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Friday, March 2, 2012

Irish and Gena: My Kind of Girls!

I have a little theme song.  You may know it.  Sing a verse with me:

"Warrior hotties in tight leather corsets,
Conquering ladies astride charging horses,
Ass-kicking women, and chicks with a sting,
These are a few of my favorite things!"

          Ah, ass-kicking women... My guilty pleasure, and has been for years.  I come by it honestly, having been raised by and with tough chicks, and it was bound to turn up here sooner or later, so fasten your seat belts while we go in search of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.


          I was born in 1948, and became aware of the wider world around me about 1952-53. In books, movies, and the rudimentary television of that time, the words used to describe women were soft, weak, helpless, dependent, clinging, all negatives, each and every one, and yet women quietly accepted the words, and the roles the words relegated them to. Any woman who didn't was a freak, a lesbian (a word not used in polite society, either), or a fetish fantasy dominatrix usually found in comic books that men had to search seedy neighborhoods to find. As you might expect, mainstream comics were decades ahead of the curve on this, and the very first comic book with a female lead was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.  Inked in America by Fiction House as a contract for British Release, Sheena made her first appearance in 1937, predating Wonder Woman by four years.




          Sadly, I have never laid hands on any of these books, and in all honesty, they predate me by over a decade.  As a child of the 1950s, women of my era were epitomized by June Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver), Margaret Anderson (Father Knows Best), and Alice Mitchell (Dennis the Menace). Not surprisingly, all were level-headed housewives whose function was to deliver the setup lines for the real stars of the show, usually the children. The funny women were funny, either because they were utterly incompetent, or were stupidly attempting to force their way into the world reserved for men, that of the meaningful career. In either case, make no mistake, we were laughing at them, not with them. Women appeared in serious drama, detective shows and the like, as secretaries, and in at least one famous case, only appeared partially. In 1957's Richard Diamond, Private Detective, only the shapely legs of 21-year old dancer Mary Tyler Moore appeared beneath a desk as his secretary, Sam. A woman might be a minor technician in an operations center, or dispatch the police to the action, but she wasn't going to see any herself, and I could list several hundred examples of that trope with no trouble whatsoever.


          These women frankly drove me crazy.  I suppose it is no mystery that capable women are a central fixture in my life. Readers will be aware that the first man in my life was my boot camp D.I. I state in my profile that I was the son of a Navy diver and a professional gambler. Dad was the Navy diver, a skill that served him well in ducking the responsibility of parenthood, and if he ever laid eyes on me, I never heard about it. Mom had issues as well, and wasn't involved in most of my upbringing, largely because she was a professional gambler, but the instructive question is, why did she choose that particular career? Mom's brain was wired for mathematics, and had society allowed women to fill those roles, she could have been at the Jet Propulsion Lab working on the Moon shots. Being cursed with breasts instead of a penis, she put that agile mind to work unravelling the permutations of a diabolical card game called Panguingue. Pan, as she called it, is played with eight partial decks combined into a single deck of 320 cards, dealt in hands of ten. It is similar to rummy, but with the odds of any given card combination running to astronomical percentages. Mom turned a good living at that game, recalculating odds on the fly with every card that was exposed. What she did almost wasn't gambling. Her mother was Rosie the Riveter, and the primary breadwinner for my little family unit, which was completed by her mother, my great-grandmother, who turned 60 a month before I was born, and spent her whole life raising children, one generation after another.


            In my neighborhood were about two dozen boys of similar age, and a half-dozen girls. Most of the girls got together with their dolls and tea sets, and I never got to know them, but there were two tomboys who served as my contemporary examples of femininity. They played Space Rangers, Army, and Cowboys (and Cowgirls) and Indians with us. They played games like tag, and hide and seek. They rode bikes with us, and later skateboards, and they played sports, up to and including football (real football; soccer hadn't come to America yet). And they wrestled. There were no weight classes. Everyone wrote their name on a piece of paper and put them in a hat, then someone drew two names, and those two kids went at it. I won some and lost some against these young ladies. Usually when I had to say uncle, it was to a joint lock, or having something twisted the wrong way, but at the impressionable age of 11, I was squeezed into a helpless submission in front of all the guys by the legs of a 12-year old ballerina, and if you don't think that will color your view of a woman's ability, I invite you to engage an obliging dancer, gather your fratboy buddies, and let the humiliation begin.


          But despite the events going on around me, I grew up thinking I was never going to see any women in entertainment who were truly in charge of their own lives. Basically, women on screens large and small who commanded any form of power achieved it by using their feminine wiles to manipulate men into exercising it for them. It was confusing for me to see women acting like that, as certainly none of the women, or girls, of my personal experience would consider that sort of thing for a moment. Further, it angered me to see the woman in a spy or detective show, when the thugs attacked her and the spy, stand in the corner with her hand over her mouth while the spy/detective fought for both of their lives against three or four men. Come on, sister, I realize you're shaken up, but isn't there a board or a bottle lying around that alley that you could break over somebody's head? I mean, if your boyfriend loses the fight, they're going to kill you, too!


         But in the midst of all this came two television shows that broke the mold, and I ate them both up.  One was Annie Oakley, based exceedingly loosely on the historical figure, and starring Gail Davis, and the other was Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, starring Irish McCalla.  I inhaled every episode of both of them, but Annie was, at the end of the day, a girl who had an extraordinary facility with firearms; Sheena was a whole other article.  I don't recall anything ever being mentioned about her background; she simply was.  Played by 5'10" blonde model Irish McCalla (real name, Nellie Elizabeth McCalla), she was a female Tarzan (which may have been the whole point) whose only "power" was her extraordinary skill and athleticism honed by what I presumed was a lifetime living in the jungle.  The show was set in Kenya, which was still a British colony.  She had a sidekick, Bob Rayburn, who was perfectly competent by ordinary standards, but sometimes made to look less so by her abilities.  Rayburn was a guide, played by Chris Drake, who in real life had been one of Carlson's Raiders, an elite U. S. Marine unit.  He was wounded in the bitter fighting on Guadalcanal during the time that that unit was surrounded.  Sheena was often accompanied, and assisted, by a juvenile chimpanzee called Chim.  Typical situations included evil Europeans stirring up trouble, renegade tribesmen on the warpath, and stupid tourists getting themselves into trouble.















          There are influential women around today who credit either or both of these characters for opening their eyes to the potential of women to be in command of their own destinies, but they were very much the exceptions, and were never hugely popular, Annie lasting for three seasons, and Sheena only one.  Sheena ended after the very athletic Miss McCalla, who performed her own stunts, attempted to swing on an improperly rigged vine, slammed into a tree, breaking her arm, and elected not to get back on the horse.




          In 1984, Hollywood took another shot at the Jungle Queen with Sheena, starring Tanya Roberts, whose fabulous legs almost overshadowed her wooden acting - almost.  In this version, Sheena was Janet Ames, the daughter of husband-and-wife geologists who was adopted by a shaman after her parents were killed in a cave-in.  A box office disaster, and panned by critics, those legs were about the only redeeming feature in this mish-mash of convoluted plot twists involving court intrigue, smuggling, land grabbing, and police corruption that ultimately were hardly worth following.  Sheena had developed a "power" since 1955, the ability to communicate telepathically with animals, and for the most part, get them to do her bidding.  She should have paid more attention to them; they might have warned her to pass on this movie.


          Finally came the 2000 TV series, Sheena, starring the heartstoppingly gorgeous Gena Lee Nolin.  In this version, Sheena's name was Shirley Hamilton, and she was also adopted by a shaman after her archaeologist parents died in the jungle.  No word on what of, but that isn't really important.  Sheena's focus in the 2000 series is the protection of the Lamistas, her local forest, which is constantly under siege by various less-than-ecologically minded villains for exploitation of its abundant resources, said villains being abetted in their efforts by a corrupt local government eager to get a cut of the money this exploitation would generate.  This was not a profound drama, and you wouldn't expect an offering like this to be one, but it was enjoyable, it had its moments of tension, and the writing was humorous, even when some of it was unintended.  She loved to read, fictional novels providing her primary source of knowledge about the outside world, and when the monthly plane arrived to deliver supplies, the box for her, prominently marked "Amazon.com," took on a whole new meaning.  Then there was the episode where, wishing to experience what "normal" girls have, she demands that her sidekick, ex-CIA sniper Matt Cutter (John Allen Nelson) ask her on a date.  He does, and directs her to "wear something slinky."  She arrives that night in her usual animal-hide bikini with a boa constrictor draped around her shoulders.


         
          I was sorry to see this show go off the air; it was a fun little piece of mindless late Saturday diversion for Bonnie and me.  But, I tend to like things with a short shelf-life, as witness my enjoyment of The Cape last year.  In this case, it was inevitable, and I think everyone saw it coming.  In my opinion, they made her too powerful to do too small a job.  Her focus was protecting a relatively small patch of forest, her adopted home, from destruction.  A noble endeavor.  The writers gave her moderately superhuman strength and speed, as well as the ability to morph into any warm-blooded animal she could make eye contact with, and also to turn herself into a truly hideous monster called the Darachna, in which guise she killed without hesitation or remorse, which may have been another strike against this incarnation.  Whatever the particulars, the writers fell into the trap that snares so many: her character grew so strong that she became an omnipotent heroine, knocking down a series of straw men whose only function is to showcase her irresistible power.


          But it was a fun ride in between.  Unlike the '50s Sheena, she met her sidekick, Cutter, in the pilot, and didn't much like him.  She grew as a character, show by show, as did her relationships with the other regulars in the show.  This could have gone a long way, had they broadened her horizons, and put her in a little more jeopardy than she ever experienced.  The character was engaging, witty, capable, grew with each experience, and the actress who played her was not only unbelievably easy on the eyes, but well suited to this easygoing, less than profound role.  So, thanks for everything, Gena.  We had a ball.


          So, what's my point here, you may wonder.  I'm just providing some good, clean, fun, like it says on the tin, and into the bargain, giving you a little more insight into your host.  I make no secret of liking the tough women, and now you know a little more about why.  The Jungle Girl is an archetype of 20th century literature, extending from novels to comic books, onto screens large and small, and into the wrestling ring, one of the promotions from the 80s featuring a savage character in an animal skin singlet called, wait for it, Jungle Grrl.  That they occupy a place in the civilized person's imagination is unquestionable.  There have been many jungle girls over the years, probably beginning with Rima in the 1904 novel Green Mansions, by W. H. Hudson, but Sheena is the one that got the press.  I'm glad she did.  In 1937, reeling from a century of Victorian repression, women throughout the Western world were ready for a heroine that took no lip and no prisoners, and Sheena was the one who tore the lid off the box.  Hollywood is overrun with ass-kicking-women these days, most of them cut from the same pattern, an athletic blonde of 30; Fringe, Cold Case, Without a Trace, Prime Suspect, how long should I continue?  Honestly, most of them leave me unimpressed.  It takes more than a shiny pistol and a bitchy attitude to make a Jungle Girl, and most of these newcomers don't have a clue where to start.


          So there's another little piece of me, and some history, and if nothing else, you got some nice cheesecake out of it.  I hope you enjoyed it, maybe even enough to talk about it.  I sure had fun sharing.  So, what's your jungle girl fantasy?  I'm dying to hear it...

Hideout Happenings

          The polls are closed, and Around San Diego has won, so I'll be looking for a suitable site to do a photo essay on.  Hopefully, I can find something unique, that hasn't been done to death by the tourist industry, and give you a look at something extra cool.  The fact is that I have a lot of things on my plate, and I'm not going to be able to hold up this once-a-week schedule of posts unless I give up something else I enjoy doing, so I'm going to aim at about ten days apart, and we'll see how that goes.


          I'm going to close by plugging a project I'm working on with a friend I've never met.  He calls himself "T," and he is ghost-writing my outline notes for the steampunk stories I haven't been able to find the skill to put into prose myself.  I was connected with him by one of those "friends of a friend," and I'm sure glad I was!  My notes, disorganized and hesitating as they are, become seamless adventure stories in his hands; I should mention here that "his" is an assumption on my part.  Anyway, treat yourself to a ride, and find out what a real writer can do with a simple idea.  Catch the blimp at http://beyond-the-rails.blogspot.com/.


          So, that's another one of those things that makes demands on my time...  Anyway, I aim to please, and am already getting geared up to do just that again mid-month.  Until then, get out there and live life like you mean it!

4 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Jack. It is nostalgic and very entertaining. I laughed loudly upon your mention of Sheena's legs. Haha, I agree, the acting was bad. :)

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  2. Great post. Being a fan of strong female characters, it always surprises me when writers, producers, etc. decide to give a female character supernatural powers to make her stronger. The implication, of course, is that she could never be strong or effective enough without them. Despite all of the changes in other aspects of society, our entertainment industry still loves portraying women as damsels in distress for the most part.

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  3. Hi, Irish's show did nothe show end because of her injury, she returned to work. The show was number 1 in the ratings but the producers oddly canceled it and rejected luctrative toy rights.

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  4. Wow! Welcome, everyone. Now I see what kind of post I have to put up to get comments...

    Kristine, I am delighted to see you stopping by. I wanted to follow your site, but don't find the means to do so. I finally remembered to link you in the sidebar, and that will get me over there more often. Sheena has been a subject that Hollywood has repeatedly done, and repeatedly winked and snickered while they were doing it. In fairness, it is a bit of fluff, but by all accounts, John Carter of Mars is set to be a blockbuster, and if you've read the original work by Burroughs, I think you can make the case that it has no more literary merit than Sheena. So, what's the difference? Oh, yeah, John Carter is a MAN...

    Bob, yeah, didn't care for the supernatural powers myself; Sheena wasn't written that way, and that was a change I didn't see a need for. To Gena's credit, she handled it well, but an actress can only do so much with the script she's given. As to the general status of women in cinema, most women today are domestically oriented, and it isn't a fault for Hollywood to portray the society as it exists, but there are strong female characters out there, and they aren't all stamped out with one plain cookie cutter. Honestly, if you'd just stepped off the mother ship, you'd think one actress was playing all those roles I mentioned above, Fringe, etc. How about some variety, folks?

    Anonymous, greetings. Wish you'd left a name, but failing that, I hope to see again around here. I committed the prime fault of the net, going with the first piece of reference I found; you know how thing is... I didn't realize that Sheena was ever #1 in the ratings; that simply reinforces my case. But who in the hell walks away from a top-rated show, and toy rights? And if she had had a toy line in 1955, would that not have been the first one? Maybe the Nerds can help me out on that one. I never got into "toy lines," but wasn't the first one the big G.I. Joe (it's not a) doll?

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