A friend of mine (thanks Marcos!) sent me the link to Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon's review of Avatar.I'm excited to see that the author's who I drew on for my blog poast had the same reaction (albiet two weeks earlier - although I had not read it then). Dr. Vera is a retired professor of sociology here at UF (my wife and I know him - she having interviewed him before). Anyway, I just wanted to put a link to their review here on my site. I hope you enjoy reading both!
I saw James Cameron's Avatar during the holiday break. While I, like everyone else who has seen this movie, was mesmerized by the cutting-edge special effects, it was the content which I want to discuss in this post. In essence, I think Avatar literally masks colonial hierarchies where race remains an important factor in structuring social relationships.
This movie speaks to people on three levels; a superficial action film full of special effects (modern Hollywood blockbuster), a commentary against environmental destruction and/or warfare (political piece), or a continuation of Hollywood as racializing fiction (Whiteness). The movie as blockbuster is the most obvious aspect of the film's success and most who see it either misinterpret or respond with hostility to the political aspects of the film's storyline. For instance, many interpret the film as an environmentally-oriented political statement (see this review for an example). While protecting the environment remains the obvious statement, it was not Cameron's sole political message.
The film also focuses on the Iraq War. The military leadership throughout the film routinely draw upon ex-President Bush's rhetoric in referring to their campaign against the indigenous inhabitants of Pandora, the alien planet where the film is located. Statements with now recognizable Bush-isms like "shock and awe" occur throughout the film. While not a central part of the film's plot, Cameron has admitted that this is an important aspect (see this story in the Times for more detail).
I interpret the film as a continuation of Hollywood's racializing tradition in which the White, Male hero rescues and preserves a non-White, non-Western, feminized and 'primitive' culture or group. (see Vera and Gordon's Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness). Avatar is certainly not a new story and follows a recognizable set of tropes appearing in films like Dances with Wolves and even Quigley Down Under. (yes, 1990 was a great year to be a White, Male, Hetero American - contrary to the public outcry against affirmative action as violently articulated in Falling Down just three years later). However, the true success of Avatar comes in its ability to hide these relationships with new technology and understandings of what's possible in the digital age.
These films position an archetypally-White, Male, Heterosexual hero between a racially feminized group under attack from a more technologically-advanced and violent sub-group of a dominant Western society and/or nation. In Dances with Wolves Kevin Costner 'goes native' and in Quigley Down Under Tom Selleck responds to Australian Aboriginals in the same way, although he does not become romantically involved with one. In 2009, Sam Worthington continues this tradition of Hollywood fiction as the character Jake Sully in Avatar.
Except one enormous difference exists between those earlier movies and Avatar, and centers on race as primordial identity as genetic heritage. Racial identity remains slippery in definition and as research subject. Racial identity has been defined in terms of primordial genetics expressed phenotypically (looking different) on the one hand, or as one aspect in a complicated politics of identity as ethnicity (everyone is ethnic) on the other. For anthropology, race and ethnicity remain important avenues of investigation. As a discipline, we understand that race cannot be defined as biological difference, and yet it remains as a social fact. Race as population genetics still informs biological, forensic, and medical anthropology. Race as social fact remains an important aspect of modern race relations at local through global scales, reaffirming past and colonial hierarchies in people's everyday lives.
Avatar superficially escapes this peril of race by transplanting the central character's consciousness into one of the film's 'primitive' bodies, an alien species called the Na'vi. This is accomplished when Jake Sully joins a team of scientists (at least one of which is specifically identified as an anthropologist - Norm Spellman) in a new project where they remotely inhabit real, indigenous bodies grown in tubes in a process akin to cloning. The cloned native bodies apparently have no mind of their own and only awake when the scientists 'log into' their native versions. These mindless, native bodies also physically resemble the scientists themselves. I do not feel it is necessary to comment on Hollywood creating literally mindless (and physically attractive) indigenous bodies, other than to suggest this colonizing dream is now made manifest.
This is a powerful way of displacing Sully's racial background and the baggage it carries in such situations. As Sully inhabits his indigenous body, unimaginatively termed his avatar, he quickly develops a romantic relationship with a female Na'vi. This relationship follows a now formulaic pattern of Western, White, and Male dominance/colonization of 'Primitive', non-White, Female bodies in countless films and stories (e.g., Pocahontas). The special trick in Cameron's movie is the ability of the male lead to shed his racially-defined identity and literally enter into the alien culture as phenotypically familiar.
This transformation, at the surface level, erases the obvious problem of Jake Sully being a different race from the pattern noted above. It re-inscribes essential subjects (on both sides) whose identities are constricted to specific matrices of identity as informed by primordial genetics while all the other elements of White Man as Savior remains intact, even exaggerated. Defining each character's identity hinge on classic oppositional and dichotomous axes like race (Human or Na'vi), gender (male & female), and personal politics. This final axis mostly informs the Human characters as they have to choose whether they support the military-industrial complex or indigenous rights while such a level of complexity is not shared by the Na'vi.
While the central character's identity is confused through the process of inhabiting avatars, the traditional rhetoric of the Western Male is preserved as the only means for saving the Na'vi. This is the immediate site of the Western, White Male as savior. In the end, the hero must establish the importance and supremacy of his solution, and like clockwork, when it comes time for Sully to make his speech calling on his adopted 'tribe' to embrace Western (American) values of warfare and violence, his words have a special power for both the indigenous Na'vi and human audience. This blurring of race is solidified at the movie's end when Sully's consciousness is transferred to his Na'vi body. This transference is accomplished through mystical means, again reifing a dichotomy of the West as scientific and the primitive as 'mystical'.
These tropes of White Savior and feminized 'primitive' are reinforced throughout the movie. The native inhabitants of Pandora conform to their appointed role in a variety of stereotypical ways. They worship nature, wear little clothing, and have an attachment to nature mocked by the technologically-superior colonizers. The most recognizable role of the 'primitive' remains the representation of sexually attractive and attainable women among its population.
These sorts of representations are made for the audience's benefit. The military in Avatar (or Dances with Wolves for that matter) represent a sub-group of our society so that most members of the audience can emote with the hero. In Avatar this sub-group is represented by greedy corporations and a small group of violence-hungry military personnel - immediately evocative of the military-industrial complex. Most audience members would have no problem positioning themselves against corporations (particularly in the present economy), and those who felt uncomfortable siding against the military largely ignore that aspect of the movie (see reviews above). Ultimately, these positionings create a space for the audience to self-identify with the hero. A more recognizable version of this process underscored the recent Sandra Bullock film The Blind Side. In this film, an affluent White family adopts a homeless African American teen with a gift for playing football. White Americans can leave such films fully confident that they are not racist because of their self-identification with a central character who overcomes their own racism.
Ultimately, all of these factors combine in Avatar in dramatically new ways. The erasure of the lead character's racial background obfuscates the complex ideological politics at play between Colonizers and Colonized. This is further confused by the insertion of overt political statements about the environment and imperial war-mongering. The representation of natives as feminized primitives and the 'bad guys' as a subset of American society means that many may miss the deeper continuation of Hollywood's tradition of glorifying American Whiteness as the norm. The invention of new technologies and new modes of representation are only going to increase these 'erasures' of overt identities while re-inforcing elite ideologies. Those of us who are interested in identifying such fictions, and more importantly teaching others to do the same, will need to remain vigilant and develop new vocabularies for doing so.
Thanks for reading,