The Racial Politics of Avatar

PART I:

Avatar is being derided as another “white savior” film. It’s deeper than that.

Avatar is so visually stunning it seems almost a shame to break it down and analyze the micro components. I saw it in 3-D, and a day later, I still recall the sensation of being surrounded by grasses and ferns in the jungle and ducking my head during battle. This isn’t just a movie you’ll want to see again — Ebert wrote that “it is predestined to launch a cult” — it is a movie you’ll want to see again in the theatre, especially if you had the misfortune to originally see it in 2-D. In between viewings, you might want to learn the Na’vi language. Seriously. If you’re already fluent in Klingon, it’ll probably come easy, and it might help you kameie (please pardon the conjugation; I’m still learning) the Na’vi in an entirely different way. On the other hand, don’t let your mono-lingualism stop you. The action scenes speak to geeks and non-geeks alike, and though the Na’vi do speak in their own language, their dialogue is considerately subtitled for those of us who have yet to master it. Point being: this film has something for everyone.

na'vi

All that said, Avatar is so heavily loaded with racial allegory that it’s impossible, even for a casual viewer, to ignore its sociopolitical currents. On the surface, Avatar is an obvious, at times even heavy-handed, pro-environmental and anti-war missive. It’s purpose (besides entertaining) is to hold a mirror up to humanity and show us the folly of our greed and disregard for human life, while at the same time showing us what our own planet could have been like if its indiginous peoples were allowed to retain their cultures rather than being overrun by European colonialization.

If this sounds a tad familiar, it should. Other films, most notably Dances With Wolves, had similar aims and the similarities are not lost on the critics, many of whom have compared the two films in ways that are not entirely favorable to either. More specifically to the context of racial politics, the buzz I heard about Avatar prior to seeing it was that it was a sci-fi version of Dances With Wolves: White men invade natives, one particular [and handsome] white man stays to learn the native ways, grows to like them, falls in love with beautiful native girl, and eventually winds up rescuing the tribe.

dances with wolves

You can read Avatar that way, and, for good reason, many critics have, but to simply dismiss this film as yet another “white savior” film is, I think, to miss some very important points about both Avatar and contemporary racial politics. Below are five observations I think most critics have missed.

1. Jake Sully Serves a Vital Role.

Some bloggers have asked why the Jake Sully character is even necessary:

By the end of the film you’re left wondering why the film needed the Jake Sully character at all. The film could have done just as well by focusing on an actual Na’vi native who comes into contact with crazy humans who have no respect for the environment. I can just see the explanation: “Well, we need someone (an avatar) for the audience to connect with. A normal guy [read, a white male] will work better than these tall blue people.”

I actually agree that Jake’s main function is to serve as the connection between the audience and the Na’vi culture, but unlike the blogger above, I don’t dismiss that as yet another manifestation of white privilege. The avatar allows Jake to see, hear, and otherwise “sense” the Na’vi culture, and the audience needs the same conduit to the Na’vi. Jake is OUR avatar. He allows us (and by “us” I mean “humans”) to experience what he experiences and, in that process, to appreciate the Na’vi the way he does.

Moreover, Jake offers moviegoers an opportunity for redemption. Just as Jake turns his back on corporate greed and exploitation, so can we all. Without Jake, all we have is the alien (or racial) Other. We might be able to enjoy THEIR triumph, but we (and I’m talking here about a multiracial “we”) can’t share it, not even vicariously. To the extent that this film might actually inspire personal growth and change and offer the possibility of redemption, Jake is necessary.

2. Jake Is More Than Just a (White) Outsider.

By far the most common critique of Avatar is that it patronizes the racial other. Will Heaven articulates this sentiment in his excellent review

As Left-wing conceits go, this one surely tops all the others: the ethnic Na’vi, the film suggests, need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves. The poor helpless natives, in other words, must rely on the principled white man to lead them out of danger.

I don’t disagree with this analysis. To the contrary, I think it’s very much on target, but I also think it misses some important elements that at the very least make the relationship between Jake and the Na’vi more complex than described above and perhaps even give it some redeeming qualities: Jake may be human, but the avatar whose consciousness he inhabits is, according to the film, a “genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora…the Na’vi.” On the surface, this linking of consciousness may seem like a form of conquest, or even collonialization – the scientists even refer to the process as “driving”, but Jake describes it as a rebirth, and I think that’s exactly what it is from his perspective. In his Avatar form, Jake IS Na’vi, not just culturally (though by the end of the film he is clearly that too) but biologically, at the DNA level. Thus, if we are to read the film as a racial metaphor (and I think doing so is appropriate), the protagonist is not so much White as Biracial.

avatar tank

3. Jake Embodies Multiculturalism.

It has become fashionable to rail against white ethnocentrism, privilege, and lack of cultural sensitivity. Again, for good reason. But if there are poor and insensitive ways to interact with racial minority groups, isn’t there an implication that there are also appropriate and positive ways? Multicultural scholars and activists suggest that the appropriate way is to approach another group hermeneutically. According to the principles of hermeneutics “it is only possible to grasp the meaning of an action or statement by relating it to the whole discourse or world-view from which it originates.” In other words, one must approach a cultural group by trying to understand its various cultural practices and traditions from that group’s own perspective, rather than from the perspective of an outsider.

This is precisely what Jake does, and not just because he is supposed to do that as part of the scientific team. Though he was supposedly spying for the Colonel and working with the scientists to learn about the Na’vi, Jake clearly establishes his disdain for both. He follows Neytiri, not because he is supposed to but because he is curious to learn about her and her people. He follows her because he wants to. It is this “wanting” that has been described as a manifestation of privilege. And it is privilege in the sense that Jake is leading a double life. If the “native thing” doesn’t work out, he can always go back to being human. The Na’vi (and, by extension, people of color) don’t have the option of not being who they are.

But Jake isn’t approaching Neytiri from a privileged position. He is approaching her partly out of genuine curiosity and partly out of desperation. He had become separated from the other scientists and doesn’t know how to survive in the Pandora jungle. Moreover, he takes to his Na’vi body from the start, and it is clear that he much prefers it to his original one. When a short time later, he tells the Na’vi chief that he is “empty” (meaning that he has let go of human ways and is ready to be filled up with the ways of the Na’vi), it has emotional truth. Jake isn’t there as part of a job or as some exotic experience. He is there out of a sincere desire to not only understand but to learn the Na’vi ways. Isn’t this the way we want outsiders to approach a cultural group?

4. Jake is an immigrant, not a tourist.

Extending the multicultural theme still further, I believe that, among other things, Avatar is a quintessential immigration story. At the start of the film, Jake was obviously human, but he felt betrayed by humanity, which withheld from him the technology to restore his legs. He came to Pandora for a new start, not knowing what he’d find but prepared to embrace something different. I think that when he arrived on Pandora, he was already “empty” or open. He didn’t at first have any allegiance to the Na’vi, but nor did he have much loyalty to his country, certainly not to its corporate and military face. In many ways, he was like an immigrant arriving at a new shore, not knowing what future it will hold, but committed to building a life there, with no intention of ever returning to the old one.

5. The Na’vi Rescue Themselves

It is true, of course, that Jake becomes a super-version of the Na’vi, taming and riding the red flying beast that is recognized as the most ferocious of the jungle. When he swoops down from above, he becomes not just a mythical hero, he practically becomes the messiah. This is problematic and entirely unnecessary to the story. But by this point (as I’ve argued all along), Jake is Na’vi, in every sense of the word, and the methods he and the other Na’vi use to fight off the humans are entirely Na’vi. Other than sounding the warning, Jake brings in no “outside” knowledge or expertise. He uses Na’vi methods to gain trust and unite the tribes, and communicates with the Pandora life-energy through a method accessible only to the Na’vi. And at the end of the day, Pandora isn’t rescued by anyone. Ultimately, and appropriately, the planet saves itself.

Pandora

Conclusion.

Don’t get me wrong. For all that it gets right (and I do think some of the criticism is misguided), Avatar is still sociopolitically flawed, and the flaws are not minor. Most of the characters are stereotypical caricatures, traditional gender roles are (mostly) reinforced, and there is that uncomfortable messiah undertone.

PART II

is the second of a two-part series examining the racial politics of Avatar. In my previous post, I argued that Avatar’s racial politics are more complex and more progressive than critics have given it credit for. It is also the case, however, that the film has some noteworthy sociopolitical flaws, and these flaws also deserve some attention.

1. Many important characters are one-dimensional.

All irony inherent in a 3-D film aside, to make a truly powerful philosophical point about group relations, characters on both sides have to have complexity and depth. When the army guys are “all bad” and “all greedy” and the natives and scientists “all good”, some of the parallels to our world and its complex racial dynamics and interpersonal relationships get lost.

In this context, a number of important characters were presented as one-dimensional caricatures, especially the corporate guy in charge who was not only in far over his head but even lacked the good sense to realize his cluelessness. As such, he had no humanity at all, and while that might work on an allegorical level (we are to understand that the corporation is both inhuman and inhumane), how likely is it that someone so woefully incompetent would head this kind of a mission?

The blind obedience of the army guys, aside from the one rogue army “gal”, bothered me too. I realize, of course, that the army demands obedience for good reason: it can’t function if the generals stand around trying to gain consensus. So, it’s not so much that I expected more rogue soldiers but that I expected at least a few of the obedient ones to struggle with the immorality of what they were asked to do. I believe, as others have observed, that soldiers ultimately fight more out of loyalty to each other than some bigger cause, but though it is certainly true that there are soldiers, like Pandora military commander Col Miles Quaritch, who take pleasure in the violence, historical accounts (see, for example, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men) suggest that there would be others who would be pained by it. They’d still obey their orders, but they would be miserable during the entire ordeal. I wanted to see this misery, not because I enjoy seeing people in pain, but because the pain would have made it possible for me to relate to them. The soldiers’ stoicism made their savagery too easy to dismiss as unrealistic. If they couldn’t be emotionally affected by what they were doing, then how can the viewer possibly be expected to?

The military’s simplistic portrayal of the natives as “savages” also seemed outdated and, therefore, unrealistic. I know White supremacists still talk that way but high ranking army officers and corporate executives are educated, and while that doesn’t necessary make them less racist, it does provide them with a more nuanced (i.e., less explicit) ability to express their prejudices. I expect this nuance from them. Our military leaders today do not talk about Afghanistan and Iraq the way they used to talk about Vietnam. The social norms around language have changed, and the film seemed to have not kept up.

As for the scientists, while I enjoyed seeing them as the “good guys”, the reality is that scientists, including many psychologists, are active and willing participants in the war effort. Psychologists, for example, were shamefully centrally involved in the design of interrogation methods (i.e., torture) in the military detainee camps. At least some of them should have been working hand-in-hand with the military, not uniformly brushed aside as deluded weaklings.

The Na’vi were similarly romanticized. It’s hard to be critical of a fictional race I know nothing about beyond what was shown in the film, but, to the extent that the Na’vi are supposed to represent our own indigenous communities, I find it difficult to accept that the Na’vi do not have their own political problems and that some Na’vi — like some humans — are not motivated by greed or power or something else not entirely becoming. Without this moral complexity, I find the Na’vi society less believable and, therefore, a less suitable model of what our own society can aspire to.

2. Avatar Tells a Single Story.

Though Avatar’s story of intercultural contact is generally positive, it is nevertheless told exclusively from the perspective of the humans. As such, we know only what the humans, mostly Jake, sees and understands about the Na’vi culture. This is a legitimate perspective, but it is a limited one. It, by definition, leaves out cultural and intrapersonal aspects that might be of importance to the Na’vi, but that Jake did not notice or did not process. Moreover, as Chimamanda Adichie points out, this single perspective is dangerous, because it suggests that the one perspective that is shown is the only one there is. A single perspective is what allowed the romanticized depiction I described earlier. Had part of the story been told from the perspective of the Na’vi, say Neytiri, we would have had a much richer understanding of Na’vi motivations and inner world.

3. Avatar Reinforces Traditional Sex Roles.

I have no doubt that the film took care to present a progressive image of gender roles. Indeed, it is notable that the lead scientist on the base, Grace, is female, as is the renegade pilot, Trudy. And it was fun to see Neytiri hunt and ride the winged beasts not just with the Na’vi men but clearly as capably as them. And yet, I believe the film still manages to be gendered in a way that is decidedly non-progressive. I am referring to the sexualization of all the female characters, most obviously Neytiri and the other female Na’vi but also Trudy (who is usually shown in a tight white t-shirt) and Grace.

I have to confess that I enjoyed this sexualization, especially of the Na’vi, who were slender, athletic, and very scantily clad. There were moments during the film when I found myself focusing exclusively on certain parts of their bodies. On that level, it was good filmmaking, and as a straight male, I certainly didn’t object. But part of the politics of sexualization is that the sexualized person also becomes objectified. We are meant to believe that Jake was attracted to Neytiri for her prowess in the forrest (and I think he was), but what if he was just attracted to her sexually, or even just romantically? If that were the case, then his motives for learning about the Na’vi are much more problematic.

If Jake’s attraction is primarily sexual, it has to be interpreted through the historical White fetishization of women of color. From the slave masters’ midnight visits to the contemporary exoticization of Asian and Black female sexuality, women of color have served as the leading figures of White sexual fantasies. In this context, when Jake Sees Neytiri (undeniably, a woman of color), how do we know that he isn’t just seeing a hypersexual body that he can use for his own pleasure? I don’t like reading Avatar this way. I don’t think it’s the dominant subtext, but the overt sexuality distracts me from the more meaningful aspects of Na’vi culture and takes me on this road. The more cerebral part of me wishes it didn’t.

4. Jake, the messiah.

In the first part of this racial analysis I argued that reading Jake as a “white savior” discounts some of the complexity and isn’t entirely accurate. I must admit, however, that for all the subtle elements of biculturalism and biracialism present in the film, there is also, as my Twitter friend @tlcoles argued, an uncomfortable messiah theme in Avatar that really works against the film’s intended progressive, open-minded message.

The most problematic scene was in the middle of the film, when Neytiri is still deciding whether or not she can trust Jake. All of a sudden, hundreds of beautiful white spores that we later learn are the Na’vi deity, Eywa, alight on Jake, surrounding him with a white glow. It’s an awe-inspiring scene, but the imagery is unmistakable: Jake is the “chosen one”, the messiah who will lead his people to salvation.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His interests include immigration, racial/ethnic group relations and social justice.