In 1938, Sheena: Queen of the Jungle became the first comic book to star a female hero. Preceding Wonder Woman by three years, the comic followed Sheena as she went on adventures in the “exotic” jungles of sub-Saharan Africa. A scantilyvclad foil to Tarzan, Sheena came with all the same baggage as her male counterpart. An orphan who grew up in the jungle, Sheena could communicate with the animal kingdom, was a skilled warrior, and was revered by the local populace. Now, Deadline is reporting that Millennium Films has optioned Sheena into a film franchise.
In hindsight, this news shouldn’t be surprising. Hollywood is nothing if not predictable, and the runaway success of Wonder Woman this summer inevitably meant a rush to cash in on the “hot new thing” of warrior women protagonists. However, Sheena is a tricky character. Created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, Sheena cashed in on the craze du jour of the era; that of white-savior jungle women. The craze began in 1887 when H. Rider Haggard published the novel She. The book takes two white male British protagonists and drops them into a “Lost World” ruled by Ayesha, or She-who-must-be-obeyed, a white woman who is over two millennia old. A product of its time, She dabbles heavily in the imperial racism of the British Empire, a theme that would trickle down into the surge of other “jungle queen” literature its popularity inspired. Including Sheena: Queen of the Jungle.
Such a history presents unique challenges for Millennium. This isn’t the 1980s, when Sheena became a film starring Charlie’s Angels vet Tanya Roberts or the ’50s or early ’00s, When Sheena served as the protagonist of TV series; you can’t just throw an animal-skin bikini on a bottle blonde and call it day. If producers Avi Lerner, Trevor Short, Joe Gatta, Boaz Davidson, John Thompson, Lati Grobman, and Christa Campbell don’t want to be treading water in backlash, they could look to Dynamite Comics on how to update the character of Sheena. The comic was recently rebooted, with writers Marguerite Bennett and Christina Trujillo and artist Moritat taking the wheel. In an interview with The Guardian, Bennett spoke to the challenge of adapting an iconic but problematic character like Sheena:
The traditional tropes of the ‘jungle queens’ were and are problematic. With Sheena, we are at least attempting to play with these tropes in a way we hope is self-aware, thoughtful, progressive, and engaging. She isn’t coming in from another culture, trying to improve or save, or be ‘Kevin Costner: the superior Native American’ or ‘Tom Cruise: the superior samurai’… It isn’t a hobby, a game, a sightseeing tour for her. This is her home.”
To that end, Bennett and Trujilo reconfigured Sheena’s backstory. Her story is no longer set in Africa, but instead South America, Sheena is the multiethnic daughter of a Latina-Native American woman and a white man. Removing the “orphaned white savior” trope replacing it with a girl who grew up in the jungle helps avoid the theme of white superiority. Taking female characters originally created as titillating objects of the male gaze and transforming them into complex, strong, and flawed women is something of a specialty of Bennett’s. One of the first comic’s she ever had a hand in quietly made Lois Lane into a the daughter of an American father and a Hispanic mother. Her series DC’s Bombshells took statues created to be pin-ups and turned the characters into capable and aspirational war heroes. The Sheena film announcement didn’t come with an attached writer. If Millennium Films is still looking for the right voice to update this character for 21st century audiences, they may want to see if Bennett can squeeze them into her busy schedule.