Friday, January 15, 2010

Racial analyses of "Avatar"

I'm a bit slow with this one, but I did manage to catch Avatar a couple of weeks back, in 3D no less. And an extremely impressive movie it is too, at least from a visual standpoint.

But what of the plot and underlying philosophy? Avatar is undeniably a propaganda movie - it extols the virtues of green philosophy and indigenous cultures against the juggernaut of modern greed and exploitation. I happen to be sympathetic to that particular world-view, so I didn't mind it. But many conservative commentators are railing against the movie, presumably because they are in favour of the juggernaut of modern greed and exploitation.

In any case, it is quite unusual indeed to have a blockbuster movie where the audience is cheering for the aliens to smash their human oppressors. You could almost see it as a revenge-fantasy movie for indigenous people, not altogether different from the way that 70s black action movies repeatedly portrayed the black hero defeating the white characters or at least making them look stupid.

Despite its apparent fondness for indigenous peoples, Avatar is also somewhat offensive to them in its own way. Firstly, the alien Na'vi are based on the patronising stereotype of the "noble savage". Secondly, as wonderful and in tune with nature the Na'vi are, their fabled "chosen one" is... a human! In that sense, it is yet another movie in which a white man immerses himself in an exotic foreign culture, and is not only accepted by them, but becomes even better than they are. Think of martial arts movies like Jean Claude Van Damme's Kick Boxer and The Forbidden Kingdom, or white-man-goes-native films such as as Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai. So the message is that while exotic cultures are totally cool and exotic, white folks can do it better if they try.

I'm not going to write a whole lot about the racial overtones of Avatar, because plenty has been written about it elsewhere. If you are interested, here are a few links to a variety of views.

In The Guardian George Monbiot commends the film for reminding us of the uncomfortable truths of the past, such as the wholesale genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but criticises its happy ending that "rips the heart out of the film".

Remington at The Moving Image blog critiques the white privilege inherent of the Jake Sully character's adoption of the Na'vi ways as his own; while challenging his fellow humans, he still retains the option of returning to his other life as a human. It's the Western tourist fantasy of "going primitive" and becoming "The Other", yet only for a holiday.

Annalee Newitz writes an interesting article entitled "When will white people stop making movies like Avatar?", describing the film as a "white guilt fantasy", a way of assuaging the shame of historical injustices perpetrated by Europeans. Some interesting comments on that post; my favourite is this one, by "milesteg", which neatly summarises the conservative white position:

What bothers me the most about these movies is that the basis of their allegory isn't exactly real. They're based on a FANTASY spin on actual history. The history of "European/Indian relations" isn't fully or accurately taught any more (was it ever?): the common acceptance is that the settlers, without provocation, wantonly slaughtered the natives and stole their land.

What is almost completely ignored is that there was little concept of private property, rule of law, justice, and freedom (including freedom from violence) among *nomadic* native tribes. Addressed even less are these tribes' barbaric practices -- cruel rites of passage, slavery, rape, murder, human sacrifice, mutilation as punishment for criminals, abandonment of the weak, torture, cannibalism, "knowledge" and "wisdom" obtained with hallucinogens, and severe punishment of anyone that demonstrated individuality, reason, or disobedience to the authority of witch-doctors. These attributes didn't suddenly vanish when white people showed up.

The initiative destruction of native peoples by settlers occurred, but very infrequently. In more instances than not, colonists attempted to trade with the natives -- i.e. tried to treat them as equals -- bringing modern technology, conveniences, and Enlightenment ideas in exchange for being allowed to establish towns -- and they were rewarded with unprovoked, brutal, bloody raids BY these natives.

This isn't "white perspective" or even "racism": it's simple historical fact. I absolutely do not condone any form of racism, slavery, genocide, colonialism, Manifest Destiny and the lot -- it's as barbaric in nature as the savages were. I'm not implying that that *all* natives (certainly not their modern descendants) remained savage, nor does it imply that *all* settlers and expansionists were peaceful, Enlightened victims.

Yet, I won't fall for revisionist history and the moral recrimination of centuries-dead Europeans, and I won't be suckered into believing in the archetypal "noble savage" (which is as obvious an oxymoron as they get). So for once, I'd like to see a "spin" on the "white/human goes native/alien" story:

A MODERN human (his/her race being completely unimportant) enters a SAVAGE alien society, and demonstrates the value of a civilized technological culture that arose by abandoning barbarism. The film ends with the savages doing likewise, living the longer, healthier, more productive, more comfortable, and ultimately happier lives that can only result when superstition and primitivism are abolished and science and reason embraced.
So according to Milesteg, those third world savages should be eternally greatful to the great white master for bestowing on them the privilege of enlightenment and freedom. (Except those that were enslaved, they didn't get much freedom.)
Conservatives dislike Avatar because of its allegory to white colonialism. Some examples are Fjordman at The Brussels Journal (which calls itself "the Voice of Conservatism in Europe").

Basically, the white characters are portrayed as brutal, greedy and insensitive beasts who rape the environment and destroy other cultures with a smile in the search for profit...
Of course, back in the real world whites are among the most self-critical and least ethnocentric people on Earth, and have been so for a long time. Whites are also disproportionately represented in the environmental movement whereas many “diverse” Third World peoples couldn’t care less about the environment. But why let the truth get in the way of making a good anti-white movie? The fact that quite a few among the predominantly white audience cheered for this movie shows that anti-white hatred and stereotypes have become so widespread and accepted that most people cannot even see it, least of all whites themselves.
A similar perspective is expressed at The Weekly Standard:

The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism - kind of.
It is fascinating that even today, there is such resistance amidst white conservatives to admit that the legacy of European colonialism on the rest of the world has been anything less than overwhelmingly positive. No indigenous culture is perfect, and some were downright brutal in many aspects. And yes, there have been many positive outcomes from the impact of European colonialism. But the millions upon millions of Aboriginal Americans and Australians killed by the colonialists, and Africans sold into slavery, are stark reminders that European rule was far from enlightened.

It is a history that still affects many populations today, yet is also a history that many on the Right would like to pretend never happened.

Sitting in the movie theatre, I reflected on the audience around me. Particularly the group of young douchebags seated a few rows in front of me, who talked idiotically and threw things at each other during the movie, and used the word "bro" in virtually every sentence.*

I wondered: could this movie, peddling a philosophy of caring for the earth and respect for traditional cultures but disguised as a special effects blockbuster, possibly reach into the minds of these wayward youth? If so, then Avatar has done its job, in its own mawkishly overblown way. And that's actually not such a bad thing.

* Using "bro" here and there is perfectly acceptable. Using it in every sentence is a strong indicator of douchebaggery, or being a New Zealander.

UPDATE (17th Jan): Also came across this article about how the movie is being interpreted in the Chinese context. Interesting.

Like this? You may like:

"300" and racism

Yellowface is still alive

The Asian penis in popular culture

How come there's a black chick in "Merlin"?

The lack of Asians on Australian TV, and why it matters

Pictured: Me & my posse rockin' the 3D glasses at Avatar.


  1. If we are drifting rudderless on a bottomless, shoreless ocean of relativism, then it makes no sense to make value-judgements about cultures and the apparent rightness and wrongness of their historical interaction with each other.

    Value-judgements can only make sense if we presuppose the existence of an objective standard of morality by which the rightness and wrongness of behavior can be determined, and the superiority or inferiority of cultures measured by reference to this standard. Is a culture that practices female genital mutilation or accepts rape superior or inferior to one that doesn't? If there is no objective standard of morality to determine the answer, then what is "wrong" for you (female genital mutilation or rape) may be "right" for them. (Of course whoever presents such a relativist statement is assuming the objective truthfulness of that statement, that is, the objective truthfulness of the relativist worldview!)

    By the way, I don't understand the concept of "white culture". Such an idea smacks of the fallacy of reification. After all, culture is an abstract noun. How can an abstract noun be modified by an adjective of color? Except when used poetically, can there be such a thing as a green truth, a purple hate, an olive-blue punctuality? I don't think those who speak of "white culture" or "black culture" are speaking poetically. So what on earth are they talking about?

    And "indigenous culture" -- what the heck is that? The so-called "white culture" (presumably the range of cultures that are based in or emanate from Europe) is indigenous culture -- indigenous to Europe. (And then how much of, say, British or German culture is actually "wog culture", that is to say, indigenous to the ancient Romans or ancient Greeks?) What culture isn't indigenous? It's tautologous to speak broadly of indigenous culture; like saying "human people". So unless one is speaking within the narrow context of the interaction between a *particular* settler culture and the pre-existing "indigenous" culture, it makes no sense to speak broadly of a universal "indigenous culture" as if there is such a monolithic culture shared by and unique to the tautologous "indigenous people".

    Secondly, back to this idea of "white culture" or "black culture" or what have you. Isn't that racist? What makes one "white" or "black" in physical appearance? Why, genes, of course! And what is culture? According to "The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought."

    And what is racism? According to the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia (also found on "...the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called 'races', that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other CULTURAL BEHAVIORAL features..." [My emphasis.]

    So when people matter-of-factly speak of "white culture" and "black culture", are they not implicitly suggesting a causal relationship between "inherited physical traits" and "cultural behavioral" features? Aren't people who speak of "white culture" and "black culture" being racist in doing so, even if they may not be aware of it or intend to be?

    Me, not being a racist, I don't think there is any such thing as "white culture" or "black culture", because I don't think that cultural traits derive from biologically determined physical traits.

    [The tone of this post is not aimed at any particular individual but rather to ideas and concepts. The tone is meant to challenge the premises and coherence of these ideas and concepts.]

  2. "Whites are also disproportionately represented in the environmental movement whereas many “diverse” Third World peoples couldn’t care less about the environment."

    Yeah, those selfish Third World people and their insistence on trying not to die, when they should totally be protesting whale murder. God.


    Also "* Using "bro" here and there is perfectly acceptable. Using it in every sentence is a strong indicator of douchebaggery, or being a New Zealander."

    This is why you are on my blogroll.

    ; )

  3. hey Eurasiansensation -
    Wot a great review and analysis of Avatar!!
    My g/f and i walked out of the cinema and had a big deconstruct and analyse session.. argh.. another white man saving the day.. that's what the world needs an american superman dressed up in alien blue..

    .. thanx for posting references to sites who took offence (OMG!) to the "anti-white" "anti-american" sentiments as well..
    wots wrong with people's memories? look at the history of the world - which culture fucked up the environment and killed and colonised and stole the lands of indigenous peoples in the first place? why is there still in 2010 a 17 year gap in life expentancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians (


    why is it that when the merchandise steamroller released the na'vi language online this took a pop cultural fad spin whilst indigenous languages are dying out?

    Peter - dude - you have to get out the real into the real, world. No racism? Let's all namby-pamby love each other. What about the White Australia policy? Whose language and terminology is that? In America, the white american slaveowners forbade the african-americans to practice their culture and speak their language. Colonial pattern sound familiar? Whose idea was racial segregation? White people.

    Peter you seriously need to do some homework.

    Again.. thnks for this awsum analysis, Eurasiansensation.. !!!!