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From She to Sheena: can modern audiences ignore the jungle queen's racist roots?

A scantily-clad white woman ruling over black men titillated Victorian readers and minted an archetype still used in comics, novels and movies. But should it be?
Originally posted on The Guardian
By David Barnett
6 July 2017

When H Rider Haggard’s novel She was published in 1887, not even Haggard could have suspected it would remain in print for the next 130 years; nor that it would also spark a trope that has remained in pop culture – with occasional peak and trough – ever since: the jungle queen.

Haggard’s She was classic Victorian adventure to the Dark Continent of Africa; Horace Jolley and Leo Vincey undertake a perilous journey in search of a lost kingdom, eventually finding the Amahaggar, a native tribe ruled over by the 2,000-year-old white beauty Ayesha, or She-who-must-be-obeyed.

Ursula Andress as Ayesha, in the 1965 Hammer film She

‘She waits for one man to drown the fires of longing that burned within her for 20 centuries’ … Ursula Andress as Ayesha, in the 1965 Hammer film adaptation of She

Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which she predated by a decade, Ayesha was searching for the reincarnation of a lost love. But Haggard’s novel also satisfied a late-Victorian passion for the mystery and allure of Africa – and all its perceived savagery and colonial potential. The idea of a white woman in the midst of African tribes caught the fevered public imagination and, by the turn of the 20th century, jungle queens were everywhere.

Scantily clad jungle-dwellers became a fixture in pulp fiction, comics and B-movies: Darwa, in the 1919 film A Scream in the Night; the Jungle Girl in H Bedford-Jones’s Jungle Girl in 1934; and leopard-skin clad Sheena, created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, from 1938. The women often fit the Tarzan template: lost British or American children, brought up by animals or a lost tribe, portrayed as a saviours of the “natives”. Jann of the Jungle, published by Marvel’s predecessor Atlas in 1956, is a trapeze artist who turns “enlightened” leader on her arrival in Africa; Rulah, Jungle Goddess – the star of Zoot Comics throughout the 1940s – crashes her plane in the jungle and is venerated by a tribe (after donning a giraffe-skin bikini when her clothes are conveniently destroyed).

Were the jungle queens just scantily clad women for readers and viewers to gawk at, with the added dark undertone of the white woman either dominating or at perpetual risk from “uncivilised” black African men, or could they be perceived as something like feminist icons?

Jungle Action #1. Jungle Action #1 was published in October 1972 by Marvel Comics. Jann of the Jungle.
Jann of the Jungle, in Jungle Action #1 from 1972. Illustration: Marvel

American writer Gary Phillips, who co-edited the anthology Black Pulp says the trope is a “deep one to deconstruct”.

“On one hand, Africa had an exotic quality that those writers were fascinated by because it was unknown, yet they couldn’t wait to exploit in print … like they did with China, the Casbah, the sands of wherever and so on,” says Phillips. “The ‘natives’ are not individualised. Maybe there’s a loyal gun bearer, but the rest are superstitious savages. Was it some kind of transplanting of Manifest Destiny from the US west to the so-called Dark Continent?

“And what better symbol of white superiority than the jungle queen who comes along at a time when black men in some parts of the country are still getting lynched, or railroaded into prison for even looking sideways at a white woman? Yet here she is, swinging by overhead on a vine – in a leopard bikini.”

The jungle queen was a perfectly packaged mishmash of what writer and pulp fan Jess Nevins calls “the 19th-century audience’s combined fascination with and repugnance toward miscegenation, strong women, virgin/whores, and people with dark skin.

““You’ve got a woman of will and agency who remains virginal, despite being surrounded by men; but who is a wilful, powerful, independent woman who will implicitly [defy] society’s restrictive rules when it comes to sex and the protagonist – in other words, she’s a virgin who’ll become a whore,” she says. “[And] you’ve got a white ‘queen’ who rules over a black society – in the contemporary audience’s eyes, the proper arrangement – but who will turn over rulership to the white male protagonist … the list goes on.”

The powerful woman vs menaced-white-beauty dichotomy is one with which the pulp and comics publishers wrestled. As The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, who once wrote an introduction for an edition of She, recalled: “Whatever She might have been thought to signify, its impact upon publication was tremendous. Everyone read it, especially men.”

Rulah, Jungle Goddess ZOOT COMICS #7 1947
Rulah, Jungle Goddess. Illustration: Zoot Comics

But on the other hand, for all the easy visual appeal of selling stories about a woman with bare arms and lots of cleavage to men, publishers also wanted more female readers. In the late 1930s and 40s, according to Nevins, pulp publishers were making concerted efforts to find new female audiences, with what they thought women wanted to read: romance. “So you had pulps with titles like Underworld Romance and Ranch Romance, and [publishers] encouraging authors to write stories with female protagonists, hence the rise of the female PI in the detective pulps of the time,” Nevins says. “The jungle queen craze was a part of this – jungle adventures, but with a female lead rather than a male lead.”

The idea of the jungle queen may have a rather troubling history, but that’s not stopped many contemporary attempts to give it new life. Marvel’s next big movie is Black Panther, a solo outing for a character created by Stan Lee (white) and Jack Kirby (white) back in 1966. Of course, under the mask, the Panther is T’challa, a black man and not a white woman. But the comic has, according to Phillips, helped to streamline the idea of the jungle queen, with some revisionism.

“We’ve had Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister, don the mantle of the Black Panther in Marvel comics and become the Queen of the Wakandas,” he says. “We’ve had queer woman warriors in World of Wakanda and the genocidal horrors of King Leopold wrestled with in a Tarzan movie, for goodness’ sakes … so yeah, the creative stakes are different, given the socio-political real world context for these kind of stories.”

All of which puts a bit of pressure on writers Marguerite Bennett and Christina Trujilo, who, along with and artist Moritat, are rebooting comics’ original jungle queen Sheena this August. “The traditional tropes of the ‘jungle queens’ were and are problematic,” says Bennett. “With Sheena, we are at least attempting to play with these tropes in a way we hope is self-aware, thoughtful, progressive, and engaging.”

The upcoming Sheena reboot, written by Marguerite Bennett and Christina Trujilo.

The upcoming Sheena reboot, written by Marguerite Bennett and Christina Trujilo. Illustration: Dynamite

These days, Sheena is no longer a colonial white saviour but a multiethnic woman who has never lived outside the jungle. With a mother who is both native and Latina, her cultural heritage is intended as acknowledgment that “there are people who have dwelt there longer and who have a greater understanding, connection, and history [with] the place and its cultural significance than someone who is simply passing through”, says Bennett.

“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.”

When Atwood wrote about Ayesha, she might also have been providing a road map for writing something better. To Atwood, Ayesha was a “supremely transgressive female who challenges male power; though her shoe size is tiny and her fingernails are pink, she’s a rebel at heart. If only she hadn’t been hobbled by love, she would have used her formidable energies to overthrow the established civilised order. That the established civilised order was white and male and European goes without saying; thus, She’s power was not only female – of the heart, of the body – but barbaric and ‘dark’.”

It’s almost a call to arms for women creators – in comics, prose or movies – to challenge this order in fiction and reality. Another thing that Haggard probably never saw coming, along with the longevity of his jungle queen.

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