Cecilia Tan pointed me at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, which feature a fascinating article by Hsu-Ming Teo on the historical context of EM Hull’s novel The Sheik, which was turned into a famous hit film of the same name, starring Rudolph Valentino. If not the basis of the “woman ravished by noble savage” trope, The Sheik is certainly one of the better known examples of it.
The author puts the book into historical context. Hull wrote it towards the end of the First World War, which had a lasting effect on the British national psyche. Men came back from the front, mentally and physically damaged, described in feminized terms of being weak and trembling. Meanwhile, women were flexing all kinds of new muscles in all kinds of arenas, mobilized by the war effort and being active outside the domestic sphere.
Hull was also writing in the decline of the British empire. The English colonial woman had her own role to play in imperialism: a civilizing presence to both imperial men and colonized natives, but with her physical intimacy with both severely constrained. Thus, Diana’s masochism is a way of rejecting her social role as an imperial subject in pursuit of pleasure. No wonder so many people panned the novel, as it was an implicit critique of imperial self-denial in favor of personal expression. (Cf. film critic Pauline Kael calling Lucia in The Night Porter a “stupid slut” and dismissing the film as trash.)
The revelation at the end that the sheik is actually a European orphaned and raised as an Arab, is a sop to convention. Interestingly, while the French novelist who delivers this news to Diana says that the sheik is “really” white, Diana insists the Sheik is really Arab. Diana is in revolt of the novel that contains her.
In America, where there wasn’t the same background of imperialism in the East, The Sheik was adapted into pure fantasy, but it also interacted with American concerns about new immigrants. Were Europeans, such as the Italian-born Valentino, “white”? That is, could them be assimilated into the America that was primarily caucasian (with exceptions), or would America become a heterogenous, divided nation?
These anxieties and fantasies coalesced into The Sheik and Valentino, specifically his body body, and a series of complex racial transformations and masquerades. The racial hybridity of Valentino’s character was literalized in his makeup. His face was lightened, better to show up on early film stock, but his hands and arms were darkened to emphasis the contrast between them and the whiteness of his leading lady’s body.
Like Tarzan, the Sheik is a fantasy figure that resolves contradictions, if only temporarily. He’s white and black, passionate and gentle, a warrior of the wilds and a civilized man, evolved yet primordial.
The image of a (brown) guy in a robe and turban swooping in on a horse or camel and whisking away a (white) woman is so familiar now that it’s become cliche, and hard to take straight. Interestingly, people still keep writing and reading sheik novels in the popular romance category, such as The Playboy Sheik’s Virgin Stable Girl. It contains prose like this:
Kaliq dismounted with the same speed and grace as he would remove himself from the body of a woman he had just made love to.
So, does the sheik as a fantasy figure have any contemporary relevance, or is it a holdover from another time, free to be exaggerated to comic degrees? Are they clothing, or costume?
Even sexual fantasies say something about the time they are created, though it it seldom straightforward to figure out what they are saying. So, if Hull’s book and Valentino’s film created a fantasy that solved a problem for people, what do contemporary sheik romances, and the general “ravished by noble savage” genre, do?
Today, women are still stuck with a lot of sexual responsibility and rules, and the ongoing crisis of masculinity, with contradictory injunctions that are impossible to resolve. A mental vacation to an exotic locale where you can meet somebody who’s not another white collar worker but a warrior-rustic (some combination of nature, wealth and violence), in which the endless negotiations of relationships are unnecessary, and in which everything is wrapped up into normative heterosexual monogamy at the end.