keeping an eye on the mainstream

Okay, so I’ve been off the blogging for a month now, and I feel bad about that already, and now I feel doubly bad that my first post back is gonna be about the most mainstream of the mainstream entertainment out there. Yeah, I’m blogging about Avatar.

For starters, yes, I paid to see the film. Or rather, someone paid for me, but the ticket was paid for, which means that in our small way, we contributed to lining the pockets of James Cameron and the entire overblown project—something I know some activists think is a bad move. I tend to agree, but my logic was this: Generally speaking, when it comes to controversy, I don’t believe in the bizarrely prized activist strategies of a) removing yourself from the conversation (symbolic walk-outs, door slamming, etc.) – because then, the only people left having the conversation are the ones who don’t see what the problem is, or b) criticizing (or buying into other people’s criticism) of things without evaluating the evidence for yourself. I’m all for people having strong opinions, but strong uninformed opinions are just not cool, in my books. Plus, I think that as activists, we need to challenge ourselves to see, read, hear and experience things that make us uncomfortable so that we are forced to question and strengthen our opinions and strategies based on our own perceptions rather than those fed to us. That said, when I’ve heard enough bad activist press about a given piece of cultural production—like, say, Janice Raymond’s famous anti-trans book The Transsexual Empire—I do my best to get my hands on it in a way that doesn’t transfer profit to its creator. I usually borrow, buy secondhand, and so forth. But unfortunately those things are a bit hard to do when you’re trying to see a massive 3D film. So there it is.

(Spoiler alert.)

The basics

Okay, so the film itself. It’s big and huge, and the use of technology is amazing; the depiction of the lush flora and fauna on Pandora, the moon on which the story plays out, is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not one to get all gaga for special effects, but this was exceptional. Oddly, the 3-D aspect of it was not in itself all that thrilling, but the visuals were nonetheless awesome.

As for the story… well, it manages to be a strangely hybrid one. It’s a pretty one-dimensional plotline but, for all that, there’s a lot going on symbolically. How much is deliberate and how much is ignorant (and I do mean that in both senses—as in, unaware and bigoted) is sometimes evident and sometimes hard to say.

Quick summary of said plotline (skip it if you’ve seen it): Jake, a white Marine in a wheelchair accepts a mission to enter an “avatar” (blue body grown in a lab) to infiltrate the blue-skinned Na’vi tribe and bring back intel to the military forces hired by a huge mining company. The aim is to help them better target their mining operations on the Na’vi’s home planet Pandora, which is home to huge deposits of an uber-valuable mineral. Additionally he’s supposed to get cozy enough with the blue people that he can convince them to move off their land without resorting to warfare, because war is bad for company PR (though that’s really only of secondary concern to shareholders). What’s in it for him? He’ll “get his legs back” if he succeeds. His new blue body has fully functional legs. In short order he hooks up with the chief’s daughter, is accepted into the tribe, learns “everything” about being Na’vi, and has so much fun that he fails to even mention he’s supposed to get them to take a hike. The military forces swoop in and start killing people; he realizes he’s been bad and feels like an ass while homes and lives are destroyed all around him; the girl hates him. He jumps on a big dragon to impress the Na’vi and they like him again; he leads them in war against the military forces, they win, he’s a hero and gets to stay in his avatar body with the hot chick and live happily ever after.

Superficially, the film is about the interconnectedness of all living creatures and the need to respect that. Avatar certainly does insist, in no uncertain terms, on how bad the humans are. They’re portrayed as the worst kind of slime, nothing but greedy corporate-paid warmongers who have “killed their mother” (i.e. Earth, which is apparently now devoid of all green life) and who don’t even treat their own very well. (And in this sense it’s only barely exaggerated from reality: the military forces are a ragtag and desperate-seeming bunch, made up in sizeable part of people of colour, apparently all there to make a buck because the economy is in a shambles and healthcare is inaccessible. Hm!) Okay, so I’m superficially down with all that, though the message is more than a little heavy-handed.

Race: can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff

Unfortunately, though, Cameron pulls out all the most threadbare tricks in the books to make that point. Beefcake trigger-happy army commander, smarmy corporate slug, and nature-loving Native peoples—I dunno, who would you root for? I’d pick the Natives any day, but in doing so, I’d be buying into the whole “Natives are pure and good” narrative that does exactly the things I’ve recently ranted about: elevate an entire culture onto a pedestal, not to mention exoticize and appropriate it.

People have this idea that “racism” is only about believing that people from “other” cultures are bad, but it’s so much more than that. We do people an equal disservice when we think of them as good because of their race—the exoticized image of an “other” is no more accurate than the demonized one. We do “others” an even worse disservice when we try to imitate them in order to get some of that nummy racialized goodness for ourselves (regardless of our own racial identities). If we’re so dissatisfied with our own culture that we can’t stand it anymore, appropriating someone else’s is taking the easy way out—and it’s not that terribly different from what colonial cultures have done since the dawn of time, that is, ditch the homeland to go rape and pillage elsewhere in the name of progress.

In Avatar, the human race is so hopeless that it appears that the best way for Jake to save the day is not to stick around and try to improve things, but rather to jump ship and literally become that “other” he so exoticizes. I quote a commenter, self-identified as a Pacific Islander, who responded to Annalee Newitz’s review of the film, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?”; the commenter wrote: “As much as it was a technically brilliant movie, the undeniable analogy to current events both politically, and historically, it just annoyed me no end that it did just wind up being another mythical story about how we can reach into someone else’s own culture to find ourselves.”

Not only that, but the Native culture itself is terribly stereotypical in many ways—at times in ways that defy simple common sense and at times in ways that are just plain simplistic and serve to dumb down a plot that actually could have been made more interesting and believable without sacrificing any of the good bits.

So for example, Jake betrays the Na’vi’s trust by failing to inform them of his agenda or warn them about the human invasion in time. They kick him out, but they take him back when he shows up riding a huge creature that’s symbolic of their legendary past tribal leadership. I get the value of cultural symbolism, and of how a person knowing what would trigger a strong response could deliberately do that thing as a strategy for impressing the tribe.

But really? They took him back just because he showed up on a dragon? That alone makes up for him allowing many of them, including their chief, to be killed, and their home to be destroyed? The Na’vi are portrayed as a spiritual people up until that point, but certainly not as a bunch of Kool-Aid-drinking cult believers. Why the heck do they take him back so easily? Because they’re dumb Natives who worship shows of force and heroism, apparently. Blech. It would have increased our respect for the Na’vi if they’d been a little harder to impress, and likewise increased our respect for Jake if he’d worked a little harder to make up for his enormous fuck-up. Really, it could have been good character development and upped the story’s believability. But instead, we just get recycled stereotypes about heroic white leaders and mutely obedient, trusting Aboriginals. Not to mention the Na’vi, at that point in the film, seem to develop a “hive mind” they did not previously demonstrate, immediately contributing all their spiritual energy to try healing Jake’s (white in a blue body) scientist colleague, again despite his colossal fuck-up, flimsy apology and blatant spiritual-cultural appropriation.

And speaking of cultural appropriation—after all this fucking up, he yells “This is our land!” as though he wasn’t one of the oppressors… and they let him get away with it? Oh, groan.

Others, Newitz among them, have done a great job of analyzing the racial/colonial politics of the film, so I won’t go on about this particular aspect of the film because I see no need to repeat their work here. But I am interested in adding some critique about gender, sexuality and ability.

Gender: goddess vs progress

On the gender front, the film’s politics are a bit all over the map. We’ve got a human world that seems to have largely, though not totally, gotten over its gender stereotypes; strong female characters, including women of colour, operate as scientists and soldiers with no apparent problems (including one very visibly dykey military officer in a bit part). We’ve got a tribal culture in which equality also seems to reign, in that Na’vi women are hunters and warriors just like the men, and appear to run about with great freedom.

However, the Na’vi also polarize in ways that aren’t terribly compatible with that gender equality. In that same problematic “elevation” vein, they revere the divine feminine, both by gendering their deity as female and by having a female spiritual leader, the wife of the chief. And when Jake is accepted as a warrior, despite having learned everything he knows from a woman (who, incidentally, saved his bacon early in the film), and despite his gender-neutral rite of passage, he is told that he must now “choose his woman.” Huh? What about the women who go through that same rite? How did we all of a sudden go from gender equality to archaic forms of inequality in marriage systems?

To compound the problem here, it’s further unfortunate that the Na’vi are portrayed as perpetuating archaic gender inequality as part and parcel of the spiritual and cultural system that makes them “closer to the earth” as Natives—it makes the whites seem all the more progressive, as when Jake says “And that woman must also choose me.” Thanks for the feminist enlightenment, colonizer boy!

Cameron’s analysis of gender holds competing elements that are never very well resolved, like a mishmash of essentialized second-wave feminism goddess-worship narrative and contemporary views of gender as irrelevant (as we pat ourselves on the back for being progressive and ignore systemic discrimination). Again, truly progressive narrative doesn’t worship women as goddesses, demonize us as inferior or ignore gender altogether.

And while we’re at it, where are the same-sex relationships? If the glimpse of the butch military officer is any indication, Cameron’s well aware that queers exist, but the storyline is relentlessly heterosexual. I expect nothing different from your average mainstream film, but the conspicuous absence of alternative sexualities is nonetheless indicative of the on-again, off-again version of “progressive” the film puts forth. Then again, if I go by the way Cameron deployed other tropes, I can imagine same-sex sexuality showing up in one of two ways: either within the ranks of the humans as evidence of how progressive we are, or within the ranks of the Na’vi as evidence of how free and open they are as aboriginals who have no use for stuffy propriety. So maybe it’s for the best that no queers or trans people seem to really show up.

Ability: wheeling out the symbolism

Last but not least—and in some ways, first and foremost—the film’s politics around ability and disability are worthy of a forehead smack. When we were leaving the film, I wondered out loud what purpose it served to have Jake be a person who uses a wheelchair. What was Cameron trying to say with that particular choice? Boi M shrewdly observed that they had to make him disabled to make him an outcast, so that he’d have a believable reason for turning his back on humanity.

I extrapolated that if they’d made him queer, the whole hetero plotline wouldn’t have worked; if they’d made him female it would have been a chick flick (for all that Cameron likes to think he’s come up with the perfect hybrid of “testosterone movie” and “chick flick”); if they’d made him a person of colour, the irony within the colonial narrative would have been too great, and the classic “audience identification” thing wouldn’t have worked. As a blogger at Remingtons notes with regard to the reason for the Jake character’s existence: “I can just see the explanation: ‘Well, we need someone (an avatar) for the audience to connect with. A normal guy [read, a white male] 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.”

So what’s left? Make him a crip. But with that choice comes a whole lot of symbolism—not surprisingly, confused symbolism. Jake’s apparently non-functional legs are the result of combat injury, but the military’s budget won’t cover the operation that would “get him his legs back” (never mind that he has legs, he just can’t walk on them) because the economy is in a shambles. So his disability is code for “valiant soldier fallen on hard times” and even used as a preliminary way of showing us how the human world is unkind to its own. This point is hammered home when Jake is repeatedly mocked by fellow soldiers for his disability and told not to hold everyone back by moving more slowly than his walking colleagues. The possibility of an operation is then used as a reward dangled in front of him to encourage him to take on the dangerous mission, because clearly he must be miserable in a wheelchair (never mind that he’s been cryogenically frozen until they wake him up to go on said mission, so not likely feeling much pain of any kind).

Then, when he’s given his avatar body, he all of a sudden has fully functioning legs again, with which he can leap about and play high in the trees on Pandora—which immediately scripts physical fitness, health, able-bodiedness and wholeness onto the Na’vi, whose bodies the avatar is designed to mimic, and clearly contrasts that with the sickness and disconnection from Nature that are scripted onto humans. In occupying a Na’vi-like body, Jake gets his “reward” immediately rather than having to wait until his mission succeeds—another metaphor for the Na’vi being the better, “healthier” choice. This also solidifies the Na’vi as being closer to Nature and humans as being hopelessly “crippled” in that department, and solidifies the film’s insistence on the riches to be found in colonizing. Jake goes from being a frozen, solitary gimp from a wasted planet, under the thumb of a nasty commander, to being a fully able-bodied tribal leader in his own right with a hot chick at his side… and to get there, all he has to do is appropriate a culture. But only as long as that’s convenient for him, given that until the very end he can hang onto his human form too and literally get the best of both worlds.

In addition to the more obvious sickness/health narrative, the plot also follows the standard ugly duckling narrative: we are meant to learn that beauty is found on the inside, in this case, typified when “ugly”/crippled/human Jake finally chooses to side with the Na’vi. But “ugly” people can’t possibly be heroes in the mainstream, so the reward for finding that inner beauty is inevitably a magical transformation into normative outer beauty as well, or in this case meaning able-bodiedness.

Deep into the mainstream

On another note, I know there’s lots of criticism being heaped on Avatar right now, and predictably, some of the counter-reactions say, essentially, “Get over it, it’s just a story, and if you’re reading all this bad stuff into it it’s because you’ve got a bunch of hang-ups” (such as the first commenter on Ashley Michelle Papon’s incisive critical review). Annalee Newitz preemptively responds to that by quoting black Canadian sci-fi writer Nalo Hopkinson, who, in a recent article in the Boston Globe, said, “Particularly in the US, to talk about race is to be seen as racist. You become the problem because you bring up the problem. So you find people who are hesitant to talk about it.” Really, that about covers it, so I won’t try to say it better.

I will add, though, that for all that mainstream cultural productions rarely intend to convey deep thoughts about the state of humanity or make sweeping political statements, their very mainstream-ness is precisely why they so richly deserve analysis and close political readings. It’s not so much that I, or other reviewers, have a huge hate-on for mainstream stories; rather, it’s that these stories, by virtue of being so popular, tell us a lot about what mainstream culture enjoys, values and sees as unproblematic. And that’s exactly what we need to critique if we are to encourage progressive change in the world, or at least a bit more critical awareness of what it is we’re consuming. Our critical awareness of the discourses that surround us directly equips us to make different choices in everyday life, and those choices have real impact on real people. When so many people respond with “shut up, it’s all just in good fun” instead of engaging with the meat of the critiques that are raised, that too tells us something about the mainstream—namely, that many people are unwilling to reflect on their own prejudices, and see criticism as threatening rather than healthy. To provide an informed disagreement with a criticism is one thing; that implies thought and engagement. To tell critics to shut up and go away because they’re spoiling the fun implies dismissiveness and refusal to think, which, in my humble opinion, is a sure sign that something’s going terribly wrong. And that, too, is about real people, not just about having a good time at the movies.

3 Responses

  1. I think we sum it up nicely when we say that it’s “Dances with Wolves – in Space.”

  2. What really bothered me was that they had to kill off all the strong female characters that weren’t married to the lead male character. I mean, except for the bad guys, I don’t think they killed ANY of the white males. All the good guys that died were blue or female, conveniently leaving the white guy (and his submissive wife) as the only viable leader.

  3. Tom – Yup.
    Tobi – Good point! … Although didn’t they off the geeky white scientist guy during that forest battle near the end? I know he got shot down, at least. Anyway. Still. Hey, nice to have you here. We met at the San Diego bi con in 2003 and I haven’t seen you since, though we’ve both got essays in “And Baby Makes More.” Hope you are well these days!

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