Moving Beyond the Monochrome of “The Future is Female”

Image

By Emilyn Kowaleski
Emilyn is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program.

If you attended the Women’s March last weekend, you likely saw protestors sporting T-shirts reading “The Future is Female.” Well, maybe they were hidden in the frigid January temperatures, but you’ve seen them – they’ve been everywhere these past few years. The T-shirt came back into feminist fashion in 2015 after lesbian history Instagram account,  h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, posted a photo. In 1975, Liza Cowan took a photograph of her girlfriend, Alix Dobkin, wearing a white crew neck T-shirt with the slogan printed in basic blue letters. The resurfaced photo prompted the hand-crafted goods retailer Otherwild to remake the T-shirt with a similar design. (1) The T-shirt has since been mass produced by a number of different companies in various styles. The pithy, alliterative slogan itself has become a rallying cry to elect female leaders in politics. Hell, I’ve shouted it. I’ve even contemplated buying myself a shirt. They’re cute. Here’s the thing, though – We can’t view the slogan with the same simplicity as the T-shirt’s monochromatic design.

“The Future is Female” implies that there is some sort of universal essence to “femaleness” or “womanhood.” Doing so provides a means of creating unity in order to combat the injustices faced as a result of sexism. The problem is that it ignores other factors of one’s experience that contribute to discrimination such as race, class, ability, sexuality, age, body type and gender identity. This is what Elizabeth Spelman refers to her in her book, Inessential Woman, as “the paradox of feminism.” When we only talk about women in terms of what they have in common, we sacrifice a discussion about difference, and when we only talk about difference, we often sacrifice a sense of unity (a sense of unity that I would argue is created by the slogan and shirt). (2) The real problem with ignoring difference though, as Spelman describes, is that historically, feminists have confused “woman” or “female” with “middle-class white woman,” falsely believing that they are referring to the experience of all women. Feminist thought has shifted as a result of critiques like Spelmans and legal scholar Kimberlee Crenshaw’s 1989 notion of “intersectionality” which focuses on addressing multiple forms of inequality and creating specific ways to resist these forms of oppression. (3) But the ambiguity of “The Future is Female” falls victim to certain kinds of feminist thought prevalent in the 1970’s which promoted notions of “universal sisterhood” at the expense of intersectional thought.

Liza Cowan states in a NY Times article on the resurgence of the T-shirt that “people are re-contextualizing the shirt. Trans-women, men, moms who have sons.” (4) Her comments point to precisely what is so complicated about it. A shirt, in and of itself, does not convey a context. As she insinuates, it is contextualized and re-contextualized by the person who wears it, and by those who interpret it. On each body, our sense of what “female” means will be different.  

Let us then delve into some specific contexts in which the T-shirt has been worn and could be viewed. The photo of Dobkin wearing the shirt was presented in Cowan’s gallery show What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear. On Dobkin, the T-shirt and slogan together were used to communicate lesbian identity specifically. In its origin, the shirt was designed in 1972 for Labryis books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City. In this context, it operates in support of female entrepreneurs. Let’s take “female” off the shirt and to the dictionary. Merriam Webster defines “female” as “of, relating to, or being the sex that typically has the capacity to bear young or produce eggs.” (5) Definitions also list it as synonymous with “women,” or “girl.” But sex and gender are not the same thing; not all women possess female sex organs, or the capacity to reproduce, and not all that do identify as women. I’m not suggesting that we must hold stringently to Merriam Webster’s definition in our understanding of what female can be, merely that inevitably some viewers and wearers of the shirt do. For example,  “T.E.R.Fs” (which stand for Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist) believe that trans women are not “real” women. T.E.R.Fs are all over the internet, and they march at women’s marches, and they wear this shirt.

In a deliberate attempt to avoid the shirt existing in this context and present a more inclusive interpretation, Otherwild writes on their purchasing page for the shirt, “Otherwild believes in an inclusive, expanded and fluid notion of gender expression, identities and feminisms. We support liberation, embrace our trans sisters and brothers, and call for the end of patriarchal ideology, domination, oppression and violence. We believe that ‘The Future is Female’ is the past, the present and the future, and is language that resonates.” (6) Awesome. But if that’s what the slogan insinuated, would the disclaimer be necessary? What the slogan does in practice is place these identities under the homogenous umbrella of “female,” ignoring their individual realities, and the specific forms of discrimination they face due to their race, class, sexuality, and gender identity, etc. If one is to assist in the creation of a future devoid of the white, cis, hetero patriarchy, we must understand the impact of ignoring differences that exist within and outside of womanhood. (Global warming may destroy the planet before we see that future, but let’s keep on chipping away at it, comrades.)

Since Otherwild reprinted the shirt, the slogan has been used to proclaim support for that future. Its sentiment, which in this context we can understand to mean, “In the future, females will lead,” has been used to support the bid for office of female candidates – from Christine Hallquist, Vermont’s first openly transgender gubernatorial candidate, to the first major party African-American female gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, Stacey Abrams, to the cis-white female candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, to name a few as examples. (7) While the solidarity with which the T-shirt and slogan are employed is useful and commendable, solidarity cannot replace an understanding of the specific factors involved in each of their bids for power. The homogeneity of the slogan implies that they will rise to political power at the same time, with equal difficulty, as if the obstacles in each of their paths are the same. As an African-American woman, Stacey Abrams faced a unique set of obstacles in the form of racial discrimination in her quest for leadership in Georgia, which are not the same as the hurdles of transgender discrimination Christine Hallquist faced, which are not the same as the impediments of gender discrimination that Hillary Clinton faced. It is here that eclipsing difference has practical implications because recognizing the uniqueness of each of their challenges is vital to successfully supporting each of their rise to power.

It may seem as though I’ve zoomed miles ahead of the T-shirt. I’ll take it back. Consider a cis-white-straight-female Clinton supporter: Her vision of “females” in power might solely be ones that are in her likeness: white, cis, and straight. When this woman wears the shirt, she could actually be implicitly affirming an ideology which does not include a place for LBGTQ individuals and women of color in power. In fact, using the word female as the “implicit referent” is its own assertion of dominance by cis-women because the word is so easily linked to biology. It insists that those who do fit neatly into gender binaries squeeze under this categorical umbrella that comes with its own connotation.

It would be spectacular to see this umbrella lift up all those that have been historically denied power. But in the attempt to soar, we cannot ignore the specific forces of oppression that will try to pull the specific groups of individuals under it to the ground. Wouldn’t Otherwild’s statement printed on a shirt charter a clearer path towards the future it envisions? Yes, a slogan is by design succinct, but we can’t afford to trade cleverness for a contextually ambiguous vision of the future. We have to specify whose leadership, entrepreneurship, and artistry our vision includes. Perhaps for now, we can settle for recognizing the vital nuance lost when we emboss what should be a multi-dimensional, multi-colored, intricately-shaded future in concise, black and white terms.  

 

Sources:

  1. “The Future is Female T-Shirt” Otherwild, accessed November 9th, 2018, https://otherwild.com/products/the-future-is-female-t-shirt
  2. Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 3-4.
  3. Patrick, R. Granzka, Intersectionality: A Foundations and Frontiers Reader (Bolder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2014), 4.
  4. Marisa Meltzer, “A Feminist T-Shirt resurfaces from the 70s,” New York Times, November 18, 2015,   https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/19/fashion/a-feminist-t-shirt-resurfaces-from-the-70s.html
  5. “Female” Meriam Webster, accessed November 9th, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/female
  6. Otherwild, https://otherwild.com/products/the-future-is-female-t-shirt
  7. I will note that all three of my examples of candidates lost their races, however I am referring to the quest for power in the form of government leadership in the present tense as I do not assume that in all cases the quest is over.

Wonder Woman and the Importance of Female Comic Book Characters

By Katie Swartwood
Katie is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program.  

Since her creation in 1941, Wonder Woman, also known as Diana Prince, has become one of the most pervasive female comic book characters of all time. She’s been an inspiration for generations of women. This can be specifically traced to how the creator, William Moulton Marston, envisioned the character. He held a particular reverence for women and crafted Wonder Woman to be a powerful female force based on the women in his own life. He intended for Wonder Woman to be intelligent, independent, strong, and unwilling to submit to men’s power. The themes of Wonder Woman’s origins include an island without men, men as oppressors of women, and female independence, which are significant signifiers of Wonder Woman as a feminist icon.

The original Wonder Woman refused to marry her male co-star, an American pilot named Steve Trevor. She lived on the island of Themyscira which contained no male inhabitant and instead was reared by fearless, warrior women. Prior to meeting Steve Trevor, the only stories of men Diana knew were those of oppressive, slaving owning men that forced the Amazonians into submission. In fact, Wonder Woman’s iconic golden bracelets are worn as a reminder of the Amazonian’s time enslaved by men, and if any man is to connect chains to them, the powerful Amazonians will lose their strength. (1) This could explain Wonder Woman’s aversion to marriage, as she might have feared the idea of men controlling her. This directly contrasted to the customs of the 1940s when many women saw marriage and family as their main aspirations. For young girls and women to see Wonder Woman thrive in her independence, they could understand that women could maintain lives outside of marriage, as well as understand that men’s control over them could be devastating to their own power.

However, after Marston died, so did his vision for Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman’s new writer, Robert Kanigher, dismantled Marston’s feminist Wonder Woman vision. Instead of fighting bad guys, she was reduced to movie star, model, and babysitter; she even wanted to marry Steve Trevor. (2) In this instance, Wonder Women did not only reflect the positive advancements for women in America, she reflected the subservient role they were forced to take after men returned from World War II and demanded their jobs back. Instead of standing tall as an icon for the women’s movement, like she had in the 1940s, her entire character was compromised so that she could fit one man’s ideal of women’s role in the 1950s.

As the 1970s fell upon America, feminists looked to reclaim Wonder Woman from her new roles. In 1972, the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine plastered a towering image of Wonder Woman on their front cover. Early second wave feminists used Ms. Magazine to publish their concerns and radical ideas for women in America. They generated an ever-growing reader base that was dedicated to the emerging women’s movement. Of all the strong females throughout history, they chose to place Wonder Woman on their first cover, even though at that time she had transformed into the antithesis of the feminist movement.

The iconic feminist leader herself, Gloria Steinem, is largely credited with playing a major role in Wonder Woman’s 1970s reincarnation. In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, Steinem explains her role in Wonder Woman’s feminist return. She discusses how she both privately and publicly lobbied D.C. Comics to replace this new Wonder Women with the original. The Ms. founders wanted women and girls alike to understand what they had been missing. By featuring Wonder Woman on their 1972 cover, they hoped to accomplish this. Privately, they lobbied Dick Giordano, who headed D.C. Comics at that time. They encouraged him to replace those who painted Wonder Woman as an ordinary, subservient woman with those who would do her original character justice. (3) As a result, Wonder Woman regained her powers and her conviction to fight for justice. From this moment on, Wonder Woman regained her rightful place as a feminist icon.

Wonder Woman was not just any run-of-the-mill comic book character. The young girls that grew up reading the original Wonder Woman comics saw her as a inspiration- as an example of the great things that women could accomplish in a time when women weren’t allowed very many opportunities. She encouraged these women to grow up and fight against the injustices that hindered women’s advancement. And women like Steinman understood the importance of such a character and made sure that little girls in the future could have the same role model she had growing up.

Even as recent as 2017, Wonder Woman was getting her own major film directed by a woman. While many expected Patty Jenkins to fumble with the big Hollywood production, she proved that having a strong female presence behind the screen is just as important as having them on the screen. Jenkin’s Wonder Woman character lacked the hyper sexualization that many female comic book characters suffer from. Even with her short skirt and corset like armor, none of the shots focused on her ass or her cleavage. Instead, they portrayed her a strong, capable hero- someone that little girls everywhere could aspire to be.

One of the greatest things about Wonder Woman is that she is a character that anyone can see themselves in. As Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán stated in 2015, “…she stood for all of us: Wonder Woman the Chicana, Wonder Woman the South American Amazon.” (4) Wonder Woman’s image has been reproduced to fit the image for every woman and every version of feminism. She represents black women, Latina women, lesbian women, trans women, disabled women, girls, women, seniors, and so many more. Wonder Woman is an icon for every girl that has felt powerless; throughout her history she has embodied the true goals of feminism: equality, love, and acceptance. As a 2017 Party City Halloween commercial portrayed various women in a multitude of Wonder Women costumes and said, “What’s better than Wonder Woman…? Wonder Women.” (5) 

Sources:

  1. Jill Lepore. Secret Life of Wonder Woman. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015), 12-14.
  2. Jill Lepore. Secret Life of Wonder Woman, 271.
  3. Yohona Desta, “How Gloria Steinem Saved Wonder Woman,” Vanity Fair. October 10, 2017. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/10/gloria-steinem-wonder-woman
  4. Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán. “Introduction: The 1970s.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 43, no. 3/4 (2015): 14.
  5. “Wonder Women,” Youtube. October 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcgBszNWcVU

Creating a Creature: Millicent Patrick and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

By Marian Phillips
Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program.

On March 5, 1954, Universal International Pictures released the groundbreaking Science Fiction film Creature from the Black Lagoon across the United States. The film details a scientific exploration of the Amazon River when the discovery of the prehistoric fossils of the “Gill-Man” are found in the Black Lagoon. Returning from his ancient sleep, the Gill-Man resurfaces and falls in love with Kay Lawrence (played by Julie Adams). With its intricate costume and make-up design for the Gill-Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon impacted the future of Sci-Fi b-movies, and creature features. Often, George “Bud” Westmore receives credit for the entirety of the design efforts that went into creating the creature. In recent years, fans of the feature demanded that Millicent Patrick receive credit where credit is due, and where Westmore denied it.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Millicent Patrick (born Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi) became a talented make-up artist, actress, and costume designer in Hollywood, California. During the 1940s, she began working in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios. Patrick was the first woman hired to the animation staff at Disney, and her credentials continued to flourish as a designer and animator. There is heavy speculation as to specific times and dates that she worked at specific studios, as well as which films she worked on. For this reason, writing a fully developed history on Millicent Patrick is difficult, but also necessary. She was a pioneer for women working or wanting to work in animation, and set a precedent for the future of the Science-Fiction genre as a whole.

In the early 1950s, Universal International Pictures (better known as Universal Studios) sought out designers for their upcoming feature length film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. With her talent and credentials, Millicent Patrick was an undeniable choice for the design team that the famous Bud Westmore was head of. As a member of the design team, Patrick designed and created the head for the Gill-Man suit (Jack Kevan created the body). When the film was ramping up to hit theaters, the Studio requested that she go on a promotional tour called “The Beauty who Created the Beast.” During the tour, Westmore sent letters to Universal objecting to the idea of a woman receiving credit for the creation of the creature. As the head of design department, he had the power to make or break her career. Westmore threatened to fire Patrick during the tour, and true to his word, did so a year later.

Westmore’s tirade impacted the way that Patrick and her design work is or is not accredited on films produced through Universal. Rumors that she worked on more than twenty films in her career have spread rapidly online, and have created cause enough to call for the studio to give her the credit she deserves. Patrick is known for other popular Sci-Fi films such as It Came from Outer Space (1953), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and The Mole People (1956). These are only three films (not including Creature) that she undoubtedly worked on the design team for, and it is indisputable that she deserves credit for them; as there is photo evidence of her creating the costumes. This raises the question, does the studio only give her credit for features that there is physical proof of? Or would they give it to her regardless?

While some may not know the name of Gill-Man or Millicent Patrick, more than likely they’ve seen a film or a television show that was influenced by her creation and/or the film itself. Guillermo del Toro’s award winning 2017 film The Shape of Water is notably inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon and is considered to be a reworking of the love story within the original. Other works such as Monster Squad (1987) features the Gill-Man rising from the Black Lagoon, Stephen King’s novel IT (1986) mentions Gill-Man, and The Munsters (1964-66) features Uncle Gilbert, a man who claims he has risen from the Black Lagoon. If one takes a trip to Universal Studios’ park in Florida, the Gill-Man is one of the first creatures you see at the Classic Monsters Café. The creature is one of the most popular Sci-Fi characters in cinematic history, and is making a big return.

Universal Studios has recently been given the green light on creating the Dark Universe, a planned cinematic universe that will feature Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and of course, Gill-Man. As a longtime fan of Creature from the Black Lagoon, I can only hope (if there is a remake) that somewhere in the credits, Millicent Patrick’s name will be there, and that future audiences see her name attached to the films she made possible. As Patrick was the first woman hired to the animation department of Walt Disney Studios, and the creator of famous creatures in Sci-Fi features, leaving her name out of the credits erases the magnitude of her existence in the drawing room, and in the history of women in Hollywood. I urge you to consider where names of women may be missing or erased from popular culture, and to attempt to make their names just as popular as the creatures they created.