Two weeks ago, a young transgender Bay Area blogger named Lara called for a nationwide protest against Avatar because, she claimed, the movie ignores “ignores the fact of Evolution. Humans are evolving to be being Transgender, NOT heterosexual.”
While Lara mistakenly confuses gender identity with sexual orientation, she’s hinged her debate on believing the film’s aliens should have all been one all-encompassing gender, instead of that weird male and female set we know of today.
The $300 million sci-fi remake of Dances With Wolves is strangely pro-terrorism and definitely misguided in its “white man leads minorities to victory” fantasy, but it doesn’t strike us as particularly exclusionary of trans people. Moreso, it seems that Lara’s using the blockbuster movie as a platform for trans-awareness.
And while lot of commenters on Lara’s Stop Avatar Movie blog have laughed off her gripes as ultra-PC militant trans-politics, biology suggests she might actually be … right.
To explore her claim, let’s look into Lara’s three main arguments against the movie.
Avatar assumes that the heterosexual, “male” and “female” attraction will still be the primary relationship basis in the future.
Though we hate hearing “the procreation argument” from gay marriage opponents and religious conservatives (namely that heterosexual marriage is superior to gay marriage because society needs heteros to produce kids), we assume that Avatar presents a heterosexual relationship between its hero and heroine because a) a hetero-majority of American theater-going audiences will emotionally connect to straight love stories; and b) a gay relationship would have changed the movie’s focus from “natives save their home planet” to “native homos save their home planet.” And while we would totally love the idea of transgender homosexual aliens destroying the bullshit Euro-centric patriarchal heterosexual militaristic paradigm, such a radical message would have shifted the story into different political territory.
“But wait!” you might protest. “Why couldn’t James Cameron have just created an alien race that reproduced asexually via parthenogenesis? Or something equally cool? Some varieties of plants and starfish do just that!”
An astute observation, but the short answer is that we and other multi-cellular vertebrates don’t tend to reproduce asexually unless there’s a lack of opposite-sex partners (of which there’s no lack in Avatar). Even if Cameron had been bold enough to make all his blue aliens one gender, asexual reproduction still isn’t the best way to keep a civilization thriving for millennia, because it results in low genetic diversity that leaves populations susceptible to adverse mutations and disease. In short, to survive over the long term, an alien race would need the genetic variation and robustness that heterosexual reproduction provides.
On the other hand, Avatar’s director could have envisioned the Na’vi aliens as hermaphroditic creatures. After all, hermaphroditism already occurs in one-third of animal species—including certain fish, snails, and most flowering plants—with some of these creatures deciding whether to be male or female during sex.
In another scenario, he could have given the Na’vi creatures both sperm and egg cells. And during sex, the Na’vi partners would both trade sperm to fertilze their eggs (like banana slugs, Hamlet fish, and earthworms do).
But in either case, an alien race with only one gender would still end up assuming biological male/female sex roles and using male sperm cells and female eggs cells which perpetuate the gender binary.
Furthermore, only in one case has a non-hermaphroditic species been altered into a hermaphrodite, when Japanese scientists inserted female eggs into the testicles of a male chicken. The findings — and the history of evolution on Earth — suggest the transition from male-or-female to hermaphrodite could occur only through scientific intervention, not nature.
And seeing as Avatar’s aliens hunt with bows and arrows, dogfight with pterodactyls, and talk to trees with their ponytails, it’s doubtful that Na’vi scientists will help facilitate the hermaphrodite revolution on Pandora anytime soon.
So while Lara has a weak case against heterosexual pairing on planet Pandora, she has a much stronger case about our eventually evolving into a single gender.
Avatar ignores the fact of Evolution. Humans are evolving to be being Transgender, NOT heterosexual.
The process of evolution takes millions of years, yet Avatar takes place in 2154, a mere century and a half from today, which is hardly enough time for our human species to evolve past gender entirely. And while it’s possible that the blue-skinned, cat-like people of planet Pandora could have evolved independently from Earthling, they still look and act a lot like us, and live in a world that, despite trees that connect to their hair braids, looks a lot like ours, so their continued heterosexual propagation makes sense.
Plus — or, arguably, THE BIGGER POINT IS THAT — Lara seems to conflate transgender identity and sexual orientation, which don’t always go neatly hand-in-hand. That’s how we end up with male-born, female-identified genderqueers who like to top fem straight boys in female drag. Neato, yes, but hardly neat. Transgender is not a sexual orientation, and homosexuality is not a gender identity.
So maybe what Lara means is that humans could one day evolve past the XY-XX chromosomal make-up that determines whether one is born male or female—and science supports her view. Right now, sex in humans is determined by a pair of chromosomes known as XX (for female) or XY (for male). But the male Y chromosome has degenerated slowly over its 166 million year existence for a variety of reasons. It has already lost 1,393 of its 1,438 original genes and could potentially lose complete function within the next 10 million years. Does that mean that “males” as we know them will one day no longer exist? The answer is probably not.
As the Y-chromosome degenerates, other chromosomes take over the genes and functions formerly associated with it. In fact, several species of rodents and reptiles currently determine male or female sex without using a Y-chromosome whatsoever; they merely attach the sex traits formerly associated with Y onto other X chromosomes or determine the sex during gestation. So men would still have dongs and women would still have cooters, scientifically speaking.
Avatar also assumes that intelligent beings on other worlds would be heterosexual.
Maybe Cameron’s been a little presumptuous in imagining that all his alien residents would be heterosexual. But to be fair, Avatar only shows three heterosexual couples in the entire movie; so there could be scores of homos and hermaphrodites in the background who never get camera time. Plus, it’s not just “the intelligent beings” that Cameron places into the male and female binary. While we don’t get a clear picture about the sexual life of Pandora’s plants (other than the floating angelic spores from the elder tree), the only horse and pterodactyls we get to know on Pandora are female and male, respectively.
Furthermore, of the creatures we see, most have six arms and legs, breathing flaps on their front halves, secondary sets of eyes, and strange ear stalks that allow Na’vi people to communicate with them. In comparison, the inhabitants of humanoid Na’vi tribe don’t seem to have evolved much beyond what we’d expect a human Earthling to look like.
Neytiri, the princess of the Na’vi tribe, pulls a Little Mermaid and bucks her birthright to fall in love with a creature from an entirely different species, the human Jake Sully. So maybe the Na’vi really are more mentally evolved in the way that Lara the transgender blogger would like.
Nonetheless, Lara’s argument still has its flaws. Until our Y-chromosomes finally degenerate and we all evolve into hermaphrodites a hundred million years from now, it’s likely that most mainstream Hollywood action films will continue to have vigorously “heterosexual” themes for the supposedly 90 percent straight audiences.
For those interested in supporting her protest, Lara suggests folks snap up tickets (a costly form of censorship that financially supports the film while theoretically keeping others from seeing it), refuse to see the film (keeping those who agree with Lara ignorant of what they’re actually protesting), or attend the film but stand in protest for its duration (a form of assholery).
Instead, might we suggest that everyone evolve into independently thinking creatures and discuss if there’s more we can do to support transgender inclusion in movies instead of standing up for a two-and-a-half-hour movie and potentially getting our asses kicked by fanboys in the process.
The characters are clearly androgynous. I think that’s dealt with in the film.
It’s not as bad as the Joker in nurse drag in the Dark Knight. Joker clearly represents queerness as evil.
Androgynous? Not the movie I saw. Clearly defined secondary sexual traits and characteristics. Defined roles along traditional gender lines. BUT.. I do think trying to make this into some “Hollywood hates Transfolk” makes you look petty.
“pro-terrorism” huh? where?
the white guy turned into a blue alien, he rejected his human (white) body. And when did the blue aliens use terrorism? I don’t get it.
She wrote what she did to see if anyone would run with it and get her some attention. Queerty ran with it. She got some attention.
Can we move on to a real a story now?
Anyway, nice article for the bio geeks among us Queerty…
Someone isn’t following their New Years resolution to get a life…………….
A lot of things in that movie are wrong from an evolutionary point of view. If you think about it, alien organisms on another planet that have a billion year-old genetic heritage completely separate from Earth’s should look nothing like what we have here, much less be humanoid, bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical, and be anatomically and physiologically equipped to speak a human language. Even within its own universe the film is inconsistent: most creatures on the planet that appeared in the movie had six legs, yet for some reason the native people were tetrapods just like humans on Earth. I chalk it up more to making the main characters identifiable to most audiences than to any grave ignorance of biology and evolutionary theory. In any sci-fi you have to make a compromise between scientific accuracy/plausibility and popular appeal.
@Thom: “Insurgents” on Pandora fighting to undermine U.S. military interests via sabotage and embedded spies would certainly have been called “terrorists” by the previous administration. Except in Avatar, those “terrorists” are the good guys.
@JRD: Thanks, I’m a science dork as well.
This is an absolute joke of a talking point and should have died after one post. This Lara is responsible for militant, angry and ridiculous campaigning that is keeping the GLBT community back because it scares rational straight people.
WTF??? I seriously doubt Avatar’s creators gave any thought what so ever about transgender issues. And to say we are evolving to become transgender is just ridiculous. Evolution is NOT progressive! At any rate, please get over yourselves and suspend reality for a couple of hours and watch a damn movie without personalizing it!!!
oh please Queerty, not only do you post inane ramblings from a patently idiotic ‘blogger’, you start trying to espouse some stupid confrontational ideas about what imo will end up being one of hte biggest movies of the decade, in both critical appeal and commercial success.
Looking too deep into Avatar, whether its the political messag eor its apparent lack of LGBT people, is treating it like it’s meant to be some artsy dramatic thing. It’s not. Cameron knows this and the audience knows this.
Lara thinks the opposite of transgender is heterosexual?–What f’d up planet does she live on?
Why are we paying her undercooked ranting any attention? We included me, ok!
Spot on comments in # 4, 9, 10, 11, etc.
Queerty, we had enough of this the FIRST time you posted about it. Please stop reposting the same tired and HARMFUL stories ad nauseum.
This new rehashing of it did nothing to improve upon the original article, and BOTH versions were too heavy handed with the blame-shifting-headline-question-mark…
Just my opinion.
So, any movie about the future that depicts male AND female sexes is trans-phobic? Wow. I think comment #9 was spot-on and this sort of militant/extremist whining should be kept on the outer-outer fringes of the gay movement so it doesn’t hold the rest of us back. Queerty, you may think it’s cute and clever to post headlines like this just to “pose the question” or raise the issue, but really it makes our community look crazy.
I have to say that, though this Lara person clearly doesn’t know exactly what she’s talking about, I’m quite impressed with Queerty’s response. I’m a scholar who works on issues of gender and sexuality in music (not that dissimilar to film), and in my spare time I love learning about biology/evolution. The issues Queerty raises here are really important ones, and, though many people think this sort of discussion unnecessarily academicizes a piece of pop culture, examining how gender and sexuality are portrayed in _Avatar_ works toward furthering our understanding of such issues. It is this knowledge, as many people know, that leads to tolerance. People fear what they do not understand. I consider it my job to make people understand. So thank you, Queerty, for this article, even though there were many typos. (Sorry, had to say it, still love you!)
The transphobia complaint is a big leap. Now the fetishization of women of color, on the hand…
@ERIC – Exactly. It’s one thing to say the movie is scientifically inaccurate… it’s completely another thing to call it actively transphobic. I object to that kind of inflammatory rhetoric.
>>>>>A lilac colored person whom has posted a diatribe against this movie claiming it is lilac-phobic…….
If that were the initial claim it would have never gotten any traction nor exposure. It would have been dismissed as a silly expression of someone with way too much time on their hands….
If anythig, “Avatar ” is pro-gay. The relationship between Jake and Neytiri could be seen as relatable for gay viewers. Think about it: Here is Jake, who finds himself attracted to someone who belongs to a different species and he is confused by the feelings he has for this person. This is what many gays and lesbians feel when they find themselves attracted to someone of their own gender, for the first time. And is it just me, but doesn’t Neytiri remind anyone of Jaye Davidson from “The Crying Game”?
uh… since this seems to focus on evolution of the human species, the debate holds no water. The Navi are not former humans or evolved from a human species… they are their own species of life forms… so… I’m wondering… WTF! PLUS… this is fiction! Woman! Stop grasping at straws! Queerity… stop enabling…
Lara is entitled to her opinion..just as everyone has a right to disagree with it….
My only problem with “Avatar” was the absence of black folks in the movie. Apparently there are no black folks in the future. Or Asians.
From the standpoint of a queer east-asian transwoman:
this’s the most batsh*t crazy argument I’ve ever read.
I’ve seen arguments all across the board on similar topics, and there is clearly a point that people are missing: AVATAR is a science fantasy, bordering more on fantasy than science. Unlike films grounded in realism (such as ‘dances with wolves’, which the film is often compared to), as a fantasy movie, it bears ZERO obligation whatsoever to cater to concepts such as gender norms, evolution, or to even present a realistic depiction of primitive tribal life.
It doesn’t owe us, the viewers, anything, because it is a fantasy film. Within the context of the film, the details simply do NOT matter.
I don’t go into a hetero-thematic films looking to pick a fight because there aren’t enough queers to go around. Can I watch a romance about a hetero couple following a gender-normative subtext. Yep. Can I get the same feeling out of it than I can out of watching a queer romance? Yep. Frankly, If the film is engaging, gives me characters I can care about, even empathize with, that’s the experience I want in a film. And that’s where AVATAR Delivers: an accessable/familiar story delivered in a new way.
@ #22: yes, there was a noticeable lack of people of any color whatsoever among the human cast. Would I like to see this rectified in the future? Definitely. Am I going to lose sleep over it tonight? No.
@Hephaeston, to be fair, the lead blue alien girl is played by a black actress, so is the mother of that blue alien girl. Also Michelle Rodrigues is hispanic. just throwing it out there.
Okay, I know this is a little off topic (though it was in the article so I think it is fair game) – can Queerty editors please justify calling Avatar ‘strangely pro-terrorism’?
No seriously, explain this statement. Saw the movie today. A relatively peaceful race gets pushed and pushed and then fights back and they are akin to terrorists?
Maybe it’s time to invest in some new bloggers.
I too am confused by the claims of pro-terrorism. Fighting back against an oppressive power is terrorism now? The only terrorist act I can think of was the humans that bombed the Na’vi hometree and that was by no means portrayed as a good thing, so I don’t know where this pro-terrorism is coming from.
@DillonS (No. 25): I already explained it in comment #8. Avatar’s not so different from “V for Vendetta” in it’s pro-terrorism message.
1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.
By that definition, the aliens are terrorists. Using guerilla warfare to take down agents of the U.S. government = terrorism. And I’m not the only blogger/reviewer calling the film “pro-terrorism.”
“Some will be angered by the facile anti-business, pro-eco-terrorism plot Mr. Cameron has constructed.” – The Washington Times
They used guerrilla warfare because they had no viable means of defeating the military in a straight conflict. Their actions weren’t designed to inspire terror in the opposition(though I laugh at the idea that any act designed to intimidate the enemy is automatically terrorism now, as that would arguably be the goal of many military operations, right?) but given them a fighting chance. They also didn’t take down agents of the U.S. government, but former marines turned mercenary that were hired by a corporation. It’s not terrorism by that definition, otherwise we could define terrorism as any act of self-defense perpetrated by one group against a larger more powerful group. And bolstering your opinions with the opinions of other wrong people won’t make it any less incorrect.
V for Vendetta involved the active overthrow of a government. The aliens in Avatar were defending their home from an aggressive second party by way of guerrilla warfare. If you don’t see the difference between the two, then you must have an interesting view of a lot of military history.
First my apologies, I had not seen your post about the terrorism issue earlier.
That being said: what are you talking about? The ’embedded spy’ was Sully, the marine who was sent ONTO the planet to gather info on ‘natives’ in order to use said info against them. Not the other way around.
By your definition, the Native Americans were terrorists when the English invaded North America. And later the Canadians were terrorists during the war of 1812. Not everyone who stands up to another nation or invading force is a terrorist or prone to terrorist acts. Your definition is flawed.
Did you even see the movie? I somehow doubt it, or you wouldn’t have based such a horrendously false assumption on what the Washington Post’s movie reviewer (note: NOT a journalist) said about the movie. yes, he referenced eco-terrorism (somehow he is now an expert? he gives his personal opinion on movies for crying out loud!), which is no where to be found in the actual movie. It was just his pathetic attempt to dismiss a pro-nature, pro-earth message (which is not the same thing).
Please give a concrete example of this supposed terrorism. And don’t say ‘well, they fought the Americans’ when, if you saw the movie, you would know the Americans were the aggressors invading a foreign planet. (or, in your mind, can the US do whatever it wants whenever it wants?)
Again I would ask Queerty to stop hiring hacks who rely on movie reviewers to shape their opinions. Truly pathetic.
Well said! 🙂
May i say congrats? No really, this is the most idiotic thing i have read this year!!
I will say nothing else as this is to stupid to waste words on.
People of color playing named roles in Avatar: Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonzo, Dileep Rao, Sean Anthony Moran
People of – what, NON-color? Isn’t White (or rather, pinkish-tan) a color too…? – playing named roles in Avatar: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel Moore, Matt Gerald.
Total each: White – 6, non-white – 7.
Total heroic people of color: 6
Total villainous people of color: 1
Total heroic colorless people: 3
Total villainous douchebag whitemales: 3
I abhor the imbalance portrayed in this movie. It is absolute racism, when looking at these numbers, that assumes white people are somehow less valuable and more evil. Lets all boycott AVATAR for it’s horrible, racist portrayal of white people!
…or just grow up, toughen up, and don’t watch the fucking movie if you can’t put aside the bullshit, artificial constructs of division invented by the idiots on the far left AND far right alike.
Not EVERYTHING is representative of the culture war some people strive so hard to keep going.
This horse is so dead. Why do we keep beating it?
Pro-terrorist? What a stupid argument.
The author of this article correctly calls out Lara for confusing gender identity and sexuality, but then muddles the concepts of sex and gender a bit. It’s probably best to define one’s terms. Usually, an individual’s sex is simply defined as whether they make eggs or sperm. Gender is the individual behaviors and social roles that derive from the sex of the individual in a specific context.
As Mark (no. 10) correctly noted, evolution is not progressive. The problem with Lara’s argument and this article is deeper than that. In addition to maintaining a clear distinction between sexuality and gender identity, and between sex and gender, this discussion lacks a clear understanding of what sex is for. Sex (i.e., the fusion of haploid gametes to produce a diploid zygote) exists a) to generate genetic variation, b) to produce new combinations of favorable alleles, and c) to weed a genetic line of unfavorable alleles by generating homozygous recessive recombinants.
The next question is, given that fertilization and recombination are worth the trouble, evolutionarily speaking, why are there different sexes, i.e., why does anisogamy exist (i.e., different individuals produce different types of gametes — eggs and sperm)?
Then, when you understand why anisogamy exists, the next question is, ok, so then why two types (male and female)? Why not three sexes, or seventeen, or 536? When there are two sexes, why are there approximately equal numbers of males and females? When the numbers of males and females aren’t equal, why is that?
In short, Lara is so far out to lunch that she’ll be gone till next Tuesday. While this article makes a reasonable effort, the issues are both more subtle and more complex than time and space here allow.
For a good time, and a good discussion of these questions, see Olivia Judson’s “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex.” It’s first rate evolutionary biology, bizarre and amazing, and a real hoot.
justme again – someone above commented about sex determination in reptiles. As far as I know, for all reptiles except birds (yes, birds are reptiles) sex is determined by the incubation temperature of the egg. In some species there is one critical temperature – eggs incubated above that temperature become one sex, and below that temperature become the other. In other species there are two critical temperatures – in the middle of the temperature range they become one sex, and above or below the critical temperatures they become the other.
In humans, males are the heterogametic sex (XY) while females are homogametic (XX). In birds, females are heterogametic (ZW) while males are homogametic (ZZ). Sex in humans is not determined by the sex chromosomes alone. There are also genes on non-sex chromosomes that can modify or reverse sexual development in humans. Also, rarely, during sperm production in a human male, crossing-over between the X and Y chromosomes is (infrequently) possible. This can yield a sperm cell with an Y chromosome that lacks the SRY (sex-determining) region, and sperm cell with an X chromosome that has SRY. If either of these sperm succeeds in fertilizing an egg, the result is an XX male or an XY female. It’s probably rare but nobody really knows – who has their chromosomes analyzed? You could be one.
Just thought you might want to know.
Agree with Terrwill, and with others who think seeing discriminatory undertones everywhere is paranoid-silly
This article is such an enormous amount of bullshit. What a waste of time.
I must also add that the movie is ANTI terrorist. The americans are the terrorists in the movie. The blue guys are the innocent ones.
about this pro-terrorism line of argument: The Navi characters would not be the terrorists. The mercinary marines would be. They weren’t there on oficial US government buisness… they were there to make a little extra dough. They were there to support a corperation (which could have had governmental ties). They were the ones destroying homes for a rock. They were the ones resorting to destroying religious structures. They were the ones striking terror into the natives lives. The Navi’s were simply defending theirs. Defence is terrorism now? Seems to me that some critics with an over-inflated sense of political insight like the idea of seeing their words stir such controversy… not at all aware of how ridiculous it makes them seem… and how disconnected from the movie ecperience that is Avatar. In fact… all this speculation makes me wonder if these critics watched the movie at all.
The movie has floating islands with waterfalls that never run dry, for god’s sake. It’s not making statements, scientific or otherwise, about anyone’s expectations for the real future. Get over your bitchy self.
Would Lara leave Cameron alone if he had hired a trans actor for one of the roles?
Josh, you must be counting the “extras,” ’cause everybody who sees “Avatar” walks out saying “Why weren’t there ANY black folks in that film?” Aside from one very minor Indian guy everyone in the movie seemed to be Caucasian.
You’d have to be watching the crowd scenes with a magnifying glass to find a black person in that movie. Hollywood should be aware that leaving entire races out of a movie set in the future has to be disconcerting to most of the people on earth. The racism and homophobia of Hollywood is inexplicable to me.
LOL…I think this more funny then anything else.
Heph, no, I was referring to the actors who had named roles. Yes most were ‘hidden’ behind the blue skin of the Na’Vi, but they were there, and were primary players, all. The only person I listed who was NOT a ‘major’ character was Sean Anthony Moran, but even his character at least had a name.
Does NO ONE look at IMDB or the names of the cast anymore before whining and slinging easily-disproven accusations of racism?
All of that goes without mentioning that SEVERAL of the extras at the military briefings at the beginning and end of the film were clearly ‘people of color’. If you didn’t see them, you might wanna get your eyes checked, because everyone I know commented on how diverse the cast was, and how glad we were that Hollywood was finally portraying a world that is less black and white and more the honest ‘rainbow’ (I hate that term, but it fits) that mankind is.
I think the issue here is less with “AVATAR didn’t hire any people of color!” and more, “AVATAR didn’t hire ENOUGH people of color to make an overly sensitive and racist niche of the audience happy.”
That’s right. Racist. The desire to marginalize white people makes one JUST as racist as the desire to marginalize black people.
Did white people do some terrible things to people with darker skin in the past?
Shit yes, we have, and MOST of us are aware of that and wish things had been different.
Do all ‘whites’ deserve demonization for something that happened years and years and years ago?
No. Because if actions in the past deserve demonization enduring on through the ages, we should REALLY talk about the African tribal leaders who sold us evil-devil-whiteys the slaves in the first place. Or the Native American tribes who, contrary to popular myth were NOT tree-hugging hippies who lived in peace with everything ever. Or the various aboriginal peoples who cannibalized European explorers. Or…you get my point.
To those overly-sensetive folks who cannot separate color identity from RACE identity, I say, “Tough. I’m sorry you didn’t see yourself represented in a sci-fi/fantasy movie that was 90% CGI, because there were MORE people of color employed in major roles than there were evil-devil-whities – not just black people, but people of other ethnic backgrounds that are lumped into the moronic PC appelation ‘people of color’ instead of simply being appreciated for being ‘people’. Get a helmet and quit whining.”
The Smurfs don’t look as friendly in this movie – Papa Smurf don’t Preach, I’m keeping my Gay Baby!
the movie blew. i got a headache from those glasses and half the time i didnt know wtf was going on……after seeing the movie i conclude it is status quo derivitave…lets see homo sci fi one day!
there were black actors in the movie…they were the aliens (of course)
ummm both michelle rodriguez and zoe saldana are half dominican and half puertorican so the racist argument doesn’t apply here.
Anti-imperialism in 3-D
There is much more to Avatar than the spectacular special effects, says Nagesh Rao.
January 7, 2010
AVATAR IS a visually stunning marvel of film technology, as many reviewers will tell you, but what really stands out in James Cameron’s newest film is its unabashed critique of corporate greed and its inspiring tale of solidarity and resistance against occupation.
Set on a distant planet called Pandora, Avatar re-enacts the genocide of indigenous populations by colonial capitalism, and links this history to the rapacious resource wars of our own times. The film is not a moralistic wringing of hands that relies on “white-guilt fantasies” as some commentators have claimed; rather, it is an uncompromising defense of the principle of self-determination and the right to resist exploitation and plunder.
Listing some of Cameron’s blockbuster films–The Abyss, Aliens, the Terminator films and The Titanic–is enough to remind us that we are dealing with a master of visual effects technology. Fans of his earlier work won’t be disappointed with Avatar’s special effects–the 3-D version in particular is a breathtaking experience. As the New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis writes:
This isn’t the 3-D of the 1950s or even contemporary films, those flicks that try to give you a virtual poke in the eye with flying spears. Rather, Mr. Cameron uses 3-D to amplify the immersive experience of spectacle cinema…After a few minutes the novelty of people and objects hovering above the row in front of you wears off, and you tend not to notice the 3-D, which speaks to the subtlety of its use…
Similarly, we find ourselves dazzled by the brilliantly rendered planet of Pandora, replete with bioluminescent flora and fauna, ethereal floating mountains and touch-me-nots that look like giant seashells. All of this, no doubt, represents advances in special effects not seen since the Wachowski brothers invented “Bullet Time” for The Matrix, and Peter Jackson brought Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings. Only the most jaded and cynical of moviegoers would deny Cameron’s accomplishments in this area.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
HOWEVER, FOR all the gushing praise that Cameron has received from critics for the film’s technological accomplishments, reviewers have been less enthusiastic about Avatar’s political message. Some of them seem to be so dazzled by the spectacle that they don’t even notice its ideological significance.
In the New York Times, Ross Douthat dismisses it as a “long apologia for pantheism–a faith that equates God with Nature.” Similarly, while Dargis’ review acknowledges the film’s “anti-corporate message,” she seems unmoved by its uncompromising anti-imperialist message.
On the other hand, left-wing critics have panned the film’s politics for its director’s “banal and conformist outlook” (David Walsh’s review at wsws.org) and as “a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people” (Annalee Newitz’s much-circulated post for the sci-fi Web site io9.com).
Let’s concede a couple of points at the outset. James Cameron isn’t Gillo Pontecorvo, and Avatar is no Battle of Algiers. It’s a popular science fiction thriller, and a damn good one at that. It thus conforms to some of the conventions of the genre, employing stock characters like the mercenary Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and predictable plotlines such as the romance that ensures a happy ending.
No doubt the dialogue is, at times, contrived and clichéd, and the film could have used a better script. Nevertheless, its narrative arc is compelling, and the transformation of its central character, disabled marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is convincing.
Jake is your archetypal warrior hero, except for his disability (he is paralyzed from the waist down), which draws sneers from the other marines (one refers to him as “meals on wheels”). When we first encounter him, he is awakened from a state of hibernation in the gravity-free environment of a spaceship. Here, as the characters hover and float around, we fail to notice Jake’s paralysis.
When we see him in his wheelchair for the first time, his comrades taunt him, and we see, through his eyes and from his perspective, the mammoth scale of the war machines and armaments being deployed by the mercenary forces on Pandora.
His disability, in other words, isn’t incidental. It’s central to his character, because his disability marks him out as an underdog among the top dogs, so to speak. His disability sets him apart as someone who might not necessarily conform to all that he sees around him. Moreover, as the plot unfolds, we learn that his colonel is trying to hold him hostage to his disability, promising him the use of his legs in return for acting as the colonel’s stooge.
Early in the film, we learn that Jake cannot afford the medical care he needs to be able to walk again, and that although he isn’t looking forward to the mission on Pandora, he can do little else, given the state of the economy.
White man though he is, Jake Sully is nevertheless himself a victim of oppression. And crucially, Jake’s liberation is contingent upon his identification with the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi, a tribe of 12-feet tall, blue-skinned humanoids with prehensile tails.
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IN THIS sense, Avatar can’t simply be dismissed as a “white man’s guilt” narrative, as Annalee Newitz does in her post on the sci-fi Web site io9.com. Newitz rightly points out that the trope of the white man who “goes native” is an old one, which has its origins in European colonial ideology.
Sure enough, as Newitz points out, in contemporary Western culture in general and Hollywood in particular, the fantasy of “going native” often ends with the white man not only assimilating into the “native” culture, but emerging as their leader in their quest for salvation or liberation from some oppressive force or circumstance. Think here of films as diverse as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Last Samurai and City of God.
Certainly, Jake feels conflicted and guilty about what his comrades are about to do to the Na’vi and to Pandora. And certainly, this is at least partially a result of his falling in love with Nyteri (Zoe Saldana), the female Na’vi warrior. And yes, Jake’s avatar emerges as the leader of the Na’vi in their struggle against the human plunderers. But surely this in itself is insufficient grounds to condemn the film as just so much unreconstructed Orientalism.
By plugging into the avatar, Jake’s consciousness is quite literally embodied in the “other”; in this sense, he comes closer to genuine empathy with the Na’vi than can be realistically conceived (hence the term “science fiction”). If we grant this central premise of the film, then it seems to me somewhat churlish to suggest that Jake Sully is nothing but a 21st century T.E. Lawrence or Indiana Jones.
Furthermore, Jake’s Na’vi self initially rebels against the human incursion into Pandora as an act of self-preservation. He attacks the giant bulldozers that arrive on the scene while he is asleep (and back in his human incarnation) with a desperation that the audience can identify with, as they seem intent on mowing down everything in their path, including Jake and Nyteri.
It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the bulldozers destroying the Na’vi forests are like the Israeli bulldozers in occupied Palestine, and that Jake’s defiance of them is like the courageous stance of activists like Rachel Corrie.
By slow degrees, Jake comes to identify with the “other” and their way of life. Once he becomes fully aware of the mercenary calculations of the corporation that will stop at nothing in its bid to extract the precious “unobtanium,” Jake switches sides, as do the team of scientists led by the strong-willed Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). To suggest that this act is little more than a demonstration of “white man’s guilt” is, I think, to render meaningless the idea of solidarity.
Jake’s speech rallying the Na’vi, and calling on them to reach out to the other tribes reminded me of Tecumseh and of later anti-colonial revolutionaries who rallied diverse colonized peoples against their common oppressors. The conclusion of the film, which shows the chastened humans being escorted back to their waiting spaceship, just as surely harkens back to the images of the withdrawal of the defeated American forces from Vietnam.
In the context of the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is cultural dynamite. And in the context of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture on “just war,” Jake Sully’s wry admission is timely: “I was a soldier who tried to bring peace, but sooner or later everyone has to wake up.”
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ANOTHER ELEMENT of the film’s anti-imperialism that critics seem to have missed is its subtle criticism of the negative historical role played by anthropologists and other social scientists working for colonial powers. Grace and her team of scientists are employed by the same corporate entity that has hired Col. Quaritch and his trigger-happy mercenaries.
In this respect, the scientists in the film are like those employed by the U.S. Army’s “Human Terrain System,” whose stated purpose is to “improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed.”
But Grace is no military lackey, and her team’s meticulous attention to the scientific project, as well as their moral and ethical sensibilities drive them to oppose Col. Quaritch and their corporate sponsor, in the form of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). The film’s insistence that the aims of social science can’t be reconciled with those of imperialism stands in stark contrast to the complicity of academics currently involved in the Human Terrain System program.
Like most sci-fi films, Avatar offers a withering critique of the world that we live in. But unlike most recent sci-fi films, it is filled with a utopianism that we haven’t seen in a while. Is this a nostalgic longing for lost innocence? By presenting the Na’vi and their way of life as akin to indigenous cultures destroyed by colonialism, does the film run the risk of grasping at an irrecoverable past?
Perhaps here too Avatar offers more than at first meets the eye. There is something undeniably futuristic about Pandora itself, where flora and fauna alike are interconnected as if part of one gigantic neural network. The network of energy that binds everything on Pandora is ultimately responsible for Jake’s resurrection as his Na’vi avatar.
The process that transfers his consciousness from his human body to his Na’vi body seems to involve millions of tendrils that resemble tiny optical fibers. Interestingly enough, this postmodern, high-tech aesthetic stands in stark contrast to the decidedly modernist, industrial design of the humans’ arms and armaments, which recalls the gritty and clunky aesthetic of Battlestar Galactica.
Such utopianism in our time might seem unjustified, if not incongruous, but it is certainly a breath of fresh air. There are those who will squirm at the film’s obvious references to our contemporary reality (as when the campaign against the Na’vi is referred to as “shock and awe”), and those who will wince at its sometimes clumsy dialogue.
But there’s no denying that millions of moviegoers around the world are flocking to a film that unflinchingly indicts imperialism and corporate greed, defends the right of the oppressed to fight back, and holds open the potential for solidarity between people on opposite sides of a conflict not of their choosing.
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Avatar , written and directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang.
My big complaint about Avatar is that 150 years from now I’m not sure Americans will look the way they looked in the movie; most of the characters were very “white”. Don’t get wrong — I love me some Giovanni Ribisi — but I’m not convinced typical Americans will look that way in 150 years. As interracial marriges continue to increase and the Latino population continues to grow, I think Americans will look less European. It seems films set in the future should reflect that trend.
@ SnowWhite – Now see, THIS I see as a valid point. Unfortunately, Snow, we have to work with the tools we have.
While it would be GREAT to see the human race finally unified through interracial marriage and further assimilation of cultures into the cultural whole – making us one united race of humanity and removing such artificial divices as religion, color and nationality, and it is certainly something to hope for 150 years from now – we do not really have ENOUGH people who are a full blend. And any attempt to cast unknowns in a blockbuster like this would result in, lets face it, lost profits.
So they worked with what they could, and cast as many people of different colors and cultural heritages as they could and let that be that. Sadly, for the upholders of the archaic and artificial “Racial” divisions, that wasn’t enough.
Trans shmans. Were Lara to provide a coherent analysis of the film I might listen and even agree. As is, the commentary is juvenile and the boycott a waste of time. Go see the movie and just have fun for Christ’s sake.
well i doubt the lead male character would have been cast with a black actor….this movie sickens me with status quo, all of hollywood does.
there are racial divisions, assholes.
“Racial” divisions, my dear Klerry, go right out the window at a base genetic level. Our skin color and national origins are artificial barriers to what we SHOULD be…a HUMAN race, not a race of ‘blacks’, a race of ‘browns’, a race of ‘reds’, a race of ‘evil-devil-whiteys’…
Sooner people get over their learned beaviours towards ‘race’ and look instead to kids who don’t care about crap like color or religion and just want to play with their friends, the better off we all will be.
There’s one error in this article. There was a recent article several days ago that says that in fact the male gene is evolving far faster than the female gene. This was found to be true for both the human gene and also some species of either ape or monkey (I forget which one whose X and Y genes they also examined). The male gene is not degenerating, as this article says. (I tried to find the link to the article I saw online so that I can post the URL of the article here, but can’t find it as I’m typing this.)
@Todd: Here’s Todd from No. 56 back again – finally found that online article I was talking about –
“Male Chromosome May Evolve Fastest”
Fuck Trans people
—Aren’t any of you brain-dead, circle-jerk worshippers
EVER going to call out the long rich —five times corrupted
—and aging FAST Cameron on his and Hollywood’s decades
of ‘enmeshment’ with the most awesomely genocidal regime
history has EVER seen across the Pacific? STONE COLD FACT
-I mean, looking the other way on the ‘peacetime’ murder
of 70 million people -for the sake of cheap finance and
VAST market access is sort of uncool.
—-AH! -but then we NOW realize Hollywood and media
have also been covering and enabling for our own staggering
Boomer legacy of 45 million exterminations of the unborn
–largely in the name of ‘lifestyle and convenience’.
Um, I think they meant that the characters portrayed on the human side were mostly Caucasian. I didn’t even know Tsutey was played by a black man until I saw a Jet cover on a co-worker’s desk with the actor and asked who he was.
Sure, a lot of the Na’vi were played by people of African ancestry (which is a whole other issue), but I don’t recall seeing too many human minorities on the Terran side. I can only think of Michelle Rodrigues’ character, the scientist, and I think the drill sargeat guy barking instructions when the shuttle touched down at the beginning. There may have been a few extras, too.
You were the one who said evil devil whitey first, seems like.
I don’t really think anyone was trying to go there.
Why is this always such a kneejerk reaction for some people?
Anyway, I will apolgize for the above post as I did not read the entire commentry before commenting. I see that you made some of the same points, thought in support of a different view.
In fairness, though, there’s a huge wall of text here, and race isn’t even what ths main article we’re commenting to is about.
I’m not sure how you think whatever conflicts Native American people had amongst themselves justifies things like smallpox blankets, the Trail of Tears, and basically the intentional destruction of Native American culture.
And yes, there were Africans involved in slave trade. They were and are a fractious and divided people, and it was probably a “for whom the bell tolls” scenario. In fact, wasn’t that what the poem was about? I seem to recall.
This in no way excuses the slave trade. It’s not like Africans traveled to Europe to sell their people into slavery. They just were being short sighted and selfish. If all the African cultures had fought together (like the Na’vi did…) only they still lost, what would that do to your argument justifying the expatriation and enslavement of a pre-technological people?
The common thread here and other histories of colonialism is that the technologically advanced Europeans saw pre-tech people’s as less tham human, and decided to make a profit from them in the cruelest ways possible, all over the non-white world.
I know you are aware of this already. I just think it’s irresponsible for you to try to excuse it or step back from if by blaming the victims like that. I mean, WTF?
this is pretty much the same criticism that everyone had of the film: james cameron’s lack of creativity. if you want some truly non gender-conforming/non-anthropomorphic aliens, just read ANY sci-fi novel. “the mote in god’s eye” is a good one, off the top of my head.
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