I’ve been having some serious fun with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s ”John Carter” series of the early 20th century lately (I’m on book three of eleven, and like the pioneers of old, it’s Mars or bust! or something). But since I’ve already reviewed “A Princess of Mars” and kind of “The Gods of Mars,” it’s time to do something super exciting geared at all you history and art history majors out there: using book covers to reflect on persistent gendered and racialized themes throughout history!* Yes!
* Disclaimer: Now that I am officially a doctoral student in American history I reserve the right to do textual analysis whenever the hell I want. So let’s begin.
Before I started seeing lukewarm reviews for Disney’s “John Carter” movie a couple months ago, I didn’t know that the film (such as it is) was based on an early-20th century series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, prolific king of pulp sci-fi in the 19-teens, twenties, and beyond. It seemed strange to me that Disney would be borrowing from a rather problematic book published in 1912, but hey, I didn’t know that musical, animated “Tarzan” was based on Burroughs either.
In any case, it was Spring Break and, being the kind of person who goes home for spring break to read books and play with her family’s cats, was bored. Also kind of broke. So it made sense to download free public domain books onto my kindle, and for laughs, John Carter seems to have potential.
I was very quickly obsessed with it.
Of course, being the kind of person who brings her copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Troubles home with her over Spring Break, I can’t help but share some of the interesting things I’ve noticed about women not just in the books–but especially on the book covers.
This is the cover for the first installment in the series, A Princess of Mars. As you can see, the princess, being a proper Victorian lady (even if she is a Martian who lays eggs), spends most of her time cowering behind her hero. And she loves it! And he loves her! And no one will ever question their respective femininity and masculinity, because, I mean, just look at them.
Most of the first three books deal with the princess, Dejah Thoris, being kidnapped and help captive–first by green alien monsters, then an enemy group of Martian “red men,” and then by evil black people who live underground in the pit of a volcano or something. Do we sense a pattern emerging. This is science fiction’s kind of icky extension of the American captivity narrative, possibly one of the first distinctly American literary genres.
Have you heard of Mary Rowlandson? In 1676, she was taken captive by Wampanoag Indians for about 3 months. You really have to feel bad for this woman–she watched her friends and family brutally murdered, and then was thrust into a society completely foreign (dare I say alien?) to her. But like a good yankee lady, once she got out, she had her eye on the main chance. Rowlandson published a wildly, spectacularly popular account of her captivity in 1682.
Now, for those who haven’t read it 4 or 5 times over the course of high school and college, Rowlandson’s narrative pretty much gets this point across: It’s all about God’s sovereignty. Haters gonna hate, but God will do what God does. And on and on. Rowlandson was incredibly devout, and even during her captivity chose not to make any escape attempts, deciding that it was God’s will that she was there and she would wait for Him to deliver her.
Funny, then, how the second edition of her book included pictures like this one. ”A Female Soldier”? With a rifle? That’s not exactly what happened–actually, that’s not at all what happened–but the idea of a forceful, armed heroine seemed to gain some purchase with contemporary readers.
That pattern continued with the story of Hannah Duston, another colonial American woman taken captive by Native Americans in the late 17th century. Duston didn’t have a gun, but she got her hands on a hatchet and the rest is history. Really gruesome, bloody, Native American killing history.
People liked that story too.
And they still liked it when Burroughs was writing his second John Carter book, The Gods of Mars, in which readers were introduced to another woman with a weapon: Thuvia.
Like Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was a prisoner of all sorts of different and abhorrent “others.” Unlike Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was not content to resign herself to fate and hope that her lover would rescue her. Thuvia got a gun and shot her captor point-blank. And then, over the course of the next two books, she saved John Carter’s book like half a dozen times. Most notable example: when John Carter is condemned to die in a gladiatorial-style fight against a bunch of ravenous lion-like alien beasts, Dejah Thoris attempts to kill herself so that she might die with him. Thuvia uses her animal mind-control powers to save him. Again. And when one of John Carter’s crazed fangirls (no really, this is absolutely true) tries to stab Dejah Thoris and steal John for herself (like that’s going to work), Thuvia saves Dejah Thoris too.
She’s super badass. And four books in, she gets her own starring role with Thuvia, Maid of Mars.
Let’s note the word “maid.” Especially in archaic and literary contexts, a “maid” is not just a young, unmarried girl–she’s a virgin. Thuvia is getting a title treatment that would seem to indicate that she’s as pure and unsullied a princess as Dejah Thoris. Meanwhile, she looms over the corpse of her victim with a bloody knife. The entire book cover is made to look like it’s been smeared with blood. And let’s not forget that her first kill was a man who, it was implied, may have, you know, violated her.
Pure? That’s questionable.
But we’ve kind of had a literary love affair with women with knives and guns and machetes for a long time. Since the 1600s at least. And how American is that?