Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Avatar, Race and Heroes

Is Avatar racist? Many think so. The story has been described as one of a series of movies in which a white westerner abandons his culture and embraces a new one, thereby becoming its savior. The implication is that the alien culture cannot save itself, it has to have a white outsider to save it.

This general plotline has deep roots.

One of the oldest and most common stories is about a young man who leaves home, finds a teacher or mentor, and becomes a hero. This dates back at least a thousand years. George Lukas bragged about using it in the original Star Wars movie.

A refinement of this has the man encountering a totally new culture and embracing it. This is a staple of novels, especially science fiction. Edgar Rice Burroughs used it for most of his heroes. This is the basis of Dune and the historic Japanese novel, Shogun.

The reason this is so common is that it allows the writer to introduce the new culture to us as it is introduced to the hero. The introduction becomes part of the plot.

During the Viet Nam war, a new variation grew up. The idea of a wise primitive culture resisting a cruel, technological culture was introduced. This mirrored the perception of a third world country being able to defeat a superpower.

In this variation, technology and culture have blinded the hero and he must learn the wisdom that his people forgot. The villains are normally either military or industrial with military accompanying them. They are contemptuous of the local culture but, when the final fight comes, the natives easily best the outsiders using their superior insights. Writer Alan Dean Foster made a career out of this as have other writers from the late 1960s and 70s.

This is what I grew up reading and James Cameron was born the same year that I was. You can also see the influence of this in other movies. In Return of the Jedi, Imperial soldiers are overcome by feral teddy bears. In Phantom Menace, a bunch of semi-primitives challenge a droid army. It is no coincidence that Alan Dean Foster wrote the first Star Wars novel.

The message here is debatable. It can be seen as a need for a white savior to rescue cultures that cannot save themselves, no matter how superior they are. An alternate view is that even someone from a decadent western culture can become enlightened if he leaves his culture behind and embraces a new one.

If James Cameron had just left it at that, conservatives would have continued to jeer but that would have been the end of it. The problem is that Cameron couldn't leave it alone. He had to introduce a racial element. When he cast the movie he cast whites as the bad guys and people of other races as the natives. Avatar is not about the superiority of primitive, planet-loving cultures over modern technological civilization. It is about everyone else being superior to whites. But they still need a white guy to save them. If you are sensitive enough then there is something here to offend everyone. Whites - you are evil. Blacks, Indians, Asians - you need whites to save you from other whites.

With it's anti-colonialism and anti-Bush message, Avatar was considered a contender for the Best Picture Oscar but some ham-handed racial casting might turn off enough Academy voters to give the Best Picture to someone else (possibly someone who made a better picture).

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