Have you ever seen this movie? A person from a Western country—often white, often male—travels to some distant land (or hangs out with the Native Americans), learns a particular skill indigenous to that culture (a martial art, a spiritual practice), and quickly becomes The Best At That Skill.
Sometimes, the protagonist is even christened “The Chosen One”—the outsider the tribe or village has been waiting for this entire time.
How could our protagonist raise through the ranks so quickly learning disciplines it took the indigenous people themselves a lifetime to master? It’s the unspoken—often, until relatively recently, unexamined—assumption that the protagonist started off “superior” in some way.
It’s an old old trope that has been a staple of not only the cinema, but quite a bit of new age spiritual lore. Basically: the white savior. He might be a ninja, a samurai, a shaman. In the upcoming Netflix movie The Outsider, he’s a member of the Japanese Yakuza; and, improbably, Jared Leto.
There is now, inevitably, a backlash against The Outsider; some reacting to the trailer with charges that the film “whitewashes” this aspect of Japanese culture.
As The Independent points out:
…there’s no apparent modern or historical basis for a white American being accepted into the yakuza, with the film’s synopsis having little understanding of how the crime syndicates work. While the majority of members come from the burakumin, descendants of the outcast communities of feudal era Japan, ethnic Koreans are also a prominent part of the yakuza, as Japanese-born people of Korean ancestry are considered resident aliens.
It’s unheard of, however, for the yakuza to accept a white American.
Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism author Nancy Wang Yuen clarified what “whitewashing” means in the case of The Outsider:
There is literal #Whitewashing (Dr Strange, Ghost in the Shell) and figurative #Whitewashing when shows set in Asia center around a white actor (The Last Samurai, The Great Wall).
You had a similar backlash when the TV series Iron Fist came out—the comic book character Iron Fist being a perfect example of this type of character. Young Danny Rand finds himself orphaned in the mystical fictional quasi-Asian land of K’un-Lun. He is raised by a martial arts master and becomes, of course, (of course) the most skilled of all the practitioners. He is, in a sense, “the chosen one”—the superior one.
Rand’s story is, in some ways, similar to that of Dr. Stephen Strange, who travels to the mystical fictional quasi-Asian land of Kamar-Taj, is trained by a master of mystical arts, and of course becomes its most skilled practitioner.
The fact that Kamar-Taj is described as being located in the Himalayas is significant, because it points to the hidden antecedent of both the martial arts and mystical versions of this “Chosen One” trope—the foundations of the metaphysical movement of the late 1800s, in which various Westerners would travel to “exotic” locales like Tibet and India, “borrow” the indigenous wisdom of the people, and claim they themselves were the “masters” (or at least, in exclusive telepathic connection with the masters).
The influence of that entire period—which involved such colorful characters as Helena Blavatsky, CW Leadbeater, and Aleister Crowley claiming to be experts on the religious practices of the lands they visited—on this pop-cultural trope cannot be overstated. If you take a look at the writings of Crowley on just the yogic practices alone—you can draw your parallel with the more physical aspects of the trope.
In all of it—we are getting a Western, often white, often male “lens” put over these indigenous practices. They are being presented to us as the *ACTUAL* indigenous practices…but they are not. How could they be? (this topic is a mine-field in New Age/mystical circles and not often talked about)
The other side of the coin is, of course, that there are a number of people raised on this trope who see absolutely nothing wrong with it—it’s their “pop-cultural heritage,” after all. It’s a trope so heavily used in movies, TV, comics, and books—I think now of all the science-fiction analogues like John Carter of Mars—that it has become a “given.” These fans cannot—will not—recognize the hegemonic underpinnings of these stories.
And the thing is—you can’t force them to recognize this.
Which is to say…at the end of the day, they either “get it” or they stay in the bubble of their own nostalgia. Should these types of “whitewashing by default” stories be “banned?” Or should they simply be examined and deemed to be stories that don’t make a hell of a lot of sense?
As soon as I watched the trailer for The Outsider, it didn’t wash with me because it was clearly this tired old trope being trotted out again—a plot that made no sense with what I know to be the larger context of the situation. Well then, couldn’t I just enjoy it as “fantasy?” But it’s not a fantasy that I find relevant. It’s that same white savior “chosen one” trope that I accepted without question when I was 12 but just seems hokey now. This trope no longer has the power it once had for me as a child because I’ve since learned a lot about the history behind it.
Similarly, the appeal to the inherent “mystical wisdom” of a Westerner who takes a trip to India and now proclaims his- or herself to be a guru…I question that trope more and more as well. And as a person into this esoteric stuff, I continually examine and reexamine my own relationship to this trope in terms of what I study, who I chose to listen to, do I have the right to study certain things at all, etc. It’s a messy process & I can understand that sometimes it can feel easier to just shut the door on it and stay with one’s own nostalgia.
But is this a question of “virtue-signaling” and a “PC culture?” Or is this a question of evolution? Once you learn and understand the hegemonic underpinnings of some of these tropes…can you really go back?