Thoughts on Avatar and colonialism

Warning: The following post contains spoilers about the movie “Avatar.” Do not read if you have not seen the movie or are easily offended by articles discussing racism, which is not erased in spite of efforts at political correctness. While none of this directly relates to Vodou, it does relate to colonialism, which in turn relates to Haitian history.

An online discussion with a friend last night prompted me to write this post, just to express things that need to be said. While James Cameron’s film has good intentions, some of its underlying themes are less than impressive (as well as the general storyline).

There are some things I like about the film. It’s a lush production with stunning visuals, interesting character and creature design, and a nature vs technology storyline. The first hour or so is a lot of fun. Largely this is due to the main character’s process of discovery as he downloads his consciousness into his alien avatar body. We get to experience a new planet, people and culture through his eyes. It’s pure escapism, appealing to our longing for spiritual awakening and a deeper bond with the natural world, as well as our individual desires to leave past mistakes behind and reinvent ourselves. Who wouldn’t like to be stronger and faster?

The second part of the movie falls into your standard and predictable action movie climax, with guns, planes, explosions and a one-on-one fight between our hero and the main bad guy. Not surprising, but disappointing after a strong start. Oh well, that’s merely the superficial part of this film’s flaws. Like other popular stories such as Crocodile Dundee, Tarzan, Madame Butterfly and the “Native American” epic Dances with Wolves, Avatar has underlying colonialist themes which, for those of us unable to ignore such things, are rather annoying.

Wikipedia actually has a pretty good definition of the type of colonialism I’m talking about:

Cultural imperialism is the practice of promoting, distinguishing, separating, or artificially injecting the culture of one society into another. It is usually the case that the former belongs to a large, economically or militarily powerful nation and the latter belongs to a smaller, less important one. Cultural imperialism can take the form of an active, formal policy or a general attitude. A metaphor of colonialism is employed: the cultural products of the first world “invade” the third-world and “conquer” local culture. In the stronger variants of the term, world domination (in a cultural sense) is the explicit goal of the nation-states or corporations that export the culture. The term is usually used in a pejorative sense, usually in conjunction with a call to reject foreign influence.

Cultural imperialism rears its unattractive head all the time in media representations of minority groups in some really irritating ways:

  • Stupid notions of beauty.  If you are not super thin (if you are a woman especially) or tall (if you are a guy) you are not sexually attractive. If you have certain types of hair you are not attractive. If you have a wide or long nose, you are not attractive. This was brought home to me in a personal way by the movies Romeo Must Die and The Replacement Killers. In both of those movies, you have mixed raced couples in which the male is Asian. In both of those movies, the Asian leading man never gets to even kiss the leading lady let alone (gasp) have sex with her. Seriously, how often do you see that in your average R-rated action flick? Also worth noting for its ridiculousness is that Dances with Wolves has a white leading man and white leading woman in Native garb.
  • Changes or misinterpretations of a group presented as fact. Oh, the joy of stereotypes. I hear bad things about the new animated movie “The Frog Prince” and its representation of Vodou. I haven’t seen the film nor do I intend to (unless it’s on TV when I’m drunk).
  • Incredible leaps of believability.  See comment on Dances with Wolves in the first bulleted paragraph above. Or really, if you were an Omaticayan, would you trust a fake dreamwalker person who was spying on you, even if he attempted to redeem himself?

Movies like Avatar and Dances with Wolves remind me of one of my favorite poems by Sherman Alexie, titled “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel.” Using select quotes from said poem, let’s examine Avatar, shall we? My comments are in brackets.

The hero must be a half-breed, half white [or human] and Indian [or Omaticayan], preferably from a horse [or horse thing] culture.

If the hero is an Indian [Omaticayan] woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender and in love with a white man [human].

Indians [Omaticayans] must see visions. White people [humans] can have the same visions if they are in love with Indians [Omaticayans]. If a white person [human] loves an Indian [Omaticayan]

then the white person [human] is Indian [Omaticayan] by proximity. White people [humans] must carry an Indian [Omaticayan] deep inside themselves…If the interior Indian [Omaticayan] is male then he must be a warrior [Marine]….

You see the parallels. These patterns are hard to ignore when you’ve been seeing them all your life, even when they are disguised as science fiction.

Okay, this is the end of my rant. I promise the next post will be more directly related to Vodou.

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5 Responses to “Thoughts on Avatar and colonialism”

  1. i was browsing around the web and came across this, and couldn’t help thinking of our discussion about this movie. i hope you enjoy.

    http://failblog.org/2010/01/10/avatar-plot-fail/

  2. cheshirecatman Says:

    That was hilarious and oh so (unfortunately) true! Give me “Smoke Signals”” or “The Fast Runner” over “Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves/Avatar” any day.

  3. great post bro i’ll be sure to check back. btw i found a sweet place you can watch it online!

  4. Heyy, Found your blog on Bing and I am so glad I did! Keep it up! =)

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