Illustration by Erin Taj

Me, Tarzan. You, Really Still Doing This?

A brief cultural history of America’s favorite not-so-wild white man

“The wild” isn’t that wild anymore. Most of earth’s richest jungles and rainforests have been obliterated by mass deforestation, mining, colonization and urbanization; most of what’s left has been explored, catalogued and trampled by thousands of European and American feet in the name of science. Save individual experience, there’s not a lot of mystery left in nature.

So it’s interesting that a figure like Tarzan continues to hold fascination for a 21st-century audience. You’d think Edgar Rice Burroughs’ turn-of-the-century pulp tale of a white wild man — the child of British aristocrats left for dead and raised by apes in what’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo, then discovered as an adult by a white American researcher and his conventionally lovely daughter (yes, that’s Jane) — would have gotten as stale and dusty as the disappearing jungles where it was first imagined more than 100 years ago. Instead it has inspired decades of adaptations and reimaginings: from the nearly 50 stories penned by Burroughs himself to the several hundred films and TV shows made by subsequent storytellers, to say nothing of radio programs, comics and video games.

That brings us to this past weekend, when The Legend of Tarzan — directed by Harry Potter vet David Yates and starring Alexander Skarsgard and Margot Robbie — hit theaters. Warner Bros. bet $180 million that the story’s relevance will extend to 2016 audiences.

Tarzan’s trajectory, from lost child to ruler of the animal kingdom to his induction into “modern” society, has of course been tweaked significantly over the years to meet the standards and interests of evolving audiences. But Tarzan’s persistence as a cultural icon is still driven by a single, timeless allure that has nothing to do with the jungle and everything to do with the readers who keep him alive. In every story, whether a romantic post-industrial pulp novel or a ’90s children’s cartoon, he represents the pinnacle of white manhood, forever embattled by a profane world that seeks to exploit and corrupt both his integrity and his rightful authority over all life.

Burroughs’ first Tarzan story, Tarzan of the Apes, appeared in a 1912 pulp fiction magazine and then as a book two years later. The titular hero was designed as a corrective: At the time, European countries and the U.S. were obsessed with technological and political progress. With the hard labor of the late 1800s behind them, wealth and sociopolitical ideologies ruled the day, inspiring authors and critics like Burroughs (America’s answer to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells) to bemoan the superficiality of so-called civilization: high society’s technologically enabled detachment from their own mortality.

But Tarzan, who grows up believing he is an animal and has never needed the fancy trappings of modern humanity, is the blessed opposite of all this hypocrisy; the strong, wild perfection society has lost in its pursuit of advancement. He owns the jungle, killing animals left and right as he sees fit, including the patriarch of his ape clan, Kerchak, who views him as a threat and challenges him. This type of ownership is depicted as vastly superior to European “civilization,” naturally, because rather than a conqueror, he’s really part of the nature he dominates, so he deserves his spot at the top of the food chain.

Tarzan’s relationship with people, however, is a bit more complicated. He’s intended as a condemnation of Western/white civilization; Burroughs, like many of his contemporaries, believed the airs and riches of the Gilded Age to be the greatest hypocrisy. He drove the point home via the 20-plus Tarzan–starring novels he penned before his death in 1950, which featured constant parallels between “civilized” society and the “savagery” of jungle life. But, this being the turn of the century, Tarzan was also depicted as naturally dominant over the human natives in the Congo. After one of them kills his adoptive ape mother, Kala, he torments a Congolese tribe, staying out of sight and playing tricks on them — and several times straight-up lynching them. In what may be Burroughs’ least subtle bit of symbolism, the tribe ends up believing he’s a spirit and decides to worship him as a god.

Regardless of his supposed superiority to his softened European peers, Tarzan still forsakes none of the privileges that society affords him by birthright — he’s still white as hell. Jane Porter, the daughter of American researcher Archimedes Porter, instills in him what seems like an instinctual chivalry, and he eagerly teaches himself English via his parents’ old books. He returns to the U.S. and Europe, eventually, forsaking the only life he’s ever known — because no matter how “wild” he maybe be, his heritage affords it to him. Though he does not respect much of the moral code and culture of modern society, Tarzan lives among them by choice, because he belongs there. But never forget, dear reader: He is more of a man than these aristocrats will ever be, because he is self-sufficient, and he conquers nature and black people in the “right” ways. (Tarzan wasn’t the only character meant to condemn white male nonsense while ironically bolstering it with a variation on the theme. White European novelists of this era were obsessed with this trope — see: Wells and his Morlocks/Eloi in The Time Machine.)

This paradoxical version of Tarzan has more or less persisted over the decades, though the trappings have shifted in order to allow Westerners the justifications needed for their continued love affair with the character. In the years leading up to and after Burroughs’ death in 1950, Tarzan flourished, in particular thanks to World War II-era Hollywood glamour and American moral righteousness. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Women’s, Civil Rights and LGBT movements threatened white supremacy and heterosexual masculinity — which made Tarzan, the archetypal white-manhood fantasy, a refuge of sorts for white audiences. “There is something basic in the appeal of the 1914 Tarzan which makes me think that he can still hold his own as a daydream figure,” Gore Vidal wrote in a 1963 essay for Esquire in which he reflected on rereading the series as an adult. “In its naive way, the Tarzan legend returns us to that Eden where, free of clothes and the inhibitions of an oppressive society, a man can achieve in reverie his continuing need, which is… to prevail as well as to endure.”

And yet, surprisingly, three decades later, Disney would give us the least controversial (and most popular) iteration of the tale. In the animated 1999 version, Tarzan’s problem is simply that he wants to belong, but cannot. This Disnefied Real Man is an environmentalist battling the poaching tendencies of the crude, belligerent, gun-happy Clayton. (In Beauty and the Beast terms: Clayton, Tarzan’s cousin originally, is now the Gaston to Jane’s Belle and Archimedes’ Maurice.) Perhaps the most believable change is that Tarzan doesn’t consider leaving his adoptive ape family for a moment; instead, he convinces Jane to join his jungle lifestyle. Without the tricky specters of whiteness to consider — there are literally no black people whatsoever to oppress in this movie, despite its African setting; even the voice cast is 100 percent white — the story becomes more about boilerplate villainy. As New York Times critic Edward Rothstein wrote at the time, it “remolded the ape-man to fit Disney mythology, a mythology that began to take shape more than 60 years ago and is inextricably linked to American attitudes toward race, ethnicity and culture.”

The new film doesn’t stray from these traditional themes in the slightest. A Tarzan tale in the fandom age must, first and foremost, be faithful to the source material. So The Legend of Tarzan pays homage to the original Tarzan of the Apes narrative, re-imbuing Tarzan, aka. John Clayton, with his noble British birthright — he inherits and enjoys the Lord Greystoke title and estate from his late parents back in London — and writing two Congolese tribes back into the narrative. Ironically, the story makes the exact same mistakes as all the rest, and in the most du jour manner possible. It contradicts itself in much the same way Burroughs’ original story did: by attempting very earnestly and failing very miserably to reframe and update, with a more “civilized” worldview (Imperialism is bad! Slavery is bad! Capitalism is bad! Christoph Waltz is bad!), a hundred-year-old narrative that could not exist without the ideological obsessions — white supremacy and toxic masculinity — that made it problematic in the first place.

Jane Porter and her father, an English teacher, grew up in the fictional Waziri tribe’s village, the spitting image of modern voluntourism. (A framed photo of Jane with a group of tribeswomen — with Jane in the center, of course — that hangs at Greystoke Manor in 1890 could easily double as an American millennial’s study abroad Tinder photo.) At one point she insists to the villain (played by Christoph Waltz) that they are “all [her] friends.” Yet just one or two men in the tribe have names and dialogue, and even then it’s in service of how good Jane and Tarzan are compared to those other white people; not a single black woman is that lucky. Did I mention Tarzan has a super-authentic black American bff who is not only played by Samuel L. Jackson but also is a real historical figure? This character has never appeared in a Tarzan film before.

More than anything, this new film traffics in questionable tautologies, which is made absurdly easy by Tarzan’s long and fruitful history: Tarzan will rescue Jane, “because he is Tarzan and she is Jane.” Tarzan and Jane belong in Africa, because they’ve always been there; they’re better than the colonizers because they don’t explicitly oppress or enslave the black people whose village they’ve colonized. In other words, it’s the same story, told a hundredth time with the same implicit biases and gender expectations; the details are the only things that have been tweaked, to be palatable to a modern audience.

And regardless of whether this version tanks at the box office (and tank it did), as long as white men retain anxieties about masculinity, and as long as white supremacy keeps them in the driver’s seat, there will be many, many more Tarzans to come — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this one will continue to be remade and will back again tomorrow.