Why Racial Stereotypes Are Not Always Racist: The Lone Ranger (2013)

lone_ranger_ver19_xlgRacial stereotypes are “simplified and often misleading representations of the characteristics of members of a given ethnic group.”1 Stereotypes can be misleading because there will be individuals in a group who do not have the same characteristics as other group members. It is a common misconception that racial stereotypes are always false. On the contrary, in some instances, they may accurately portray individual members of an ethnic group. Stereotypes are not only negative; they can also be positive.

Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013) has been criticized for reinforcing racial stereotypes about Native Americans. Some critics have called the film racist.2 Tonto (Johnny Depp) speaks in broken English, has a painted face, and is referred to as a “noble savage.” Although these are considered racial stereotypes of Native Americans, Tonto’s characterization is not racist.

Racial stereotypes are only racist when they are used to characterize one race as being inferior to another race. Racism is “the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called races … and that some races are innately superior to others.”3 For The Lone Ranger to be a racist film, it would have to characterize Native Americans as being inferior to white people. Tonto, representing the Comanche Indians, is not inferior to anyone.

One stereotype in the film is Tonto’s inability to speak English as well as a white person. A recurring (and funny) line is when he says, “Make trade.” Tonto is not inferior because of his broken English. On the contrary, he is bilingual, a sign of intelligence, and he has learned a second language without going to school.

Tonto does not have any formal education, yet he has something more important: wisdom and life experience. In contrast, John Reid (Armie Hammer), who has a University degree, is naïve and out of touch with the real world. He refuses to carry a gun, saying, “I don’t believe in them.” Unarmed, he gets shot, falls off his horse and nearly dies. In an earlier scene, he does not realize that a poster for “Reds” is for a brothel, and when he sees the women in the brothel, he does not know they are prostitutes. Reid grows as a human being and becomes the Lone Ranger due to Tonto’s wisdom and influence. Tonto’s characterization as the “wise” Native American is a positive stereotype.

Another stereotype in the film is Tonto’s painted face. Although the style of his face paint may not be historically accurate,4 and the dead crow on his head is a parody of the Comanche Indians, Tonto’s strange appearance is used for comic effect, to make audiences laugh, not to portray him as inferior. Stereotypes arise from past and present observations of an ethnic group, and some of those observations are funny. Tonto, however, is more than a comic character. A loyal friend to Reid, he twice rescues him from death, often risking his own life in the process, even after Reid has abandoned him. Tonto is the hero of the film, a brave warrior who is not afraid to die, a positive stereotype of Native Americans.

Perhaps the most controversial stereotype in the film is Tonto being referred to as a noble savage. In a flash forward scene, he is too old to work, so he earns money in a circus by standing in a tableaux called “Noble Savage in his Natural Habitat.” This term is not negative or demeaning. A noble savage is “a representative of primitive mankind … symbolizing the innate goodness of humanity when free from the corrupting influence of civilization.”5 Tonto may fit the definition of a noble savage, but he is not a brutal one. A white man, Cavendish (William Fichtner), is the brutal savage. He guts Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) with a knife and eats his heart. Cavendish, who killed everyone in Tonto’s village, is the most inhuman character in the film. Additionally, all of the “bad guys” in the film are white men—another racial stereotype.

In The Lone Ranger, the Comanche Indians are innocent victims of white men, but the historical reality is they were a brutal and violent tribe. The word Comanche means “anyone who wants to fight me all the time.”6 According to author S.C. Gwynne, when the Comanche attacked white settlers, “All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured; the captive women were gang raped. Babies were invariably killed.”7 The film, however, depicts the Comanche as a peaceful tribe who do not attack any white settlements, and only go to war to defend their territory. This is a positive stereotype of Native Americans, and while many Native Americans in the 19th century were peaceful, there are others who were not. Thus, it is not only negative stereotypes that can give us a simplified and misleading representation of an ethnic group; positive stereotypes can too.

Notes

  1. Questia, s.v. “Ethnic Stereotypes,” accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.questia.com/library/psychology/social-psychology/ethnic-stereotypes
  2. Aisha Harris, “Johnny Depp’s Tonto: Not as Racist as You Might Think. But Still Kind of Racist,” Slate, July 3, 2013, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/07/03/johnny_depp_as_tonto_lone_ranger_movie_pushes_against_racism_but_reinforces.html
  3. Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. “Racism,” accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/488187/racism
  4. Caity Weaver, “Johnny Depp’s Tonto is Based on a White Man’s Painting of an Imaginary Native American,” Gawker, May 1, 2012, http://gawker.com/5906868/johnny-depps-tonto-is-based-on-a-white-mans-painting-of-an-imaginary-native-american
  5. Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “Noble Savage,” accessed May 5, 2015, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/noble-savage
  6. Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. “Comanche,” accessed April 4, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Comanche-people
  7. Jonathan Foreman, “The truth Johnny Depp wants to hide about the real-life Tontos: How Comanche Indians butchered babies, roasted enemies alive and would ride 1,000 miles to wipe out one family,” Daily Mail, August 18, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2396760/How-Comanche-Indians-butchered-babies-roasted-enemies-alive.html#ixzz4cIFIGSB9