Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thoughts on Avatar Part 2: The Issue of Race

Alright, time for another piece on James Cameron's Avatar. My first post focused on the use and potential of the 3D technology used in the film. This time I want to talk about the racial politics of the film, specifically the problematic depiction of the Other and the purported critique of colonialism.

Avatar's plot follows a tried and true formula. Many have compared it to Dances with Wolves, or more disparagingly Pocahontas and FernGully: The Last Rainforest. I think it's much more like The Last Samurai, but regardless the diverse range of comparisons shows how Avatar is built on a traditional Hollywood plot structure:

- Young protagonist feels alienated in their own culture
- Comes into contact with foreign, primitive society
- Learns to respect and excel at the ways of primitive society
- Leads primitive society to victory in battle against their own culture

Avatar follows this formula to the letter and people love it. The potential for countless escapist fantasies are built right into the premise, including 'the outcast that finds their place' and 'the hero who sacrifices all for what is right and just.' With Avatar there is even further potential since the hero is a paraplegic, allowing for readings of rehabilitation, redemption, etc.

However, Avatar differs from previous incarnations of the formula in how its "unique" primitive society, the Na'vi, is characterized by cinematic codes for the Other.

We have seen problematic depictions of foreign (read: non-white) cultures in Hollywood movies before. The aforementioned Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai both treat Native American and Japanese societies, respectively, with dignity insofar as the portrayals of these foreign cultures are respectful from a white perspective. The films show non-white societies in ways that are distinctly and narratively good, in opposition to forms of oppression that are recognizably and narratively bad. These evaluations were coded into the films in such a way that they could not be misconstrued by the audience. The foreign cultures were justified to western audiences by white film makers who made them seem legitimate in terms of western values.

All of that is true of Avatar, but its foreign society is a reductive amalgamation of a multitude of non-white cultures.

The Na'vi are constructed from a series of western stereotypes about other cultures. The Na'vi use bows and arrows,  ride alien horses, and have Mohawk hairstyles, all of which are nods to traditional Hollywood depictions of Native Americans. There are also numerous elements of African culture, including the tribal society and physical signifiers like Tsu'Tey's large lips. The Na'vi's religion takes influence from a multitude of non-Christian faiths, particular eastern ones. The Na'vi are a composite image of how white people have traditionally seen non-whites.

It should also be noted that this reduction of peoples to their essential stereotypes is not exclusive to the Other, as white culture itself is likewise reduced to a polarized caricature. The human society in the film is predominantly white with a small number of ethnic minorities interspersed throughout; their difference is rendered irrelevant, however, because they never act in non-conforming ways and their minority status is never discussed. They are united in characterization as an invading, oppressive force.

For all intents and purposes the humans in Avatar represent a singular culture of whiteness, divided only by moral alignments. The majority of the human society is depicted as greedy, bigoted, and generally evil in order to accommodate for the western/white guilt felt by the supposedly progressive film makers. Their 'enlightened' attitude is in turn represented by the good humans protagonists.

Through this reductive depiction of race Avatar puts the white colonialist narrative into contemporary and hyperbolic terms. Jake Sully conquers all that is Other on behalf of good white culture, and necessarily demonstrates the unique capabilities of his people. He is innately gifted (read: white) and quickly masters the ways of the Na'vi to an offensive degree. In less than three months Sully manages to both mate with the chief's daughter and become a Christ-like figure in the Na'vi society. He does so using innate white tools like logic, which inspires his aerial attack on the Leonopteryx and subsequent ascension to Toruk Makto.

Moreover, Neytiri necessarily cannot undergo the same transformation because her people are not endowed with the ability to transcend their racial boundaries and enter into human community; the ability to create and utilize avatar bodies remains at all times a human privilege.

Avatar thus epitomizes the modern colonialist narrative. It outwardly criticizes oppressive colonialism while espousing an attractive form of white dominion over the Other.

The amazing Annalee Newitz has written a fantastic piece over on io9 about how Avatar and others are films about white guilt. The human protagonist expresses his race's guilt for the oppression of the Na'vi and solves his problem by becoming one of them. She rightly accuses the film of using colonialist narrative tropes in a critique of colonialism, and argues that films of this type demonstrate how white people fantasize about their own race.

Newitz's piece shows how white people believe themselves to be special, and that this is reflected in films where white protagonists are able to out-do other races at their own cultural game. In The Last Samurai Tom Cruise becomes a master samurai, and in Avatar Jake Sully becomes the Toruk Makto. These films are made by white people and show white protagonists conquering the ways of foreign peoples, but in the Na'vi Jake Sully overcomes the concept of the Other entirely, and we celebrate him for it. In this he shows that white people still believe there is a good way to conquer foreign peoples.

Avatar critiques colonialism while at the same time espousing the potential virtue at the heart of the colonialist justification.

The fantasy is itself that white people can conquer other peoples in ways that are objectively good, and the narrative is precisely coded to demonstrate this fact. By the end of the film viewers wholeheartedly agree with Jake Sully's choice to stay on Pandora and permanently enter his avatar body. More than that they envy his ability to do so.

There is evidence all over the internet of the effect Avatar is having on audiences. There are videos all over YouTube where users demonstrate how to use makeup to simulate the appearance of the Na'vi. Oh, and lets not forget that Michelle Rodriguez sported the first-ever alien makeover in the film itself.

After all, she couldn't fight on the side of the Na'vi without at least somewhat attempting to look like them. Otherwise she'd just be white, erm, human.

There are also reports of people becoming depressed after seening Avatar because they yearn for the wonders of Pandora. Hell, the Vatican itself is worried about the film's effect on the faithful, and apparently the Catholic headquarters may be justified in its concerns. Avatar reinvigorates the exotic allure of the Other in a dramatic way because it posits a reality where white culture can embrace it while retaining its essential whiteness.

Jake Sully's actions make him a hero to the good humans in the film who care about western justice, to the Na'vi whose society he improves with his innate magnificence, and to audiences by bringing (ahem) exotic colour to their lives. He demonstrates how white people are capable of anything and everything, and that they can bring this potential to other societies.

If you find yourself inclined to disagree then consider this: what if Jake Sully didn't exist? Imagine that the film focused Neytiri instead, and showed her interacting with the humans, comprehending their internal conflicts and motivations, and eventually bringing about the same peace between the Na'vi and the good human beings.

This could be achieved in a number of ways, two of which occur to me off the top of my head: Neytiri meets and falls in love with the human Jake Sully; Neytiri becomes friends with Sigourney Weaver's character at the human/Na'vi school. For a real daring experiment in modern film making you could combine the two stories and have Neytiri fall in love with Sigourney Weaver's character.

Imagine that for a moment: a major motion picture in which the protagonist was a strong female cat-alien who falls in love with a strong female human! It could be done tastefully or otherwise, but unfortunately we'll never get the chance to see it  either way since Hollywood is a boys club. Or maybe Kathryn Bigelow will use her cred off the success of The Hurt Locker to do it, who can say. In any case, via this kind of plot reformulation you could easily cut out Jake Sully entirely, and the film could potentially achieve all of the same goals minus the insidious white colonial subtext.

Avatar is not an evil film or even a bad one, though it could be considered racist. While that's a subjective call, I'm inclined to say that it's more stupid than racist, which could be worse. It is also important to note that the film is not the way it is because James Cameron and all the people involved are racists. For all I know they could be, but the film alone doesn't show that they are. It rather demonstrates how our white culture fantasizes about race, and how we continue to harbour sympathies for the colonial argument. More than that it shows that Hollywood is more ready and willing to take our money by indulging our fantasies than to challenge our societal values.

Seriously, what makes Sully a necessary character? Why do we insist on having films that feature white, male protagonists conquering foreign people? I'm far from the first person to ask these questions, and I think they are important if we want to take our media seriously as representing our culture. The answers speak to major problems in Hollywood and western society, and the sheer popularity of Avatar alone makes that a worthy topic of discussion.

It is important to challenge our cultural products lest we become complacent and ignorant and cease to make social progress. We already know the answers to the above questions, we are aware of the many fundamental problems with western society. To echo the sentiments of Joss Whedon (albeit backwards), we need to keep asking these questions until there is no longer a place for them. If we don't we will end up with more movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, or worse yet, become a culture that appreciates such "cinematic achievements."

Oh wait, we already are that culture. Shit.

For more discussion of Avatar and its treatment of race check out the /Filmcast episode where they talk about the film with Annalee Newitz and Dan Trachtenberg. Or look around on the internet, there are a ton of people writing about this. That much at least is a good sign.

Below is a link to my first (and generally positive) post on Avatar:

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