“Avatar” and Racism

Posted on 2013 July 15


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When the film “Avatar” first opened, a lot of critics slammed it, claiming its plot amounted to liberal harping on racial insensitivities in American society. Then a distinguished journalist and science writer, Dr. Annalee Newitz, turned the tables on those reviewers by saying “Avatar” wasn’t liberal enough.

In an online critique of the film, Dr. Newitz argues that the movie was part of a long tradition of white dramatists expiating racial guilt by inventing a white hero who goes native and then becomes, natch, his adopted tribe’s most important member. The implication is that white men can’t get over their sense of cultural superiority even when they try.

“Avatar” is basically a sci-fi “Dances with Wolves”. The hero, Jake Sully, a disabled Marine, accepts a job with an off-planet mining company, where he must lie in stasis while operating a remote-controlled body that resembles those of the planet’s tall, blue-skinned indigenous people, the Na’vi. His job is to get to know them and then convince them to stand aside while the humans excavate a valuable mineral beneath the gigantic tree where they live. Eventually Jake goes native and, using his military smarts, leads his new tribe against the human interlopers.

Dr. Newitz remarks, “This is a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member. . . . Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.”

Interesting point. I felt guilty just reading it, having completely missed her perspective while watching “Dances”, “Avatar”, “Dune”, etc. What a Honky jerk I was!

Then I pondered further. Just as Englishman T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) commanded an Arab military revolt but didn’t presume to lead them politically or culturally or spiritually, Jake didn’t become his new tribe’s leader; he simply led their battle against the invaders.

I wrote back:

It’s true, dramatists determined enough to achieve big success are likely to write fantasies where their alter egos get to be the heroes. On the other hand, who better to lead the locals against the oppressors than a member of the oppressor society? That person understands how the baddies think, how they do strategy and tactics, how their weapons work, what their weaknesses are.

But Sully had to earn the Na’vi’s trust — they ostracized him after their big tree went down — by showing he could be as useful to them as their own warriors (when he tames the biggest dragon and adds it to their arsenal). Regardless, Sully time and again had to beg them to accept his strategic ideas. As with “Dances with Wolves”, the tale is one long string of humiliations for the main character while he learns to be worthy of his adopted group.

Without the “outsider hero” trope, many storytellers would find their hands tied. Perhaps what Dr. Newitz seeks is the story of the visiting hero after the war is over and he must take his place as an ordinary, if respected, member of his new society. The acculturation process would continue in bumps and crashes as the hero transcends his own residual attitudes, perhaps to discover deeper, trans-societal insights.

Here’s another variation: the visiting hero is a woman…