Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tarzan: Gender in the jungle

I was planning to write a thing today about therapy, about depression, about the general malaise and despair that comes from doing the things that are supposed to make you better and seeing no difference and having no idea where to turn to find any alternative, but 1) it was itself hella depressing to write and 2) it went nowhere productive.  Maybe I'll try writing a thing about therapy again some time in the future.  Right now if you want to understand where I'm at mentally just read the first half of Depression Part Two by Allie Brosh (everything before things start to get hopeful) and also this tumblr post by Cliff Pervocracy.

So instead today we are going to talk Tarzan, specifically Disney's Tarzan from 1998 and what it's got for it and against it.  This is actually an oddly appropriate followup to my previous post about Kingsman, because both stories are about men (Manly Men) and the true marks of civilisation, and are unnecessarily white and prevent the women from having any substantial agency in key moments.  (I listed some of my thoughts to the blogqueen over skype, which she summarised as "So, needs more lesbians".  She's not wrong.)

Disney did not shake up the classic Tarzan story in any major way: an English couple suffer a shipwreck somewhere on the massive coast of Africa (no more specific than a whole continent) and do their best to survive before getting killed by a leopard, but their infant son survives to be raised by a passing clan of gorillas.  Years later, more English explorers arrive, leading Tarzan to the shocking discovery that he's not just a pasty hairless gorilla, but another species entirely, he falls in love with Jane, the young woman on the expedition, and they are torn between his jungle home and hers in London.

The movie has some strong points; one that jumped out at me this time was Clayton, the villain, who follows more in the style of Gaston than Scar, Jafar, or Dr Facilier--far from being a fastidious conniver sowing chaos through whispers (like some kind of woman), he's a great burly gun-toting explorer out to take what he wants from the wilderness through right of conquest.  In another time, Clayton would be the intended hero of the story (the writers did this very intentionally--in the original novels, Tarzan's human name was John Clayton).  Instead, he's played here as contemptible from the outset, pointing his gun where it doesn't belong and assuming he can get what he wants by shouting demands.

In a movie that's all about Tarzan trying to figure out his identity, Clayton very quickly sees himself as Tarzan's model for what a man is supposed to be: strong, commanding, and ruthless.  Tarzan's own father-figure, the gorilla Kerchak, is distant and dismissive, which might have made this a compelling possible bond, but Tarzan spends the middle of the movie focused on Jane, who is helping him discover things like written language, astronomy, and erections.  I think maybe my favourite thing about Tarzan's story is that he never does attach himself to a father-figure; his biggest influences are all women (mother Kala, best friend Terk, and love interest Jane).  His most important moments with men are rejections: he refuses to let Kerchak's judgment discourage him, he refuses to operate on Kerchak's principles of defensive xenophobia, and he rejects Clayton's temptation to might-makes-right conquest.  When Clayton's Evil Scheme to capture all the gorillas is inevitably foiled and Tarzan has him at gunpoint, Clayton even goads him to shoot: "Be a man."  Tarzan instead smashes the rifle and declares "Not a man like you" before the forces of plot convenience go to work and Clayton accidentally hangs himself with a vine.  It's not uncommon for Disney to allow the hero to keep their hands clean while still killing the villain (Gaston doesn't even get pushed--he just trips and falls to his death once his role in Beauty and the Beast has been completed).  It's a little less common for the hero's refusal to implicitly be a rejection of white male entitlement as a whole.  So, like, high five on that part, writers.

But on this viewing, what I mostly felt was that Tarzan is a layered story about bigotry and the struggles of mixed identities (from a child's despairing 'why don't I look like everyone else' to an adult's ongoing efforts to not lose either side of himself) which is tragically wasted on a straight white dude.  A white dude with dreads.  (Fellow white people: as you are hopefully aware, our hair doesn't do dreadlocks.  No, the Norse didn't do dreadlocks either.)  This whole movie is white.  The humans are all white (even the unvoiced extras), the gorillas are all voiced by white actors, everyone.  The only character for whom whiteness is arguably an integral part of his character is Clayton, who embodies the colonialist English 'adventurer'--that kind of entitlement is very us.  Our other three significant humans are Tarzan himself (whose parents are also onscreen for the intro song), Jane, and Jane's father, Professor Porter.  None of these people need to be white.

I'm aware that in the original novels (which are deeply racist and stunningly misogynistic, surprising no one) Tarzan turns out to have been an English Viscount, which has largely been a whites-only club for most of history.  (Although the crown was a fan of granting Indian people aristocratic titles under the British Raj.)  But the original novels also don't feature any musical numbers with Rosie O'Donnell, so it's not like we're trying to be that purist, and in this movie, Tarzan's parents don't even get dialogue, let alone backstory, so they could be literally anyone and not impact the story.  Similarly, even if we imagine that only a white Professor Porter would be likely to have the wealth to boat down to Africa to study wildlife, there's no reason his (dead, never-pictured) wife should have to be white as well, and a biracial Jane opens up a whole new connection to Tarzan, who has also grown up with all the joys of being visibly different from his peers.

(Disney isn't exactly known for doing intricate love stories, and this movie as it stands is no exception: Tarzan admires Jane's fieldwork and she's amazed by his expertise in navigating the wilderness, but for the most part they appear to love each other because they're both very pretty and have literally no other viable partners.  It's hard not to wonder whether, five years after the movie, Jane doesn't perhaps raise the subject of making a quick jaunt home to pick up some books and penicillin and clothes not made of skin, especially once she learns that basically all animals can 'talk'.)

Lastly, in a movie about Manly Men Doing Manly Things (not referring to this excellent webcomic of the same name, sadly), how do the women fare?  I've already listed the three named women, all defined by their relation to Tarzan--his mother, his bestie, his ladyfriend.  Kala is a typical Disney mother (caring and understanding in all things) who at least gets to survive the movie.  Jane is primarily a plot object with only one goal (meet the gorillas) who casts aside her entire life up to that point, and any of her prior goals and dreams, to be with her man.  (Any hope of interpreting her choice to live in the jungle as something to do with studying the apes is undercut by her willingness to leave until her father reminds her "But you love him".)  The least stereotypical woman in the cast is Terk, Tarzan's best friend, who tends toward the disruptive, sarcastic, and acerbic, but this ultimately doesn't do much for her agency.  None of her choices really impact the plot--in the moment when she might be most relevant, when Tarzan has decided to leave with Jane but immediately then been captured by Clayton's goons, it's not her loyalty that leads to his rescue--it's the tertiary elephant friend Tantor who overcomes his timidity to reprimand Terk for being emotionally withdrawn and then charges in to save the day.  Narratively, I get why the writers would think this is a good twist--the timid character finally standing up to the heroes is generally good stuff, like Neville facing down the trio in the first Harry Potter--but here it means that Terk's last chance to impact the story is instead handed off to the nearest man and she is a barely-consulted tagalong.

I do like this story as it works for the men and the contrasting manly identities, but stories for men aren't a rare commodity.  I'm aware of one retelling of Tarzan from Jane's perspective, about which I've heard deeply mixed things, and given the dozens upon dozens of Tarzan stories at this point, I think we can do with a few more that maybe ask what kind of person you have to be to leave civilisation behind, charge headlong into the merciless wilds, and decide that this is the place you will feel most at home, with your mighty half-intelligible beast-master husband at your side.  Or wife.  Like we always say here at SS&S: this story could have been about lesbians.

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