Legend of Tarzan: How a Key Change in Jane Porter’s Backstory Helped Drive the “No-Damsel” Storyline


For a few months we’ve been hearing that Margot Robbie’s head-butting “Jane” is no “damsel-in-distress” — but then again, in the trailer, we see that she’s a captive of Captain Rom which is, well, kind of a damsel in distress.  So I haven’t  been completely sure how to take the claims by Robbie and David Yates and Alexander Skarsgard.  Maybe a feisty damsel in distress — but still . . . waitaminute, what is a damsel anyway? Well . . . a damsel is in fact   “A young unmarried woman.”  Or, in more archaic usage, add “of noble birth” to that.

So there ya go.

Jane’s married so she’s NOT a damsel even if she is in distress.

Tarzan and JaneBut this isn’t about the definition of damsel — it’s about the damsel-in-distress trope that everyone wants to avoid.

I’ve been wondering about it, because of the inherent contradiction of a storyline that let’s Jane get captured by the bad guy — but resists “damsel-in-distress” identification.

Then a few days ago I noticed that Skarsgard said in an interview that Jane wasn’t happy in London either, and I thought — waitaminute, you mean, when she’s sitting there in front of the tree in the trailer looking oh so sad, it’s NOT because Tarzan is going to go to Africa against her will?  That’s how I read it — Jane is happy n London but Tarzan has decided to go back to Africa where duty calls, and she’s not happy about it.  But now it seems that’s a mis-read. Maybe.


So now, thoroughly confused, I started asking questions and after talking to an industry insider who saw the film at a screening, and I’ve got some insight.

First of all, my reading of the “scene at the tree” is wrong — Jane is not urging him to stay in London.

In fact, when George Washington Williams comes along and makes his pitch to Tarzan to go to Africa with him to figure out what’s going on with King Leopold’s mischief in the Congo, Tarzan basically doesn’t react.  He has lots of reasons why he’s reluctant to go back, and we get to see them, in flashbacks.  The flashbacks do not stress any kind of idyllic upbringing in the jungle by the cute apes — they stress the violence and there is a darkness to it.  So that’s Tarzan.

But Jane . . . .

In a key change of backstory, Jane — who in the books is a Maryland girl who gets shipwrecked with her father Archimedes Q. Porter — is most definitely not “of Africa”.  She’s not weak or particularly dainty, and she handles the African adventure well — but she’s definitely not into Africa per se.  Then, when they get married in Return of Tarzan, they end up back in England for an extended period, and son Jack is kidnapped from London in the beginning of the third book, Beasts of Tarzan. And then in the fourth book, Son of Tarzan, they are back living in London and appear to have lived there for awhile — and more importantly, Jane is trying to keep Tarzan’s past from Jack to keep him from following in his fathers footsteps… But that doesn’t work and Jack runs off with the show ape Ajax to the jungle where he recapitulates Tarzan’s life among the apes and ends up as Korak ….. and in the process, while he’s growing up, Tarzan and Jane seem to relocate more or less permanently to the Uziri estate, presumably (although it’s not stated) to be able to keep looking for Jack, whom they eventually do find.

But the point is — Jane is not “of Africa”, she wants to raise Jack in civilization; she tries to keep Tarzan’s jungle past hidden from Jack.

Now — in Yates movie, the big change is in the backstory. Jane, rather than being shipwrecked in Africa, grew up there, in close friendship/kinship with the Waziri, and for her, Africa is home.  She feels something is missing in London, and when the call for Tarzan to go to Africa comes along — he’s reluctant but she’s not.  She wants him to go.  She is concerned about the issues that George Washington Williams has brought to her attention; she had emotional connection to the native Africans, etc.

I would argue that this is a pretty serious change in backstory that really creates a different Jane than the one we are used to.  It creates a backstory where Tarzan and Jane were both children of Africa, and where her initial meetings and interactions with him probably had a very different feeling to them than Jane-the-castaway would have had.

Is it a good change?

Does it matter?

I think it creates a very different trajectory for the relationship, and for the character of Jane.  I think I like it, or at least I’m open to liking it.  It’s the kind of a change that seems to me to be a reasonable way to update the character and deliver on the idea that Jane  is a woman who has the ability to help drive the story, 21st century style, rather than being tossed by fate here and there.