Art history isn’t something everyone gets a chance to learn about in school, but I bet you ten dollars you can still name four influential Italian painters off the top of your head without even really thinking about it. Heck, I can even guess who they’ll be: Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
No, I’m not psychic — those also happen to be the names of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and between their comics, television shows, movies, and thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, they are a ubiquitous part of modern American pop culture. At the very least, they appear on more lunchboxes than Leonardo da Vinci.
Sadly, the world of Turtles — much like the Renaissance art world itself — has always been a bit of a boy’s club, so I put it to you that the turtle bros could use another member to round out the team. And on the day of her birth (July 8), I nominate a worthy artist who knows a thing or two about standing out from the crowd to be that turtle's namesake: Artemisia Gentileschi.
Gentileschi was the daughter of a Tuscan painter, Orazio Gentileschi, and it’s due to her father’s encouragement that she took up painting in the first place. Unfortunately, it was not a smooth path to success — the painter hired to tutor her, Agostino Tassi, was convicted of raping her at a time when getting a rape conviction required proof that the victim was a virgin prior to the attack. And even then, he was only sent to prison for a year.
Still, Gentileschi continued in her work and became a famous Baroque artist in her own right, as well as the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. She was still treated unfairly by the mostly-male art community at the time, however, and considered more of a novelty than a serious artistic contender — which might be why she gravitated so often towards portraying women as either strong, capable warriors or sympathetic, suffering victims.
In fact, you might recognize her most well-known painting, “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” which depicts the Old Testament story of a Hebrew woman who seduced an invading general and then beheaded him while he was drunk. It’s always been a pretty popular subject for painting, but Gentileschi’s is the definitely best of the bunch, mostly because Judith and her maidservant are really getting’ their hands dirty, here.
So, let’s recap: female artist, arguably more talented than her male peers but still considered an anomaly for inexcusable reasons, really good with blood and gore and female solidarity (which is just as badass as blood and gore, thank you). All she needs is a shell on her back and possibly a blunt force weapon and she’s already a superhero as it is.
Now, I am no fool, gentle readers: I understand that female additions to the Turtle squad have spoiled the experience for fans in the past, more often than not because they exist mostly as possible romantic interests for the male turtles (and that the mostly male fans won't take them seriously in the first place, but that's a complaint for another time).
Take, for example, Mona Lisa, a college student from the 1987 animated series who was transformed into a lizard and had a crush on Raphael for an episode. She was supposed to come back. She didn't. No one really minded.
Then there was the arguably more egregious Venus de Milo, the fifth Turtle who appeared in the live-action “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation” television series. She was depicted as naïve and ignorant of western culture due to being raised in China, and she used magic orbs instead of martial arts training, I guess because women don’t get to be badass. They also went out of their way to establish that none of the turtles, even the guys, were related to one another, just in case they wanted one of the other turtles to develop a crush on Venus (ick). Naturally she was hated by the fans, and the show didn’t make it another season.
And yeah, did I mention their boobs? Despite not being mammals, both of these female Turtles had boobs. Venus even had shell boobs.
So yeah, nobody wants something like that again, not even those of us who would relish the opportunity for more gender representation in our dorky action-adventure cartoons. But the answer to an uncomfortably stereotypical portrayal like Venus isn’t to give up on female characters entirely — you just have to care enough about a female character to make her interesting, and be mindful of the tropes that already dominate the media landscape. Like shell boobs on reptilian women. Let's avoid those, please.
The 2012 Nickelodeon series took some steps in that direction by reimagining Mona Lisa as a powerful alien military lieutenant with her own personality and skills (and without any boobs, either). But I think the franchise could certainly go a step farther with a new female turtle. And what better way to prove to readers that you’re serious about such an endeavor than naming her not after a work of art, like Venus and Mona Lisa, but after an actual painter like Gentileschi?
I’m not the only person who’d love to see a turtle named after Gentileschi, as a matter of fact — Comic artist Sophie Campbell, who’s worked on “Jem and the Holograms” and the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” comics for IDW, created just such a female turtle (note: in the interview linked here, Campbell is credited as the name she went by before she began transitioning) for a fan comic she started in 2014.
Considering how much work Campbell put into a turtle who was demonstrably different in personality than her brothers — after all, Venus doesn’t really have much of an identity beyond being the token girl — it would certainly be cool to see “Artie” become a canonical part of the “TMNT” franchise.
Until then, at the very least we can celebrate the real-life superhero she’d be so perfectly named for. Turtle or not, she’s pretty badass, too.