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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 (C) in a scene from Netflix's "Marco Polo." Photo Credit: Phil Bray for Netflix. EP8
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.

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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?

8 Comments

  1. Courtney

    January 12, 2017 at 6:07 pm

    Whitesplained masterfully!

    Reply

  2. Steven Underwood

    September 30, 2016 at 4:16 am

    Hello Nancy, thank you so much for your commentary on Tarzan. I really enjoyed the perspective on the politics and history behind the Tarzan text and how you perceived the dynamics between Tarzan and the White Savior context.

    I for one went into the movies, not expecting for the realization to hit me (I was a huge fan of the Disney Tarzan as a child, the story of isolation and loneliness experienced by him at a young age resonated with me, and helped me learn to accept myself before thinking anyone could accept me). It was a very hard thing for me to come to this realization, but I felt I had to call a spade, a spade, in this situation from my own personal experiences and knowledge of literary and cinematic tropes. I like Bonnie Bennett from the Vampire Diaries, but many times I’ve still called her a magical negro archetype. And, many of my favorite black characters solely exist as the token black best friend archetype. It didn’t make the movie bad, and I think I can still sit through Tarzan, but it is something that needs to be addressed just so we can one day actually get to a representation of Tarzan’s message that is as close to perfection as we can get.

    We criticize and address the mistakes of even some things we love in order to help it get better. In my time here at Comicsverse, I’ve criticized many things I LIVE for, but it has helped me in finding a lot of what makes these things work. It has also led me to realizing that the story of Tarzan isn’t the problem, it’s how its framed in things like casting. If it isn’t about race, and racial politics have nothing to do with it: there is no reason for Tarzan to be cast as white. Casting him as white immediately drudges up the context of the White Savior narrative in this situation, after all: this character’s parents were present in Africa because of Imperialism. It’s a narrative that could’ve been fixed with some artistic liscensing and the reworking of the Tarzan character with a Person of Color. Not simply Black. The narrative, I agree, is about everything you said (including the Man vs. Nature aspect of John regressing into Tarzan), but the White Savior aspect is still a thing to me.

    I guess the point I’m making is: the “civilized man regressing into wild behavior” point can be reinforced with ANY civilization, but it had to be European? Again, I love your critique, I would love to hear more.

    Reply

  3. nancyclarejohnson

    September 29, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Why, in my opinion, as an anthropologist, The Legend of Tarzan 2016 is not racist. That calling it a, “white savior movie” is an incorrect label and an unfair simplification. The attempt to make fans feel guilty about loving the movie and the character of Tarzan by labeling it in such a way is mean spirited. The endeavor by the filmmakers to make their version of Tarzan particularly not racially insensitive is conspicuous to anyone who has actually seen the movie.

    I can understand why someone might think The Legend of Tarzan 2016 is racist because of the origins of the story: Edgar Rice Burroughs, a white American man from the early twentieth century, wrote a serialized story for a magazine in 1912. The story of Tarzan was so popular that it was published in book form in 1914 with many sequels to follow. Around the time Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story it was thought, by people of European descent, that white people were superior to other human races. But more than that, it was thought noble, titled, royal people were far superior to everybody, especially the white lower classes. I would like to point out in an aside that most ethnicities around the world think they are superior to all others until educated not to be.

    In the United States, the Jewish German American Anthropologist Franz Boas, at an academic conference on race in 1911, argued in his essay, “The Instability of Human Types.” boldly disputed the assumptions of innate racial superiority, or inferiority, insisting that culture, not nature, explained differences among the people of the world. Thus is born cultural relativism and modern thought is born. I doubt that Edgar Rice Burroughs was up on the latest in anthropological advances of thought and understanding even though he wrote his story around the same time.

    However, ERB would have been aware of our close relationship with apes when he invented the Mangani, the fictionalized human-like ape species that raised Tarzan. The Tarzan story in the original books, have elements that are now considered, without a doubt, racist. The books also have many instances of scientific impossibilities, for instance at one point Jane is stranded on a small boat: for weeks (maybe months, I can’t remember), in the ocean, with some men who don’t ravish her, no food or water, and none of them die of dehydration. Despite the many real problems with “reality” in the Tarzan books, they are fun yarns with a larger than life hero and a touching love story.

    Tarzan the character has remained fascinating to many people all over the world for the last hundred years. The fascination is in part because he is an animal/man hybrid. Born human but raised by apes to become arguably the first super hero. Tarzan is the feral child who becomes better, faster, and stronger than it is actually humanly possible who can also talk to animals. The only thing that pulls him back into the world of man is his love for Jane. She herself is a fish out of water and never looks at Tarzan with fear or suspicion like the local tribes do. The Tarzan story has been around my whole life but at one point as an adult I was curious why the story was always a little different every time I saw it. So I read the books and even though the science and sensibilities were outdated they are really fun adventure stories, ERB could tell a good yarn. In this day and age no one is going to make a faithful rendition of the book(s) into a movie, that would be nuts.

    Now I will tell you why the new story, The Legend of Tarzan staring Alexander Skarsgård, not only gives us a great Tarzan, it is also culturally sensitive. The movie is not a faithful retelling but retains elements of the Tarzan mythology to satisfy the die-hard fans. The only bad guys in this new film are white, Belgian in fact (I know Belgians they are not all bad). The two main African tribes in the movie are seen as part of Tarzan’s story but at no point are they considered inferior. The savior of the story is George Washington Williams played by Samuel L. Jackson who is based on a real American who was a Civil War veteran, Christian minister, politician, lawyer, journalist, and writer on African-American history. In the movie Tarzan is someone George uses to help expose the corrupt Belgian king (who is busily siphoning the wealth of the Congo and making slaves out of the locals). The Tarzan character in the movie has been in England with his wife Jane, fulfilling his duties as Lord Greystoke, for the last eight years. George persuades John, Lord Greystoke, to go back to Africa to investigate what the Belgian King Leopold is up to. Plucky American Jane refuses to stay behind in England. Early on in the film after they arrive in Africa, George saves Johns life. In this new story there is a parallel plot of John, once back in Africa, gradually turning back into Tarzan. By the end of the film John has transformed completely back to the Tarzan of legend.

    I’ve always loved the character, the idea of Tarzan, but I had never seen a version that I particularly loved. I went to see this new version not expecting too much. Wow, I loved the Legend of Tarzan. Everyone connected to the movie did a great job. Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan was amazing, the movie made me a big fan, that Swede can act.

    Reply

  4. Robert Franco

    September 29, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    The idea of this article is not meant to be bigoted, but rather expose the trope of the white savior. Media should have diverse heroes and saviors. A white person saving an Asian, Hispanic, or Arab, or African community has been done more than enough.
    It’s just ones persons perspective.

    Reply

  5. Norman Ray

    September 29, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Tarzan is clearly presented as an outcast and an anomaly in both human society and ape society. His arc in the movie involves accepting the notion that his mother was a Mangani, i.e. an ape. He’s only most welcomed in the African tribe, which is composed of men that are presented as competent allies. Mbonga’s tribe is independent, and the only real villains are white (as in the novels, by the way).

    Tarzan is the story of an exceptional individual, no more, no less, and he’s not without reason one of the ancestors of Superman. He was a superhero before there were superheroes. He only represents himself, not “white civilization”. He’s a missing link between man and nature, and he despises civilization.

    Strangely enough, you don’t cite Superman as a “White Savior”, nor Zorro. Is that because they ordinarily save mostly white people? Is your problem the fact that some heroes happen to save non-white people? Tarzan saves people because that’s what heroes do, that’s all there is to say about it, without retorting to wearing your PC hat to lecture readers, and viewers, on an issue that only exists on your head.

    And racism and imperialism in Games of Thrones and Marvel movies? Really?? How thick is that? Since when does the skin color of characters in Marvel movies play a part in the plots? How are War Machine and the Falcon treated differently than Hawkeye and Vision? And already seeing racism and/or white imperialism in Iron Fist, a Netflix series for which not a single frame has been shot yet, is akin to pure genius.

    In short, your article misses the mark. Completely. Have a nice day.

    Reply

  6. Sage

    September 29, 2016 at 8:06 am

    As a white African living in modern Africa, your points are flawed and this article lacks any legitimate research to make it remotely interesting. It comes off as yet another angry internet rant at how privileged the white race is and how all white people should be ashamed of their skin tone.
    Also, I’d suggest googling something about modern spiritualism in Africa and the practices and beliefs of Sangomas and Witch doctors in native African tribes and villages before talking about how it isn’t uncivilized in the eyes of the Europeans.

    Reply

  7. thecheezman

    September 29, 2016 at 5:22 am

    Mr. Underwood: You raise some valid points, but your criticism of THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is flawed. You state that it is “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.” Granted it is more muted in the film than in the novels that inspired it, but Tarzan thrives not because of his genetics but because he is separated from civilization. Again and again in the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it is stressed that civilization is a corrupting influence. Divested of it, a man or woman–of any color–may rise to his or her true potential. Tarzan views himself as one with the beasts, apart from mankind. That his skin happens to be white is only one facet of the character, and is important only because it shows the greater contrast for a scion of British aristocracy, here perhaps stereotyped as the most civilized of civilized men–and this not a compliment to them–to be thrust as an infant, naked and helpless, into the wilderness. Aside from that, Tarzan sees himself not as a white man but as one of the great apes. Skin pigmentation is irrelevant to him; he hates all men equally, generally speaking. Are there some things in Burroughs’ works that aren’t copacetic by today’s standards? Sure. But the movie takes the necessary steps to update those tropes. (Example: Tarzan is no longer chief of his adopted tribe. He is just a member.) Focusing on the color of the character’s skin while ignoring the context and subtext of the story is, by the dictionary definition of the word, racist. You also complain that “The narrative paints the African tribes as a superstitious, naive population who “foolishly” believe Tarzan is an evil spirit.” It is established and well documented fact that primitive peoples the world over ARE “superstitious,” at least from a “civilized” point of view. To depict them as otherwise would be anachronistic and incorrect. Would you have us falsify such depictions because you find it more palatable, even though such depictions are historically inaccurate? The natives in the film are no more superstitious than the Indians in DANCES WITH WOLVES. I see your “superstition,” sir, and raise you one “animistic spirituality.” And again I must point out that such “primitive” spiritualism is frequently depicted as SUPERIOR to a “civilized” belief system. It is you who are calling people who hold to such a belief system “naive,” not the writers of the movie. In your seeking to take a stand for the rights of people of color wrongfully depicted and treated upon in entertainment, you have yourself become prejudiced. You are painting with far too wide a brush, and guilty of only rendering in black and white while ignoring the thousand hues of gray that exist in the works you criticize.

    Reply

  8. Sparky Santos

    September 29, 2016 at 12:07 am

    I’m doubting you saw the Legend of Tarzan film at all. Mbonga at the gates of Opar destroys a troop of Belgian soldiers when the movie starts, Tarzan barely holds his own to apologize for killing the chief’s son. It was no walk in the park.Then the two join forces with Jane’s adoptive siblings to fight the mercenary army.

    Aside, Daniel Rand is half Asian (as his mother is from K’un-L’un).

    Reply

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