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Problematic Faves: Indiana Jones

Contributed by
Feb 12, 2018

Do you remember the moment when it first dawned on you how odd it was to hear Marion Ravenwood chastise her ex-boyfriend Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the line, “I was a child, I was in love”? Karen Allen, the actress who played Marion, was 30 when the film came out, and Harrison Ford was only nine years older, so it didn’t seem like there’d be all that big an age gap between them. Older leading men with younger women acting as the love interest is a trope that Hollywood will probably never get rid of. Still, the line didn’t make much sense to me until I got older.

Later, I read the now infamous transcripts of the story meetings between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the film’s screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan. The transcript is worth your time, if only to get an insight into how one of the most beloved action films of our time was conceived. Yet when they get to discussing the back-story of Marion and Indy, it takes a slightly sinister turn.

Kasdan: I like it if they already had a relationship at one point. Because then you don't have to build it.
Lucas: I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was 11.
Kasdan: And he was 42.
Lucas: He hasn't seen her in 12 years. Now she's twenty-two. It's a real strange relationship.
Spielberg: She had better be older than 22.
Lucas: He's 35, and he knew her 10 years ago when he was 25 and she was only 12.
Lucas: It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.
Spielberg: And promiscuous. She came onto him.
Lucas: Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it's an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she's 16 or 17 it's not interesting anymore. But if she was 15 and he was 25 and they actually had an affair the last time they met. And she was madly in love with him and he...
Spielberg: She has pictures of him.

Obviously, ideas that are brainstormed in the early stages will differ from what makes it to the screen. Still, it remains in-text that Marion was younger than Indy, possibly too young for the relationship that she had. Reading a conversation about how young is too young for Indy to start an affair with an underage girl puts a discomfiting spin on one of our most beloved silver screen heroes. Then again, there's always been a lot going on under the surface of those films that merits a deeper look.

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Dr. Henry Jones Jr., who likes the name Indiana more, is the kind of lovable rogue who only Harrison Ford can play. Part-nerd, part-action man, Indy is cut from the same cloth as the adventurers of 1930s serials, which directly inspired the movies. It’s a persona that Ford has worn on-screen as naturally as Indy’s hat. Who is Indiana Jones if not a more academic Han Solo? For generations of film fans, Ford has embodied the cinematic ideal of a hero, and for countless women, he remains essentially the widely accepted ideal of sexiness on the big screen. I mean, can you blame us?

That can make it pretty easy to overlook just how skeezy Indy could be. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, on top of the uncomfortable implications of his affair with "child in love" Marion, he follows up her anger with the line, "You knew what you were doing." If she was as young as Lucas and company imagined, then it’s hard to foresee a situation where a teenage girl crushing on a grown-ass man would be something she had control over. Attitudes over such issues have changed massively in the close to 40 years since the film premiered, but not so much that something like that would free the man entirely from the blame.

Indy’s roguish approach to women is a constant throughout the original trilogy. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, he patronizes Willie Scott for most of the film, calling her "doll" and mocking her lack of preparedness for life in the Indian jungles, right up until he decides he wants to have sex with her. Their climactic moment of passion at the film’s end involves him lashing his whip around her waist and pulling him towards her as she tries to leave, having already told him she wasn’t going anywhere with him. It, of course, ends with her acquiescing to his kiss. Something similar happens in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Elsa. The pair had no relationship before he kissed her, which she quickly admonished him for (she, of course, ends up being a Nazi, so getting mad about this part feels kind of moot).

Nowadays, we have less patience for that kind of romantic hero, the one who just goes after his woman and assumes she wants it even if she says she doesn’t. We understand issues of consent better and we demand more from romance in pop culture. Indy has mostly avoided these discussions, and I completely understand why. I mean, I’ve had a crush on Indy since I was 8, and even while I’m painfully aware of that "Harrison Ford as vaguely predatory jerk" trope, I still have immense fondness for it and him. Granted, I can think of few other actors who could pull off that persona and still have me defending them. We all have our weaknesses, but it’s helpful to be aware of them.

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The Indiana Jones movies have mostly stood the test of time. The action scenes still feel fresh, the pacing and scripts strongly constructed, the acting top-notch and the thrills as exciting as they were at the time. The fingerprints of Indy and his adventures are over every action-adventure movie that followed in its footsteps. Thankfully, most of those descendants have decided not to replicate one of the franchise’s most uncomfortable elements—the racism.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is arguably the film in the original trilogy that has aged the most. Instead of the Nazis, the villains are a radical separatist cult who worship the Hindu goddess Kali. They drink blood and pull hearts from their sacrifices’ chests while they’re still alive, which is standard mystical villain stuff, but it takes on hugely offensive implications when coupled with the "scary Asians" trope that polluted Hollywood cinema of the 1980s. Not that the film is much kinder to the rest of the film’s Indian characters. The village ravaged by poverty due to the theft of their sacred stone was such a stereotype that the Indian government rallied against it when the film was first released. And then there is the feast, where the wealthier Indians gather at the palace to eat a feast of live snakes, giant beetles, eyeball soup, and the now infamous chilled monkey brains.

The controversy around the film's racism has been around as long as the film itself. Every element of Indian and Hindu culture depicted here is a bastardization or outright falsehood of very real people and their lives. The stereotypes created here are part of a depressing lineage of othering Indians and East Asians in pop culture, making them insidious or untrustworthy or simply the subject of mockery. Professor Yvette Rosser, in her article on refuting stereotypes of South Asia, called out the film for exacerbating such racism, saying the film "seems to have been taken as a valid portrayal of India by many teachers, since a large number of students surveyed complained that teachers referred to the eating of monkey brains." When there are so few depictions of East Asian and Hindu life in Hollywood, much less on the scale of an Indiana Jones film, it's depressingly expected that the clichés and fiction we do get will simply fulfill white people's fantasies of the other. It doesn’t help that the British Empire get a better narrative in the film than the nation they colonised for so long. After Temple of Doom, Spielberg and company went back to having Nazis be the main enemy of Indy, and that may be one of the few times in history you’ll see people relieved to have Nazis return to cinema.

Knowing the things that you love are problematic isn’t an exercising in shaming, nor is it a sign that we should dump all our faves in the trash. Indiana Jones remains an icon of cinema, and rightly so. Few films are watched so frequently in my household as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I even like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. My enjoyment of them, and Harrison Ford, is not negated by my awareness of how uncomfortable many elements of the series are. The films are what they are, and that’s not the worst thing to be. Still, the next time you watch Temple of Doom, maybe think twice about why anyone would think it was funny to have chilled monkey brains on the menu.

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