Monday, May 12, 2008

Jungle Tales and Racism

It should be pretty obvious by now that I love the jungle adventure. Jungles are wonderfully exotic, brutally dangerous places just perfect for exploring and getting into trouble.

So, when I ran across this post by David Brothers a couple of months ago, I gotta admit that it rained on my parade a little. I put off commenting on it because I needed some time to process it and figure out how I feel about it, and then I sort of forgot about it all together until a recent controversy (more about that below) reminded me of it.

Growing up as a White Dude, I hadn't had to think too much about how natives were portrayed in jungle adventures. I realized that a lot of Burroughs' depictions were horribly racist, but I was able to wince and move on. I was also sensitive to the depictions of natives - both negative and positive - in the Johnny Weissmuller films, but I certainly didn't let negative ones keep me from watching more of the series.

Some may argue - and I wouldn't disagree - that the few positive portrayals of native characters in jungle literature don't make up for the far more numerous negative stereotypes. But still, I think it's unfair for David in the post I linked to above to say that "Tarzan, Congo Bill, every jungle girl movie ever, Jungle Book, and other stories were essentially all about what Rudyard Kipling called 'The White Man’s Burden.' Bringing peace, light, knowledge, and lots of guns to countries populated by brown skins and shooting them until they give up." To be fair, he admits he's being cynical, but it bothers me that he lumps every jungle adventure story ever made together and calls them racist. I beg to differ.

So does one of the commentators to David's post, calling special attention to Kipling's Jungle Book, which is decidedly not about White Man's Burden. It's about an Indian boy, not a white person. And even if you see it as a metaphor for Western civilization's invasion of less-developed countries, Mowgli the invader never tries to bring anything from human culture to the jungle. If anything, he embraces jungle culture and tries to bring some of it back to civilization. Hell, most of the Weissmuller Tarzan movies are about the same thing, for that matter. About how much superior jungle culture is to "civilized" culture.

And even in the Burroughs novels there were many, many times that Tarzan was not about how much cooler he was than African natives. Sometimes it was about outwitting Russian spies, stealing gold from white women , fighting lost cities full of Roman legionnaires, duking it out with talking gorillas, or wrestling dinosaurs.

I guess my point is that yes, racism exists in a lot of older jungle adventures. That's inexcusable and I'm not dismissing it. But it's not prevalent in all of them and I think we have the option of picking and choosing which we enjoy without dismissing the entire genre as inherently racist. And certainly anyone hoping to update the genre should be careful not to adopt the old attitudes and stereotypes, but I don't see them doing that.

What made me think of this again is that there's been a lot of commotion lately about a modern feminist book that used images of old, racist, jungle girl comics. I agree that it was in bad taste to use those images, but my fear is that the current controversy will reinforce the notion David put forward that all jungle adventure stories are filled with that kind of thing. The images used in that book are from old Golden Age comics, an age that wasn't exactly known for it's enlightened depiction of non-white people in general, regardless of genre. Newer jungle comics like Sheena, Shanna, and Jungle Girl may have problems of their own, but racist depictions of native people aren't among them.

I guess all I'm saying is that I agree there are changes that need to be made, but to a large extent they are being made. Let's continue making them, but leave the half-naked jungle people, the dinosaurs, and the talking gorillas alone.


Siskoid said...

Interesting discussion. It's currently on the short list to be my "Someone Else's Post of the Week".

I'm not even sure you need to apologize for the racism or sexism of stories written when social mores allowed them. Works of art have a context that should be taken into account. At the very least, it shows how far we've come and where we've been.

(I'm reminded of the Tintin au Congo ridiculousness.)

Michael May said...

I think I agree with you depending on how we define "apologize." I certainly don't think we should hide racist art and pretend it doesn't exist (like with the Tintin book you mentioned or Song of the South).

But I do think we should be a little ashamed by it, at least to the extent that we're sorry our culture was ever at that place and are resolved to continue moving it forward, if that makes sense.

Siskoid said...

Exactly. I think ignoring or dismissing our history is a surefire way to repeat it.


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