December 31, 2009

Minorities = children in Avatar

More on race and racialism in AvatarWhile the Na'vi may be blue, the people who played them are not. Consider:

1. Neytiri
2. Tsu'tey
3. Eytukan
4. Moat
5. Horse Clan Leader

It could be the case that all the other models for the Na'vi are white, but it seems clear to me that Cameron chose these actors for the central Na'vi characters according to racialized criteria; i.e. while he didn't necessarily choose them because they weren't white, his vision of a primitive, native culture didn't include white people. The representatives of humanity, however, were not only overwhelmingly white, even the exceptions played to stereotype: Dileep Rao played an Indian scientist and Michelle Rodriguez played a Latina tough. My point in my previous Avatar post about the film indulging in the white fantasy of becoming the proverbial other is, then, made literal by Cameron's casting decisions: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Joel Moore play three white characters who inhabit bodies otherwise occupied only by actors of color. I'm not normally one to invest much of anything argumentative based on what happens on a casting couch, but in this case, Cameron tipped his hand with all the subtlety of an overconfident drunk: the purpose of the avatars is to place white brains in blue bodies that would otherwise be inhabited by black ones.
And: Moreover, within the narrative, the bodies [the humans] were being stuffed into were utterly infantilized: the Na'vi don't think for themselves, as even animal husbandry is beyond them. They require a direct neural connection in order to domesticate an animal.

That they teach humans to be similarly dependent upon a necessarily benevolent planet is, I understand, the point—but it is a terrible one if, as many claim, Cameron wanted to press a message of ecological interdependence. The Na'vi possess all the agency of a leukocyte: they may respond individually, but they are not, properly speaking, individuals.
Patrick Barkman, who brought this item to my attention, adds:A good post from Lawyers, Guns & Money about a fairly obvious point that had not occurred to me: Avatar is a literal representation of the white fantasy of “going native.” Can it be that the brain-swapping technology is the science fiction equivalent of all those earnest, sincere white people who form their own fictional tribes (which are almost always Cherokee, for some reason)?Comment:  The connection between infantilized Natives and Indian wannabes isn't quite clear, but I think I can make it clear.

Roughly speaking, Americans have three views of Indians and other indigenous people. Conservatives think they're savages--a negative value judgment. Moderates think they're primitives--a neutral judgment with negative aspects. And liberals think they're flower children--a positive judgment with negative aspects.

James Cameron has taken the "flower children" approach. His natives are connected to nature--literally. Other than the ability to make a few basic items, they have no science or technology.

This is basically what New Age Indian wannabes seek: a return to the simple, child-like life they imagine Indians lived. They want to rip off their clothes and experience the great outdoors. They want to throw away their gizmos and gadgets and rely on their own two hands. Through mystical rites and ceremonies, they want to restore a sense of supernatural wonder.

In other words, your typical wannabes want to return to childhood. They want a lifestyle with no cares, no obligations, no responsibilities. They're essentially playing a child's dress-up game with themselves as the dolls. "You be Indian brave Ken and I'll be Indian maiden Barbie," one might say to the other.

Being Indian isn't a game

What this misses is that Indians had cares, obligations, and responsibilities. They had to hunt or farm their food or they starved. They had to manufacture clothing and shelter warm enough to survive the winter. They had to learn a complex set of rules, relationships, and religious teachings to fit into their tribe and environment.

All this might take a decade or two to master, and there was the constant threat of failure and death. It wasn't something people did on the weekend to "heal" themselves before returning to a comfortable home and job. They weren't putting on their costumes or avatars and playing Indians. They were Indians, with all that entails.

When I criticized the Russian Orthodox Wannabe League, I pointed out how they weren't interested in Indians in general. They weren't interested in present-day Indians or any Indians except the stereotypical Indians of the past. As I cleverly wrote at the time:If you're so in tune with Indians, why are you emulating the Lakota rather than the Abenaki or Muskogee or Ojibway or Gila River or Yurok or Tlingit? How is it that your affinity just happens to be with the tribe everyone thinks represents Indian culture?

Indians don't live in tipis or hunt buffalo anymore. If you come up with a justification for emulating only the Lakota Indians, your next task is to explain why you don't want to emulate them the way they are now. Pretending that the bucolic world of tipis and buffalo represents Indian culture now is again a stereotype.

If you "wannabe" like the Lakota of the 19th you also emulate the periods of starvation and freezing weather? The warfare with the US government...or with other tribes? The plagues and massacres? Because Lakota life wasn't a happy fantasyland. It was a real world with all the pain and suffering of any culture.
In Avatar, James Cameron has put his natives into a happy fantasyland. It's a child's storybook version of indigenous life. If Captain Hook, Peter Pan, and Tinkerbell showed up, I wouldn't be surprised.

For more on the subject, see Noble Savages in Avatar and White Guilt in Avatar.

Below:  Jake Sully as the ultimate Indian wannabe.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Heh. I think you are forgetting that scifi movies have to present convincing alternate realities that will somehow be rapidly comprehensible to an audience with a mental age of about 10.

Yes, clearly the Na'vi are a fantasised primitive tribal community. And clearly the actors were chosen to create a recognisable difference between the two sides in the conflict - the nature-exploiting "civilised" aliens and the nature-joining natives.

For example, the neural bonding of the Na'vi with their mounts is simply an immediate graphic scifi representation of the bond that would otherwise require lengthy training, rather boring to watch and certainly not new the watcer.

But overall I think you're misreading the film, maybe even willfully trying to make it look like a a simplifed and racist view on American Indians.

I think Occam would view it simply as an enjoyable escapist eco fantasy, building on some strands from Aliens, and using elements of an "alien" civilisation that will be instantly recognisable to movie-goers. It's translation of the protagonist into a Na'vi is simply part of the creation of another comic book superhero, ripe for merchandise aimed primarily at children and young males.