The narrative of “going native” is a plot line I deeply enjoy. There’s something appealing about the idea of adopting the superior qualities of a different culture, letting go of the complex, overly burdened western civilization and learning a simpler, naturalistic, more disciplined, way of life. What intrigued me the most about the weekly readings was the idea that this was shown through the Western Cultural lens which created a form of orientialism. So, I wondered can a culture still be “othered” if it is deemed as superior to the dominating Western European culture?
In the weekly readings I was intrigued by the idea Storey (2009) presented about the narratives of imperial plot structure (pg. 172). Particularly the idea of white colonizers succumbing to the “primeval power of the jungle—defined in racist terms as ‘going native’". Basically the colonizer moves to the foreign culture is entranced by the exotic ways and women and adopts it for his own.
To study this I looked at three different films that follow the “going native” theme, Dances with Wolves (1990), The Last Samurai (2003) and Avatar (2009).
Though each of these films portrays three different cultures, Native American Lakota, Japanese Samurai and the alien world of Pandora, all three films follow the same plot line. The protagonist in each film is a white American male soldier injured emotionally or physically in battle. Because of skills our protagonist gained on the battle he is assigned on a mission to infiltrate a native tribe and help with colonial conquest. In predictable fashion, each finds himself on the inside living with the natives. At first he is lost and does not understand the backward and simplistic customs of the “others”. He finds himself wholly inadequate to function in their world. His western ways have not prepared him for this wild world and he must learn to embrace and adapt to the culture.
In each narrative, there is a beautiful and exotic woman that is assigned primarily for his care. In each instance the women is resistant to her assignment and resents that she must care for him. Two of the three characters are widows still in mourning. The third is the daughter of the Cheiftan and the spiritual leader. There are different levels of sexualization of the female characters. All three share distinct female traits, from the passive obedience of widow Taka, (played by Koyuki) in the Last Samurai, to the nine foot tall blue beauty, Neytitri (played by Zoe Salada) who garners strong exotic sexual undertones by remaining topless for the duration of the film. Though each women maintains the customary role of her people, it does not take long before she finds herself attracted to the foreign white man—the first one she has ever met. He is seen as more desirable than any man in her tribe. The only slight exception to this is the character of Stands with a Fist (played by Mary McDonnell) from Dances with Wolves. Though her character is a part of the tribe she is a white woman who was adopted as a child and raised by the Medicine man Kicking Bird as his own child. Though her whiteness creates a place of slight inferiority amongst her people, she is still the daughter of a tribal leader and assists John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) into full assimilation in the Sioux tribe.
In each instance the love story is a secondary plot device, and perhaps sexual wish fulfillment, to the protagonists roll to adopt the culture and it’s superior ways, add his own knowledge and expertise from his Western experiences then lead the tribe into battle combining his own knowledge with theirs.
The Last Samurai and it’s portrayal of the discipline of Japanese Samurai is of particular note. The fact that Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) can become a great leader of the Samurai in less than six months, a skill which would ordinarily take a Japanese native a lifetime to master, is glossed over in a series of charming montage fight scenes which illustrates how subversive orientalism can be.
Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington’s) in Avatar exhibits the similar abilities when he is able to tame the Toruk, a fierce flying creature, only accomplished in legend but the native Na’vi after a few months in his adopted Avatar body. His ability to do so elevates him to the position of great honor and leadership and is able to unify the clans to fight against colonization.
Avatar is a unique example of the three because it actually takes place on an actual alien planet of Pandora. According to the book Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures, (2000) science fiction is the only place to still create the myth of Orientalism. “Only in science fiction, with it’s extra terrestrials and space adventurers, do myth and fantasy exist […] the complexity of modern American culture is such that there are as many others in it’s psychological makeup and the “others” to some are the “us” to others. James Cameron solves this dilemma by creating his “othering” on the planet of Pandora. However, once he has created a tribe of blue nine foot tall inhabitants he imbues them with traditional native American traits including a deep dependance and connection (in this case literally) to the land and the creatures upon it.
Orientalism is created in this traditional narrative because in each case the culture portrayed, though seen as desirable, is not seen for what it may be to the inhabitants but seen through the lens of the invisible white male. It is his experience. He is the one who grows and changes, he adopts their ways and then in a brief amount of time he masters them, becoming superior and ultimately a great leader and the most desirable male in the tribe. Though he now has gone native, in this wish fulfilling exotic world, it ultimately remains the narrative of the white American male.
1.) Do you find the narrative of “going native to be appealing? Why?
2.) Are there other films you can identify with this narrative?
3.) Each of these three films received high critical acclaim, though they all follow nearly an identical plot line, what is it about them that lead to their critical and commercial success?