Death of the Critic

The Noble Savage

Written by: Tom Blaich

As a follow-up to our discussion on “
The Other”, let’s look at a more idealized version of the same concept that is popular within literature, books, movies, and games to this day. The Noble Savage is the audience’s idea of an outsider. It is the romanticized depiction of a character untouched by the ills of modern society. They embody the traits that we idealize while at the same time being utterly foreign to us.

Over the years, the usage has changed drastically. Its origin was less stereotypical and more about showing the adverse effect that civilization could have on a person. These “savages” that lived outside of a societal system could remain clean and untarnished, showing the inherent virtue of man as a creature.

However, now it is something much different. The Noble Savage is now “one of the good ones”, a member of an outside group that is at odds with the mainstream. The Noble Savage is a member of this marginalized group that somehow crosses the barrier between these two societies by being more “normal”: speaking English, dressing in a Western style, and generally being more like the protagonists, whitewashing away whatever culture that they had in favor of becoming Westernized and therefore less threatening.

It is a very common thing to see: the native character joining the team of action heroes, the “sexy” and “exotic” woman who is rescued and falls for the main character as she slowly embodies more and more Western characteristics, the grunting barbarian that turns on their own tribe to help out the hero. It is about showing that the other group is fundamentally wrong, and the only way for them to be right is to become more “normal” (read: Westernized).

It also deals with a fetishization of the other and of the exotic. The original idea behind the Noble Savage was all about this, the desire for these characters because of the purity gained through avoidance of the social norm. It’s only continued since then. Look at Zoe Saldana being repeatedly cast as the sexy woman with exotically colored skin. In
Avatar, she falls in love with Jake Sully and helps convince her tribe to fight the humans. In Guardians of the Galaxy, she falls in love with Peter (Starlord) and then fights against her family.

Are you seeing a trend here? The Noble Savage is important because it shows us what we see as desirable traits versus negative traits, and the only way to stop being an Other is by crossing a boundary, leaving your family and culture behind, and emulating the Westernized norm. By recognizing this, we can see what is seen as positive as versus negative within a text, and use those as point to read deeper.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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