January 16, 2010

Avatar and Fetishizing The Other

Fair warning: This post may contain spoilers. However, I also feel I must point out that the foreshadowing in Avatar is so clumsy that the first half of the movie contains spoilers for the second half. So really, how much damage am I going to do?

So, James Cameron spends a decade working on his opus, and here it is. Truth and beauty in dazzling 3D, right? Wrong. I think this film is rubbish. Worse, I think this film is insidious rubbish that is a pro-establishment screed dressed in sheep's clothing of weak Iraq war metaphor. I think that continued success of rubbish like this adversely affects any hope of achieving a truly tolerant and egalitarian society.

It has already been pointed out that Avatar is another take on the classic white guilt fantasy. But the sci-fi setting gives it a weird undercurrent that I find more even more unsettling. By setting his non-whites as aliens, Cameron accidentally distills all the assumptions Hollywood makes about race, and then forces them into the cold light of day by pursuing an interspecies romance.

The Na'vi are a mish-mash of characteristics from just about every well-known "primitive" culture - feathers like Native Americans, Maori skin markings, African accessorizing (all African people are one big homogeneous tribe, if you didn't know), the hunting habits of Amazon tribes, and so on. This provides the framework for a bland allegory about evil white people - it's like indigenous peoples Malt-O-Meal. In the creation of this hunter-gatherer everyman, Cameron has provided a glimpse into the machinations of ignorant white men's minds.

Neytiri's introduction is as a howling dervish who shoots arrows mid-leap. She embodies the exotic, the mysterious, the untamed. When perturbed, she hisses like a feline (displaying her sharp, animal-like teeth). She views animals as kindred spirits. And see, what makes this a problem is that us white people have this really obnoxious habit of dressing dark-skinned models in animal prints and posing them with animals. We like to portray them as exotic, mysterious, and untamed. When we control the image, they are the Other.

Let's talk about Otherness. The idea started with Hegel, who said that consciousness cannot become self-conscious until it meets another consciousness and learns to define itself as separate from that other. Since then this idea has cropped up time and time again, because it seems to accurately describe a component of our psychology; humans have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to other humans. Nationalism, racism, sports fans; we love to forge our identities by labeling Them and Us. It's not enough to have just an Us - if we find ourselves in a situation where there is no Them, we will quickly manufacture one.

Now, usually we take the straightforward route and just vilify the Other. Simply bicker over the prophet's cousin, or riot over those immigrants daring to live in "your" country, and get to fighting. But there's another method of oppression at which Americans in particular are becoming very adept. You declare your tolerance for the Other and talk about how much you like Others and how you have all sorts of Other friends. Meanwhile, you continue to marginalize the Other, but you make it subtle. You appropriate bits of their culture, but be sure place them in a one-dimensional box that leaves no room for growth. You pay lip service to equality but don't make any sacrifices of your own. In this way the Other can find no adversary to combat, and you can convince yourself that their failure to better themselves is due to some innate cultural deficiency. This is how we end up with black models dressed in leopard print.

What Cameron has created is the authoritative example of being ignorant and white. Not only is the appearance of the Na'vi built out of superficial elements of human ethnicities, but their entire culture is a slurry of half-baked ideas, the kind an ignorant white guy gets from paging through a National Geographic without bothering to read the articles (they are kinda long, after all). He's actually come up with some ludicrous explanation about neurons in plant matter to take the idea that "native peoples are really in touch with nature" to an extreme that has them literally talking to their ancestors through the trees or something.

There's neotribalism, and then there's this. This is not just yearning for simpler times or showing appreciation for low-impact lifestyles. This is fetishizing the Other. The Na'vi as a people are presented as strange, unknowable, yet utterly desirable. And creepily, Jake Sully plays out in concrete terms the fantasy that Cameron is playing out in the abstract. Sully is so enchanted by the Na'vi that he seeks to know, to possess, to dominate, and he consummates this quest by exerting his mastery over the natural world, hijacking control of the tribe, and having alien sex with Neytiri. And he is the protagonist because this is how ignorant white men understand desire.

We've been analyzing the movie in terms of the racial Other, but in fact the most famous application of Hegel was by Simone de Beauvoir, who applied the concept of the Other in The Second Sex, her book on the status of women:

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being... She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.
-- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

I'd like to argue that the Na'vi are not only racial Others, but collectively they represent the sexual Other, Beauvoir's female.

It's no accident that Neytiri is the only prominent Na'vi in the film. Sure, Tsu'tey is the chief warrior, but he is practically eating out of Sully's hand by the end of the film, despite having spent the entire movie being cuckolded by Sully. He is the weak, ineffectual man next to Sully's raging pillar of testosterone. Neytiri is the only character to display any depth at all, and she is the only one who sees a considerable amount of screentime.

The support of life became for man an activity and a project through the invention of the tool; but in maternity woman remained closely bound to her body, like an animal.
-- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Neytiri is fierce and capable, yet she displays no volition of her own. There are some weak attempts at connecting her to her land and her people, but she seems to have no personal desires, no ambition or selfishness. She spends the film at the mercy of events around her, captive to her emotions. Her involvement with Sully only further strips her of will - by the climax, she is a Harley babe riding bitch on the gigantic symbol of virility, Toruk, clutched between Sully's manly thighs (but it's okay, she's helping the war effort by cheering).

Sully definitely has the largest... dragon.

Oh sure, she turns Colonel Quaritch into a pincushion at the end. But to what end is his death? The battle is already over; the Na'vi have clearly won. So even the vague desires that Neytiri has expressed for herself - preserving her land and people - are not at stake. The only threat Quaritch poses is to Sully, who he is happily trying to murder. Her sole motivation for killing Quaritch is to save her man, and in fact, this display of devotion is the only real thing Neytiri accomplishes all film. She has cemented her own subjugation.

Now, I'm not saying Cameron tried to make a movie that was obliquely racist and anti-feminist. But he did, and he is as guilty as anyone. His crime is intellectual indolence; using superficial fairy tales instead of seeking any true understanding. Our crime is that we keep throwing money at bullshit like this instead of exploring anything that we might find difficult or uncomfortable. A movie that grosses $77 million in the first weekend is part of our culture, whether we like it or not. And if we can't even stop producing this shit, how are we ever going to flush it out of our system? Why ask ourselves tough questions about equality in this country when we can indulge our white male guilt with useless tripe? It's useless tripe, but in 3D!

Bonus: Now that I've spoiled this movie, allow me to spoil the plot of Avatar 2 as well. The humans come back. This time they just drop the bombs from space. All the Na'vi die. The humans congratulate each other and wonder why they didn't think of that sooner. The End.


Kirby said...

Ian--This is awesome. Best review I've read. (If only I could type that sentence correctly...)

Anna said...

Have you seen:
http://io9.com/5446538/everything-that-was-cut-from-avatar-sex-drugs-and-suicide ?

Apparently, there was a lot more in the original script, including making Tsu'tey even more worthless in the end (when he asks Jake to kill him).

Also, personally I wish that there had been something unpleasant about the Na'vi, you know? Something to make them seem alien and different from humans besides their looks. Because a little less idealization would make it seem more real.


Ian said...

Anna, the part they don't show you is at the end, when they're packing the humans into the ships, the rest of the tribe is back at the tree eating Colonel Quaritch's brains to obtain his knowledge.