By Zuleyka Zevallos
I wanted to do a follow up on my post from a couple of months a go, on Hollywood racism. I analysed George Lucas’ claim that big Hollywood studios were reticent to back his film Red Tails because there were no white leading actors in the script. I used the idea of the Magical Negro Trope to explain how mainstream Hollywood films stereotype African-Americans as either thugs or benevolent, self-sacrificing figures who exist only to teach the white character a life-affirming lesson. I showed that this trope extends to other non-white minorities. Today I want to focus on the Noble Savage trope, which is a term describing the over-simplified stereotype of Indigenous people in film. I will discuss Avatar as a pre-eminent example of the Noble Savage, but I will focus on gender and sexuality issues. Avatar is about to screen on Australian free-to-air TV. Although many, many people have already seen this film, the incessant TV advertising reminds me that it’s high time I release this post!
Today I will draw a comparison between Avatar and other films that depict Indigenous women as savage conquests. Women are rarely cast in complex roles in big-budget Hollywood releases. They are usually romantic or sexual diversions to help portray the male lead in a sympathetic light. Non-white women are even more simplified – especially in stories involving Indigeous cultures. Non-white women exist as Magical Pixie Conquests: they are painted as feisty, though ultimately submissive, pawns that help white male characters to dominate the “native tribe”. The fictionalised version of the “Pocahontas” story epitomeses how Hollywood both fetishes Indigenous cultures and perpetuates patronising postcolonial fantasies.
In Hollywood’s most beloved incarnation of Indigenous cultures, indigenous characters exist to teach the white warrior the esoteric secrets of their tribal culture. The white protagonist then ends up being the saviour of the Indigenous group. This is also known as the Noble Savage trope. One notable film that received high accolade for faithfully reproducing the Noble Savage trope was Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner and crew received no less than seven Oscars for the tale of a white American soldier who deflects from his post and becomes accepted as a Sioux hero. His status is partly assured by saving and then marrying a sassy tribal woman, but she was a white woman who’d been adopted by the tribe as an orphan, so it was all very romantic.
Avatar is another phenomenaly successful example of the noble savage trope. Avatar is a CGI extravaganza which was conceived as a morality tale about environmentalism. The indigenous group in the film, The Na’vi, are humanoid creatures with blue skin. Their strongest warrior and successive leader is a woman played by non-white Dominican-American actress Zoe Saldana. Who saves the day? The outside conquerer, a white paraplegic soldier played by Anglo-Australian Sam Worthington. When he launches into CGI form, Worthington’s character is transformed into an athletic military hero who surpasses the skills of the indigenous group on their own turf. The film depicts that the complicated landscape in which the Na’vi live requires a lifetime of knowledge and spiritual commune with nature. Somehow, this outsider is able to transcend the intimate cultural skills that the Na’vi accumulated over years of social and physical conditioning.
Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoyed Avatar, I love the escapism of most of James Cameron’s films, and I adore watching Worthington on screen. (His debut in Somersault is one of my favourites.) Avatar has a good message about taking care of the environment. But why was this film, Dances with Wolves and so many others like it constructed in such a way? Why do the indigenous people need a white saviour? More importantly, why do films continue to use thenoble save trope, even in films relying primarily on technologies such as CGI that provide the means to overcome the physiological constructions of race? Even blue people need to be saved by a white person!
One might well think: who cares, it’s just a film! Lighten up, no pun intended! The important thing is that the noble savage trope helps artists win awards and rake in the dough: Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time. Who cares what underlying messages are communicated and whose cultures are emulated to oversimplified oblivion?
Non-white magical pixie conquest
Women are rarely depicted as heroic protagonists outside of romantic comedies – and even then they usually need to be saved from the drudgery of life and fulfilled by the presence of a man. When women aren’t stuck in the stereotypical role of wife, mother, stripper, prostitute or damsel in distress – they mostly serve as pixies. Much like the magical negro trope that uses Black and other non-white minority characters as a plot device to transform the white male protagonist, the primary existence of the lady pixie is to teach the white male hero a life changing/life affirming lesson. Examples can be found in almost every one of Cameron Crowe’s movies, almost anything starring the lovely Zooey Deschanel, and countless other examples (check out TV Tropes, manic pixie dream girl).
Manic pixies are usually white women. I see that non-white ‘versions are best exemplified by a sexualisation of the magical negro and noble savage tropes, which I refer to as magic pixies as a short-hand. The difference between the white manic pixie dream girl and non-white magic pixie trope is that the former has the illusion of being an equal to the male lead. In actuality, the pixie is not constructed as having equal humanity to a man. White pixies act as a sexual diversion to help the hero triumph over their Very Important Life Obstacles. Although white pixies initially appear to be quirky and enchanting beings, they are revealed to be fragile or ill-adjusted creatures who need a man to look after them.
In mainstream Hollywood concoctions, the non-white magical pixie is either a disposable sex object or a colonialist conquest. In fact, non-white women who play opposite a white man are almost uniformly constructed as exotically sexual, usually because they are feisty, head-strong “free spirits” who won’t be tamed by any man… except by our white hero. The non-white pixie provides sex and a beguilling love of nature, but she needs to be taught English first and foremost and then she needs to be imbued with civilisation. The epitome of this trope is found in Westerns. Such films usually portray Mexican or Native American women as independent souls who haven’t wanted to partner with a man from their own communities. Yet after some sexy, passionate resistance, they succumb to the rogue charm of the white protagonist who waltzes into town.
If they are Mexican, the Noble Savage Pixie is “hot blooded spitfire”, who are passionate and irrational. (For example see the roles played by Lupe Veléz or Carmen Miranda). This Mexican pixie trope might work in a saloon or they might be cast prostitutes. (That’s okay folks, they have a heart of gold!) These women often need to be saved from the local baddie who is usually trying to force them into marriage. The white hero represents a better source of protection and he makes things safer in the town. He may or may not stick around to look after the savage Mexican pixie once the baddie has been eliminated – but gosh she looks great standing next to him with her ample heaving brown breasts and her wild hair. Doesn’t she?
If the woman is Native American, she is usually “the Chief’s daughter” or a “Native American princess”. Having the Noble Savage Pixie couple with the white protagonist ensures that he eventually becomes “the tribal leader”, thus surpassing the established social order and the cultural knowledge necessary of Indigenous leaders.
You can also see “Asian” variations, of a beautiful, mostly silent but strong-willed Lotus Flower Woman who eventually takes care of the wounded American man and submits to him. He is usually a decorated white American soldier and he manages to seduce her even though he came to be in her country whilst it was under American Occupation. But that’s okay, because he ends up fighting against the Americans and becoming a fearless community leader. Yes, there are many real-life examples where white American soldiers partnered with or married women under occupation. The problem is with the oversimplification of colonial history as reflected in Hollywood retelling of these couplings. For a mind-blowing example, see The Last Samurai. As TV Tropes notes, this film portrays the Japanese samurai as civilised warriors, but film is riddled with historical inaccuracies in its depiction of a white American learning the ways of the Samurai. Part of the white protagonist’s transition into hero is acquiring a Japanese pixie dream woman to help his transformation and self-actualisation as saviour of the Japanese.
Ultimately, whether black, brown, Indigeous, Asian or otherwise (cough *blue*), the non-white pixie woman character demonstrates that non-white women conquests are a status symbol useful in moving up the local hierarchy. The white conqueror solidifies his social mobility by bedding the savage pixie conquest.
Disney’s Pocahontas bears further exploration for this reason. The Disney film depicts a blossoming romance where Pocahontas saves John Smith’s life and teaches him the joys of nature. In reality, Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Renape Nation chronicles that Pocahontas was actually named Matoaka. She was captured by the British in 1612 when she was 17, forced convert to Christianity and to adopt a British name.
Matoaka married John Rolfe, a 28-year old English man as a condition of her release and she moved to England. Rolfe owned a tobacco company. He used Matoaka as a trophy to support his company and colonial expansion in America. Historical records show that she and Smith never had a romance. Chief Roy Crazy Horse writes:
“Pocahontas” was a nickname, meaning “the naughty one” or “spoiled child”. Her real name was Matoaka… Of all of Powhatan’s children, only “Pocahontas” is known, primarily because she became the hero of Euro-Americans as the “good Indian”, one who saved the life of a white man. Not only is the “good Indian/bad Indian theme” inevitably given new life by Disney, but the history, as recorded by the English themselves, is badly falsified in the name of “entertainment”.
The non-white magical pixie trope reproduces a romanticised colonial fantasy: the savage woman who is conquered and willingly aids the white protagonist to overcome adversity. As with the discrepancy between the fictionalised tale of Pocahontas and the reality, white men who took non-white “native” women as wives did so under highly violent and non-consensual conditions. These women were removed from their families and communities. Consequently, they lost ties to their cultures, as was the case with Matoaka. Fictional romances that utilise this trope are unwittingly reproducing a dangerously sanitised vision of history which makes invisible the rape, decimation and cultural obliteration that indigenous people experienced.
Both the noble savage trope and the non-white magical pixie trope bear the dual elements of delightful wisdom and the thrilling allure of a better and “more simple” life. These non-white tropes are expert fighters; preternaturally wise; and they have a transcendental commune with nature. All of this specialist knowledge is somehow easily acquired by the white male protagonist. The non-white women are earthy lovers. These women’s passion, as well as their cultural, spiritual and environmental knowledge serve only one purpose: to enliven the pulse of the white protagonist and to teach him how to be a better person. Since their first encounter with the white protagonist, the audience is entertained by the unfolding tale of how the white protagonist uses the Indigenous people’s knowledge to ultimately save these noble savages.
When you think about it: none of it makes any sense. Why wouldn’t the magical noble savage/pixie use their mysterious insight to save themselves? This only makes sense when we look at these non-white tropes as wish-fulfilment of Hollywood bigotry. Minority characters allow the white protagonist to flirt with and taste the exotic, all the while showing how enlightened they are by befriending the fierce, barbaric Other. Due to their intellectual supremacy, cultural enlightenment and physical mastery – the white protagonist is able to take bits of “otherness” from Indigenous groups in order to become the best Other. (As I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog, bell hooks calls this eating the other.)
The depiction of the noble savage reproduces a nasty revisionist view of colonialism. The historical reality of colonialism is that white people did not save the groups they colonised. They decimated them. Why do modern-day films persist in depicting white people as being easily assimilated into an indigenous culture, drawing on and surpassing the cultural knowledge of The Other in order to save humanity? Why do non-white characters give themselves over to the white protagonist and accept their salvation rather than use their knowledge to save themselves?
Whenever Indigenous minorities are not relegated to being noble savages/pixies, Indigenous characters are sidelined as tangential caricatures at best. Otherwise they are invisible or negatively stereotyped at worst. The films I’ve discussed may or may not be entertaining to you; they may or may not tickle your fancy as visual master pieces. The question I pose is: why are stories of Indigenous cultures told in such a singular way, where the sole purpose of Indigenous characters is to teach a white saviour how to save them?
Postcolonial theory shows how historical relations between occupying cultures and the societies they colonised continue to reverberate today. Hollywood films are one example of this process. Indigenous cultures are portrayed as mystical and exotic, but their specialist cultural knowledge is easily manipulated. Most damaging of all is that by painting the white protagonist as saviour, the Indigenous people are conversely rendered as passive, submissive and amenable to being conquered. This is why postcolonialism remains a useful way to think about mainstream productions: however well intentioned their messages of environmentalism, it is grossly damaging for Hollywood films to continue to cast white able-bodied heterosexual men as the saviours of everyone else, especially of Indigenous people. This reflects the cultural presumption that the colonial mindset still resonates with general audiences.
Becoming aware of and deconstructing such discourses in film and popular culture is a useful step in overcoming our collective tacit acceptive of romanticised colonial fantasies. Another step is to tell other stories, where it is not only white men who get to be heroes; and where heroes don’t have to dominate Others in order to prove themselves worthy of our cinematic attention.