I particularly appreciated her argument that: ‘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.’ This neatly sums up one of the things I love about Smallville—-it’s unexpectedness. It appears so wholesome on the surface, but it also masks so much!
Note: Spoilers for Seasons 1-5 in the following discussion.
Battis looks at ‘Clark’s eroticism rooted in pastoral traditions, and Lex’s eroticism emerging from urbanity.’ So her essay begins with some reflections on the pastoral ‘site’ of Smallville. Again contrasting it with other shows which portray smalltown life as ‘dens of entertaining emotional dysfunction', she argues that '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.’ She takes this further by arguing that fans themselves ‘see the characters’ sexuality as being peculiarly embedded within their own public spaces and economic backgrounds’, with Lex as civic/urban Renaissance man and Clark as rural/pastoral/naïve. I’d agree that the show does give us this dichotomy, but I was also interested to see that Battis argues that Smallville the town is a site where the urban and the pastoral converge:
‘The paranoiac bonds within Smallville (and particularly those between Clark and Lex) emerge from the closed-in conditions of the town itself … 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.’
That’s a reading I hadn’t articulated myself, but which I’m drawn to agree with. I also think Lana’s one of the most interesting characters to explore in terms of her relationship to the pastoral and the urban. Her deepest longing is to see beyond Smallville (windmill!) but she can’t ‘escape’ her ties there. At the start of Season 4 we saw her pursue a more urban life in Paris, but she was drawn back almost against her will. Is it any wonder then that she is torn between the two men that represent the urban and the pastoral respectively—-Lex and Clark? This is one reason why I now find Lana interesting as a character—because like Smallville itself, she represents a ‘site’ where the pastoral and urban converge and engage in a continual tug-of-war with one another.
Lex as language
Battis explores the meaning of Lex’s name, outlining the obvious classical references but also the following:
‘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.’
Now, that’s an interesting reading! I haven’t seen very much written about this connotation before. (Anyone?) I certainly agree that Lex is in a constant state of flux, and more than any other character has shown a willingness to submit to the needs or desires of others—however, in the later seasons (particularly Season 5, but beginning in Season 4), Lex has seemed to ‘harden’ himself against this. He’s become more rigid and inflexible, less willing to concede—most notably with Clark, but also with others. In his lingual status, he is moving towards prescriptive rather than evolving.
Battis has this to say about Lex as language:
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.
She seems unwilling to call Lex’s attempts to influence Clark either well-meaning or malevolent. I’d be more confident and say that Lex began by thinking he could genuinely offer Clark something of value by sharing some of his more worldly knowledge/language. The relationship was made more equal by the fact that Lex appreciated and idolised Clark’s simplicity and ‘goodness’. However, as their relationship came under strain, Lex shifted into using language as a tool to persuade Clark, to manipulate Clark, and to ‘conquer’ Clark whether Clark wills it or not.
Battis also explores the importance of silences—-and it’s here that she, understandably, draws a parallel with ‘closeting’: Smallville thrives on what isn’t said, what gets left out, the blanks and dark spaces that its characters carefully step around. Yes! Where does that place Lex, as language, then? Lex’s use of language has often been more deliberate and overt than other characters, and it’s also made others uncomfortable from time to time. And he always wants the truth stated not just implied. In Season 5, I read Lex very much as knowing the gist of Clark’s ‘secret’ but being embittered that this has never been stated overtly. He wants to fill the silence, he wants control over it—-just as language strives to define, and thereby confine and control the universe.
On the matter of Smallville as concerned with silences, Battis concludes: ‘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.’ Well, anyone that’s read my SV meta would know that I agree on this point—-it’s in allegory that SV excels. However, as Battis points out, ’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.’ This reminded me of a discussion I’ve been having with frelling_tralk about her frustration with some of the literalism in SV. There are several tensions within Smallville that are never fully resolved and which periodically arise to frustrate viewers because it prevents one reading from predominating over another. Clark and Lex as allegorical figures versus Clark and Lex as ‘normal’ people is one of these. And at a broader level so is the allegorical/symbolic reading versus the literal—-although at times these intersect. Clark and Lex have unshakeable destinies and are responsible for those destinies-—sometimes it can be hard for us as fans to live with paradoxes such as this.
Where to from here
Battis’s article is most shaky when she looks to the future. The article was written after Season 4, but before Season 5, so she was naturally unsure of how far the show would go in the future in showing the gradual estrangement between Clark and Lex. Rather she argues, ‘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.’. That may be true for a long-term observant viewer of the show, but it’s not as true of the show written in Season 5 (and into Season 6)—-which is increasingly more confident in showing Lex as villain, even if it still casts doubt on that as his only possible destiny (Lexmas).
To end on a more positive note, Battis notes:
‘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.’
I agree with that statement, and I think it holds true in Season 5, albeit in an evolved form. In Season 5, Smallville has still been willing to celebrate the importance and significance of Clark and Lex’s past friendship, and consequently its continued impact on them both. Smallville has always avoided typical male stereotyping and it continues to do so-—Clark is deeply anxious about heterosexual sex (Exposed, the entire Clana arc). Clark leans on girl-friend Chloe as his confidant, adviser, sidekick and emotional support. He has no close male friends any more, and his emotional landscape is dominated by the shadow cast by Lex. Lex is busy pursuing the other person with whom Clark has been intimate—Lana—-in ways which obviously parallel his earlier ‘courtship’ of Clark, and with a deliberation and manipulation that belie his confessions of genuine affection for and attraction to her. There’s a lot of displacement going on in this post-rift world! And the boys are still behaving outside of conventional male stereotypes. In part (part only, shippers, so please don't flame me!!) Chloe/Clark read as girl!pals and Lex/Lana read as catty-revenge.
Anyone else got thoughts?! *waits expectantly*