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Interview: Kathrynne Wolf’s “The Scarlet Line” – a feminist action web-series

2013 September 10

We previously wrote a post on the amazing Mrs Edith Garrud, who taught Jujutsu to the suffragettes to help them avoid arrest. The story of those bodyguards has now inspired a new web-series, written by and starring Kathrynne Wolf. Our Stephen B couldn’t wait to find out more…

BadRep: Tell us a little bit about the series in your own words.

Kathrynne Wolf: The Scarlet Line is an action-drama about a secret lineage of female bodyguards who are, when on active duty, code-named “Scarlet”.

Our premise is that the Line started with the famous “Jujitsuffragette” bodyguard team in Edwardian London. In the world of our story, after the First World War the organisation – ‘The Scarlet Line’ – went international and Scarlets have operated ever since then, protecting people who need their help.

“We blow the Bechdel test straight out of the water.”

Our main character, Amanda, is a retired Scarlet whose very ordinary life is suddenly thrown into chaos. Details of the reasons for this disruption, the purpose, history and future of the line get revealed throughout the season.

BR: What gave you the idea to do this?

K-Woolf-HeadshotKW: I was literally falling asleep one night when I had the idea for a secret lineage of female bodyguards, quietly going about the business of making the streets safer.

This is the sort of story I wanted to see on screen. It’s an old adage that you should write the story you want to read, be the change you want to see, and so on. I had been distressed by the narrow representation of women – and the UNDERrepresentation of interesting roles and stories for women in media – for a long time.

Two issues I find particularly insidious are the tendency for any female protagonist driving the story to be called a “Strong Female Character”, where this adjective seems unnecessary for a male protagonist, and the tendency for “Strong Female Characters” either to a) be somehow supernaturally or technologically augmented, or b) have a tendency to cry, even when on the job.

I wanted to see a story of a woman who kicks butt and takes names as a matter of course. It’s her job. She does her job, she does it well. The fact that she’s female is not excused, it’s not augmented, it’s not commented on; it is not, in fact, the point. The point is the story – there’s a crisis that needs solving, there are obstacles, stakes get raised, we wrestle with issues of morality, trust, crime, betrayal…

“The fact that she’s female is not excused, it’s not augmented, it’s not commented on; it is not, in fact, the point. The point is the story.”

The other major factor that made me want to tackle this project is that I come from a background of what is generally referred to as ‘Chicago Storefront Theatre’. We have over 150 small theatre companies in Chicago, producing shows in all kinds of spaces that weren’t originally intended to hold a theatre, because they have stories they want to tell. It’s very much a ‘do it yourself’ mindset.

That’s why I produced the web-series myself, rather than writing a screenplay and then sending it off to Hollywood, hoping it would catch someone’s eye and that it wouldn’t get lost in ‘option-land’… I wanted to see it happen.

BR: What made you decide to set the series in the US rather than Britain?

KW: The main factor is that I live in Chicago, and this is where I have connections, know the locations, and where it was, in fact, possible to produce the series.

That said, the ‘mythology’ of the Scarlet Line definitely lends itself to satellite stories. It would make a great CSI-style franchise. I would love to see The Scarlet Line: London, The Scarlet Line: Seattle, The Scarlet Line: Barcelona – I’d just need to figure out how to go about licensing the sucker.

BR: The lead Scarlet’s wig and makeup are very striking, and call to mind vigilante superheroes such as Catwoman, Silk Spectre from ‘Watchmen’ and Hit Girl from ‘Kick-Ass’. In other press, you’ve previously mentioned Wonder Woman in connection with the unusual ‘web’ weapon used by the Scarlets – are you inspired at all by comics, as well as martial arts and action cinema?

KW: I was raised on Wonder Woman and Kitty Pryde was my favourite X-Man. Like all storytellers, I can’t help but draw from everything I’ve studied, read and seen.

I would say the Scarlet character was drawn as much from The Equalizer and the Guardian Angels as from comic books and movies.

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 21.17.53The lack of a current TV show like Wonder Woman is part of what goaded me into this. One of my oldest friends in the world had a baby daughter, and I had a “what will she WATCH???” moment of panic, as I considered the statistics that show that women’s representation in media has actually shrunk in the last few years.

I wanted to contribute to the ongoing development of a wider range of roles available to actresses and, therefore, role models available to young girls.

I don’t only mean morally upright ‘ideals’, I mean characters that represent the spectrum – that model all kinds of ways of being and behaving, living in the world, experiencing victories and consequences. The wider the spectrum presented, the more agency is given to young girls to figure out how they want to live for themselves.

The other major factor involved in the Scarlet wig and makeup is modern surveillance technology. The Scarlets have to keep their true identities secret, and research on the advances in facial recognition software led me to take the disguise angle to more extreme lengths than I’d originally planned.

It turns out that software has gotten scarily good at working around minor augmentations. Diana Prince’s glasses were NOT going to cut it.

BR: You perform quite a bit of realistic fighting in the episodes, as well as very kinetic movement with the Web weapons. Is it difficult to find film or theatre roles for women which showcase more realistic techniques?

KW: It is maddeningly difficult. For 13 years, I belonged to Babes With Blades Theatre Company, which is a Chicago company whose mission is to ‘place women and their stories centre stage’ using combat as a major part of their expressive vocabulary.

To do this, they’ve focused on developing new work, and they include an all-female-cast Shakespeare in every other season, as there simply are not many plays out there where women get to explore this range of human expression.

Again, it’s ridiculously rare in Western cinema, TV, and theatre that a female character is allowed to simply be proficient at combat without being superhuman, having a ‘super suit’, or being the ‘chosen one’.

Again, it’s ridiculously rare in Western cinema, TV, and theatre that a female character is allowed to simply be proficient at combat without being superhuman, having a ‘super suit’, or being the ‘chosen one’.

Don’t get me wrong – I love superhero stories, and am always happy for any opportunity actresses get to be that kind of hero. I just wanted to help open up the field so that they didn’t have to be somehow ‘other’ in order to do so.

BR: There are more women in TV and film who are action heroines these days, but they’re still often lone figures. Already in the trailers for early episodes we’re seeing that relationships (such as the one between Amanda and Marcus) are a big part of the story – are the relationships between female characters also focused on, alongside the ass-kicking?

KW: Most of the major characters in the series are women. We blow the Bechdel test straight out of the water.

The relationships are very important, and they’re explored much more deeply in Season 2. Season 1 is very much the set-up – it’s where the ball gets rolling. We introduce the major players, the major conflicts, the major themes, and some things get resolved by the final episode, but not all.

BR: What were the challenges of creating a web-series? Did the format give you more freedom to pursue feminist themes?

KW: The fact that we’re doing it all ourselves means we have no one to answer to. There’s no studio executive or marketing department saying ‘You have to include a male authority figure! She has to cry or it’s not believable!’ or any such nonsense.

The challenge, of course, is that we do not have studio resources. The good side of that is that no one is working on this project for any reason other than that they want to.

BR: What do you hope the series will achieve?

KW: I would love to inspire other folks with good stories to stop waiting for permission and MAKE THEM. I think the online short-form potential is evolving rapidly. The democratization of access to technical production capability is an amazingly wonderful thing, if you’ve got a story to tell.

I’d also like to help raise some awareness of some of the ass-kicking women of history – in fact, that is the subject of a panel I am doing at GeekGirlCon in Seattle in October – drawing from history to find inspirational stories of “non-super” superheroines.

If the series reaches some young (or not so young) folks who hadn’t yet realised that they’re allowed to take charge of their own stories and get them out there, and maybe some who hadn’t considered that there might be more roles for women than eye candy, damsel in distress or obstacle, even better.

The Scarlet Line Trailer 1 from Wolf Point Media on Vimeo.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Terese permalink
    November 4, 2015

    I am deeply concerned about the narrow representation and the lack of interesting women leads in media as well as the interpretation of these women (“strong, superhuman, etc…) and how it corresponds to reality. My biggest concern is the lack of progress. There are many examples of communities who were oppressed, various races or classes suffered discrimination which have completely overcome their oppression. The Irish, the Italians, Australians, some merchant classes, all experienced discrimination and oppression and were able to completely overcome the oppression in American culture and society. Women have not been able to do this for themselves. Why? I am alarmed that we are still struggling. I think the cause is the fundamental ingredient of the cure. Self-reflection on this point is not possible in a one dimensional “strong female” who does not justify her sense of integrity without a lineage, a history to give integrity to this character. Many of these leads are “the first” of her kind, the lone rebel. The character not only doesn’t have a community that accepts nor appreciates her, her parents are a distant memory and not her teachers. She is often peerless and this in itself damages her integrity. It also fails to model a society of confident women. Our current position is reinforced by this “strong female lead” that goes it alone in a man’s world and fails to document the change we wish to see. Feminism is more than a personal journey. It is the journey of more than half the world’s population. It is absurd that we have not overcome all forms of discrimination in every corner of the planet.

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