Film, History, TV

Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines

Let’s play a game. It’s called ‘Name a Superhero’. Anyone will do, just think of one.

Okay… Go. Got one?

Chances are it’s got a ‘man’ suffix, right? Spiderman, Superman, Batman – in the arena of superheroes there’s no doubt that it’s a (Super)man’s world.

But what about the women, asks filmmaker Kristy Guevara Flanagan in Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012). Specifically, what about Wonder Woman, feminist icon and one of the longest-running comic characters of all time?

With the long-promised Wonder Woman movie almost upon us, what better time to dive into the original Nazi-puncher’s origin story…

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Flanagan’s film charts the evolution and impact of Wonder Woman, while exploring the empowerment of women over the past eight decades.

Wonder Woman was created by psychologist and inventor William Moulton Marston (inventor of the systolic blood pressure test, a central component of today’s lie detector), a man with no writing credentials who fast-talked his way into a comic writing position after pitching the idea of a female superhero, describing his creation as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world”.

When Wonder Woman (Diana, an Amazonian warrior princess) burst onto the pages of DC comics in 1941, it was right in the middle of WW2. All over America, women had left their kitchens and stepped into the workforce in order to keep the wheels of industry turning while all the able-bodied men were off giving Hitler and the Axis what for. By 1945 more than 2.2 million women were working in the war industries, along with countless non-war-based industries.

From flying planes to playing baseball, in the early 1940s much of the essential and non-essential work was carried out by US women and the wheels of industry continued to turn, without the world spinning off its axis (pun intended). It was in this new world of female dynamism that the Wonder Woman comics at first flourished.

When the war ended the men returned home and resumed their former careers, while the women who had been driving the engine of industry returned to the kitchen sink. Gradually a collective sense of amnesia set in, until the important role of played by woman in wartime was all but forgotten.

This was reflected in the pages of Wonder Woman, and from the late 1940s until the ’60s, Princess Diana’s stories became increasingly lacklustre. (This was not helped by the advent of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulatory body formed in the 1950s as a response to public concern over the link between “objectionable” comic book content and juvenile delinquency.) A post-war sexism had set in, and by the ‘60s the once proud female scourge of countless villains and Nazis could be found power-less (having surrendered her powers in order to remain in ‘Man’s World’) and running a clothing boutique.

At this point in time, the Woman’s liberation movement was gaining momentum. Feminists like Gloria Steinham, angry at the lack of female heroes and incensed at Wonder Woman’s enfeebled state, insisted that the character be returned to her former glory as “a symbol of female power”. Terrified at the prospect of further attacks by Steinham and co, DC comics capitulated and even threw in a black female sidekick called Nubia. Score two for equality!

Next in the evolution of Wonder Woman was her incarnation on the ‘new media’ of the 1970s – television. The live action Wonder Woman (played by the beautiful Lynda Carter) was genuinely groundbreaking – to have a female lead on a TV show in the ’70s was unheard of (and sadly remains a difficult sell for network execs to this day), and it opened the door for a host of female-led shows like The Bionic Woman and Charlie’s Angels.

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The most compelling message of Wonder Woman, the television series was clear and impactful: woman can be, and often are, heroic too. This live-action portrayal of a powerful, intelligent and fearsome female warrior provided inspiration to a generation of girls growing up in the 1970s. In Flanagan’s film, the testimonial given by Linda Carter about grown up Wonder Woman fans telling her how much the show inspired them to succeed as woman in male-dominated professions – as astronauts, NASA scientists etc – is heartwarming.

Still, amid all the empowering talk one depressing fact surfaces. Buffy and Wonder Woman, Ripley, Captain Janeway and Agent Dana Scully are all female heroines created by men.

Why are there so few female-created superheroines? One answer could lie in good old-fashioned gender imbalance; since the vast majority (97%, according to the recent statistics from Women’s Media Centre in America) of decision-making media positions are held by men, the roles and input of woman are limited.

Women still live in a world bombarded with over-sexualised versions of femininity, a world where they still earn less than their male counterparts and have less decision-making power over how they are portrayed in the media. And in this depressing context, Flanagan’s film is essential viewing.

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Film, History

Elvis & Nixon/ Gods of Egypt/ The Boss

At the top of the month, Melissa McCarthy struts her sassy stuff in The Boss (June 10) in which she plays a women who looks like disgraced TV chef/racist Paula Dean (disgracist?) but acts like disgraced TV chef/ white collar criminal Martha Stewart.

The story opens on successful business tycoon Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) who’s running her empire all FTSE-loose and fancy-free until she gets busted for insider trading.

After six months in the pen’ with Crazy Eyes and the gals she’s released and as she’s newly penniless, she’s forced to move in with her long-suffering PA, Claire (Kristen Bell). While living with Claire and her adorbz daughter, Michelle hits upon her best money-making venture yet: a baking company to rival the evil Girl Scouts who surely have a merit-badge for ‘greatest market stranglehold’ with their dry-ass cookies.

What sounds like part- Troop Beverly Hills, part-Down and Out in Beverly Hills is sadly, like neither of those movies. Despite McCarthy’s comic prowess, critics have given this one a thorough mauling (“There’s nothing going on in “The Boss” except Melissa McCarthy groveling for affection from the same viewers who already bought tickets to see her,” says the RogerEbert.com review.)

We’re still hopeful for Ghostbusters though, right?

Did you know that the most requested photo of all time from the American National Photo Archives is one of a bloated Elvis shaking hands with a toothy Nixon? Tired of all the requests the ANPA have no doubt decided to release a movie about the event, Elvis & Nixon (June 17) in a bid to get people to shut the hell up about it.

I must confess that at first I misread the title as ‘Elvis Vs Nixon’ and thought it was perhaps an addition to the Predator Vs Alien, Freddy Vs Jason ‘versus’ series of movies, but alas, it is not.

Allegedly based on true events, the movie chronicles the bizarre meeting in 1970 of Elvis (Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Shannon) and US President Richard Milhaus (haw, haw!) Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Legend has it that Elvis showed up on the White House lawn insisting on an audience with the POTUS, and being Elvis, received one. Never one to miss a photo op Nixon agreed to the meeting. Why, you may ask, did Elvis, by then in the twilight of his career and very fond of cheeseburgers and pills, request a meeting with America’s squarest president?

It was all a elaborate plan to get a Federal Agent’s badge, which Elvis secretly believe would make it easier for him to cross international boundaires with all his guns and myriad narcotics. That scamp! Anyway, Elvis & Nixon sees both Shannon and Spacey do their best impressions: though Shannon’s face is a little too Herman Munster-ish to really portray the King, while Spacey’s performance pales in comparison to that of Frost/Nixon‘s excellent Frank Langella.

Released on the same day is already much-maligned historical white face-fest, Gods of Egypt (June 17). Gerard Butler and Game of Thrones‘ golden handed sister shagger, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

The plot is thus: vicious, but broodingly sexy Egyptian god of darkness, Set (Gerard ‘I’ll Do Whatever Accent I Want’ Butler) bests goodie-goddie god Horus (Coster-Waldau), plucking out his eyes and seizing control of the empire. Eww.

Enter brave mortal Bek, with two turn tables and a microphone, and a plan to stop Set by enlisting Horus’ help. Cue lots of OTT CGI, lots of ancient Egyptians with bizarrely Anglacised accents and, like, zero actual Egyptians, even though there’s a couple of good ones floating around the acting-sphere (looking at you, Mr Robot‘s Rami Malek).

Given the ferocious pummeling the movie’s producers received for firstly having an all white (almost– there’s one black guy) cast and later, for having released a terrible movie, perhaps they should’ve spent more time on basics like actors and scripts instead of CGI shennanigans.

However, no plot contrived by a Hollywood script writer could ever compare to the most popular legend about Set, Horus and bit of lettuce.

The story goes that Set, eternally locked in a battle for supremecy with his precoccious nephew Horus, one night decides to Bill Cosby his relative rival, plying him full of booze and attempting to rape him. However, a sober Horus manages to place his hand between his legs and catch Set’s, er, essence.

The next morning he runs to his ma, Isis (sidenote: it’s super ironic that a group so dedicated to the destruction of antiquity share a name with an Egyptian goddess, non?) who does what any good mother would do and chops off his hand off. Then she rubs some special ‘lotion’ on Horus’ phallus, causing him to ejaculate, whereupon she snatches that shit up in a pot.

Still with me? Then she goes to Set’s garden and to find out what his favourite food is. Lettuce, the gardener tells her (possibily the maddest aspect of this whole saga: who the fuck loves lettuce? Though it was considered an aphrodisiac during this period, so maybe not surprising that sex-pest Set loved it). So, Isis prompts smears Horus’ semen all over the lettuce, ’90s gross-out comedy style, and waits for Set to get munching.

So, Horus and Set appear in front of Thoth, mediator of godly disputes, and tell their respective stories. “Horus can’t be ruler of Egypt, I jizzed all over him!” says Set. “Nuh-uh! I jizzed on you!” says Horus. “Fuck this,” says Thoth before casting a nifty incantation to ‘bring forth’ the aforemention semen. And so he does and it bursts forth, appearing as a solid golden disc floatinf above Set’s head. “Well, that’s me fucked, I suppose,” says Set, who concedes defeat and accepts Horus as Egypt’s ruler. THE END. They don’t make make stories like that any more, I think you’ll agree.

Probably for the best.

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History

Queer Women of the 1916 Rising

The contribution of women in the 1916 Rising is a sadly underreported one. The historical narrative familiar to most details the struggle of a small but doomed band of brave men battling the insurmountable might of the British empire. But there were women who took part in the Rising, many women, and among them were more than a few women who loved women. That their contributions have been not just overlooked, but in some cases, literally airbrushed out of the 1916 story is a tragic disservice to Ireland’s heroic women.

Although ‘lesbian’ isn’t necessarily how they would’ve identified themselves – it is important to approach any discussion in the context of the time – the fact is that some of the women of the Rising were in same-sex relationships, and unapologetically so.

Kathleen Lynn was one such woman. Born in Mayo in 1874, Lynn was a doctor (her portrait, the only female face among a sea of masculine oil paintings, still hangs in the Royal College of Surgeons), a suffragette, an active member of the labour movement and was chief medical officer during the Rising. Madeleine ffrench-Mullen born in Malta, was the daughter of British Naval Officer with Irish connections and an ardent suffragist.

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Lynn’s portrait, which still graces the Royal College of Surgeons, Dublin

The pair met during the 1913 Lock Out, where Lynn was giving first aid lectures and administering free medical treatment to the striking workers and their families, and the two remained together until Madeleine’s death in 1944. Both women joined the Irish Citizen Army together providing medical support and on Easter Monday, Lynn found herself based at the unenviable position of City Hall (which backs onto Dublin Castle, HQ of the British Army), while ffrench Mullen was at College Green.

When Lynn arrived at City Hall with medical supplies she discovered that Sean Connolly, an actor in charge of that garrison, had been mortally wounded by an errant gunshot. When it became clear the he wouldn’t survive, she found herself as the ranking officer of the group of 16 men and nine women stationed there and so, assumed command of the outpost. Its proximity to the headquarters of the British Army meant that it came under heavy fire and after a single day the rebels were arrested.

The legend goes that when the commanding British officer demanded to see the ranking rebel officer for his surrender, he was aghast to learn that it was a woman. Eventually the shock faded enough for him and his troops to escort Lynn to Ship Street barracks, before transferring them to Kilmainham. Sharing a squalid cell with Lynn, Ffrench-Mullen wrote in her diary at the time that “as long as we are left together, prison was somewhat bearable”. Later Lynn was transferred to Mountjoy, which she noted was a cleaner jail with better conditions for prisoners, but wrote in her diary “but I would give £10,000 to be back in Kilmainham with Madeleine.”

After the Rising in 1919, Lynn and ffrench Mullen, together with many of their female comrades founded St Ultans hospital, the first all-female staffed hospital for infants in the country. The couple lived together in Rathmines until ffrench-Mullen’s death in 1944.

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Lynn (3rd from left) and ffrench-Mullen (far left) with Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne and other dignitaries outside St Ultans (circa 1930)

Despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence to suggest that Lynn and ffrench-Mullen were in a longstanding same-sex relationship with each other, this was until recently a matter of contention among some historians. The lesbians of the Rising were in essence hiding in plain sight. Since they didn’t identify as lesbians (such popular determinations were still years away), and since they were living unconventional lives away from the kitchen sink and the trappings of domesticity anyway, scrutiny about their sexuality was non-existent.

“They were able to have those relationships in plain sight because of course they were two women living together, two unmarried or ‘spinster’ women as we could call it, and that was not unusual in that society,” says Dr Mary McAuliffe, lecturer in Women’s Histories at UCD. “So they didn’t have to come out, they didn’t have to do that identification because it was quite normal for two women who had not married to live together as companions, as friends.

“The fact that we know they had more than that in their lives comes through in diaries and memoirs and private correspondence about them – it isn’t in the public record, but their hidden history is part of the hidden history of women anyway, and if women were hidden, lesbian women were twice as hidden.

“So a lot of the women who participated in 1916, gay or straight, their histories got airbrushed out of history and it’s only in the last 20/30/40 years we’re beginning to write those histories back in and we begin with those who are more obvious and then we look at the hidden aspects of those histories.

“For example, some of the heterosexual women were having affairs before they got married which was a hidden history as well. If they had been found out they would have been condemned by society, would they have ended up in a Magdalene laundry? You have to think about it like that. At that time sexuality for women was constructed as reproductive, marital and passive – you didn’t make choices around sexuality if you were a woman, straight or gay. So, the histories of sexuality for all women are pretty hidden but if you’re anything other than straight, it’s really difficult to find those histories. “

Another notable and often overlooked couple were Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grenan. Friends since childhood, both women were nurses stationed at the GPO.

It was O’Farrell who brought out the white flag of surrender and whose feet were literally airbrushed out of a photograph so it showed Padraig Pearse surrendering alone.

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A sequence of the original pre-doctored images: O’Farrell, whose feet are visible  beside Padraig Pearse in the first two images, was removed from the final one

The women lived together their whole lives and were buried in the same plot in Glasnevin cemetery. The inscription mentions Elizabeth O’Farrell then adds ‘And her faithful comrade and lifelong friend, Sheila Grenan’. The subtle language of the hidden homosexual. “That’s the type of language that was used for people who were committed to each other, both personally and politically – they said ‘lifelong companion’, ‘lifelong friend’, ‘my friend’ – they used terms like that because they don’t have other language in a way we have today,” says McAuliffe.

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O’Farrell and Grenan’s grave at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

Despite being imprisoned along with Kathleen Lynn rather early on Easter week, Helena Malony, an Abbey actress, was another unheralded but key member of the Rising. She was unquenchably radical, even trying to dig her way out of Kilmainham gaol with a spoon after her capture. Kathleen Lynn later attributed her politicism in part to the influence of Malony who stayed with her and ffrench Mullens in the basement flat of their Rathmines home.

 

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Helena Malony

Born in 1883 and orphaned early in her life, Malony was a radical committed to the intertwined causes of feminism, the labour movement and national sovereignty. In 1908 she established ‘Bean na hEireann’ a monthly magazine advocating ‘militancy, separatism and feminism’ – the only magazine promoting physically aggressive republicanism. In 1911 she earned the distinction of being the first Irish political prisoner of her generation after vandalising a portrait of George V during his visit to Ireland. She was bailed out, but was overjoyed when she was rearrested for calling the monarch a scoundrel. “That was marvellous; I felt myself in the same company as Wolfe Tone,” she later said of her brief arrest.

 

So enthusiastically did she believe in the cause of the Rising that she spent the weeks leading up to the event sleeping on a pile of coats at workers’ co-operative store adjoining Liberty Hall, with a revolver under her pillow. She was involved an a dramatic raid on Dublin Castle which resulted in the murder of an unarmed police officer, before being capture in City Hall and imprisoned in Ship Street barracks. She was then moved to Kilmainham Gaol where she was traumatised by the executions of the Rising’s leaders. After a failed but valiant attempt to dig her way out with a spoon, she became one of only 5 women to be transferred to a decrepit jail in Aylesbury, England together with 2,500 of the conflict’s male combatants.

After her release she continued to campaign for equality for women (and against the rescinding of the principle of equal citizenship enshrined in the Proclamation) against a pro-Treaty Labour Party and a male-dominated trade union. Despite opposition to her firebrand ways, she was elected president of the Irish Trade Union in 1937, becoming only the second women to hold the office. Despite a number of affairs with men (including Sean Connolly) she lived with psychiatrist Evelyn O’Brien, from the 1940s until her death 1967.

“I’m pretty sure that Helena was bisexual,” says Marie Mulholland, author of The Politics and Relationships of Kathleen Lynn. “Helena had a number of affairs with men but certainly the last 20 years of her life she spent with a woman, a psychiatrist called Evelyn O’ Brien, and when Dr O B died, her family insured that all over her personal papers were destroyed which is always an indication that something is being hidden by the family.”

Another possible addition to the queer pantheon of Rising heroes is Margaret Skinnider, a slacks-wearing sharpshooter who was the only woman to be injured during the Rising.

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Scottish sharpshooter Margaret Skinnider

Born in Scotland in 1892, the daughter of Irish parents, Skinnider became an active participant in the women’s suffrage movement and the fight for Irish independence as a young woman. After getting involved with Constance Markievicz, Skinnider began smuggling bomb making equipment and detonators into Dublin (hidden under her hat) ahead of the Rising.

She joined the Irish Citizen Army as a dispatch rider and was a scout and sniper for the St Stephen’s Green garrison. She was mentioned three times for bravery in dispatches sent to the GPO, before being shot 3 times – the only woman to have been shot – and hospitalised. She wore only men’s clothing during this time. “In pictures of Margaret she is always dressed in boys clothes and she insisted on being dressed as a boy for the Rising, because since she was a crack shot, she had to move very quickly around the city as a sniper and she wanted to be able to move efficiently and so she poo-pooed the idea of being in a skirt,” says Mulholland.

Skinnider didn’t brook any discussion about her right and capability to take place in such a violent uprising, telling a sexist commander that “we had the same right to risk our lives as the men; that in the constitution of the Irish Republic, women were on an equality with men. For the first time in history, indeed, a constitution had been written that incorporated the principle of equal suffrage.”

After her injuries, she was deemed too ill for imprisonment and managed to evade capture on her release from hospital. She fled to Glasgow before making her way to the US where she fundraised for the republican cause.

She was active during the War of Independence and Civil War (she opposed the Treaty)and in 1922 became paymaster General for the IRA. She was eventually imprisoned and held in the North Dublin Union where she became Director of Training for the prisoners.

After her release from prison she worked as a teacher in the Sisters of Charity primary school in Kings Inn Street, Dublin where she remained until her retirement in 1961. She became President of the INTO in 1956, where she continued to campaign for the rights of women. She never married and died 1971.

Finally, after 100 years, the contributions of these women and the stories of their lives – and loves – are beginning to surface, helping us to expand understanding of the events of 1916.

“It’s changing and we see that they did contribute, that they were vital to the fight for Irish freedom, and that their personal lives and their personal histories, whether they were straight or gay or whatever, their stories are absolutely central to our understanding of social, economic, political histories of the time,” says McAuliffe.

For some people though, there will never be enough proof of the definitive nature of women like Kathleen Lynn, Elizabeth O’Farrell and Helena Malony’s sexual orientations. “There is resistance. People are still homophobic, backwards sometimes. People say: ‘there is no proof’ and it is very difficult to find proof. How much proof do you actually want?”

This article originally appeared in GCN Issue 316, April 2016.

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