***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.***
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?