She was blamed for the death of 50,000 French soldiers in World War I and has gone down in history as the ultimate femme fatale. Mata Hari’s legacy has been turned into books and documentaries; even the famous starlet Greta Garbo portrayed the infamous dancer, who was convicted of being a German spy during WWI and executed. History has a way of painting women who are sexually and financially independent as a threat to society. Mata Hari’s rich and enticing story is no different. But, what happens when contemporary women take a stab at recreating this interesting woman’s story? Writer Emma Beeby and artist Arilea Kristantina have taken on this challenge with Dark Horse’s Mata Hari. The first issue was released on the 100th anniversary of this incredible woman’s arrest; she was executed by firing squad eight months later. BUST was able to sit down with Beeby to ask her some questions about why she feels it’s important for Mata Hari’s story to be told in the medium of comic books and why her story is so relevant now.
Why did you feel it was important to tell the story of the Mata Hari now?
I’ve wanted to tell this story for many years, though it does feel like this is the perfect moment for it. I was writing Mata Hari as the #MeToo campaign was kicking off, and I was painfully aware of how much of this woman's experience from a century ago — she was abused, harassed, assaulted, objectified and demonized — while extreme, is still representative of common experiences for many women. What stood out to me, more than just her remarkable story, is that she goes through all these terrible, tragic things that should make people sympathetic to her, but then she starts taking her clothes off, she uses her sexuality, and she loses sympathy and gains blame. Even modern biographers seem to have a lot of difficulty with how to judge and describe her — is she a gullible victim or a manipulative predator? No one agrees. I think hers is a story that can reveal our prejudices, even ones we didn’t know or didn’t believe were there.
What is it about independent women that have always made us so dangerous to society?
Society questions why women would ever need independence the first place. It is a threat; there’s no getting around it. In Mata Hari’s case, her independence was tolerated, at least for a while. She was a wealthy celebrity, an "international woman" with a string of lovers, but she didn’t allow men to control over her life. She got away with it because it was artistic, bohemian, Belle Epoque Paris, and she could dance naked for roomfuls of high-status men calling it art, though she (and they) knew why they were really there. When WWI broke out, her independence was not tolerated, as women were supposed to be the guardians of morality; her shows were cancelled. She was now too rich, spoke too many languages, and was said to have bedded too amny foreigners (the very things that led to her being recruited as a spy). She went from graceful artist sought after in theatres across Europe, to femme fatale and the "most dangerous spy ever caught." Both versions are fundamentally about her sexuality. But she was just doing what she could to survive and gain independence. It was always a matter of time before things turned, and she knew that.
What parts of her real life did you feel were absolutely vital to keep, and what parts did you feel were appropriate to fictionalize?
I’ve kept to the agreed-on facts. I’ve tried to put in words said by real people wherever possible. I fictionalized some things to simplify events, or fill in the blanks. Sometimes I had to make a judgment call, because there are things we just don’t know for sure. Like a suspect piece of evidence that may have been tampered with — I need to make a judgment on how to present that. Maybe a more controversial one is in the second episode, we see her relationship with the headmaster of her school. They had a sexual relationship; it was a scandal that ruined her reputation and prospects for marriage and saw her expelled and thrown out of her home. But to this day, the headmaster is still a well-respected historical figure, and this is just a salacious footnote in his long career. She was 15, and he was 51 and in a position of power over her — not just because he was in charge of her education, but as a friend of her uncle who was her (reluctant) guardian at the time. Some accounts assume she initiated their relationship, given her many conquests later in life, but I find it very hard to believe in that dynamic that the instigator was not the person with all the power, not to mention experience, that he groomed her into this relationship; that it was abuse, so that’s how I have written it.
Why do you think it's important for audiences to read about rebellious women like Mata Hari?
I don’t know if she was rebellious; the suffragettes were rebellious by openly opposing the way things were, and they were around at the same time as Mata Hari, but there’s evidence that she didn’t much like them. In many ways, she went the other way; she was conforming completely to the idea of her worth being in her beauty and her body. She used her sexuality to gain financial independence, but she was working the system in a way; she created a fantasy, she appropriated other cultures for profit, and fetishized the women of those cultures in line with the colonial ideas of the time. So, it’s complicated. She was definitely resourceful and bold.
I have a real soft spot for rebellious women who want to tear down the world and the views that work against them, from Boudicca burning down ancient Roman cities when her daughters are raped, to modern science writer Elaine Morgan taking on a sexist view of human evolution. I’ll hunt down those kind of stories. But Mata Hari’s story isn’t really like those stories. There’s something about her story that can make us challenge ourselves, our underlying beliefs, how our sympathies have been shaped. All the well-known inequalities that rebellious women fight are fed by beliefs about who deserves our support and sympathy, and the stories constructed to justify that. I doubt we’ll fix those inequalities without confronting the more insidious beliefs we still carry around in our culture.
What is something you feel is important about this comic that you would like audiences to know?
A lot of research has gone into this comic; many of the places and people shown are real. Ariela Kristantina, the artist, and Pat Masioni, who did the colors, have outdone themselves on reconstructing the reality of that time. We’ve all hunted down so many pictures and paintings to reference to make it realistic. No movie could achieve what they have done on paper. Comics have a reputation for being a simplistic form of storytelling, either for kids, or full of highly sexualized fantasies when it comes to some female characters. But we’ve tried to show a real person here, not a fantasy; that was part of the point. I hope people see that this is a form of storytelling that allows for an approach other mediums can’t replicate. Like we have this dance sequence throughout the series; it’s a kind of dance of the seven veils, she’s taking each off in offering to the god Shiva for revenge on a betraying lover until she is near naked. It’s the dance that made her famous, and it acts as a mirror and commentary on what happens. She moves through the pages, draping her veils over the scenes, and I can’t imagine how that would work in any other medium. I hope people are not put off by it being a comic; it lets us tell the story the way we wanted to tell it.
Mata Hari is one of the most famous women in history. Was she good, evil or an alignment of lawful neutral? After over a hundred years of her trial and execution, some documents from her closed-door trial are starting to be released to the public; maybe we will find out what really happened maybe it will continue to be a mystery. No matter what, she was a woman who made her own choices and there is nothing wrong or unlawful about that.
As a special treat for BUST.com readers, Dark Horse comics has given us an exclusive images for Mata Hari issue #2 out March 21:
top photo: Mata Hari in 1905, via Wikimedia Commons
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Isabel Dieppa is a writer and actor. She is a part of the performance duo Of This World in Chicago, IL. Her interests lie in science, art, and history. Past writing includes interning for the Chicago Field Museum ECCO program, the national theater blog HOWLROUND, music reviews for UR Chicago, and in a former life was a beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student. She loves archaeology, kitties, and dancing. The next big adventure may include an archaeological dig in Peru. Follow her on twitter @isabelsdieppa