Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Avatar and the American Man-Child: “Don’t you want to be an Indian little boy?”
“I am a firm believer in children living out their lives in the mythical stage: in the period when they ask and answer themselves questions about nature…The child is a born savage…the child is born a naturalist…[To the children:] Don’t you want to be an Indian little boy, and put feathers in your hair? Wouldn’t you like to dig a hole and live in the ground, and wouldn’t you like to roam at will in the big woods? Certainly you would.”
Asking if Avatar is racist is the wrong question, I think, however necessary it may be; a negative answer is impossible, but a positive is insufficient. To build on what Scott and Annalee have written, then, I think we should look closer at what it actually uses its warped racialism to say.
After all, defenders of the movie will point out that the natives are the heroes, that the main character’s journey is towards a greater understanding of the native culture and appreciation for all sorts of values that his own society, a damnably capitalist, militaristic, and scientific culture (with a different figurehead for each value), has given up, to its own profound detriment. And I think Wax Banks is right that the best ending for this movie would have been to submerge Jake into the collective and produce “an eco-disaster film in reverse, with the audience cheering for Nature to wipe out the goddamn army,” without any “heroic” focus at all. He’s right because the movie wants its politics to be an argument that “modernity” has profoundly harmed us, and that because we, like Jake, have been crippled by the times in which we live, we have to go native, go natural. But this means that while the movie is profoundly patronizing towards its natives, it infantilizes them only because it idealizes them for that very infancy, making them into children because it, too, wants to retreat from the adulthood/modernity.
This is why, for example, Jake Sully is such a spoiled brat. To note that he is the worst stereotype of the ugly American isn’t nearly enough; he’s profoundly satisfied with his ignorance and his self-absorption is so awesomely complete and all-encompassing that it seems perfectly natural when other people make huge investments in him, to the point that he makes saying “thank you” all about him. He isn’t surprised or humbled when it turns out that the entire world revolves around him – who else could it possibly revolve around? – and when he first puts on his Na’vi avatar, he thinks nothing of ignoring the advice of people that know better and doing exactly as feels like doing. A shameless and shallow asshole, the only thing that makes him even slightly uneasy is his intermittent “video log” because it forces him to confront how thoughtless he is. But while people will excuse the shallowness of his character on the basis of it being just a popcorn movie or a kid’s movie, or whatever, that shallowness isn’t a bug, it’s a feature, just as George Bush’s mask of ignorance was precisely what made him appealing to so many Americans.
Jake Sully, in other words, is a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood: pure id, he revels in the toys that the world has provided for him without understanding that someone had to make them, without ever questioning his own right to have them. I think that’s why I don’t feel contempt for him, but visceral, gut-level, and troubling disgust. I recognize his desires, because we not only have to get past them to be adults, but because they stay with us. Perhaps we still are, on some level, the sociopaths we were when we were children (that I type this while home for the holidays, in the bedroom I occupied when I was seven, only seems appropriate). Yet it’s also one of the worst aspects of the American cultural tradition that going back to childhood is somehow the fountainhead of political virtue (see, for example, Jefferson, Thomas and Roosevelt, Theodore) because it’s so rarely the childhood of curiosity, games, and sociality that the tradition extols, but rather its reverse, a very particular fantasy of careless anti-social boyishness that tends into misogyny so easily because, to again refer us to Nina Baym, it feminizes the “encroaching, constricting, destroying society” that we American boys must seek to be free of by lighting out for the territories.
Where the movie goes wrong, then, is in making the sociopathic immaturity of a spoiled Western brat into the ideal form for the child-human that it wants anti-modernity to be. After all, while even your Rousseauvians understand the noble savage as a contradiction of modernity, as a cleansing bath washing away its discontents, the Na’vi only confirm Sully’s most childish presumptions of privilege: their world turns out to be nothing but toys to play with, nothing but one long summer camp fantasy of being the fastest, bestest, most awesomest ninja-Indian ever, and then a big giant womb to hide in when it all gets to be a bit much. There are no consequences there, nothing you can do to make mommy stop loving you (though Lord how he tries!). Like toys and parents to a three-year old, it is unthinkable that they say no or exist without you, and all they can ever ask is that you play with them.
When Scott suggests that Jake Sully-in-avatar form is a version of the black quarterback “problem,” the racialist desire to find a black body with a white brain in it, I think he’s not wrong, but I think he’s also not quite right. After all, Jake Sully is never Payton Manning; and the attribute that the Na’vi identify in him is precisely not “rationality” but the fact that he has “a strong heart, no fear.” It’s not a coincidence, by the way, that stupid reckless bravery makes poor Zoë Saldaña hate him only to then hate herself for loving him, or that the empty-headedness Sigourney Weaver initially despises him for is what makes him, eventually, the thing she most wants herself to be (because, as the Na’vi say, it is hard to fill up a vessel that is already full). Which is why, while one might have expected him to use his superior knowledge of the evil capitalist company to defeat them, the closest thing he has to a battle plan (as the nihilistic kid notes) is GO FOR IT! But again, the having of no plan other than be as reckless as possible is supposed to be his virtue, a quality the movie substantiates (as Gerry points out) by retreating into pure fantasy.
And this is why the fact that it’s a very particularly American fantasy is important. The dominant British/European mythos of civilization’s contact with “natives” was usually what Scott is talking about, a higher rationality confronting a primitive vitality, and the “JaMarcus Manning” fantasy of the super-ego and the id working in productive tandem will be instantly familiar to anyone who has read much of the old British imperialists holding forth on the collaboration between white discipline and native labor. That myth certainly had its adherents in the new world as well; guilded era capitalists and apologists for slavery alike saw the good society as a fruitful “partnership” between higher, rational discipline and primitive, bodily physicality. But there is also the Jeffersonian tradition of making creole primitivity into a virtue or Teddy Roosevelt wanting to become a boy again by shooting things and getting away from women. And Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis dominated the historiography of the twentieth century precisely because he argued that America’s particular virtue (and its contrast with Europe) was exactly its reversion back to primitive democracy; as frontiersmen became like Indians, he said, they got rid of all that troublesome modernity and effete emasculated over-civilization, becoming boys again by supplanting the Indians they came to resemble in doing so.
All of which would be true if this film came out in, say, 1880. Which isn’t to say that the sorts of noble savage racism you describe aren’t still alive, but they are no longer used to justify invasion, exploitation, and imperialism. Notice Iraq and Afghanistan: no noble savages there. Just poor, mistreated neo-liberals waiting for us to help them be all that they can be.
Attacking this film’s noble savage muthos is as nostalgic as the film’s noble savage muthos. It feels good, doesn’t it?
(And finally, let’s not assume that the noble savage motif is essentially racist. It comes from a stadial view of history, which itself is not about races but civilizations. Notice how Homer does the same thing to his Bronze Age heroes that Cameron does to his aliens.)
Note: I haven’t seen the film because it looks stupid. Given a limited amount of time to live, I’d rather spend my time viewing films that I might actually like. Note also: in all this crap about *Avatar*, no one has even said, “But I liked it.” They discuss it because it’s there, and it’s there because it cost so much money. So every time we attack or defend its racism, we’re all simply gagging on the summer sausage of capitalism.
Note also: in all this crap about *Avatar*, no one has even said, “But I liked it.” They discuss it because it’s there, and it’s there because it cost so much money.
That is to say, it’s a so-called “event” film, a film that’s important for reasons that are extrinsic to it’s actual significance as a statement of and about the human condition. Enormous cost is one way of becoming an event film, and this certainly qualifies. Technique may also qualify, and in this case, it certainly does. Technique, of course, bears on aesthetic issues.
I’ve not seen the film and am torn about whether I should. I really don’t like participating in the event film phenomenon. And I don’t have any particularly high expectations about this film on aesthetic grounds, though I do have some interest in technical matters. Still, this one film has gotten two posts here. Do I have to see it just to keep up with the Valverines?
It’s not a great movie, but I liked it anyway.
Imagine James Cameron being really proud of Aliens and wanting to make a pre-quel with the latest special effects, but less dark and told with the Aliens as good guys, and cribbing most of the plot from Dances With Wolves.
If you can imagine how such a movie could be enjoyable, then go see it. If the thought of such a thing fills you with dread, don’t.
1. The racism in 99.99% of all sci-fi-as-left-leaning-social-allegory is built into the fact that the “ethnic” stand-ins are always sub, or para, human: there’s no where to go from that starting point, on a subconscious level, but down. From Planet of the Apes (!) to Brother From Another Planet (with its mute, sloth-toed protag) to the squid-faced kafirs of District Nine, I’ve sat through many a well-meaning liberalist fantasy polemic wishing that once, just once, I’d see a dark-skinned Michael Rennie type up there standing in for the minorities, having a hard time with earthlings not because he wasn’t human enough but because he was just too suave.
2. Isn’t Avatar the avatar of a fiendish psycho-political trend in which a new kind of Rightist (Imperialist) presentation incorporates enough old school Leftish DNA in its Kissingerian body to confuse/seduce/sponge-up what would once have been the opposition? Imagine, for example, the current President starring in Cameron’s film. Would he be the avatar, or the avatar driver, in my allegory of this allegory?
”...cribbing most of the plot from Dances With Wolves.”
Or, “A Man Called Horse… of Arabia”
Note also: in all this crap about *Avatar*, no one has even said, “But I liked it.” They discuss it because it’s there, and it’s there because it cost so much money. So every time we attack or defend its racism, we’re all simply gagging on the summer sausage of capitalism.
I loved the movie and am cognizant of its faults. It’s unutterably beautiful at times, and though it’s not funny or ‘fun,’ the intelligence of its (micro)manager shines through at all times. I was eager to be transported by a story and to see something new, and the movie delivered. I had a great goddamn time. And I’d much rather watch Avatar than e.g. more dwarf-show lite-autistic expressionism from David goddamn Lynch. ‘Summer sausage of capitalism’ is too cliché to talk about a complex experience.
But then you must already know that.
That is to say, it’s a so-called “event” film, a film that’s important for reasons that are extrinsic to it’s actual significance as a statement of and about the human condition.
‘Important’ here just refers to conversation topics and tech. ‘Good’ is another thing - and somewhat more complex in this case. More importantly, Avatar is not ultimately (trying to be) a statement about the human condition. That’s a predictable misrepresentation. You should see the film; it’s beautiful; but whether you do or not it makes no difference to the film.
oh, goodness me Luther, I liked it very much, quite against my expectations, and given that James Cameron can’t ever be forgiven for Titanic.
I have no idea what a summer sausage is, but that’s a completely disgusting and gross image.
as the Na’vi say, it is hard to fill up a vessel that is already full)
Did they really recycle that old Zen chestnut?
I thought it was a looonnng way through the movie, often gorgeous but long.
The most interesting obsevation I’ve seen is Tyler Cowan’s that the film owes a lot to Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, though it doesn’t have Miyazakis’ moral subtlety. It appears that way to me, the whole mystical forest riff is out of Miyazaki, as is the central healing glade and much of the imagery. The floating mountains seem a bit like Castle in the Sky while the long glowing tendrils are out of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
As for the white man’s guilt, FWIW, I saw it in a theatre where people of color made up the majority of the audience--South Asians, African-American, East-Asians. I didn’t quiz any of them on the film.
BB, in the comment thread of the Tyler Cowan blurb you ref, a commenter writes: “Interesting audience reaction. I’m reminded of District 9; the people portrayed analogously don’t seem to like the oversimplified pop-portrayals we lap up.”
Maybe you *should* have quizzed your co-audience of color...?
...though I can’t believe the racial arithmetic of Avatar is anywhere near as bad as District 9’s (blacks in that opus not only consorted with the repulsive black-analogs but *ate* them, too!). Avatar / District 9 = Kipling / Conrad?
Apparently, the movie was written in 1994 which would ex[plain the “dances with wolves” influence.
Exactly! Your astute analysis goes to the heart of the problem with all the films mentioned here (including the much-vaunted District 9) as representations of the cultural mindset. My contributions to the topic:
What is wrong with you people?
You don’t get that this is a film for guys like me- not studs, not athletes, not academics- guys who fix the drains. But sometimes our legs get shot off (Divorce = Impotence) and yeah we use the Internet- maybe connect with our old High School girlfriend, and believe me, that’s fuckin’ Avatar (Hindu for re-incarnation- i.e. getting the lead back in your pencil) and, believe me, when it happens it really is a world of flying dragons and 3D effects!
District 9, whole different story.
Don’ get me started.
Love the class-conscious analogies and their earthy keys, Viv! If an “academic” had come up with them, I’d accuse her/him of condescension, but since you’re a drain-fixer, I’ll be head-scratchingly impressed instead! Laugh.
Steven Augustine (the potent divorcé who painted houses for ten years yet remains un-seduced by difference-fetishizing, hegemony-affirming, candy-colored bilge like Avatar)
This is an excellent post/article that I’m definitely bookmarking for future reference. In the end, the whole noble savage trope isn’t even a (misguided) commentary on ‘the Other’ - rather it’s just a rather pathetic projection of white fantasy on to the Other because it’s self-serving. Seriously, nobody really wants their culture to be dumbed down and grossly reduced as serving as an deictic signifier for white people’s mislaid innocence, romanticised childhood.
And I loved this: “But again, the having of no plan other than be as reckless as possible is supposed to be his virtue, a quality the movie substantiates”. As does Star Trek ‘09, the Harry Potter books (and films), Slumdog Millionaire and a host of crappy films/books that are written in the Western heroic mode. It’s nothing new of course, but lately it seems that the dumber and rasher the protagonist, the more the narrative loudly asserts the ‘correctness’ of their stupidity.