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The Uber-Earnest Native

March 15, 2010

Orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem, playing with the rules and being decidedly not earnest during the Purim festival (AFP/Getty photo by Marco Longari, March 1, 2010)

Recently, I got about a half-hour through Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 BC before turning it off. (No, it was not my idea to watch it in the first place.) The movie was unbearable for any number of reasons, but to my mind its cardinal sin was its humorless, uber-earnest cave dwellers. Imagine a movie where every conversation is a variation of, “This is the way of our people. You must do it. It is honorable,” peppered with an occasional “A son of the D’Leh does what a D’Leh must do!” Et cetera.

A far more popular – and egregious – portrayal of uber-earnest natives is found in Avatar, with its interchangeable and forgettable blue humanoids. All blue people spoke in the same stilted, tortured syntax that we think primitive people use – incomplete sentences and slang evidently being a marker of an industrialized civilization. But most ridiculous is the idea that members of a society are powerless before the rules that they create and enforce. When some random guy just happens to tame a giant pterodactyl, that doesn’t mean you need to make him the Chief-of-all-Tribes for life. A lot of people are going to resist such an enormous claim to power, no matter what a few subclauses in your culture’s Big Book of Rules happen to say. (Consider how many people met only modest success upon claiming that they were the Messiah.)

Origins of the Uber-Earnest Native

How did the uber-earnest native enter the cultural imagination?  My pet theory is that it is symptomatic of a well-meaning but naive multiculturalism. Consider that one of the worst perpetrators of rule-bound natives was the Star Trek series, which also happens to be the most sweetly naive proponents of multiculturalism ever to grace the airwaves (the missteps shown below not withstanding).

Choosing from just the first nine episodes of the first season of Next Generation, we have two cringeworthy examples. In the episode Code of Honor

Lt. Yar is abducted by the leader of a people who abide by a strict code of honor, which requires her participation in a fight to the death.

In the episode Justice

Wesley breaks an idyllic world’s trivial law by accidentally stepping on flowers and faces the death sentence.

The dramatic action in both episodes can be summarized thusly:

NATIVES: Sorry, we don’t want to execute your shipmate. But we don’t have a choice, because our big book of rules says we have to.

PICARD: Damn it. I don’t want them to execute our shipmate, but we must respect their big book of rules.

The overbearing desire to recognize others’ customs as legitimate results in our setting them apart and treating them differently than our own. Whereas we are allowed to question our own customs, we treat theirs as if they are eternal and constant. Any deviation from the rules, we imagine, will be met with nothing less than the severest social sanctions.

To realize how naive this reading of other cultures is, just reflect on our own. Between our codified laws and informal social norms, we kind of have a big book of rules. But we all know that numerous laws are on the books that are rarely enforced (jaywalking, anti-sodomy laws, etc.). Furthermore, many informal social norms only become salient at the frontier of acceptability. It’s how we play with these norms at the margins that gives them their cultural meaning.

Take flirting: flirting is all about knowing the norms that govern relations between two potential sexual partners. But there is clearly no formula for a successful flirtation. There is no codified set of statements “If A, then B.” Rather, you show your mastery of informal norms by subtly transgressing them. If your partner calls you on it, you can knowingly deny your transgression. This is the attraction of innuendo: you transgress a norm while maintaining plausible deniability. Good innuendo makes you seem dangerous.

We all know this. It is true outside of flirtation as well. We root for the loose cannon on police dramas. It is what makes avant-garde artists so alluring. Kids wear Che t-shirts in a cheap flirtation with political transgression: they are (in a rather mundane way) flirting with radical ideology.

In art, social relations, or whatever, you master social conventions in order to play with them, not to bind yourself to them. Meanwhile, back on Pandora, the key to acquiring a sexual partner seems to be the ability to say “I see you” as earnestly as possible.

Treating them like us can be subversive

Because the uber-earnest native is such a taken-for-granted aspect of our culture, subverting it is a particularly effective device. For example, in American culture we think that no peoples are more earnest than the American Indians. This stereotype sets up one of my favorite scenes in Twin Peaks, in which the stoic Deputy Hawk recites a poem written for his girlfriend:

Mel Gibson sets up a similar moment in the opening of Apocalypto. We watch as hunter-gatherers divide up the carcass of a tapir, and we think we are witnessing ancient Mayan wisdom in action, as passed down from ancestor to ancestor. But in the end, Gibson subverts that expectation. In these three minutes, his characters express a richer range of emotions than can be found in all three hours of Avatar. Even more significantly, these three minutes allow us to see these hunter-gathers as individuals, unlike the undifferentiated blue mass of Avatar.

Both of these scenes use bathos to highlight how ridiculous our stereotypes of the uber-earnest native are. In these clips, we can relate to the representatives of other cultures as complex beings, rather than as automatons programmed with a cultural rulebook.

In fact, I think that comedies give us realistic looks at ancient cultures more often than dramas.* For example, Year One dealt more honestly with hunter-gatherer life than 10,000 BC. Much like its inspiration, the Book of Genesis, Year One also deals deftly with the transitions from hunter-gather to farmer to urban dweller.

In this clip, we see the citizens of Sodom play with the rules of their civilization. Rules here are in flux and open for interpretation. This concept would be incomprehensible in a Next Generation episode:

It should be no surprise that Monty Python, a comedy troupe of Oxbridge history majors, also gives us more nuanced views of ages past than many dramas. In this famous scene from The Holy Grail, Sir Bedevere and the villagers engage the epistemological issues that bedevilled trial by ordeal:

And in this scene from The Life of Brian, we see the Sermon on the Mount from the periphery of the audience. There is something jarring about the casual pettiness of these onlookers to one of the most revered moments in Western civilization:

In the end, I have no point more profound than that by naively treating the customs of other cultures as if they existed in a sacred and immutable Platonic realm, we treat these cultures as if they are less real – and less lived in – than our own. These are museum-piece representations of other cultures. Not only does this naive form of multiculturalism  have the unfortunate effect of further Othering the Other, it’s also just lazy writing and bad entertainment.


* One notable exception to the comedies > dramas rule is HBO’s Rome. The writers constantly show us that the characters are virtuosos (thanks, Bourdieu) at navigating their own culture. Julius Caesar consummately manipulates norms and values in the pursuit of power. Brutus and Cicero hide their cowardice in the rhetoric of honor. The central character, Lucius Vorenus, is the exception that proves the rule. Vorenus is meant to be a walking rule book. Because most viewers don’t have a sense of what traditional Roman piety demands in any given situation, we have the pious Vorenus to orient us. Many of the show’s best moments come from watching every other character respond to the situation differently (and more true to human nature) than Vorenus. Seth Bullock fulfills a similar role in Deadwood, another excellent show.


From → Culture

  1. 1) We do this with subcultures in America, too–especially in Sociology. That’s partially why we constantly look for structural explanations for why people do things and totally dismiss cultural reasons all the time. Even if, like in my research on mobility, the cultural stuff is the one of the only possible explanations. (You can’t get discriminated against by white landlords if you don’t actually physically look at a unit with a white landlord. You can only anticipate it, which is a cultural phenomenon and should be thought about differently than actual discrimination.) Nevertheless, I can’t tell you how hard people want to not believe me.

    2) Though I agree with you extremely, one thing I think about “natives” in those movies is that they lived in a world with very little actual science. I mean, we know why the sun rises everyday, but what if you didn’t know?! I mean, what if people really thought that like, ritualistic sacrifice really was the only thing that made it come up in the morning?! Man, that’d be scary, right? There’s a lot of security in science that I think we underestimate as allowing us such liberty to be skeptics and cynics.

  2. Yeah, granted I have no idea what cavemen were like. And I’m sure they treated rituals more seriously than Greeks, Romans, or Medieval Christians, a lot of whom were pretty jaded. But I have no doubt cavemen made stupid jokes and puns, just like the rest of us.

    Really what I find most amusing is the made-up American Indian syntax we’ve imagined and put into the mouths of cavemen and blue people in sci-fi films.

    Now that I think about it, our storytelling is definitely constrained by the number of dialects we have in our cultural toolkit (appropriate usage?). So the British have high Elizabethan to Scottish to Cockney to the posh upper class, which they can use for humans, dwarves, hobbits, and elves respectively, and all of which are now a standard part of our fantasy genre expectations.

    Americans reserve the Queen’s English for evil types (commanders of Star Destroyers), fake American Indian for all sorts of tribal peoples, and then Standard English for everyone else. But we don’t use the southern or Midwestern accent for anyone but southerners and midwesterners.

    Of course, sometimes we appropriate foreign accents with disastrous results, e.g. Japanese, Caribbean, and Jewish aliens in the Phantom Menace…

    Anyway, I am really off topic now.

  3. You’re going to love this. So in FFXIII, the people from Cocoon and the people from Pulse never interact with each other now hundreds of years after war and have since completely otherized each other.

    The best part is, the people on Pulse–because it’s wild and untamed with no technology that the people of Cocoon now enjoy–ALL SPEAK WITH AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS.

    It’s great. I wonder if the Japanese voice actors in the Japanese version of the game spoke Japanese with an Australian accent.

  4. Actually, I wonder how much of our fantasy accents are just because of Tolkien.

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