Avatar: Count the “isms”

A dark blue face with light green eyes, in shadows, peers out, with the caption 'Avatar.'Spoiler alert.
Saturday night, I watched James Cameron’s Avatar in 3-D. James Cameron spent thirteen years of production time to produce special effects and animation realistic enough to fulfill his lifelong dream of making this movie. But to add insult to injury, Cameron’s long wait time before production is because Avatar is the most “realistic” human resemblance. If “technology has never looked so human in film”, then caricatures of indigenous people have never before been so blatant.
Annalee Newitz, of i09.com, asked “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?

“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.”

It also became apparent that the invading scientists and military personnel were not just similar to the implied historic white colonial rule, but were, in fact, almost entirely white actors. A true analogy that reflects the human race as a colonizing power would include more actors of color. Lastly, as Lila Watson said, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together, we can [work] together.” But the problem with Avatar’s white guilt fantasy is the same that manifests itself on an individual’s path to white allyship: in Pandora, it is inherently the humans, the free, who come to help the oppressed, the Na’vi.
Furthermore, while Newitz argues that Avatar’s racism is “a matter for debate,” its sexist undertones and ableist plot are also worth questioning.

At FWD (Feminists With Disabilities), Esté Yarmosh posted a thorough roundup of the ableism in Avatar.
When I saw that Jake (the protagonist) uses a wheelchair, I wondered, “Will this be the first time I’ve seen a movie where a main character with a disability hasn’t been magically ‘cured’ by the end?” Jake endures harassment by fellow Marines for his wheelchair use, and we learn that his disability can be “cured” with a costly surgery–when offered the surgery free, he refuses, to continue traveling into the Na’vi world against the wishes of his military superior. Just like the hundreds of teen movies of the “Ugly Duckling” genre, the Sci-Fi plot phenomenon of characters who miraculously regain their able-bodied privilege is pervasive. On i09.com, Charlie Jane Anders chronicled “20 Science Fiction Characters Who Got Their Legs Back,” a brief modern timeline of Sci Fi’s denials and avoidances of living with a disability through the eventual “salvations” of main characters. In Avatar, Jake abandons his wheelchair to be permanently installed in a Na’vi body. The underlying theme is that his human body is inadequate; instead, he achieves some type of salvation by entering his new body.
Na’vi bodies themselves sent an interesting message: standing nine feet tall, lean, with long legs, no hips, and small breasts among the women, they reflect components of the impossible body type projected on women in America. Though dark-skinned, the Na’vi had light-colored eyes, another touch of the “exotic” and desirable. The underlying theme of this sexualization accompanied the main female Na’vi character, Neytiri, the daughter of the Chief, who spoke with an accent and wore beads in her hair, and donned few clothes. Of course, Jake ends up having sex with Neytiri, and when his duplicity is revealed, their mating is treated as an ultimate insult– the human obsession with virtue and virginity seems to manifest here, as not only Neytiri, but also other Na’vi, become angry at Jake for mating with her. Sex-shaming ensues.
And later, even the human bodies in the movie seemed unnecessarily sexualized. After being shot, head scientist Sigourney Weaver was stripped, carried to the base of a tree, draped in leaves, and positioned to display her curves and her milky-white skin while dying. Perhaps the one empowering woman character, Trudy Chacon, played by Michelle Rodriguez of Fast and the Furious fame, martyred herself for the Na’vi. And even while she flew into battle on behalf of the Na’vi, she had abandoned her military uniform for war paint on her face and aircraft, and a feathered headband. What makes this different from doing modern-day racial justice work in blackface? The attempt to imitate the Na’vi culture is insulting at best.
Cameron’s movie does appear to be a white guilt fantasy, and as self-proclaimed “King of the World,” (referring to Pandora, the Na’vi homeland), he is responsible for at least some of the problematic undertones. And precisely because it was a lifetime dream of his to write and produce Avatar, the superiority of humans to the indigenous characters, exotic indigenous bodies, and “salvation” from disability within the movie are unsurprising given that he first dreamed of Pandora five decades ago.

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