On Tarzan and gender stereotypes– it's not what you think.
Today is the 97th anniversary of the publication of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes. In celebration, today’s L.A. Times has chosen to reprint Gore Vidal’s 1963 essay, which includes an accordingly Sterling Cooper style dismissal of the female genre fan.
“These books are clearly for men. I have yet to meet a woman who found Tarzan interesting: no identification, as they say in series-land.”
I’m not sure whether Mr. Vidal would still care to back up that statement, but as a female who’s read the books, and still keeps her supersized Joe Kubert comic adaptations in the closet, I’d like to have a word.
Sometime after I started elementary school my mother went back to college and enrolled in a survey on the adventure novel, lots of Tarzan, John Carter, and She Who Must Be Obeyed. She read them all to me, and while I’m thankful for every word, it was really the abandoned Lord Greystoke who provided my first model for discovery.
Strip Tarzan of its wild beasts and skimpy clothes, and it can no longer be reduced to a semi-pornographic tale of the colonial manly man, but rather a series of thrilling “aha!” moments: a boy realizing he’ll be a lot warmer in that panther’s pelt, teaching himself to read, learning French under Lieutenant D’Arnot, and finally immersing himself in an alien culture of starched collars and strictly observed tea times, only to reject that world and return to himself – a perfect metaphor for grad school and its discontents.
It was Edgar Rice Burroughs who first made me aware that the discovery one’s otherness can be a powerful catalyst for learning, and that, while we may encounter kindly French soldiers and beautiful women along the way, ultimately, we do it alone.
That Mr. Vidal thinks or thought that only men could identify with these novels is not surprising given the time period, but in dismissing the possibility of female identification, he also pooh-poohs the notion that women desire to learn, discover, and create. And while Vidal’s patrician background may have blindsided him, it is certain that, like Greystoke on his return to England, we all deal with those alienating signals from those who think learning is a class privilege.
What woman (or man) couldn’t identify with that?