode and how it upset me so much I had to leave the room when it aired. At the time I said what upset me was the “open” feelings Clark and Lois displayed when (spoilers!) the shrinking occurs. This doesn’t mean kissing—it’s season three; kissing is old news—and it certainly doesn’t mean sex or violence because, hello, prime time TV in the mid-90s. I have no idea where that old journal is so I can’t look it up to confirm exactly what words I used, but I know I couldn’t have been able to bring anything remotely close to an adult eye to my response for years. When I found it on Hulu and rewatched it, I think there’s more at work than just adults being upset on TV. Which is what I assumed I took issue with.

I was huge into shrinking movies as a kid. Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Alice in Wonderland the musical, that Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Goosebumps where you can choose whether to grow large or shrink (I always picked shrink). I don’t know why I obsessed over shrinking; likely I spent so much time reading books about small creatures (Ralph S. Mouse, Redwall, The Indian In The Cupboard) that that was the most adventurous story I could think of. Not to mention the most accessible, since it makes the benign everyday parts of a kid’s life into obstacles to be written about with gusto.

So that’s why I was drawn to this Lois and Clark episode to start with. As soon as I saw the people locked up in the beginning, I was hooked. But what with the whole superman thing and all, Clark shrinks more slowly, and we hear from Lois what I would long regard as the  most horrifying line to ever come into your life: “What’s happening to you?” I remember that line specifically, writing it down and just shuddering and noting that, too. The helplessness of it, the implications of the unknown—they were awful. But also the repugnance. That’s what I get now, rewatching the episode, that I couldn’t articulate as a kid. When Lois sees Clark with his sleeves flapping, and she starts to joke “Well either your shirt’s growing or you’re…” And she trails off with this stricken look on her face, and Clark’s face twists in misery and he tries to hide the trailing shirtsleeves. The shame is what I didn’t get as a kid. I’m laying aside the vast majority of the sexual politics of this show because a.) I’m not rewatching the whole thing and b.) I was too young to care at the time, so obviously there are tensions I missed. But the message in this episode is clear: getting smaller is horrible. A terrible, terrible curse. Even though it’s only a couple of inches—only enough to Clark’s sleeves hang over his hands—he is mortified. And Lois not only sees his mortification, but she acts as though he is justified in it and tries to comfort him, even though she herself is terrified. And that whole emotional situation squicked me something awful as a kid.

Then there is the doctor. The seriousness of the medical setting. The grim faces. The words “begins to break down.” Not to belabor the point of my weirdness as a kid, but in addition to shrinking and natural disasters, I had a brief fascination with medicine. Or rather, what can go wrong with you that causes you to need medical care. Note how when the doctor tells Clark/Superman he has experienced “a loss of height and body mass,” and then notices how he towers over his patient, he lowers his eyes deferentially and stoops a little lower. Out of courtesy, or kindness, and to spare Clark’s pride. And Clark/Superman sees that, and says it’s all right, he doesn’t have to do that. Watching that I feel the ghost of a twist in my gut. That’s it right there, I think, that’s what I couldn’t stand. Clark’s knowledge of why the doctor is doing what he’s doing—it’s for his, Clark’s sake—and his gentle dismissal of it. It made my skin crawl.

And then, the absolute worst two scenes in the episode. Where Clark asks to meet her late at night at the Planet, and then hides from her while he talks to her, trying to keep her from seeing him so she doesn’t freak out. “I know that if you see me right now, you’ll be frightened. I’m frightened.” That whole exchange terrified me. I think, again, because of his attempt to protect her despite this weird, shameful thing that was happening to him. Happening, not “had happened,” because the ongoingness of it was also part of the terror. It was still happening and he was still trying to protect her. The tenderness there freaked me out. I left the room.

Now, older, I can also look at it and say that as a kid who would never, ever cry in front of people and who, when moved to do so by extreme pain or loss, was deeply embarrassed beyond all reason, perhaps part of what upset me was his seeing Lois unguarded. Yes, I know, that sounds ridiculous for a kid to think, but I would have commiserated with Lois’s desire to appear tough at any age, and when she’s on the phone with the doctor and Clark is flying around the room, able to hear her but before she knows he’s there, she’s crying and flipping out in a way she wouldn’t want him to see. And especially when she hangs up the phone and cracks and says she needs him—oh, don’t laugh! see? I may no longer be a kid but I’m still hugely resistant even to vouching for that kind of (fictional!) undoing—especially when she says that, my stomach just flips over. She wouldn’t want him to see that. She’d want to be the tough-as-nails, we-can-totally-get-through this supportive person she thinks he fell in love with. And he snuck up on her and saw her at her weakest and most miserable! Poor Lois.

But, then, I had way better things to do as a kid—and as a teenager, for that matter—than moon around over some dumb guy, so none of the above would have occurred to me. I had no interest in relationships, either as objects of study or of desire, so that’s why I would’ve complained about the “open emotions” in the show, rather than honing in on ways one would or wouldn’t want to appear to one’s significant other, and how the foiling of those plans would be deeply unsettling. Unsettling is, I think, the best way to describe the episode’s effect on me. I wasn’t grossed out, or pissed off, or made to suspect that the same things (what, shrinking??) might happen to me one day. (Which makes it not simply a too-young medical phobia, like if you have a relative die of a cancer you learn is inheritable and then spend your childhood worrying you’ll get it too. It wasn’t that.)

Adults were supposed to be rational people. It was their approval I sought—I didn’t want to be good for my age, I wanted to be good, period, as judged by the rational beings in power over me. This show, however fictional, made it clear that adults could actually break down and fall apart the way I thought I’d be immune to, upon finally achieving adulthood. I knew they could get angry, sure—what kid doesn’t, unless I guess you’re one of those coddled brats who will turn into a clusterfuck of a personality disorder as an adult—but not sad. Not freaking-out, slamming-down-the-phone-and-crying-into-your-hands sad. My parents were rational people. My teachers were rational people. The fact that I could reach their status in life and still not be safe from that kind of collapse was deeply, well, unsettling.

Or maybe I just thought it was “the mushy stuff.” Who knows.