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.

65 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time

  1. I haven’t yet seen Avatar, but my work is currently focused on this kind of mythic theme. The way I read it, success in this scenario requires the ability to move in both worlds. For the purposes of storytelling, then, the story should start with the two worlds separate, and then bring them together constructively, through the focus of a single agent, who starts with the powers and understanding of one world and learns enough about the other to make choices and act in both. Two simple forms are available for doing this: either the agent starts from the less desirable world and moves into the more desirable (a progress or redemption narrative), or the agent starts from the more desirable world and learns to become an actor in the less desirable world (which would focus more on his sacrifice and include tragic elements). I’m sure there are many stories of the latter kind, but the former is more uplifting for audiences, and also offers through personal identification with the hero the hope that we too can incorporate elements of the desired world in our lives, regardless of our origins in a sordid, commercial society.

  2. lga, you remind me that some of the elements of the story might be grouped in a different way: the invading empire is in trouble and without it, the invaded will be just fine. That adds a little substance to the reversed valorization.

    You seem to be doing such interesting work. Will there be a book or articles?

  3. Thank you! I like that way of thinking about it – we don’t typically associate ‘power’ with ‘being in trouble,’ but of course it makes sense.

    I do hope to publish eventually, but at this point I’m mired in a massive lit review, and I still have to think of ways to frame questions that can be studied empirically… (Ideas welcome!)

  4. lga, I like that way of thinking about it. It’s not that the invaders are superior, nor even that the natives are, necessarily, but that a combination of the two is more effective than either would have been individually.

    Of course, I suppose that that could be taken as an endorsement of the invaders also, since they are the faction more interested in interaction (of some sort). However, given that we ourselves come from a culture which favors commerce and synthesis over isolation, it seems reasonable to let that one go.

    On the other hand, not to spoil the movie, but wouldn’t better strategy have resulted in the invaders getting what they wanted? So 50 years down the road (or, more likely, 10-15), they may be back, with better technology, to make another go at the “Unobtanium”. If the natives haven’t adapted in the meantime, it seems reasonable to expect the invaders to succeed. So maybe the real “moral” here is that isolation, however pristine and appealing it might seem, doesn’t work? Success requires adopting the best elements of other cultures as well as your own.

  5. @ “reverse valorization that some feminists have been attracted to”

    Just to be clear — feminists are attracted to “reverse valorization,” the theoretic construct, as a tool in describing, diagnosing and undermining sexism, not to reverse valorization as a practice. That’s what you meant, right?

  6. I didn’t really see the film so much in the “White Messiah” genre. What I saw was a film about the “redemption” of a white, colonial character, where the colonized female acts as the tool for his redemption. In other words, the female character was a prop so that this guy could feel better about himself and his life. Monster’s Ball (with Billy Bob Thorton and Halle Barry playing the corresponding roles) has a very similar theme.

  7. To be a good scholar and cite my sources, there’s a discussion of the theme in Monster’s Ball by Aimee Carrillo Rowe in Hypatia (2007).

  8. MD, but the narrative does position his as a savior, doesn’t it? Including his being the one who can ride the special bird.

    Duckrabbit: I have in mind the sort of reaction Gilligan’s work inspired, though she herself did not endorse apparently: reversing the idea that rule-governed reason-based morality is the best, and emotion-based lesser; the reverse would say that the rule-governed stuff is the less good and the emotion-based moral judgments are better.

  9. Yes, he is represented as being “special” according to the standards of the alien culture throughout, and at the end he does assume a savior role. His specialness is why he was spared at the outset, and it felt rather forced (and was never really justified later).

    However, I thought that the “special bird” part was very well-handled. It wasn’t a matter of being “chosen”; instead, he used a little bit of cleverness and a whole lot of “nothing left to lose” to elect himself to the role of savior. A sizable fraction of the natives could presumably also have done it, had they had sufficient cause.

  10. OK — I was thinking that by “reverse valorization” you menat the phenomenon of patriarchy putting women on a pedestal as a way of controlling them. Or when people from a colonial powers patronistically extol cultural virtues of the indigenous people, which virtues they don’t actually admire and wouldn’t want to share.

  11. Let’s start with this: How do you tell a story? Well there are lots of stories that have lots of elements in them. Allusion and mythological archetypes work in nicely; symbol and allegory work as well. You have to leave room for all kinds of self-important know-it-alls to impose their ideology on the story (the way that most modern critical approaches do) or it won’t engage their interest at all. And since we live in a technological society, it must be pretty spiffy in that department as well.

    But at the end of the day, every story that has ever been told must have one element that cannot be ignored. It has to have an audience. Without audience there is no story. Furthermore you have to get that audience to identify with the story being told. It has to capture them.

    This of course is the rub. There is no point in moaning that the story has as its central character a representative from the culture that is telling the story. That is how a story gets its connectedness, that is how it works. Bollywood stories/movies work the same way. Hong Kong stories/movies do to. So did the works of Homer (not that one, doh!). If his hero had been Trojan, he would have had no audience in Athens.

    A protagonist must have a central role in his own story. That is what he is by definition. At least start your criticism from a level playing field. Ask how he approaches the cutural vertex, and what he does when he is there. Don’t question his right to be telling his story in the first place. That is what storytelling is!

    I have my own blog on this unique Canadian intellect at spwise.com and you are welcome to drop by and leave your own comment there.

  12. Steve and Pam, thanks for coming over with your ideas. I have to say, though, that I am not sure I disagree with two points:
    1. Story tellers needn’t tell their own story, at least not explicitly. A lot of people try to occupy another point of view when telling a story.
    2. We need to be able to say that some stories are not welcome because they are harmful or simply uncritically employ tropes that have been harmful. Stories of cruelty and degradation that are presented for titillation might be one; stories about white guys coming into save the natives might be another.

  13. First of all you are completely wrong. The movie is not racists. When the main character is in the human base you see several races of men an women working side by side in a proper ranking system. So in that sense it is anti-racism.

    The story is not about the Na’vi being less than the human army (which is made up of several races of humans). It is about them being different. The Na’vi have a world where life of all kinds is valued and humans have a “dead” world where only value objects with direct practical uses are valued.

    The main character was a human because the audience was human and we needed to understand his position. If the main character had been a Na’vi then the story would have just been about two species going to war for land/homes and it would have lost most of its audience.

    It also expresses equality of sexes because the female character must save and teach the male in the beginning. She also fights as an equal during the battles. Then when the main character chooses her as a mate he asks her is she chooses him as well. So, even from a feministic viewpoint this movie was well balanced.

  14. JC, fortunately human audiences can understand and get very wrapped up in stories about non-humans. The Lord of the Rings, for one.

    I think you may not be too used to analysing works in terms of their use of standard power tropes. That’s one thing that David Brooks understands quite well. The Na’vi have all the grace and vitality standardly ascribed to primitive characters, but they are nearly powerless against us and our technology.

    BTW, the best thing you can do when you come across something that strikes you as wrong is to see why someone else thinks it is right. That way you become more open to considering others’ ideas.

  15. I am sorry if is disagree with the post but it looks like all you are doing is bashing a movie for being raciest when it clearly places humans races together as equals. You incorrectly call the humans white when they are composed of several races working together.

    Also, according to James Cameron and Sam Worthington, one of the messages of the movie is to look past the appearance and into the personality. That was shown by the two main characters falling in love even though they both knew they were of different species and cultures.

    After watching the movie I can see how the Na’vi would seem powerless but you must also realize that in the end the na’vi win the war without the use of any technology past a few hand grenades. The factor that changed the tide of the war was their deity and the animals on the planet.

    The reason The Lord of the Rings worked was because there was so little difference between the races and humans. All of the races held values which we could easily relate to and their appearance varied only slightly from the human appearance.

    I had no reason to ask why you felt that the movie was raciest. I simply thought that I would post my view of it and if you disagreed then you could tell why you felt that way. The best thing for you to have done was provide evidence as to how the movie was in any way raciest, in your original post.

  16. Jc, I don’t see that I called the humans white. I was interested in the idea that a white guy was assigned the savior role. David Brooks may have gone further, but his idea that the cliche drawn upon is about white people does not imply that all the humans are white. His point is much more subtle.

    The director’s comment is odd, since the plot of the movie revolves around the differences in kind between the two lovers. It is at least disingenuous to maintain we’re supposed not to take that perfectly seriously.

  17. That’s ridiculous. There were pretty of black soldiers and people of other races on the “white” side. The idea was not a White Messiah, but someone who was willing to listen to a people different than him and then help them win a war when they decided to listen to him too. It’s about acceptance and working together despite differences. It makes sense that he could lead them better since he understood the technology that his native people had. And, unfortunately, native people are usually more connected to nature and as a result more athletic than the “whites.” You have to remember all the technology we have does a pretty good job of blocking out all contact with nature and widening our pants.

  18. Anonymous, this blog stresses civility. We argue against views, but we do not start off by labeling opinions ridiculous. I will start to remove comments on this thread that do that.

    Here’s the basic claim I have made: there’s a familiar story line about a white messiah rescuing the natives; Avatar has the elements of that story line in place. That is simply true. Now, to your points:

    1. It just doesn’t matter if there are other races in the white guy’s group, because this is not about one group rescuing another.
    2. The white guy is much more than a good listener and helper. Eventually he does better at native things than the natives; he becomes their leader.
    3. Of course the natives are more connected, etc. That’s part of the traditional view of natives. But remember also that the white guy gets even more connected and conquers the prize bird.

  19. Wow is all I can say about this and I also completely agree with anonymous that this blog. You are flipping a storyline into something that it is not intended to be. Things like this are what frustrate me to no end because of the obvious negative criticism that you feel needs to take place. You obviously didn’t enjoy the movie and that is perfectly fine but it is when people feel the need to find something about the movie that they can formulate these non-existant racist innuendos on. In all honesty, I enjoyed this movie more than any I have seen in a while, NOT because of the 3D experience but because of the storyline. I found it to be amazing that two worlds could connect and Jake could help the Na’vi re-gain their land by means of using the knowledge he had of his own people to use it against them. I just do not see the “white messiah” thing happening, I actually see that Jake was saved by the Na’vi from humans who are greedy, jealous and money hungry. Also, of course NATIVES are going to be more in touch with their land than foreigners, it is NOT a stereotype, it is a FACT. A native of a country or region will know the land and the people better than that of a foreigner am I wrong? I stumbled upon this site looking for Avatar pictures, and it actually made me so angry that I felt the need to project my opinion, and if you don’t like it, by all means take it down.

  20. Flora, i thought it was beautiful & I love fairy tales. The inventiveness of it was stunning. Nontheless, it is often.useful to look below the surface. What is there can also impact us, even though it may be harder to describe.

    Cultures use stories for all sorts of reasons, but many of them use and confirm stereotypes – e.g., what sort of person will succeed or is trustworthy or will be a good mother.

    In This movie a group is under grave threat. Will it be saved by an insider or an outsider? One young man ends up more skilled than the others. Is he an insider or an outsider? One man the ‘best’ woman. Insider or outsider? Is there a pattern emerging here?

  21. hmmm I find it strange that people would call this movie racist at all. It has a Fern Gully theme to it and never once did I hear a word about that cartoon being racist. Sam Worthington was the guy that won the part of ‘Jake’. Zoe Yadira Zaldaña Nazario won the part of ‘Neytiri’. And these actors won there roles because of there skills, not because of race.

    I also cant believe you delet peoples blog from this site. Everyone has the right to have a say. and your taking that away simply because they dont agree with you and call you ridiculous! Seems to me that your doing exactly like the government does and censoring anything that doesnt further your ideas. Maybe its because you know your wrong! you should feel ashamed of yourself for being such a hateful person.

  22. Anonymous, if you look at the comments on this post, it should be clear that we do not delete comments just because they disagree with what the poster said. We do have a policy, however, of insisting on civil discourse.

    The intentions behind the casting do not change the fact that the movie has characters that answer to the descriptions given in the post. There’s a white guy, there are the natives, etc, etc. The topic is not about the casting director’s intentions, whatever they might have been.

  23. I didn’t see the film so my opinion of it is based entirely on trailers, and what my friends told me; but I did notice something interesting in my discussions of it with friends.

    I decided not to see Avatar because a. I heard that the (white) human ends up being savior and then a sort of king, and my hopes that this would be a cool anti-colonialism film were dashed, and b. I read some annoying comments James Cameron made about creating the Na’vi women with breasts. A number of my friends tried to convince me to see the film anyway, and said I was being silly. What I thought was interesting, is that all of my friends, who are not white, who I talked about this with, thought I was *not* being silly.

  24. so despite all the directors intentions of making a fantastic movie your going to twist it all around and make it into something that its not. Twisting it all around so it fits a racist description when thats not what it was at all? I think your seeing something thats not there at all.

  25. To add another angle to the discussion, this interesting article on Tantra in Avatar includes the lines, “Some critics have said that the movie follows a typical plot where a white man saves the native people. But using the Tantric model, it’s actually Neytiri who heals and saves Jake.”

    The article also mentions several suggested topics from the call for papers for the future Avatar and Philosophy book.

  26. It’s really remarkable and unfortunate that a number of people commenting here cannot get enough of a critical distance on their culture to see that the theme of the white man as rescuer of the natives is in Avatar. Without the white man, the natives world would have been destroyed. That’s a theme very deep in Western culture. It really is not at all hard to see.

    lga, that’s so interesting; I hope readers come back to this exchange and are reminded of the cfp for the volume that you told us about in comments above.

    I do think that sexual healing is compatible with the theme of the white man as the savior of their race. The natives are often portrayed at exceptionally good at the primitive things. British colonialist takes on the sexual mysteries of “the orient” are an embarassment!

    I found some interesting observations on this web site; the idea that the movie actually positions Africans as aliens is really quite shocking:

    Well, i just watched the movie and i totally saw racist theme in this movie, after watching it i turned to google with a question”is avatar a racist movie and boom, several people are talking about it. Well, for those of you who don’t live in africa, the character or theme of the Navi people is actually borrowed from Africa. we have tribes like the turkan, karamanjo and masai that dress like the dress code portrayed in the movie, also the sudaneses are very tall people. Even the language spoken is all done to imitate a sound from africa. The invasion of the alien land is again an ideal borrowed from the old story of europeans colonizing africa. there were two groups of africans, those who collaborated and those who were resistant. Europeans came with advanced weapons africans had very little to defend themselves. what i think is WRONG is to use existing character of people here on earth as aliens from another planet. That is what i think is SAD about this movie.
    …………………………

    Avatar used race and species as if they were synonymous. The characteristics of the Navi were loosely based on African tribal people. An old time stereotype is that Blacks have tails. Another stereotype is that Blacks are like animals. The Navi hissed like cats and displayed strong animal like characteristics. Is it really that hard to see how some people could walk away from this film offended? However well intentioned and brilliantly produced this film was, it still has strong racial undertones. Some people can just see that more clearly than others.

    What I hadn’t pick up on at all was the animal like characteristics of the natives. That certainly seems to position them as less evolved. In addition, the idea that African Americans are more animal like is a theme that plagues our culture. Think of how the Obamas have been portrayed.

  27. It’s probably for the best that I still haven’t seen the movie – I think I would be far too tempted to respond to one or both of the calls for papers! Hopefully others within this community will consider it.

  28. Watching Avatar made me ashamed to be human. All I could think watching it was that in the not too distant future it is going to be more moral to kill myself than to continue taking part in the human race. But in Avatar, the main character is lucky enough to have another option – of being transported into the body of the Na’vi (who are not saved by a white messiah but by the other animals of the planet). And that only as a result of further human supremacy an destruction. The offensive aspect then is that the film is purporting an environmentalist message but cost ridiculous amounts of money and energy to make.

  29. RS, the latest New York Review of Books has a piece on Avatar, and the author says the movie reflects a long time obsession of Cameron’s of becoming non-human.

    lga, you might find material in the NY Review piece to support and extend the tantric analysis. Just in case you give in…It is very beautiful.

  30. Kathryn, for some reason our spam filter took against this comment. I cannot imagine why, but it has some irritating quirks. Please let us know if you find other comments of yours don’t get posted. I do have a vague memory of getting at least one other of yours out of spam.

  31. Thanks JJ. One other thing though (and correct my if I’m wrong), from what I’ve heard the Na’vi have a king who’s charged with political and military matters, and a queen who is the spiritual leader of the people. I think that’s problematic from a feminist perspective- reinforcing gender binaries where women are seen as nurturing (not that there’s anything wrong with being nurturing, I just take issue with it being see consistantly as a female thing).

  32. Kathryn, I think you are right. I think in a way that comes off with the comments above, as people point out that the native or the native women have various powers, and I argue back that in general the natives, the primtives are often seen as having those powers. There’s a range of guises under which they can be devalued: womanly, primitive, not a matter of refined culture, etc. So attributing them to the Na’vi does not disrupt the colonialist interpretation.

    We do not need anything reinforcing the idea that men do not nurture.

  33. Kathryn, I realized there’s a gap in my comment: I don’t think that the Na’vi king in the movie manages to exert much power – he dies, for example! That really leaves their power with either the women or the women’s and men’s connections with nature. All very colonialist, IMHO.

  34. My experience has been that most moral issues in this world are to be understood in shades of grey, not black and white. That’s the case with Avatar. Aside from its aesthetic qualities and it’s somewhat banal use of archtypical plot lines and themes, I thought the movie’s morality was wonderful. Yes I was disturbed by the fact that the white male was the savior, but as has been pointed out on this blog that was not the central emotive point of the movie, or of Dances With Wolves. Yes racism and sexism are very serious problems in this world. But the problem that we face, which may cause the collapse of our global civilization, the death of billions of people, and the extinction of millions of species is NOT racism or sexism. It’s the human issue of being too shortsighted. Most people don’t care about what will happen in this world after they die. So they are wrecking the planet for future generations of humanity and other species. With this in mind pre-agricultural cultures really are superior to our current global one because they were relatively sustainable. To those of you who won’t watch the movie because of it’s regrettable but minor moral failings I say, “Get a life!” It’s not a perfect movie or world, and it’s good to point out the flaws, but Cameron did humanity a service by producing Avatar.

  35. I have been thinking about my previous post, and I would like to add that the other thing that seems to have been missed by some previous posters is that from an imperialist, racial, or sexual point of view Avatar is an apology. Thats why much of the world likes it. It’s white male American humans saying, “I’m sorry. I screwed up. I would like to make amends. What if I help by working to kick out those of my kind who still want to screw the place up?” Many people around the world seem to like this idea and feel thankfully relieved.
    Additonally, for white male american humans and those who are willing to forgive them the fantastic savior element holds out the hope of redemption. And hope is a good thing.

  36. Ben, I agree that some of the themes are in the movie, and perhaps all – I’ll have to think about it some more. In fact, it’s been interesting to see that some conservative (I assume) people have been unhappy about it for containing such themes.

    Still, I’m not sure that your comments work as a criticism of what I’ve said or of those who haven’t wanted to see it. It’s simply a cliche that when people have been in an exploitative power position over some group, they tend to misunderstand and misrepresent the capacities of the group they have been dominating.

    We might take your comments to point out that the movie expresses regrets at, among other things, the dominating. If so, we could say my comments are aimed at the misunderstanding and misrepresenting of the capacities of the groups that have been dominated.

    Of, to put it another and actually somewhat brutal way, if we take the movie to have anything to do with the Western world’s exploitation of the resources of the rest of the world, to have the non-Western people represented by hissing creatures with tails who are actually space aliens is really questionable. And to have the white rescuer end up as the top gun among the aliens, as it were, might really suit the views of those apologizing, but it might also be insulting to those getting the apology.

    The movie is not just about how bad white men feel and how precious ecology is. It’s also got these other creatures, and we can take a critical stance to how they are represented.

    I wonder how relieved those who see it as something like their apology would feel if instead of his becoming the top gun, the na’vi explained to him that as the one left, he represents all the evils of the white people, and in order to complete the need for moral balance, they’re going to subject him to a slow, painful and humiliating life of abject servitude. As it is, with the power of the top gun actually greatly enhanced, the apology is better than cost-free.

  37. jj, Your last paragraph is very interesting. “Complete the need for moral balance”? The world dosn’t work that way. If the Navi did that they would make themselves as depraved as thier oppressers. It wouldn’t be like Nuremburg because the hero in Avatar wasn’t a key player in the oppresion. He was a relatively innocent grunt.
    Since we’re talking movies I would recommend Clint Eastwood’s Invictus staring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. The theme of the movie covers precisely what we are talking about. The ‘need for moral balance’ gave Mandela the right to unleash a bloodbath. The fact that he didn’t confirms his status as a great human being.

  38. Ben, I wasn’t recommending that they do that. I was, rather, trying to point out that people who find the idea of Avatar as a kind of apology might reflect on the fact that the one who apologizes gets highly rewarded.

  39. JJ. I assumed you weren’t consciously advocating torturing the ‘white guy.’ And I think I see what it is that is bothering you and the other posters on this thread, it even bothers me a bit. But the first point I made in my earlier post is the same. Morality is rarely black and white, and being so concerned about the ‘empowered white guy’ is nitpicking.
    Personally if they weren’t a fantasy, and their ‘Tree of Life’ didn’t look kind of like a Spencer Gifts shop bric-a-brac, I, a white American male, would trade places with a Navi woman preferably, or a Navi man, in a heart beat. You may be bothered that they have tales and hiss, but that doesn’t bother me in the least.
    Consider this: Humans, as in Homo Sapiens, and that includes, you, me, Australian Aboriginal Women, Masai Warriors, and Saudi Arabian children, are screwing up the Earth’s ability to support us, and millions of other species. This is becoming a VERY big deal. Virtually no one is innocent. For instance China is not a western country, but it is a totalitarian state that will soon be producing more CO2 then anyone else, and they are so medieval that they are furious at Obama for even talking to the saintly Dali Lama. I don’t trust them to lead the world any more responsibly then America has. Or consider that in wealthy non-western SUV driving Saudi Arabia the average number of children per family is seven. The list goes on. In these circumstances if you were to make a movie that would inspire people to have hope you would need aliens, not the Masai or the Souix, as a role model, though if the role model aleins were a little like the Masai that would honor the Masai. And, if you were to have a lead example of a human who could get it together as an example for us all who, for example, would it be?,: say, an Australian aboriginal female? That would be really cool, I can think of several great movie plots like that, but for a straight to the point Cameron directed blockbuster, and despite the nitpicking moral grey area, I would probably choose a white American ‘warrior’ male because, considering our record, if one of us can pull his head out of his ass anyone can.

  40. Ben, I understand you want to tell us what you are thinking about all this. It is important to you to tell us views different from yours are nitpicking or even medieval. You were impressed enough by the aliens to feel that the Africans are honored by being compared to them.

    I spend so much time in Introduction to Philosophy courses critically commenting on declarations like this that I’m not going to do that now. However, you must know that evaluations such as you have given are at least a symptom of the attitudes that have gotten us in the current mess we are in. If you are at all interested in thinking through the issues here, you should consider just what makes my comment at all plausible. What are you saying that sounds colonialist, exploitative, culturally narcissistic? If you tried that exercise, you might get some critical distance on your own attitudes, which is a large part of getting educated.

    This blog is not about providing a forum for anyone who just wants to relay their views. Moreover, your last comments comes close to portraying the sort of racial/ethnic insensitivity that has no place here. Anything more like that will get removed. And it is now up to you to figure out what about what you’ve said I’m objecting to. I’ve given you some hints.

  41. jj, I have just reread the original article and this entire thread, and I’ve done some reflecting. I see how you could construe some of the things I’ve said in the negative way you have, and I apologize. Chock it up to poor communication skills.
    Moreover, I value your blog generally, and the points you are making. I feel they need to be made. We should be analyzing and questioning underlying themes of major stories the world culture is creating and listening too. And, sadly, I can see why some people would find Avatar offensive.
    On the other hand, I have had some experience teaching philosophy myself. You must have noticed that there are some people in this thread who were offended by the tone that you and others took. It goes both ways; it seems inevitable that someone can always be found who will misconstrue another’s intended good intentions. This brings us back to the difficulty of the educational process.
    So I invite you to turn your comments around. Considering the environmental crises all of humanity faces, what are YOU saying that sounds culturally narcissistic, aka the Human culture? If you tried that exercise you might get some critical distance of your own, and surely you are open to such self examination on your own blog.

  42. Ben- I can’t speak for JJ, but personally, I say kudos to Avatar for dealing with environmental issues, and for at least attempting to address the colonialism-war-oppression of natives relationships. That said, doing well in one area doesn’t excuse it from unrelated problems. I wouldn’t want to see a film that deals really well with gender relationships for example, if it were also racist.

  43. Ben, the English have a great expression: Don’t try to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs.

    It is discouraging that many commentators on this post either cannot recognize the racist theme in the white savior or, having recognized it, dismiss bringing it out as nitpicking, which is your response. In addition, having identified yourself as an American white male, you comment about other people in a way that suggests you do not know what it is to try to occupy others’ points of view. For example, you think the Chinese were medieval in a reaction; you says the Masai are honored if they are compared to aliens. These are shocking statements, which place being a white male in a position to decide unreflectively on what is appropriate in reactions of other cultures to things that you favor.

    (Far from being medieval, the chinese I’ve met in China are quite amazed at the religious fundamentalism in the US, and the accompanying refusal to accept evolutionary theory.)

    This blog is not about providing a forum for those sorts of comments. It is in part about trying to understand the points of view of others who are disadvantaged and left without an effective voice in public discourse. That involves having a critical distance on one’s own culture’s views.

  44. Hi Kathryn, I agree, but I think there is a worry about the movie and environmentalism. It’s the kind of worry that people who write about social change tend to express, and that’s the fact that making people have some emotional reaction in a film may not lead to action to change, and can in fact lead them in the other direction.

    If by cheering the hero and the na’vi on people start to feel that somehow they’ve taken a stand and done something, that might well absorb some of their tendency to do anything in the real world about the problems.

    The other side of the coin is that it might add to the positive image of environmentalism, and even get people to think about issues that they have largely ignored. The problem here is that so little was done to connect it all to people’s actual real world experiences.

  45. I totally agree with your last post jj, with the exception that I think It shows us what at least ritualistically it shows us what we are missing.

    Regarding your previous posts, I hear what you are saying Katherine and jj. I may have to agree with your English expression.
    Instead of going round in circles I propose a compromise: It seems the main offensive element to the movie is that the hero, Sully, in the end is the ‘Top Gun.’ So if hypothetically, Katherine, jj, and I could rewrite the movie we could have him die in the great battle sequence at the end, but in dying and sacrificing himself he would find release (He sees the princess as he’s dying and she professes her love), kind of like Boromir in the Lord of the Rings. Either Sigourney Weaver, the Geeky other white guy, or the Hispanic fighter pilot woman, survive as somewhat secondary but still fully Navi citizens, and they/he/she are shown diving off a waterfall and cavorting, finding grace. The Navi princess goes on to marry the prince (who survives), the they build a monument to the redemptive grace found by the white hero, then they go on to show they are fully capable of kicking ass.
    Personally I wouldn’t mind that change at all. Though I won’t call it nitpicking ever again. And It’s a plausible plot from an inside guy turning malevolent technology against itself perspective. It would still show that humanity may find redemption for IT’s destructiveness, which I always thought was Cameron’s main Pantheistic point. I always identified with the shaman matriarch the most any way, but most importantly for our conversation, and for me despite my unfortunate birthright, our revision would hypothetically allow us on the left to unite a bit more around a grave environmental threat. Though I suspect it wouldn’t help unite left and right much at all.

  46. jj- my real point was with respect to environmental issues is that the film having one sort of positive message doesn’t by itself negate its other negative messages. I hadn’t thought about how films like this might lull someone into a false sense of complacency thinking they had already done something… It makes sense in a way, but I think exposure to social problems through pop culture would at least make some more open to recognizing those problems as legitimate when they previously would not have. It seems like the potential effects of a film on an individal viewer might vary depending on what place that individual is starting from…

  47. Hi Katherine, Your statement of positive and negative messages would be true it they were unrelated, but if they are part of the same holistic moral equation then the positive could negate the negative. Consider jj and my statements about the Masai: If, the environmental crises is so severe that concerns about racism become tantamount to rearranging the furniture on the Titanic then logically a Masai tribesperson following this thread would be much more offended by jj and her sense of offense (at my saying they were honored by the comparison to the Na’vi) then they would be offended by my own statements. We would all wish to be honored by being compared to the Na’vi. Please consider how deep that difference in offense goes; I think the dichotomy here isn’t so much between the colonialist and the multiculturally enlightened, I think it’s between pantheists, which Cameron clearly is, and humanist’s. A pantheist may kind of like hissing, fangs, and tails. He/she LIKES to be connected to their animal nature; a humanist, almost by definition, does not, and would assume the characterization is offensive. I advocated the compromise I spoke of above because I couldn’t see how the ‘Top Gun’ status of Sully after the conflict could EVER be construed as a positive message.

    You may be right about the complacency, but obviously I would hope the movie would inspire people to act. At any rate, thus far there has been a lot more pop culture that deals with racism then there is that deals productively with environmentalism, though I think that’s changing.

  48. Ben- note that I wrote that a positive message *by itself* doesn’t negate a negative message.

    I’m not a Masai tribesperson, but if I were, I think I would still have trouble with the film as part of a larger category of films that position the white person/human consistently as savior (even if the people being saved are otherwise well portrayed).

  49. I don’t think Avatar is racist at all! The way I interpereted it was that supposedly ‘civilised’ races have lost touch with the world and nature in general, and it’s the ‘colonial victims’ who live real lives. This movie made me question the ethics of the way we live, ruining the landscape with shopping centres and motorways and exploiting others to get rich and buy shit we don’t need. In the case of Avatar I saw the ‘white hero’ as the one who needed to be saved, not the other way around. Maybe towards the end but that was the fault of the white colonialists, they didn’t do any rescuing.
    I suppose it depends which way you look at it and what kind of person you are but this story really struck a chord with me and made me feel guilty for the type of society I’m part of. Maybe some people need to take a step back and start scrutinising themselves before others. In other words, lighten up and get a grip! And if you haven’t seen the film, maybe you should, it might make you see things a little differently. I am glad to see that most of you who have already posted have pretty much the same idea. Racist? Pah!

  50. Chelsie, I don’t think anyone was saying that the white people were saviors. It is also often part of the traditional story that when the white hero goes on his vision quest, he has some need. And the victims do in some sense have real lives; that’s also often part of the story. They are frequently more in touch with nature. None of that means it doesn’t have this element: The whilte guy turns out to the best, bravest, most skilled, saves the natives and marries the princess.

    i’m not sure why you’re saying “lighten up,” as others have. It seems as though you think there’s something wrong with trying to understand underlying them.

    It may be, though, that if you lighten up and take things more at face value then you are letting others have a lot of influence over what and how you see. Perhaps that’s alright with you, but many of us writing here prefer to be more independent.

  51. JJ thanks for this very interesting discussion thread. I dropped back in to see how it was going and I think you have done a fine job of not only defending your own position while respecting the views of others, but have done so in a balanced and courteous manner. I could wish that everyone on the internet these days were as civil, myself included!

    The core issues that have been raised in this thread have to do with a view of women that has for much of human history been skewed, leaving women undervalued, and the rapacious nature of capitalism which has driven empires and fostered colonialism and its associated suffering. There surely can be no argument that these twin evils has been responsible for much of mankind’s sorrow.

    It is equally true that it is difficult to move away from these evils that have so dominated our history, our culture and even our subconscious thinking that we do not look critically enough at the portrayals of these issues, even by those who (to think the best of fellow Canadian, James Cameron) are trying to move in a more egalitarian direction.

    There is a recurring phrase in this work that speaks to our ability to recognize the path humanity has trod, and where it must go if it is to overcome its failings, and it has to do with understanding each other. The characters say “I see you;” that is, I recognize you for who are; I accept you for who you are.

    Gosh, if we could just practice a little more of that, the world would be a happier place, wouldn’t it? Cheers, Steve

  52. I read this entire article, and it is very interesting to see similar emotions to what i experienced after seeing this movie. I, as well, somewhat resented the society in which i live in, and I could not help but notice how boring our world is after seeing the Avatar world. Going from a bioluminescent world, to walking out of a concrete theatre into a polluted and bland parking lot with people smoking or doing drugs, it was inevitable that i felt depression.

    However, relative to the topic at hand, I did not feel this movie was racist. I understand and see your opinions, JJ, and after taking note of them I still stand in partial opposition. Agreeing with Ben and whoever else mentioned it, I believe the point of a white savior was to symbolize our ability to change our human course. Those who are educated enough to see the overwhelming number of problems we have in society today are bound to be discouraged in where our world is headed. With species diversity disappearing, rainforests being cut down, our atmosphere being polluted, the list goes on for miles; but the point of the white savior was not in the least bit racist, but to show us that we can change our paths if we choose to. If we can look beyond this racist attitude and perhaps imagine Jake as all of our races and cultures combined, regardless of skin color, we can see that we have it in our power to change our destiny. That is what Cameron was trying to show us. WE, individuals, can do something about where our world is headed. We have it in our power, perhaps not the same power Jake had, but realistic power to change the destruction of our environment and wildlife around us.

    And yes, I would live on Avatar in a heartbeat as well. I almost felt i belonged there, it was strange.

  53. Hmm… Theo I really don’t think you meant that this way, but the idea that a white person can represent “us” (being humanity of all races) makes me nervous. That sort of attitude endorsing “color blindness” is often used to defend positioning white people over persons of color, yet rarely (or never) the other way around (e.g. M. Night Shyamalan’s defense of the casting for The Last Airbender).

    That said, I don’t think the racism issue in the movie is because the savior is actually white, but because he’s human versus the “other” of the Na’vi. It’s the reinforcement “our” superiority in saving the “other”, where in this case the other is Na’vi, but historically the other has been persons of color. It’s that the human had the power to change destiny or choose his path, whereas the “other” as a collective seemed to lack it (at least to the extent that they could shape their destiny on their own). Not that he shouldn’t have helped, or shouldn’t have realized the destructive course of his own people, but that not only does he help, he’s instrumental to the cause and ultimately becomes their King.

  54. Kathryn: Thank you for clearing that up, although hopefuly obvious I did not mean that, what you are saying makes sense. The main point I was trying to portray was that, agreeing with Ben, the white savior symbolized atleast somewhat our ability to turn around the damage we are causing and choose a different path.

  55. Ash, what do you think amounts to “over thinking”?.

    I tried to explain briefly why we’re discussing some of these issues in 22 and 23 above.

    BTW, from the point of view of really informed film criticism, I think we are probably being fairly superficial.

  56. I ended up seeing the movie last night, and I have to say I actually thought it was far worse than I had thought it would be– so I think we were underthinking it.

    I don’t want to claim that this was intentional, by I was rather annoyed that the Neytiri’s hair was unbraided, as far as I remember, only for the love scene between her and Jake.

    Also, the scene where Jake bonds with an Ikran seemed extremely similar to rape, i.e. if it fights back that means it’s really interested in you; fight it into submission; force it to bond with you. There’s definitely some sexual connotations to their bonding experiences (e.g. the queen walks by someone holding their braid and she says if he keeps playing with it he’ll go blind), so I found the use of force in that context rather disturbing.

  57. Did anyone watch this at all and think? Hey we as humans are destroying are planet,and it is not that far fetched that once we have “killed our mother”,we would go and destroy another species habitat.I skimmed through some of the posts and its all about racism,messiah’s,feminists and sexuality.Did nobody watch this and think “we as humans have been doing this for a long time now”, we do not live by the earth,we kill other species,and our own for nothing more than ignorance and selfishness.We pave over wetlands for parking lots,Wipe out entire species,pollute, and exhaust our natural resources and our water.We have filled the skys with satelites,and the bottoms of the oceans with our metal and garbage.No one is paying attention even though Mother Earth is giving major signs that something is wrong.The storms and weather patterns have been drastically changing over the last ten years.The quakes,the floods,the storms,Tsunamis.the volcanoes etc? Nobody sees the resemblance?Humans taking what they want?Destroying & pillaging?Wrecking our home and invading someone elses? Its not like we as a global community understand the energy flow and that we are all one?No one elses watched the movie and felt sad for the earth?

  58. Jamie, several comments have brought out the environmental theme. See #57, which also refers back to others.

    I’m inclined to think that the white imperialism theme is not completely separate from the environmentalism theme. Arguably, the imperialistic entitlement that Western cultures at least can feel has created a lot of the environmental havoc today.

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