Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
Australian Film in the 1950s
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Me Jane: You Tarzan!
- A Case of Mistaken Identity in Paradise

Barbara Creed

Once upon a time the Tarzan movies were my favourites. As a child, I thrilled to see this super-human creature swinging effortlessly through the trees while announcing his lordship over the jungle with his famous battle cry. I marvelled at the way he not only kept peace in the jungle but also knew how to converse with all the creatures who lived in that mysterious and dangerous paradise. Jane, I perceived as a brave but diminished version of the King of the Apes. She too swung through the trees and gave her version of the jungle cry but never reached Tarzan's heroic status. Jane was smart and courageous but to my adolescent mind she had more in common with the relatively civilised heroines of the girls' boarding school stories such as Hilary of the Upper Fifth or The New Girl at St. Malories. I admired her but it was Tarzan with whom I whole-heartedly identified. I did not desire to be like Jane; I wanted to be Tarzan. In terms of Freudian theory I had no doubt been arrested at the pre Oedipal phase: a hopeless tomboy doomed to identify with a totally unacceptable role model.

As we all know, growing up is primarily a time of renunciation. Painfully we learn to relinquish faith in our parents as the ideal perfect couple; unhappily, we learn to accept that the Land of Oz and Tarzan's jungle are dream worlds; and sadly, we learn that while we might dream of being Tarzan in reality our brothers monopolise that role while we are forced to 'play' Jane. Locking away these early memories, I set about learning to deal with the problem of being Jane in the real-world. Now, the adventures of Tarzan, and childhood heroes such as Superman and The Phantom, serve as cruel reminders that for many girls childhood is a particularly treacherous time. As tomboys we were allowed to give full range to the active desires of our libido but in our early encounters with the forces of feminine socialisation we learnt to adopt a radically different set of desires - those of the passive libido. It is no accident that the term 'tomboy' which now means a girl who 'romps' and 'tumbles' like a boy, originally meant a woman who was a harlot. Presumably, the harlot was not only a woman who was for 'hire' but also one who romped like a boy, that is, played the active sexual role - which was probably why she had to be 'hired' - a 'proper' wife is 'forbidden' to play the harlot by the invisible dictates of an uncompromising ideology. Jane's entry into the jungle is symbolically a return to the pre-feminine, the era of the tomboy. In order to survive in her new home, Jane must unlearn her feminine socialisation: abandon her dresses, make-up, proper manners and lady-like ways.

My long-buried, childhood memories of Tarzan were recently revived during a seminar [note 1] on the theme of the 'animal' in the classic Hollywood text. The seminar was given by Raymond Bellour who mentioned in passing that Jane is not a typical heroine. In the first Tarzan sound film it is Jane who controls language: woman teaches man to speak.

Tarzan The Apeman (1932)

Hume's screenplay for Tarzan the Apeman bears little resemblance to Edgar Rice Burrough's original novel, Tarzan of the Apes. The former leaves out all reference to Tarzan's mysterious origins - an issue which is central to the recent re-make, Greystoke (1984). Instead, Tarzan the Apeman concentrates on the romantic relationship between Jane and Tarzan and on the age-old de bate, 'civilisation versus nature' in which the former comes off very badly. The two issues, however, are not separate; the text makes it clear that the love which Tarzan and Jane share could only flourish in an unspoilt, natural, primitive place. Essentially, Tarzan The Apeman, is a reworking of the Christian myth of the divine couple who live happily in the Garden of Eden, except here the poisonous viper is the white man and his greed for power and possessions. It was filmed over a five month period in the Toluca Lake area and directed by W.S. Van Dyke who embellished it with long out-takes from his Trader horn (1931, which had been shot in Africa and starred Edwina Booth as the white goddess among savages).

The story begins with Jane Porter (Maureen O'Sullivan) arriving in Africa to meet her father (C. Aubrey Smith) and his friend Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton). They are about to leave on an expedition to find the lost burial ground of the elephants to seize the immense fortune in ivory which lies hidden there: To reach their destination, they have to cross the Mutia Escarpment, a mysterious barrier of mountains which is taboo to the African people. Jane's father tells her: "If one of them is found even to have looked at it, he's put to death by the witchmen of the tribe." After many hair-raising adventures they finally reach the top of the feared escarpment where they hear, for the first time, the victory cry of the bull-ape - not realising it is Tarzan. Astounded to encounter his own kind, and especially impressed by Jane, Tarzan steals her away, taking her to his tree-top home where she teaches him English, he protects her from wild beasts and they fall in love. The film's exciting climax has a tribe of pygmies capture the expedition and lower its members, one by one, into a pit inhabited by a giant gorilla. Just in time, Tarzan arrives with a herd of elephants (the first of the famous elephant-herd rescue climaxes) which destroy the pygmies' village while Tarzan battles single-handed with the gorilla In the final sequence, a wounded elephant leads the party to the fabled burial ground where Jane's father, who has been injured, dies and is buried - along with the elephants. Having lost her father, whom she has treated like a doting but impotent 'husband', Jane decides to remain with Tarzan - presumably in a common law marriage although censorship codes forbade them to ever produce their own children. In a later film, Tarzan Find A Son (1939), they acquire a child - a baby who is abandoned in the jungle when his parents' plane crushes, killing them both. Until that point in the Tarzan series, Cheeta seems to fill the place of a surrogate child; after the arrival of 'Boy', Cheeta becomes a kind of glorified housemaid - even washing dishes in the nearby stream. After less than a decade the 'natural' couple are transformed into a parody of the conventional nuclear family...

On its release in March 1932, Tarzan the Apeman was an immediate success and ranked with the ten box-office hits of the year which included such films as Grand Hotel, Shanghai Express & Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Francis Birrell, often referred to as the cynical critic of The New Statesman and Nation, wrote:

For an hour and three-quarters (a long stretch for a film) the eye is continually delighted, the nerves unceasingly harassed. Armies of elephants, torments of monkeys, prides of lions sweep across the screen... Tarzan has a hundred percent entertainment value, and gains enorrnously over such pictures as Trader Horn by never pretending to provide accurate information. It is just a terrific piece of gusto in the romantic manner."2

Birrell's enthusiastic response is interesting in that it suggests that visually 'anything is possible' in the film. He captures the mood of experimentation which was a characteristic of many films made in the early thirties. The Tarzan films themselves drew on elements later associated with particular genres. However, in the early thirties there is evidence of an experimentation, daring and spontaneity that later disappeared as genres conformed more carefully to their emerging conventions, modes and structures. Tarzan the Apeman draws on elements which were to become associated with the western, the horror film, romantic comedy and the musical (the balletic tree-swinging sequences).

After the immense success of the first sound Tarzan, MGM initiated plans for a sequel and built a 12 acre jungle, a zoo, and a 13 million-gallon-asphalt bottomed lake on the studio back lots. In the early 1930s, the Tarzan films were all smash box-office hits in the United States and also made more money than all other films in the overseas market. In some Western European and Asian countries, the Tarzan films inspired black tie premieres. Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, personally requested all release prints of Metro's Tarzan movies. The sequel, Tarzan and his Mate (1934), which is often regarded as the classic of the Tarzan films, gave rise to public outcry from conservative quarters because of Jane's scanty clothing. One scene, where Jane dives into the lake where Tarzan is swimming, was cut to please the Hays Office because as she surfaces a breast is exposed. After this film, Jane's body was always care fully covered and Tarzan's brief loincloth changed for a pair of leather shorts. Obviously, Jane could not continue to be as physically active and adventurous once confined by more ladylike fashions - an important point but one which was soon lost to sight in the Studio's attempt to appease the moral conservatives. According to Molly Haskell the "..most ludicrous image was not Tarzan and Jane in their Cole of California jungle wraparounds, but Cheeta and his simian siblings in body stockings" trying to meet the Production Code requirement that exposure of the "sex organs, male or female, child or animal, real or stuffed, was forbidden".3

Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Noble Apeman"

The central issue at the heart of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novel is an attempt to define what it means to be human. How much can you strip from man and still call him 'human'? Everything but language and some form of 'innate' knowledge or human consciousness, Burroughs answers. Burroughs' Tarzan always knows, deep inside himself, that he is different from the apes with whom he grew up; and the narrative marks key points at which Tarzan distinguishes himself as different. He refuses to eat human meat, he shaves to ward off the possibility of growing hair all over his face like an ape, and he wears the rudiments of clothing. But it is his 'innate breeding' which sets him apart from the mute universe of the primaeval jungle. In relation to the latter we read:

..and so he rose, and taking the locket in his hand, stopped gravely like some courtier of old, and pressed his lips upon it where hers had rested. It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter consciousness of self. It was the hall mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate.4

Tarzan of the Apes was born a gentleman; a factor which nothing could disguise and which bubbles to the surface of his consciousness the minute he encounters a white woman.

But the thing which clearly sets him apart from the apes is his ability to learn language. And a large section of the novel is devoted to describing the processes through which Tarzan learns to read and speak. He first discovers language in the written form, teaching himself to read and write. Later, he is taught to speak 'the language of men' (p.193), not by Jane but by a French man, D'Arnot, and it is his mastery of the spoken word (in the novel, it is French - not English) which is his most difficult but rewarding accomplishment. In his book, The Spoken Seen: Film & The Romantic Imagination, Frank McConnell argues that this is why Johnny Weissmuller, not Elmo Lincoln's silent Tarzan, has been remembered as 'the great type of the role'.

For Tarzan represents a victory over silence, a fundamentally epistemological victory of the human mind over the mute universe of things, the primal tropical jungle. And for the representation of that victory the Tarzan films need sound. Weissmuller's famous guttural so like Karloff's speech in The Bride - is among the most eloquent of screen utterances. 5

Jane as Jungle Woman

In contrast to the novel, and the recent re-make (Greystoke), the first Tarzan sound film, was not interested in the question of Tarzan's origins, the reason why he was reared by apes or the problem of what constitutes the 'human'. The Tarzan films of the 1930s were more concerned with the issue of civilisation versus primitivism and the possibility that Tarzan and Jane, as a modern Adam and Eve, might re-enter the Garden of Eden through the renunciation of material pleasures and civilised comforts. The films thus represent a yearning for both lost innocence and the 'natural' (rather than the 'cultural') order of things. These desires, however, are never clear cut. Nowhere is this more so than with sexual desire. The films are characterised by a series of displacements of sexual desire seen as a 'natural' desire. This desire is initially displaced from the civilised world onto the primitive one, and later from the human world onto the animal one. The representation of these displaced desires relates specifically to areas marked by the civilised world as taboo: oedipal desire, desire as a purely physical/bodily activity, and bestial de sire. Mechanisms of displacement work to reinstate a patriarchal symbolic order but with limited success. At the heart of this problematic stands the figure of woman, represented in the Tarzan texts by Jane and also by Mother Nature in her role as the creator and destroyer of life.

We can see these mechanisms of representation and displacement at work in three central scenes. Firstly, the opening sequence where Jane is reunited with her father. Jane arrives unannounced to find him gazing lovingly at her photograph. Their reunion is like that of two long-lost lovers. Jane says: "From now on I'm through with civilisation. I am going to be a savage just like you". He looks her up and down, approvingly: "Attractive. Mighty attractive." The oedipal connotations of the scene are most clearly stated when Jane undresses in front of her father while he sniffs at the scent of her clothes. This scene is echoed later in the sequence where Tarzan also 'investigates' woman her appearance, scent, hair, clothing etc. When Jane's father realises his daughter is clad only in a scanty negligee, he becomes embarrassed and moves away. Jane says: "Darling, don't be silly. You're not embarrassed by me! Why you bathed me sometimes and very nearly spanked me too." Jane looks directly into the mirror/camera as she removes her make-up while her father, sitting behind her, also peers into the mirror. It is as if father and daughter were looking directly at the audience while engaged in their intimate discussion. The barely repressed sexual mood of the scene threatens to become explicit but at that point we hear the sound of drums and cut to a long sequence where we see a gathering of African tribes who have come together to trade.

The people sing and dance in a celebration of the occasion. Jane's father takes her on what amounts to a kind of royal 'inspection' tour where Jane makes 'innocently' racist comments about the appearance and dress of the tribal people. In this way, the 'display' of Jane's body and the references to her nakedness and to 'spanking' are displaced by a 'display' of a different but related nature - that of the bodies, appearance and clothing of the African people. Here emphasis is on racial rather than sexual difference although the two are inter connected in that the racial 'otherness' as it is represented in the Tarzan films is always suggestive of a sexual otherness. Jane's earlier statement, that she wishes to become a 'savage' is given a visual dimension. Thus, father-daughter desire is represented but quickly repressed and displaced onto a scene in which the representation of the African as 'other' is constructed as the major signifier of taboo desires. In this way, the proper father-daughter relationship is also re-instated.

In another sequence, when the expedition sets out to find the lost burial ground of the elephants, Harry confesses to Jane that he loves her. He holds her hand saying: "Funny little hand. So capable and so strong. And yet so soft and white". As he kisses her hand, we hear animal noises in the darkness. Jane laughs, in an off-hand way, saying: "Don't crush it Harry. I might want to use it again". Then, Jane proceeds to express her feelings about Africa. She tells Harry she loves everything about it, including its beauty and its fierceness. At this point the night noises grow louder and now include the beating of drums. Suddenly, an African runs into the camp, pursued by a group of fierce, painted tribesmen; he has broken the taboo on the Mutia Escarpment. Next, there is a long panning shot of the faces of the men and an exchange of looks between Jane and the mysterious warriors. The scene is charged with a barely disguised sexuality which is reinforced by many factors: Harry's earlier declaration- Jane's excessive raptures about Africa; her earlier declaration to her father that she wants to become a 'savage'; the roar of lions; the exchange of looks between Jane and the Africans; the issue of the broken taboo. Miscegnation, the depiction of sexual relations between black and white, was outlawed by the Hays Code; significantly, suggestions of this forbidden desire, when represented in the Tarzan films, were invariably followed by scenes in which blacks were punished and brutalized. Tarzan the Ape-Man was no exception.

The following day, the expedition begins its dangerous climb up the escarpment. When one of the black carriers falls to his doom Harry is only concerned about the loss of valuable medical supplies. Later, when two others are eaten alive by crocodiles and the others refuse to continue, Harry orders them to be whipped. The text in no way foregrounds the treatment of the blacks as racist - their status is given no more thought than that of the animals who are actually treated with far more sympathy. The brutal and racist treatment of the blacks is there partly to add excitement but mainly as a means of reinstating the blacks in their 'proper place' after the exchange of desire represented between them and Jane- a desire which, of course, is a projection of white male anxieties in the first place. The display of sadism also works to give a voice in a disguised form - to the sexual desires which were earlier represented and then repressed.

This pattern, however, is most clearly demonstrated in the scene where the frustrated desire of all the men for Jane - her father, Harry and Tarzan - is displaced onto the figure of the giant gorilla. The gorilla also desires Jane; its function is not simply to represent the darker side of man's sexual desires. Here, the issue of bestiality is clearly present. Jane is thrown by a tribe of pygmies into a deep pit where the waiting beast snatches her into his arms in a gesture which signifies aggression mingled with erotic desire and also duplicates the way in which Tarzan earlier held Jane when he carried her into his tree hut. In relation to woman, the desires of the three male figures - father, Tarzan, gorilla - are visually linked throughout the film. The three men - father, Harry, Tarzan - are also in the pit, each one attempts to rescue her. Only Tarzan is successful. Significantly, both Jane's father and the gorilla receive wounds from which they later die. Earlier she had told Tarzan that she could not stay with him because her father loved and needed her. Now, she is free to mate with Tarzan and to enter into what might be described as a 'natural' rather than a 'civilised' couple. Jane is freed from the dictates of oedipal desire - a desire which lies at the heart of the construction of the patriarchal form of the family.

Me Tarzan: You Jane

Interestingly, it is woman who mediates between the two vastly different universes: the world of the primitive (Nature) versus that of the civilised (Culture). Furthermore, only Jane is able to move freely and easily between the two domains. Ultimately, however, she must choose between the two: the world of civilised man represented by her Father, signifier of patriarchal law, and the world of primitive man represented by Tarzan signifier of maternal law - the law of Mother Earth. Jane, however, is not represented as a conventional heroine. Although it could be argued that Jane's presence in the jungle disturbs the natural order by awakening sexual desire in Tarzan, this disturbance in no way constitutes a threat to Tarzan as a sexual subject. In contrast to the representation of sexual desire in other film genres, particularly the western, gangster and film noir texts of the 1940s, Jane does not signify 'trouble' for the hero - nor does she threaten to destroy him and his desire for freedom. Instead, Jane joins Tarzan in his romantic life of adventure and excitement. She be comes his lover and partner - his 'mate' in both senses of the word.

Jane also turns her back on conventional notions of what constitutes femininity. Unlike the European male adventurers who are in search of riches, Jane rejects the material world without a second thought. Her act of renunciation is emphasised in Tarzan and his Mate in a wonderful scene in which Harry returns to the jungle with a collection of 'feminine adornments' - Parisian gowns, elegant shoes and exotic perfumes - hoping to tempt Jane to return to civilisation. He fails miserably. The fact that feminine clothes put women at risk is succinctly made in a later scene where Jane is nearly killed by a charging rhino because she has dressed in one of the gowns which impedes her movements. Jane is a far cry from the stereotypically feminine heroine. She travels to Africa alone, decides for herself which man she wants, is an expert shot with a rifle, drinks alcohol instead of tea, relinquishes the comforts of civilisation and lives with Tarzan without marrying him.

It might also be argued that Jane signifies woman as object of exchange. According to Levi-Strauss, woman is constructed as a 'sign' exchanged between men as an indication of reciprocity and sociality.6 Jane could thus be viewed as a symbolic figure passed from her father to Tarzan in order to further cement male bonding and to guarantee the continuation of the patriarchal order. But, Jane does not signify 'woman' within a patriarchal order. As woman, Jane rejects the values of the white, European patriarchal world and its conventional definition of marriage, family and femininity - but most interestingly, it is Jane who controls language, who represents the symbolic order of signs and signification. Jane is not 'spoken', she 'speaks'.

When Tarzan captures Jane, he takes her to his primitive shelter in the trees where he 'investigates' her. At first Jane, screams and struggles, and beats his chest with her fists. Tarzan is puzzled by her clothes, her smell, her crying - by everything about her. Finally, he leaves her to sleep alone in the hut while he guards the entrance. Next morning, he drags her to her feet and pulls her screaming from the hut. Jane calls him a brute but quickly changes her tune on sighting one of the apes. She falls into Tarzan's arms. He chases the ape away, making it clear that Jane is his property. Jane says to him: "Thank you for protecting men, thus instigating the famous, "Me Tarzan, You Jane" dialogue where Jane first begins to teach Tarzan the rudiments of English. It is interesting to note, however, that this is a misquote. The actual line is simply 'Jane-Tarzan'. After Jane has taught Tarzan the words, he says 'Jane' and touches her, then touches himself as he says, 'Tarzan'. Why is it that the line has been misquoted and immortalized as a misquote? The answer probably lies in the fact that the phrase, 'Me Tarzan, You Jane' defines Tarzan as the subject of the sentence while Jane is situated as the object, not only of the sentence but also of the naming process. Despite the fact that it is Jane who has taught Tarzan to speak, the phrase, 'Me Tarzan, You Jane' makes it sound as if Tarzan is the one who is in control of the language, the one whose point of view dominates. Sexism is so imbued in our language practices that popular memory, consciously or unconsciously, distorts filmic history in order to perpetuate its own biases.

Feminist theory has long argued that woman does not speak in her own voice in the cinema, that man controls language - he 'speaks' and woman 'is spoken'. Yet, clearly the representation of Jane in Tarzan the Ape-Man challenges this view. In contrast with the novel, it is not man but woman who signifies language and civilisation, woman who teaches Tarzan, the man-ape, to speak. In the Tarzan, films of the early 1930s, both man and woman are given a crucial role to play in upholding the Law. Tarzan is closer to nature and he has knowledge of the Law of the Jungle and the strength to enforce that law: but it is Jane who has language and the power to 'speak' not only Tarzan's law, with which she is in complete sympathy, but also the law of 'civilised', patriarchal societies most of which she finally rejects. Lacan's argument that in relation to discourse "woman is not-all" and that she exists in a relation of second-degree to the Symbolic would appear to need qualification in relation to the representation of sexual difference in Tarzan the Ape-Man. In the Weissmuller-O'Sullivan Tarzan films, the law which is represented is not the law of the Father but the law of the Mother - Mother Earth. But before discussing this notion further, I would like to look more closely at the sequence where Jane teaches Tarzan to speak.

The language lesson commences after Tarzan has saved Jane from the advances of a lone ape. Jane says to him: "Thank you for protecting me." Tarzan says, "Me?" Jane tries to explain the meaning of "me" by repeating the phrase and pointing to herself when she says "me". Jane replies with, "No! To you I am you". Thus, the terms "me" and "you" become interchangeable. "Me Tarzan! You Jane" could equally be "Me Jane! You Tarzan". This swapping of identities is reinforced in the following sequence where Tarzan, on learning to use their names, repeats "Jane-Tarzan" so frequently, he begins to sound like his own echo. And later, when they swim together in the lake, their physical identities also seem to merge suggesting that one is the reflection of the other.

This scene reworks the legend of Echo and Narcissus.8 In the latter, the nymph, Echo, who could only repeat the last words spoken to her by others, fell in love with the astonishingly beautiful Narcissus; he, however, was so egotistical that he soon tired of Echo's dumb adoration and rejected her. The gods punished him by making him fall in love with his own image which he saw reflected in the water. He was so-overcome with it that he forgot to eat and drink. Taking root on the banks of the river, he was gradually transformed into a flower, the Narcissus flower, which is reflected in the edges of the spring in summer only to die in autumn. Tarzan, the Ape-Man plays with the notion of "reflection" and the idea of adoration linked to narcissism; but where Echo was virtually mute, Jane is in control of language and where Tarzan is intended as a perfect specimen of manhood he is not in love with his own image. The two exist in a relationship of mutual interdependence suggesting that man and woman can "reflect" the image of the other without being caught up in a narcissistic dyadic and ultimately destructive relationship. Thus, the couple take up positions of equality in relation to the Symbolic order - the crucial difference is, I would argue, that this "order" signifies the law of the mother.

The Maternal Symbolic Order

The patriarchal order is represented in this cycle of Tarzan films by the white hunters and explorers, imperialists like Jane's father, who come to Africa in search of wealth and power. They regard themselves as totally superior to the African people, ignoring both their laws and the law of the jungle. They shoot blacks as indiscriminately as they shoot animals. As the villains of the narrative, they represent a treacherous and corrupt civilisation in comparison to the cruel but just world of nature. In Tarzan the Ape-Man this world is explicitly referred to as the world of Mother Nature.

Tarzan the Ape-Man presents a reworking of the universal theme of a perilous journey into a secret, subterranean place (cavern, grotto) where the dead are buried along with vast riches and treasures. In this text, the journey involves an ascent over the taboo and perilous Mutia escarpment and descent into the Valley of Death, the fabled burial ground of the elephants which can only be entered through a womb-like tunnel hidden beside the cascading waters of a waterfall. At the commencement of the journey Jane's father remarks: "Mother Earth must have some very particular secret up there - putting up a wall like that". The secret relates to the figure of the mother, present in the film as Mother Earth, that is, the jungle, home of a multitude of teeming life forms. The phrase "mother earth" signifies the omnipotence, at the fantasmatic level, of the mother, the figure who controls life and death and whose power signifies the fragility of the paternal Symbolic. Freud acknowledged this power of the mother when he compared her with the "great mother-goddesses of the oriental peoples... all seem to have been both creators and destroyers - both goddesses of life and fertility and goddesses of death".9 If the power of the mother has been denied in actuality, it has always been recognised through

In Tarzan the Ape-Man, the jungle which sustains life also keeps hidden within its innermost recesses the secret burial ground of the elephants, the Valley of Death. As Harry and Jane ride forth from the Valley on the back of one of the elephants, Harry remarks: "We came this way, once before". No doubt he is referring to an actual journey which he and Jane's father had taken in search of the secret burial ground but his comment is, nonetheless, ambiguous and equally could refer to the cycle of life and death represented by the mother by way of whom all living things must pass. Jane replies: "You know there is something sad about retracing. But he found what he was looking for." He has found death in the form of a journey back into the womb, signifying the mother as the beginning and end of all life.

Several of Freud's own dreams corroborate for himself the notion of the mother as the one who both gives and takes life. In his dream of The Three Fates, he records the following When I was six years old and was given my first lessons by my mother, I was expected to believe that we were all made on earth and must therefore return to earth. This did not suit me and I expressed doubts of the doctrine. My mother thereupon rubbed the palms of her hands together - just as she did in making dumplings, except there was no dough between them - and showed me the blackish scales of epidermis produced by the friction as proof that we were made of earth. My astonishment at this ocular demonstration knew no bounds and I acquiesced in the belief which I was later to hear expressed in the words: "Du bist der Natur einen Tod schuldig" (which is translated in a footnote as: "Thou owest Nature a death'').l0

The idea that it is the mother who teaches us to resign ourselves to the necessity of death is repeated in Freud's "The Theme of the Three Caskets" where he refers to the three aspects of the mother as she appears in "the course of a man's life: the mother herself, the beloved one who is chosen after the pattern, and lastly the Mother Earth who receives him once more."ll

In the Tarzan films, the jungle becomes a metaphor for the mother's body. The jungle, like the figure of the mother signifies danger and security, life and death. But the mother's "secret", to which Jane's father refers, is not just that the mother and death cannot be avoided, but also that the mother is the pre Oedipal phallic mother. She is like the androgynous vulture goddess of Egypt Mout, the phallic mother with breasts, a vulture's head and an erect penis. The child first confers the phallus on the mother, not the father - later, the father confers the phallus an himself. It is this mother - the phallic mother - who lies buried in the elephant's graveyard; her secret treasure symbolised by the ivory tusks which stand erect in the sands of the river. The men who attempt to destroy the graveyard and pillage her treasure are invariably killed and returned to the eatth they have so wantonly ravaged. The sequence in the elephant's grave yard reinforces the central theme of the Tarzan films - that civilisation has been built on the ruins of a much older order, that of the mother and the natural world which continues to govern the life-death cycle.

Sarah Kofman, in her atticle, "Ex: The Woman's Enigma"12 argues that although man recognises the powers of the mother, he attempts to cancel out those powers by setting her up as a castrated figure, conferring on her an "incomplete sexuality". (p.20)

All Freud's texts repeat this double gesture: on the one hand, a recognition of the fantasmatic omnipotence of woman, of the mother, frightening and enigmatic; on the other, a manoeuvre that seeks to turn aside this power for the benefit of man: its symbolic sublation. It is a manoeuvre doomed to failure, for the mother, like death, is not susceptible to sublation or mastery. (p. 17)

Kofman sees the mother as having a special knowledge of and relationship to death

....silent, like death itself, the mother is the one who silently teaches us to resign ourselves to the inevitable, to the unacceptable, stupefying necessity of death. (p.22)

Kofman's suggestion that "the much-heralded 'progress of civilisation' could not have taken place without the mediation through the senses carried out by the mother... by way of maternal education" (p.23) is particularly relevant to Tarzan the Ape-Man and other films in this cycle. At the heart of the Tarzan films lies the re-enactment of this crucial struggle between the power of the mother, as the source of life and death, and the symbolic realm of the father which governs the impermanent orders of the law and language. It is a struggle which the father invariably loses. "civilisation", represented in the films by the white hunters and adventurers, is depicted not only as corrupt but also as a "second" order of existence, one which is attempting to cover over, deny the originatory order, the domain of the mother. Kofman claims that our first or maternal education:

...anticipates the science to come after it, which is simply a formulation, by men, of what women have always known, even if they could not say but only show it, reduced as they have been to silence... to occupying, in culture, the place of the dummy (la place du mort p.23).

Given this interpretation, we can now understand more clearly the significance of the language scene. Jane and Tarzan do not constitute the usual form of the couple, as it has been theorised in the classic text, of the man who controls language and woman who exists only in terms of his desire. They use language to create a relationship of mutual interdependence. Tarzan and Jane are like two children playing on the body of mother earth - children who are also "adults" - but adults who do not fear the opposite as the "other" or alien sex, a fear brought about by the workings of the myth of castration. In Kofman's terms, they both appear to recognise and accept the frightening powers of the mother/the jungle without attempting to sublate those powers by imposing a "knowledge/theory" of castration on to the mother. Her "secret", symbolised as the elephant's burial ground, must be defended and honoured at all costs - even if it means the death of the Father represented as Jane's own father. In their play and speech, Jane and Tarzan echo each other but they are not trapped within a narcissistic, dyadic relationship. Jane teaches Tarzan language; he teaches her the jungle cry: Jane teaches Tarzan the ways of the civilised world; he teaches her about life in the jungle. The mother is there but as a background presence, the all-pervasive presence of Mother Nature. She is both the phallic mother and the mother as law-giver, a figure who incorporates the symbolic functions of both Mout and Minava - an impossible phantasy perhaps but one which is not commonly played out in the Hollywood film and within the signifying practices of a patriarchal ideology.

Sexual Difference and the Maternal Order

In this world, where the mother signifies the symbolic order, categories of masculinity and feminity are constructed differently. Irigaray argues that the structure of language in relation to its "morpho-logic", in the nature of syntax itself with its subject, verb, object relationship is specific to masculinity:

In fact, it can be shown that all Western discourse presents a certain isomorphism with the masculine sex: the privilege of unity, form of the self, of the visible, of the specularisable, of the erection (which is the becoming in a form).l3

In Tarzan, the Ape-Man the subject - the terms "me" and "you" - is interchangeable. The subject of the sentence is not necessarily the male protagonist, the object not necessarily woman. Language, as it is spoken by Jane and Tarzan, does not necessarily imply a masculine subject or the possibility of being represented in a framework dominated by the look ~ the spectator.

It could be objected that although Jane does teach Tarzan language it is, in part, the language of romantic love - a language which ultimately works to keep Jane in her proper place as woman. While it is true that she does teach Tarzan to say "I love you", the argument that her actions ultimately work to undermine her own voice cannot be sustained in view of the fact that Jane uses language to create a world whose values are in complete opposition to those of the patriarchal order.

Relations of looking are also constructed differently. Laura Mulvey's argument that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification"l4 needs to be modified when applied to the Tarzan films. If Jane is represented as the object of the spectator's voyeuristic gaze, Tarzan - even more so - is constructed as sexual object displayed for the pleasure of the spectator. When MGM auditioned for the Tarzan role their main objective was to find a man of superb physique and physical prowess. Van Dyke stressed that Tarzan must have a good physique. He tested hundreds of actors and athletes without success.

He dismissed Charles Bickford with "Not young enough", Johnny Mack Brown with "Not tall enough"; and as for Clark Gable, "He has no body", shrugged Van. "I want someone like Jack Dempsey, only younger. Tom Tyler is the best so far, but he's not muscular enough."15

Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimming champion, was eventually brought before Van Dyke, stripped to his shorts and given the role without even a screen test.

In his article on the male pin-up, Richard Dyer argues that the male pin-up is invariably photographed in a pose which promises action, his muscles hard ened. Unlike the female pin-up, the male is rarely passive, supine. Dyer argues, this is because of the discrepancy between the penis and the phallus:

This leads to the greatest instability of all for the male image. For the fact is that the penis isn't a patch on the phallus. The penis can never live up to the mystique implied by the phallus. Hence the excessive, even hysterical quality of so much male imagery. The clenched fists, the bulging muscles, the hardened jaws, the proliferation of phallic symbols - they are all straining after what can hardly ever be achieved, the embodiment of the phallic mystique.16

Dyer's observations apply to the representation of the male in the cinema particularly in those genres (the boxing film, the western, the religious epic with its gladiator fights and chariot races) in which the objectified male body is central to the generation of voyeuristic pleasure.17 In Tarzan, The Apeman, Weissmuller is constructed as a sexual object throughout, occupying a place which is conventionally that of the "feminine" but his representation as a "strong man" is more relaxed, less hysterical than those images of masculinity discussed by Dyer and those portrayed by the contemporary hero such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the "rescue scenes" we watch Tarzan wrestle with crocodiles, wild cats, charging rhinos and other champions of the jungle. While the primary purpose of these scenes appears to be to provide a good reason to allow Tarzan to "flex his muscles" the main purpose is to constitute him as the sexual object of the camera's voyeuristic gaze. Jane is also objectified by the camera but she is not presented as a passive, "feminine" figure. Like Tarzan, she is also filmed as a "figure in action" swinging through the trees, swimming, running, riding elephants, giving the jungle cry. In short, we have an unconventional situation where Tarzan as the male is objectified by the camera, his body on display, and where Jane as woman is also objectified but not in the conventional, passive manner.

Tarzan The Ape-Man is an interesting, provocative film. Made at the beginning of the sound era and prior to the enforcement of censorship codes, the text (like so many others of this period) cannot be easily categorised as an in stance of the "classic text". This is particularly so in relation to its representation of sexual difference. It would appear that the early thirties constitute a unique moment in the history of Hollywood cinema when experimentation was the order of the day and film was still evolving in new, exciting and remarkable ways. Not only does Tarzan the Ape-Man draw on diverse features which later came to characterise genres as different as the western and the musical, but it also unsettles many of our expectations about the representation of the paternal signifier, the construction of sexual difference and codes of voyeurism in the Hollywood cinema In particular, Tarzan, the Ape-Man presents a highly un-conventional representation of woman. "You taught me to speak. I will teach you my ways", Tarzan says to Jane, opening up tbe way for the representation of woman who is not only a subject within the symbolic order but who is encouraged to shed the trappings of femininity in order to attain this new status. Interestingly, Jane's growth is paralleled by a decline in the significance for her of the world she has left behind - the world of patriarchal values and structures. Jane represents an unusual instance of the reconstitution of woman as tomboy within the signifying practices of Hollywood text.

Rejection of the paternal order is perhaps more clearly seen in the recent re-make of the Tarzan movies, Greystoke, which deserves a brief comment. Here, the movement is one of a total rejection of civilisation as Tarzan/Christopher Lambert comes to realise that the Law of the Father is undeniably corrupt and devastatingly cruel. The two "orders" are clearly present: the maternal order represented by Tarzan's ape-mother, by the jungle, and by Tarzan's positioning in the pre-symbolic (Kristeva's "semiotic chora")~ where communication takes places through the sounds and signs of the animal world. When Tarzan encounters the Frenchman, D'Arnot, he symbolically enters the world of the father. D'Arnot not only teaches him language but also instructs him in the art of shaving presenting him with a mirror and a razor. This scene presents an enactment of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory about the constitution of the "self": the mirror a sign of subjectivity; the razor a sign of castration and of entry into the symbolic order. Having learnt to speak, shave, wear clothes and to see himself as "human", Tarzan as Lord Greystoke, finally takes up his "proper" place within the patriarchal order.

But his experience of the "civilised" world is devastating. Everything culminates in loss -loss of his human parents, loss of his animal parents, loss of his innocence. This movement of loss takes him back to the jungle, back to the community of apes, back to mother earth. The last we see of him is a naked figure in the distance, running to embrace the jungle; its luxuriant vegetation and dark recesses. This scene, like the sequence which takes place in the elephant's burial ground in the 1930s version, functions as a reminder that beneath the structures of our modern civilised world lies a more ancient order of things - the domain of the mother. The major difference between Tarzan, the Ape-Man and Greystoke is that in the latter there is no place for woman either in the primitive natural world or in civilisation. Woman has become an impotent figure; she neither controls language nor takes up her place in paradise. In Greystoke it is not a question of "You Jane, Me Tarzan" or "Me Jane, You Tarzan". It is now only a question of "Me Tarzan".


  1. The seminar was held as part of the 1982 Australian Screen Studies Association National Conference, La Trobe University, Victoria. I would like to thank Lis Stoney, Marg Hay and Merrilee Moss for their enthusiastic response to and incisive comments on the Weissmuller-O'Sullivan series of Tarzan films.

  2. G. Essoe, Tarzan of the Movies (New York: Cadillac Publishing Co., 1968), p.73.

  3. Molly Haskell, From Reverance to Rape (Ringwood: Penguin,1979),pp.117-118.

  4. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes (New York Ballantine Books, 1981),p.l68.

  5. F. McConnell, The Spoken Seen: Film the Romantic Imagination, (Baltimore:John Hopkins University Press, 1975), p.58.

  6. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (Ringwood: Penguin, 1969). For an application of Levi-Strauss' theories to the representation of women in film, see, Pam Cook & Claire Johnston, "The Place of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh", in Phil Hardy (ed.) Raoul Walsh (Colchester Vineyard Press, 1974).

  7. Christine Glendhill, "Developments in Feminist Film Criticism", in Re-Vision, Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp & Linda Williams eds. (Los Angeles: University Publications of America, 1984), pp.l848.

  8. Bellour also drew attention to the Echo and Narcissus myth but he did not analyse the relationship between the film and the myth.

  9. The Pelican Freud Library, (PFL) v.14, Art and Literature (Ringwood: Penguin,1985), p.224.

  10. PFL, vA, The Interpretation of Dreams, (Ringwood Penguin, 1975), pp.295-6.

  11. PFL, v.14, p247.

  12. Sarah Kofman, "Ex: The Woman's Enigma", Enclitic, IV, no.2 (1980), pp.l7-28.

  13. Luce Irigaray, 'Woman's Exile", Ideology and Consciousness, no.l, (May 1977),p.64

  14. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Screen, v.16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975), p. 12.

  15. Essoe, p.25

  16. Richard Dyer, "Don't Look Now - The Male Pin-Up", Screen, v.23, nos34 (Sept-Oct, 1982), pp.61-73.

  17. For a discussion of this see, Steve Neale "Masculinity as Spectacle", Screen, v.2,4, no.6 (Nov-Dec, 1983), pp.2-17.

  18. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, An Essay on Abjection, (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982).

New: 5 January, 1996 | Now: 8 March, 2015