Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Measure of a Man: What Does Avatar Tell Us About Masculinity, Wounded Warriors, and Disability?

***I am very fortunate to have really smart friends. After seeing
Avatar, I called my fellow sci-fi geek, expert in all things Star Wars to complain about the travesty that is Avatar. Bill the Lizard disagreed and offered what is a compelling take on Avatar--one that I had not considered, and that goes well beyond more narrow analyses that undercut Avatar as either an ode to white guilt or a cgi version of Dances with Wolves. For your consideration.***

Science fiction provides people with a privileged insight into topics and subject matter that would otherwise be inaccessible. Within science fiction, the author is freed to fully explore social issues through the use of allegory. In turn, this use of allegory frees the audience as well--allowing them to see themes in a film from a more critically distant vantage point.

To that end, James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is sparking a diverse debate across the internet. It is a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker that so many people can look at one work and bring to the table totally different ideas.

One such discussion is how Avatar handles race, or more specifically, how Avatar handles the racial “other.”

Annalee Newitz, editor of io9, states the following about the film: “Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.” She goes on to state: “Whites still get to be leaders of the natives - just in a kinder, gentler way than they would have in an old Flash Gordon flick or in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels.”

In a broad sense, I agree that Avatar touches on the subject of race in a very tangible way, and that at face value, it’s often hard to see Avatar as being anything more than just a retelling of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves or John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest.

However, I disagree with Ms. Newitz’s assertion that this movie is just a classic white guilt fantasy. Avatar is not racist, nor is it a calculated example of a kinder gentler form of social imperialism.

What many people seem to forget is that Jake Sully, the main character, is established early on in the story as being both an ostracized and emasculated character. Thus, he does not fall into the classic white privilege archetype that you see in white guilt fantasy.

Jake Sully is emasculated in a literal sense because of a combination of physical injury, financial inadequacy and family tragedy. Not only is Jake Sully a Marine who cannot walk or fight, but more tragically he knows that there is a cure for his injury, but cannot afford it. Further, Jake’s closest relative, his twin brother, has been killed in a meaningless act of violence that Jake could not prevent, and now Jake is now forced to step forward into a position that he does not feel he is smart enough to handle.

Because of this, the Jake Sully we first meet is evocative of the character Jake Barnes from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Like Barnes, I would not be surprised if Jake Sully is also suffering from some form of physical, as well as emotional emasculation. Impotence and incontinence are very common side effects with paraplegia, and since The Sun Also Rises deals specifically with the loss of optimism and innocence after a bloody war, I would suggest that there are a great many similar themes at play.

It’s clearly mentioned in the beginning of the movie that Jake Sully saw “some serious shit” in Venezuela, and James Cameron is an adept enough writer and director to pay attention to the details. Just because James Cameron doesn’t hit you over the head with hyper-melodramatic moments in regards to Jake Sully’s disabilities, it does not mean that these elements are not present in Avatar.

As a result, Jake Sully cannot be strictly viewed as the white man who never gave up “white privilege.” To say that Jake never gave up “white privilege” somehow infers that Jake had the privilege of racial entitlement and immunity before he joined the Avatar program. But, as already established in his back-story, if he ever had political, social, monetary or intellectual power, it is definitely not present at the beginning of the film.

This is not to say that Jake Sully, the character, is disillusioned or helpless – he’s not. In point of fact, Jake is determined to apply his knowledge and skills towards his own self-care and development. However, despite his desires to better himself and initially work within the confines of his own culture, he is still an “other” who at first is forced to operate outside of the two dominant spheres of influence at the Hell’s Gate facility on Pandora: the soldiers and the scientists.

As the story develops, we soon find Jake embracing his role within the Avatar program. While the scientists are slowly accepting him, it’s very apparent that Sully would rather immerse himself within the Na’vi culture through his interactions with Neytiri. The reasons for this are easily apparent: not only does the avatar body give Jake all of the things that he had physically lost, but also being with the Na’vi (and specifically Neytiri) emotionally completes him.

This notion of self-completion (in both a physical and an emotional sense) is very important to recognize in the narrative. For example, we begin to see evidence of Jake’s willingness to leave his old life behind by the fact that he stops eating, bathing or taking care of his human body. His old life, the life of a paraplegic and a type of now immediate a literal “other,” is rapidly becoming the unwelcome dream--and Sully’s ties to the Na’vi his new reality.

Furthermore, by deciding to become fully Na’vi at the end of the film, Jake makes a decision that is very similar to someone who may elect to have sex reassignment surgery. He is changing his outside in order to better fit what he knows is correct for him as an individual. Many people who have gender identity issues refuse to accept what is increasingly a dated notion of “medical normality,” that those in the “trans” community have a disorder. Here, gender is a social construct that is completely unrelated to biology. Similarly, while Jake Sully may be biologically human, it does not change the fact that he knows that he belongs with Neytiri, his life-mate.

In the end, it’s all about bringing your body into harmony with your perceptions of your own identity. I don’t think that it’s by accident that the Na’vi say “I love you” by saying “I see you.” Neytiri “sees” Jake, regardless of what form he’s in. When she saves Jake’s life at the end of the film, it’s easy to see the love in her eyes - despite the fact that she’s holding a small broken human who is all but helpless in her arms. Similarly, Jake “sees” her and loves her regardless of the fact that she’s not human. This is the dominant theme and meaning of Avatar.

As an important historical aside, I would also strongly suggest that Jake Sully is a Hugh Thompson, Jr.-like character. Hugh Thompson, Jr. was the US Army helicopter pilot who, along with his gunners, attempted to stop the My Lai Massacre in the village of Sơn Mỹ in 1968.

During the My Lai Massacre some 450 unarmed civilians were ruthlessly killed by about a dozen US soldiers, and Thompson, in an effort to stop what he saw as “pure premeditated murder,” threatened to shoot the US soldiers if they did not stop. In short, Thompson followed his moral center and fought against the atrocities that were being committed by his own countrymen. He did this regardless of the cost to himself.

Thompson received numerous death threats for his actions in Vietnam. He was also labeled as a “race traitor;” much like Jake Sully is in the film.

Thompson was then betrayed by his own government, by his commanders attempting to cover up the massacre, and 30 years later, while Thompson finally did receive recognition for his selfless act, he is quoted as saying in a 60 Minutes interview: “I mean, I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them, but I swear to God, I can't.”

Sometimes following your own moral center (like Thompson), while at the same time realizing who you are as an individual, is not “going native” as Annalee Newitz and others infer:

“Going native” is a racist and derogatory term from the 19th century imperial imagination. It is the idea that the indigenous population can corrupt a white person where they somehow ”lose themselves” to a “barbaric,” seductive, exotic culture. The indigenous population never corrupts Jake – in contrast Jake Sully is “completed” by the indigenous population and truly becomes a whole person by the end of the film.

Yes, Colonel Quaritch accuses Jake of “going native,” but that is because Quaritch is the racist (or more correctly the speciesist). It’s Quaritch who doesn’t care about the Na’vi, and it’s his employer, the RDA (Resources Development Administration) who feels that these people are merely implements, tools to be used for human expansion and progress.

Jake Sully understands that the Na’vi live according to their own traditional and tribal belief systems. All that Jake asks of the Na’vi is for them to judge him in the light of those beliefs. The fact that the Na’vi accept Jake so completely, enough to even follow him into battle, shows that the Na’vi view Sully based on his actions and merit. Ironically, the Na’vi “see Jake,” in a way that his own people are completely unable to.

Ultimately, while Annalee Newitz and others may see Jake Sully as that “white guy [who] manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member,” I would argue that she is missing the mark. Jake Sully already feels that the Na’vi are his family. Given his background prior to the climax of the movie, is it all that surprising that he would fight to protect them?


Anonymous said...

"these people are implements to human expansion and progress"

I think you mean "impediments," not "implements," right?

Anonymous said...

Newitz does not argue against the idea that Jake believes himself to be a part of the Na'vi, nor even that the Na'vi accept Jake. She argues that this entire concept is based on a racist white fantasy of the perfect, exotic "native" culture being the solution to the developed, evil, white, male world. He IS the ultimate Na'vi- he rides the crazy huge monster that only like 5 other Na'vis have ever ridden and leads them to victory. But Jake is not Na'vi and even in the end, his Avatar body is still half human. Your point about his disability making him an outcast/possibly emasculated is a very good one, but the entire portrayal of the Na'vi culture felt very flat, overly idealized and entirely without flaw, which is a white racist fantasy built on a foundation of ignorance.

Doggstar said...

"It’s no accident that all the Earthlings are played by white actors (except for Dileep Rao and Michelle Rodriguez, both of whose characters are, naturally, on the good side) while all the Na’vi, under their CGI suits, are played by actors of color."

look i know it's hard to face turth. but you gotta wake up sometime

Bill the Lizard said...

Hi all, just a quick response to your excellent posts:

Avatar may be politically naïve (I'll give you that), but it's not atypical white guilt fantasy.

White guilt fantasy relies on having concepts of both guilt and fear built into the narrative. The guilt stems from the protagonist recognizing the trappings of their own white privilege, while the fear stems from the same individual realizing that they could lose said privilege, thus putting into question their own self-image and identity.

This is why “white guilt” narratives often deal with protagonists who strive for acceptance and forgiveness amongst others, but don't actually look to change their own actions and/or beliefs to attempt to make a positive change in anyone's life. Classic white guilt fantasies are things like: Tarzan or Pocahantas or Robinson Crusoe.

Jake Sully, however, has no racial guilt – he only has his own moral compass which tells him what is right and what is wrong.

Nor is Jake Sully afraid of losing his so-called white privileges. He makes this clear by completely joining with the Na'vi people at the end of the film. This joining is not just a political or social construct, but a biological one. Yes, maybe this is only something that could happen in a science fiction movie, but the allegorical point is that Jake Sully's identity and morality are not tied to either the color of his skin, or the “origin of his species”.

Thus, unlike the typical white guilt fantasy protagonist, Jake finishes the story as a strengthened, not weakened, character, and unlike Captain Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves”, he does not leave the tribe as a fugitive, feeling that he's caused more harm than good.

Thus, Avatar shows that it is possible for racially privileged individuals to empathize and identify with others, abhor racial supremacy and make significant sacrifices to eliminate racial privilege while at the same time maintaining their own self worth.

Definitely let me know your opinions on this.

-Bill the Lizard

Anonymous said...

Re-spectable. Some of the things that make me agree with you that don't seem to come into this debate too often:

1) Jake's leadership role is limited to the fight with the humans. He does not end up as the colonialist leader of the Na'vi at the end of the movie.
2) Jake's body isn't half human. It's a Na'vi body keyed to his human DNA. He gives up his racial humanity, although arguably not his spiritual humanity.
3) The xenophobia of the Na'vi is their weakness, and is one of their few qualities that is painted as a drawback to their society. It's hard to argue that Na'vi naivete and 'purity' is good for them in the movie.

I believe that we write culture ourselves, and that although that culture often refers to ideas we call race, a person can switch cultures (ideas) with effort. One day, the technology will exist such that we can switch races with relative ease. The question then won't be 'how do you understand your race and other races?' and will be 'who do you want to be? What is the right thing to be?' which is one of Avatar's important questions.

Ponder Wisely said...

Newitz writes that "Jake Sully does not fall into the classic white privilege archetype that you see in white guilt fantasy... because of a combination of physical injury, financial inadequacy and family tragedy... Jake Sully is also suffering from some form of physical, as well as emotional emasculation... Impotence and incontinence are very common side effects with paraplegia..."

Then, by the writer's own admission, the impotent (and therefore) emasculated, legless, broke, ostracized Jake Sully decides to permanently become a member of the oppressed Na'vi tribe because it's a better fit!

"Furthermore, by deciding to become fully Na’vi at the end of the film, Jake makes a decision that is very similar to someone who may elect to have sex reassignment surgery. He is changing his outside in order to better fit what he knows is correct for him as an individual."

But WHY is the Na'vi tribe - whose members are depicted as physically and intellectually superior than whites - somehow a "better fit" for an emasculated legless incontinent white man?

Layla said...

If you do, in fact, Ponder Wisely, you would, first of all, read carefully and attribute your citations correctly. It was not Newitz who wrote about the impotence and classic white privilege, it's the authors of this blog. Careful reading and understanding of the text and the film will render your questions more logical and arguments more consistent. If it's not meant as a rhetorical question and you really do ponder why the Na'vi accept Jake Sully, you are welcome to read my review, in which I address the question of the clash of the outlooks on life and on speciesism that is at the basis of racism, sexism and the general phobia of "difference".

As for this post, thank you, the Respectable Negro Tribe, for the interesting points raised. I'll proceed to checking out the rest of your blog.