Honkies revisited

After writing my review of Shogun, there was one aspect of the book and its larger context which I wanted to comment on, but which wouldn’t fit into a book review. That is the issue of race, and the general idea of a white POV character surrounded by people of color.

This story template is known in SFF circles as What These People Need Is A Honky (and do read the linked article there — it’s interesting and funny), and it crops up frequently. Shogun is frequently mentioned in discussions of this topic, because it’s an excellent example, falling pretty neatly into the fake outline given at the link above:

White guy flees from his own culture for personal reasons (to set him up as different from those with white privilege). White guy meets natives. Natives educate white guy. White guy learns the way of natives, possibly also converting a native person who was originally doubtful of him, thereby proving white guy’s worthiness. White guy fights for natives. White guy makes dramatic escape while the native guy dies, possibly trying to help the white guy. The movie then ends with a dramatic coda and captions that inform the audience that despite white guy’s triumph, the Situation Remains Dire.

Shogun departs from this template mostly in the ending: the final victory belongs to the daimyo Toranaga, not the English sailor Blackthorne, and the Situation does not Remain Dire. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how an actual Japanese person might be irritated by the presentation of feudal Japan in the book. The Japanese characters, while extremely sympathetic and often more compelling than the European characters, are thoroughly exoticized. The standard of comparison is always Western, the intended audience is assumed to be Western, and the Japanese civilization is presented as an object of fascination and evaluation by Western eyes.

And not just any Western evaluator, but a modern Western evaluator. James Clavell clearly loves Japanese culture, and he sets of a variety of contrasts in which we are meant to side with the Japanese against the early-modern European visitors: the relative religious neutrality of their monarchs, the sexual license and experimentation, the relative equality of the samurai women, their cleanliness, and their diet. The intended audience of the book may be Western, but the reader is clearly meant to side with the Japanese.

This story trope nearly always works this way: the story is presented to an audience that is presumed to be white and Western, yet the audience is asked to engage their sympathies against the West and for the "natives". But this presents us with a paradox. Why should stories which implicitly normalize the Western POV also explicitly criticize Western culture? And why is it that stories of this sort are often simultaneously accused of Western racism and colonialism and anti-Western revisionism?

The answer, I think, is that this story trope has a place in an ongoing argument within the confines of Western culture about the relationship between technology, culture, and human flourishing. The essence of the honky narrative is to present a dichotomy between Western society, which is technologically advanced but artistically and spiritually deficient, and a non-Western society which is technologically backwards, but rich is culture and spirituality. In Shogun, Blackthorne brings Western guns, cannons, shipbuilding, and navigation techniques to the Japanese who lack them, while he acquires a Japanese aesthetic sense and spiritual peace. The same pattern repeats in Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and other notable stories in this type. In every case, the non-Western culture is used as a mirror for the West, casting into relief the tension between technological and spiritual excellence, and its sympathetic presentation of the "natives" is a way of arguing for the incompleteness of technological society.

This explains why the honky narrative is so often reviled for being anti-Western. The West has achieved its current position of global dominance with a combination of technological and scientific ingenuity, and the core tenet of the honky narrative is that technological prowess is ultimately less important than artistic and spiritual wholeness. Furthermore, the audience-members are themselves steeped in technological society (and in the case of Avatar, the presentation of the story itself is a technological masterwork), so the white protagonist’s struggle to understand and integrate himself in the native society reflects the audience’s reluctance to give up their own technological comforts. The argument of all of these stories is that we, the white, Western audience, are missing out on something.

None of which mitigates the complaint from the other side of the aisle about the shallow and insulting depiction of the natives, and the assumption that the audience is white and Western. Non-Westerners and non-whites do not necessarily appreciate being press-ganged into service as object lessons for the more privileged. Nor should they.

And this is why I find myself conflicted about the honky narrative. I understand the complaints lodged against it, but I’m still very sympathetic to the core argument of the trope. Technological and scientific triumphalism leave me cold. I cheer on the protagonist as he questions his certainties about what constitutes "progress". Plus, I’m kind of white myself, so it’s convenient and comfortable to learn about another culture from a POV similar to my own.

It is probable best to simply judge every instance of this trope on its own merits. Shogun seems to me to avoid the worst excesses of the trope, as its Japanese characters are more interesting and have more agency than the white characters. (It’s also well-written and fantastically paced.) Avatar is worse on both counts, with a derivative storyline and more racially problematic overtones. Other books and movies run the gamut. Your mileage may vary.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ll probably have to check out Shogun.

    I mush admit, this post was very interesting to read. The movie, The Last Samurai, though I love watching it, seems fitted for this trope along with many other movies that I’ve watched…but Last Samurai just fits it perfectly, for better or worse, depending on your perspective.

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