Every time I hear anything about a Red Sonja movie, I cringe a little. As a longtime fan of the character, I want to be excited, but usually my feelings of apprehension win out over anything good. In the right hands, Red Sonja is an amazing, kick-butt nuanced character fighting through a “kill or be killed” world. In the wrong hands, she is a one-dimensional caricature of an archaic male fantasy. If even in the comic books I feel uncomfortable with certain stories surrounding Sonja, I don’t want to think about what they might be like on the big screen.
After reading The Hollywood Reporter‘s feature on the latest stab at a Red Sonja movie, that familiar wave of anxiety overtakes me. The piece discusses the long path, multiple scripts, and many directors it has taken to get to the current version actually filming right now in Bulgaria. Included was an interview with the film’s writer and director, M.J. Bassett. Some of Bassett’s comments make me feel like she doesn’t understand what many fans love about the character, and that many of Sonja’s subtleties will be cast aside in Bassett’s film.
Red Sonja, a history
I first encountered Red Sonja when Brigitte Nielsen played her in Red Sonja (1985), a spinoff of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian. The sword-wielding woman exacting vengeance in a ferocious fantasy world left a deep impression on me as a kid. Red Sonja started a love affair with a certain type of character that was solidified by Xena: Warrior Princess. I enjoyed reading her comic books, but felt that many of her storylines didn’t feel good to read anymore—if they ever did. When Dynamite Comics rebooted Red Sonja with the wonderful Gail Simone writing, I finally found the perfect merging of character and plot.
The original origin story depicted Sonja as a helpless female victim. Her village was invaded and her family was killed in front of her. When she tried to defend herself, Sonja found she wasn’t strong enough to lift her brother’s sword. Since she could not defend herself, the invaders raped her and left her for dead. She called upon a warrior goddess, who gave her the strength to defend herself and seek revenge. There was also a really odd caveat where Sonja could only have sex with a man who bested her in combat, which still seemed a little rapey to me.
Simone’s version of the story reframes Sonja as a survivor, not a victim who has supernatural abilities. The invaders still come, but Sonja survives without being sexually assaulted. She trains until she can protect others and take revenge on the men who razed her village. Even though she can kick butt, powerful men who see her as nothing more than a pretty lady in a chain mail bikini still underestimate her. Also, this Sonja is free to express her sexuality with any person she wants—no battle necessary.
Do you know who the “She-Devil with a sword” is?
Now, back to Bassett’s take on Sonja. Bassett has directed several action titles, including Solomon Kane and episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead, so she has experience with the genre. And she did say that her version, like Simone’s, will skip the sexual assault origin story. However, Bassett also seems to miss several points about what makes Red Sonja different. For instance, Bassett says she wants to keep “gender politics” out of the movie. Instead, she “wants Sonja’s journey to be an allegory for more existential questions around the survival of the species in the face of climate change,” with aesthetics inspired by “steampunk, Mad Max, and Frank Lloyd Wright.” Listen, I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch this movie. It sounds like it could be interesting (or a hot mess). But other than the title, none of this sounds like the Red Sonja who has become such an iconic comic book hero.
However, while reading Bassett’s thoughts on J. K. Rowling, I get the impression it might be a good thing that she isn’t tackling the obvious gender discussions in Red Sonja. Bassett, a transgender woman, “refuses to adopt many of the tenets of trans advocacy.” She can’t seem to remember what Rowling said that was so “bad.” (We remember, we have receipts.) Then Bassett doubles down, revealing how little she understands about gender and sex, and how nuanced they can be from person to person.
“Mammalian biology is divided into male and female — it just is!” she told [The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Johnson] casually. Mention a term like “non-menstruating humans,” and Bassett rolls her eyes. She knows stances like these will disturb some. “I have friends who’ve been very much upset by what I’ve said publicly,” she says. “But I have no doubt about the biology of it. It’s nonsensical not to have ‘biological woman’ as part of your vocabulary.”
Not only is Bassett wrong about how biology works, but she just becomes cruel. Sadly, Bassett’s comments remind me of people who disparage themselves (or people like them) to gain broad acceptance. It’s like watching women support misogynistic ideas so that a certain type of man will find them interesting and “not like other women.” Or when people who receive social services denounce Democrats for funding public services. (I’ve known people in real life who have done both things.) I guess it is good that Bassett won’t be tackling Sonja’s nuanced gender storylines since I don’t think she would execute them correctly. Hopefully, one day we will get a decent Red Sonja movie. Bassett’s movie probably won’t be it.
(featured image: Dynamite Comics)
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This ‘Red Sonja’ Movie Is Avoiding ‘Sexual Politics.’ Sadly, That Might Be for the Best | The Mary Sue
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