Does My Hero Look White In This: Hollywood’s White Saviour Complex

There is no doubt that Hollywood favours its masculine, typically white heroes, but these characters are becoming a reoccurring trend in films about racism, or at the very least use another culture as a significant plot point. The Mighty Whitey trope became popular in a variety of 18th and 19th century adventure fictions, during the European period of exploration. TV Tropes characterizes this trope as a typically noble Caucasian man who, due to often extenuating circumstances, comes to live with native tribesmen. He not only learns the ways of the native people, but surpasses their skill, becoming far better at being a member of the culture than those of the tribe, and naturally their greatest warrior or even their leader. The trope in some cases also involves a romantic story-line between the hero and the Chief’s daughter, who will often continue to love him despite the hero’s sometimes direct involvement with the death of a significant family member.

While the western film has modernized in a great deal of ways, this trope has remained problematically common. The most obvious use of it in recent film would be James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009. Displaced white hero Jake Sully gets recruited to the alien planet of Pandora through his twin brother’s involvement in the use of avatar bodies in order to study the Na’vi, the native people of Pandora (and a metaphor for a variety of different native tribes and cultures). Through a series of unfortunate incidences, he is forced to live with them and learn their ways, eventually assimilating into their culture. As per the trope, he becomes so skilled that he eventually exceeds the skills of life long Na’vi warriors, leads the Na’vi in battle against the invading corporation, and saves them whilst also managing to preserve their culture. In further conformance to the trope, Jake Sully is romantically involved with Neytiri, the Chief’s daughter, who only momentarily angered by his involvement in the death of her father- she returns to him apologetically when he reappears, having tamed the beast feared most by the Na’vi, affirming himself as the hero we all knew he would be. There is also a variety of messianic imagery used as he walks through a crowd of Na’vi, with the native people bowing before him and calling him the chosen one- undyingly grateful for his help. Jake Sully is the quintessential white messiah, in a film that uses the Mighty Whitey trope as plot.

avatar

New York Times writer David Brooks explains that this is problematic because it “creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration”. The Na’vi are not independent agents, but side characters and plot devices for Jake Sully’s character development. All the conflict he faced, his romantic entanglement with Neytiri- they all existed as tests, challenges for him to overcome in order to become the ideal hero. Even with race relations at the forefront of this film, the focus is still on the white male lead.

This trope has evolved in many ways and continues to make appearances in films involving other non-tribal cultures. Most of the Indiana Jones franchise is based around this trope and not always in the subversion of it. It also appears in The Last of the Mohicans, Crocodile Dundee, and The Last Samurai. Even, strangely enough, the Step Up films- all four of which feature white heterosexual protagonists. While these characters are ‘street’ kids who are somewhat under-privileged or disenfranchised, they are not too ‘street’ and they act as the obvious leaders of typically multicultural communities.

Given its conception in the 18th and 19th centuries, this trope does not typically feature women. Though when it does, these women are portrayed somewhat differently to the male white saviour. A recent example of this would be Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) in the 2011 film, The Help. Skeeter becomes perturbed at the way African American women are being treated in her community after her own nanny is dismissed after years of service. She details the struggles of these women in a book, and is shown as a champion of civil rights for braving this period of social intolerance and racism- even though she published anonymously. When compared to her male counterparts, Skeeter is a great deal more passive in her actions, but is a white saviour nonetheless As she comes to appreciate the humble ways of these hardworking African American women, it is implied that her leadership is obvious, almost inherent, rather than having an African American women championing her own rights. It is also of significance to note that the only black man specifically mentioned, not named or shown distinctly on screen, was abusive. Strange, how a film about the downfalls of racial intolerance slips so easily into racist stereotypes of black men being violent and abusive.

the help image

Children’s films are not exempt from this trope either, and the white saviour is most prominent perhaps in the 2000 DreamWorks film The Road to Eldorado. Set in 1519, Spanish conmen Tulio and Miguel, through a series of incidents, end up discovering El Dorado. The Aztec natives mistake them for Gods and after assimilating into the modest, but colourful culture, the men realize that they are honour bound to help protect the city from being discovered by the Conquistadors. This is problematic because like Avatar, The Help and a numerous variety of films- it casts people of colour as invalid and incapable of defending themselves without the aid of the white saviours.

Hollywood’s attempt to address race relations in any meaningful way actually fails because of this trope. Racism and colonialism are acknowledged, but not without the reassurance that white people were not only against these systems, but were active in the fight against it, leaders of a resistance. This assurance often results in the application of the very colonial treatment of people of colour as noble, but helpless without the aid of a white saviour. The white saviour is a benevolent alternative, and regardless of their intentions, the lives of these natives are still being directed by white people. In addition, the racism in these films is often demonstrated as clear cut actions by undertaken by ‘bad’ people, when in reality racism operates through the compliance of many, often well-intentioned people. By minimizing the complexity of race relations, these films limit the ways in which society recognizes and subsequently deals with real issues of racism today.

abilene da helpFiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For many people of colour, seeing themselves regularly disempowered and helpless without a white saviour can be incredibly discouraging. The problem with the use of this trope is not that the stories they produce aren’t interesting, sophisticated, or even beautiful at times, nor is it that their characters are poorly written. Often the opposite is true- Abilene from The Help is well written, resourceful, resilient- she is fleshed out, which makes the fact she is only a side character in Skeeter’s story, all the more frustrating. Film, television, all media plays an integral role in our identity, and being excluded can alienate people of colour by treating them like they are not the protagonists, not leaders, not agents of a destiny of their own design. They are relegated to the role of side character.

This is not to say that there are no films that do a good job- but the likes of Remember the TitansHotel Rwanda and Memoirs of a Geisha are few and far between. If we’re not giving people of colour a place in mainstream media, at least we should be obligated to give them significance in a film that profits from the story of their struggles. This trope denies them the ability to play the lead in a film about the racism they endured, and in many cases, still endure to day. At it’s the core, the white saviour trope is the application of colonial ideas that idolized patriarchy, and cast people of colour as hopeless and incompetent. Unless it’s subversive, there is no excuse for the continued use of this damaging trope in the 21st century, especially as the diversifying cast and characters only become more important in our globalizing world.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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30 Comments

  1. Nice article, I agree with a lot of your points.
    I think Hollywood in particular is only ever willing to have a non-white lead if they are a big star such as Jackie Chan or Will Smith, especially when there is a white washing of ethnic characters in recent films such as Prince of persia and even the last air bender.

    I think the issue is is that you have white film makers looking at non-white issues, thus the inclusion of a white protagonist is usually to help them explore an issue through a character they can relate to, I think in addition to that they don’t want to alienate their primary audience of white people.

    Its sad because Hollywood is so global you’d think they’d be more interested in representing a wider range of ethnic communities with their protagonists.

    • Katherine Kingsle

      I absolutely agree! It was the same case with the casting of Katniss in the Hunger Games, who was described as ‘olive skinned, with dark hair and dark eyes’ in the books, and while her race was not specified, the casting director not only asked for Caucasian actresses, but expressly forbid actresses of colour from auditioning. Or even Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones) being up to play Horus- just another case of white-washing a role that should really go to a POC.

      I think the only real way to deal with this problem is get film makers, writers and directors of different races to become part of the industry and offer counter perspectives.

      • How many are given the chance? The likes of Spike Lee had to fight tooth and nail to get the directors seat for Malcolm X.

    • buck wade
      1

      So now if movies start featuring a dark skinned saivour saving white people it won’t qualify as racist, but if its the other way around it does.

  2. Don’t think with Avatar that its a case of white man the hero. To make the “foreigner” stand out from native tribes and cultures, it’s not too strange to accept Sam (white skinned character) as the hero. My opinion.

  3. Michelle Webb

    Fantastic article, I was surprised to see you’re a relatively new Artifice contributor, as your content was really well developed 🙂 Thanks!

  4. Amira x
    0

    Very nice read and very true too!

  5. Great article. I believe that Hollywood continues to make these movies and characters so as to express the importance of the first world. The white male is seen to be a saviour rather than someone who may be troublesome for different races.

  6. i find this very true. Even in Django Unchained, which the director stated is supposed to be an empowering pro-african american film, the lead character has to be saved by a white person before he can prosper

    • Katherine Kingsle

      I totally forgot about Django Unchained when I was writing this, but you are absolutely right. Django’s entire journey has to be validated by a white person, and even then his freedom from slavery still depends on this white person. As engaging a character as Django is, Tarantino used many of the characteristics of the White Saviour trope in his film.

      • James S
        0

        Hand-in-hand with this trope is the trope of the “Magical Negro”, whose only role is to give (usually magic or holy) wisdom to the White Saviour, i.e. The Matrix, The Green Mile, Bruce Almighty, Batman Begins, Forrest Gump… even though the “Magical Negro” character has his own special powers, he only assists or enlightens the main (white) character and directs him to become the hero. Once you see this trope you can’t un-see it. So many films I’ve gotten really pissed off a quarter of the way through…

  7. Toni Gill
    0

    yes

  8. Josephine
    0

    YES. I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE SAY THIS ISNT A BIG DEAL, BECAUSE IT IS A BIG BLOODY DEAL. When people recognize these convention in film, they are also recognizing this superior/inferior relationship between the white dominant culture and PoC. AND that is very damaging as a whole because as an audience, we automatically assume it is the PoC who are the inferior, and then apply this to everyday life. It is SO VERY damaging to PoC. And even though films like the new Star Trek seem to preach having a very diverse cast, we must remember that Hollywood gave the three most important roles to people who are not only white, but male too. And then, the give the less important roles (those that have less dialogue and scenes) to the PoC actors/actresses. UGh.

  9. Hello,

    I agree with you completely on this issue, Ms Kingsle. I look forward to seeing some more work for you in the future.

    Best

  10. YES! I wish more people were aware of this kind of thing and open to discussion. Katherine, you’re a cool cat for sparking discussion.

  11. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi
    0

    This is a great article about the way Hollywood maintains its hegemony. The examples you discuss are relevant, especially given the success of The Help. I don’t think this applies to Django Unchained, however, but I’ll discuss this in a forthcoming article of my own. However, as David Poland always says, Hollywood only makes what sells. In other words, the sad fact is that more culturally diverse films from Hollywood don’t do well. The distribution/reception history of Charles Burnett’s ‘To Sleep With Anger’is a perfect example.

    Finally, do you think it is okay to be aware of this and still enjoy the films? In other words, I think ‘The Help’ is an entertaining, well-made film, despite the imperialist undertones. Isn’t that the problem in and of itself? That these films are actually enjoyable to watch?

  12. Malinna
    1

    Katherine, my sun and stars. This is why I love you.

    I think a lot of the problem as well – as well as the issue of preserving hollywood’s hegemony over the portrayal of race relations – is the case of complacency, and the way people feel personally attacked when issues like this are pointed out. There’s a video floating around some where of a bunch of directors and producers looking uncomfortable when asked why they’ve never cast poc heroes, and the flip side of the problem is how they behave when they do. The way we cast poc is inherently different from how we cast white people – we cast poc like we’re filling a quota that can be boasted of after we’ve done it. Somehow JJ Abrams can justify casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan despite the obvious white washing, maybe because he didn’t change the race of Uhura. One black person in a cast is enough.

    That’s the fundamental problem behind Te white savior complex and white washing – that poc are inherently unrelatable and unsellable and are only needed in special occasions. And even when it’s their story, we can improve it by filtering trough white povs.

    Anyway, great article, boo, and next time you can deconstruct that awful mhysa scene from game of thrones.

  13. Thuc Nguyen
    0

    Thank for this. It’s something I avoid when writing – medium.com/gender-justice-feminism/24226a78682e 🙂

  14. Hix Ishida
    0

    I found this article really intriguing. As someone most people would call PoC – but I don’t identify myself as one, probably because I mostly keep with non-white-controlled media anyways – I never really noticed this pattern in the movies. I always felt that it was them just saying the story they wanted and they happened to choose someone they were comfortable with. I’m not saying that this isn’t a problem (especially just because I don’t notice it), but I do a question.

    If having a white protagonist interacting in a positive manner with PoC characters (side or not) is going to lead to it being looked at as a “white savior” in a story like, say, Avatar, then how would you suggest having the story be written such that this is not the case, but you still want a white main character interacting with PoC characters? I’m asking because I do not believe you mean that “white characters cannot be the main character when interacting with PoC” (and I admit Avatar has its problems, so it may not be the best example to use here), but if you still wanted the same structure of character / character races / story, what is your opinion on how to change this so that it wasn’t about how “white people are awesome”?

    New to writing in this topic, so if I accidentally offend anyone with my terminology, I apologize beforehand.

  15. Ugh, you know a movie’s use of the Mighty Whitey trope is egregious when David freakin’ Brooks is mansplaining/whitesplaining its problems. Thanks for reminding me (again) why I’m so glad I never saw Avatar!

  16. buck wade
    0

    the movie avatar was about super powered colonists taking over peaceful aliens. So what if the mc happens to be white as long as the movie doesn’t give them power because they’re white? In Avatar the mc was the best person to help take down colonists because they were a member of it.

  17. Diego Santoyo
    DSantoyo
    0

    Love that you used The Help in your article. Your article is really intriguing! I love The Help and Abilene was amazing!!

  18. Emily Deibler

    Great article on a recurring problem in Hollywood narratives. The Mighty White/White Savior trope is one of my pet peeves. Why can’t the protagonist be a character of color? Why does there need to be a white (usually male) lead as a “way in” in the 21st century with all the problematic implications that come with it?

  19. Some see a “problem” with casting whites as noble saviors. I don’t. Leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of black saviors (e.g., Denzel Washington in “Crimson Tide,” “The Equalizer” and others; Don Cheadle in “Hotel Rwanda”), this piece underneath is another exercise in white self-abasement masquerading as Hipness. And no, I see no problem with the Oscar acting nominations these last two years.

  20. Here is an avatar script…Jake sully enters the navi land, he meets the chiefs daughter, she takes him in, but she doesn’t care about romantically,she stays with the one she was originally paired with. Jake then follows this man,and this man becomes leader,this leader does not die, but Jake may die or he may live,but he defiantly doesn’t lead he is a follower…The diety doesn’t listen to jake,the diety listens to one the original navi people, and Jake doesn’t have the ability to control the flying beast,one of the navi people do it….Basically Jake is just their to narrate the brilliance of the navi people,and how they saved themselves without white saviour getting involved…Their is your script…everyone would enjoy it,and noone will be offended

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