A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Few Quick Thoughts on the Colonial Adventure Narrative

There's a genre descriptor that I often find useful, the "Colonial Adventure Narrative." I use it, generally speaking, to refer to those stories where a colonized land serves as the site of adventure for one or more of the colonizers. It's a capacious genre encompassing a variety of story settings and formulas. The Jungle Book and Tarzan of the Apes are obvious examples; perhaps less obvious are Cowboys-and-Indians Western stories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It's a genre most commonly associated with the Victorian period, but it's as old as colonialism and is still going strong. And while no one story element is necessary or sufficient for a story to fall under the umbrella category of the colonial adventure narrative, the genre is associated with a fair share of negative tropes, such as the noble savage and white man's burden. Generally speaking, the colonial adventure narrative is deeply entrenched in the perspective of the colonizers' culture, envisioning the colonized land as a site of unique opportunities and unique dangers. These dangers and opportunities are seen as coming from nature itself, and unlike the "civilized" culture of the colonizers, the colonized people are typically figured as a part of that natural landscape. It's easy to see how these narratives generate and reinforce a whole host of dehumanizing stereotypes, but it's also easy to see how that dehumanization is somewhat complicated. When writers like Rudyard Kipling depict indigenous people as having special skills or a closer relationship with nature, they often do so with earnest admiration, and on a practical level, these were traits to admire, even as their framing perpetuated untruths and reinforced the colonists' power over the colonized.

Now, I'm very far from being an expert on colonialism, and there's a whole host of historical and literary scholarship on the subject with which I have only a passing familiarity. What I am an expert on is science fiction, and science fiction (indeed, all pulp genres in one way or another) owes a lot to the colonial adventure narrative. To the genre's credit, its anti-colonial roots run as deep as its colonialism; both Mary Shelly and H.G. Wells, often called the genre's mother and father, were staunch critics of colonialism whose fiction frequently employed the conventions of the colonial adventure narrative in ways that challenged dominant ideologies. But many works in the genre, from Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Barsoom" series (which in many ways is Tarzan on Mars) to Dune (in which the son of a duke becomes a mighty whitey and leads an indigenous people in their fight against an empire) to even Star Trek (which Gene Roddenberry initially described as a "wagon train to the stars") evince classic patterns of the colonialist mentality.

Colonialism runs deep in pop culture's DNA. It's leapt from pulp magazines to radio dramas to comic books to TV to movies, and it's no wonder why--these stories are tremendously fun! Colonialism's legacy of racism can't be denied, but neither can the excitement that comes with these stories of exotic exploration and cultural contact.

In the past 30 years or so, storytellers have explored a few different options for how to resolve this tension. One option has been to follow in the tradition of H.G. Wells and try to subvert the genre. That, I would argue, is what George R.R. Martin attempts to do with the colonialist undertones of traditional high fantasy, exposing narratives about chivalry and white saviorhood to be a lie.
Whether that subversion succeeds is debatable.
Another option has been to simply ignore the old stories altogether. Despite the seemingly endless adaptations and remakes Hollywood provides us with, I think there's a reason we haven't seen an Alan Quatermain on the big screen in 30 years.
This doesn't count.
Yet another option is to get postmodern--to show a self-awareness about the genre traditions you are engaging with that creates some distance, even if you are not explicitly critiquing those traditions. That's what Steven Spielberg attempts to do with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and what Alan Moore does with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
No, not that one.
A fourth option is to change characters' races--when adapting a story, make one or more of the white characters people of color, or when telling an original story that fits within the framework of the colonial adventure narrative, make the typically white hero a character of color.
Quentin Tarantino kind of tries to do all of the above.
Of course, a fifth option is "none of the above." Which brings me to the trailer for Doctor Strange:
This trailer looks undeniably badass. It also looks sadly familiar. Ever since Marvel released Iron Man in 2008, it's been at the vanguard of the trend embracing more sophisticated and spectacular superhero movies, and, consequently, it's been the leader of the pop culture landscape more generally. But their success has been built on two sensibilities that, I think, are coming into conflict here: (1) a willingness to tell new stories unlike what superhero films and TV shows have done in the past (like Captain America: Winter Soldier and A.K.A. Jessica Jones) and (2) a faithfulness to the pulp attributes of comic book storytelling that previous filmmakers have eschewed (Christopher Nolan) or treated as pure camp (Joel Schumacher). Guardians of the Galaxy's earnest embrace of comic-bookiness is what made it possibly the best Marvel movie, but I fear that that same embrace might be this movie's biggest limitation.

The comic books of the 1930s-1970s were inheriting the sensibilities of the pulp magazines of the 1890s-1950s, which themselves inherited the colonialist sensibilities of the 19th century. That means that a lot of the classic comic book narratives predate the various modes of interrogating the colonial adventure narrative that I described above. Doctor Strange's acquisition of mystical powers from the orient, first told in comic books in the 1960s, is a classic example.

I've heard others criticize Doctor Strange for "whitewashing." It is true that Tilda Swinton's character, "The Ancient One," is typically portrayed as Asian. However, it is also true that Baron Mordo, a typically white character, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor--as they had previously shown by casting black actors to play Nick Fury and Heimdall, Marvel is not afraid to cast black actors in substantial supporting roles that were originally written as white. It's also true that casting Tilda Swinton to play a role typically portrayed as a male represents an increase in female representation as well.

Whitewashing is part of the issue here. It's worth noting we've seen numerous traditionally Asian characters being played by white actors in recent years, including Liam Neeson as Ras Al Ghul in Batman Begins, Ben Kingsley as the fake Mandarin in Marvel's Iron Man 3, and Benedict Cumberbatch himself as Khan in Star Trek. Thinking about the representational politics of their casting choices would have probably been the easiest way Marvel could have interrogated the genre traditions it was entering into. I was a big fan of the idea of casting Chilean actor Pedro Pascal as Doctor Strange back when the movie had first been announced. This film seemed like the perfect opportunity to give its protagonist a race lift. Instead, it will be the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a white protagonist.

But the problem isn't simply one of whitewashing--there are patterns and structures at play. Notice how two of the three movies I listed above, Batman Begins and Iron Man 3, feature a white villain (Liam Neeson's Ras in Batman Begins, Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3) hiding behind Asian personae (Ken Watanabe as the fake Ras in Batman Begins, Kingsley as the fake Mandaran in Iron Man 3). In both cases the simple storytelling structure--uncovering the villain behind the villain--serves to affirm white supremacy. And notice the similarity between the Doctor Strange trailer and Batman Begins, both figuring the orient as the place where the white protagonist gains special knowledge. These colonialist tropes make some sense in a 1960s comic book, or an 1860s novel, but they're out of place in a 21st century film.

Representation is important, but I would argue that there is a deeper issue here. Marvel's commitment to remaining faithful to its source material is causing it to abdicate any interrogation of the centuries-old mentalities embedded in the genres that it is drawing on.