~Overall Rating: 2.3/4 stars (see bottom for details)~
Considering all the qualms I had about re-watching this movie (like Tarzan’s chin being impossibly pointy, why does that always bother me so much?), it was surprisingly appealing, even with all the Phil Collins music (sorry, Collins fans). Not one of my favorite Disney movies, but well produced and memorable enough.
Jane is the film’s main female protagonist. Jane is adventurous, and has come to a new land not to find love, but because she is passionate about the research she and her father do. She does show many moments of bravery and courage, such as when she basically throws herself at Clayton trying to stop him even though he is a big man with a rifle and she’s just trying to punch him with her hands or something (unsurprisingly, she is unnsuccessful and thrown to the side as if Clayton does not see her as much of a threat, and he fights Tarzan instead).
Even though she is often courageous, she does rely on Tarzan and others to save her from basically every sticky situation she encounters. When she is being chased by baboons- Tarzan saves her. When some pirate guy is about to clock her in the face, again, it is Tarzan to the rescue. When they are imprisoned on the boat, she does not devise a way for them to escape- or even try to- she is resigned to their fate.
Jane is almost always following men around in the story, whether it’s her father, Tarzan, or Clayton, and again, the time she does venture off by herself to sketch- the one time that she is not being led into an adventure, but independently pursuing it- the jungle tells her that is a bad idea by having a fleet of rampaging baboons go after her.
Another take on Jane and how romance affects the portrayal of her character, from this site’s critique:
She’s very straightforward and knows what she wants, but after she meets Tarzan and starts to fall in love with him she becomes bashful and almost shy. Jane plays no real role in the movie other than the love interest of the male lead…
The problems with Jane’s portrayal are characteristics common to so many female characters and it says something not about them as individuals, but about how society (and film makers, by extension) view women and their place and expected responses in narratives.
At times the way the incomers treated Tarzan made me feel a little uncomfortable (“Look at our marvelous cities and superior types of clothing, as a fellow human you belong here!” type deals), because a lot of their attitudes seemed to vaguely mirror the type of attitudes europeans have always had when encountering non-europeans historically (whether they be native americans, africans, asians, et cetera). It’s difficult to do without invariably seeming to draw a parallel between “gorilla family” and “human beings,” which I don’t want to do. But I think the similarities arise not because gorillas are, for example, similar to native people, but because the gorillas in the movie behaved more like people than like real gorillas, and so through this anthropomorphism, the people who directed the movie projected their own feelings of how to approach “forest people” into the storyline. It’s the old stereotype that non-European life is rougher, less complex, yet more appealing and rewarding to our “inner animals” quietly reasserting itself.
Like 99% of mother figures in film Tarzan’s mother Kala is reduced to only that aspect of her character- her role as a mother. This, again, is a problem because it is so prevalent in all movies, and in most you will notice that the relationship of the mother/child usually takes a backseat to the father/child relationship. The mother/child relationship might be precarious, but she is always there for the child- it is always the father’s respect, love, admiration, etc. that must be earned by the child. She was not even at the deathbed of her mate, Kerchak, because it was too important to the movie that his final moments involve passing along leadership to Tarzan.
“In children’s literature, there is a convention to get a child protagonist out into adventure — to deprive the child of one or more of his parents…
However, this convention has translated into American animation becoming a patricentric (father-centered) world…
Since this representation does not reflect the actual changes in society (except the decline of the two-parent household), this must be sending a subtle message — that fathers are more important than mothers. This can be seen in the depiction of fathers as well. Patricentrism is not only seen in the lack of the mother, but in the differing treatments of fathers and mothers.
Fathers become the center of lives. Mothers are cast as less important. They are hardly spoken of by the husband they have left behind. The Sultan says in Aladdin of his wife only that she wasn’t nearly so picky. The Little Mermaid’s King Triton only mentions his late wife in wishing she was there to help him corral Ariel. Jane’s father in Tarzan and Belle’s father in Beauty and the Beast never mention their daughters’ mothers.
Their children treat them as less important too. Mulan wants her father’s approval and seeks to honor him, while Hercules wants to join his father Zeus on Olympus; neither mentioning their mother. Tarzan seeks Kerchak’s approval and recognition, not content with Kala’s. Milo tries to fulfill his grandfather’s legacy in finding Atlantis, never mentioning a mother or grandmother.”
Terk is an interesting character because most people either read her as being very androgynous, or a boy. In rewatching the film, it’s interesting how many of us have recalled her as being a male character because there are multiple references in the movie to her being a girl; in the intro she is referred to by her mother as a “young lady,” her full name is given (Terkina), and later in the movie she is referred to as “miss,” and those are just a few examples. There’s no lack of context given to clue the audience in as to how she identifies. Any confusion is not owing to how the movie refers to her, but rather, how she presents in terms of being traditionally masculine or feminine.
Her fairly ambiguous gender presentation is often seen by people as being “boyish”- because she is more active, more loud, more assertive (with boys as well, not something we often see either without the female character being coy to some extent), et cetera than what we expect to see in a female character. Because we, as an audience, are so accustomed to female characters being presented more like Jane, we actually end up trying to conform Terk to the gender binary that her character is avoiding.
From this site’s critique of Tarzan:
“Tarzan, another Disney film adapted very loosely (from the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs) succeeds in being a lot like The Lion King in terms of its female gender roles. Once again (am I sounding trite yet?) Disney HAS NOT strayed from their ideal gender roles, male or female, in any way.”
We come to rely on behavior to indicate gender, and therefore end up forcing characters into gender roles because we have trouble- subconsciously- accepting that not everyone will conform to the gender binary. Not because we’re bad people, but because we’ve been taught our entire lives to see a binary. In a strange way, crafting her in such a way was a win on Disney’s part, and a(n unintentional) fail on the audience’s part, because even when Disney has given us a character that breaks so many gender expectations, our first- subconscious- reaction is still to place her within them and try to figure out “how” she can be a girl if “she doesn’t act like one.”
Since it doesn’t relate to the Disney version I’ll just tell you about it if you want to check it out, but I found this review of the original Tarzan interesting, it gives a lot of information about sexism, racism et cetera present in the story.
Promotion/Equal Voice given to women: **~
Representation of Women present (are they more than typecasts of female stereotypes etc): **~
Racism/Classism: *** (mostly white, upper-class people shown, but to be fair they’re in a jungle and half the cast is gorillas)
LGBTQ representation: ** (no one really present, but no queer villain coding)
Gender Binary adherence: **
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