A whole lot of Avatar and whiteness

A couple weeks ago, I published an essay on io9 about how James Cameron’s new science fiction epic Avatar is a movie about white guilt. It was called “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?” Here’s an excerpt:

Whether Avatar is racist is a matter for debate. Regardless of where you come down on that question, it’s undeniable that the film – like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year – is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it’s a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?

Avatar imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America’s foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent. In the film, a group of soldiers and scientists have set up shop on the verdant moon Pandora, whose landscapes look like a cross between Northern California’s redwood cathedrals and Brazil’s tropical rainforest. The moon’s inhabitants, the Na’vi, are blue, catlike versions of native people: They wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes. Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we’ve seen in Hollywood movies for decades . . .

[Avatar and movies like it are] 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.

Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, 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. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

This is a topic I’ve been interested in for most of my adult life. A large chunk of my book, Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, deals with race and fantasy movies; and I co-edited a collection of essays way back in the late 1990s called White Trash: Race and Class in America. At the time we published that essay collection, my co-editor Matt Wray and I were stunned at how passionately people responded to the idea of talking about whiteness in pop culture – it was as if we’d crossed a line, and some were thrilled that we’d done it while others wanted us to stop spilling white people’s darkest secrets.

Based on those experiences I should have been prepared for my post on Avatar to elicit a similarly intense response, but I wasn’t. The post wound up sparking a much bigger debate than I’d anticipated: It was covered in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and countless other blogs and Livejournals. I’ve also gotten a ton of email about it, mostly positive. However, it has also sparked a lot of wrath.

One of the biggest objections people have to the article is that I’ve proposed to analyze Avatar at all. “Why can’t you just enjoy it for what it is?” I’ve been asked. Or I’ve been scolded, “You’re just reading into it whatever you want to see.” Josh Wimmer (AKA Moff) wrote a great rejoinder to comments like this, which Racialicious picked up and dubbed Moff’s Law. Here’s an excerpt:

First of all, when we analyze art, when we look for deeper meaning in it, we are enjoying it for what it is. Because that is one of the things about art, be it highbrow, lowbrow, mainstream, or avant-garde: Some sort of thought went into its making — even if the thought was, “I’m going to do this as thoughtlessly as possible”! — and as a result, some sort of thought can be gotten from its reception. That is why, among other things, artists (including, for instance, James Cameron) really like to talk about their work . . . Finally, this should also go without saying, but since it apparently doesn’t: Believe me, the person who is annoying you so much by thinking about the art? They have already considered your revolutionary “just enjoy it” strategy, because it is not actually revolutionary at all. It is the default state for most of humanity.

So when you go out of your way to suggest that people should be thinking less — that not using one’s capacity for reason is an admirable position to take, and one that should be actively advocated — you are not saying anything particularly intelligent. And unless you live on a parallel version of Earth where too many people are thinking too deeply and critically about the world around them and what’s going on in their own heads, you’re not helping anything; on the contrary, you’re acting as an advocate for entropy.

Pretty much my response to this criticism too. I’m not demanding that people analyze everything, and I expect the same courtesy. Which is to say: Don’t demand that I not analyze.

The other major criticism I got was that the film wasn’t about race, but instead about the hero’s journey or self-discovery or something much broader. I got a chance to have a pretty interesting debate about this with Dan Trachtenberg on Dave Chen’s /Filmcast After Dark podcast, and if you’re interested you can listen in here. My basic point was that a film can be about many different things at once. Saying that the movie is about heroism or environmentalism does not invalidate my reading. Moreover, there are a lot of good reasons to consider this film in the context of race, not the least of which is the fact that every Na’vi character is played by a person of color and they are designed explicitly to look like stereotypical American aboriginals. Moreover, their forest looks very much like pre-industrial America, and the threat posed by the humans seems at every juncture to mirror the threat that Europeans posed to the peoples of America 500 years ago. Cameron himself has said the aliens were based on “a melange of indigenous cultures,” in a recent Studio 360 interview:

Well they’re actually a melange of indigenous cultures, we looked at indigenous cultures in the Amazon, in Indonesia, in Africa, in America–I think giving them bows and arrows probably places them in most people’s minds, you know, in your Native American sort of cultural niche. But in fact there are lots of cultures around the world that use bows and arrows, it’s a common first technology for hunting.

Ultimately I’m pleased to have helped kick-start a debate about whether Avatar has something to tell us about racial identity in the United States. How does our pop culture allow us to work through historical traumas – or to recast them in ways that are perversely pleasurable? I wanted to get people thinking and talking about this movie on a level that went beyond “wow, great special effects.” And I’m glad so many people wanted to join me in that conversation.

3 thoughts on “A whole lot of Avatar and whiteness

  1. It is especially when low-brow art appears to be of the “just enjoy it” variety that it should be questioned and analyzed. Even if the author (director, artist, musician) doesn’t intend to make some huge point about race, gender, colonialism, class, etc., the values and messages about those things can still insidiously appear and, more importantly, influence those who consume the art.

    The influence is far more effective when not analyzed. I’d really like to see these people who think it should just be enjoyed as mindless entertainment create some mindless entertainment that has non-white female non-heterosexuals as protagonists supported by peripheral white male heterosexuals… and pretty much only those kinds of movies, except on the indie fringes.

  2. Thank you for this. I’m a native person and did not care for this movie at all. It’s good to know that someone else shares this viewpoint, because no one in the theatre with me did. The obvious preachiness and allegory were too distracting for me to enjoy the artistic value of the film.

    When will writers consult with a native person when considering these kinds of films and storylines? It will add depth and will not make for a bad movie.

    Anywho. Just wanted to let you know I appreciate your blog.

    Mahalo.

  3. Pingback: The World According to “Avatar” : Bino A. Realuyo

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