Noble Savages and Magical Pixie Conquests: Colonial Fantasies in Film

Via Wiki: Detail from Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1771). This painting is an example of an idealised vision of the “noble savage” in North American art.

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. Continue reading