Tarzan is surely up there as one of Disney’s best underrated films. I sometimes forget it exists until an opportunity to re-watch it arises and I find myself welling up in the first twenty seconds, the moment Phil Collins’s emotionally powerful soundtrack kicks in.
The film, like many of Disney’s works, is primarily about identity and understanding one’s true self. Thus it makes for perfect material to examine through a queer lens.
To catch up those of you who missed last month’s Queer Reading of Beauty and the Beast, I take my inspiration for these articles from a branch of academics called “Queer Theory”. At its broadest and most basic definition, Queer Theory is a critique of binaries and labels. Closely aligned with Women’s Studies, Queer Theory takes a particular focus on gender and sexuality to examine how identity can transcend boundaries — societal or otherwise.
“Queer theory is not a singular or systematic conceptual or methodological framework, but a collection of intellectual engagements with the relations between sex, gender and sexual desire.” – Tamsin Spargo, Foucault and Queer Theory
A Queer Reading is not about overanalysing canon in order to argue about a character’s sexuality. Rather the idea behind reading any film with Queer Theory in mind is to look at the ways in which a film’s plot and characters can go against the expected grain, transcend the boundaries of tired tropes and cliches about sexuality and gender roles, and leave room for interpretation and personal identification on a much broader scale. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Tarzan.
I have to start by mentioning Tarzan’s parents. Although they only appear in the first two minutes of the film, this opening sequence sets up the emotional weight of the whole film absolutely beautifully (and my god it gets me every time, worse than Bambi). After surviving the impossible situation of their burning ship sinking, the little family makes it to dry land and begins building a life in the jungle. The montage shows Tarzan’s parents working tirelessly together to construct a home in the branches of a great big tree, high above the rest of the jungle canopy. Meanwhile we are introduced to the gorilla family: Kerchak, Kala and their baby son. The back and forth between the two families shows clearly the sameness between them — working together, lovingly caring for their child. The failure from both sides to recognise these similarites is the crux of Tarzan‘s entire plot.
The setup of Tarzan’s parents building their home in the jungle is a good reminder throughout the film that this place is where Tarzan belongs. He was destined to grow up here, and although fate changes his familial situation he is able to remain where he was always meant to be.
After losing her own son, Kala rescues the orphaned baby Tarzan from the treehouse and quickly adopts him as her own, much to the disapproval of Kerchak. Kerchak is unaccepting of Tarzan; understandable considering that Tarzan’s presence feels like an attempt from Kala to replace the son they lost, but Kerchak’s language towards Tarzan is particularly harsh, repeatedly insisting “he will never be one of us.”
Kerchak: Kala, I cannot let you put our family in danger.
Kala: Does he look dangerous to you?
Kerchak also introduces the idea that Tarzan presents a danger to the rest of the family, and that his existence makes the rest of them unsafe. However, we’ve just witnessed Kala rescue a helpless baby in need from the clutches of a jaguar, so it’s clear which character’s safety is in jeopardy at this point in time.
Kerchak’s words resonate with the young Tarzan and he feels deeply the weight of not belonging. A poignant scenes shows Tarzan staring at his own reflection in the water, trying to make sense of his appearance compared to everyone around him. He even tries cover his face with mud in order to look more like the gorillas, until Kala comes to comfort him by showing him that although they might look a little different, there are may ways in which they are the same. This hits home even further when Tarzan discovers Jane, who is a little different to him but similar in so many more ways.
Although Tarzan’s experience with sexuality is presented in a very heteronormative way, there’s still plenty of queer subtext to explore within his narrative. Aside from the fact that his first romantic experience is with a woman, there is absolutely nothing traditional about his situation. Until he meets Jane, Tarzan has never had any contact with other humans, and in fact didn’t even know before this that other humans existed. He simultaneously expresses a joyful fascination for human interaction and a frustration over what he has been missing all along. His interactions with Jane are clumsy yet endearing, as he oversteps boundaries he doesn’t know exist. Jane is incredibly patient with him and finds his naivety attractive, most likely because she has little romantic experience herself. The two of them are able to explore this new world together.
When the gorillas learn that there are other humans in the jungle, Tarzan attempts to get the two groups to meet but the gorillas want nothing to do with the humans (and rightly so with the gun-wielding Clayton nearby). However Tarzan has spent time with Jane and can see that like himself she poses no threat to the gorillas. Kerchak refuses to listen, prompting Tarzan to ask him the most queer-experience-related question in the film:
Tarzan: Why are you threatened by anyone different from you?
It’s the problem that both antagonists of the story, Kerchak and Clayton, have in spades.
What makes Tarzan and Jane different from these two villains is their willingness to learn. While Jane’s educated background enables her to have an open mind, Tarzan’s child-like nature provides him with an eagerness for all things new. The “Strangers Like Me” montage makes this explicitly clear. I don’t have time to discuss all the songs in the film, but I recommend taking the time to read of some of Phil Collins’s lyrics, as they present an added depth to the story and even compliment the queer reading in some beautiful ways.
“I wanna know, can you show me
I wanna know about these
strangers like me
Tell me more, please show me
Something’s familiar about these strangers like me”
Tarzan and Jane’s attitude towards learning new things is what makes them the heroes of the story. In my Beauty and the Beast article I briefly touched on the concept of “fear of the unknown” in regards to homophobia, and this is exactly what Tarzan and Jane defeat with their open minds. An obvious example of failing to conquer fear of the unknown is Clayton’s illustrations of the gorillas — his pictures all show scary-looking gorillas with teeth bared, but the gorillas rarely look like this except when facing a significant threat. While Kerchak and Clayton insist so heavily upon their own opinions of the world that it clouds their view of others, Tarzan and Jane recognise and welcome the differences between themselves and others, enabling them to embrace the similarities.
A quick tangent before we wrap up — entirely coincidental but worth noting is that Rosie O’Donnell voices Tarzan’s gorilla buddy Terk. O’Donnell came out publicly as a lesbian in 2002, three years after Tarzan’s release. It’s kind of fun and heartwarming to draw parallels between her part in a film that’s essentially about an unconventional adoption and her real-life activism for same-sex parent adoption rights.
Ultimately Tarzan is a film that shows us the importance of embracing each other’s differences in order to focus on the similarities. No matter who you are or who your family is, as Kala shows a young Tarzan, we all have a heart inside our chest that beats with our right to love and exist.
Images courtesy of Disney.