By: Gareth Barken, prof. of Anthropology at University of Puget Sound

Am I going crazy? I have always been the kid who loved big-budget, effects driven films so much, I would spend endless hours debating with so-called “academics” regarding what deeper meanings can be gleaned from such films as Clash of the Titans, Spiderman, any of the Star Treks, and even Return of the Sith. So imagine my surprise to find the people to whom I’m usually defending my pedestrian taste swept up in an inexplicable love affair with the most offensively mainstream and cliche-ridden film I have seen this side of The Mummy Returns. But what made the latter film somehow less egregious is that it had a sense of humor about itself: it knew it sucked. James Cameron, Avatar’s writer and director, thinks he’s making a grand moral statement, and he has no idea how wrong he got it. Make no mistake: Avatar had problems.

What Problems?

Avatar was problematic because it reproduced, in an awful and unreflective manner, all the stereotypes about ‘native peoples’ that keep them different, separate, precious, weak, exotic, irrational, and most of all, inhuman. They are the Other. A wonderfully, unrealistically beautiful Other, to be sure, but positive stereotypes aren’t much better than negative ones, when it comes down to it, because they perform the same function of separating and essentializing people. The blue people in Cameron’s movie are Noble Savages, writ large – they are everything that the ‘Civilised West’ [British English used for effect] imagines it has lost while becoming great and powerful. Completely disconnected from any real group of people, the noble savage concept is an illusory, Western gaze – a way of thinking and representing less developed peoples that reflects the West’s own disaffection and alienation from its complex societies.

Feeling Blue

Think of what the blue people’s “culture” consists of: a mysterious oneness with nature, a ritualized apology for being hunters, a curious absence of gender roles, ancient wisdom of the elders, a lack of desire for material comforts, the absence of internal conflict, and smack-you-in-your-face attractiveness. They are so ham handedly ‘at one with nature’ that the film doesn’t have an anthropologist studying them, but rather, a botanist! Yes, the same woman who “wrote the book on Pandoran flora,” Sigorney Weaver, is also the expert on blue-person culture. And therein you really do have it — these aren’t people at all, they aren’t sentient agents capable of reasoning and adaptation, nor do they have weaknesses or fallabilities. No, they’re an idealized Adam and Eve, before they were cast out into the world of self-awareness and struck with the need to cover their nakedness (although blue women’s scanty tops seemed magically good at preventing nip slips).

Whitey To The Rescue

Worse than that, it takes a white guy to make sure we know just how wonderful and victimized they are, and, most importantly, to save them. A white guy who is actually better at being a ‘native’ than they are, and upon whom they must depend, since their magical naturalness apparently brings with it a flaccid dearth of fortitude. After a series of betrayals, he wins back their confidence not by coming clean, apologizing, and throwing himself to their mercy, but by taming a bigger dragon than any of them have been able to tame. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. I also give you renowned racist Rudgard Kipling’s Kim, who was a white kid raised by Indians, and by virtue of being inherently smarter than them, is able to bring their ancient wisdom to the attention of other, more powerful whites. It is the colonial fantasy of being the one white guy to take pity on the powerless but charmingly beautiful natives, and quickly learn everything their primitive culture has to offer (how long could it take?), thus to become a super-charged whitey with both the strength of the West and the politically correct imaginary wisdom of the Other. Then you can save their charmingly timeless and innocent culture from the more corrupt forces of your own. Plus, you get to do their hottest chick.

Yes, 3D is Cool

Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to like Avatar. I like extra dimensions squeezed into my films, even if it means I have to wear two pairs of glasses at the same time. Plus, computer graphics are awesome! Honestly, I would recommend people see the movie for its technical accomplishments and visual design. It is a rollercoaster thrill ride, to be sure, and it’s a decent piece of storytelling, if you accept the story. But, come on people, it’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a sad embarrassment; a facade of contemporary liberal politics hiding a racist subtext as old as Europe. And if your argument is that Americans are so prejudiced that they need a comically idealized noble savage to make them take seriously anyone without white skin, I would offer that Cameron’s film does not actually advance the cause of racial minorities or indigenous peoples, because no real group of people will ever come close to matching the absurd and aesthetically lavish standard he sets. So instead, what he offers is another excuse for the mistreatment of all the ‘compromised’ and ‘inauthentic’ indigenous peoples out there, who wear t-shirts and flip flops and like to watch television and cut down their own forests to put food on the table, since clearly they aren’t worthy of the consideration we reserve for their more noble (if fictitious) blue brethren.

Originally posted By Brian Howell, prof. of Anthropology at Wheaton College. (IL). on Facebook. Reused with permission.

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