Once Upon a Time

You must have heard this story:

A young man goes out on his not necessarily very well defined quest.  As the story unfolds it turns out that he has to kill an evil older guy and in return he’s going to get the kingdom and its princess.

There are all sorts of variations, of course.  In the biggest bad luck version, he  gets the queen, who turns out  to be  mother.  In some versions, he’s really just out to destroy a potential iconic weapon.  But how about the version in which the guy is white, the princess and the people of  the kingdom are native people of color who need him, and his grasp of technology, to save their land.  And he turns out to be the most magical of all.  Anyone up for post-colonial theory?

The very latest version of the story must be that in Avatar.  Its visual beauty, along with its employment of a classic myth of self-realization, could amount to a sustained display of  Jungian theory archetyptes.  But should we still be telling the white hero version of the story?  Perhaps we should look at the life ever after to examine the very idea of someone saving us or us saving others.

David Brooks thinks the movie is pretty distasteful:

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron [the  director/writer/producer] applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

It might be that Cameron was even trying through some of it to do the  sort of reverse valorization that some feminists have been attracted to; that is, where one keeps the dichotomies but says that those qualities on the subordinate side are really superior.  If so, arguably that is not sustained all the way through, despite a  couple of damning references to the Iraq war.

I did actually feel it pulled on all sorts of themes in myths that can profoundly engage us.  But should it have told that version?  Can we understand it in a way that  makes it less than pretty racist?  What do you think?

It turns out that the web  is full of discussion of the racism of the movie.  There are some interesting pieces, including this argument that it bashes white people, which might be a good piece for a critical reasoning moment with students.