Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr The White Savior trope is one of the oldest and most persistent forms of media racism to come out of post-colonialism. Essentially, the trope is when a white man arrives at a setting dominated by people of color and saves them. While this trope might seem innocent, it actually has tones of racial supremacy and a problematic upbringing in white wish fulfillment: that imperialism is a tool for saving people of color from their own savage plight. Many stories feature themes of escapism, turning places dominated by people of color into exotic lands that will serve to highlight and uplift the whiteness/European ideals of the protagonist. For those who may not be familiar with THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, it’s a story about a nobleman who is orphaned in the African jungle as a baby and is adopted by apes. While there, he adopts the name Tarzan and matures into a survivalist and warrior who thrives in the wilderness against “savages” and wild animals because of his aura of British superiority. He is eventually found by his future wife Jane, who re-civilizes him in British societal expectations. All things that definitely fit the White Savior trope. The movie itself deals directly with the slave trade and illustrating the African natives as feral individuals with very low scruples for human life. The narrative paints the African tribes as a superstitious, naive population who “foolishly” believe Tarzan is an evil spirit. Even worse, the narrative sets Africa as a war-torn dystopic civilization ruled by oppressive, murderous bodies who stop at nothing to fulfill their vendettas. This world painted by the film THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is the embodiment of the very problematic Darkest Africa trope, a branch of the White Savior trope. The Darkest Africa trope deals in how wild, savage, and dangerous Africa and its various cultures are when compared to “civilized” European societies. Tarzan seamlessly defeats Mbonga and his allies on his own. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is far from being the only franchise to capitalize on this idea of a straight, white man exploring someone else’s culture and “bettering” it with their whiteness. It’s been a recurring trend since the dawn of the Adventure genre. And I’m not simply talking about the previous decade. On Netflix alone, we have award-winning shows like MARCO POLO, IRON FIST, and GAME OF THRONES showing white men injecting themselves into brown civilizations and bettering them with their European mentality. INTEREST: Click here for a look at white-washing in the DOCTOR STRANGE film! Why is this entirely racist trend still happening? Why can’t productions just cast a POC to represent their own race in these storylines? Obviously: it’s because this world is still very racist in how it treats subjects dominated by people of color. It’s the smarmy truth of the world we live in that things instictually become less alluring if the story isn’t about whiteness being reasserted as the normative or extraordinary global element. Truth be told, changing the narrative really isn’t that hard, and frankly White Saviors aren’t just racist. It’s boring racism that ostracizes even low-born white fans. The original Tarzan novels were testaments to how European nobility made better specimens overall; it was basically Eugenic fanfiction. MARCO POLO, based on the Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World), is written from the extremely Eurocentric point-of-view of Marco Polo during a time of increasing European imperialism; it’s basically written as a “How-To White Savior” guide. After all, it inspired Christopher Columbus. CLICK: After years of abuse, harassment, and ostracization, how has the treatment of women in the military changed in recent years? Later narratives are merely the spiritual successors to these storylines: after all, the only thing that makes these people different than the others are their European ancestry. It’s not even that these characters necessarily worked harder than the others. They were simply whiter. In fact, IRON FIST leans more to the side of the racist epic THE LEGEND OF TARZAN because he was born and raised as a rich white boy before arriving in K’un-L’un. Diversity’s place in the media has proven to be a lucrative endeavor. Though most stories involving White Saviors are told with the angle of coming-of-age or some obscure adventure in a foreign land, it is often less of a learning experience for the white protagonist and more of an adventure of enlightenment. I’ve found that the usual formula for the White Savior is along the lines of this: White guy is bad at being an up-standing member of their original community and so leaves home to travel to another land where they are both feared and despised by the natives. The Natives put the white man through some kind of trial, where the White Savior does something that none have done before in so many years (see also: “never in our history has anyone ever X the Y like this!”) Insert amazement and montage of this white guy doing more stuff that is amazing – usually by utilizing trades or skills valued in European civilizations. The Natives realize their failure and bow down to the superior mentality and prowess of the White man, sans one rightfully skeptical native who is painted as a villain and usually dies a savage death. The adventure ends, and this white guy may or may not fall in love/marry a princess or something obnoxious of the sort. This is a happy ending until the man is challenged by his old world to eventually return to the salvation of their white home. He either goes, but will never forget the noble innocence of these savage people, or he defies the homeland and lives in the serene nirvana of these wild persons. Also, this narrative is not gender exclusive. Everyone’s favorite conqueror, Daenerys Targaryen, is also one of television’s finest white saviors. Daenerys conquers a city of slaves and sets them free, and is immediately praised as a god-figure, hailed simply as “Mother.” While no one is knocking her for freeing slaves, the worship presented upon Daenerys over the people she’s saved is very fitting to the trope of White Savior. This problem is reinforced by her conquering of the Dothraki hordes, who bow to her as she walked unscathed from the flaming Dothraki temple. Daenery’s role isn’t simply to save these people and maybe lead them by example, but to become an idol of European sentiments and aesthetics. She talks down at the culture of these brown nations, and calls some of their more bizarre traditions “barbaric.” There is never a narrative that paints the White Savior scenario as a good thing. Either you’re belittling a culture for living in a way that is bizarre to whiteness or you’re belittling a culture by painting it in a child-like light and calling it “innocent.” It’s bad enough White Saviors in the media support the notion of cultural appropriation: using someone’s ethnic identity and culture as a prop for entertainment or distraction from the “complex” life of Western society. It’s even worse that White Saviors in the media also diminish the greatness of ethnic societies by implying that they cannot solve their own issues without whiteness added to the mixture; it increases the notion that all of society needs a white leader to survive. Yet, this narrative persists in Hollywood for many reasons. Lorenzo Richelmy in a scene from Netflix’s “Marco Polo.” Photo Credit: Phil Bray for Netflix. One of such reasons is that Hollywood doesn’t think people will see a movie without white leads or main cast members. It even shows in films that don’t have a White Savior, but suffer from a subtext of white male superiority. The ever-popular Marvel franchise is in love with the idea of making white men the leaders of teams and pitting them against one another as if it was the penultimate battles of personal interests. It constantly implies only these two are capable of leading anyone or developing a point-of-view. They even come with trendy token black friends to help this mentality. Never mind Tony Stark created a sentient WMD that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The other, Captain America, was only recently thawed out from an ice cube, lacks any modern know-how and is adamant on helping his known terrorist best buddy despite any logic that maybe this friend should be on trial. The sad part is both of these characters make worse leaders than one of the only sensible leaders on the staff (Black Widow). Except, of course, she is a woman and therefore not viable to wear the crown of leadership. And when we receive a black character who is far more than a sidekick, he is immediately niched into one of the teams and “follows” the banner of one of the white men. Sadly, though I would personally love to state that Hollywood is wrong in the sentiment that a film needs a white lead to be successful, every movie that has gained wide success has actually had one. We have films like STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, which does focus on a black cast, heavily advertised the involvement of the very white manager, Jerry Heller. Though it does subvert the White Savior trope by making Heller a swindler and manipulator who leads to the downfall of NWA, they still pitched the story as otherwise to attract viewers. And its effectiveness on audiences is very real. THE GET DOWN, a show featuring a prominent African-American and Afro-Latino cast, has failed to get the same viewership as other Netflix series such as ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK or STRANGER THINGS, both with predominately white leads. CLICK: We took a look at how the newest installation of WORLD OF WARCRAFT has revamped the legacy of the game! Likewise, Neil Gaiman’s ANANSI BOYS was canceled because producers were adamant about changing the all-black leads into white men (though they are the sons of Anansi, a West African trickster god). Even anime producers and mangaka have started to illustrate their productions to cater to western audiences by giving their protagonists western characteristics. NARUTO’s protagonist Naruto Uzumaki is a ninja in an Asian-themed world with blonde hair and blue eyes, a characteristic he seems to solely share with his father, in order to make himself more presentable to a wider audience. Whether or not this is the reason, NARUTO has been lauded as one of the greatest anime of its generation.So how might this problem be remedied while still facing the truth that though diversity is being pushed in media, we are far from award-winning series of all-POC casts? First, just eliminate the savior notion. Exploring a new land is about personal education, not enforcing your beliefs onto that land. Take the narrative of the Black Panther for instance. The Black Panther comes from a nation of technological supremacy to anywhere else on the planet—where even the most poorly educated child in the nation is a hundred years smarter than any westerner – and yet he never tries to “better” America on any of his visits. Even better, rather than drawing aesthetics from the very racist adventure themes of THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, draw from stories like TREASURE ISLAND. TREASURE ISLAND is a story of the adventure of outsiders and criminals going to a place that is expected to be paradise and learning that it is, in fact, worse than their homes. Adventure stories are all about leaving home and finding things that inspire you upon return, or that contain things that inspire you to relocate home to this new place, not about changing the place to become home. It’s about assimilation, rather than corruption. The White Savior narrative is, in general, boring and tired. It often hinges on the notion of racism and even modern justification of a “necessary” white male lead isn’t truly a reason for it to continue. Tarzan is a story written before the Civil Rights Movement and racial equity, and it should’ve died back then too. Being white and knowing western ideals and technologies doesn’t make a character a better or more noble leader and frankly, most audiences now recognize this. You’re setting your film, book, or show up for failure if you start it off with this trope, and doesn’t the media owe it to itself to see their narratives succeed?