December 20, 2009

White guilt in Avatar

When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?

By Annalee NewitzWhether 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.
And:These are movies 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. ... 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.
So what's the solution? Not to make movies that try to present an indigenous viewpoint? No. A blogger named Remington offers a better answer:

Avatar:  “Totally racist, dude.”By the end of the film you’re left wondering why the film needed the Jake Sully character at all. The film could have done just as well by focusing on an actual Na’vi native who comes into contact with crazy humans who have no respect for the environment. I can just see the explanation: “Well, we need someone (an avatar) for the audience to connect with. A normal guy will work better than these tall blue people.” However, this is the type of thinking that molds all leads as white male characters (blank slates for the audience to project themselves upon) unless your name is Will Smith.Comment:  Indeed. It's ridiculous that Avatar has to star a white guy. He's inhabiting an alien body most of the time--but audiences can't identify with him unless his human body is white? Casting a minority guy (or gal) would've let Avatar make deeper and more complex points about race.

Keep in mind that the whole avatar thing is a gimmick. Cameron designed it so the white guy can switch sides, get the exotic princess, and become the tribe's hero. In other words, so white guys like Cameron can make themselves feel good.

The avatar thing wouldn't be necessary if Cameron hadn't made Pandora's environment deadly. Humans and Na'vi could've breathed the same air, interacted, and learned from each other. This would've left the Na'vi in charge of their own destinies. Surely they wouldn't have accepted a weak, puny, inept stranger into their midst.

In this scenario, the Na'vi could've killed Sully accidentally. Or intentionally, because they didn't trust him despite his friendly exterior. Or Sully could've gone back to the human side because he had mixed feelings at best. Because he couldn't overcome his cultural conditioning and imagine becoming an alien permanently.

There are several ways Cameron could've had the Na'vi learn the humans' plans and capabilities. Then they could've fought the colonization on their own. Instead of John Dunbar in a blue body, a Tecumseh or Crazy Horse or Geronimo type could've led them to victory.

For more on the subject, see Army vs. Indians in Avatar and Evoking Natives in Avatar.

P.S. If you can't imagine a story in which aliens are the primary characters and humans are the secondary characters, try reading Hugo Award-winning books such as Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity or Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep.

Below:  Jake Sully shows how a white guy usually gets the native girl.


dmarks said...

"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."

Not to spoil, but it is clear that the reviewer did not watch the entire movie.

Chance said...

I refuse to watch a film that is just a rehashing of other films, especially when it is associated with race so strongly and wrongly.
Its really sad that today racism is still intertwined with the film industry, and these people still actually think that what they are doing is logical. They give in to racism because they think no one will see the movie unless the main character is white and degrading & demeaning another(real or ficional)races culture and intelligence, are you kidding me, I thought we were in the 21st century, why oh why are people still thinking this way. Its mostly because they dont HAVE to make the lead character white they do it cause they want to, and because these people are racist themselves, either that or they are just incredibly ignorant.

dmarks said...

Time will tell if Leno or Conan make a casino joke about the Na'vi next week.

Monika said...

Excellent analysis. I realise that my initial enjoyment of the film was about me feeling good as a white person, and glossing over the very problematic racialized imagery, etc. You raise some very excellent points and solutions to racism in cinema.

I am going to ponder this some more...

Anonymous said...


Actually, the reviewer is correct. Right up until the end. But they never did show anyone desroying the link box. So technically, he does have the chance.