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.