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Hollywood Reporter: The Trouble With the Tarzan Characters

Most Read, Tarzan, Tarzan and Hollywood

Graeme McMillian has in interesting article in The Hollywood Reporter in which he puts forward the thesis that “troubling” aspects of the Tarzan story are difficult to escape or successfully negotiate, and that because of this it may be almost impossible (note “almost”) to make a successful go of it with Tarzan even though “a pulp hero that has existed for even longer than Captain America or Batman, has found an audience in multiple media across a more than a century, and offers something that isn’t already available in modern cinema.”

We all know what the problems are — here is how he sums it up:

There is so much that’s problematic about the Tarzan story that it’s hard to find somewhere to start. It speaks to a particularly troubling racism and colonial superiority subtext, for one thing — that an upper class English boy will not only be orphaned by the scary, dangerous jungle, but will then rise to conquer it for seemingly no other reason than the quasi-manifest destiny of “because he’s white and upper class.”

Simultaneously, there’s the notion that civilization has somehow failed Tarzan’s standards, and that the jungle — where, remember, he has risen to dominance because of the circumstances of his birth — is a more honorable, superior world. One in which he is the benevolent ruler and alpha male, of course, because — well, how else would it be the better society?

When I read this, or a variation of it, I have a visceral reaction that goes something like this:  No, it’s not like that, he doesn’t succeed just because he’s white and upper class . . . he succeeds because ….. why?  Then I stop and think about it. Why does he succeed?  The way I read it as a youth, I understood that he succeeded mostly because he was an exceptional human being who was tested and hardened by an incredibly difficult, orphaned upbringing.

So . . . is he successful because he’s white?

If that’s the case, then why do all the other white characters in the stories come off so badly?

Because, you see, it’s not just the first book — there were 24 books.  In the first book, D’Arnot, the French Lieutenant, comes off well, and of course there’s Jane. But none of the other whites come off particularly well.  As for blacks, Mbonga and his tribe don’t come off well, but by the time you get to the second book the Waziri are there and they are treated with great respect and there are multiple references to Tarzan regarding them as equals, etc.  Meanwhile the bad guys are all white, and by this time (second book, third book), Tarzan has developed both an ability to move in civilization, and a healthy distaste for most denizens of the civilized world.

What is Burroughs’ message — overt, subliminal, or otherwise?

To read so many of the critiques, it seems that the message is supposed to be a kind of Hitleresque white superiority message.

And yet I never got that.

What I got was this message.

Humans (white, brown, or black) are born with capabilities that civilization gradually leeches away from us, turning us soft and filling us with other undesirable traits.  Whereas Tarzan, starting with same capabilities as the rest of us, (okay maybe “as the best of us”) is hardened by the natural, feral life, into a human who is superior to us both physically, because of how the jungle forces him to develop in extraordinary ways in order to survive (hearing, smell, and ability to travel through the trees as well as communicate, sort of , with animals) and thrive — and, because he is not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization, morally he is a form of unspoiled,  noble savage, and is to be admired for that too.

Nowhere in this do I get the idea that his success is all about (or even mostly about) being white.

Now — did I just misread all 24 books?

Do I not understand myself?

Or is it possible that most of the critics never read the books and are criticizing something that they haven’t really studied — or if they have studied it, they investigated the books simply to confirm a theory they already held, and thus approached the books in such a way as to let  confirmation bias rule the day — so  that they of course saw what they were looking for?

I want to explore this further.

The attacks on Tarzan feel to some degree like attacks on me — for it seems that the logic is, if you don’t see Tarzan in this particular way — the way that the critics see it — then you lack self awareness and insight into what’s going on with you and with society.

So . . . anyway, back to McMillian.  He writes:

Does that make Tarzan a permanently tainted property, then, too dated to be able to be accepted in the modern age? Not necessarily — new versions can lampshade and address the more difficult elements, or even excise them if necessary. But doing so runs the risk of a secondary problem when dealing with a long-lasting property: the fans who complain that too much has been changed and go from core audience to protest vote in one fell swoop. Is making a concept more palatable to a modern mass audience worth the risk of upsetting the few who are already interested in your project?

Bottom line — I don’t agree, but I don’t think this is an unfair analysis.  Keeping Tarzan alive as a global icon requires a great deal of insight, even a little wisdom.

Difficult, yes.

Challenging, yes.

Impossible, no.


  • As a person of color, it never dawned on me once that Tarzan’s successes were because he was white. Is he special in some way…yes, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the color of his skin. I always thought it had to do with his unusual upbringing and his natural intelligence, which, again is not limited to skin color. He just happens to be white and the story is made more interesting by having this jungle man actually be an aristocrat. The juxtaposition of those two seemingly contrary visions is a very interesting element, not the fact that he is white.

    I also saw the movie with a black woman and she scoffed at the notion that there was some “white savior” element in the movie. Her view…it’s a fantasy…a fictional movie, with a hot guy as Tarzan, providing us with an action adventure meant simply to entertain. It highlights the tragedy of King Leopold and the devastation of the people, lands, and animals, but “white savior” — no.

    • Great thoughts …. so interesting to hear your perspective. I think this release is going to provide an interesting opportunity to really drill down into this issue . So much of the criticism seems to come from a very superficial or even false analysis — superficial if it comes from a cursory, biased reading of the material, and false if they don’t even bother to read it. But it’s a deeply held belief that is very prevalent. I can’t just dismiss it . . . but I truly feel it’s misguided. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  • An interesting aside, I took my 14-year-old niece yesterday and she loved it and not once was there an acknowledgment that Tarzan was white. He’s just Tarzan to her. When I mentioned all the critics and their comments about the “white savior” element, she said “they’re bringing race into it…they’re the one’s being racist”. Just a young person’s opinion.

  • I think a certain narrative springs to life (like with “John Carter” and that it was a runaway disaster from the start), and certain critics just run with it, rushing at full throttle to top each other to show how socially aware they are. Some may try five minutes of “Wiki research” or dimly remember “Tarzan Forever” and oh yeah that guy was racist. And so the “problematics” and “troublings” start to flow and it turns into a torrent.
    Here’s the deal – we DO have to own up to a certain amount of racism, or at least awful stereotyping, in his writing. Esmeralda is a good example. And while Burroughs may have never meant it to appear Tarzan was “lynching” natives while he snared them around the neck with his grass rope, killed them, and hurled their bodies back into the village, I think it was a safe bet we would never see *that* in a modern movie. I think there was a short story in “Jungle Tales” where it’s mentioned that his developed “white man’s brain” was superior to a natives’s? Memory is hazy on that one, and please correct me if I’m wrong.
    Still, not to be an apologist or excuse those instances away, I can’t imagine he was a racist at heart, just ignorant (kinda like putting lions in the jungle) and lived in ignorant times. I always got the sense that he loved a great variety of cultures, and certainly his “Black Man’s Burden” response to Kipling was pretty much an epic bitch-slap to that colonial “burden” crap.
    I think as fans we have a duty to tread a fine line here – respect that a person could be offended by the notion of a white guy running around Africa saving everyone and being worshiped. I’ve seen the, “Ah, you’re just a buncha PC pussies” response far too often from old white dudes who can’t or won’t consider someone else’s point of view. This doesn’t help a damn bit.
    My response (making it clear I am an old white dude) has been to own up to the “problems,” and point out that, yeah, the character is a fantasy for the reader, but I think it’s more of wanting to swing trough the trees, fight the bad guys, have animal friends and just be WILD. I never saw it as a white savoir fantasy – as a kid, the notion would have been baffling to me.
    And let’s not forget the main reason Tarzan lived from an infant onward: Kala. He was given the unconditional love of a mother from an entirely different species. Someone – who as far as I can remember – wasn’t attracted to his “whiteness,” but by compassion and the mothering instinct.
    So while I won’t apologize for the “troublesome” aspect of Burroughs writing, I also won’t apologize for being a fan. Because, damn – when you get unparalleled action and also get a lump in your throat out of sheer tenderness… that’s writing, baby.

    • Great comment Bob. Thanks. I want to address this piece of it, because it comes up a lot:

      And while Burroughs may have never meant it to appear Tarzan was “lynching” natives while he snared them around the neck with his grass rope, killed them, and hurled their bodies back into the village, I think it was a safe bet we would never see *that* in a modern movie.

      The thing is, everyone mentions that — but that’s in the very first book and even in that book, there’s a scene later on where Tarzan is with D’Arnot and he’s going to kill someone unnecessarily and D’Arnot goes whoa, slow down ….here it is:

      In the distance were several buildings surrounded by a strong palisade. Between them and the enclosure stretched a cultivated field in which a number of negroes were working.

      The two halted at the edge of the jungle.

      Tarzan fitted his bow with a poisoned arrow, but D’Arnot placed a hand upon his arm.

      “What would you do, Tarzan?” he asked.

      “They will try to kill us if they see us,” replied Tarzan. “I prefer to be the killer.”

      “Maybe they are friends,” suggested D’Arnot.

      “They are black,” was Tarzan’s only reply.

      And again he drew back his shaft.

      “You must not, Tarzan!” cried D’Arnot. “White men do not kill wantonly. MON DIEU! but you have much to learn.

      “I pity the ruffian who crosses you, my wild man, when I take you to Paris. I will have my hands full keeping your neck from beneath the guillotine.”

      Tarzan lowered his bow and smiled.

      “I do not know why I should kill the blacks back there in my jungle, yet not kill them here. Suppose Numa, the lion, should spring out upon us, I should say, then, I presume: Good morning, Monsieur Numa, how is Madame Numa; eh?”

      “Wait until the blacks spring upon you,” replied D’Arnot, “then you may kill them. Do not assume that men are your enemies until they prove it.”

      “Come,” said Tarzan, “let us go and present ourselves to be killed,” and he started straight across the field, his head high held and the tropical sun beating upon his smooth, brown skin.

      Anyway …. my point is — it evolves. These things are a problem for sure in the first book. Do they continue happening? Is Tarzan snatching blacks up into a tree or displayng these attitudes later on? I sure don’t remember it if he was. But everything gets judged by those particular scenes in that first book when Tarzan was, as is made clear in the scene above — little more than a wild animal. The voice of civilization (D’Arnot) doesn’t express any condonation at all of that kind of behavior, the opposite is true.

      I’m still working on figuring it out.

      • Some Facebook comments:

        Ward Orndoff Your responses pretty much reflect my opinion, just stated more eloquently. 😉
        Like · Reply · 3 · 2 hrs
        Richard A. Tucker
        Richard A. Tucker Simply put, Tarzan skin color may have helped to sell the character back in the day, but by making him so separate from white society has made him something of exception. Reading the books I never thought Tarzan’s skin color mattered beyond a kind of irony. Here he is a member of the privileged few, chowing down on grubs and getting beaten up by apes and thinking his smoothness makes him ugly. I LOVED that.
        Unlike · Reply · 11 · 2 hrs
        Thomas Seitler
        Thomas Seitler The original pulps are racist but practically everything from that era has racism or antisemitism. Doesn’t make the concept racist, nor does it make the fans of the books racist. For example, in the first Tarzan book, He grows up arround both good black people and bad black people that eat human flesh and file their teeth. Both really existed in Africa so I don’t see that as racist. That said, when Jane first gets to the Jungle, ERB wrote that she was “the first human woman” Tarzan had ever seen despite growing up arround all those black people.. Now I found that apalling because I happen to like black woman a great deal but one just has to learn to over look common racism of the times when reading classic literature.
        Like · Reply · 3 · 2 hrs · Edited
        Dennis M. Williams
        Dennis M. Williams I thought that Tarzan’s race as well as his species made him all that more of a “fish out of water” that created a more dramatic story of overcoming obstacles and adapting to his environment. If he were too much like the inhabitants around him, it would be a lot less of a compelling tale of survival.
        Like · Reply · 4 · 2 hrs
        Kenneth Frizzell
        Kenneth Frizzell Today’s culture is geared towards finding racism at every turn. I for one am sick of it. It’s one reason I prefer old movies and books to the media of today.
        Like · Reply · 5 · 2 hrs
        Michael Sellers
        Michael Sellers Kenneth Frizzell I tend to agree …. but then I’m really hoping we can get some more Tarzan films in my lifetime ….. so I’m trying to figure out responses that might have some chance of working as a counternarrative ….. maybe collectively by talking about it we will come up with some good points that could break through some of this kind of thinking. I’ll be a notetaker. 😉
        Like · Reply · 4 · 2 hrs
        John Pappas Pappayiorgas
        John Pappas Pappayiorgas In a way, many of these people who find racism in almost everything are guilty of a lack of critical thinking skills. They are stereotyping the books and the chatacters.
        It may be difficult to enlighten them, because as with all people who have ideological axes to grind, they “…can’t hear you, and they never will…”
        Like · Reply · 1 · 1 hr
        William Altimari
        William Altimari Michael, with all due respect, I think you’re being unduly optimistic. The critics who found this movie “racist” or “colonialistic” had decided on that long before they saw it. No effective counternarrative is possible. In the famous Swiftian rendering, this is a situation where you cannot reason a person out of an idea that he was never reasoned into. It’s sad, but that’s the truth of it.
        Like · Reply · 1 · 59 mins
        Michael Sellers
        Michael Sellers William Altimari fair enough …. but I guess I see it kind of like any situation where there are hardened views on either perimeter, then you have “persuadables” in the middle. I would agree that we can’t hope to persuade the unpersuadables . . . .but others might be persuaded, and even the unpersuadables might be softened a bit. It’s a conversation, after all.
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        Michael Sellers

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        Joseph Deutsch
        Joseph Deutsch It was his being a human raised among apes , not race..if anything its culture , or here lack of culture. A man raised outside the bounds of a culture rises supreme. Later he adopts his culture, bit he’s already, “king of the jungle”, by then..
        Like · Reply · 2 · 1 hr · Edited
        Richard A. Tucker
        Richard A. Tucker What about the fact that he built his home on Waziri land to be near the Waziri? Does that sound racist when he could go back to England and lord it over the locals?
        Like · Reply · 3 · 2 hrs

        Richard A. Tucker replied · 2 Replies · 1 hr
        Michael Goodwin
        Michael Goodwin The Waziri tribesmen were his brothers, and ERB wrote Tarzan and Jane to be loving of them, just like the movie.
        Like · Reply · 7 · 1 hr
        Kenneth Frizzell
        Kenneth Frizzell Well, for one thing, like Dennis pointed out, the fact that Tarzan was the son of an English Lord, thousands of miles from his native home in a hostile environment is part of the chemistry that makes the story work. If he was simply a village baby raised by apes, there wouldn’t be that contrast and dynamic. That story was told in Jungle Book.
        Like · Reply · 9 · 1 hr

        Milo Barasorda replied · 1 Reply
        Joseph Deutsch
        Joseph Deutsch It’s the nature of the hero, to be exceptional. Heroic, traditionally. Add this to being raised in the wild by apes, placed him in his unique heroic position. Some ask wouldn’t some natives been left in jungle have also been raised by apes? Realisti…See More
        Unlike · Reply · 3 · 1 hr · Edited
        Tim Riley
        Tim Riley As a kid in the 50s, I read all of the Tarzan books and the comic every month. Looking back now, I can see that British colonialism certainly had a built in attitude of white supremacy or more precisely British supremacy. However, I never got that as a…See More
        Unlike · Reply · 6 · 1 hr · Edited
        Richie Rosie Breese
        Like · Reply · 1 · 55 mins
        Scott Stewart
        Scott Stewart Just saw the movie tonight for a second time. It held up incredibly well. Your comments, Michael, are well thought up and addressable in the positive. Tarzan is a historic literary character, as are Dr. Syn, the Scarlet Pimpernal, Conan, stories like L…See More
        Like · Reply · 1 · 44 mins · Edited
        Bob Jenson
        Bob Jenson Michael, I gave a much longer response on your web site, but my bottom line is this: Yeah, we have to answer certain charges of racism in the writing, and not respond with the knee-jerk, angry old white dude “You’re just being too PC!” Yeah, Tarzan is a fantasy for the reader. As a 10 year old, it was of swinging through tress, animal friends, fighting bad guys, finding lost cities and civilizations, dinosaurs, and of course the love of Jane. Being a “white savior” would have been a bizarre notion to me.
        Unlike · Reply · 3 · 44 mins
        Samuel Agro
        Samuel Agro Even though I have read all the books, and love Tarzan, I think it’s clear that some of the content of the original books is problematic.

        It’s hard to deny that there is a certain sense of inevitability about Lord Greystoke’s jungle success that sma…See More
        Like · Reply · 2 · 39 mins · Edited
        Scott Stewart
        Scott Stewart By the way, it was good to see the theater 3/4 full on a beautiful Saturday summer night.
        Like · Reply · 2 · 43 mins
        Kenneth Lee Webber
        Kenneth Lee Webber People view life (and films) through a lens. A lens can clarify and sharpen and should. But many people tend to live with a lens that distorts, colors, blocks or blurs the truth. A lot of these negative folks view not just this movie, but their life through the same lens. Everyone needs a lens change regularly to see aright and be healthy. They simply exposed the sad, bad lens they wear.
        Like · Reply · 2 · 38 mins
        Richie Rosie Breese
        Richie Rosie Breese Thank you I mean that from my heart. So many people are so willing to judge and look at the bad side of things. ROSE
        Like · Reply · 1 · 36 mins
        Michael Sellers

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        Samuel Agro
        Samuel Agro And you and I could be amongst those with distorted lenses, Kenneth. In fact, when it comes to something we love, like Tarzan, I think it’s even more likely our perspective is skewed. This is why I always try to be open to all points of view, and attempt to find a truth that is as close to objective as I can achieve.

        So far I’ve communicated with one friend, who’s a person of colour, who has seen the movie, and I intend to ask others what they thought as they see the film. To me, his comments are salient, even though they are seen through his own lens. Rejecting his thoughts out of hand, just because I love Tarzan, would not sharpen my view on the subject.
        Like · Reply · 2 · 30 mins · Edited
        Don VanAusdoll
        Don VanAusdoll I think what a lot of people are calling racism, is more a matter of national pride. Burroughs’ “Britain is best” is not putting anyone else down. He was a national hero, comparable to Captain America or Zorro. Indeed, in many cases the natives are shown to be superior to the whites Tarzan encounters. I will gave that sometimes Burroughs uses terms that have fallen out of favor. For the time, he was very level handed. Having lived in barrios and Navajo reservations, I can assure you that many of my minority friends saw themselves in Tarzan. Perhaps we should quit referring to these stories as the “Great White Hope” and start referring to them as tales of greatness and hope.
        Unlike · Reply · 2 · 7 mins

        Simo Karjalainen I put emphasis on Burroughs’ story telling; how Tarzan was rather a semi-god among black and white people, rather thought of himself as a mangani than gomangani or tarmangani. He was so very often disappointed at the white man’s evilness, plottery etc. and put forward the straightness of animals. Considering the state of whole human race seen with Tarzan’s eyes shows us clearly what mankind lost in the great fall!
        Like · Reply · 23 mins
        Paul Russell
        Paul Russell My two cents:
        “an upper class English boy will not only be orphaned by the scary, dangerous jungle, but will then rise to conquer it for seemingly no other reason than the quasi-manifest destiny of “because he’s white and upper class. “ ~ Graeme McMillan
        Tarzan conquers the Jungle because he is saved, raised and nurtured by a female Mangani (a fictional primate species) named Kala. Making him part of the English upper class may sound pretentious and racist to you in this day and age if you have not put any thought into actual writing and story development. If Tarzan were the son a shipwrecked slave, pirate or your pick of whatever average person of your choice from that time, where does that leave the development of the story? If this were the case when Tarzan does make it back to his parent’s country of origin how will he provide the means to propel himself into further adventures if he does not have the resources of a family with wealth, connections and power? Would Tarzan ever get there in the first place if he were a mere commoner instead of a Lord? Would countries back them put any effort to reclaim or repatriate a stray son or daughter born from a common citizen? Doubtful. I am sure it could be written that he finds some plausible means to return to his country of origin (and why would he need or want too) but then you have another character and story altogether at that point. Part of the charm of Tarzan (and many other stories) is suspension of disbelief in some elements of the story and premise.

        “Simultaneously, there’s the notion that civilization has somehow failed Tarzan’s standards” ~ Graeme McMillan

        Tarzan has witnessed human nature and found it lacking many times in the books. Tribes eating other people, human sacrifice, slavery and numerous other atrocities. Animal nature and rules are pretty much straight forward and simple by comparison. You only kill to eat or protect your tribe or territory. That being said Tarzan does come to see that people can be good and can overcome the darker portions of our nature.

        “ he (Tarzan) has risen to dominance because of the circumstances of his birth….” ~ Graeme McMillan
        I am assuming this goes with what Graeme had written earlier as more of this sentiment. “than the quasi-manifest destiny of “because he’s white and upper class.” ~ Graeme McMillan

        No, he has risen to dominance because has been molded by nature and environment to be at the peak of human physical development. Race, Socioeconomic factors or caste system should not matter or be of any consequence since was being raised by the great apes. Having a human intellect and capacity one would assume that he would be more than capable of out thinking and out reasoning the jungle animals.
        Unlike · Reply · 1 · 15 mins
        Michael Sellers
        Michael Sellers Thanks for that! Excellent!
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        Michael Sellers

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        Simo Karjalainen
        Simo Karjalainen In order to understand Burroughs’ Tarzan it’s important to read the foreword in Tarzan of The Apes. Simply try also to believe in the magic of the novels, the innocense and virtues. Through many disappointment also at himself Tarzan found as balanced self conciouness as possible among the wicked mankind he lived in. This is what Burroughs tells me. But now as a non -english person and therefore as a stranger I finish writing here and swing myself back to the world of Burroughs’ world of Imagination. See you there.
        Unlike · Reply · 2 · Just now

      • Oh, most definitely Michael. My muddled point, I guess, was this is what get’s latched onto as an example of racism, when we know Tarzan is angry with the natives for killing Kala. And I get it. But context and character arc aside, we were never going to see a scene like that in a movie, and I wouldn’t have wanted to. “Uncomfortable” would have been an understatement. More noticeable lately is his bit on his warning note about being the “killer of many black men” Now, we know why he states it, but I’ve seen this bit taken out of context in the last few months and non-readers are shocked at what they see as blatant racism of the character. And when I’ve had the chance, I take a deep breath and explain the context, as well as trying to be sensitive to the offense that has been taken.
        Honestly, there’s been less click-baity righteous indignation on the genre sites than I thought there would be. Looks like a lot of critics have taken up that mantel, though. We are living in a world where the headline has to make you click so you can join in the condemnation, a world of snap judgments and opinions where there is only one way to see something, and forgiveness is not allowed and the only thing that matters is total ruination if you don’t agree.
        So I tread lightly and respectfully, even if I don’t agree, and so far it’s been ok. Except for one old white anti-PC guy. Go figure.

  • Funny how The War Chief never products such commentaries for a similar situation. Is it because the hero is raised among Indians?

    Anyway, what irks me in that sort of discussion is that commenters don’t consider the other’s perspective. People that scream “racism” and “colonialism” speak from the higher ground, globally speaking. People that defend Tarzan speak about the character, an individual. The Tarzan story was never meant as having deep profound significations other than that particular story. Tarzan is a superhero before there were superheroes, a study Burroughs wrote about the relationship between heredity and environment, nothing less, and especially nothing more. No one views Superman’s superior strength above every one else as racist.

    Burroughs did everything he could to avoid creating a colonialist situation. Tarzan’s story takes place on a remote, isolated part of Africa. And when colonialism is mentioned in passing, it is always by criticizing the white’s colonial attitude, the one that drives Mbonga’s tribe near the Manganis. Mbonga’s tribe is cannibal, the Mangani’s dum-dum has a cannibal element to it too. Every move of Mbonga’s tribe is justified in human terms. Kulonga doesn’t kill Kala because he’s a bad person, but because of fear and misunderstanding.

    So yes, the choice of words may be shocking to modern ears, but if you dig deeper into the text, you realize what Burroughs’ intent really were.

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