Sunday, March 28, 2010

‘Avatar’ (by Suzie)

After “Avatar” became the highest-grossing movie ever in the world, and its technology touted as the future of film, I figured I needed to see it, despite the criticisms.

Google “avatar” and “racist,” and you get a number of hits. Google “avatar” and “sexist,” and you get much less, and those links generally include racism, too.

This may be due to different interactions between races and between genders. There are few communities that are overwhelmingly female. Offhand, I can’t think of any drama that compares a group of women with a group of men. In “Avatar,” the comparison is between humans and a humanoid species that lives in balance with nature. But many people see a racial comparison because the hero and the main villain are white, as are many of the troops, and the Na’vi, the moon’s indigenous inhabitants, are blue.

David Brooks says “Avatar” is the White Messiah fable:
the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.
Yeah, I’m sick of the “noble savage” stereotype, too. But this isn’t just a fantasy among white people. Many people want to find, or return to, an Eden; a golden age; a simpler, more spiritual life in harmony with nature. Or, go to the Renaissance Faire. In reaction to the negative portrayals by imperialists, many colonized people talk of a traditional time when life was better, without acknowledging that it may not have been better for some people at some times.

“Avatar,” “Dances with Wolves” and others of their ilk can be read as rebuking imperialist ideas that the dominant society either shouldn’t care about ignorant, heathen savages or else needs to save the savages from themselves.

On io9, Annalee Newitz refers to a variation on this theme. She calls “Avatar”
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.
I have no doubt that “Avatar” creator James Cameron would like to right wrongs against people of color. But “the king of the world” wants to lead everyone, from any which way, and he uses his avatar, his hero, to do so. (Maybe the movie fulfills another fantasy for Cameron, who has married five times. The Na’vi mate for life, and they bond with animals for life.)

In addition to race, the formula of an outsider leading insiders has been applied to age, nationality, region of the country, city vs. rural, ability, etc., in movies.

“When will whites stop making these movies [like 'Avatar'] and start thinking about race in a new way?” Newitz asks. That’s the wrong question. Mine is: How can we diversify Hollywood, in which the producers, directors and writers are overwhelmingly white men? When asked about better roles for women, Zoe Saldana, who plays Neytiri, says: “If there were more filmmakers that were female, trust me, it would be all about women.”

Some people think “Avatar” redeems itself from accusations of racism because Jake, the hero, chooses to become Na’vi. But Newitz says Avatar is
a fantasy about ceasing to be white … but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it's like to be a Na'vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode.
I wonder if she would apply the same reasoning to men who transition to women. Would she say that transwomen retain male privilege or that they can never understand what it’s like to truly be female?

I assume Zoe Saldana doesn’t consider “Avatar” racist. Donna Britt, of Politics Daily, found the movie “an indictment of intolerance” despite having a white hero. (I'm linking to a Google search because the direct link isn’t working for me.) I saw the movie with a friend, who enjoyed it, as I did, although she called it a “typical American movie” for focusing on a white man.

In a similar way, some women have grown accustomed to seeing male heroes in action movies, with the men often saving at least one woman. The hero’s journey is inextricably linked to masculinity. Men are expected to have adventures, take risks, be brave, be leaders, get rewards.

I don’t agree with Joseph Campbell’s idea of a universal myth, a monomith. But long before the West invented racial categories, there were plenty of stories about heroes: Young men seeking, or thrown into, adventure; who brave travails; who get advice from a mentor; who face the supreme test and are transformed, perhaps even resurrected; who return to their people – or stay with the new people – to help them, often as a leader.

At least Cameron puts women in important roles. “Avatar” has a female scientist; a pilot who supports the renegade humans; the spiritual leader of the Na’vi; her daughter, Neytiri; even a Mother Goddess. All take important action to save one another and the Na’vi. Neytiri saves the hero, Jake, at least twice.

That’s why some women call Cameron feminist, even though he put breasts on the Na’vi women, who are not mammals.

Speaking of bodies, I know some people with disabilities are offended that Jake, a paraplegic, gets the use of his legs back as a Na’vi. They consider it offensive for Jake to be “saved” from his disability. In the movie, however, he comes, not to prove he’s capable, which he is, but because he can fill in for his dead twin brother on an important project. Only villains put him down for his disability. He sides with the Na’vi, but not because that allows him to walk again.

For “Avatar 2”: Jake and Neytiri honeymoon in New York, and everyone wants to be a tall, blue catperson for one season.