Moving Pictures
Jun 05, 2024, 06:27AM

Roger Corman’s Lighthearted Feminism

The Wasp Woman (1959) isn’t only a sci-fi classic but also a fascinating exploration of a woman’s place in a man’s world.

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It’s usually accepted that B-movies are synonymous with exploitation movies. Pick a particular group—most often women—and add exploitative elements that are meant to provoke but also degrade. This isn’t the case with Roger Corman’s work, which is one of the reasons why he deserves a title higher than a mere B-movie director. On the contrary, he’s a master of independent filmmaking.

Corman made many films with strong female leads that weren’t exactly subjects of exploitation, and not on the same level as many “grindhouse” films. His 1959 The Wasp Woman isn’t only a sci-fi classic but also a fascinating exploration of a woman’s place in a man’s world.

Susan Cabot (a Corman regular) plays Janice Starlin, who’s the owner and founder of “Janice Starlin Enterprises,” a cosmetics company. Although she’s an attractive woman, her age is showing. Wrinkles, matronly hair, and fatigue are all enemies of youth, and they have launched an attack on Janice Starlin.

Janice’s company isn’t doing well. The sales are down. The executive board (made entirely of men) is laying blame at Janice’s feet. After all, she’s been the only face of the company for almost two decades but that same youthful face is now worn out. Time’s no friend of Janice Starlin.

The board wants Janice to step aside and change the advertising campaign. Rightfully so, she feels pushed around, and is even more resolute to not take the board seriously. She has new ideas but they’re far more radical than bringing in a younger model to be the face of “Janice Starlin Enterprises.”

She hires Dr. Zinthrop, a scientist who apparently found a fountain of youth. He has extracted enzymes from the royal jelly of the queen wasp, which in animal experiments has shown reversal of the aging process. Janice is intrigued and is willing to try radical means in order to bring her company from the brink of a possible disaster.

Bravely (or foolishly), she chooses to become Zinthrop’s guinea pig. After taking the serum, Janice begins to see improvements in her skin. The wrinkles appear to be going away, and that fatigue is slowly disappearing as well. She’s excited about the results, which brings on impatience with the process. Zinthrop tries to calm her down and urges patience. Any scientific discovery must be approached carefully and rationally, but Janice is overcome with a need for power.

Unbeknownst to Zinthrop, Janice injects herself with a high amount of serum. The process appears to be complete—she’s young again, and ready to pounce, or in this case, sting. There is, however, one side effect that Janice didn’t count on—she’ll become a wasp. Her obsessive need to be young again ends up costing many lives. The monster that she’s created can’t be stopped, and she has no control over it.

This should create a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” dichotomy but unexpectedly, it doesn’t. Janice is already a woman that stings (especially with her tongue, approach to men, and the very fact that she is a woman who founded the company, working in a predominantly male world), and instead of hiding behind the world of propriety or the submissive femininity, Janice realizes her nature in the new cross-species identity.

One could hardly call Roger Corman a feminist. He certainly (and thankfully!) was never interested in labels, but The Wasp Woman is part good, old-fashioned sci-fi flick, part a social commentary on a woman’s role in American society of the 1950s.

Janice’s male executive board is practically humoring her for being in charge. They all want to get rid of her but only if there’s strength in numbers. Each individual man doesn’t have the balls to do it. Janice dismisses these attempts and creates a clear delineation not merely between the company owner and employee but also between the most fundamental elements of human relationships: man/woman.

It’s not only in Cabot’s role that we see this delineation. Janice’s secretary, Mary (played by Barboura Morris, who shared the screen with Cabot in Corman’s Sorority Girl), is torn between her subservience to men and feminine power. In one scene, Mary comes into conflict with Bill Lane (a member of the board). Bill wants her to turn against Janice but Mary’s torn. He thinks she’s going soft.

“Oh, women,” he sighs, revealing his disdain for the opposite sex.

Mary smiles and retorts, “Men. Every time you’re stuck for an answer you always come up with ‘Women’. You’re not getting out of this so easily.”

Mary questions Bill’s suspicion of Zinthrop’s experiments. When asked for evidence, Bill simply says “Call it male intuition,” an obvious jab at female intuition. His character has praised female intuition but only for his own purposes—to avoid responsibility from providing an answer.

“You better leave intuition to me,” says Mary.

The exchange of power continues.

“Come on, I’ll let you buy me dinner,” says Mary.

“Buy you dinner?” says Bill. “What happened to your sporting blood? I thought we were gonna toss for the check.”

“Oh, no,” says Mary. “You won the last three times.”

The Wasp Woman is one of those sci-fi gems, a beautiful artifact unearthed, a complete surprise for any Roger Corman fan, and a cinephile. It crosses the boundary of the usual B-movie genre into something far more profound—an exploration of human need for power, the inevitable hubris, and the seductive dance of the feminine and masculine. 


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