Wednesday, December 16, 2015

When Can We Get Our Lady-Driven War Movies Already?

First off, today's article was supposed to be a recap of one of the last episode of Outlander's first season, but because the universe seems utterly opposed to me actually being able to watch that episode, you're going to have to keep waiting. Many screams of frustration have already been uttered today.

Second, instead of talking about time-traveling badass ladies and the Scottish lunkheads who love them, today we're going to talk about war stories. Specifically we're going to talk about why the heckity heck there are so few war stories about women.

Now, the answer to that is probably obvious (starts with sex, ends with -ism), but bear with me here. I'm not asking why there haven't been amazing movies and TV shows being made about women warriors in the past, I'm asking why there aren't any now. I mean, women have proven clearly that we will go see movies we think are good. We spend a hell of a lot of money at the box office every year. Female lead movies have now been proven to gross more than male leads. And when it comes to obsessive fandoms spreading the gospel of the thing they love, you really can't get much better than catering to a female audience.

I understand that movie producers are generally scared and prefer not to touch a topic unless they can guarantee a sure-fire hit, so I would like to take this opportunity to help them out. To that end, here are some female-lead war stories that absolutely deserve to be told and that I can guarantee, if done right, would bring the house down.

So get on it, Hollywood. Snap snap.

Deborah Sampson - American Revolutionary War

Deborah Sampson is, as a point of fact, what made me think of this topic in the first place. I've been researching media representations of the Revolutionary War for a project that shall remain nameless for now, and I was shocked to realize that no one has ever made a movie about this legitimate historical badass. Or, well, I guess I wasn't shocked, per se. I figure if there was a movie about Deborah Sampson I would have already seen it. But I was a little surprised to put it together that no one has bothered to make a film about a woman I consider to be eminently cinematic.

Sampson served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War for about a year and a half, pretending to be a man by the name of Robert Shurtleff. She was by all accounts a very good soldier, if not a particularly inspired one. She was wounded in a skirmish early in her military career, being shot several times in the leg and slashed across the head. Terrified that the surgeons would discover her secret if she let them treat her, Sampson escaped from the hospital and performed rudimentary surgery on herself with a penknife and needle.

Unfortunately, this is a terrible idea and she was only able remove one of the musketballs. Sampson walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of her life and suffered from a number of infections and fevers, which might have been related. Nevertheless, she kept fighting until, just after the British surrender, she fell extremely ill. The doctor who treated her did in fact figure out she was a woman (hard not to, really), but did not share her secret. Sampson was honorably discharged from the army and returned to her life as a woman as if she'd never left.

But that's not the interesting part.

What's really interesting about Deborah Sampson is how we know about her. See, lots of women have fought in lots of wars dressed as men. They have lived as men for years, and no one knows about it because they never admitted to what they'd done. But not Deborah Sampson. She didn't just admit to having been a soldier in the Revolutionary War, she straight up petitioned Congress to send her a military pension.

Lena Headey as Sampson
Yeah, the cool parts of Sampson's story come after the war. She got married, had kids, even adopted a child, but she never denied what she had done. She demanded that the government award her the backpay she was owed - denied to her when they found out she was a woman - and won her petition. Then she became traveling lecturer, speaking out about gender roles and her time in the army. She even included demonstrations of her skill. 

Oh, and did I mention that her best friend was Paul Revere? In 1804, with her health failing and her family basically destitute, Revere helped Sampson petition the government for a pension, as befitting her role as a former soldier. The petition was granted. About ten years after that, sick again, Sampson asked the government to recognize her pension as stemming back to her discharge in 1783. Eventually the government agreed to that too, and Sampson was happily able to end her life debt-free. She died of yellow fever at the age of 66.

What makes Sampson's story stand out to me isn't just that she's a verifiable historical figure who did all kinds of amazing things, it's that she did all of them without ever apologizing for being a woman. Sampson didn't pretend that because she was a woman she ought to be ashamed of having fought for her country. Nope. She straight up demanded that the government treat her the same way it treated any of the male soldiers who had helped win America's independence.

That's the movie I want. I mean, it's so important to realize that veteran care is not a new issue in this country. The government's reluctance to properly care for veterans is an issue literally as old as the country itself. Deborah Sampson, motivational speaker and veteran's rights activist? Tell me that isn't a movie you'd watch.

Since the bulk of the story really happens in the 1800s, when Sampson was in her forties, maybe cast Lena Headey or Famke Janssen. Imagine a movie where we meet Sampson in her uniform, performing tricks for a crowd, then slowly shucking off her man's clothes to replace them with a dress. Her leg still bears an ugly, misshapen scar. She can't walk well when she's not performing. And she goes home to the family she loves, only to realize that the money she made isn't enough for their expenses this month. She has to find some other way to provide for her family.

So she sends a letter to her good friend Paul and asks for his help. She's going to ask the government to do the right thing, but she knows she needs backup. Paul, who's played by Ciarin Hinds because why not, immediately agrees to help. Then the movie follows the rest of Sampson's petitions to the state, her setbacks, her frustrations, and all the while her loving and wonderful family supporting her all the way.

I don't want the fact that Sampson reportedly did have a large and loving family to be left out. That's an important factor to consider here too. She was a soldier and a civil rights pioneer and also a mom. Representing her in all of her complexity is what we're going for here.

So, like I said, snap snap, Hollywood.

The Night Witches - WWII

For whatever stupid reason, not a lot of people know the story of the Night Witches, one of the most effective fighting forces of the second World War. Members of the Russian Air Force, the Witches were so named because of their tactics: when bombing the Germans, they would put the plane's engine in neutral and glide to the target, meaning the only sound before the bomb hit was a slight whooshing. The Germans naturally figured this likened the women to witches, and the name stuck.

At the height of their military influence, the Witches, who were actually more officially known as the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, consisted of forty two-woman crews. Their planes were almost twenty years old and could only hold a few bombs, necessitating the crews to run multiple missions in a single night. The planes were old and badly built, but the women were so successful that they came to be the most highly decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force and flew over eight hundred missions.

Oh, and did I mention that because the planes were so heavy and the pilots needed to keep weights down, the crews did not carry parachutes?

Obviously this is a movie that has to be set during the war because how cool would that be? But it's also worth mentioning that these women got one hell of a bum rap after the war was finished. Many had trouble returning to their home villages because they were seen as no better than war prostitutes. Some were officially disowned from their families, and many died. Which is bleak and sad and horrible, but doesn't make their heroism any less impressive. More so, actually.

So for the film version, clearly we need a movie or even a miniseries about these women fighting to keep their unit together and also being terrifying and amazing pilots. They were the only all-female division of the Russian Air Force to get all the way through the war still being all-female. Even their mechanics and support troops were exclusively female. 

Grab a handful of up and coming actresses - Gwendoline Christie, Crystal Reed, Marie Avgeropoulos, Dichen Lachman, and Anna Torv, just to name a few - and tell a story about the scariest pilots of the second world war. Women who would do whatever they could to stop the German advance, who took fantastic risks and suffered huge losses. Show them sticking up for their division against the higher brass who wants to shut them down, show them recovering in hospitals and breaking out to go back and fight some more. Show their broken down equipment, their lack of funding, and their missing parachutes. 

Just someone freaking give me a show about these women already!

Lyndie Greenwood as Bradford/Stokes
Ann Bradford Stokes - American Civil War

Ann Bradford was born a slave in Tennessee in 1830. Very little is known about her life before she, in January 1863, was taken aboard a Union ship as "contraband" - as in, an escaped slave - and the Emancipation Proclamation pronounced her a free woman. Immediately upon grasping her freedom, Bradford enlisted with the Union Navy as a nurse, becoming one of the first African American woman in the Navy.

She served on a hospital ship for almost two years before the stress was too great and she resigned. Shortly thereafter she married Gilbert Stokes, a man who had also served on the same ship, and moved to Illinois with him. After the war, Stokes' husband quickly died, and she remarried. She tried several times to apply for a military pension based on her spousal connections, but this was difficult because she could neither read nor write. 

Eventually, in 1890, she petitioned again for her pension - this time having learned to read and write - and was granted it. She only received $12/month, the standard pension for a nurse, but it's impressive she received even that much. She was, as far as anyone can tell, the first African American woman to receive a military pension for her own service in the Navy. She was one of the first women officially enlisted in the US Navy. And she doesn't even have her own wikipedia article.

So imagine with me a for a second a movie or miniseries about Ann Bradford. Clearly she's a badass, but she's badass in a very different way than Deborah Sampson or the Night Witches. Bradford wasn't invested in fighting, she was trying to heal people. She came out of a horrific background and immediately wanted to help the war effort.

It matters to me that we all understand the variety of stories to be told about women in wars. There are mothers and soldiers in disguise and brazen female pilots and nurses who won't take no for an answer. Ann Bradford Stokes is just as impressive as the other women already named, and she had to overcome barriers of race as well as sex.

Tessa Thompson as Stokes
A movie about her could star Nicole Beharie or Lyndie Greenwood, either one, or it could be Tessa Thompson or Regina King. There are a lot of ways we could go. Show me her resilience as she fought for her own place in a war trying to shut her out, show me how she healed people who might have been horribly racist to her, show me Ann Bradford transforming people's perceptions of her, from runaway slave to competent and brilliant war-time nurse.

Hell yes, right?

This is just a taste of all the stories there are out there. All the stories of women in wars that need to be told. There's a weird perception that women have no place in war stories. That we're the ones men get to come back home to, or the ones that need to be coddled and protected from the violence. But that's a view that massively misunderstands human history. Women have always been present for wars, secretly or not. We deserve to have our stories told. Stories that don't glorify war, but do admit that women are present in it.

Come on, Hollywood. Get it together. How about next year, instead of throwing Eddie Redmayne at every period piece you can find, you take a minute to greenlight some projects about the women of history. I promise we'll all go see them. Give us intersectional, compelling movies and TV about women warriors, and I can guarantee we'll take them and run.

Snap snap.


  1. Replies
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