Support “The Adventures of Penny Patterson,” A Short Film About a Superhero’s Love Interest


So often in superhero narratives, the focus is on the superhero to such a degree that supporting characters rarely get fleshed out in any meaningful way. This is especially true for female love interests, who are regularly limited to a “damsel in distress” role in which they are there solely to further the male hero’s story. The Adventures of Penny Patterson is a new short film that’s set to flip this perspective. It’s a superhero origin story told from the point of view of the hero’s girlfriend, a high school student who just wants to get her science fair project done.

The short is the graduate thesis film project of Stephanie Donnelly, an NYU student and a lifelong comic book fan. She’s writing and directing the short, and has started a campaign at Seed & Spark to finance the project; she’s looking to get $12,000, and is 39% of the way there already at just a week into the campaign.

I got to read the script for the project, and it’s both a fun story and a pointed commentary on the traditional tropes of the superhero genre. Stephanie brings a sharp, feminist perspective to the underrepresentation of women not just in comic book narratives but also in the film industry as a whole. Stephanie’s a female writer and director, and has created a project with a female lead because to intentionally counter the lack of women protagonists in film today. As she explains, “As a filmmaker, I strive to change those statistics by telling more stories about strong, complex women. I think now more than ever, we need to see more empowered female characters in superhero movies.”

The Seed & Spark campaign has a variety of reward levels, ranging from thanks in the credits to a digital download of the finished film to getting to be an extra in the project and even an associate producer. That last one will get you on IMDB, by the way, which is all sorts of cool. It’s a great project with a smart perspective that looks like it’s going to be really entertaining as well. I encourage you to check out the Seed & Spark page, see the video they’ve put together and read up on the project, and consider sending some money their way to help the project come to fruition. You can also sign up to follow the project; more followers can help it get featured on the Seed & Spark homepage and thus reach more folks.

The superhero genre can always use more women in starring roles, and The Adventures of Penny Patterson gives us just that! Check out the project and support it if you can!

Published by Tim Hanley

Tim Hanley is a comic book historian and the author of Wonder Woman Unbound, Investigating Lois Lane, The Many Lives of Catwoman, and Betty and Veronica: The Leading Ladies of Riverdale.

8 thoughts on “Support “The Adventures of Penny Patterson,” A Short Film About a Superhero’s Love Interest

  1. This is a really fascinating premise. And I wish her every success. I have such mixed feelings around using the label “damsel in distress” mostly because I just do not think this is a fair representation.

    Lois Lane is first lady of the superhero genre, so I’ll use her an example. She’s often a lightning rod because she was created so long ago and society has changed so much since then. It’s hard to imagine but she came on the scene only 20 years after women had the right to vote. She was very much a feminist character of that time.

    I never saw her as a damsel in distress. She was out there getting her story. Superman had to save a lot of people. Her purpose on page was not to be saved by Superman. I always felt her purpose was for the reader to see Superman through her perspective (the wonder, etc).

    She took a giant step backward in the 50s and the Silver Age. I’m not convinced she’s ever evolved past this era. The writers treated her very disrespectfully in my opinion. She was written as a caricature of her Golden Age self. This “damsel” idea, I think, came from how they changed her motivation from “girl reporter” to marrying Superman and proving he was Clark Kent. Superman was not much better. He was always sabotaging Lois and sending her mixed signals.

    Meanwhile in all of this? Jimmy Olsen needed help (Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen) and Superman even gave him a signal watch to call him when he needed saving. Pal in distress. But that is never his tag line or punch line. It always bugged me as a little girl why his story even though it was often as ridiculous wasn’t written with the same mockery as Lois’s.

    The stories got better in the bronze age for Lois, I thought at least. Those were the books of my youth. Women’s liberation gave Lois back her groove as it were, and her motivations from the Golden age returned.

    The problem is though? She’s never been able to shake the punchline of the silver age. And that is a shame.

    This is why I *love* Gwenda Bond’s books. She’s been able to incorporate Lois Lane from all these ages, capture the core of her personality, and present her in a modern perspective.

    I just worry when using labels like “damsel in distress” and just a love interest, it dismisses the women that came before. They were a product of their time. They were written through the lens of the society of the time.

    Lois Lane has always been more than a girl friend, more than a damsel in distress. Sometimes was she written as one? Yes. But that isn’t all there was to her in the past.

    I think the Silver Age was very disrespectful to her but I also have a soft spot for that Lois because she survived the indignities of the era and there were many.

    I just hope we can look back on these women and see them through sympathetic lens and understand the society they were living in.

    We all are standing on their shoulders.

    I can’t wait to see this film. Best of luck to her and thanks for bring this to my attention at least!

    1. “We are standing on their shoulders.” So true, Maya. I love this. I feel so grateful to the women who came before me. I have so many privileges because of their sacrifices. Even though these women are fictional, it’s really the same thing here. We owe them so much.

    2. Hi Maya, I really appreciate your perspective here. I can’t speak for Stephanie, of course, but I know when I mention damsels in distress, which comes up fairly regularly in my line of work, it’s in terms of narrative function rather than character description. So many female characters are much more than that, especially Lois Lane, but that is often their primary role in the bulk of the stories in which they appear. The aim of this project seems to be to flip the roles, to make the superhero the secondary character and focus on the girlfriend without engaging in the tropes we so often see in the superhero genre. Obviously heroines have escaped these tropes before, but they remain a big part of superhero narratives still.

      Also, heck yeah, Gwenda’s Lois is the BEST 🙂

      1. Hi Tim,

        Thanks for the reply. I think narrative functions have evolved though. I don’t think Lois started out that way but then in the Silver Age became somewhat of a caricature.

        However, this was when a lot of characters popped up in that model. So yes, I do agree that the later ones used that one note sexism as a model.

        And I also agree we need to see more from the woman’s point of view. I’ve struggled with the current CW Superhero offerings for just this problem.

  2. Tim, thanks so much for posting this. I echo a lot of what Maya said above in her excellent comment. I wish this young woman a lot of luck and it seems like a neat film. I’m a huge fan of the Gwenda Bond Lois Lane series (cannot wait for the 3rd book!) so I love seeing another woman take a similar approach.

    I do have to be honest that there were a few things about the approach/framing of this and the video content on the website that gave me pause/frustrated me a bit. I hope that this young woman is open to some feedback.

    I think Maya did a good job above of putting a lot this stuff into historical context and I think the context is vital. You have to be really careful when discussing these older characters to take into account the circumstances of their time and recognize that what might not seem “feminist” to us now with the privileges we have in 2017 was extremely powerful back then. Lois Lane is a good example of this. She absolutely is a feminist icon. Now, that does not mean that she has always been treated as she deserved to be. It’s criminal that in 2017she still doesn’t have a book to her name at DC Comics–particularly given the success of her YA series and the increased focus on ethical journalism defining our media right now. But, the question then becomes…why is she treated so unfairly?

    I struggle a lot with throwing around the terms “just a love interest” and “just a damsel in distress” because….that’s just really NEVER been true about most of these women. It’s most certainly never been true about Lois. It was never true about Mary Jane Watson either. The problem is that, historically, the women were almost always punished and held to a more difficult standard than the men but their accomplishments were ignored. So by saying “usually her only role is to be a damsel in distress” she’s actually validating the misogyny that these women have faced for years by defining them solely the way the misogynists have defined them.

    I would also encourage her to recognize that when she says she wants to bring a “feminist perspective” to this character (which I think is lovely) to keep in mind that she is going to be building on others who have come before her. The truth is that there have been many media properties that have already worked hard to bring a feminist perspective to the very tropes she is talking about. Ironically, she includes “Lois and Clark” in her video. LnC was created a Deborah Joy Levine and was intended to be for a female audience and from Lois’s POV. Now, we can debate if what took place in the 1990’s holds up to 2017, but the point is that there are other women who have already worked hard to bring their feminism to this stuff and we need to work hard to not erase their effort. We are always building and working to improve and learning from other women who came before us. I think it’s vital to keep that in mind when approaching a subject like this.

    All in all, I wish her a ton of luck. But I would love to see her rethink the way she frames this project on that video and in the blurb. I think Maya put it best above—be sympathetic and compassionate to these women. Keep in mind that their accomplishments were often erased by a male dominant genre—don’t contribute to that erasure by repeating the sexist lies about them to promote the project. Just my two cents. Wishing her luck!

    1. Hi Mary, Thanks for the excellent comment! As I mentioned in reply to Maya above, I can’t speak for Stephanie but I know when I say “damsel in distress” it’s in terms of narrative function rather than a character description. The way the film is described certainly generalizes in a lot of ways, but I think that Stephanie’s primary goal is to flip the narrative, putting the girlfriend in the main role and examining a classic superhero origin story from her perspective without the tropes we so often see. Female characters are of course SO MUCH more than their narrative function and the tropes therein and feminist perspectives have been done before. I see this as another fun one rather than it breaking new ground or anything like that.

      And I’m with you on LnC Lois! Especially in that first season, there are so many great Lois moments, even with Deborah Joy Levine having to fight the studio at every turn!

      1. Hi Tim. I appreciate your comments but I still think she (and TBH honest you) need to watch how you use the term because even as a narrative function it’s a very unfair and misunderstood descriptor lacking complexity and nuance. I watched the video on her site and it really bothered me. I believe you that this was meant in a positive way but I wouldn’t have known that from watching the video. The video generalizes these women over clips from media (some of which seem really misplaced). Her mission statement does the same thing. I believe she’s well meaning but she’s validating misogyny by defining these women by these very limited terms. I wouldn’t know that she cares about these women from that video. It comes across, to me, like she’s viewing them with disdain. And that just makes me sad. I think her idea is great but I would encourage her to try a different approach here. As opposed to repeating these generalizations (which are often straw man arguments, I would encourage her to frame this differently. The issue here is that these women were often wonderful but were treated unfairly by a male dominant genre. Yet, despite that, these women resonated with people. They inspired women. They have fans. It’s beautiful to give them more attention with a new story. But I would love to see the impact they made recognized/respected as she’s putting her own spin on this and adding a new POV. I really wish her luck and I hope the feedback helps!

  3. I think my main quandry here is who the intended audience is. As someone who loves these female comic book characters, particularly the ones with no powers of their own, and a feminist, I assumed that I was part of that target audience, and went to check out the project, but the video gave me doubts. The premise, a superhero origin story told from the point of view of the superhero’s girlfriend, sounds right up my alley, and like commenters here have said, maybe something like Gwenda Bond’s brilliant Lois Lane books have been doing, but a number of the things that were said in the video threw me off.

    As a consumer of comic books, and pretty much every peice of comic book media I have been able to get my hands on in the last decade or so, I don’t think that most superheroes are the worst, or even terrible boyfriends. We’re talking about the “good guys” here, heroes that are focused on the public good sometimes do fail on an interpersonal level, but they are rarely “jerks,” and even lying has fallen out of style in modern portrayals, to the degree that it is either sort of irrelevant, or that the hero is consistently punished by the narrative for his dishonesty.

    I can think of a number of examples of the “jerk” superhero in the realm of parody, and none of them strike me as particularly feminist. I rarely watch one of these films or read one of these stories and think to myself, “why is she with this guy?” Instead, I think, “wow, this is hard, I hope they work it out,” because typically this guy is pretty decent, and the story is being told with romance included because that relationship is an interesting one. Heroes we love, heroes that last, are not typically vainglorious spotlight-seekers, like they are often portrayed in more cardboard parody peices. Since Lois and Clark are featured in your video clips, they are a pretty good example. They are absolutely relationship goals for a power couple!

    These female characters, like Mary Jane Watson, Jane Foster, Rachel Dawes, Laurel Lance, and Lois Lane are not the type of woman who doesn’t have anything better to do that stare out a window, waiting for their love interest to return. They are all high achievers with extremely busy ambitious lives. They’re not like that by accident- ambitious people are well matched with ambitious people! Clark and Lois are into eachother because they are both go-getters who fight for justice in different ways. I think Smallville is a great example of that, in fact, because Lois absolutely shares 50% of Clark’s origin story and as you’ll recall, really enjoys the process every step of the way. She’s also got a to-do list one which just one of the many items is “support Superman.”

    Maybe some women would feel slighted by their partner’s focus on justice, but these women are not those women because they have to-do lists of their own. It’s troubling to hear that a successful actress, a groundbreaking physicist, an assistant DA, a legal aid attorney (you know, like one of those women you saw pictures of sitting on the floor during the faulty roll out of Trump’s Muslim ban, working to help immigrants) and a pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist called under-developed just because of the way that the audience recieves her and writers sometimes treat her. I certainly think that these characters deserve more spotlight and screen time than they get, and I’m sure that comes with more development, but I also think that there’s a tendency to overlook what is already there.

    I would really love to see a project like this built out of love for both these awesome female characters and their love interests, but when they’re characterized as “naggy girlfriends,” “damsels in distress,” or the characterizing their full and interesting lives as revolving around the hero’s, it makes me feel like these characters aren’t getting the love and appreciation they deserve. I don’t think we need to wash out the original owners of this banner or the carriers of this legacy in order to bring new and exciting models to the forefront.

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