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‘Avatar’ and the White Messiah

January 9, 2010

A lot of annoyed people, e.g. David Brooks, think ‘Avatar’ perpetuates the Myth of the White Messiah, the idea that only a white man gone native can protect the delicate, spiritual primitives against the greed and violence of the white race.  Well, that is what happens in ‘Avatar’ and it is trite, but, triteness aside, it hardly merits much of the morally-inflected hand-wringing it’s met with.

It’s worth distinguishing several of ‘Avatar’’s potentially objectionable features.

  1. The human-Na’vi conflict is set up as one between reason, technology, and cold economic logic on one side and spirituality, community, and a warm oneness with nature on the other.  This is a pretty dumb but durable cartoon we’ve seen a hundred times before.
  2. Cameron illustrates the spirituality-nature-community side of the conflict using images that the public associates, rightly or wrongly, with African, Native American, and other indigenous cultures.  Moreover, the voices of the major Na’vi characters are all ethnic sounding and in fact all supplied by people of color (Zoe Saldana, Wes Studi, CCH Pounder, Laz Alonso).  In most people, this sort of thing sets off all kinds of “stereotype!” alarm-bells.
  3. The movie endorses the value of spirituality, oneness with nature, community, etc.  For many, this probably smells too much of patchouli and ‘meat’ made from soy.  At least implicitly, the Na’vi deserve their autonomy because of their peaceful spirituality.  But wouldn’t even a more callous race deserve to be left alone?
  4. With good intentions and a little understanding, Jake is able to bridge the divide between human and Na’vi values.  But aren’t there be some gaps that are just too wide?  Aren’t there some that it’s pointless and dangerous to try to close?
  5. Jake is not just one of the Na’vi, but their champion.  With a bit of practice and a flirtatious guide, he can do anything they can do and more, including stuff no one has done in generations, namely tame the nastiest dragon, unite the clans, and lead them to victory.  White people, the movie seems to say, are just naturally better at everything.
  6. There’s no real explanation for why Jake is The One.  He’s a nice guy and a good solider but basically just a meathead.  Nevertheless, the universe has somehow selected him for greatness.  He attracts those jellyfish-like seeds as sign of his specialness.  The Na’vi then pick up this and accept him.  At the end of the day, though, it seems to be all just fate.  Or something.

Personally, none of these offend me, and, aesthetically, the last annoys me by far the most.  I think it’s the movie’s main extravagance.  The Na’vi’s acceptance of Jake is just never satisfyingly motivated.

Most of the others, though, make a certain amount of good aesthetic sense. They’re trite, but they’re trite for a reason.  Look, if you’re going to make a blockbuster movie about the clash of two civilizations, one of which is “ours”, with a hero who goes on a journey of personal discovery and saves the day for everyone else, Cameron’s choices are pretty natural.  First of all, if one of the civilizations in conflict is Ours, you can’t have Us win.  It’s simply not done.  But it’s a blockbuster, so one side has to win, so it has to be Them.  Second, making the hero an outcast who goes over to the other side is the perfect way to unite the personal growth and epic conflict threads: his personal growth becomes the means by which he eventually saves the day.  When two civilizations are in conflict, there’s no more obvious form of personal growth than seeing how the other half lives.  But since the Other side eventually wins, the hero has to be one of Us and so he has to learn about Them.  This means Their mores and rituals have to be at least minimally accessible to him.  Finally, since our hero saves the day, he’s saving it for Them, and so doing something they presumably couldn’t do themselves.

Obviously this arc can be traced in more or less complex ways, and ‘Avatar’ does it particularly straightforwardly, but the overall structure will be similar.  Note, though, that even this broad-brush structure contains a lot of the elements that people find objectionable about ‘Avatar’.  This might mean that the structure itself is morally objectionable or it might mean that there’s another explanation for a lot of the plot elements besides a hidden belief in white superiority.  I think it’s the latter.

Something similar is true for Cameron’s use of African- and Native American-branded imagery.  It’s lazy, but at least it’s lazy with a purpose.  Given that you’re going for a caricatured technology vs. nature conflict, drawing on already established images of that conflict is quick and effective way to do it.

What we haven’t explained, though, is the movie’s pro-spirituality/oneness/nature agenda.  But this is just a substantive feature of the movie; it can’t be given the same schematic explanation offered earlier.  Obviously, you could fill in the personal-journey-plus-epic-conflict schema with a pro-rationality/technology/profit agenda and get a movie in which we would be the more backward race.

I suspect that what irks a lot of people, e.g. David Brooks, about Avatar is exactly this substantive agenda.  They bristle at the suggestion that we would do well to become more like the Na’vi.  That’s fair enough if you really think we’re doing enough to preserve the environment or you really think that the movie is advocating illiteracy, but no serious person thinks these things.

What’s lazy and unfair is invoking the White Messiah charge as a way of dismissing the movie’s substantive, if shallow critique.  The suspect reasoning goes like this.  “In the movie, environmental/inter-cultural harmony is achieved through the action of a White Messiah.  Therefore the movie’s take-home message of environmental/inter-cultural harmony presupposes the White Messiah Myth.  But we should reject the Myth, and so the Message along with it.”  But a moment’s thought reveals that we can perfectly well reject the Myth and keep the Message.  And a little reflection on the aesthetic logic of the movie confirms it.

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