March 10, 2008

Mighty whitey to the rescue

The white man often rules even in fiction ostensibly about Indians.

Mighty WhiteyQ: How many white males does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One.

Anything you can do, he can do better. He can do anything better than you. Oh yes he can, especially if you happen to be of Asian, Indian, African, Aboriginal or Native American descent. It doesn't matter that you have spent your entire life living in the densest African jungle, being taught the ways of your ancestors since you were old enough to stand up--the moment Mighty Whitey arrives in your town (most likely as a prisoner of war, an orphan or a lost traveler), you might as well hang up your blowpipe and take up crochet because his European (and therefore superior) genetics have pretty much made you redundant.

A common trope in 18th and 19th century adventure fiction, when vast swathes of the world were being explored and properly documented by Europeans for the first time, Mighty Whitey is a displaced white European, usually of noble descent, who ends up living with native tribespeople and not only learns their ways but also becomes their greatest warrior/leader/representative.
Comment:  Among the examples given in this posting are the Legion of Super-Heroes, Arak, Karl May's Old Shatterhand, Natty Bummpo in The Last of the Mohicans, Pathfinder, and Dances with Wolves. We could add several John Wayne movies, Windtalkers, End of the Spear, and Pirates of the Caribbean, among many other examples.

In comics, people have written about the phenomenon of "white Indians" (Firehair I, White Indian, Apache Kid, Green Arrow, Tomahawk, Scalphunter, Firehair II, et al.). I'd also point to perhaps the greatest (non-Indian) example in American literature: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Below:  Saving the Indian is the white man's burden...literally.


dmarks said...

One thing I liked about "Dances with Wolves" was that the Dunbar character did not "becomes [the] greatest warrior/leader/representative", but slowly became just a member of the tribe. None of the "white man becomes and Indian, and is better at it than Indians" thing.

Rob said...

I haven't seen Dances in a long time, so I can't say how "great" Dunbar seemed. Wasn't he leading raids against the Pawnee by the end?

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
In fact, no. While the rest of the tribal men were out hunting, Dunbar was THE ONLY ADULT MALE present when the Pawnees attacked. And he defended the tribe AS ANY OTHER TRIBAL MALE WOULD HAVE. By Rob's estimation, Dunbar should have climbed a hill, sat down with a sheaf of papers, and then RECORDED the Pawnee attack for scientific purposes. But no, they had become his people and so he defended them with all his own resources.
Once again, writerfella will express the main thrust of the film: American EuroMan had just gone through a time of complete racial insanity, a civil war. The Sioux 'cured' Dunbar of that insanity and thus he became one of them. When Dunbar goes back among the whites, they want to destroy him because he no longer is insane as they are. (In anthropology, it is called 'the Green Monkey syndrome,' catch a tribal monkey and paint him green -- the others will destroy him because he no longer is like them.) The Sioux come and rescue him because they know how his own people will treat him. Dunbar is one of the Sioux and so must be saved. The film ends with Dunbar warning his tribe that his own people will be coming. It cannot be more obvious than that...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

Your estimation of my estimation is wrong, as usual. I've never criticized Dances with Wolves for its depiction of Dunbar.

But how exactly is the scenario you described different from the scenario in the posting? To reiterate: "Mighty Whitey is a displaced white European, usually of noble descent, who ends up living with native tribespeople and not only learns their ways but also becomes their greatest warrior/leader/representative."

The movie didn't show Dunbar saving the tribe because he was a randomly chosen tribal member. It showed him saving the tribe because he learned their ways and became their "mighty whitey" representative. In short, the movie focused on Dunbar precisely because he was white. This is the epitome of the "mighty whitey" syndrome.

You could argue that this is a Hollywood necessity. That people will watch Native-themed movies only if it's through a white man's eyes. But this is your Eurocentric opinion, not a fact. If they're done well, I say people will watch movies with nonwhite protagonists.

Anonymous said...

That is all.

Lynette said...

What you call "Mighty Whitey" other commentators call the "Tarzan trope" - Africans are only Africans - Tarzan knows so much more because he was raised by apes - and he's aristocracy as well!

All Indigenous rights are usurped by a white expert whose in touch with nature. See this article on Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter as an example.

Personally I have great trouble with Dances With Wolves. It reminds me so much of the "Chauvellian nightmares" of the fifties e.g. "Walkabout" and "Jedda" - beautiful cinematography culminating in convenient Indigenous suicide. Sherman Alexie's comment on "the last act of colonialism" fits perfectly here I think.

I affectionately refer to "Dances" as "Nanook of the North Rides Again" because of the way in which the 'Dunbars' ride off in the end having 'saved' (think salvage archaeology) all the important knowledge of the people thereby ensuring that it won't be lost to the world as the Lakota await their 'inevitable' extermination. (This may be a very critical reading of the story). Thankfully the strength of Indigenous people's means that this rarely happens in real life but what do such representations, which reinforce the trope of "Mighty Whitey", do to Indigenous attempts to assert their own representations of themselves?

See Marcia Langton's ""Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television" : an essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things" for a full discussion of this process of representation. Another good reference is Fatimah Tobing Rony's "The Third Eye: Race, Cinema and Ethnographic Spectacle".

I agree with Rob that 'Hollywood' is taking it as some kind of necessity to make stories about 'the other' more accessible to white audiences by telling the story through white eyes but as many film industries have increasingly proven it is entirely possible to tell stories of universal relevance with no white characters and frankly it's about time this happened as a matter of course - it might even be necessary to breaks the bounds of Eurocentricism at their core.

Some "Mighty Whitey" Movies (note how the last inheritor of cultural knowledge is often white):

"The Last Samurai"
"Last of the Mohicans"
"The Big Sky"
"Grey Owl"
"Lord of the Rings" (If you read elves as Indigenous people making way for human kind).

Some "White Free" Movies:

"Stomp The Yard"
"Ten Canoes"
"Dreamkeeper" (94 out of 95 speaking parts were Native although considering it was cast by Rene Haynes who cast "Twilight" I do wonder).

IMDB currently lists 154 titles with "all black cast" dating back to the 1920s.