I love Tarzan. He might just be my favorite literary character, and I love his stories. But Tarzan comes with baggage.
The most obvious flaw in the character is that he’s a white European who lands in the middle of the jungle and becomes its greatest warrior. It’s hard not to see that as contributing to the myth of the “superior white man”, even unintentionally. And those who are only familiar with the cinematic versions of the character will certainly have a point. Tarzan movies are filled with ignorant natives and civilized Europeans. Even Disney’s animated Tarzan movie sidestepped the whole issue by not having any natives in it at all. The jungle is teeming with talking animals and adventure, but there’s not a single dark-skinned individual to make us feel uncomfortable at the notion.
In the books, Tarzan is certainly a superman. He is the embodiment of the “Noble Savage”, a term loaded with all kinds of troublesome notions. On the other hand, Tarzan is clearly a superior being who is better than everyone. Even Europeans are no match for his physical prowess, and while the natives don’t come across as Tarzan’s equal, neither do any of the supporting white characters. Tarzan is tougher than everyone, and the books make no bones about this. There also plenty of white villains in the books and black heroes.
Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars books have the same problem. John Carter is a white man from a faraway land who comes to a strange world and conquers it with his sheer badass nature. The Martians might be green, red, black, and, yes, even white, but nobody matches John Carter, the Caucasian transplant from Earth.
There is certainly racial baggage that comes with these characters, and it’s all right to admit that. They are characters of their time, and while I think Edgar Rice Burroughs was fairly enlightened on the subject of race for his time, it doesn’t change the fact that he did live in his time. And even if Burroughs had been a complete racial progressive, even if he had thought Tarzan would be more logical as a ethnic character, there was no way someone would’ve published the adventures of a physically superior African man who fought lions and defeated evil Europeans. It just wouldn’t have happened.
It’s funny to remember that, at this particular moment, Caucasians were assumed to be better than ethnic folks at EVERYTHING. So the notion of a powerful African man who could best all comers in battle would’ve been more ridiculous than the notion of a European doing so.
Of course, even if there had been a market for an African Tarzan, it would carry with it unfortunate implications. A black man raised by apes who is lord of the jungle is fraught with cultural peril. If Tarzan were black, not only would he never have existed in the first place, he would never have been popular. And if he’d managed to make it to the modern world, he would only be relegated to a dustbin of curiosity, a relic of a less racially progressive time.
That’s how race works. It makes everything more complicated. And you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You can’t just ignore it because it does matter. But you can’t focus on it too much because then it often gets in the way. Whether Tarzan was white, black, Asian, or you-name-it, he is a character that comes with baggage. And it’s unavoidable and something we just have to deal with as best we can.
And we don’t usually deal with it well.
In Thor, two supporting characters were given an ethnic makeover to add diversity and some fans (and some people with nothing better to do) cried foul. Putting aside the racists and the misdirected fanboys, without these changes Thor would have been a 100 percent Caucasian movie because, like Tarzan, he was created in a time when ethnic characters were a novelty and just didn’t show up very often.
(And people who say the Norse gods were all white in the myths are just being silly. The gods of the Marvel universe are, and have always been, magical aliens. They only resemble their original counterparts as long as it serves the story. To say that they need to be white because the originals were white just sounds dumb. I’m pretty sure Odin didn’t have a magic robot in the original stories.)
Spider-Man is a white guy. As is Batman, Superman, the original Teen Titans, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, Captain America, Ant-Man, Wonder Man, the Wasp, The Hulk, the Flash, the original original Green Lantern, the second “original” Green Lantern, Thor, Loise Lane, J.J. Jameson, Gwen Stacy, Iron Fist, Hawkeye, etc., etc., etc.
These characters, many of them created decades ago, are white because that was the default setting for characters at the time. And as they continue to carry forward, they bring this tradition with them. Comic books are a medium where characters less than twenty years old are still considered unestablished, so of course, comic books are struggling with this more than just about any medium.
But it doesn’t stop at comic books. Even movies in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s suffer from this.
James Bond comes from the 60’s. Star Wars is filled with white guys, aliens, two black guys, and maybe three women. Indiana Jones has minority characters who mostly just serve as obstacles. (Although I’ve always liked Short Round as a callback to the “scrappy kid” archetype, but even that comes with baggage.) But all these established characters and universes, if not hostile toward ethnicity, certainly are not particularly welcoming to it.
Again, to be clear, I’m not calling anyone racist. It’s not about us as individuals. It’s about a society that is larger than us, that functions on a level most of us never even think about. Society is like any system, and any large system has a life of its own, bigger than any of its parts.
This is why swapping race is NOT equal and that context matters. If a white supporting character in a predominately white universe is made ethnic it is NOT the same as when an ethnic character is made white. Heimdall and Hogun are two ethnic guys in a world of white guys, and their world is better off for the change. Changing nearly all the ethnic good guys from The Last Airbender to make it more “mainstream” is a change for the worse because we already have more than enough white heroic protagonists. We don’t need to add more, even if it’s done in some misguided attempt to reach a wider audience.
(As a small aside, it is unfortunate that the villains in Airbender are allowed to keep their ethnicity.)
In Cowboys and Aliens, an otherwise entertaining film, the one important ethnic character in the film dies. And at the end of the film, we have the three Caucasians surviving. It’s true that a lot of Caucasians die at alien hands, but it doesn’t change the fact that if you have one important ethnic character, it’d be nice to not have him have to die for extra drama.
X-Men: First Class had two ethnic characters. One joins the bad guys. The other dies to show how bad the bad guys are. And once again, at the end of the film, we are left with a team of white guys (even if one of those guys is covered in blue fur) when the dust clears.
Ultimate Spider-Man is killed and replaced by an ethnic kid, and some people can’t stand it. And, yes, it’s a shame that an original ethnic character couldn’t have been created instead, but there would have been no publicity, on interest, in that. It’s only by attaching his ethnicity to a mainstream white character (even an alternate universe version) that anyone cares.
Even in our “enlightened” world, we still think of Caucasian as mainstream and ethnic as other, as strange, as odd. We’re still carrying our baggage, and we have to be mature enough to admit and deal with that. Race is still a problem in America. It’s a problem everywhere. And it’d be nice to have an adult discussion about it rather than everyone wasting all their time defending themselves.
Race matters. It matters because we are still carrying all the hang ups and problems our ancestors did, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,