Best Role Models Ever

As a child growing up in the fifties—yes, I am officially an old lady or, as I prefer to think of myself, a quantum crone—I didn’t have any progressive female role models on TV or in the movies. I was an early reader: Jules Verne in the third grade, followed by Andre Norton’s Time Traders and Heinlein’s juveniles right afterwards, not to mention every single comic book and science fiction mag I could con my folks out of. So, there I was, reading voraciously and all primed and ready to go forth and conquer the Universe, while still getting home before dark, and what do I see in the media? Nice ladies in dresses and white gloves, doing…housework. Huh. Something was wrong here, I thought.

Then, they appeared, those glorious goddesses who still influence me to this day. The two most powerful women of 50s TV: strong, smart, competent, intelligent, and taking no crap from anyone, anywhere, even if he had superpowers or wore a pith helmet.

The two women who made me what I am today: Lois Lane. And Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle had a brief, single season run in 1955-56, based on the Fiction House comic of the same name that began publication in 1938. Sheena was played by statuesque—that’s what they called it, back in the day—blonde actress Irish McCalla. Sheena swung through trees. She had a pet chimp. She rescued her ‘boyfriend’ Bob almost every week. Hey, she carried a knife in her belt and her bikini was made of skins. So, basically, the perfect woman, or so my five-year-old self thought. This was what I wanted to be when I grew up. So intensely did she influence me, I still make most of my main characters tall and blonde and powerful, nearly seventy years later. They seldom wear skin bikinis, sure, leaning more towards brooding black leathers and bristling with blades. Or ray guns. But the concept holds: strong women.

Oddly, my mom wouldn’t get me my requested skin bikini for Christmas—though I did get a cowboy hat and guns with holsters, since Westerns were big in the 50s.

But hold the phone; not so fast. Sure, Sheena could handle herself in a fight. Okay, she could whip anyone, anywhere. And did I mention: chimp? But her conversational style ranged from ‘Men bad.’ To ‘Bob safe?’ While pithy and to the point, her repartee didn’t exactly dazzle, and recall, I was a brainy reader as well as an adventure-loving…okay, reader. What about my more cerebral side?

Enter Lois Lane. Sure, she’d been in the comics I’d been devouring from the time I could only look at the pictures, i.e., the age of two, but to see her, in all her glory as depicted by Noel Neill in both the two serials with Kirk Allyn and the TV series with George Reeves…well. Here was a role model for the ages. Smart, sassy, spunky, surpassing every male around her in wit, style, and sheer ability, Lois Lane was a true goddess in a perky hat and a business suit. And you cannot convince me that she seriously never really figured out Clark and Supe were two separate guys, never connected the two. No way, no how; she just played along with the guy, helping him believe he was clever enough to pull the wool over her eyes. Lois: clever, competent, and kind. That is what we all should aspire to be. That is something to strive for.

Adventures of Superman—yes, I can recite the words to the intro at the drop of Lois’s hat—was on TV from 1952 to 1958. In the first season Lois was played by Phyllis Coates, but Noel Neill took over in all succeeding seasons, no doubt because she had originated the role in the two prior Columbia Pictures serials.

So, whatever you may have heard about the dearth of strong female role models in the 1950s, that’s not technically true. Yes, women in commercials wore heels while mopping their kitchens and worried a little too much about their husbands’ collars—the dreaded ‘ring around’, for example—but not all women had such concerns. Sheena was busy saving Bob and outwitting poachers, with a chimp on her hip and a knife in her hand. Lois was girl-reportering left, right, and center, and messing with Clark about how dreamy Superman was, always with a knowing twinkle in her eye.

I can’t see either Sheena or Lois holding a mop or worrying about collars. Must be why I never have.

I still haven’t got my chimp, though…

One thought

  1. This is seriously eye-opening stuff. Many people act like Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor in the late 70’s through 80’s and even 90’s were the first seriously kick-ass heroines to burst onto the scene in the realm of film/TV, but this erases those assumptions. It made me think how, just as artists often successivley stand on the shoulders of giants, continuing to blaze a trail started by their forebears, the same is true for women in TV and film. Without Sheena and Lois Lane, would there have even been an Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor? The seeds of greater acceptance for strong women characters started way earlier than most people realize.

Comments are closed.