Okay, let's be realistic: even if Avatar
didn't have the problems that it has, I might still not have seen it because I don't really like action movies that much.* But I hope that everyone who has seen it and will see it will read When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like 'Avatar'?
which encapsulates the race problems not only in Avatar but also in District 9. Also worth reading, from Overthinking It, John Smith/Pocahontas stories suck
I saw Matrix II
, maybe the weekend it opened, at a theater on 34th st in Manhattan. Because The Matrix
had a bunch of black folks in it, there were a bunch of black folks in the audience. One of the previews we saw was The Last Samurai
—you know, the movie where Tom Cruise as a disillusioned Civil War vet goes to Japan and becomes a better samurai in a few months than any of the, I don't know, Japanese
warriors who've been training for a lifetime—and this guy in the theater shouted, "Why do we need the white man
to tell us the ways of the samurai?"
The answer is, of course, that no one in Hollywood thinks that white people will go see a movie if it doesn't have a white protagonist (or Will Smith). And that white protagonist has to kick ass harder than any of the colored folks that have taught him their ways, because the story isn't about the actual plight of the colored folks, but about their facilitation of the personal growth of the white hero. Dances With Wolves
isn't about the attempts of the Sioux to keep their land—we don't even meet them until at least a third of the way through the movie. It's about a disillusioned Civil War vet who goes native, but without actually taking a Native American wife. And in the process becomes an awesomer Sioux than any of the Sioux.
Well, you know, I'm not here so my white friends can have a black friend. I'm not in any way saying that my white friends think that, but that's the parallel. The Sioux and the Japanese don't exist to teach white men valuable lessons about living with the land or using a sword or whatever. In big words we call this cultural appropriation
Not to mention that cultural appropriation and the hero narrative combine to make a toxic message. Because the hero has to be awesomer than everyone else in a very simplistic way, what we get over and over again is that white people are so awesome that they can learn how to be black/Japanese/Sioux/Na'vi in three simple lessons and then become even better black/Japanese/Sioux/Na'vi than the black/Japanese/Sioux/Na'vi are themselves. Of course everyone wants a white guy to be their leader! If only the Sioux had been white, they wouldn't have lost their land!rawles
made a post about this the other day, so I'll just head off at the pass a few of the typical arguments:
- James Cameron already said that Avatar is to a certain extent about race, but even if he hadn't, any story that's about a more powerful nation's conquest of another nation is going to be about race.
- It's beyond insulting to compare the few days or weeks or months that Jake Sully spends with the Na'vi with being biracial or even being adopted into a culture as a young person and growing up in it. Anyone who's grown up in a somewhat insular culture can understand that. You can adapt it later, you can take it as your own and learn its ways and immerse yourself in it, and you can do all of this for honest and sincere reasons, but it takes decades to be "of" it. Never mind that you've still made a choice that you can always reverse, and that makes the entire experience seriously different than actually being born into a culture, especially if we're talking about race.
- If you really think that sci-fi and fantasy aren't about humanity (which includes race and gender and lots of other things) because they're about made-up peoples, and that people who talk about race in speculative fiction are "bringing race into the argument" where it doesn't exist, then we seriously have nothing to say to each other.
also made a post about how Sully's disability actually means he never passes the moral test set up by the movie in the first place.
So if you're going to see or have seen this movie, you know, I'm not going to hate on you; we all make compromises in our entertainment, and some we can live with and some we can't. I started this post the way I did to make it explicit that this movie offers me nothing that makes me happy in exchange for putting up with the bullshit, because action and flying dinosaurs don't make me happy and "the pretty" is not enough reason for me to watch a half-hour tv show, much less a nearly four hour movie that I have to pay $12 to see and then protect my heart from. But I would hope that you'd read the above essays and understand why this movie is making some people very angry.
Me, I find science fiction and fantasy to be so mired in race, gender, and sexuality issues, and so lacking in things that make me happy (like actually good dialogue or even plots that make people talking to each other matter) that I've become almost irreversibly cynical and pessimistic about the genres. To me, Avatar
is an opportunity missed, sure, but one that I can't imagine wouldn't have been missed. For the last ten years the Rise of the Fanboy has led popular culture. Well, here we are. I hope you guys are happy. *Exceptions: con/heist pics; gadget and/or competency porn like Iron Man; car chases (which is why I like Matrix II); spy movies which often incorporate all three.