Margot Kidder, who died Sunday at age 69, was more than just the actor who played Lois Lane in a series of “Superman” films in the 1970s and ‘80s. She was a passionate advocate for the environment and for peace, a woman whose own struggle with mental illness chipped away at deep stigma, and a star whose most famous role tells us much about feminist progress.
Kidder’s Lois Lane was a character who bridged the notoriously male-focused world of comics with a new feminist America. Kidder didn’t write her part and wasn’t responsible for the character’s feminist shortcomings, but her role nonetheless illustrated the tension at play in late 20th-century America. Lois Lane was both a competent, ambitious journalist and a slightly flighty damsel in distress. She sniffed out stories and lobbed flinty challenges to Clark Kent; she also was in seeming constant need of Superman’s saving.
It can be tempting, when an actor dies, to reframe her most famous roles as fitting into some modern ideal. Lois Lane was not a flawless feminist icon. But neither was Kidder’s Lane a simple comic book babe. Instead, she reflected back the peculiarities and contrasts of the time.
Kidder, too, was a woman who shifted with the decades, truly seeming to come into her own – as many women do – in middle age. There was her well-publicized psychiatric breakdown in the 1990s, which left so many Americans wondering how Lois Lane could go from international stardom to roaming, confused, through Los Angeles backyards.
Instead of hiding in shame, Kidder answered the question: untreated bipolar disorder, and a mind and a body not well attended to. She reportedly disliked the term “mental illness” but nonetheless talked openly about her own struggles and what worked for her to overcome them. And here, too, there were contradictions.
Her openness was crucial in breaking down the stigma around mental health. But she also bristled at pharmacological interventions, dealing with her own challenges through natural treatments. That was certainly her right, but her comments sometimes implied that life-saving drugs – antidepressants, antipsychotics – were perhaps unnecessary.
She put forward a seemingly simple solution to a complicated set of illnesses. And yet she had a few important parts right: that stigma is bad for mental health; that any health challenge, including a psychological one, demands a response that looks at whole-body health and doesn’t separate the brain from the rest of the human.
Decades after she played Lois Lane, Kidder, who was born in Canada but became a naturalized US citizen, became her own superhero, protesting fracking and war, and even getting arrested. She continued to act, but her activism took up much of her leisure time.
No longer Superman’s sidekick, she knew what she wanted to do with her own power: make the world a more peaceful, kind, livable place – her own contribution to truth, justice and the adopted American way.