Women Mentoring Women and an Introduction to The Sarah Jane Adventures

on April 20, 2008 in Uncategorized

“I saw amazing things, out there in space–but there is strangeness to be found, wherever you turn. Life on Earth can be an adventure too… you just need to know where to look!”-Sarah Jane Smith

The Sarah Jane Adventures couldn’t have come at a better time for me, as this month I’m researching and writing my chapters on parents. As I’ve mentioned before one of the overwhelming themes in stories about the female super, or action, hero is that they have absent mothers and are raised or mentored by men.

A short list of examples includes: Nancy Drew, Araña Corazon , Barbara Gordon, Joanna Dark, Lara Croft, Elektra Natchios, Chloe Sullivan, Sydney Bristow, Veronica Mars, Honey West, Ms. Tree, Zoë Carter , and The Powerpuff Girls. Even Buffy, who descends from matrilineage of superheroes is trained by a man.

I have no problem with father figures or single Daddies per se, having been raised by the latter myself. And as a woman who always identified with her father more than her mother (even before their separation) the exploration of who I am as an adult W-O-M-A-N has, is and will always be of profound spiritual importance to me — as much so as the search for female role models in real life and in popular culture.

While it’s wonderful to see depictions of fathers who take an active role in their daughters’ lives, when we don’t see women teaching women, the message an audience receives is that these virtual Athenas, whether sprung from their father’s heads or mentored by sage men, can only be as independent as they are because they lack a mother’s womanly—almost always implied as passive—influence.

As I’ll discuss further in the book, there are a few notable exceptions:

• Reciprocal mentorship was an outstanding feature of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle, and they learned from other women as well (including Lao Ma, and the Amazons). But we never got to see either the Warrior Princess or the Battling Bard of Potidaea raise either of their own daughters.

• Trina Robbins’ and Anne Timmons’ Go Girl! series features a kick-ass mother, AND a kick-ass daughter who have a deep and meaningful bond.*

• Beatrix Kiddo, of Kill Bill, has a daughter, and in keeping with the homage to Lady Snowblood, Tarantino has noted that he would like to make sequels that feature daughters avenging their mother’s deaths (think of Vernita Green’s daughter Nikki Bell–who we know will, in fact, still be sore that Beatrix killed her mother). Whether this pans out, or would even feature women in mentor roles is totally up in the air.

• In the movie Elektra, the title character teaches Abby–a young martial arts prodigy played by an actress with a Red Belt in Tae Kwon Do.

• In some versions of Wonder Woman (particularly the original) she has a close bond with her mother and with sister Amazons. And of course, Wonder Woman sets an example for everyone.

• In the comic book series Birds of Prey, particularly Gail Simone’s run, we see instances of sisterhood, which is an important counter to the perennial catfight, but is also different from an adult/child relationship. (I haven’t yet read the issues with Black Canary and Sin.)

• In the final season of Alias, Sydney Bristow mentored Rachel Gibson and presumably her daughter, Isabelle Bristow Vaughn.

• In the final season of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Buffy, Willow, Faith, and Anya train the Potentials.

• It appears that Araña Corazon has been mentored by Ms. Marvel (but I haven’t read those issues yet, and therefore can’t speak to them).

Now it seems I can add another “exception” to add to my list!**

Serendipitously, right when I started collecting and organizing my research for these two chapters (Fathers and Daughters, and Mothers and Daughters) Ryan pointed out that the Sci Fi channel was running ads for a series called The Sarah Jane Adventures and noted that it looked like it could be of interest to me (the ad posted above is from the BBC, by way of YouTube). When I caught the commercials myself, I looked into the series on the Net and discovered it’s a spin-off of Doctor Who intended for children.*** Elisabeth Sladen who has embodied the investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith off and on for over 35 years stars.

Sarah was a companion to the third and fourth doctors (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, respectively) and appeared regularly over the years 1973-1976. Sladen has since revisited the character a number of times—including in a pilot featuring Sarah and the robot dog, K-9 (K-9 and Company didn’t evolve into a series but is rumored to be released on DVD this Summer) as well as in a special feature-length episode of Doctor Who called “The Five Doctors.” Sladen also reprised the role in the second season of the recently revitalized Doctor Who alongside David Tennant’s Doctor (the tenth incarnation) and Billie Piper’s Rose in the episode “School Reunion.”

The Sarah Jane Adventures debuted in the UK with an hour-long special shown on New Year’s Day, 2007, called “Invasion of the Bane,” In it, we meet a thirteen-year-old girl named Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) who has just moved to West London with her dad after her parents’ recent divorce. Dad is a stand-up guy, and while Mom is flighty, she frequently drops by for hellos, meals, and family time. Her living situation (a daughter with a single father) could have made Maria yet another victim of the female hero-sans-female mentor trope that has plagued myth from ancient through modern times, but her mother isn’t dead, drunk, ill, or vindictive; she’s just elsewhere, and, has kind of a difficult personality.

Her first night in her new home, Maria is awakened by a strange pinkish glowing light emanating from outside. She sneaks out of the house and across the street to spy Sarah Jane conversing with a floaty, ethereal, otherwordly creature (who we later discover is a Star Poet who’d gotten lost on her journey and sought Sarah’s assistance with directions).

Maria is understandably curious, but Sarah Jane is terse and standoffish with her neighbors, believing that others should not be subject to the danger involved in her investigative work.

When Maria and her friend, Kelsey, take a tour of the Bubbleshock Soda Company they run into Sarah at the factory trying to expose the soda makers for who they really are—tentacled aliens whose mother bug secrets a substance marketed as the “organic!” additive “Bane” — actually an alien chemical used in the soda to turn humans into easily controlled zombies (fortunately, Sarah and Maria prefer tea to soda pop).

In the process of escaping the factory they encounter a human boy, called “The Archetype,” who was designed by the Bane species to find out why 2% of the population didn’t like Bubbleshock Soda, and is made up of the thoughts and wishes of over 10,000 people. Sarah and Maria rescue the child, and at first, when he asks if he can live with Sarah she says no, but she ultimately “adopts” him into her home.

Sarah recognizes Maria’s inner strength and sees her as a kindred spirit. While figuring a way to stop the Bane she tells her new young friend, “Maria, there are two types of people in the world. Those who panic, and then there’s us. Got it?” Maria understands and affirms, “Got it.”

Over the course of the episode Sarah recognizes, even respects, the children’s ability to make choices for themselves. And, she’s remarkably honest with them. She tells Maria, and the Archetype–who chooses the name “Luke” that:

“When I was your age, I used to think ‘Oh, when I’m grown up, I’ll know what I want, I’ll be sorted.’ But you never really know what you want. You never feel grown up, not really. You never sort it all out… so I thought, I could handle life on my own. But after today… I don’t want to!”

The series may tap into the lives and thoughts of children, but scenes like these can resonate with adults. Life never happens as you expect it to. You just have to stick to your values and go with the flow of the adventure. And as Sarah Jane proves, if things aren’t working as they are you can always change your mind and do things differently.

At the end of the episode, when I bubbled over how happy it made me, Ryan noted that while he also enjoyed it very much, he was bothered that Sarah was given a child at the end. He felt that it was a crass attempt to restabilize her normative position as a traditionally gendered woman, and it was a shame that they didn’t allow her to maintain her status as an independent adventurer who happens to work with children, rather than a Mommy (He’s been reading and editing my chapters!).

The child issue didn’t quite bother me as much as I thought it might, and I think it has to do with context. The adoption of Luke was presented as simply a part of her journey rather than the motivation for it. What bothered me much more was that she couldn’t or wouldn’t find a partner because after The Doctor, “No man could quite compare,” or something like that. Instead, she has playfully named her computer “Mr. Smith.”

A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune praised SJA, as well as Sladen, saying it was a

“wise choice to bring Sladen back with her own show. The actress projects an air of trustworthiness, courage and unapologetic independence, and though Sarah Jane’s attitude is brisk and unsentimental, it leaves room for plenty of wonder at the stranger things in the universe. And by the way, how many series feature a middle-aged woman as the lead — and even let her battle many-tentacled aliens? Score one for the Brits.”

A reviewer for Variety panned the series, calling it “modestly entertaining for the moppet crowd” but patience trying for adults.” (He also calls Sarah Jane “a rather boring heroine”!)

From the two episodes I’ve seen, SJA is a children’s show in the way that the early Harry Potter novels are children’s books—they are ostensibly for children but have plenty of self-consciousness and intelligence to appeal to adults. (SJA does feature some farting aliens — justifiably suitable for a munchkin audience.)

The series is wickedly smart, with over-the-top villains who shout B-Lines such as “The time of man is over!” and “ In the words of your young Earth children – bring it on.” Sarah Jane Smith is one of the only female leaders, teachers, or matriarchs of a group. But most importantly, most progressively, even revolutionary, is that Sarah Jane and Maria gift us with the all-too-rare example of a woman mentoring a woman.

A series of ten, half-hour episodes premiered in the UK in September 2007. SJA debuted in the states on the Sci-Fi Network on April 11, 2008. At least one, if not two more seasons have been ordered. Episodes air on the Sci Fi Channel Fridays from 8-8:30 pm. Cheers to Sci Fi for airing the series, Jeers to Sci Fi Magazine (the official rag of the channel) for not including Lis Sladen in their current issue “TV’s Hot New Superwomen”–which has a subsection on “Familiar Faces in Fresh New Roles” as well as one on “Brit Girls”)

*Trina and Anne should totally do a SJA comic!It’s sooooo up their alley!

**(Hopefully, with this new generation of superwomen giving birth to daughters, and occasionally mentoring girls, we are seeing the beginnings of a progressive female heroic tradition, because generally, strong women are depicted raising savior sons (Sarah Connor, Lady Jessica—they’re mothers, not messiahs) or protecting daughters (Ripley, Charly Baltimore). One of the feminist critiques of Joseph Campbell is that in his classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces he notes that the hero can male or female, but then goes on to describe women as markers in the male quest (as goddesses, temptresses, mothers, etc . . .) and not as questers themselves. While this devalues female experience by making male experience the norm, it is also indicative of hero myths to date; Campbell could likely find few featuring women and/or ignored the experiences that make a female life heroic.)

***(I have yet to get into Doctor Who –even though Roz has told me that “Rose is so one of your women” and that I should include her in the book. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’ll have time. –Perhaps for the next edition!)

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