25 January 2010

Avatar, and why I'm feeling violent

I have been reading critiques about Avatar and am feeling anthropologically pissy.

As a full disclaimer, let me admit I didn't think of anything while/after watching it but the absolute, staggering beauty of the world our modern technology has managed to create.  People have different 'left me breathless' triggers, one of mine is the colour blue; had Pandora been created in orange hues I would not have been this pulmonarily expanded. I will now equally admit that both my anthropology training and some of my personality traits have left me with little patience for bollocks some arguments. Finally, I am generally far more likely to appreciate this movie from a geeky perspective anyway than a deconstructionist one. That being said, click Enter if you're over 18.

I was first surprised by someone calling the film racist. Then I realised there were loads of someones saying this is a racist film. I ruminated a bit and agreed, but in the exact opposite direction. Let's see, white anti-hero arrives in this new, perfectly balanced world intending to help destroy it for self-gain. Our history as a species shows we are very good at this, so the plot is quite reasonable so far. White anti-hero then slowly becomes a true hero (funtioning legs and all), realising the perfectly balanced world and its natives are righteous and untainted and they and their world should be saved at all costs. He is helped in this by a few others of his own race, one ethnic minority included because she [bonus points for the minority combo] happens to be in a position of power (have guns, will shoot tossers). These few others generally meet with a bad fate, which is to be expected when you go up against the Big Powers That Be, and you have to kill off a few people anyway so as to manage to save the redeemed hero in the end. 

Now, I think the movie is racist because the Nav'i are so fucking wholesome and in tune with their world it's ridiculous. Oh the aggravation, it smacks of Rousseau's Beau Savage and the assumed inherent purity of the Other when that Other happens to walk around barely clad, brandish hand-made weapons of a wooden variety and not have a facebook account. Oh there were a few raw negative emotions like jealousy and distrust, but at the end of the day the Nav'i are as splendid on the inside as they are on the outside. Simply magnificent and unsoiled. This movie is, at every turn, compared to Dances With Wolves so let's tackle the American Indians for a bit shall we. Yes, they were in tune with the earth and its beings, absolutely, to a degree that astonishes us because we are incapable of it. They were also brutally fierce and cruel in their dealings with the enemy to a degree most of us would never accept. Chopping off someone's scalp is certainly a cultural expression and very much valid within said group but they were not fighting some neutral alien race, they were fighting us Westerners, and since we very much wanted what they had the ethnic superiority came in handy. Just look at those savages, we said, hanging from their nipples as a right of passage, we have a right to decimate them and take their land, God wants us to decimate them, we added, as we pilfered, raped and set fire to their villages. We won and their descendents are still very much destroyed, for the most part. We don't seem to particulary care.

Margaret Mead talks of cultures where babies are drowned at birth for - to us - obscure reasons, and of cultures of tea-doilied kittens and unicorns. Margaret Mead was, of course, full of shit and a source of endless mirth to a plethora of native informants who lied to her face. They may have had their fun but to this day they are still battling the hypersexed and yet innocent image she managed to world-imprint. This is the danger of interpreting other cultures, it is always a personal invention. Chances are we will get some of it right, statistics say so, but some of it will be utter bullocks and we never know what will ultimately become The Truth. Seeing cultural relativism at its worst always makes me want to smack someone - invariably, the person using it as a poorly-wielded weapon. What we did to the American Indians was utter carnage, there's no disputing that. I find it appalling that we had, that we still have, such destructive potential as a species. If we find something we want, if we find something we disagree with, we will annihilate it, full stop. From an anthropological, evolutionary (remember: adaptative) perspective, the animal world proves that this is, indeed, how it works, it very much is the survival of the fittest. They were not as fit as we were in terms of offence and defence, we won. And the truth is, the group that wins makes the rules and if indigenous customs are too much for us we will say No and that will be the end of that. Decapitating family members was extremely important to the headhunters of Borneo. Were we bothered? No, we were not. We said You will not chop off Auntie's head, old boy, so sorry. [The Brits were actualy very smart and had the hunters hold regattas, at the end of which the victors were allowed to briefly keep a museum skull. There needed to be a skull, they provided an acceptable one.] Did they have a right to their headhunting? Yes they did, they'd been doing it for ages, it worked very well for them, if in doubt find an ouija board and ask the missionaries. Did we have a right to put a stop to it? Oh absolutely, are you kidding me? Ritual decapitation? We did have the right, the same way we have the right to fight vulvar ablation even in those countries that are not Westernised because the truth is, the world's template is Western nowadays, culture hides a myriad of sins (read: taboos), and the domineering culture always puts an end to what it views as unacceptable. 

So, yes, the Nav'i's being portrayed as flawless could bother me, the notion that they are helpless before the white race, and that it takes someone from said white race to save them, doesn't - if you discount the naivité of thinking such a small, unprepared group can actually win, but then you yourself are naive because no one would create a film like Avatar and have the morally superior be slaughtered at the end. It's a fantasy, not a reenactement. Truthfully, I don't even think the emphasis is on how perfect the natives are anyway, the key point is how blatantly greedy and ruthless the colonialists are, as always. I believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the universe is simply too big for little Sapiens to be the only ones around. God forbid we find them and they are unprepared to firmly put us in our place because, Avatar? What happens in the movie? Does anyone really doubt that THAT is what would happen? Rare, valuable resources, a race that far more fancies being one with their world than destroying it for governmental gain? We would take as much as we could, kill the rebelling non-human natives (for They Are Not Like Us And Therefore It Doesn't Count), end up interning the survivors somewhere FOR THEIR OWN GOOD and write yet another fab page in Human History's book, on a transgalactic level this time. We have an infinite potential for destroying what stands between us and profit, proven over and over again; that particular bit in the movie is not racist, it is sadly quite realistic and lucid to the extreme.  

Also, is anyone complaining about the fact that the hero's native girlfriend is actually an alpha female, born to the healer and the chief? A royal, if you will? No, no one is, it wouldn't do to judge the natives even if indirectly. Like one not mentioning a thief was black because one wouldn't want to appear racist. That is what the social sciences call reverse racism actually and I personally find it even uglier than its brother. It is also shamefully dishonest because it is imbued with middle class white guilt and a misguided sense of PC. It shouldn't matter what colour the thief was - unless it does matter. Seriously, the bloke gets lost in the jungle and out of the hundreds of natives he comes across her? It doesn't bother me, this is also a love story with a finite time to develop, he needs to be accepted into the fringes at the very least and only an alpha will readily accomplish that, says ethology. Abundantly. But if you're going to criticise Avatar criticise this as well, however scientifically uninformed the reasoning, because otherwise I am again left thinking that the natives are untouchable, one must not criticise the natives (the poor things) and that smacks of condescension and stems from a cultural feeling that yes, in some ways they are less than us. What very much annoys me is this, and back we go to the Darwinian definition of evolution which the world at large does not seem to comprehend at all: the natives are powerless, yes, but not because they are weaker than us in absolute terms. As evolution puts it, they are perfectly adapted to their world and live within its healthy boundaries in a pefectly effective and self-sustained mannner. What they cannot do is cope with us, who can? Who ever has? Their particular brand of adaptation leaves them vulnerable to us but this doesn't make them inherently weak, just - unfortunate. 

As a cultural exercise, I have just googled what the Porties have to say about Avatar. Not surprisingly, they speak about the tech genius behind it, the beauty of the world that was created and the impact of watching it 3D but I haven't found any racism discussions. It makes sense because, for the most part, this has to do with not only white guilt but American white guilt. Americans think nothing of having people wait on them in restaurants and unseen people cooking and washing their dishes but watch them fret over having an housekeeper, good God the guilt, how could anyone possibly do this to another human being. Me, being Portuguese and ultimately un-PC [unrelated], have never been able to understand what's so fundamentally different between both scenarios. People are working for you in both of them but only one makes you personally responsible, is that it? Someone please explain to me what is so degrading about being a housekeeper (whose professional quality of life you actually control) as opposed to a dish washer (whom you never even see and may, for all you know, be chained to the sink) that an entire nation wrings their hands obsessively over hiring them, I repeatedly come across variations of this. Also, being Portuguese, I come from a long line of Seafarers that waged chemical war on the natives (unintentionally, not that the viruses - or the dead natives, for that matter - much cared), killed and tortured them as they saw fit (God was on our side and no one expects the Portuguese Inquisition), and also married them and generally shagged ahoy to their hearts' content. Am I ashamed of what happened? In a remote way, mostly I'm aware that it happened 500 years ago. Like domesticity, colonialism isn't pretty and THAT is very much a theme of Avatar, cultures are what they are and then is never now. Not to mention that the US have an ungodly amount of power, Bush ruled the world for 8 unforgettably horrendous years, the US sigh and the rest of the world experiences the consequences be they good or bad, so yes, the hero, HAVE YOU GONE MAD?, he might not have been white (although, seriously? Because minorities are generally so empowered and in positions of power?) but he certainly could only be American! The US do rule us all, admitting this might not flood us all with endorphines but it is the truth, and Middle America seems to think this is perfectly normal and even warranted, after all, do they not live in the Best Country In The World? They may not even know anything about other countries, mind, not even insignificant details like where they are, but America is The Great and anyone not thinking it, anyone not metaphorically having a flag in their yard and standing, hand to heart, during the national anthem, is a terrorist, unpatriotic, a heathen. Mr. and Mrs. America feel entitled - and then they arrive in Europe and are quite shocked we don't collectively feel grateful for their gracing us with their presence and worship at their loud altar. I'm sorry, especially because I know so many Americans who are different, but there is a pervasive sense of entitlement and superiority and a lot of us actually think that, race issues aside and all things weighed, Americans - read: government and arrogant, uneducated Middle America - are incomprehensibly proud. In fact, this angle makes far more sense to me than the racial one, who but the Americans would nowadays be able to even contemplate undertaking something like what the movie depicts, and who but an American might - farfetchedly - stand up to his fellow Americans and save not only the distressed damsel but also a nation plus a whole planet? Imagine the movie with Porties at the helm. We'd lack the sheer audacity anyway unless there were a football cup at the end of it but, were we to attempt it anyway, we'd still be trying to load the spaceships while kissy-kissing everyone hullo and waiting for the late parties to arrive.

This post has been brewing for a bit but then I came across an article called When will white people stop making movies like Avatar? and couldn't hit New Post fast enough (and btw, the writer HAS to be white, no black person would dare coin that title for fear of lynching, can you imagine the repercussions?). I have not yet dared to read the comments, my blood pressure still threatening to burst a jugular or two, but its take on Avatar is patronising in that exceedingly perturbing aforementioned American way. It simultaneously drips of condescension towards the poor untouched savages and misses the levels of self-criticism actually present in the movie because the absolute focus is the racial angle and white guilt. It also made me think the writer might have slept through some fulcral parts. The hero never really knows what it is to be Nav'i? He so very much does that he actually switches allegiances and in the end chooses to fully become one. He retains white privilege? Unfathomable seeing as he, AGAIN, became Nav'i - and nevermind the incidental detail of his being fully alienated from his own culture to begin with, the "hero" was basically white trash on wheels. And District 9? Really? I can't even, so I won't. But I can, oh boiling blood, and I will discuss the parallel she drew between the Nav'i and Dune's Fremen. God, DID YOU REALLY DARE? Now this, this really infuriated me, if you're going to bugger with the numinous at least try and grasp what the story really was about, the woman reduced an absolutely brilliant ecological, religious and political treaty, a master piece of scifi, to a white vs coloured scuffle, when in fact the Fremen (who were equally human and very white, btw) were tremendously prepared - technologically, socially, politically, culturally, religiously - the Fremen commanded the worms and therefore the spice, the Fremen were very much biding their time till the Kwizats Haderach came. And then he did and the reason he even could was, his mother disobeyed orders and had a son knowing he could very well be The One. Paul Atreides fulfilled his genetic destiny, how are the two even remotely similar? Oh, and he too became a Fremen. Seriously, what the fuck, Analee?

Like I said, I would understand - and agree - if the people criticising Avatar called it naive for it is naive to think that a few people, some of which quite unprepared for the sort of war we are capable of waging, could face the United States Whatever and win. This is not what history has shown us. The fact that the super privileged white hero is actually a mere replacement of his indeed brilliant twin brother and a bit of a loser - and a paralysed loser at that - makes the white superiority argument even more mysterious, but I suppose if you're looking for arguments to support your bias you'll find them regardless of reality. But calling Avatar racist in the sense that the critics use racism? Sad truth: white people have more power than minorities, human or otherwise. Corollary: they will use it. Incidental Truth: Not all white people are powerful. Sadder truth: American, military white people often have more power than all other white people combined. Corollary: they will use it. Tragic truth: humans easily mistrust The Other, even if said Other is an equally white, well-fed, privileged middle class neighbour but whose picket fence happens to violate the Committee for Proper Living code. Corollary: they will often strive to destroy the non-conforming Other, and they will often succeed.  

Is shoving your head in the sand working well for you? How excellent then. Do keep calm and carry on.

14 furballs:

kirkjerk said...

At the risk of missing the point --

You make a lot of good points! I do admit that once pointed out to me, I find the "haha crippled whiteboy ends up becoming a better Nav'i than the Nav'i!" a little annoying, but I guess that's the nature of a Heroic story - plus there's some idea that with a foot in both worlds, he has an insight into the humans weaknesses and the Nav'i's possibilities that the others lack.

From a "hard scifi" point of view, I curmudgeonly wonder how the Nav'i's arrows suddenly seemed to become capable of busting Human windshield, when before they seemed to bounce off ineffectually. Also, about the evolution of a "biological USB port" shared by so many critters - but I guess that goes in with the "interconnection" theme of the work.

PS trying to play a bit of catch up on "cool recent TV-based sci-fi" with Caprica starting up :-)

Lioness said...

Kirk, a lot of myths are based on redemption, I suppose you can't escape archetypes as a theme because we respond to them.

I don't think he really became a better Nav'i than the Nav'is, just an alpha Nav'i (which, granted, still equals being better than most Nav'i)who happens to have human knowledge that is especially useful.

The USB port doesn't bother me at all because they are alien, their being literally plugged into their world is just one of their alien (and enviable!) characteristics.

I didn't notice the arrows piercing windscreens at all, that is a bit of an oops, yes.

Caprica - ack, I found it so dull, am so disappointed! Did you enjoy it?

D said...

For some odd reason the Anglo-saxon culture likes to beat itself up every now and then. Perhaps this is the ultimate form of supremacism, after all, we're the only ones to do so.
I don't think the Western culture is any worse than any other, and a lot better than many. The fact that we can make a movie that portrays us as greedy destructive usurpers proves this - and makes its producers and director feel nice and smug about themselves.

We're not perfect. But I don't see anyone on this planet doing any better.

Btw, I haven't seen it yet, been trying to for weeks now, it's sold out every time I go - and it plays in multiple rooms in the same theatre!! I plan to thoroughly enjoy the eye candy and take the story at face value. If we did indeed try to invade another planet for nefarious purposes, we deserve to get our ass kicked. But chances are, if we ever do find a paradisical planet, chances are we'd send them money, schools and hospitals.


Lioness said...

Dany, did you cough very hard and dislodge your cynicism?? Money, schools and hospitals? O ye of loads of faith, am pleasantly shocked!

kirkjerk said...

Well, not just "an alpha Nav'i", well-nigh Alpha-and-Omega Nav'i, if you'll pardon the hyperbole - a Nav'i Hero of legend.

I don't have a lot to compare Caprica too because I missed the main series. So I'm digging on the polytheism vs monotheism vibe, and the idea of "making virtual clones" is a rich theme I always dig, even if they're a bit heavy handed with it.

I like the use of a 50s-ish look and feel for the time period; like Gattaca, it's not utterly implausible but still familiar.

Lioness said...

True, he did become that of which legends are made, especially because he rode whatchamacallit - but then so did her grandfather, that's what I mean. Maybe überalpha is a better term?

I did watch both series but what bothered me was how slow it all seemed to move, and I can't be bothered about the cast. I suppose I'll go on watching, the telly isn't full of scifi but - meh. Do give Torchwood and Firefly a try!

D said...

Hey, I didn't say I'd agree with anyone sending them anything. :D
Why not just leave the buggers alone? Or better yet, take their oil!

BTW, I'm stoked, I finally managed to get tickets for tonite. I fully expect to get wowed.

Lioness said...

Oh, there you go then! The curmodeony Dany we know and love!

It is a gorgeous world, hope you enjoy it! Report back, please.

JoeinVegas said...

I'm waiting for Avatar 2, where the corporation just hurls a big boulder from space down on that tree, then just picks through the resulting huge crater and takes all their special metal. Probably would be about a five minute movie. Maybe I'll work on a filler for YouTube . . .

Good observations though, and glad you are back roaring. How's the job, Doctor?

Lioness said...

Avatar 2, regardless of plot, is bound to disappoint, no?

Job hunting, you mean, am looking for one. My time at the clinic is sort of an extended internship.

D said...

Saw it last Wednesday, I'm going again this Monday. The movie is a total immersion, absolute state of the art eye candy.

After my friend and I exited we discussed what was so attractive about the Na'vi, we both agreed we would gladly become one if we had the chance like Jake did. And it comes down to romanticizing that type of life.

There's a reason we're so technologically advanced and affluent - we didn't like life when it was simple. And there isn't a primitive on this planet who, if given the choice, would refuse central heating or cable TV.

The noble savage can exist - if he can accept the consequences of that life. But no one likes to die of leprosy, no one likes to lose his teeth at 35, no one likes an infant mortality rate of 20%. So we fight and struggle and improve, and complicate our lives, remove ourselves from nature, and end up discovering there's no escape from sickness, decay and death. Only a reprieve from the inevitable.

And on that positive note ladies and gentlemen I can tell you that my 2nd watching of Avatar will be on an IMax screen, again in 3D. I'll never be noble, just savage, but one can dream, right?

Kristin said...

All I can say is I LOVE THIS POST!

Anonymous said...

Cue entrance of the other kind of anthropologist, the cultural kind, who has simply sidestepped all the hue and cry around this movie by not seeing it.

Johnny, should I?

Oh, and what do you think my chances of getting at truth are in my own anthropological writing? ;-p


PS My word verification is PERROS. perros! A real word!

elijah@israel said...

maybe this movie is not very intellectual, but its amazingly beautiful and it looks so real that i was trying move grass on the screen that was closing the view! i dont think this movie need to be critisized, what is more- we have to support it in oder to get such quality of movie in the future