Tonto and the Lone Ranger

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Fri Feb 15 17:08:58 UTC 2008

Right, Dennis, we all try to COOPERATE with the speaker, but when it comes to 
seeing the "point" of the narrative, our assumptions vary between seeing the 
speaker as mirroring our own attitudes and seeing the speaker as having the 
attitudes that we ascribe to our convictions about the speaker's beliefs. This 
variability is especially poignant in the case of the "joke" genre, because 
there the hearer is aware that the inception of the narrative is not simply the 
teller, but some anonymous creator or series of creators. Moreover, in the case 
of the Lone Ranger/Tonto joke, hearers will be affected variously by their 
perceptions of and awareness of the whole series of radio, film, and comic-book 
depictions of the two partners in crime fighting in the Old West (and in 
addition, awareness of what is to be expected from the well-known topos of the two 
male companions--see below).

Thus a member of an oppressed minority might tend to see the "What you mean 
me, white man?" story as the creation of an oppresive white majority that views 
minorities as untrustworthy and invents such a story to reinforce that view 
and maybe even teach it to the young. Such a person might also see the name 
"Tonto" as a semi-secret slur based upon the Spanish word meaning "stupid" 
(despite the fact that Tonto is depicted as a wise Noble Savage throughout the 
entire series).

A member of the white majority who is familiar with the LR/T story would be 
likely to see the story in some variation of the reading that I have always 
given it: as a joke about the weakness of the human spirit in the face of danger 
and adversity: even the noble Tonto, the "faithful Indian companion," one of a 
huge number of faithful companions well-known in stories going back to 
Chaucer, may turn to betrayal if there is a chance to save his own skin. The 
REVERSAL of the normal expecations is what makes the story funny.   

And, as boyhood lover of the LR/T radio program, I would have laughed at the 
idea that Tonto's name had anything to do with the Spanish adjective (a word 
that I did not learn until I was in my 30s). to me as a boy, it was just a name 
that sounded appropriately non-white. Tonto was always depicted so nobly that 
it would just have been absurd to think that anyone chose his name to 
belittle him.

There are other (more recent) readings, e.g., the reading that focusses on 
the subserviant role of Tonto and the "broken" English that he speaks as 
inherently racist; and the reading that sees the story as an instance of the topos of 
the two male companions, one of whom is subserviant (Prince Hal and 
Fallstaff; Don Quixote and his sidekick; Batman and Robin; Gene Autry and [I forget his 
name]; Red Rider and Little Beaver [!]; Hopalong Cassidy and somebody [I 
forget HIS name] (these all get a special twist in gay subculture readings and 
Freudian readings); Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (a real innovation, since she was a 
GIRL--and his WIFE).

We could probably tease out a Marxist reading as well. Or an anti-gay 
marriage one ("These same-sex relationships just don't stand up in the face of 
adversity--it is every man for himself").

In a message dated 2/15/08 7:21:48 AM, preston at MSU.EDU writes:

> I'm saving this exchange as the best example of point-of-view
> difference in textual interpretation I've seen in a long time. For
> Wilson it is a put-down of the minority as untrustworthy but for
> James a justifiable come-uppance for the majority figure.
> Although "readers" rather than "texts" turn out to be the determining
> factor here, ya'll (y'all) need not worry; I ain't going post-Modern
> on you.
> dInIs
> >---------------------- Information from the mail header

> >-----------------------
> >Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> >Poster:       James Harbeck <jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA>
> >Subject:      Re: does anyone need another example of positive ANYMORE?
> >
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> >>I heard the punchline ca.1944 as "What you mean, 'we,' white man?" And
> >>no mention was made of weapons. Of course, such jokes have many
> >>different versions. I heard it in Saint Louis from a white neighbor
> >>boy and I took its point to be that, when the deal goes down, white
> >>people can not trust the non-white and I didn't find it humorous at
> >>all.
> >
> >Hm. I took no such general point from it. To me it was specifically
> >about the characters in question. I've never idolized the Lone
> >Ranger; to me he's, if anything, more a figure of fun. In the
> >situation in question, the Indians are probably angry with him for
> >shooting a lot of them, which seems justifiable to me. I tend to
> >think of the punch line whenever someone wants to include me by
> >assumption in what I see as perhaps not the right side of the debate.
> >In other words, I'm identifying with Tonto. Enough with this Lone
> >Ranger dude! He can get his own ass out of this mess, I'm not
> >covering for him this time.
> >
> >Thanks for the reminder, though, that not everyone sees these things
> >from the same perspective.
> >
> >James Harbeck.
> >
> >------------------------------------------------------------
> >The American Dialect Society -
> --
> Dennis R. Preston
> University Distinguished Professor
> Department of English
> Morrill Hall 15-C
> Michigan State University
> East Lansing, MI 48864 USA
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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