Indiana Jones and the Dangers of White Superiority

Academic Paper.

In May of 1984, Lucasfilm Ltd. released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a follow-up to the highly successful, Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981). The creative team of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and Frank Marshall struck gold with Temple of Doom, raking-in a riveting $333.1 million off a $28.2 million dollar budget. While the film’s box office numbers prove the film to be a financial successes, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came under fire upon its release, being deemed as racist, sexist, and culturally insensitive. Paul Bullok reports of the film’s reception in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: An Oral History, stating, “Critical reaction had been largely poor and the sense of freshness Raiders of the Lost Ark so effortlessly achieved seemed lost. Moreover, Spielberg and George Lucas had taken a beating from social commentators, who criticized the film for its treatment of race, religion, and gender” (Bullok, 2017). Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984) and its financial success has been associated with the Hollywood narrative formula. Within context of today’s world, there are flaws to be found and learned from within this formula. In a world of Donald Trump and the feminist movement, the framing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom finds new meaning in this negotiated reading. Indiana Jones as a white savior, the stereotyping of races, and the film’s happy ending are some themes to be examined for their flawed ideology.

Analyzing themes of white power in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is uniquely challenging. “Trying to think about the representation of whiteness as an ethnic category in mainstream media is difficult, partly because white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular” (Dyer, 2011, p. 823). While questioning the normalized ideologies in a white-dominated culture may be treason, regardless, there are many facets to be considered when analyzing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a film that glamorizes whiteness and presents its main character to audiences as a white savior. A scene from Temple of Doom that frames Indiana Jones as a white savior is his initial arrival to Mayapore, a fictional Indian village.
After surviving a plane crash, Indiana Jones with this two companions, Willie Scott and Short Round, come across the small Indian village of Mayapore. The people there are lacking in resources like food and clothing. The mise-en-scène of the arrival scene supports this claim. The villagers are barefoot and skinny – some shirtless. Brown and grey makes up the scene’s coloring and the lighting is natural. The village is dry and smokey, made up of dead trees, rocks, and mud.

In the camera-framing of the arrival scene, Indiana and Willie are positioned higher than the swarming villagers – representing a separation of status or class. The leads’ clean clothing and specifically Willie’s blonde hair hold a striking visual contrast within the frame. One of the village leaders claim that Shiva, an actual Hindu deity, sent Jones from the sky as a gift to save his people from death. The leader tells Jones that the village’s children and sacred Sankara stones have been stolen by the evil forces of Pankot Palace. Dr. Jones, who is familiar with the legend of Sankara, explains to Willie that returning the stones would result in a reward of fortune and glory, revealing an internal motive.

The narrative structure of this film aligns well with the Hollywood formula that is presented in Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin’s America on Film. “The protagonist of most Hollywood films is constructed as a straight white male seeking wealth or power. He emerges victorious at the end of the film, proving his inherent superiority over those who challenged him” (Benshoff and Griffin, 2009, p. 39). Indiana Jones naturalizes and reinforces the dominant ideology of a white male hero. Temple of Doom also sensationalizes the social construct of a white and heterosexual romance. “Since the white male commands the most narrative attention, the (usually white) female love interest is relegated to a minor or supporting part” (Benshoff and Griffin, 2009, p. 39). Willie fits this role perfectly, being positioned as the “damsel-in-distress” stereotype which essentializes the idea that women are constantly needing to be saved by a male hero like Indiana Jones. The arrival scene foreshadows the trio’s returns to the village at the film’s end, after achieving success with their mission, thus completing the symbol of American patriarchy – a white heterosexual family.

Not only does Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom construct a reality where whiteness is the dominant and ideal race, but it also depicts minorities and people of color as villainous. “Good and evil are thus reduced to simplified stereotypes: white male hero versus villains of color.” (Benshoff and Griffin, 2009, p. 39). A scene in the film that sparked controversy amongst audiences and continues to be upsetting, even today, is the Pankot Palace scene. The film depicts the residents of Pankot Place as being of higher social class than that of the Mayapore villagers. However, these same high-class residents are also shown eating foods like monkey brains and eyeball soup. While this food scene may have been intended to be humorous, this depiction of Indian/Asian culture and minorities in general may lead viewers to internalize the negative racial associations of this scene. America on Film defines internalized ideology as one adopting socially constructed ideological assumptions into their own senses of self. This is only one example of negative side effects that the internalization of on-screen characters may have on an audience. The theory of learning by observation or social learning further reveals the responsibility filmmakers have to depict the diversity of today’s world in a positive and respectful manner. While hegemony and dominant ideology are constantly in flux, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom arguably supports white patriarchy capitalism. Because of the ever- changing variables within a dominant ideology, especially within the United States, the way audiences interpret the role of Temple of Doom in relation to politics may change over time.

Indiana Jones’s return to the Mayapore village reinforces the films associations with the Hollywood Narrative form and white patriarchal capitalism. In the final act, Indiana Jones returns to the village having completed the mission by replacing the missing stones and freeing children slaves. Happy endings like this have been exercised in Hollywood, reinforcing the dominant ideology of white male power over minorities and women. America on Film presents a danger of this ideology, stating, “For straight white men, those images can reinforce feelings of superiority” (Benshoff and Griffin, 2009, p. 28). Indiana Jones’ success leaves audiences identifying with a while male who was responsible for saving a village of minorities and their children all while securing a heterosexual romantic relationship. Short Round contributes to this relationship ideal, completing the symbol of a family unit in which the white couple holds authority over an Asian child.

The film’s ending holds parallels to the films opening. Willie was introduced to us as a showgirl interested in diamonds, money, and beauty – also described as, “a dizzy blonde heroine whose screaming distress is meant to be a running gag throughout the film.” (Benshoff and Griffin, 2009, p. 40). This portrayal of women in Temple of Doom only dramatizes the need for a masculine hero like Indiana Jones.

In conclusion, the ideology and symbol of manhood that Indiana Jones represents remains superior even today. In the article, Extra Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Cinema by Nicola Rehling, the author debates the depiction of manhood in mainstream media. Rehling quotes Lynn Segal, stating, “Men appear to be emerging as the threatened sex; even as they remain, everywhere, the threatening sex, as well” (Rehling, 2009, p. 24). While mainstream media may attempt to depict men as a threatened identity group, Segal and Rehling agree that men still hold the most power today. In a post-Trump world, we can see how films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom may provoke a sense of entitlement amongst the various demographics that can well identify themselves with a hero like Dr. Jones. However, our progression as a society is not to be discredited, for this trend of male dominance in culture and in cinema may be at the verge of assimilation. There is a growing amount of mainstream films with female leads and diverse casts that challenge modern stereotypes. Films like Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020), Bombshell (Jay Roach, 2019), Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, 2019) and Frozen II (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2019) reveal the possibilities of cinema. One example of another novel-based film franchise is The Hunger Games which features a female heroine as the lead and has too received great financial success, similar to that of the Indiana Jones franchise. Today’s filmmakers should create more unique and original hero roles for a diverse world. As movie-goers, we can support films that challenge the status-quo. Through our participation in the movie industry, we can shift cultural ideals and challenge today’s dominant ideologies.

Works Cited
Dyer, Richard. “White.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2011. Rehling, Nicola. “Extra Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary
Popular Cinema.” Lexington Books. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2009. Bullock, Paul. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: An Oral History.” Medium. 2017. Benshoff, Harry M., and Griffin, Sean. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and
Sexuality at the Movies. Malden, MA, USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

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