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Volume 7972
Meet Dejah Thoris,
Not Scientist
by Fredrik Ekman
Originally published in ERB-APA #156.

In spite of the John Carter movie’s alleged big flop at the box offices, it nevertheless made a profound impression upon many people’s conceptions of what Barsoom is and looks like. This can clearly be perceived in much of the visual imagery that we see nowadays, such as fliers, Tharks, weapons, Woola, etc. But also in many of the finer details about the world and the characters, such as the idea that Dejah Thoris is supposedly a scientist.

Dejah Thoris scientificking away in the John Carter movie.

Before the movie, no-one ever claimed that Dejah Thoris is a scientist. (Well, maybe you can dig up an odd example from the 100 years that went before, but essentially, no-one ever did.) But after the movie, you see it all over the place. In Dynamite’s comic books, in Modiphius’ role-playing game, in fan fiction, in Facebook comments about how Burroughs was so ahead of his time that he made Dejah Thoris into a capable heroine, and so on.

Ok, I can hear some of you protesting already: “Hey, waitaminit! Burroughs did write that she is a scientist. It is right there, in the tenth chapter of A Princess of Mars. Go see for yourself!"

This just goes to show the genius of Andrew Stanton. The idea of Dejah Thoris, scientist princess, fits so well into the story Burroughs wrote, that as soon as it has been presented to you, you immediately think to yourself: “Yes, that’s right. I know I read that.” Well, you did not.

What Burroughs Actually Wrote

Dejah Thoris never claimed to be a scientist herself, only that she was part of a scientific expedition. “Splitting hairs.” some may say. Not at all, but have patience. Here is what she had to say in that tenth chapter, after Lorquas Ptomel asked the purpose of the expedition:
‘It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father’s father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take atmospheric density tests,’ replied the fair prisoner, in a low, well-modulated voice.” And she goes on to say: “The work we were doing was as much in your interests as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life. For ages we have maintained the air and water supply at practically the same point without an appreciable loss, and we have done this in the face of the brutal and ignorant interference of your green men.

That is all. Note how she never once speaks about her own role in the scheme of things. She only uses a collective “we”. Not as in “we, the scientists”, but as in “we, the red men” or more to the point “we, the people of Helium”.

Click for full size
Female scientist (perhaps not Dejah Thoris) from
Modiphius’ role-playing book John Carter of Mars: Jeddak of Jeddaks Era (2019).

Just What Is She, Then?

But she never says that she isn’t a scientist. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that she is?

No, it is not. Burroughs was a very pragmatic writer. He rarely wrote anything unless he had a purpose. In this case, the expedition was a scientific one, not because he wanted to present Dejah Thoris as a scientist, but because he wanted to present the green men as barbaric. They unreflectingly shoot at anything that moves in the sky, regardless of why it is there, even though it is actually trying to save the entire planet, including themselves, from slowly suffocating.

This does not make Dejah Thoris into one of the scientists aboard the ship, because there was no reason to make her into a scientist. Burroughs needed a princess for his hero to fall in love with. Scientist, at the time, fell outside the “princess” template. Or, for that matter, outside the “woman” template. In all of Burroughs’ literary output, I cannot think of a single female scientist, so it hardly seems logical that his first ever human female character would be one.

And besides, in the entire series of eleven books, and except for that one scientific expedition in A Princess of Mars, there is not a single quote or reference that even suggests that Dejah Thoris is a scientist or engaged in scientific activity.

Scientist Dejah Thoris making environmental measurements in
Dynamite’s Dejah Thoris, vol. 3, #1 (2019). Artist: Vasco Georgiev.

Now, some will say: “But the green men force her to make ammunition. Isn’t that a job for a scientist with knowledge about physics and chemicals?
Again, no. In Chapter 12, Tars Tarkas explains to John Carter that it is a woman’s job to prepare food, care for arms and manufacture ammunition. In other words, Dejah Thoris is assigned to the job as ammunition maker not because she is a scientist (she is not), but because she is a woman.

But why is she on a scientific expedition if she is not a scientist?” The answer to that question is that we do not know, because Burroughs never says. However, there could be any number of reasons for her to be there. She could be a royal observer, an administrative leader, a sponsor or a diplomat, just to mention a few possibilities, any one of which is more likely than the scientist alternative. It is even possible, although this again is probably not what Burroughs intended, that she was the ship’s captain or the “admiral” for the fleet of ships.

But I Want Her to Be a Scientist!

Doing what Andrew Stanton did was not inherently problematic, at least as far as the scientist idea goes (I find the warrior princess aspect harder to swallow). Stanton deliberately and openly told a new story, loosely based on Burroughs’ original. Nor do I mind (much) when Dynamite or Modiphius extend canon and make Dejah Thoris into a scientist in their derivative products, which are obviously not perfectly true to the original stories, anyway. And you can state that she is a scientist in your fanfic or in your role-playing campaign, if that makes you happy.

What I do mind is when people claim that Burroughs said or suggested that she is a scientist. Because in a discussion or analysis, that will lead you to the wrong conclusions about Burroughs, about his characters, or even about the time he lived in.

Could we please agree to do Burroughs the honour of discussing what he wrote, rather than what we wish he would have written?

A Princess of Mars
John Carter of Mars: The Movie
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Fredrik Ekman Tribute Series

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