Tarzan and the Tarnished Idol

Writing about Edgar Rice Burroughs in the last “Be A Better Geek” I hit upon a topic that I want to explore further. While particularly relevant to geeks it speaks to a nearly universal human experience: idol worship.

Elmo Lincoln, star of the silent “Tarzan of the Apes” (1917, dir Scott Sidney)

In the previous post I mentioned how I think that there are Burroughs apologists who want to downplay the racism in his books. I claim his works are openly racialist in content while others think it’s an exaggeration or even a projection of the biases of people always trying to find racism in things. Obviously, I think I’m right and I think the evidence is overwhelming.

But here is a point that I failed to mention: I love reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books. I read “Tarzan of the Apes” 3 times while I was in high school. I had an actual, private conversation with “JOHN CARTER” director Andrew Stanton about our love of “A Princess of Mars” and the should-have-been Martian franchise that he proposed to Disney. As problematic as I find the ideologies reflected in ERB’s writings I still find his books quite enjoyable.

Burroughs brought a sensationalistic, mysterious tone to the adventure novel. He may have had his societal biases reflected in his work but he was also writing escapist fantasy. If you love space opera then you owe it to yourself to read his books. They are fun and descriptive, fast paced and action packed. The dude could spin a yarn. His influence is immense, particularly on another problematic writer whom I love even more, Robert E. Howard. You can love Tarzan and hate the racism surrounding the character and the culture from which he was created.

In the debate regarding separating art from artist I choose this compromise: be inconsistent and be flexible. Be okay with yourself for responding to different parts of art (like stories of Tarzan hunting) but also remember that just because some part of a book or movie or song resonates with you doesn’t mean that you have to fully endorse the creator. That’s how we fall into the trapping of idol worship. Maybe it’s an American quality, I’m not sure. But because we identify such emotional connection with the art we love we then project that love onto the artist. Sometimes this may be deserved. But other times it causes us to think un-clearly about the creator. I think we don’t want to acknowledge their faults because we fear that it can undermine our own emotional connection to art.

I think that’s a valid fear. An individual who once was a major influence on my world at large has turned out to be a terrible person. I can’t speak their name now. I can’t think of them without disgust. But I don’t beat myself up for their actions. But because I don’t hold them or any of the activities that I did identify with as sacred I am okay letting them go. Yes, you want to acknowledge the influence of others on your life and celebrate positive contributions. But it’s unhealthy and unsatisfying to base your own joy and self worth on the achievements or failings of others.

Fully engaging with the art and recognizing its faults is good practice for examining our own lives. You can still find areas in your life that need improvement without sacrificing your self love. For me it is a love of self that gives me the fortitude to address some of my shortcomings.

Mermaids, Vampires, and Jungle Kings

A Note from the Author:

In order to try to meet the demands I have placed for myself in releasing new blog posts I decided that I should go ahead and write some material in advance. I imagine this is an open secret among content creators. Anyway, I wrote something last week to be published this week that seemed to be prescient.

News coverage regarding the 2 mass shootings that occurred last Saturday showed us an ugly side of our American psyche. We know that one killer was a misogynist. We know that the other killer was a white supremacist. And as it just so happens my next few entries are about elements of racism and sexism within geek culture.

Geek culture is influential, powerful, and (often) intellectual. Let’s use these qualities for positive cultural change.

Halle Bailey was cast to play Ariel in a remake of “The Little Mermaid” and people lost their minds. People who could be spending time working to improve their own lives or the lives of others chose to devote time to expressing their anger at the casting of a young black woman in a role previously portrayed as an animated white woman. I don’t think it’s necessary to regurgitate all of their criticisms except I would like to isolate one comment that comes up A LOT when it comes to casting or presenting a character as a different race or ethnicity than has been previously portrayed:

“What if they cast a white man to play Blade?”

From "The Tomb of Dracula" (Vol. 1) #10 (1973)

So often have I heard people playing the Blade card. Maybe I just happen to notice this one in particular because, and you can put this on a poster board of personal quotes for my eventual memorial service, I LOVE BLADE. I love the character as presented in Marvel’s “Tomb of Dracula” series and I am an even bigger fan of his portrayal by Wesley Snipes in the New Line Cinema “Blade” movies. Some people rise to the occasion of fleshing out a fictional character. Wesley Snipes made the coolest Marvel superhero EVEN COOLER. Snipes is also very dark-skinned which, I presume, is why he is always the target of this particular re-casting trope. Alternatively, perhaps even more predominantly than Blade is, “what if we cast a white man to play Shaft?”

With that in mind let me flip things a little: what if we cast a black man to play Tarzan?

Right off the bat let me address the most controversial aspect of Tarzan: was his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, a racist? Just as with anyone who is heroic or an idol to people Burroughs has his apologists who will say something like “he wasn’t any more racist than anyone else in his era.” Since “Tarzan of the Apes” was first published in 1912, smack dab in the middle of the Jim Crow era, it stands to reason that “not anymore racist” was still pretty racist.

Do I think Burroughs was a racist? He might not have been a Klansman but Burroughs still romanticized the majesty of white people. Whether it is Carson Napier, John Carter, or Lord Greystoke himself Burroughs made his tales about a rugged white man, whether of noble birth or southern American aristocracy, who goes to a wild, untamed world and by his sheer will and determination becomes a leader. Yes, lots of stories are about the one person who changes the tide of things because dramatically it is easier to identify with fewer protagonists. But in an age of imperialism when Burroughs could have written a story about a lone black native being brutalized by whites he instead wrote about the lone, noble white boy who would become a king. And he didn’t even become King of the Jungle because it was his ambition or lineage. Tarzan was just being himself and so became the monarch. Is that the commentary of society by a white supremacist? It may not have been his ideological assertion but it certainly was a reflection of Burroughs’s existing bias.

So what if Tarzan were played by a black man? It would be more than an aesthetic choice, wouldn’t it? The story is explicitly about the Lord of Greystoke, by definition an English noble and therefore inevitably a white man. In 1912 English noblemen were white men. BUT let’s say the Greystoke family was black. It would mean that we somewhere must delve into the world of speculative history. Just like novels about “what if Nazis won WWII” or “what if the Confederacy won the Civil War” speculative history is an excellent way to look at the events that shape the world and offer social criticism. So what I’m saying is if you want a black Tarzan then you have to completely change the story of who Tarzan is. And, frankly, I’m okay with that! It’s all fiction, right? Go ahead and play around with it. Tell new stories and explore new ideas. Heck, as an alternative you could keep Tarzan white and say “what if Tarzan landed in South America” or something. I just want the story to be good.

So let me go back to Shaft for a moment. Who is Shaft? Well, in the theme song for the motion picture he is explicitly identified as “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks.” So chances are you’re not going to cast Don Knotts to play Shaft. But here’s what we know about the character Shaft as presented in his fictional world: he is a private investigator living and operating in Harlem. We also know that he is put in between two explicitly racially identified organized crime rings, one black and one white. We know that tensions are escalated and his actions will help stop a race war in New York City. Quite honestly I don’t know what John Shaft is like in the original book that introduced the character because I haven’t read it and it isn’t in print. But I know this: he’s a black private detective in Harlem. SO what does this mean? It means that in every existing media, in every incarnation, John Shaft is a black man in Harlem and that aspect of his character helps create the character’s environment, motivations and narrative events. Could you then cast a white man to play Shaft? Well, in theory you could but if you were to keep all of the above characteristics in place you would have such a casting disconnect that it would have to be one amazing performance by your actor to make it believable to your audience.

You could, however, make a character named John Shaft a white man. He wouldn’t be in anyway similar to the Shaft we know and love because that character is specifically black. Of course white John Shaft would likely be as vanilla and as uninspired as Phil Collins’s recording of “You Can’t Hurry Love” (thanks to the “Your Favorite Band Sucks” podcast for reminding us of that travesty).

But now I have to answer: what about a black actress playing Ariel? To begin she’s a mermaid and she can look however the artists want her to look. There is nothing in her story that makes her black and there is nothing in her story that makes her white. The color of her skin is not an essential aspect of her character. Her purpose, after getting kids to buy a billion dollars worth of merchandise, is to be a character that mostly young girls but anyone else can watch, identify with emotionally, and root for. In the animated movie she happens to be white, sure. But that’s an aesthetic choice that was made primarily by white people. And, like Burroughs, they probably weren’t more racist than anyone else at that time, but they saw white as their default setting. Fortunately we live in a world where that is becoming less of a default setting. In fact, I think white people need to learn to openly embrace fictional characters of different skin colors and appearances because it will help us develop our empathetic abilities.

As for Blade? The challenge you present yourself there, regardless of race, is that you have to somehow cast someone to play a Blade that is as cool as Wesley Snipes’s portrayal and as the character himself says, “some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill.”