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.
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.
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.
Fiction 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 Titans, Hotel 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.
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