Imperialism in the “Tarzan” Franchise
What the King of the Jungle Reveals About Us
What we call “Tarzan” is a sprawling collection, or mini-industry, of stories.
The original Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure novel, “Tarzan of the Apes,” was published in magazines (1912) and then as a novel (1914). Since then, twenty-five sequels have appeared, along with books by other authors, countless comics, two stage plays, fifty films and nine television series.
It becomes important to separate the original “Tarzan” narrative from its many retellings in order to consider the saga in depth. It is a literary property that is more complex than we sometimes credit it, if all we know are the movies. To understand “the jungle king” and why he is such an enduring character – and so controversial – we need to filter out the story’s many themes and elements.
Tarzan and James Bond In a recent article published in The Guardian newspaper entitled “Why Tarzan Will Never Be Okay,” cultural critic Dave Schilling compares Tarzan to the British literary hero, James Bond. Like Bond, Tarzan gives us a model or an approach to modern Western cultures encountering ‘exotic’ cultures: namely, the West dominates. In Bond’s case, an aristocratic Imperial messenger invades Third World nations on a higher mission: to save Earth from greed, treachery and destruction. The Bond stories have been called “a consoling fantasy” for the fading British Empire. Tarzan (‘Lord Greystoke,’ also British, also an aristocrat) invades Africa and becomes monarch of all beasts and humans. When he weds Jane, “the white couple are cheered and paraded around by their happy, loving black pals.” Both the Bond and the Tarzan franchises tell stories about white Europeans conquering the untamed wilderness. Any black characters are incidental.
The power of literacy Where Bond makes good use of a fantastic array of gizmo-weapons in his buccaneering, Tarzan uses one all-powerful weapon: literacy. He learns to read, and through that, how to communicate in several languages. The written word saves him, leveraging his escape from ‘the dark night of ignorance toward the light of learning.’ When Tarzan stumbles across his parents’ shipwrecked library he gains the tool that will leverage his supremacy over Africa – reading. Young Tarzan’s discovery of the English book in the ‘wild and wordless wastes’ of Africa that changes everything. From this point on, he moves from a victim of his environment to its master. One critic writes, “as much as Burroughs is preoccupied with Tarzan’s apprenticeship with weaponry—spears, nooses, bow and arrow—he seems more concerned with arming his character with literacy: reading, writing, and inevitably, speaking first French and then English.”
Preview In this wide-ranging article, scholar Anna Kozak surveys the landscape of Tarzan stories and Tarzan analysts and gives the reader insight as to how the past century has changed Tarzan. She takes a close look at Clayton, the villain, and the way he draws attention to English national identity. Specifically, the author points out the British were proud of their Imperialism while the Americans tried to hide theirs. “[[The Tarzan story ]] negatively portrays Clayton’s overt nationalism,” she writes, “since America’s imperial power towards the end of the twentieth century critiques the explicit notion of Empire.” She notes “the novel’s focus on the Anglo-American alliance between America and Britain and the later shift towards America’s critique of Britain’s explicit imperial rule.”
Another important idea that Anna Kozak brings us is that Tarzan is ERB’s response to powerful worries regarding freedom and masculinity in the Modern Age. Teddy Roosevelt famously fretted in “The Strenuous Life” that we are all becoming “the timid man, the lazy man, the man who distrusts his country, the over-civilized man, who has lost the great fighting, masterful virtues, over the harmful effects of over-civilization which the modern age brings us.” Tarzan can be seen as the embodiment of the noble savage ideal, and his primitivism as the remedy for umbrella-carrying males caught in the civilization’s system. A century after Tarzan’s first appearance, we are learning the true dimensions of these concerns.
Interview Anna Kozak
Q: Your thesis is that, in the progression of Tarzan’s depiction, we can see the shift in imperialism over the course of the 20th century. How are the two “imperialisms” different?
How has Disney in particular altered the Tarzan story? How does this reflect our view of ourselves?
A: When Burroughs’s novel was published in 1914, the British Empire was at its peak and made sure the whole world knew about its military successes. Yet, after America’s rise to imperialism in the postwar era, there was a shift towards obscuring militarization. America did not want its own citizens to know about its involvement in wars, such as the Vietnam War, because it could lead to civil unrest (and it did); however, the widespread commercialization of the television and other forms of global media after the Second World War made America’s reach for global dominance impossible to hide. Thus, gaining control of the media became America’s primary method for redirecting attention away from its own imperial rule. But just because imperialism does not explicitly rest on a text’s surface does not mean that it is not there. In an age of global American imperialism that functions hegemonically—that is, it rules through consent rather than coercion—it is easy to forget that it is there. Reading Burroughs’s novel for the first time after having already seen the Disney version of Tarzan in my childhood makes it all the more apparent that Disney attempts to elide, or even obscure, the story’s connections to imperialism. Yet, it nevertheless permeates the atmosphere and presents itself in various unexpected ways, as I discuss in my essay.
Q: What is the least-appreciated aspect or character of the Tarzan story?
A: The villain, Clayton, is in my opinion the least-appreciated character in the Tarzan story, particularly because the Disney film depicts him as a one-dimensional supervillain, while Burroughs’s novel portrays him in a much more complex and interesting way. The Disney film completely erases the familial connection between Tarzan and Clayton that is so significant to the novel. Not only is Clayton Tarzan’s cousin who only possesses Tarzan’s family estates (because Tarzan himself is not believed to be alive) to claim them, but he also is supposed to marry Tarzan’s love interest, Jane. This makes it even more imperative that Tarzan enters the “civilized” world of America and discovers his identity as the true Lord Greystroke. This battle
Seeing Africa as a wilderness rather than as a place with humans living in it casts it as an uncultivated land that allows colonizers to justify claiming it.
for inheritance is one of if not the most interesting aspect of the novel, and it is a disappointment to say the least that the Disney film does not include this. Perhaps Disney considered this question of inheritance to be too complicated for a children’s film.
Q: Can we enjoy the Tarzan story, or is it tainted by assumptions of imperialism?
Should it be re-written to omit this? Is that fair?
A: Of course we can still enjoy the Tarzan story. Tarzan’s connection to imperialism does not taint the story but rather makes it an important textual artifact that carries with it valuable historical and cultural knowledge. It is important to study works that deal with issues of imperialism and race, even if they do so in ways that may be considered as less culturally acceptable nowadays. With that being said, there is no reason why a contemporary adaptation of Tarzan shouldn’t rewrite the story to alter the depictions of Africans in the novel, for instance. Nevertheless, I do believe that omitting Tarzan’s references to Empire altogether would be a disservice to its value as a historical and cultural relic.
Q: Is Tarzan a search for identity story, or a story about nature and nurture, or a colonial fable? If it is a colonial story, is “The Black Panther” an answer to it?
A: In many ways, Tarzan is a story about all of these topics, and it would be interesting to explore the text from all of these various perspectives. If we were to specifically consider it to be a colonial story, then Black Panther could certainly be one answer to it. Reformulating the colonial tale so that it foregrounds the perspective of the colonized is certainly something that has been done before Black Panther; for instance, it has been an ongoing trend in postcolonial literature. Yet, the recent unprecedented popularity of Black Panther in 2018 marks a major milestone—it shows us that people are now turning to popular media not only for explicit references to Empire, but that they are also becoming increasingly interested in colonial tales that do not center on the white man, such as Tarzan.
Q: Some critics view the Tarzan stories as a corrective for lost masculinity. The restrictions of the modern era, as Teddy Roosevelt predicted, brought confusion to the traditional male role, and ERB filled a need for a clear male role model.
What is the male image today? Is it Adam Sandler? Do we need Tarzan again?
A: Well, I don’t really see Adam Sandler as the representative of the ideal male image today, but I do see how my reluctance to view him as the contemporary male role model is perhaps indicative of a more widespread rejection of the “average Joe” archetype that has become popular in the media today. There has been a rise in discontent with the dissolution of traditional male roles since the mid-twentieth century, and this discontent has even inspired Men’s Rights movements and the like. Yet, the call for a lost masculinity is also not entirely a modern phenomenon as it could also be seen as stemming from philosophical treatises such as Rousseau’s Emile in
Tarzan … is a corrective for lost masculinity.
the eighteenth century, which calls for a return to nature in the childhood education of male youth amidst growing industrialization. As an important touchstone for children’s education and literature, Emile argues that male youth can only develop into the ideal of the strong “natural man” through a retreat into nature and away from what Rousseau saw as the corrupting influences of society. These so-called corrupting influences of society have been increasingly linked to the feminization of men after women’s entrance into education and the workforce, which some see as threats to traditional gender roles. Therefore, Tarzan could certainly be the symbolic embodiment of Rousseau’s ideal natural man. According to these standards, Tarzan was raised in an environment as natural as they come and as far away from civilization as possible, especially if we consider the Disney version, which casts him in a wilderness with no African people.
Q: What does Burroughs think about race? What does Disney think about race?
How does Burroughs portray Africa in the novel? How does Disney?
A: While I don’t necessarily have access to Burroughs’s personal thoughts about race, I can see that his portrayal of Africa and Africans in his novel does not go much beyond what he describes as the “low and bestial brutishness of their appearance” (103). Burroughs is very much a product of his time, depicting Africans as inferior to Europeans, but it is difficult to fault him as an individual for being immersed in the racist colonial
Gaining control of the media became America’s primary method for redirecting attention away from its own imperial rule …
ideologies that were prevalent when he was alive. Yet, Disney does not offer a particularly strong alternative to Burroughs’s depictions of race—it decides to avoid the mention of race altogether by erasing any representation of Africans. As I alluded to in my answer to the previous question, Disney’s portrayal of Tarzan as an ape man who grows up without any contact with Africans perpetuates the wilderness myth. Seeing Africa as a wilderness rather than as a place with humans who were living in it casts it as an uncultivated land that allows colonizers to justify claiming it. Thus, both Burroughs and Disney don’t provide particularly positive portrayals of race through their respective versions of the Tarzan story.
Q: “We wish to escape not alone the narrow confines of city streets for the freedom of the wilderness, but the restrictions of man-made laws, and the inhibitions that society has placed on us. We like to picture ourselves as roaming free, the lords of ourselves and of our world, in other words, we would each like to be Tarzan. At least I would.” ERB
What would ERB say if he were alive today? Would the villains whom Tarzan faces be different if he were writing it today?
A: This quotation brings me back to the earlier question of Tarzan as a corrective for lost masculinity. While we do not necessarily have to revisit that topic again, I do want to emphasize that there is a connection between the sense of the loss of identity—whether it is masculinity or not—and the pushback against industrialization. As Burroughs suggests, laws produce restrictions and inhibitions, which cannot be said to have not existed before the industrial age but perhaps become more noticeable during moments of turbulent change that unsettles society as we know it. If Burroughs were still alive today, the villains that Tarzan faces would probably be less likely to resemble another individual. Tarzan would probably assume the role of some kind of vigilante (like Batman) or anarchist (like Tyler Durden in Fight Club) and fight against modern society itself.
The Anglo-American Ape-Man: American and British Imperialism in the Tarzan Franchise
American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes in 1914, but the story of the ape-man did not end there—it was adapted into various films, the most famous of which is the 1999 Disney film Tarzan. From literature to an animated film, Tarzan’s tale has been altered to represent the changing American views on imperialism. In 1914 Burroughs wrote about colonial Africa at the peak of Britain’s imperial rule, while the 1999 Disney film was released after the shift towards America’s global dominance. Yet, even though imperialism is a central component of Tarzan’s story, Disney’s Tarzan seems to elude many of the explicit references to the subject that Burroughs’s novel displays. This reflects the structure of America’s imperial project, which relies on hegemonic capitalism and the impression of indirect rule in contrast to Britain’s explicit image as an Empire. The Disney film also relies on the notion of innocence, which is often ascribed to children’s literature, to come across as neutral, objective, or even without ideology. This shift in the representation of Tarzan from the novel to the Disney film mirrors the movement from Britain’s overt imperial domination to America’s Empire built from global hegemonic rule.
Burroughs’s novel begins with a description of Tarzan’s aristocratic family: Tarzan’s father John Clayton (also known as Lord Greystroke) was an English nobleman and a military man who was appointed by the Colonial Office to conduct a “thorough investigation of the unfair treatment of black British subjects by the officers of a friendly European power” (Burroughs 3). The European power here is the Belgian Empire, which occupied the Congo along with the British (Stanard 2). This reference, among others in the first chapter, explicitly ties Tarzan’s family to imperialism. Even descriptions of the popularity of the novel use imperial language: “If Kipling invaded the U.S., Burroughs invaded Britain, where [Tarzan] found the warmest of welcomes” (Kiernan 211). Burroughs is described as the American version of Rudyard Kipling, the British writer of the popular work of children’s literature The Jungle Book (1894), which is another imperial tale that Disney turned into an animated film. As such, Burroughs is firmly situated at the cross-sections between children’s literature and Empire.
Yet, while the novel focuses its entire first chapter on describing Tarzan’s noble family and his father’s military expeditions for the British Empire, the Disney film provides no context for the reason that they are marooned in Africa. The film begins during a storm with baby Tarzan in his mother’s arms on a lifeboat as his father rows the boat away from a burning ship. Amidst this inexplicable danger and chaos, Tarzan’s parents get the first glimpse of the African jungle where they will live for the rest of their short lives. Without the knowledge of Tarzan’s family’s nobility and involvement in colonialism, the audience must rely on solely on visual cues to decipher Tarzan’s relationship to the British Empire. Phil Collins’ song, “Two Worlds,” provides the background music to Tarzan’s parents’ story at the beginning of the movie. As Collins sings, “A paradise untouched by man,” the film reveals families of gorillas in treetops. These lyrics reinforce the myth of Africa as a blank slate, a wilderness that is supposedly devoid of human activity. However, in the novel, Burroughs depicts African tribes whose “yellow teeth were filed to sharp points, and their great protruding lips added still further to the low and bestial brutishness of their appearance” (103). Even though Burroughs portrays Africans as repulsive savages and thus contributes to their misrepresentation, which “helped to perpetuate and strengthen racist and colonialist modes of thinking” (Dunn 149), the Disney version eliminates them entirely. While the novel vilifies the Africans, the absence of them altogether in the Disney film constitutes a deliberately evasive attempt to circumvent discussions of the effects of imperialism on the human populations of Africa.
The Disney film depicts Jane Porter and her father Professor Archimedes Q. Porter as innocent and non-threatening; they represent America’s preferred rule through visual and textual representation over overt colonization. Jane is a covert rather than forceful colonizer in the film since she does not use military force to extract resources; instead, she teaches Tarzan language.
Yet, in the novel, Jane is not exempt from participating in the power structures of British imperialism. Jane is described as “a girl of about nineteen,” who is the mistress to a servant named “Esmeralda, the Negress” (Burroughs 168). Although the film excludes Esmeralda, the novel utilizes her to reveal Jane’s high status and how in her personal life, she is not excluded from the unequal race relations at the core of British imperialism. Like his daughter, Jane’s father contributes to textuality within the imperial project. As a professor, Porter scientifically analyzes and creates reports on the natural environment. Elleke Boehmer argues that travel writers’ “interpretative symbols fed the anticipations of future explorers, map-markers, scientists—and the colonizers, who took over lands or stayed to rule” (19). The professor actively participates in the classification of nature, which is a form of textual domination through knowledge. His preconceived notions of Africa are informed by past travel writing and his research adds to the pool of textual knowledge. Although Professor Porter is an explorer, his intelligence takes precedence over his strength and his method of colonization is hegemonic rather than physically forceful. Even through his physical appearance in the Disney version, the professor resembles a “sultan: short, round, furry and non-threatening” (Artz 130). Sultans represent nobility, yet Professor Porter appears harmless and small, which downplays his aristocratic power. Thus, both Jane and her father symbolize America’s implicit hegemonic rule rather than explicit domination through Empire.
The 1999 animated version emphasized the love story between Tarzan and Jane.
The antagonist in the Tarzan franchise, Clayton, is an overt British explorer or colonizer. In the Disney film, Clayton both looks and sounds like a typical British Disney villain, with his upper-class British accent and his “sharp, angular depictors,” like his “big head, protruding nose, cavernous mouth with huge teeth, jutting chin, and the sinister little moustache” (Artz 129). His physical characteristics mark Clayton as an obvious villain. Unlike Jane and her father, who appear small and innocent, Clayton is the “largest human character in the film – graphically representing dangerous power” (130). While Jane and her father participate in colonialism through indirect methods like artistic and scientific documentation, Clayton’s interest in weapons and wealth reveals his explicit involvement in the imperial project through military force and resource extraction. Furthermore, his high status is indicated by his fancy clothes, which are flashy and obvious. Since Clayton hunts and traps animals for profit and callously disregards the natural world, he becomes the perfect representation of explicit capitalistic and colonial greed.
Additionally, Clayton is overly nationalistic and patronizing to Tarzan and the animals, which reveals the Disney film’s stance towards explicit British nationalism. In the film, Clayton states, “If I can teach a parrot to sing ‘God Saves the Queen,’ I can certainly teach this savage [Tarzan] a thing or two.” Clayton’s arrogant phrase expresses the tendency for British colonial subjects to display strong nationalism and to patronize the colonized. Clayton’s nationalism gives him confidence in his ability to civilize Tarzan and the other animals. The film negatively portrays Clayton’s overt nationalism since America’s imperial power towards the end of the twentieth century critiques the explicit notion of Empire. The historical changes around the publication of Tarzan of the Apes explain the novel’s focus on the Anglo-American alliance between America and Britain and the later shift towards America’s critique of Britain’s explicit imperial rule. While Professor Porter and Jane come to Africa for scientific research and artistic inspiration, Clayton’s violence contrasts their goals, making them seem “good” and him “evil.” As a children’s film, Tarzan exaggerates Clayton’s violence and force, promoting the Porters’ more implicit and textual colonial efforts. This binary between overt and covert imperialism is problematic since it disregards the harmful and powerful effects of hegemonic imperialism through documentation and epistemological domination.
The novel complicates the simple depiction of Clayton as a British villain. In the novel, Clayton is Tarzan’s cousin who attains Tarzan’s family’s estate as Tarzan’s heritage is unknown. Clayton is “the man who had Tarzan’s title, and Tarzan’s estates, and was going to marry the woman whom Tarzan loved—the woman who loved Tarzan” (Burroughs 391). The familial relations between Tarzan and Clayton demonstrate the importance of inheritance to the Empire. Without his inheritance and title, the civilized world perceives Tarzan as the “ape-man.” However, Clayton connects Tarzan to his parents, his heritage, and his inheritance. When Tarzan travels to America to find Jane, he uncovers his identity as Lord Greystroke, the identity that Clayton steals along with his lover, Jane. Tarzan’s friend, French Naval Officer D’Arnot sends him a letter that states, “Fingerprints prove you Greystroke. Congratulations” (391). Science and genetics prove the legitimacy of Tarzan’s heritage. However, Tarzan ultimately denies this identity because he respects Jane’s happiness with Clayton and keeps the discovery to himself. He thanks Clayton for saving his life in Africa and ends with the lie, “My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was” (392). This lie shows Tarzan’s humility and self-sacrificial love for Jane. He returns to Africa, refusing to accept his inheritance at the expense of Jane’s joy.
Burroughs’s novel depicts the alliance between Anglo-American and British imperialism through Africa’s colonization. However, the Disney film eliminates many of the references to imperialism from the novel: it excludes African tribes, while the novel depicts them as savage and villainous. The film also portrays the Porters as innocent with their scientific research and artistic documentation while the militaristic Clayton as a typical British Disney villain, which mirrors America’s preference for covert textual domination over more explicit colonial rule. Burroughs depiction of British imperialism in his novel signals towards an alliance between America and England in the early twentieth century, while the Disney film suggests that American popular culture portrays its rule as covert and hegemonic by the end of the twentieth century. The Tarzan franchise demonstrates how America’s ideological stance on imperialism shifts from supporting the British Empire’s overt colonialism to preferring its hegemonic capitalistic global rule.
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Tarzan. Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck. Walt Disney Pictures, 1999.