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Avatar: Things Old, New, and Blue

January 4, 2010

Avatar is a pop culture force to be reckoned with. After only two weeks in theaters, it has raked in over $1 billion in international ticket sales. While it’s been much-hyped for its special effects, it has also sparked a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about its treatment of gender and themes of racial oppression. I went to see it last week, and I left the theater more than a little smitten with the glowing jungles of Pandora but with mixed feelings about the movie’s plot. While the movie’s visuals are groundbreaking, the storyline tread lots of familiar ground first paved by colonialist narratives.

The plot has been aptly described by many reviewers as a combination of Dances with Wolves and FernGully.  In a nutshell (and I don’t think I’m giving anything away here that’s not shown in the trailer), humans are ripping down the forests of Pandora where the native Na’vi live in order to mine a rare mineral.  Former Marine Jake Sully joins the Na’vi in an avatar body to overtly become a student of their culture and covertly gather intel for the mining company.  Jake befriends the Na’vi woman Neytiri, “goes native” and leads the society in battle against the humans.

Avatar–Official Trailer from FoxMovies

This is, of course, more than a story of humans vs. aliens; it’s really a story of white oppressors vs. oppressed people of color. Director James Cameron practically bludgeons the audience over the head with the film’s racial metaphors. Most of the invading humans are played by white actors, and some call the Na’vi “savages.” The Na’vi are depicted with many stereotypical Native American markers: loincloths, braided hair, war paint, and a spiritual connection to the natural world. The Na’vi aren’t only symbolic of Native Americans, however. These aliens seem to be intended as stand-ins for several ethnic groups or nations that have been oppressed and attacked by hegemonic white American power. The Na’vi chief is voiced by Cherokee actor Wes Studi, and the other three main Na’vi characters are voiced by black actors. Agents of the mining company spout “war on terror” catchphrases, drawing the current wars in the Middle East into the film’s allegory.

Annalee Newitz at the blog i09 dissects the film’s race theme as a classic “white guilt” narrative:

This is a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member….

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

The white guilt narrative appears progressive because it the white protagonist (with whom audience members are expected to identify) acknowledges the errors of his culture’s oppressive ways. But the protagonist maintains his superiority over the oppressed culture even as he joins their ranks.

The white guilt plot in Avatar works in conjunction with the “noble savage” or “magical negro” character, fulfilled by Neytiri. The “magical negro,” a term popularized by Spike Lee, is a (often oppressed) black character who provides spiritual guidance to the privileged white (usually male) protagonist and enables him to become a hero. This device appears to place a black character in a great position of power, without actually altering the racial hierarchy.

The Magical Negro

The Magical Negro/from academic.udaton.edu

While Avatar really doesn’t have anything new to say about colonialism and race relations, it does have some subtle and more original ideas about gender.  Usually in depictions of “primitive” people, we see a simplistic division of labor along gender lines. Men are usually dominant, the hunters, warriors and leaders. Women are usually the gatherers and the caretakers. Na’vi society, as far as we can tell, does not work this way. Both Na’vi men and women can be hunters and warriors. Neytiri’s parents are the leaders of the tribe—her father is the chief and her mother is the shaman, and their leadership roles seem to be complementary. As for the character of Neytiri herself, she has the makings of a great action film heroine: bravery, brains and spiritual and physical strength.

While Neytiri and Jake develop a friendship and then a romance, their relationship is notably based on mutual respect and cooperation. (One exchange between them, though, stuck out as incongruous with the gender equality depicted among the Na’vi. Blogger Malinda Lo discusses this moment here, with spoilers).

I couldn’t help but compare the character of Neytiri with Zoe Saldana’s last major character, Uhura in Star Trek, who had a disappointingly small part with nothing much to do but fawn over a mostly indifferent Spock. The relationship between Neytiri and Jake is a big improvement—I especially liked one fight scene near the end of the film that struck me as a nice revision of the typical damsel-in-distress moment. Still, I was disappointed that the movie shows us nothing about Neytiri outside of her interactions with Jake—we barely scratch the surface of her thoughts and her relationships with others in her society. Neytiri’s character challenges some traditional notions of femininity, but ultimately she’s stuck in the role of one-dimensional love interest.

Avatar explores the concepts of masculine and feminine in a much more subtle way among the human population. In the company’s quest to mine Pandora, its tactics are twofold: a military unit is ready to take the land by force, and a group of scientists seeks peaceful negotiation with the Na’vi. The hired guns are led by the warmonger Colonel Miles Quaritch, while the scientists are headed by Dr. Grace Augustine. The two modes of conflict resolution represented by these departments are often gendered in our culture—the use of physical dominance and aggression is considered masculine, and the use of negotiation and diplomacy is considered feminine. When the two sides of the company are pitted against each other, a metaphorical battle of the sexes ensures. I think I can say, without getting too spoiler-ish here, that just like the Na’vi, the disadvantaged scientists have to have help from the other side in order to have a chance of resisting it. I think it’s possible to read some interesting commentary on gender relations into this scenario, when you consider who chooses to help and how.

Scene from Avatar

Avatar's human protagonists in the lab/from OutNow.ch

Last but not least, while looking at gender in Avatar it’s important to note that Jake, as a paraplegic, differs from the traditional white male protagonist in a significant way. Cameron’s decision to make his lead disabled seems like another gesture toward championing a minority. Esté Yarmosh at FWD/Forward points out, however, that Avatar’s treatment of disability is far from revolutionary:

Avatar does not even confront disability in an honest and upfront way. The film, in my opinion, takes the easy way out by putting Jake in a completely different body (the alien) and thus, it completely bypasses any meaningful efforts for dealing with Jake’s disability and the issues that arise from it. I suppose that the film’s whole plot hinges on the fact that Jake enters an alien body to explore the planet “Pandora,” but still, the film seems to willingly ignore the regular experience of Jake as a disabled person in favor of an instance of “how cool is this alien creature!”

All in all, to me Avatar is a solid sci-fi adventure and a mediocre morality tale. Even though it falls short of its potential for inclusiveness and innovation in the worldview it presents, Avatar deserves props for triggering some critical thinking about race and gender among critics and fans.

Further Reading:

Avatar: Count the –isms from Feministing (major spoilers)

Is Avatar’s James Cameron a Feminist Ally? from Jezebel

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