Religious References and Characters in
Superboy Season 1, Episode 17: "The Birdwoman of the Swamp"
featuring a conflict between environmentalist and Native American positions
versus a developer building a housing development for the poor
Superboy season 1, episode 17 ("Birdwoman of the Swamps") is typical of many episodes of the Superboy series in that it rather heavy-handededly grapples with contemporary social issues and reveals a decidedly "liberal" bent. This is not atypical for TV series during the 1980s, many of which used many episodes to examine contemporary social topics in a way that may seem clumsy or didactic compared to TV in some other eras.
"Birdwoman of the Swamps" pits a Native American woman who represents environmentalist concerns against a corrupt housing developer who represents the desire for "progress." The episode starts with Clark Kent, in his role as a reporter, interviewing Mr. Hogan, a housing developer, about a tractor that was overturned on his construction site. Mr. Hogan blames the act on "environmental fanatics." Mr. Hogan thus shows that he believes this to be the work of fundamentalist environmentalists, radical environmentalists, or ecoterrorists. Such people are not simply "environmentalists" in the common, positive sense, but people for whom environmentalist concerns are so central and so zealously followed that Environmentalism functions as a de facto religion. As Clark Kent eventually learns, there are no "environmental fanatics" involved in this story at all. The tractor was overturned through the magic of an elderly Native American woman trying to protect her ancestral home in the Wetlands. She is apparently the only Native American who actually lives there, but she does not want a housing development for the poor built in an area that she claims have belonged to her people since the beginning of time.
There are numerous attemps within the episode to provide balance between the two viewpoints. Superboy himself tries to act as a broker between the two positions. Ultimately the environmentalist position seems more sympathetic in this episode, a perhaps unavoidable outcome in a story that portrays the housing developer trying to murder the old Native American woman as well as Superboy.
Aside from the overt religious and ideological content, one interesting aspect of this episode is the Native American woman. She is portrayed as an active practitioner of traditional Native American religion and Native American magic. In fact, despite her feeble appearance, she rather easily defeats Superboy in a brief skirmish. One must conclude that either Superboy is something of a wimp in this TV series, or that Native Americans practice surprisingly powerful magic.
Superboy Season 1, Episode 17: "Birdwoman of the Swamps" Airdate: 4 March 1989
Written by: Bernard S. Kahn
[Timecode: 0 minutes, 42 seconds. The very start of the episode, after the opening credits. Scene: a construction site in Florida near Shuster, the college town where Clark Kent attends college. Clark and his roommate and fellow journalist for the college newspaper are on the scene working on a story. A large tractor has been overturned. Construction workers are struggling to set it aright.]
Mr. Hogan (foreman): I don't know how long it's going to set us back. My men have spent all morning trying to figure out how to turn that thing over.
T.J. White: [Joking good-naturedly] Turn it over? I think it'd be easier just to build on top of it!
Clark Kent: Do you have any idea who did it, Mr. Hogan?
Mr. Hogan (foreman): You betcha. A bunch of environmental fanatics from your college.
Clark Kent: They left a calling card?
Mr. Hogan (foreman): They didn't have to. Look, I'm not faulting the students too much. I know they're concened about the environment. But I'm trying to build housing for the poor.
Clark Kent: That's a problem, all right.
T.J. White: (Ahem) [Finishes taking a photo of Mr. Hogan. Points to the overturned tractor.] How about a shot of you in front of it, Mr. Hogan? Give people an idea of just how big this puppy really is.
Mr. Hogan: Weighs more than fifteen tons. Must have taken the whole football team to do it.
[Mr. Hogan stands with Clark Kent in front of the large overturned tractor. T.J. White snaps a photograph.]
Clark Kent: Tell you what. When we get back to campus we'll do some snooping around and see what we can come up with.
Mr. Hogan: I'm not interested in pressing charges. I just don't want anything else to happen to this project. It's important to me and the community. So . . . tell 'em to lay off. Okay?
Clark Kent: Okay.
[Clark Kent writes something down in his notebook. When he looks up he sees, in the distance, at the edge of the construction project, an elderly, gray-haired Native American woman staring back at him. The woman has a large black crow perched on her outstretched hand. This is the "Birdwoman of the Swamp" referred to in this episode's title. Clark walks over to the woman.]
Bird Woman of the Swamp: I warned them.
Clark Kent: Good morning.
[The Bird Woman turns to face Clark with a stern, angry look on her weathered face.]
Bird Woman: Who are you?
Clark Kent: I'm Clark Kent. I'm a reporter for the Shuster Herald.
Bird Woman: They didn't believe me. So I had to show them.
Clark Kent: Show them what?
Bird Woman: That they are not in control of the wetlands. My people have lived here since the beginning of time. And will still be here at the end of it.
Clark Kent: Did-- Did your . . . Did your people do that? [Points to the overturned tractor.]
Bird Woman: No.
Clark Kent: Do you know who did?
[The Bird Woman looks up into the sky and sees a flock of birds flying overhead.]
Bird Woman: The birds did it.
[Clark Kent's face shows that he is perplexed and dumbfounded. End of scene.]
[In the next scene, Clark recounts this brief conversation to his friend and colleague T.J. Clark defends the notion that the birds overturned the tractor, as far-fetched as it seems. T.J. tells Clark his theory: That a tractor driver had too much to drink and took a turn too fast, causing the tractor to tip over on the hill. Clark has faith in what the Bird Woman said, however, and explains how lack of evidence of people doing this supports the idea that maybe birds really did it. T.J. says that he thinks "this Indian stuff is just a cover."]
[Later, timecode 10 minutes, 41 seconds. The swamp/wetlands next to the contruction site. Superboy has come to meet with the Birdwoman of the Swamp to broker an agreement between her and the builders, so that she won't cause any more problems on the construction site. She feels that Superboy is betraying her and uses her powerful Native American (Indian) magic to subdue Superboy.]
[During their drive back to campus, Clark has T.J. pull over. Clark gets out of T.J.'s car. After T.J. drives away, Clark changes into Superboy. He returns to the construction site and uses his super strength to set the tractor aright. He notices birds flying overhead watching him. Superboy flies over the Florida wetlands. He returns to where the Bird Woman is standing. Timecode: 5 minutes, 12 seconds.]
Bird Woman: You are the enemy. You pushed back the earth mover.
Superboy (Clark Kent): I'm not the enemy. And neither is the builder of the project. This development is for the poor.
Bird Woman: Forests are being destroyed. Lakes and streams dried up. Animals starved out of existence.
Superboy: This is only one small housing development.
Bird Woman: Little by little, the land as nature made it . . . disappears.
Superboy: Noone's out to hurt anyone. A compromise must be made. Both sides have to give.
Bird Woman: My people have given enough!
Superboy: I will speak with the developer. I promise something will be done.
Bird Woman: Another promise. Only to be broken.
Superboy: Trust me. Please?
[End of scene. Cut to outdoor eating area on Shuster University campus. Lana Lang sits down at a table with Clark Kent, T.J. White and T.J.'s girlfriend. T.J. makes a general announcement to the people in the eating area, explaining that there was a prank at the housing development and the builders want to know who was involved. No one confesses to the prank. Lana opines that the housing development never should have been allowed in the first place. She feels that once those wetlands are covered with human development, they'll never be natural again.]
[Next we see that Clark Kent has returned to the housing development construction site to talk to Mr. Hogan. Timecode: 7 minutes, 26 seconds.]
Mr. Hogan: I'm not gonna ask any questions. I'm just happy whoever turned it over put it back again.
Clark Kent: Well, I don't think there will be any more problems, as long as everyone is reasonable.
Mr. Hogan: When I was in college I blew off a lot of steam myself. [Chuckles lightly.] Uh, what do you mean "reasonable"?
Clark Kent: Well, I mean, certain compromises have to be made.
Mr. Hogan: Well, uh, look, this project has fallen way behind as it is and, uh, there are lots of need people waiting desperately to move in.
Clark Kent: Mr. Hogan, I was talking with the old Indian woman and she's willing to--
Mr. Hogan: She's crazy! Crazy! She talks to birds!
Clark Kent: Mr. Hogan, she might be crazy but she makes a lot of sense when she talks about the wetlands being developed out of existence.
Mr. Hogan: Look, kid, I'm caught between a rock and a hard place.
[Clark Kent looks a way. His face and body language show disappointment.]
Mr. Hogan: I'll tell you what. I'll talk to the mayor. I'll talk to the city council. I'll . . . I'll see what I can do.
Clark Kent: I'd appreciate it, Mr. Hogan.
Mr. Hogan: Great. In the mean time, I'll put the project on hold.
[Mr. Hogan and Clark Kent shake hands.]
Clark Kent: That's great! Mr. Hogan, I don't know how to thank you. Thanks again, Mr. Hogan.
[Clark Kent gets in Shuster Daily Herald vehicle to leave. (The suburban vehicle he is driving has the college newspaper's name emblazoned on it.) Clark Kent drives away. Mr. Hogan walks over to a foreman, dressed in a T-shirt and hard hat like the other construction workers who work for him.]
Mr. Hogan: That crazy Indian woman is causing us more trouble than she's worth.
Foreman: Tell me about it. We've lost two crews, scared away by her Indian mumbo jumbo and stupid magic spells.
Mr. Hogan: And on top of that, she squawked to the city council and held up our permits. Then made a big stink at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Foreman: Hey, just say the word and she's history.
Mr. Hogan: I just said it.
[Mr. Hogan's face and the ominous musical underscore makes it clear that he wants the foreman to murder the Indian woman. End of scene.]
[Next we see a scene with Clark Kent and T.J. White in their newspaper office. Clark is pleased that as a newspaper man he was able to save the Wetlands. He says he is going to go tell the Indian woman the good news. Next we see Superboy flying toward the Wetlands. Timecode: 9 minutes, 54 seconds. Cut to a shot of the Indian Bird Woman. She is conducting a spell. Superboy lands next to her. It is worth noting that the Bird Woman of the Swamp is the only Indian we ever see in this episode. Apparently she lives all alone in the swamp.]
Bird Woman: You again.
Superboy: I just wanted to tell you I spoke with the builder, and he stopped work on the project. He understands the problem.
Bird Woman: The construction has not stopped.
Superboy: That's impossible. I just spoke with him.
Bird Woman: Two liars talking to each other only make more lies.
Superboy: I'm not lying. You must trust me.
Bird Woman: You've done enough harm. You can not be trusted.
[The Bird Woman shakes her Indian magic gourd rattle. Superboy instantly feels a sharp pang in his gut. He puts his hand to his side and grimaces. The Bird Woman continues shaking her magic gourd and Superboy continues moaning. The Bird Woman walks toward Superboy. Superboy falls onto his back on a mound of dirt.]
Birdwoman: For your treachery. You who have betrayed the sacred ground will suffer for it!
[The Bird Woman sticks her magic gourd into the ground next to Superboy. A black crow that is the Bird Woman's stands guard next to Superboy. The Bird Woman walks away, having easily defeated Superboy! The magic gourd continues shaking of its own accord. Superboy continues wincing in pain. Superboy starts to pass out. Superboy grabs a root sticking out of the ground and pulls hmself away. He rolls down an incline toward the swamp. He is far enough from the gourd that he begins to recover his strength. He struggles to stand and then lamely flies away.]
[Cut to interior of a Shuster University classroom, where T.J. White and Lana Lang are in an English class. Clark Kent interrupts the class to get T.J. out of class. Clark tells T.J. that Mr. Hogan lied and hasn't really stopped the construction project. Clark is mad at Mr. Hogan. He wants T.J. to help him stop Mr. Hogan. Clark isn't mad at the Indian woman at all. From here on out this episode follows a simple dichotomy: The Indian woman is good. Saving the swamp from development is good. The builders are evil. In the next scene, we see the construction foreman sneak up from behind the Indian Woman and put a cloth over her face. The Indian woman passes out. Timecode: 12 minutes, 47 seconds. Construction workers take the unconscious Indian woman to the swamp and leave her by the water. An alligator starts emerging from the water.]
[Next scene: T.J. White and Clark Kent are in their vehicle, speeding on their way to do something.]
T.J. White: Take it easy, will you, Clark!
Clark Kent: I can't believe how naive I was to be taken in by that guy.
T.J. White: We're not gonna be much good wrapped around a tree!
Clark Kent: [Imitating Hogan] "Kid, I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place."
T.J. White: Yeah, you're beautiful when you're angry, Clark.
Clark Kent: I can't blame the Indian woman for feeling I'm the enemy, you know? She put me under some spell. I lost all my powers.
T.J. White: Powers? What are you talking about, powers?
Clark Kent: Powers. Powers. Mental powers. I mean, I could hardly think. I mean, even now, I'm being vague.
T.J. White: Yeah, a little.
[Clark Kent and T.J. White speed into the offices of Hogan Construction. Clark and T.J. confront an accountant in the office. T.J. takes some pictures. Clark uses his X-ray vision to look at documents covered on the accountant's desk. T.J. sees a document from Trans-Allied Steel that says that the steel the construction company bought from them is four times too weak to be used for building construction. All the steel on the site came from Trans-Allied. T.J. and Clark realize that there is a scandal afoot. Mr. Hogan is charging the city for regular steel but buying sub-standard steel to be used in the building project. Clark Kent tells T.J. to call the city building inspector and tell him about this.]
[Next we see Superboy flying toward the swamp. From the sky, he sees an alligator approaching the unconscious Indian woman. The alligator hisses dangerously. A number of other alligators are emerging from the swamp. Superboy uses his super cold breath to freeze the water, trapping the alligators. He lands next to the Indian woman and wakes her up.]
Bird Woman: Thank you for saving my life. I was wrong about you.
Superboy: You were right about a lot of things. I made a promise to you. I'm on my way to make good on it.
[Superboy approaches the construction site. The cops and a building inspector are on their way. Superboy confronts Mr. Hogan. They have words. Superboy tells Mr. Hogan that he's a cheat, "stealing from the city and endangering people's lives with" substandard building materials. "Worst of all," Superboy says to the construction worker, "You're a would-be murderer. Attempting to kill an old woman." At Mr. Hogan's signal, the contructor workers try to kill Superboy using their tractors and construction equipment. They fail to kill him. Superboy corrals the foreman and Mr. Hogan in chain link fencing as the cops drive up in police cars. Mr. Hogan screams, "I want my lawyer! I want my rights! I'm a developer! I'm developing houses for the poor! Argh!"]
[In the next scene Clark frets over the article he is writing. To his friends T.J. and Lana he says that he isn't happy about how the article sounds because it makes all builders sound bad, when really Hogan is an exception. The scene ends as Clark's mother calls and he and his friends sing "Happy Birthday" to her.]
Episode 23: Black Flamingo
Episode 24: Hollywood
Webpage created 28 July 2007. Last modified 28 July 2007.
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