One thing you won’t see in Disney’s movie version of John Carter when it’s released this weekend is Dejah Thoris, or at least not Dejah Thoris as the original book’s author intended her. Here’s how Edgar Rice Burroughs described the series’ strong-willed, take-charge female character in the book Princess of Mars…
And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life… Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.
She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.
That’s not the only passage like that in Burroughs’ books. Actually all of the books kind of go out of their way to describe Dejah Thoris not only as naked but sexually empowered. Disney is hoping no one will actually read the books to notice any of this is in there, because it definitely won’t be in their movie. It’s understandable from Disney and their adaptation, but what isn’t understandable is this kind of behavior from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ family.
Its seems the Burroughs estate has filed a lawsuit against comic publishers Dynamite who’ve put together a visual adaptation of the books which actually depicts Dejah Thoris as flat out naked. The suit according to THR makes some vague claim of copyright infringement, but there is no copyright issue here since the John Carter books were written in 1912. Any copyright on them has long since expired and the books are now in the public domain, which means they aren’t copyrighted.
If you read the fine print of the lawsuit, it becomes clear that what the Burroughs estate is really mostly worried about is the fact that Dejah Thoris is naked in the comics. Their suit claims the images in the comics “border on (and in some cases are) pornographic.”
Here’s a look at the cover of the comic in question…
It’s worth noting that not only did Edgar Rice Burroughs write Dejah Thoris this way, she’s also been drawn this way for decades. Until more recently the covers of the John Carter books featured a very similarly nude Dejah Thoris. This one for example…
So why does the Burroughs family care? Here’s my theory. There’s a Disney movie coming out in which Dejah Thoris is toned down enough to be covered up and they’re marketing it to kids. Their suit says the comics are “confusingly similar” to their trademarks and that they’re worried people will believe the ERB estate has endorsed them. Consider for a moment that the Burroughs Estate plans to benefit greatly from this upcoming Disney film… and it’s not going to help their earnings potential if parents realize Dejah Thoris is supposed to be naked and sexually empowered.
All of this becomes particularly heinous when you consider the place of the Dejah Thoris character in the history of literature. She was, simply put, an inspiration. The book was written in 1912 and Burroughs’ attitudes towards women are somewhat shaped by the time. But in Dejah Thoris he really bucked the prevailing winds to create an almost feminist character, long before feminism was a reality.
Thomas F. Bertonneau, a professor of English at New York College, explains it best when he wrote that Burroughs’, “conception of the feminine that elevates the woman to the same level as the man and that – in such characters as Dian of the Pellucidar novels or Dejah Thoris of the Barsoom novels – figures forth a female type who corresponds neither to desperate housewife, full-lipped prom-date, middle-level careerist office-manager, nor frowning ideological feminist-professor, but who exceeds all these by bounds in her realized humanity and in so doing suggests their insipidity.”
Yes, Dejah Thoris is naked and sexual in the John Carter books but never in a way that’s exploitative. It’s quite the opposite really, her nudity and frankly the nudity of everyone in the books, is a symbol of their empowerment. Think of her portrayal as an early, nakeder, 1912 version of feminists burning their bras. And now Edgar Rice Burroughs own family is out to cover her up in shame in order to make a buck.
It’s all part of the modern move to tone down, marginalize, and polish the edge right off sci-fi, a genre once known for pushing boundaries. I’d rather have things go the other way. It’s time someone put the sex back in.