January 20, 2010

No enlightenment in Avatar

The war-painted, dragon-riding Smurfs vs. the Indians

By Michael Thompson“Avatar” is fantasy.

It’s an interesting fantasy--part anti-military imperialism, part pro-science ecology, part colonizing cultural metaphor, part supra-technology gaming wet dream. But it is not any kind of thoughtful commentary on real Native America, and we had better all be sure we are clear about that.

Sure, I get the movie’s pop culture-coated messages about the dangers of over-the-top militarism, the mindless exploitation of our natural resources, the virtues of ethical science, the need for cross-cultural respect. These are not insignificant ideas considering the general mindlessness of most mass entertainment today. But there are no truths here that will enlighten anyone in any meaningful way about real Native Americans or our history.
Comment:  I agree that Avatar doesn't have "any kind of thoughtful commentary" or "truths that will enlighten anyone"--except maybe children. I disagree that it's harmless. Like a million other cultural sources, it conveys the message that Natives are nature-worshiping children who need a white man to save them.

Avatar won't change people's perceptions of Native by itself. But as the millionth example of Native stereotyping, it will contribute to the results. The effect is cumulative, people...duh.

Why do you think children associate Indians with hatchets, feathers, and the color red? Because of the reality of Native America today? No, it's because of the fantasy promoted by a million stereotypical words and images. Duhhh.

For more on Avatar, see Does Avatar's Agenda Matter? and Vatican Rips Avatar as "Bland." For more on the influence of movies, see "What Americans Know ... Comes from Movies" and "I Thought John Wayne Killed You All."

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