Monday, January 11, 2010

"Avatar" and How White Men Are the Best at Everything

The director of Avatar, James Cameron, has made a living out of making films with paper-thin narratives, cliched characters, but with lots of pretty things to look at. Avatar is no different. I must admit that I enjoyed the thrill-ride while I was on it, but looking back on the film now just makes me ever so sad.

The story goes that the Na'vi, the indigenous population (read: Native Americans) in the way of the progress of a greedy corporation (read: white Europeans), live on a remote world called Pandora (read: pre-colonial America). To try and convince them that they should move so that we can take over their land and cultivate the precious metal that lies beneath their sacred tree-home, we send Avatar Na'vi to integrate with the locals. The "dreamwalkers," as the Na'vi call them, are humans who, through the power of technology, can put themselves into the bodies of laboratory-grown half-Na'vi half-human beings. And thus, the futuristic reenactment of Manifest Destiny begins. However, this time the Avatars side with the Na'vi as the greedy corporation tries to plow down their sacred tree in order to mine the precious metal below and win in the face of interstellar corporate greed.

Now, there have been a lot of comments about how Sully, the protagonist/dreamwalker/Avatar, is highly reminiscent of the character that Tom Cruise played in The Last Samurai and Kevin Costner played in Dances with Wolves. Sully is, in effect, the white man who abandons "his" people to become the best damn minority ever. This is, because, white men are the best at everything. He gets to ride the toughest beast in the sky, he gets the village "prize" in the form of the highest ranking spiritual lady in waiting, and he hatches the plan that defeats the evil corporation that is trying to destroy Pandora's beauty. He proves that white men are really awesome at everything; including being an alien racial minority.

Truth be told, this plot device is not really new, but neither is the one that really bothered me about the film. Admittedly, being female I tend to judge films on the basis of what they let or don't let the women in the film do. The human women in the film, played by Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodruigez, represent two generations of actresses that have been allowed to kick butt and take names on celluloid. Sigourney Weaver totally blew them away in the Alien series (even with James Cameron at the helm!) and Michelle Rodruigez's break-through performance was in a film aptly titled Girlfight.

Spoiler alert in the paragraphs ahead. You may want to stop here if you have not seen and wish to view Avatar.

Michelle Rodruigez, once again, plays the hot-tempered Latina who is a military pilot with a soft spot for the blue Na'vi. Sigourney is relegated to the head maternal scientist role. She really wants to be a Na'vi and enjoys her forays into their world in her Avatar body. This bit of typecasting is not what bothers me (older woman as mother, Latina as "spicy"). It is the fact that for all their agency in the film that they are eventually killed off. Frequently, maybe more so than the white men as the best damn racial minority trope, female characters that embody some sort of power physically or mentally, are killed off because they are threatening to typical notions of white, male patriarchy.

Meeting their untimely doom, does not generally affect male characters who challenge authority in film. Avatar proves no different. Norm (Joel Moore), the other lovable scientist/Avatar survives the battle at the end. Not even the baddie head of corporate (Giovanni Ribisi) croaks. Nope. Once the human ladies decide to fight and challenge authority it is curtains for them and their sense of empowerment.

The only other main female character is also the only one who survives the climactic battle: the Na'vi princess, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). And this is because Neytiri conforms to stereotypical notions of femininity. For instance, although she is a Na'vi warrior/spiritual leader, she bows down to the power and influence of the white male outsider, Sully. She is, in effect, tamed by him when she chooses him as her partner and, in a really strange scene, copulates with him in the glowing woods. She literally defends him and his authority during the climactic battle and delivers him to the glowing tree at the end so he can be permanently fused with his Na'vi body and take his place as chief of the tribe. She exhibits a lot of physical, mental, and spiritual authority, but once she meets Sully it is all in service of him and his mission. Lame.

Undoubtedly, Avatar broke new ground technologically with its combination of human actors and computer generated effects. However, I wish that more time had been taken to think about how the story perpetuates very old notions of gender and race that are deeply troubling to those of us who do not identify with the white, male majority. I want to see a movie where women get to kick butt (mentally or physically), take names, don't lament over their relationships with men and survive to tell their tale.

To see Sigourney Weaver talk about her character in Avatar click here.
To see Zoe Saldana talk about her character in Avatar click here.


  1. You act like the WASP society hasn't always wanted Black Women to Worship Them (All Women for that matter). I agree... UBER LAME!!!

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  2. You are right. I didn't also make it apparent that a part of the "white men are the best at everything" cliche is that women of color (all women, really) automatically find them irresistible. Thanks for pointing that out.