I had suggested back in this post, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, that L. Frank Baum’s Sky Island could count as a white savior narrative, as the white American travelers save the island (or at least the Blue Country) from a ruthless ruler they hate but do nothing to oppose. When I recently brought up the idea again, it led to some interesting discussion on Facebook. The general conclusion is that it isn’t, but it still has some unfortunate implications, and there are even more in other Oz-related books. I still hold that the series was relatively progressive for its time, but I might be biased in this respect.
The white savior narrative is something that’s come up pretty often recently. I’m not sure I would have noticed it on my own; but once it was pointed out to me, I’m seeing it everywhere. It’s often lumped together with whitewashing, but while they’re certainly related problems, they’re not exactly the same. Whitewashing is when a visual adaptation (it’s mostly used in the context of movies, at least from what I’ve seen) makes a person of color white, or has a white actor play them.
With white savior stories, a white person basically shows up to help non-white people out of a difficulty they couldn’t conquer on their own, and sometimes goes well beyond that. It’s different from whitewashing in that the character is either original or based on someone who actually was white, so there’s no change in race, but in both cases it’s often an excuse to insert white actors where there isn’t much reason for them to be other than the profit motive. I know practically nothing about the movie, but I remember seeing commercials for Gods of Egypt in which a white guy (played by an Australian actor, I think) is told that he’s the only one who can save Egypt. I guess the native Egyptians just can’t handle such things, or something. More recently, The Great Wall has Matt Damon playing a great archer who is instrumental in saving China.
And I think there was something similar with Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.
Books are different from movies in that…well, there aren’t any actors. Still, I think there’s a similarity in that authors want the protagonists in adventure stories to be familiar. In some of my favorite fantasy series, the main characters are people from our world who save a magical one. These people are Us in the sense that the natives of the other world might not be. As such, white authors writing for predominantly white audiences would frequently use white people from their own nation as heroes. I don’t think it was intentionally discriminatory, at least not most of the time; that’s just what the writers were familiar with and expected their readers to be as well. That really isn’t so much the case anymore now that communities tend to be more integrated and people tend to be more acquainted with cultures other than their own. Why can’t the Chinese, Japanese or Egyptians count as Us? People from all these groups watch movies, after all. Otherwise you’re alienating people, whether you mean to or not. Of course, fantasy is still different because the cultures that members of Us are visiting don’t actually exist, although sometimes they can stand in for real ones.
So what does this mean for Sky Island? Well, there are two main cultures on the island, distinguished by skin color and body type as well as where they live.
Trot, Cap’n Bill, and Button-Bright accidentally stumble upon the Blue Country and end up overthrowing its dictatorial leader, the Boolooroo.
The Pink Country, meanwhile, has a law that the the person there with the lightest skin becomes their ruler.
That can certainly be seen as problematic, although I really do get the impression Baum just intended it to be whimsical. How communities choose their leaders is a recurring theme in his work, and it’s often done in odd ways. And since everyone living in the Pink Country has pink skin (at least as far as we know), it’s not actively discriminating against those of other skin colors. It does seem like power might be centered around a few families with the genes for lighter skin, but we don’t really know how Pinkie genetics work. Besides, no one wants to be ruler, because even though they have a good deal of power, they’re required to live in poverty. At least, they are until the end of the story when Trot alters the law, although even then they’re not allowed to have more than anyone else. And even though the American visitors conquer the Blue Country, there isn’t any indication that this is due to any kind of inherent superiority on their part. The Blues have some quaint customs and a terrible ruler, but they’re intelligent and sophisticated. The arrival of the strangers just helps to shake things up enough to get things sorted out. The Boolooroo had actually overextended his term in office based on his country’s own laws (he counted on them all forgetting when his reign started), and Trot leaves the nation in the hands of the man who was supposed to succeed him anyway. It’s not like there’s any colonization going on, even though Trot remains honorary ruler of both countries.
It did come up in the Facebook thread that Ozma can be rather condescending to people she officially rules due to inheriting all of Oz, but whose loyalty she hadn’t previously made any attempt to secure. In some cases, they flat-out haven’t heard of her. In Glinda of Oz, she steps in to prevent a war between the Flatheads and Skeezers, two peoples on the outskirts of Oz she didn’t even know about before. Ruth Plumly Thompson expands on this idea of manifest destiny by having Captain Salt, with Ozma’s permission, claim lands outside Oz for the crown. And even in the Baum books, while she didn’t conquer the Nome Kingdom, she did exert a large amount of control over it during and after her mission to rescue the royal family of Ev from the Nome King. You can certainly argue that most of Ozma’s attempts to interfere are for humanitarian reasons, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to pull rank, which is sometimes the wrong approach to take.