The Racial Politics of Avatar (Part 2)
Avatar gets some aspects of racial politics right.
Posted December 29, 2009
This is the second of a two-part series examining the racial politics of Avatar. In my previous post, I argued that Avatar's racial politics are more complex and more progressive than critics have given it credit for. It is also the case, however, that the film has some noteworthy sociopolitical flaws, and these flaws also deserve some attention.
1. Many important characters are one-dimensional.
All irony inherent in a 3-D film aside, to make a truly powerful philosophical point about group relations, characters on both sides have to have complexity and depth. When the army guys are "all bad" and "all greedy" and the natives and scientists "all good", some of the parallels to our world and its complex racial dynamics and interpersonal relationships get lost.
In this context, a number of important characters were presented as one-dimensional caricatures, especially the corporate guy in charge who was not only in far over his head but even lacked the good sense to realize his cluelessness. As such, he had no humanity at all, and while that might work on an allegorical level (we are to understand that the corporation is both inhuman and inhumane), how likely is it that someone so woefully incompetent would head this kind of a mission?
The blind obedience of the army guys, aside from the one rogue army "gal", bothered me too. I realize, of course, that the army demands obedience for good reason: it can't function if the generals stand around trying to gain consensus. So, it's not so much that I expected more rogue soldiers but that I expected at least a few of the obedient ones to struggle with the immorality of what they were asked to do. I believe, as others have observed, that soldiers ultimately fight more out of loyalty to each other than some bigger cause, but though it is certainly true that there are soldiers, like Pandora military commander Col Miles Quaritch, who take pleasure in the violence, historical accounts (see, for example, Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men) suggest that there would be others who would be pained by it. They'd still obey their orders, but they would be miserable during the entire ordeal. I wanted to see this misery, not because I enjoy seeing people in pain, but because the pain would have made it possible for me to relate to them. The soldiers' stoicism made their savagery too easy to dismiss as unrealistic. If they couldn't be emotionally affected by what they were doing, then how can the viewer possibly be expected to?
The military's simplistic portrayal of the natives as "savages" also seemed outdated and, therefore, unrealistic. I know White supremacists still talk that way but high ranking army officers and corporate executives are educated, and while that doesn't necessary make them less racist, it does provide them with a more nuanced (i.e., less explicit) ability to express their prejudices. I expect this nuance from them. Our military leaders today do not talk about Afghanistan and Iraq the way they used to talk about Vietnam. The social norms around language have changed, and the film seemed to have not kept up.
As for the scientists, while I enjoyed seeing them as the "good guys", the reality is that scientists, including many psychologists, are active and willing participants in the war effort. Psychologists, for example, were shamefully centrally involved in the design of interrogation methods (i.e., torture) in the military detainee camps. At least some of them should have been working hand-in-hand with the military, not uniformly brushed aside as deluded weaklings.
The Na'vi were similarly romanticized. It's hard to be critical of a fictional race I know nothing about beyond what was shown in the film, but, to the extent that the Na'vi are supposed to represent our own indigenous communities, I find it difficult to accept that the Na'vi do not have their own political problems and that some Na'vi -- like some humans -- are not motivated by greed or power or something else not entirely becoming. Without this moral complexity, I find the Na'vi society less believable and, therefore, a less suitable model of what our own society can aspire to.
2. Avatar tells a single story.
Though Avatar's story of intercultural contact is generally positive, it is nevertheless told exclusively from the perspective of the humans. As such, we know only what the humans, mostly Jake, see and understand about the Na'vi culture. This is a legitimate perspective, but it is a limited one. It, by definition, leaves out cultural and intrapersonal aspects that might be of importance to the Na'vi, but that Jake did not notice or did not process. Moreover, as Chimamanda Adichie points out, this single perspective is dangerous, because it suggests that the one perspective that is shown is the only one there is. A single perspective is what allowed the romanticized depiction I described earlier. Had part of the story been told from the perspective of the Na'vi, say Neytiri, we would have had a much richer understanding of Na'vi motivations and inner world.
3. Avatar reinforces traditional sex roles.
I have no doubt that the film took care to present a progressive image of gender roles. Indeed, it is notable that the lead scientist on the base, Grace, is female, as is the renegade pilot, Trudy. And it was fun to see Neytiri hunt and ride the winged beasts not just with the Na'vi men but clearly as capably as them. And yet, I believe the film still manages to be gendered in a way that is decidedly non-progressive. I am referring to the sexualization of all the female characters, most obviously Neytiri and the other female Na'vi but also Trudy (who is usually shown in a tight white t-shirt) and Grace.
I have to confess that I enjoyed this sexualization, especially of the Na'vi, who were slender, athletic, and very scantily clad. There were moments during the film when I found myself focusing exclusively on certain parts of their bodies. On that level, it was good filmmaking, and as a straight male, I certainly didn't object. But part of the politics of sexualization is that the sexualized person also becomes objectified. We are meant to believe that Jake was attracted to Neytiri for her prowess in the forest (and I think he was), but what if he was just attracted to her sexually, or even just romantically? If that were the case, then his motives for learning about the Na'vi are much more problematic.
If Jake's attraction is primarily sexual, it has to be interpreted through the historical White fetishization of women of color. From the slave masters' midnight visits to the contemporary exoticization of Asian and Black female sexuality, women of color have served as the leading figures of White sexual fantasies. In this context, when Jake Sees Neytiri (undeniably, a woman of color), how do we know that he isn't just seeing a hypersexual body that he can use for his own pleasure? I don't like reading Avatar this way. I don't think it's the dominant subtext, but the overt sexuality distracts me from the more meaningful aspects of Na'vi culture and takes me on this road. The more cerebral part of me wishes it didn't.
4. Jake, the messiah.
In the first part of this racial analysis I argued that reading Jake as a "white savior" discounts some of the complexity and isn't entirely accurate. I must admit, however, that for all the subtle elements of biculturalism and biracialism present in the film, there is also, as my Twitter friend @tlcoles argued, an uncomfortable messiah theme in Avatar that really works against the film's intended progressive, open-minded message.
The most problematic scene was in the middle of the film, when Neytiri is still deciding whether or not she can trust Jake. All of a sudden, hundreds of beautiful white spores that we later learn are the Na'vi deity, Eywa, alight on Jake, surrounding him with a white glow. It's an awe-inspiring scene, but the imagery is unmistakable: Jake is the "chosen one", the messiah who will lead his people to salvation.
It's a flawed concept. Not only is it reminiscent of White missionaries leading (forcing!) the heathen natives to "salvation" but it reinforces notions of White superiority: There are moments when the Na'vi seem to almost worship Jake, who, in turn, sometimes seems to take on the "White-man's burden" of helping the less fortunate Other, rather than, as I argued in the first part, working as part of the Na'vi people to vanquish the foreign human invaders.
As with the sexualized images, I don't like viewing Avatar through this lens. I'd much rather see it as the film it could have been. But this, too, is part of Avatar's racial politics. Perhaps the sequel will set some things right.
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