14 MINUTE READ
Patty Jenkins is best known for directing acclaimed movies like “Monster,” with Actor Charlize Theron (a role for which she won an Oscar), and “Wonder Woman,” with Actor Gal Gadot — who is famously cross-cultural — but few people realize Jenkins is as well.
As a second-generation military B.R.A.T., Jenkins traveled abroad at age six months, beginning her tenure as a full-fledged Third Culture Kid (TCK). Her experiences and her life path would be instrumental in creating some of the most lauded film productions of all time.
Patty Jenkins: A TCK Powerhouse
During our conversation, Jenkins jokes that no one would be speaking to her if she hadn’t done the work she has to date. In our global, cross-cultural world, however, the fame and glitz might be cool, knowing that someone with a similar background “made it” might be awesome. Still, the milestone for us in talking to her is how she grew up and that she fully understands our culturally in-between world.
TCKs know all-too-well that in-between space that few understand. It’s amazing to see how the traits, characteristics and experiences among TCKs like Military B.R.A.T.s can shape and mold a life and a career.
WONDER WOMAN: DESTINY CHARTED
Jenkins was born to a fighter pilot father and feminist mother on George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., U.S.A. Before she could walk, she was flying, as her mom took Jenkins and her sister to live in Vietnam, then Cambodia and Thailand, so they could be close to where their father was deployed during the Vietnam war.
“She’s a feminist rebel who decides that she’s taking us to go along even though we’re not supposed to go,”
Jenkins says of her mother. Growing up in a military family herself, there was no way the young mom could fathom being left behind. The family lived on their own in Thailand while Jenkins’ father was stationed in Cambodia. And so, it began.
Jenkins is very aware of how such an upbringing can shape one’s mindset. She posits that being in a completely different culture than that of the U.S., and being there during wartime changes the experience as much as the experience shapes the individual. She notes, “Your first observations of life are in another place, but there’s also extreme duress all around you. Only in retrospect do I realize and think I was absorbing a lot of my father’s struggles because I think you are [absorbing so much] and you’re probably not realizing it.”
Relating it back to career, Jenkins reflects how her experiences help her see the characters in her films.
“When I made ‘Monster,’ I was always so curious why I had this victor identification even though she was not a victor, she was a victim very much, Aileen Wuornos. But she killed all these people. There was something about her story that always spoke to me in the fact that she didn’t mean to. You weren’t seeing that she never set out to be this person; she didn’t set out to be the bad guy.”
Like many TCKs, Jenkins’ unique point-of-view and ability to ascertain and decipher nuance allow viewers to see her characters with a multi-dimensionality and understanding to which the masses can relate.
Reading her father’s letters as an adult, Jenkins came to realize the struggles he faced with his assignment during the Vietnam war. He was a fighter pilot — “a great one,” — says Jenkins, who chose his career path because of World War II. He wanted to be the good guy, she offers, to be one of the heroes who stopped the Nazis. “And now he’s strafing villagers in Vietnam,” she says.
“I think the fighter pilots had a visual clear understanding of what they were doing because they weren’t in the woods being shot at,” Jenkins says. “They’re in a plane being shot at, but they know they’re killing innocent villagers — like you know what you’re doing. You’re in a plane dropping bombs on children.”
Art to me is when you sing your soul… and the bell it rings universally, to everybody.
One can only imagine the toll such a turn of events could levy upon the soul.“So, I think also I was absorbing probably all of the interesting emotional confusion of what was going on over there from him, and from my mom, and from being in another world.”
THE THIRD CULTURE KID JOURNEY TO WONDER WOMAN’S- WW1984
In her own words, here is how we think Patty Jenkins’ background brings the universal to the masses in ways to which we all can relate:*text edited for brevity and clarity.
1. A 360-degree POINT-OF- VIEW:
WW1984 is an ensemble piece much more than the first movie, where there are four main characters and they all start in pretty strong ways except for Diana, who is complex.
It’s a journey where, hopefully, I deconstruct all of them, so you see where they’re ending up and why they’re ending up where they are — which is an interesting thing to do with villains.
Certainly, I’m not the first person to do it, but it’s not a common thing to do and oftentimes, you want your villain; you want to understand their journey. By the end, you’re experiencing all of the points of view of the story. Hopefully.
2. TRANSCENDS BORDERS:
I was so proud to be a part of the gender conversation in the last movie, but Wonder Woman is about saving the world, and we have big problems. Interestingly she is talking about what we’re going through right now in this movie, which is: We can be better than this.
3. REQUIRES EMPATHY:
I feel like that’s what I was trying to do with “Wonder Woman I,” which was: You think that there’s a bad guy and you’re gonna kill the bad guy, but there’s no bad guy. There’s no bad guy, that was the point — it’s us. It’s us, we’re all both, it’s complex and we have to get to terms with that.
Evil is laziness and lack of bravery and courage in the face of something not of benefit to yourself.
4. SHOWS THE DIMENSIONALITY OF LIFE:
You can always think that you’re right, and you can also think that you’re coming from the same point of view, but there are additional layers of accountability — the truth being one of them — and all sides claim the truth is on their side: but there is one truth, there are not many truths.
We’re all investigating what that is, and we all put our various slants on what that is, but I think that a lot of people don’t have the bravery to really face the real truth and challenge their own point of view when it’s inconvenient or traumatic for themselves.
To me, that is what evil is: Laziness and lack of bravery and courage in the face of something not of benefit to yourself.
5. DOES THE SEEMINGLY UNDOABLE:
I set out to do sort of (simultaneous) opposite things: To both make an absolutely massively delightful spectacle (which I think you only get to do on the heels of another successful movie), and I really wanted to make this old school.
People don’t do that now, so it became incredibly new school and the fact that we did incredible wirework and stunts and things that have never been possible before because nobody tries. They don’t need to because they do it in CG. So, having a chance to do these incredible set pieces with real human bodies flying around [was incredible].
6. IT HAS MEANING:
For those that want to have a good time, hopefully, it’s that. But really, all of us collectively tried to say something much deeper and more powerful than you necessarily need to do with a superhero movie.
Because of the times that we’re living in, if this is a movie that you can get the ears and eyes of the world, you should take that opportunity to move the conversation forward. That was an interesting thing to have your eyes on both targets at the same time.
I never wanted it to be less than the greatest superhero movie it could aim to be. I wanted to make sure we were always taking that opportunity to bring something important to the conversation.
** Wonder Woman 1984 is set to launch in theaters on Christmas Day.
SINS OF THE FATHER
Jenkins relays that she feels “sins of the father is a real thing,” outlining her thoughts that children pick up the experiences, activity and emotions around them. We discuss intergenerational trauma and studies with rats that link to traumatic experiences and how they can pass to offspring through multiple generations.
There is a growing body of research supporting the effect of trauma through generations — it’s been shown, but science is trying to figure out exactly how it happens. According to a 2019 article by Martha Henriques on BBC.com’s BBC Future, much of this study is beginning to concentrate on epigenetics, where gene expression is modified without actually changing DNA code.
“Tiny chemical tags are added to or removed from our DNA in response to changes in the environment in which we are living. These tags turn genes on or off, offering a way of adapting to changing conditions without inflicting a more permanent shift in our genomes,” Henriques writes.
The studies often point to male trauma victims passing the resulting expressions on to their sons and not their daughters. But Jenkins is on to something with her assessment, continuing with, “They say that your imprinting up until the age of three is pretty influential in how you see the world.” Sociologist Morris Massey, Ph.D., speaks widely on values development and cites age zero to seven as the “Imprint Period,” the time of life essential to a human’s basic programming.
According to Massey, it’s where children unconsciously pick up parental behavior. So Jenkins has it right on the money.
Sadly, her father perished in a flight training exercise when she was seven. But not before they’d lived in Kansas, U.S.A., and Thailand again, and Germany and Spain. During the cold war, her father had an acting mandate and a one-way ticket to Russia with nuclear weapons aboard his aircraft. “Again, who knows what you’re absorbing, but these are the high stakes [with which her father worked].”
YOU’RE FROM KANSAS
With all of this mobility, Jenkins believes her mother wanted her daughters’ lives to seem stable, commenting “But, you’re from Kansas,” as they did live in the state for a decent amount of time off and on until Jenkins’ sophomore year of high school (Then there was New England, D.C., summers in Mississippi – TCKs know the drill).
“But I’m not from Kansas actually, mom, because I never was able to get there. It’s like once you’ve lived in these different places, and frankly, we left all the time too, so I was constantly going to different places.
But I never was able to get up to speed with people from one place who hadn’t seen behind the curtain. Once you’ve seen behind the curtain in wartime, it’s very hard to get back to the cheerleaders in the same way.”Jenkins says she never felt she was from Kansas. “Ever.”
In her estimation, she came from two lush, green places – one tropical, in Thailand, the other in Germany.“Kansas always looks to me exactly like what it is to an outsider,” she conveys. “‘Wow, it’s awfully flat. And quiet. And I sure do miss the city.’ It never felt like home.”
THE BIG EXHALE
Jenkins’ two besties from childhood were TCKs — in Kansas, her best friend was from Poland, and later, in Washington D.C., her best friend was the daughter of two French immigrants. Early on, in Kansas, the two little women set their sights on going to art school in New York City. When the time came, they both received admission to Cooper Union, which has a 16 percent acceptance rate.
Today, family is what Jenkins calls home.
Once reunited in the big city, “It was this huge sigh of relief to be amongst everybody, like it was irrelevant where you were from. There was no ‘from.’ New York was like a big exhale.” This is what she called home. “It was funny because we were both punk rockers and that just disappeared the second we got to New York.
”In Kansas, being punk was their way of differentiating themselves and ensuring people knew they were not like everyone else. “But the second we got to New York, it was like, ‘whatever — who cares?’ It was just you and me, and we’re all different and how great.”
New York’s utopian dream contained everything she cherished: music (punk rock mixed with early ’90s hip hop), art (she’d originally gone to school for painting), eclectic friends and a vibrant social scene full of diverse people. This would be the launching pad for the career we’ve come to know.
Today that career has brought Jenkins full circle: a loving family with husband Sam Sheridan (author and showrunner for Turner’s limited series “I Am The Night”) and son Asa, who, like mom, has spent his imprint years being geographically mobile.
Her son has had the last five of his 11 years of schooling in England while Jenkins shot her two latest films, “but he prefers California in a way that makes you realize he’s got an anchor that I didn’t have — where it’s like ‘this speaks to him,’” she says. Today, family is what Jenkins calls home.
STORYTELLING AS LIFE
She now has that foundation that many TCKs lack as children. But Jenkins believes she’s a filmmaker because of her curiosity about people — and that’s a direct result of her geographically mobile upbringing — her TCKness.
“When you move around, you see that everybody is the same, but they’re speaking a different language. ‘So what’s your version of tragedy, what’s your version of poverty, what’s your version of fear, what’s your…’ and the stakes are different and the language is different amongst all people, but at your core, you all have these things that unite you as well.
So, it’s her curiosity of people, but also her interest in finding the universal story — the things that connect us all — to which we relate.
“Art to me is when you sing your soul, as specific as it is, and the bell it rings universally, to everybody.”
**For more on Patty Jenkins’ TCK Journey, visit cultursmag.com/ Patty-Jenkins