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SQUEEKY2's avatar

Ever wonder why Tarzan was always portrayed with very unkept hair but very clean shaven?

Asked by SQUEEKY2 (19398points) December 1st, 2016

I know it’s only make believe but still wonder.

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38 Answers

Seek's avatar

“Was not hair commencing to grow upon his face? All the apes had hair upon theirs but the black men were entirely hairless, with very few exceptions.

True, he had seen pictures in his books of men with great masses of hair upon lip and cheek and chin, but, nevertheless, Tarzan was afraid. Almost daily he whetted his keen knife and scraped and whittled at his young beard to eradicate this degrading emblem of apehood.

And so he learned to shave–rudely and painfully, it is true–but, nevertheless, effectively.”

Edgar Rice Burrows “Tarzan of the Apes”

Sneki95's avatar

For the same reason he wears a loincloh: naked, bearded people are not attractive. Messy hair is acceptable, though.

ucme's avatar

Just imagine if he made after shave from crushed petals he gathered from the jungle floor.
The apes would’ve queued up to fuck the arse off him…::orgasmic yell::

olivier5's avatar

I always wondered why Tarzan had to be white… It sounded unrealistic, given that the story happens in Africa. But of course that’s so the white readers could identify. They would not have been able to do so with a black character.

Sneki95's avatar

@olivier5 Wasn’t he a child of some explorers who came to Africa, but died on accident? It is possible that he was white in that case.

Pachy's avatar

“Dramatic license” is what enables authors and filmmakers to create the reality their characters live in, not the one we mortals do.

ucme's avatar

Ahem…Lord Greystoke

elbanditoroso's avatar

Are you seriously trying to impute rational thought on a fictional TV/movie series from 70 years ago?

Weismuller (and others) were clean shaven because they were bankable and well known movie stars, and they had an image to protect and nurture.

Why did “Jane” always wear dresses that covered her top? If they were truly living in the jungle, she would likely have been topless like other tribeswomen.

Seek's avatar

Am I the only person who read the book?

olivier5's avatar

@Sneki95 Well of course, that’s the rationalization, the explaination given by the author in the books, but the real reason is (I suspect) that nobody would have cared to read books about a black baby lost in the jungle and raised up by apes.

Consider how Tarzan mates with… a white girl, flown all the way from the British Isles to his own neck in the woods. How realistic is this??? The guy would have more logically mated with local black girls, of with females apes for that matter, but that wouldn’t have made for good book sales.

The counter-example is Mowgli, a much more realistic story than Tarzan. But then the Jungle Books (there are two of them) are real literary projects, not commercial pulp fiction like Tarzan.

Seek's avatar

that’s the rationalization, the explaination given by the author in the books,

You mean the guy who made up the story?!?

Yeah, I’d think he would have some say in it.

If you want to read a story about an African child lost in the woods and raised by apes, go ahead and write it. It’s hardly worthy to complain about major characteristics of a pulp novel story written a hundred years ago.

canidmajor's avatar

@Seek: I grew up on Burroughs, some of these posts are making my teeth itch. :-)
@olivier5: these were written over a hundred years ago by a white American man. Of course the protagonist is white, and male. When you consider the time and cultural issues, you might find them interesting.

olivier5's avatar

@Seek I did read a couple of Tarzan books. I am not complaining, just trying to see through the racial (racist) implications of the story.

canidmajor's avatar

@olivier5: I’m guessing then that you really don’t understand the context of the time period or context of the books.
The Martian series doesn’t really depict the likelihood of life on the Red Planet very realistically either.

olivier5's avatar

@canidmajor these were written over a hundred years ago by a white American man. Of course the protagonist is white, and male. When you consider the time and cultural issues, you might find them interesting.

Yes, it is logical, especially since Borrough was not trying to write something realistic but commercially successful pulp fiction. The little boys reading his books were all whites and they couldf not possibly have identified to a black man. THAT’s precisely how I understand the context.

canidmajor's avatar

So you’re original post is complaining that Burroughs did not write the story to your preferences? Oh, OK, I get it.

Seek's avatar

TIL: Writing a story about a kid who is left to fend for himself after his family shipwrecks in Africa is racist.

olivier5's avatar

@canidmajor It’s called a literary critique, not a complain. It is meant to explain the features of the story, to underline that the writer was operating under the prejudices of his time, especially if he wanted to FIT within his time and be commercially successful. He HAD to tell a racist tale. Otherwise nobody would have bought it.

Explain to me, if you can, why Tarzan remains a virgin until he meets that white girl Jane. Why can’t he discover the joys of love with one of the local girls? I tell you why: because all the boys reading it would have dropped the book in disgust.

Seek's avatar

@olivier5 – So… you’d rather Tarzan be a story about an African tribal boy who interacted in completely normal ways with an African tribal society, rather than a story about a lost child raising himself in an unknown wilderness without a family or tribe to help?

Is that what we’re getting at?

olivier5's avatar

@Seek Let me ask you: do you think Burroughs and his readers were miraclously devoid of any racism whatsoever? Do you think the story can be understood when taken out of any social or historical context? As if Burroughs was not a white American author from a period during which racism was prevalent everywhere in America? As if Burroughs’ readers were color-blind?

I don’t mean to say they are necessarily bad books. Many books with traces or even heavy doses of racism are still good books. The Merchant of Venice is antisemitic. Tom Sawyers is racist. So what? Know it and read it with a grain of salt.

Tarzan is cheap literature but I enjoyed reading a couple and more to the point, the myth is absolutely amazing and goes well beyond Burroughs. I enjoyed TREMENDOUSLY the Weismuller movies, especially the first two before the Hollywood code, when Jane is showing massive amount of skin. The myth of the civilized going back to nature is fascinating, I think. And it’s not a big deal if there are racist overtones in the books (or indeed the movies—just watch them, it’s absolutely hillarious how the blacks are portrayed).

Seek's avatar

No, I don’t. I do, however, think it’s silly that you were confused about why Tarzan “had” to be white… like you didn’t understand the entire concept of the story at all. In this thread alone you’ve completely negated the entire character of Tarzan with your assertions that he should not have been what he was.

olivier5's avatar

I never said he should have been any different. He HAD to be white for the books to sell. That’s what I said.

ucme's avatar

Burroughs was influenced by Kipling’s Mowgli character when he created Tarzan, or maybe that should be Zantar or even Tublat Zan…either way, it’s a rollicking good story that has endured to this day.
I remember as a kid watching a cartoon series of Tarzan, it was epic & was my fave show for a while, that is until I discovered Starsky & Hutch :D

olivier5's avatar

^^ Indeed, and Mowgli is NOT white, in contrast with Tarzan he is just a local boy, which makes the premise of the story much more realistic.

Kipling only had bad things to say about Burroughs, BTW.

ucme's avatar

Yeah I know, said that he only wrote Tarzan to see how bad a book he could do…<bitchslap>
Nowt to do with race, why I raised the point, just wanted to show how fucking clever I am :)

Seek's avatar

So, the answer to the OP is “he didn’t want to look like an ape, so he attempted to look like the other humans he saw, even though he still felt like he didn’t belong to them, either.”

canidmajor's avatar

Well, this got outstandingly silly very quickly.

olivier5's avatar

The OP question was NOT about why Tarzan shaved, in the book. Let’s call this the literal level. It’s about what the book says, literally, and @Seek answered that question. He wanted to look more like men and less like apes.

(although he wanted to keep living with apes and not with men, mind you, so the explaination sounds pretty awkward to me)

The OP question was: why was Tarzan PORTRAYED as clean shaven? In other words: what was the reason(s) the author and after him the movie producers chose to portray the character clean shaven, against all verisimilitude? Let’s call this the literary question. It’s about why the author choose to write the book this way and not another way.

And the answer to that question is: because it was assumed that the readership / movie goers would like the character better this way.

The same considerations apply to Tarzan’s race: there’s a literal answer (because he was Lord Greystoke shipwrecked on the coast of Africa etc.) and a literary answer (because it was assumed that the readers would like it better this way).

Clear enough for you guys?

elbanditoroso's avatar

whereas I read the questions as referring to the movies, not to the book.

Seek's avatar

The logical assumption is that the movie makers read the book, and made him shaven in the films to stay true to character.

Zaku's avatar


I thought this video was fairly interesting – a few reflections from the original pair of Tarzan & Jane actor/actresses. It adds a bit of info from Jane’s actress’ (Maureen O’Sullivan) perspective, about the “why not native girlfriends?” tangent – according to her, Tarzan hadn’t seen a woman before. Oliver5 may of course be about to argue that it’s clearly racist because he must have, but the authors must not have considered them women to Tarzan. I feel like that video is interesting because it’s clear to me that the intention was fun and made sense in the mindset of the time, and that while sure there were white-centric perspectives compared to modern ones (nowadays many films seem to frequently intentionally go out of their way to diversify the race/nationality/gender/religion/sexual-orientation of many characters), it doesn’t appear the individuals were making deliberate choices. It was just the cultural orientation, which yes contains all sorts of white/black themes and exclusions and whatnot – that was practically everywhere back then.

Maureen has some interesting things to say about her risque costumes and nude swimming shots, and the attitudes of the public and the makers around those issues.

CWOTUS's avatar

I also read the book by Burroughs, but decades before @Seek was even born, so I don’t recall details such as her exact quotes (and thanks for those). But I also don’t know enough about Burroughs himself or the “history of the story” (if there is one) to know whether he originally had a vision of the entire story arc to the castaway boy becoming an adult Lord Greystoke when the book was first plotted. Surely if he had that vision in mind as he sat to write the first pages of the story, the boy simply “had to be” white, because – racism or no – the facts of English society in the day of the story would not have permitted a black lord. That would have broken the bounds of fiction as “willing suspension of disbelief” among contemporary readers.

I recall having a sense as I read the book – or was it, in fact, more than one book? – that it was intended first as a sort of “juvenile adventure story” which then morphed into Tarzan as an adult man with his animal / jungle instincts, operating in English society. The maturing process of the boy to a man seemed to mirror, to me, the way the story itself matured from “juvenile action / adventure” to “social criticism” itself. So I often wondered what his intent was as he started to write.

I have no idea whether Burroughs was at heart a racist or bigot in that sense or any other, and if so, whether he was deliberately and in any way “viciously” so, or “thoughtlessly”. It seems to be fairly well accepted that Kipling was, in fact, a sort of “casual bigot” or chauvinist of his times – as most people are nearly always products of their times more than they are drivers of new times and new ways of regarding the world.

I’m bemused beyond my desire to express it how a novel for juveniles from over a century ago is today perceived to be “racist”, even by today’s far stricter sensibility of the topic. As I recall, race was mentioned in the book, but not in any kind of derogatory or chauvinistic way, merely as a matter of “facts on the ground” (facts of the story, that is, including the “fact” that a black English lord was not a realistic possibility of the time, and therefore impossible for the story to work).

It may be that Burroughs considered and discarded the idea of Tarzan’s father, the original Lord Greystoke (for story purposes), to marry a black African woman and have a child with her – and the mere thought of that “miscegenation” (as it was called then in legal terms) made him realize the revulsion that the book would cause among the reading public. As I said, I don’t know “the history of the story”. A modern critic could make two claims of Burroughs’ racism, if he could marshal the facts to make the case:

- Did Burroughs consider and discard the idea that Tarzan’s father could have been a single man when he went to Africa, where he met a black African woman and married her (because we don’t need to consider how many conventions he would have broken by not marrying and having a child out of wedlock), and then had a son before the parents expired together? If he could not consider such a possibility, then that could be counted as a kind of racist attitude.

- Alternatively, if he considered the idea but found the idea personally appalling, then that is certainly overt evidence of racism. Or did he write the book he did because it could be a commercial success, where Everyman in England could identify with the characters? That’s not racism; that’s commercial / artistic sensibility.

It’s perfectly fine to read the book today to make judgments about prevailing attitudes and mores of a century ago, but it seems hardly fair to make broad and stinging criticisms of the author based on nothing but supposition and a sort of unfair omniscience.

Pachy's avatar

Wow! Great thread. This is the kind of civil knowledge- and perspective-sharing I love about Fluther.

olivier5's avatar

Tempest in a tea cup.

I am not saying that Burroughs was any more racist than his times, or indeed more than Kipling. All i am saying is that Kipling cared more for the literary value of his books and would not have written about a “white Mowgli” because such would not have been anywhere near believable. It would have seemed forced, bizarre. Burroughs could not care less; he was just writing pulp fiction. He was writing to SELL. E.g. if he had tried to propose a story where Tarzan mated with a black girl (as would have seemed realistic given the African context), his editors would have told him: “Are you crazy? This will never sell.”

Let’s not over-react to what is a mere contextual observation about the books. I am NOT saying you should feel guilty for having enjoyed Tarzan. That would be ridiculous. I’m no PC idiot. I love the “white ape” character too. Gime a soddin’ break.

JLeslie's avatar

Why does Jesus have blonde hair and blue eyes?

Seek's avatar

Because fictional characters have whatever characteristics the artists that conceive them want them to have, and when you are a gay Florentine painter, you want a pretty dude with long hair.

olivier5's avatar

Yes, projection. Ethiopian Jesuses look Ethiopian, Indian Jesuses look Indian, etc. North American Jesuses are often blue-eyed.

Likewise, here are very handsome Tarzan and Jane from India.

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