There has been a lot of debate about James Cameron’s movie Avatar. This film describes a private mercenary force like Blackwater colonizing a forest planet named Pandora sometime during the 22nd century. The indigenous people of this planet, the Navi’i, rise up and drive them out; in the process some of the colonizers switch sides and join the rebellion. Some see this story as a “noble savage” myth that perpetuates racist stereotypes of indigenous people. Others see it as a criticism of ecological destruction and a warning of what will happen if we don’t learn how to live in harmony with the natural world. Some see it as a white guilt fantasy and an example of liberal racism because it involves a white man leading a revolt of oppressed people. Others see it as an inspiring story of anti-colonial armed struggle; (an Anti-War activist friend of mine said that Cameron was able to do what the anti-war movement has not been able to do: to encourage millions of Americans to root for the defeat of the US military.) In any case, this movie has been seen by millions of people and has broken records as a holiday blockbuster, so it is clearly striking a chord with everyday people in this time of economic crisis, ecological fear, and colonization efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and elsewhere. For that reason, it is important for activists to carry on these debates because if we misunderstand the appeal of this movie we could be misunderstanding where our coworkers, friends, and neighbors are at right now.
Noble Savage Myth?
Those who argue that Avatar perpetuates the “noble savage” myth have a point. The Navi’i fight with bows and arrows, speak with “Hollywood African” accents, and at times speak in over-the top mystical dialogue that is both stereotypical and cheesy. I would argue that these are bad choices on Cameron’s part that detract from the deeper themes of his movie.
A few folks in the comments section over at the Kasama blog have taken this critique even farther, saying that Cameron makes the Navi’i look stupid and superstitious because they believe in Eywa, a deity who is suffused throughout the natural world, and concentrated in the Tree of Souls. The movie contrasts this Navi’i spirituality with the profit-driven “insanity” of the colonists who see the planet Pandora as simply a natural resource to be accumulated at all costs. Is this falling into the “ecological Indian” myth that claims that indigenous people live in harmony with nature and all ecological problems are simply the result of colonization? The problem with this myth is it treats indigenous people as if they are part of the landscape, like lions of buffalo, not human beings who transform their environment through labor and technology. In reality, indigenous people have transformed their environments and have long histories of changing technologies and social relations, some of which are very ecologically sustainable and some which are ecologically destructive. Deep Ecologists, some “primitivist” Anarchists, and some liberal environmentalists appropriate indigenous culture to articulate their politics without taking seriously the histories of indigenous peoples and without siding with existing indigenous communities today in their ongoing struggles against colonization. This is a major problem which needs to be critiqued ruthlessly.
I agree with those who criticize the ecological Indian myth, but I think it is dogmatic to apply this critique to Avatar. Avatar is science fiction, it is not a documentary about the colonization of North America and it is not a primitivist movie. If it were either then I would say yes, it is both inaccurate and racist. But the Navi’i are not supposed to be Native Americans, they are another culture in their own right that Cameron dreamed up in the context of a fictional story (it would have been better if he had avoided the stereotypical bows and arrows to make this clearer). And, as I argue below, they are not “primitive”. We can critique how Cameron dreamed up the Navi’i, and we can critique the allusions and references to indigenous history that he makes, but we need to start by looking at the specific story that Avatar tells in all of its details and begin our critique there; we can’t simply import our (entirely justified) ideological beef with the noble savage myth into the movie. Art is not simply something that narrowly projects and expresses the class, race, and gender politics of today – while it is clearly informed and limited by these and needs to be critiqued in terms of them, it also has an imaginative aspect to it that needs to be taken into account if we want to avoid dogmatic interpretations of popular culture.
….Or a Revolutionary Future Utopia?
Beyond the bows and arrows, I don’t think that Cameron presents the Navi’i as “primitive” at all. (I hate this term in the first place – no real life indigenous groups were ever “primitive” outside the minds of white supremacists”). In fact, the Navi’i are highly sophisticated, and in some respects have more developed technology than the humans in the movie. For example, they have the ability to transfer and merge their consciousness with other beings, including the horse like animals or bird-like animals they ride. This allows them to do fighter-jet style maneuvers in the air which are faster and more precise then the colonizers’ helicopters. Cameron has them merge their consciousness with other beings not through some appropriation of what colonial anthropologists call shamanism, but rather through a unique, biologically based technology: they, and other creatures on the planet have “link” interfaces where the tendrils of their bodies merge with each other. Instead of a synthetic technology based on chemicals and energy sources that require mining, the Navi technology seems to be based on the biological and ecological networks around them. But this doesn’t make it any less advanced; in fact, Cameron suggests it is more advanced because it enhances the complexity and beauty of the planet rather than destroying it. When Jake Sully communicates with the Tree of Souls near the end of the movie he warns the planetary network of consciousness centered there that the colonizers are going to destroy it because they will do the same thing they did to earth: turn it into a barren, lifeless, synthetic environment.
In fact, the Navi’i consciousness-linking technology is exactly what the humans are trying to develop in their colonial science labs with the Avatar program, which meshes the consciousness of individual humans with the bodies of individual Navi’is. The movie suggests that the Avatar program is possible because the Navi’i had developed their bodies to be able to do this kind of linking. Grace Augustine, the main human scientist who developed it, may have gotten the idea by observing the Navi’i technology herself: we see her taking samples of the neural networks in the forest roots near the beginning of the movie and we know she runs a school for Navi’is which probably has as much to do with exploiting them for their knowledge as it does teaching them.
However, Cameron ultimately argues that the humans are not able to fully develop this technology because their science is constrained by the politics of imperialism. For the humans, there is a contradiction between their technology and their social relations. The Navi’i’s link technology implies the possibility of deep forms of communication between beings. But instead the colonists’ Avatar program involves a “mind-body” split where consciousness “comes down” from above like an Avatar to dominate and control the Navi body. The largely white colonial scientists then take over Navi bodies and use them to support a liberal imperialist project of gunboat diplomacy, and “white man’s burden” efforts like building the school to teach English. If there is a conflict between the colonial scientists and the colonial mining corporation in the movie, it simply represents two competing forms of capitalist accumulation: resource extraction vs. biotechnology, a conflict playing out right now in Chiapas, Mexico between oil companies that want to destroy the jungle and biotech companies that want to plunder its genome.
The Avatar program is still trapped in the logical of modern Western individualism: ONE individual consciousness enters one body. The Navi’i, in contrast, seem to be able to transfer their consciousness into the entire world around them, not just an individual body, and their use of this technology is not based on the domination of mind over matter, it is based on a mutual, dialectical relationship where the birds they merge with have to “choose” them as much as they “choose” the animals. This ultimately makes the Navi technology more powerful than the human technology, which ends up helping them win the war in the end because they are able to convince Eywa to come to their aid in the form of an onslaught of animals who attack the human predator drones. Some commentators over on the Kasama blog asked if nature is going to save them anyway what’s the point of fighting back? This misses the point: the Navi’i shape and change nature as much as nature shapes and changes them; they have an unalienated relationship with the natural world but they are far from being controlled by mysterious forces and they don’t simply bow before some unchanging essence. On the contrary, their society is like what Murray Bookchin hoped a future social ecology on earth could be: nature rendered self-conscious.
Grace Augustine realizes all of this too late because she is too trapped in her liberal white man’s burden logic and the fact that she is a client of imperialism whose science is funded by the colonial mining effort. In an argument with the corporate CEO of the colony who wants to destroy the Navi’i Home Tree, Augustine says correctly that the Navi’i belief in Eywa is not “paganism”. She says that Eywa is a material presence, which (she thinks) can be quantified, because it involves a kind of planet-wide computer system, a neural network in the roots of trees that processes information rapidly. What she doesn’t understand is that Eywa cannot be understood or studied by breaking her into discrete pieces and putting her under the microscope. When Eywa is trying to save her life all Augustine can think of is “I should take samples of this” and the movie suggests this attitude, this “wound” is ultimately the wound Eywa is unable to heal.
At the same time, Augustine is right, the Navi’i do not practice a “primitive” mysticism. Eywa is not a disembodied Spirit. The Navi are not idealists, in fact they fully integrate spirit and matter, idealism and materialism, in a way that only the most utopian libertarian Marxists and anarchists have dreamed up. They do not worship a God who stands outside of and dominates the natural world, nor do they merge into a pantheistic Oneness, a “night in which all cows are Black” as Hegel put it. Their worship involves merging their consciousness with the world around them through creative praxis: though a mix of contemplation and action. It is almost like all of them become Jesus figures: fully God and fully human(oid), they are in touch with universal truth in and through the concrete, particular, embodied reality they live in. This allows them to co-develop/ co-evolve with the natural world and that’s why they are able to develop such a sophisticated system of biologically-based technology. To extend the theological echoes here, I wonder if the choice of Grace Augustine’s name was intentional. For her, like for St. Augustine, grace and spirit come down from above to control disobedient bodies; for the Navi’i who defy her liberal racist science, there is no separation between spirit and matter.
In summary, I don’t think Cameron presents the Navi as primitive. In fact, I think they represent what humanity could look like if we didn’t invent capitalism, patriarchy, and the state. Imagine if indigenous peoples on earth were never conquered by patriarchal and capitalist empires but still continued to develop and grow through history (if we reject the noble savage myth, this means indigenous cultures have history and do change and grow without the intervention of imperialism). Could one possible future have been something like the Nav’i? I would like to think so. Maybe for many of us the appeal of Avatar is that it expresses repressed dreams for a less alienated way of life.
For example, Navi’i society has less of a gender binary; both men and women fight and hunt, and they even look relatively similar (notably, Cameron manages to make these relatively genderqueer creatures have sex appeal which pushes the limits of Holywood’s heterosexism, even though unfortunately the Navi’i appear to have only heterosexual mating patterns because Jake Sully is asked to choose a woman for a mate). Most importantly, it is a woman leader who is most adept at interpreting Eywa to make political decisions. While they seem to have some form of leadership hierarchy, it doesn’t appear to be based on coercion or permanent class divisions. And it seems most of their technology is used towards the goal of making life easier and relatively affluent – they have plenty of food and shelter and seem to have a lot of fun because their work and their play overlap. This means that their military technology is relatively underdeveloped (hence the bows and arrows), leaving them at first unable to match the human colonists who pour most of their resources and science into developing tools to exploit and conquer others instead of developing their social relationships.
So ultimately this is a story not about an indigenous past vs. a colonial present; it is a story of a utopian revolutionary indigenous future vs. a dystopian capitalist future. It is the kind of society many of us dream about building on earth vs. the society we have nightmares about: Blackwater mercenaries conquering and destroying everything in their path, justifying it all as a preemptive war on terror, dispensing even with basic concepts of citizenship and rights, leaving life bare and broken.
While I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Cameron of primitivism I do think that there are problems with how exaggerated he makes this contrast. The Navi’i are too utopian to the point where they seem fantastic or unbelievable. The human colonists are complex – there are class and ideological divisions among their ranks which lead to mutiny and treason. Why does the same process not happen among the Navi’i? None of them, except for the main character Jake Sully, betray their people and he only does it because he literally has a white man in his head telling him what to do. Why are there no opportunistic layers in Navi society willing to give up their way of life for “blue jeans and light beer”? The fact that they are completely immune to the temptations of capitalism seems too flat. For example, why are none of them willing to become a comprador ruling class, middle men power brokers between the people and the colonists like so many misleaders and house slaves have been willing to do on Earth? If Cameron had explored these kinds of dynamics the film would have been much more compelling and much harder to dismiss.
Ultimately, Cameron does explore these questions, but not in terms of social or class relations: he explores them primarily through a developing conflict within the inner consciousness of the individual Avatar, Jake Sully, as I will argue at the end of this essay. The Avatar is a composite of two characters: Jake Sully the disabled marine, who is a white man, and Jake Sully the Navi’i whose blue body is bred by the colony and controlled by the white man.
Race Treason and Anti-Imperialism?
Most commentators focus on Jake Sully the white man and present him as the main character. In this reading, the movie Avatar is a story about race treason. Sully becomes a reference to white people like the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown who switched sides, who broke with white supremacy, who refused to act white, and who joined people of color in revolt against white supremacy. Sully fully identifies with the Navi’i struggle to the point where he becomes Navi’i and fights his former people. The white commander of the mercenary forces directly calls Sully a race traitor and tries to kill him for it.
Because most people interpret Sully the white man as the main character, debate about the movie ends up falling along pre-established ideological fault lines. The movie has reignited an important debate about the problems and possibilities of advocating that white people become race traitors. This debate sometimes references Race Traitor magazine, a publication that advocated that white people no longer identify as white. In my mind, both sides of this debate make good points and both have their flaws. Advocates of a race traitor strategy say it is necessary to help break up the white club, to create civil war among white people so that people of color can more successfully bring down white supremacy. Also, they argue that white supremacy also oppresses white workers, women, queer folks, and people with disabilities. Each of these groups has good reason to fight against the ruling class but instead they are told to ignore their own oppression, to say “at least I’m not Black”, and to side with the white rulers against people of color. Advocates of race treason claim that it should be the role of white individual to switch sides, not only for the sake of people of color but also for their own liberation.
Many of them would claim that Jake Sully in the movie does just this: his is a person with disabilities and is working class so he can’t afford the health care necessary to get his legs back. He is the profile of a poor working class white veteran who is fighting to colonize people of color but is getting screwed by the military in the process. Sully realizes this and switches sides, turning the guns around and fragging his officers. What does it mean that millions of military age white Americans are watching this movie? If they identify with Jake Sully’s transformation, does that mean the movie is nurturing seeds of rebellion, mutiny, or treason against U.S. Empire? White identity in the US is going through a process of transformation right now because many of the systems that supported white supremacy (for example the United Auto Workers which gave white workers access to higher paying skilled jobs in auto plants) are breaking down as the system can no longer afford to pay out the benefits to co-opt white workers and keep them in the white club. Maybe movies like Avatar are so popular because lots of white people are starting to look for something else to become. If so, isn’t this a good thing?
…Or Blue-Face Racist Fantasy?
I think it is to some extent, but it poses some serious problems. The problem with a race traitor strategy is even though it advocates smashing whiteness it ends up putting white people at the center of the story. It makes it seem like the agency to fight white supremacy and colonialism will come from heroic white individuals who switch sides rather than from millions of people of color – the world’s majority, who need to work out their own contradictions and build up their own organizations to revolt. Critics of Avatar rightfully claim that the film plays into this dynamic. Some of them claim that Jake Sully never fully gives up his white privilege. He can go back to being a colonizer at any time; he never fully experiences what it’s like to be an oppressed Navi’i. And, in the end, he ends up leading the Navi’i in their revolt; this makes it seem like the Navi’i are helpless and need to be saved by a white man. As my friend C.J. argued, yes it’s true the Navi’i have sophisticated technologies but in the end it is only the white man who knows how to use these technologies to defeat the colonists; he alone can ride the giant bird, and he alone can speak to Eywa at the end to convince her to fight with the Navi’i. More damningly, he is the ONLY ONE to suggest uniting the Navi’i clans to fight back which makes the rest of the Navi’i appear to be stupid and un-strategic. In fact, as Will from Gathering Forces pointed out, they were still busy trying to save a white woman’s life (Grace Augustine) when their entire people was about to face genocide! Isn’t this all just a liberal racist fantasy?
Unfortunately, I think this is the message many white folks will take away from the film, and Cameron doesn’t do anything in terms of his narrative to significantly jolt them out of it. At the same time, there are aspects of the story that challenge this reading and thus give us space to raise criticisms of the race traitor concept when we discuss the film with folks around us. For example, even when Sully calls the clans together to revolt he ultimately recognizes the leadership of the more militant Navi’is who trained him: the lead male warrior and Neytiri, the woman who trained him in Navi’i ways who becomes his partner. Sully uses his ability to ride the giant bird and his knowledge of the enemy’s technology to help unite the clans to fight but it doesn’t appear that he is the only one calling the shots. In fact, he even asks the more militant Navi’i whether he can speak at one of the rallies and they give him permission. Also, at the end, he seems to relinquish his prestige as the one who can ride the giant bird and goes back to being a rank and file Navi’i. Finally, and most importantly, the source of strength and the agency for winning the revolt does not come from his heroism alone, it comes from the fact that the Navi’i are able to come together and to draw from their strengths and knowledge of the land to wage guerrilla warfare.
Sully realizes this is the only way after he exhausts all the options available within the framework of liberal imperialism. He starts out by trying to “preserve” Navi’i culture thorough Grace Augustine’s colonial anthropology only to find out the corporate leaders are interested only in mining not in culture. They even use his field notes to justify their destruction of the Navi’i Home Tree. Then Sully tries to use his privilege to stop the bulldozer from cutting down the trees by desperately shouting at them to stop as if he actually mattered to them. When this fails, he sees that an individualistic revolt based on his own moral standing in the eyes of the colonizers is going nowhere and he returns to the Navi’i people, recognizing that the only agency for change lies with them. Notably, when he does this, his privilege does start to erode: the white colonel sets out on a vendetta to hunt him down and kill him.
Finally, it is not only a white man who commits treason against colonialism in this film. I agree with some critics that it would have been much more powerful if Jake Sully were cast as a person of color. Imagine if he were a disabled Native American or Arab war vet and if Cameron had explored him going through a process of realizing that the same system that stole his people’s land is now stealing the Navi’is land? However, Cameron suggests this when he casts Jake Sully’s co-conspirators as South Asian and Latina. They are central to orchestrating the mutiny inside the colonial military and one of the movie’s climaxes is the Latina character Trudy Chacon trying to frag the white colonel shouting “you’re not the only one with a gun bitch.” Despite its serious problems, I find it hard to dismiss as racist a movie that successfully gets an American audience to root for people of color soldiers when they choose to frag their officers rather than kill other oppressed people.
Blue Skins White Masks?
But, more importantly, I think both sides of this race traitor debate are missing a key part of the story. They are focusing on Jake Sully the white man, even though it is Jake Sully the Navi’i, in his blue body, who actually gets the most screentime, and who is really central to the story. I don’t think this is only a story about a white man who commits race treason. I think it is also a story of an alienated Navi’i who begins as a traitor to his people and ends as an anti-colonial militant. The Navi’i don’t know that Sully the Navi’is mind is being controlled by a white man in the colonial base; Neytiri only figures it out at the end. They perceive Sully as a Navi’i brought to them from the Sky People (humans), as someone who has caught their “insanity.” They probably assume that Sully is part of the English language school that Grace Augustine runs through her own Avatar character. The film suggests that the Navi’i forced this school to shut down as an act of revolt against this kind of white man’s burden paternalism.
But, like has happened all too often in colonial history, it is not just white men running this liberal paternalism, it is people whose bodies are oppressed because they come from the colonized “race” but whose minds are whitewashed. In this sense, perhaps Jake Sully has what W.E.B. DuBois described as “double consciousness”: his mind and body are split and there is a war going on between the oppressor and the oppressed for the fate of his body. In this sense, Jake Sully starts out as the Navi’i equivalent of an Uncle Tom who is trained in the colonizer’s schools and goes back to use the master’s tools to dominate his people. He is a “blueberry”: blue on the outside, white on the inside. Over time, he needs to exorcise and transform the white part of his mind, which means switching sides and joining the revolt of his people against colonialism. In this sense, the movie could actually be read as a parable for the psychological transformation of colonized peoples. As Frantz Fanon described, colonialism demanded that people of color could be nothing else besides white and yet it never allowed them to be white. This contradiction and loss of identity can lead to an explosive anger and violence that can only result in self-destruction or revolution against the colonizers. In the film, Jake Sully’s tension is worked out through armed struggle. Through this struggle Sully is finally able to reject the white consciousness that is dominating his mind and he is finally able to find his place among the insurgent Navi’i people. Read this way, the movie does speak powerfully to the agency, complexity, and humanity of oppressed peoples. Ultimately Sully doesn’t save the Navi’i, the Navi’i save Sully. It is their collective power, manifested through the battle and culminating in the final ritual at the Tree of Souls, which allows him to make the final transition to become fully Navi’i.
Conclusion: Seeing Deeply
Ultimately the main point of Avatar is “I see you.” Navi’i culture is based on this deep recognition of interconnection and interbeing. This is a spirituality of liberation which stands in militant resistance against the logic of wars on terror, wars for resources, and scientific research sponsored by private military contractors. Despite all of the film’s serious flaws, I do think that the film gives us enough to work with to argue that “I See You” also stands in resistance to liberal imperialism and “friendly” racism. To fully SEE each other, we can’t be paternalistic, we need to recognize the self-activity of oppressed people and the central role oppressed folks must play in choosing the ecological, free, and less patriarchal future represented by the Navi’i over the nightmare future represented by the colonial mercenaries. Hopefully the film inspires people to fight today to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to stop the ongoing theft of indigenous land from British Columbia to Palestine, and to stop the capitalist destruction of Earth’s ecology before it is too late.
17 thoughts on “Avatar: A Contradictory Movie for Contradictory Times”
One question I would have for those who frame this movie as a white guilt fantasy: why are so many people of color also attracted to it? Is it because of internalized racism or is it more complex than that?
My post focused more on the appeal of the race traitor theme to military age working class white folks and only touched on the anti-imperial treason theme’s potential attraction to people of color viz. Trudy Chacon’s character.
But what else do folks see in the movie? Is the double-consciousness thing something folks are picking up on or engaging with at a wider level or am I reading too much into it? Does the Navi’i revolt and the (flawed and limited) portrayal of the self-activity of oppressed people resonate at a mass level with people of color in the U.S.? Abroad? What does this say about the current moment politically and culturally?
Bravo! A wonderful review full of deep insight. I have seen other reviews that discuss the film as a White racist fantasy, but you have gone much deeper in your analysis.
I think the mass appeal of Avatar is its strong spiritual message. And of course Cameron is highly adept at packaging his message within a formulaic Hollywood heroic quest. And the groundbreaking visual effects are like eye candy for a public addicted to gimmicks on the movie screen.
To anyone who has ever experienced any kind of oppression, the appeal is obvious. The oppressed win in the end of the movie. So it clearly fulfills that fantasy of the colonized people. And they win without sacrificing their own way of life.
But personally I don’t think that there is an effective anti-war or anti-imperialist message in this movie. It feels more to me like a promo for the US military. The protagonist is after all a former marine and the futuristic military hardware on display is awesome.
I agree with you that Cameron intends the Na’vi to represent a culture of the future rather than of the past. My hope is that this view of the future will inspire others to think of the goal of technology in different ways which are not in direct conflict with nature. While my fear is that the way that people will attempt to achieve that future will be through biotechnology which could be even more devastating to the natural world than any of our existing technologies.
I’ve written my own review of Avatar and I hope you’ll have a chance to read it. It touches on some of the themes that you have gone into, although I purposely avoided the race issue because I thought others had already covered that better than I could.
I forgot to leave a link to my review. Here it is.
Avatar – Life vs. Death
Excellent review. Beyond the obvious anti-colonial and race traitor white mans burden tropes, you’ve touched on some of the deeper themes I picked up on after seeing it (Navi’i as metaphor for alienated species-being and the Fanonian aufhebung or Hegelian-Marxist hybridity theory embodied in the Jake Sully character), and explicated them better than I could. Kudos.
Thanks Rik and Frank. Frank, I started reading your review and it looks good so far. I’ve been doing some crazy organizing the past few weeks – sorry I haven’t responded earlier. I’ll post some commenets when I get a chance to finish it.
This really is a fantastic review, Matt. I just got back into the U.S., and this is the first political review of the movie I’ve read so far…I’ll go seek out some of the others you’ve mentioned.
Overall, I agree with the nuances of your analysis, and I also agree that this move is such a huge pop culture phenomenon that it’s really worth it for the left to explore.
I just saw the movie for a second time and the theater was full of kids. I like to think about what kind of a effect the symbols and images in this movie is having on these kids’ consciousness. What questions does it raise? I mean the anti-imperialist tone of the movie really is striking.
What’s particularly striking to me, as has been mentioned above, is the fact that in the end, the Navi’i win. Not just win a settlement, or a sharing of the planet or something…they completely kick the colonialists out.
Contrast this with other comparable “white savior” movies…like Dances With Wolves, or The Last Samurai…where the white guy’s treason is nothing more than a symbolic punctuation as the oppressed have a last stand before fading into history. The message in those movies is very different, in that the treason is made to look admirable, but ultimately idealistic and kind of pointless.
Here, however, is something different, and I think it’s really significant in the current world context: the message is that insurgencies can win; that the oppressed majority are key to the future, they aren’t just faded tragedies of the colonial past; and that preserving the balance of life requires one to actually choose sides, when in the face of the monster of US capitalist imperialism.
These are important differences from previous movies in the same vein, and though I agree with Frank that the anti-war message won’t ultimately be that effective…this movie is still a cultural touchstone with which to connect our political work with popular symbolism and values.
However, there are also points where I disagree or would take the critique further…
-I think the movie is still quite patriarchal, and though there is less division of labor between men and women, that is all on the side of the women being more active in the traditional masculine sphere. For example, it shows women hunting, women fighting, etc. But where are the babies in this movie? I think anti-patriarchal messages are much stronger when they showcase the sharing of traditionally feminine roles as well…otherwise it’s just power-feminism, with masculinity preserved as the ultimate ideal.
Further, the line about choosing a woman is disgusting…because it’s the white guy who retorts “only if she’ll choose me…” as if this guy is the one bringing the gender equality in mating.
Third, I think symbolically the scene where Jake gets his Ikran, his flying bird, is really problematic when we think about rape culture. How does he know the one for him? Well, it’s the one the fights back the hardest. So he lassos it’s mouth closed, he jumps on top of it while it tries to throw him off and kill him…all the while until he can force his very genital-looking thing into its very genital-looking thing…and then it’s eyes get all wide and Jake says, “you’re mine now.” My wife and I just turned to each other in the theater and asked, “did he just rape that thing into submission?” I think it’s really damaging, with animals or people or Navi’i, for that kind of mythology to keep getting put into pop culture.
-The ablism of the film is also complicated, and I think there are multiple ways to read it…so maybe I want to think about it more before saying anything.
-But an extension of the anti-patriarchy critique of the movie is a critique of the militarism of the movie, and I’m glad you connect it to Fanon and some of the psychological ideas of anti-colonial armed struggle.
I think, in political movies, just as in political work, when the central question of choosing sides is framed around violent conflict, it’s really problematic. It elevates armed struggle to a place where it’s seen as transcendent, cleansing, definitive…when the reality is that it’s anything but. Armed struggle is traumatizing, it is messy, it is dehumanizing, it fractures societies and people…and at best it should only be seen as a tragic strategic necessity. It is actually said well in the movie (and then dropped in the end), when she has to kill all of those dog things to save Jake…you don’t thank for this…this is sad only.
But this is something that doesn’t get dealt with in pop culture treatments of armed struggle, or even in many militant left examinations of armed struggle: the deep psychological costs of armed resistance. The trauma of returning home, rebuilding, raising children…the way it distorts people’s abilities to trust, feel, cooperate and imagine…and the folly of keeping the warriors–the most traumatized–at the top of the social hierarchy.
Excellent comments Jeremy, I really appreciate the nuanced engagement.
I agree with you it is crucial that the Navi win in the end. It shows that we have come a long way since the popularity of the early 90s “There is No Alternative”/ end of history scenarios. Back then it seemed like capitalism was invincible, even to many working class people. Now this seems to be changing with the economic and ecological crises. Both the ruling class and the working class are starting to realize that capitalism might not last forever. This could intensify class struggle as the rulers amp up their struggle to maintain capitalism and as workers begin to revolt. Again, in this sense, the movie lays out the polarized future we might be entering – Blackwater vs. a popular resistance fighting not only for itself but for the entire planet.
Also, the fact that the Navi win and that they kick out the settlers is key because it develops the movie’s critique of liberal anthropology. The problem with so many “last stand” movies is they romanticize indigenous culture as a kind of noble museum piece, not as a living breathing reality that persists today. Grace Augustine kind of represents this museum curator attitude… she recognizes the Navi world is passing away and she is trying to “preserve” it but “preserving” it just means killing it and turning it into a bunch of samples and disembodied scientific knowledge. Jake Sully goes further than this by actually siding with the living breathing Navi to destroy the apparatus of colonial science.
I agree with you about the patriarchy in the movie. This needed to be developed more in my review. I don’t so much have a problem with the female characters doing “masculine” things. I think many of these aspects of militancy, aggression, fighting, etc. are important and need to be reclaimed. They’re not inherently patriarchal, they just need to be dissociated with particularly patriarchal forms of masculinity like rape culture. I don’t fault women who take on aggressive warrior roles, especially since a key goal of transgender liberation is to break down the gender binary and open up space for folks to cross these lines without being labeled “sell outs” to women’s liberation.
That being said, I couldn’t agree more that the movie is flawed in never showing the role of reproduction, caring for babies, etc. in the resistance. Caring work is also a key part of militancy and no revolutionary struggle will succeed without it. And I agree this work needs to be shared democratically, with men participating in it equally.
I also agree that the scene when he conquers the giant bird is disgusting. It does replicate rape culture and links this to a kind of dominance of humanity over nature which is anti-ecological. The Navi characters make no critique of this even though it seems to violate their own norms of how to relate to the world and each other. It’d be one thing if the director developed this as a contradiction within Navi society – a struggle between patriarchal and anti-patriarchal tendencies -but that never happens, the scene is just left there hanging, encouraging popular patriarchal fantasies.
In terms of armed struggle I agree with you as well. In fact I was just having a conversation about this with some comrades this morning before I read your comment. What I like about Fanon is he explored both the cleansing and the traumatizing dimensions of armed struggle (though he did so in a relatively patriarchal way that needs to be critiqued and developed further – this is worth another whole blog post/ conversation). The danger is always that folks start seeing the revolution as something which is created through violence rather than something that is created through human self-activity and DEFENDED through violence. It is the political organization, mobilization, and insurrection that create the forms of a new society; the armed struggle simply defends these forms from the state. The actual creative process is something that everyone can participate in regardless of age or ability and that is the basis for direct democracy and new social relations. I think revolutionaries valorize armed struggle sometimes because they miss the importance of this mass self-activity and attempt to replace it with the heroic armed actions of a small vanguard. This needs to be challenged.
I’m not sure how much the movie plays into this. It doesn’t really show in depth how the anti-colonial struggle was organized and prepared or the effects that it had on people psychologically. But to be fair most of the movie was not about the war itself but rather about the social relations of the Navi and the colonizers and the clash between the two. I hope that a future sequel might develop some of the points you’re raising.
I like the quote you mentioned: “you don’t thank for this…this is sad only.” Neytiri says this to Jake but I would have liked Jake to say this back at the end. Imagine if they had shown a group of Navis trying to praise or thank him and he said that in response. That would have shown he really learned the key lesson and that he had really switched sides. Or, even better, if the Navi refused to praise him and just said this is sad only and if Jake had to come to terms with his former participation in the colonial project. But none of this was developed at all. It is this ambiguity that makes the movie so controversial among leftists, because it brings up so much of our own shit that we haven’t dealt with yet in our organizations and movements either. That’s why these kinds of conversations are so key and we should use the movie’s popularity as an opportunity to have them.
Thanks for bringing your outlook to this movie!
no prob Eli thanks
here is a real life version of the image I posted on the post above… Palestinian militants dressed up as Navi resistance fighters from Avatar and tried to tear down part of the apartheid wall.
Too much analysis. It’s just a really crap story. No thought went into the script; it is meaningless mass-produced bilge for the masses. The very emptiness of it is what allows people to project so much onto it – it is as blank as the cinema screen. There are car adverts with more political content.
Thomas, do you really think the masses are so dumb that they would come out in the millions to see “empty bilge”?
That doesn’t absolve your responsibility to challenge what has already been said. You don’t have to respond to everything, but find one point you disagree with and offer a different perspective. Don’t just do a drive-by and bounce; that’s easy.
So I finally went and saw it. I have to say I’m pretty strongly on the negative side politically as far as the movie goes (white man’s burden, noble savage, patriarchy, the whole deal), but it did remind me of something that I liked. Kim Stanley Robinson, the great sci-fi author, wrote a book a few years back called “The Years of Rice and Salt,” which takes place in an alternate reality where the black plague killed off all Europeans, creating a world undisturbed by Columbus, his successors, and their legacy. It’s been some years since I read it, so I may get some details wrong, but the book is quite interesting.
My favorite section focuses on an encounter between an exiled Japanese samurai and the Iroquois confederacy in what would be perhaps 1700. The Chinese have sacked Japan, and a wandering samurai travels North America searching for a society that has the potential to resist Chinese imperialism. He finds what he’s looking for in the Iroquois. If I recall correctly, he becomes a fully integrated member of a clan, much as Jake Sully is integrated into the Navi. (Although it certainly took the samurai more than 3 months, which was one of the least believable parts of the generally unbelievable plot to “Avatar.”) And, like Sully, he brings a certain needed outsider perspective to his adopted community. He eventually convinces the leadership of the Iroquois that they must defend themselves militarily from the ever encroaching outside world.
When I read the book I remember thinking the Robinson was (consciously or not) echoing the Friends of Durruti, who during the Spanish revolution called for “a program and rifles” as the key to winning the revolution. In fact, the samurai provides specific instructions to the Iroquois in how to build a forge and refine iron to make rifles, even while he argues that Iroquois society is the best organized, most free and equitable and sustainable, society on earth, and that they can make allies against Chinese (and Muslim) imperialism by promoting the value of their mode of living. This combination – a way of life worth living, and the means to defend it by force – are the necessary elements to survival and growth for the Iroquois. A program, and rifles, indeed. Sully too seems to say that the Navi have the program – a way of life worth living – and need the weapons to defend it (though the politics of armed struggle are hopelessly muddled in Avatar).
So, I know there’s not an exact parallel, but the similarities are interesting enough that I wonder if Cameron or someone in his circles has perhaps read “The Years of Rice and Salt.” Both Sully and the samurai come from outside cultures, and both manage to integrate themselves fully into their adoptive cultures. Both bring with them outside perspective that helps their new societies resist colonialism in ways that would not have happened if they had not arrived, even while both are formally subordinate to the official leadership of their adoptive societies.
Of course there are a lot of differences as well. The samurai arrives as a refugee, not as a spy, and he is not himself from or part of the colonizing society in the way that Sully is. (Though as others have pointed out, Sully is working class and disabled, and thus his identification with the oppressing society is potentially ambivalent from the start.) Also, in Robinson’s story the Iroquois are not yet threatened by encroaching colonialism. On a narrative level, Robinson’s tale is much more compelling than Cameron’s, and the more or less explicit politics of Robinson’s narrative are much better than the mish-mash of ideas that marks Cameron’s story.
I guess all I’m saying is that Avatar made me think a little bit more about what it means to be an outsider bringing new ideas to a culture one is not previously part of. (In a way, this is also what prominent leaders of the black freedom movement represented to much of white US society – and especially the white left – in the 1960s and 1970s, although the relations of colonialism were obviously reversed there. Think Malcolm X, Huey Newton, James Forman, etc.) That’s still a waste of several million dollars I suppose, but it provides a slightly redeeming silver lining to what was otherwise a political train wreck.
Zizek on Avatar. In some ways he’s on point, but in many, he’s totally misguided. He gets served in the comments, though, where folks point out, for one thing, that Avatar HAS inspired anti-colonial struggles from Palestine to Bolivia, and it ain’t just “false consciousness” that’s behind it.
Jumping on this thread a little late in the day, but wanted to throw this into the mix since it hasn’t been considered.
1. It seems to me that Cameron is taking the easy way out by making the Navi a pre-capitalist society who are almost too perfectly in harmony with their natural environment. They fight back using dragons–what’s not to love? But it would have been a much more challenging and interesting movie if the Navi had been at least partially urbanized and/or industrialized. What if, instead of riding around on dragons, they used sniper attacks, roadside bombs, or even suicide operations? Would American audiences have found it possible to empathize with sort of resistance movement?
2. Did no one else wonder what might happen after the Navi victory? Surely the humans would just come back, nuke the planet, and take the ore out of the smoldering ruins. In fact, to win a sustainable victory, the Navi would likely have been forced to adapt some human technology, thus changing their society in all sorts of interesting and contradictory ways. Maybe this brings us back to ‘Years of Rice and Salt’, and maybe I’m asking too much of a Hollywood movie, but these were the things in my head as I left the theater.