Avatar as a racist trope

HP asked me to look at a couple of posts discussing Avatar. I did.

SEK at Lawyers, Guns and Money writes of Avitar:

…the film is racist. Its fundamental narrative logic is racist: it transposes the cultural politics of Westerns (in which the Native Americans are animists who belong to a more primitive race) onto an interplanetary conflict and then assuages the white guilt that accompanies acts of racial and cultural genocide by having a white man save the noble savages (who are also racists)

This is true but there are redeeming qualities worth noting. For example, in the end …. the very very end … it is not the caucasowesternonormative macho male who saves the day. It is the native female lead character. She is the one that defeats the evil bad guy with her own strength and skills. Indeed, one could argue that SEK, in ignoring this very important fact, is simply trying to eaern anti-racist cred points at the expense of the repressed blue people!!11!!

(This is, in fact, why I note elsewhere that all movies are easily labeled as racist and/or sexist.)

Having said that, SEK’s analysis is essentially valid, in my view, and you should read it.

SEK also links to a site where we see a lot of criticism for the film’s negative attitude towards the military. I noted that as well in my review (in a positive light) and noted that back in 2002 it would have been impossible, or at least very difficult, to turn a film like this out of mainstream Hollywood. I urge you to read SEK’s discussion of the treatment of military and mercenaries, and to also consider that the line between the two is more vague than most upstanding American citizens would like to admit.

And it is not just Blackwater in Iraq, where administrative security was provided almost exclusively by mercenaries (mercenaries guarding generals, essentially). All around the world mercenary units are used by the US government. We have conducted entire wars with only mercenaries. In fact, since World War II there have been relatively few conflicts that the US has been involved in which did not involve mercenaries in some way or another. In the case of our ground war with Libya (did you even know we had a ground war with Libya?) in the 1980s, when Libya invaded Chad, every single anti-Libyan soldier in the conflict was bought and paid for by the US government, and every single on the ground soldier was an African, most regular military in the Zairian army. But the fact that they were paid for and under orders of the US but not even US citizens, let alone US military, made them 100% mercenaries.

And, let’s not even get started on Latin America. I mean really. The average US based mercenary speaks fluent Latin these days.

My point is that regular army vs. military has generally been, for centuries, an administrative question. That it is not is a fiction underwritten by the depiction of military in popular culture.

Getting back to the racist nature of Avitar… I essentially agree with SEK’s point made at the outset of this post, but as I said, there are mitigating circumstances. The natives are strong and they win not because of the intervening whites, but because of the big herbivores, carnivores, and flying thingies the natives are transductivly linked to, who attack the mercenaries, and because of the strong female native lead blue girl. However, it is true that the Marine turned Blue Guy is the one who made the appeal to the earth god to not just sit this one out. Over and over again in the action scenes in the last third of the film, the plot has “white man save the noble savages” thing going. And one white girl. Who I believe may have been Hispanic (again, the racist critique is oversimplified but substantially true).

SEK has a second post which is a total mind fuck. Go read it here. Many (most) of the key named Na’vi roles (the blue people) are non white (mostly black) actors. Isn’t that interesting? Meantime, the missionaries, oops, I mean scientists and soldiers, are either primarily white or cleanly stereotyped non-whites (the tough-guy Latina girl soldier, the South Asian geeky scientist, etc.).

Go read the post.

Comments

  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    December 31, 2009

    Much of the critique of race in this movie that I’ve seen comes from the SF community, where the bitch is “Why can’t anyone seem to be creative enough to come up with an ‘exotic other’ who isn’t just a human being from another culture with a few differences highlighted to say, ‘Weird, huh?'” In other words, why are we using aliens to make other human beings more alien instead of less?

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 31, 2009

    Which is a critique I don’t actually agree with for a number of reasons (some of which I subtly touched on in my initial review).

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    December 31, 2009

    Suggesting it might help to know enough about enough cultures to get all the mixing that occurred in creating the People of the Wandering Apostrophe (the only places I haven’t seen the apostrophe are the beginning and end of the name)?

  4. #4 Badger3k
    December 31, 2009

    “And, let’s not even get started on Latin America. I mean really. The average US based mercenary speaks fluent Latin these days.”

    Vene Vidi Vinci? Seriously? I hope this was meant as a joke.

  5. #5 Barn Owl
    December 31, 2009

    I just took a quick look at the 5 actors linked in SEK’s post on “Avatar”, and their faces all seem to have a similar structure in the maxilla/mandible/zygomatic arches region. Perhaps the director was looking for common facial features or sculptural qualities that allowed the actors’ images to be transformed into Na’vi more convincingly? [/uninformed observation and speculation]

    Many top fashion models, male and female, share some structural facial qualities, regardless of superficial features like skin color or nose and lip shapes. I haven’t yet seen the movie, though, so can’t say at all whether there’s a compelling reason to make the Na’vi have similar facial appearances/structures.

    Also, I Really Should Be Working (on lectures and case conferences for Monday). ;-)

  6. #6 Wilson
    December 31, 2009

    *SPOILER WARNING*

    It’s just the Pocahontas story retold with sci-fi trappings. Our hero isn’t able to help them because he’s a white guy. He’s able to help because he knows the technology and tactics of his former allies. Anyway, he would have failed if the networked planetary consciousness hadn’t stepped in. The planet saved itself. Eh… why do some people need to read racism into every word and image?

  7. #7 MadScientist
    December 31, 2009

    @Badger3k: Even more fluently: veni vidi vinci

    I have yet to meet a Latin speaker from Latin America; I’ve always suspected that “Latin” was intended to be pejorative.

    I have absolutely no interest in stories “based on a real story” – it seems to me that such a thing is the product of a lazy writer. Why can’t real stories be told in an interesting way without changing all the characters and relying on computer animation rather than the dialog? How will Hollywood mangle the American Revolution? George Washington as a horse, Ben Franklin as an owl, Thomas Jefferson as a prairie dog?

    Now as for wars and mercenaries – how about the Afghan war (against the USSR)? I also remember Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc – Good ol’ Ron Reagan just loved to encourage murder and totalitarianism in central and south America.

  8. #8 Hank Fox
    December 31, 2009

    Well … lots of interesting points here. But not all of them are valid ones. I think everybody making this racism assertion is leaping to a nasty conclusion that there really may be no good reason to leap to.

    It puts me in mind of all those Christian shitheads who insisted Harry Potter was teaching kids about witchcraft, when the stories were really about friendship, devotion, courage, persevering through impossible odds, the value of knowledge and learning. The wizardry was a mere plot gimmick to allow this deeper story to be told.

    First, there are only so many things you can do with a story targeting a mass audience and still have it accepted. You have to deal with themes your audience will recognize and powerfully relate to.

    Second: I have the same problem with all this “racism” stuff that I do with charges of “anthropomorphism” in studying non-human animals. If a critter has a trait that it shares with humans, say manipulating its environment in some way (toolmaking, perhaps), and you assert that it has this trait to an audience which has not previously recognized it, you’ll probably get accused of anthropomorphizing the animal. When from a larger view, you’re doing nothing of the sort. You’re only recognizing an existing trait.

    Your audience is doing the exact thing they’re accusing you of – demonstrating a bias. Which in their case is a prejudgment against the critter having a trait which humans, possibly due to a common evolutionary heritage, also share. It’s not anthropomorphization if it’s not “anthro” – if the shared attribute is older than both your species.

    In the case of this movie, recognizing and reacting to the Other is a universal theme, both in fiction and in probably every cultural narrative. It’s older and deeper than mere black-white racism.

    In this case, all this kzinti-like screaming and leaping – asserting that these blue people are really blacks and even that the humans in the film are “whites” – and that therefore this is a racist film … The people saying it just sound like a bunch of monkeys looking for something to throw shit on.

    Those insisting on seeing this so strongly, it may be that YOU are the ones spreading the seeds of racial bias. By leaping to see this as a case of black-white racism, when it’s something deeper, older and more resonant, you poison the possibility of understanding the deeper, older thing … of which black-white racism is only one special case.

    It isn’t Cameron being shallow and thoughtless, it’s YOU.

    The REAL story here is about aggression, and resistance to it. About friendship between diverse peoples. About how love can cross insurmountable barriers. About how connected we all are to the world around us. It’s even very much a Romeo and Juliet story – except with a happy ending.

    I see Avatar as beautiful and thought-provoking. I’m MUCH more disturbed at those people who insist on squeezing and squeezing to see how much pus they can get out of it.

    Speaking of which: Those reviewers who have characterized the connection the Na’vi make with other species on their world as bestiality or rape … well, damn. To me it looked like Connection. Communication. Two-way love. A way to touch and speak to other species in the environment, in a way we humans can only fictionalize about. The truly disgusting thing in this case might be the reviewer and his sick viewpoint, rather than the thought-provoking details of this beautiful fictional effort.

  9. #9 ppnl
    December 31, 2009

    The whole idea of story telling is to invoke stereotypes in an artistic manner. It turns out that you can tell a lot about a society by the stereotypes that get repeated in its works of fiction. Who knew?!??

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    December 31, 2009

    Hank, what I’d like you to consider is the following:

    My original review, this review, and your comment can all be true at the same time. I loved the movie, by the way.

  11. #11 Badger3k
    December 31, 2009

    MadScientist – thanks for the correction. My last Latin class was nearly 25 years ago.

    Who was the one who said the people from Latin America spoke Latin? Was it Quayle? Palin? Bush? There are so many choices… Since Greg hasn’t commented, maybe this was in “homage” to that wise individual?

  12. #12 Hank Fox
    January 1, 2010

    Greg, my reaction isn’t really to you. It’s to all the pompous others. To put a finer point on it:

    Anyone who says “…the film is racist” is a nitpicking moron looking for attention, and probably someone who doesn’t know shit about real racism.

    I grew up in Texas and Alabama, at a time when the water fountains and restrooms said “White” and “Colored,” when city pools were viciously segregated and a young black man could be shot to death just for walking across a white person’s lawn – “trespassing.” And that wasn’t the worst of it.

    The content of this film is not even in that same universe.

    To see the movie as some sort of conduit for racism is just completely divorced from justification – like inspecting Jeri Ryan inch by inch with a jeweler’s loupe, and then leaping about and crowing that there was practically nothing to her except the pinpoint blemish on her toe.

    It reminds me of how vigorously laws against marijuana have been enforced – the incarceration and criminalization have probably caused a great deal more human harm that the pot ever did. In this case, the insistence of some of these reviewers on seeing stark racism in the movie is worse than whatever very mild cultural insensitivity there might BE in it. THEY plant and fertilize the seed of racism a thousand times more than the movie does.

    The truth is, you can’t tell stories without heroes and villains. If you try, you end up with a cookbook, or a database. The truth also is, the second you tell a story with a hero and a villain, a certain type of person will instantly read into it all his worst and ugliest imaginings … and then accuse you of being the bad guy. Oh, it’s all Huck Finn and Nigger Jim! Oh, it’s puttin’ the hate on our glorious heroes in uniform!

    Besides all that, jeezuseffingchrist, is running something down the ONLY way to make one’s self feel significant? Is it a necessity? I’m definitely not talking about you, but regarding some of the other voices out there making these ridiculous points, the sheer snottiness of it all gets to me. It’s that same blind, aggressive, offensive self-involvement that pours like a malignant stench off someone like Ann Coulter.

    If this film was ten gallons of liquid, it might have an eye-dropper full of racism in it. But then there would be all that other good stuff – all that stunning, amazing, incredible stuff – to talk and think about, to admire and examine and revel in.

    I don’t mind critics. But critics who also happen to be colossal dullards … they bother me.

  13. #13 SEK
    January 1, 2010

    Greg:

    I hope you don’t mind if I find some way to squeeze the first sentence of your last full paragraph onto my CV somewhere.

    Hank Fox:

    Anyone who says “…the film is racist” is a nitpicking moron looking for attention, and probably someone who doesn’t know shit about real racism.

    I grew up in Texas and Alabama…

    As the “nitpicking moron” in question, I feel obliged to note that your growing up in Texas and Alabama doesn’t trump my having grown up in Louisiana, so we ought to just drop that argument from “authoritative” experience right now, alright? You’ve dismissed my arguments without actually engaging them by blustering about how you know from “real” racism and what-not, but you haven’t actually acknowledged any of the specific claims I made. Which, I gather, makes you a true denizen of the internet, but it’s not what most of us consider intellectually honest. For example:

    To see the movie as some sort of conduit for racism is just completely divorced from justification …

    I didn’t say that; in fact, I said the exact opposite. It’s not a “conduit for racism,” it’s unwittingly borrowing from a racist narrative (the white savior) and it’s doing so (with the casting) in a way that doesn’t mitigate the unsavory aspects of its central narrative. If you can account for why all the natives are played by non-whites and everyone who belongs to the advanced civilization (who isn’t a hackneyed stereotype) is played by a white person, I’m all ears.

    The truth is, you can’t tell stories without heroes and villains. If you try, you end up with a cookbook, or a database.

    First of all, your second sentence doesn’t follow in any way, shape or form from your first; second, your first sentence is the kind of thing that people without imagination or who are incapable of complexity say. For example, who’s the “hero” and who’s the “villain” in, say, The Wire? Or X-Men? Or Deadwood? Or, for that matter, any show or movie that actually sticks with you? If it’s all clear-cut, it’s forgettable … pablum for those who prefer their entertainment to be, if not soporific, at least narcotic.

    Oh, it’s all Huck Finn and Nigger Jim! Oh, it’s puttin’ the hate on our glorious heroes in uniform!

    In an ideal world, you’d do a little research, realize I was trained as an Americanist and, as such, have taught Huck Finn for ages, and then you’d write an intelligent response. But, you know, we’re on the internet, and you’re lazy, so …

    Besides all that, jeezuseffingchrist, is running something down the ONLY way to make one’s self feel significant?

    Or, get this: maybe I was all excited to see a movie, watched it, was disgusted, and decided to write about it! Nah, that’d never happen, no sir, not in a million years …

    But critics who also happen to be colossal dullards … they bother me.

    Me too … but not as much as the lazy colossal dullards do …

    For the record, if you want to see a response that’s 1) not hopelessly blinkered and 2) intellectually honest, Barn Owl obliges. I’m not saying I agree with it, but it does offer an alternative explanation that doesn’t reek of kneejerk contrarian fanboyism.

  14. #14 Sean
    January 1, 2010

    I have to say, having just got back from the film, I am extremely impressed by the whole layout of the movie. Looking back on Mr. Cameron’s work as a whole, I have gotta say he is truly on the cutting edge of technology with regards to the sci-fi genre. He also makes very watchable films.
    The film does explore some themes that I consider important, such as the fragility of ecosystems and the validity of regarding the planet as an agent whose interests would be worthwhile to consider.
    I am a North American biologist who works in the Neotropics, and the feel of the “strangeness” of the environment sure struck some chords with me.

    As for the film being racist and sexist, well, it is a reflection of modern culture…What do you expect?
    I think that is the point Greg was making above.

    Strangely enough, despite the “happy ending” I end up being just a bit more depressed about the state of our own world. If Mr. Cameron had made a flick about realistic people getting together to actually get something done about our population, lifestyle, impact on the planet and learning how to live together, I guess I might be inspired.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    January 1, 2010

    Badger3k: Yes, I had not commented because I had assumed that no one was really thinking that I thought that anybody but Catholic Priests and in-hiding members of the Illuminati spoke Latin in Latin America… It was indeed a reference to Dan Quayle, who was (I might as well point it out because people may be forgetting) a vice presidential candidate put up by the Republicans in their fine tradition of putting up very conservative morons as VP candidates.

    I missed that whole election season, though. But I’ve read about it.

  16. #16 Greg Laden
    January 1, 2010

    SEK: Thanks for the comments. Have you discovered the “racial” identity of the Na’avi walk-ons and extras yet? There is almost no way that would be uninteresting.

    Obviously I eagerly await the inevitable “Making of” film that will probably come on the DVD.

    I thought Barn Owl’s idea was possible, but it does not get Cameron out of the shit pile. If he was explicitly giving Na’avi characteristics of Earthing Subalterns then, well, that’s like 100 times worse than accidentally casting professional black actors with a subconscious bias.

  17. #17 mk
    January 1, 2010

    I tend to agree with this from Hank Fox.

    “Those insisting on seeing this so strongly, it may be that YOU are the ones spreading the seeds of racial bias. By leaping to see this as a case of black-white racism, when it’s something deeper, older and more resonant, you poison the possibility of understanding the deeper, older thing … of which black-white racism is only one special case.”

    It seems SEK’s looking too hard to find offense.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    January 1, 2010

    MK: Please see my ameliorating note above.

    A racial critique of a movie is, actually, easy to do since there is a racial/racist tendency in many of our cultural undertakings. Pointing it out is not a bad thing, and does not ruin the movie unless the movie is OT.

    But did you read about this casting thing? That is pretty interesting. And hard to ignore. Do you think that was subconscious or on purpose? What do the actors themselves think about it? One could even argue that while the casting was “racialized” it was not racist. Perhaps carmeron was making a point!

    Or, perhaps Cameron feels that it is unfair that black actors so infrequently get top parts, still, in Hollywood. So he gave these actors something good….

    ….. but he had to paint them blue to make it work!!!!!

    I see this not as a over the top unnecessary attack by SEK on our popular culture as much as a very interesting (and relevant and worthwhile) can of worms.

    Blue, glowing worms.

  19. #19 mk
    January 1, 2010

    “A racial critique of a movie is, actually, easy to do since there is a racial/racist tendency in many of our cultural undertakings.”

    Yes, it is easy. I think SEK shows this. I don’t recall in either of his reviews that people should avoid this “racist trope”… maybe I missed it. At the point of discovery–that it was indeed racist–is one obliged to get up and leave? Demand a refund? Call for a boycott of Cameron’s movies? I mean, isn’t a racist movie a racist movie? Isn’t there something wrong about seeing it? Do you not feel horrible for enjoying this racist trope?

    Casting? Interesting, yes. Subconscious or on purpose? Don’t know. I’m sure SEK and possibly you would love to sit Cameron down and find the answers to these very important questions. I hope he gets his answers.

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    January 1, 2010

    At the point of discovery–that it was indeed racist–is one obliged to get up and leave? Demand a refund? Call for a boycott of Cameron’s movies? I mean, isn’t a racist movie a racist movie? Isn’t there something wrong about seeing it? Do you not feel horrible for enjoying this racist trope?

    Good questions.

    One of the things I do when I teach about race and racism is to start off by getting everyone on board with two ideas:

    1) Do not assume racism is bad.

    2) Classify all activities that use the race concept (even things like asking one’s “race/ethnicity” on a form at a bank to make sure you are not being discriminated against, or Spike Lee making his black characters act like his vision of black people in the particular social context of his movie, etc) as racist. Some people prefer to use the word “racilized” or whatever, bu I insist on racist.

    Once you do this, you discover a lot of interesting and useful things.

    For one thing, it is a lot easier to talk about race and racism if one is not having the automatic knee jerk reaction that a racist thing is something to trow a rock at and run away the moment you see it. On the other and, it eventually becomes easy to see that “innocent” racist thinking (like …. attributing positive things to racial groups, for instance) can have a very serious down side. “Innocent” racism can ultimately lead to very bad things.

    So no, I personally have no problem watching the movie and recommencing it to others. But these race issues are there. It would be really bad to extol the virtues of the movie but systematically ignore the racial issues. It would be, in my view, senseless (and self destructive, actually) to run out of the movie and start a boycott the moment I figured out there was a way to critique it racially.

    Hell, I knew THAT was going to be possible from the previews. I even had a pretty good idea what some of that critique would involved.

  21. #21 mk
    January 1, 2010

    I guess I can see where you’re coming from. This is more of an “innocent” racist movie… Based on ignorance or naivete not so much hatred and stupidity. That’s cool. I don’t agree necessarily, but I get it.

    I also disagree with you here… I think it was an over the top unnecessary attack by SEK. His review is not quite like yours. But I guess that’s the beauty of it all, right?

  22. #22 nwo rebel soldier
    January 1, 2010

    dont watch the avatar film folks its full of sublimal messages and could damage you on a mental level, also i have noticed the sheer amount of nwo propagander in the film is everywhere the biggest issue for me is how the basis of the film is based around carrying out eugenics against a native peoples. look how much money they spent on that damn film its incredible also noticed the director when interviewed talked about how the majority of cash was spent on research about how the movie could affect the individuals brain processes. i think watching this film could on a subconcious level make u like the nwo thats why i have gave this film a miss!! greg i have left some spelling & grammer mistakes for you to correct lol

    long live the republic!!!

  23. #23 aratina cage
    January 1, 2010

    I prefer to see Avatar as a story of love bringing alien worlds together, betrayal, vengeance, and personal sacrifice for the greater good. The People saved the people and the people saved The People. Cameron could have ended it by having the renegades shot down before they made it off the helipad, but then The People would have been pushed aside like flies to a flyswatter. Or Jake Sully could have not asked Eywa for help in avenging the destruction of Hometree and never tried to become Toruk Makto and lead The People to take back their planet. I just don’t see how racism is inherent in Jake’s final decision to confide in Eywa for help, rally The People, and fight back. The injection of a racist trope into the script is crap. In the casting, maybe, but not in the script.

  24. #24 Bill James
    January 1, 2010

    Greg: [20]

    1) Do not assume racism is bad.

    Your saying racism has positive attributes?
    …as in some forms of racism are good?
    …or that some forms of racism are benign?
    …or that racism may be acceptable depending circumstance?
    …or that what is nominally called racism might be part of an affixed survival trait and therefore an integral component of human evolution?
    …or…?

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    January 1, 2010

    Bill…. calm down … :)

    What I am saying, quite precisely, is this: If you go into a long multi day conversation about racism, I want you to remove your value judgment from the term “racism” The real reason I want you to do that is because I expect that unless you’ve been through this process of a multi day conversation with diverse experts on racism, its history, its anthropology, and its biology, that your preconceived notions (including the value judgments) are borked.

    Is there a benign racism? Assume for a moment that there is. Then describe it, give some examples. Then put them aside. Then read 500 pages on the history of racism. Then look at the modern Western social context of racism. Then go back to your idea of benign racism and see what it looks like.

    I want racialized or “ethnic” or race based thinking (including knowing someone’s race if you are a doctor, that sort of thing) to all be called the same thing … racism, because it is … you can’t use race in a nefarious way or a benign way without believing that races exist, without having the basic concept of what “race” is (no revisionist post hoc backpedaling allowed please .. “Oh, when I said races exist I didn’t mean THAT….”) and that you can tell what race someone is (somehow) and place them in that race, then make predictions about that which you can’t see because you know these things are (statistically) characteristic of the race.

    In order to insist on this, I have to allow for, insist on, in the setting of a classroom or seminar or workshop like setting, that racism is not necessarily bad. We can not get very far if we classify a thing (an attitude, an action, whatever) as “racist” only if it is bad, and “no racist” if it is not bad. If it involves race, it is racist. Period.

    This takes a couple of hours in a classroom or workshop setting, and there is a lot of name calling. Of course, the name calling is all on purpose.

  26. #26 Barn Owl
    January 1, 2010

    Oh, I don’t think Cameron’s off the hook, even with the “common facial structure” explanation as superficially benign; far worse if he chose the appearance to send a message about “Earthling Subalterns”, of course. Even if the idea was to have the Na’avi resemble Native Americans because the stereotype is that they’re closer to nature or more in tune with the environment, that would still be open to criticism, and likely qualify as racist, as Greg seems to define the term (and I think I agree with his definitions). One of the actors self-identifies as Native American, and I can’t recall whether the other 4 are all African-American (i.e. as for most Americans whose families have a prolonged US presence, they may have Native American ancestors).

    This takes a couple of hours in a classroom or workshop setting, and there is a lot of name calling

    I really think that something like this needs to be done at my university, especially in the context of certain committees, but it will never happen. We think we’re past it, and I just don’t think we are. Better than most, maybe, but there’s still room for lots of improvement. I find myself becoming very irritated and frustrated whenever the “race” category comes up for discussion, because no one can ever give me a satisfactory explanation for why it’s a useful or meaningful distinction to make. Socioeconomic considerations-yes; race-no.

    I think my attitudes towards the construct of “race” can be summed up by Douglas Adams’ description of Mr. Prosser in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is a “direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan”. The only “Mongoloid characteristics” remaining for this council representative are “a pronounced stoutness about the tum, and a predilection for little fur hats”, and occasionally, his “brain is filled with a thousand hairy horsemen all shouting at him”.

    It’s *exactly* that silly.

  27. #27 Peter Beattie
    January 1, 2010

    » Hank Fox:
    The content of this film is not even in that same universe [as actual racism].

    Well said. If we want to keep important words like ‘racism’ from being watered down to near meaninglessness, perhaps we’ll have to be content with calling films like “Avatar” clichéd, stereotypical, and such. Which would be well deserved, too. But to hurl a word around that has its rightful place in contexts where real people get abused and killed seems only to serve to devalue the concept and in fact hurt present and future victims of real racism.

    » SEK:
    I feel obliged to note that your growing up in Texas and Alabama doesn’t trump my having grown up in Louisiana, so we ought to just drop that argument from “authoritative” experience right now, alright?

    Nice try, but you seem not to have read properly what Hank said. The argument is most obviously not from authority but from the specific experience of what racism means in real people’s lives. It’s explicitly about how using the same word for a movie like “Avatar” cheapens the concept behind it. That you chose to ignore the obvious and highly relevant point and went for a distraction instead that allowed you to pretend to maintain the upper hand in the discussion speaks for itself.

    In an ideal world, you’d do a little research, realize I was trained as an Americanist and, as such, have taught Huck Finn for ages, and then you’d write an intelligent response.

    Now, that’s so not an argument from authority. And almost charming in its presumptuousness.

    kneejerk contrarian[ism]

    That, at least, seems to be something you can claim some expertise in.

    And just in case you should complain that I failed to make a substantive point about the movie:

    it’s unwittingly borrowing from a racist narrative (the white savior)

    Which is complete bollocks on the face of it, as the “white savior” Sully pretty much only saves the Na’vi from members of his own predatory species. In the end, he doesn’t lead the ‘savages’ to more ‘civilised’ whitehood, but he becomes one of them.

  28. #28 Greg Laden
    January 2, 2010

    Well said. If we want to keep important words like ‘racism’ from being watered down to near meaninglessness, perhaps we’ll have to be content with calling films like “Avatar” clichéd, stereotypical, and such. Which would be well deserved, too. But to hurl a word around that has its rightful place in contexts where real people get abused and killed seems only to serve to devalue the concept and in fact hurt present and future victims of real racism.

    Well, sure, but the discussion is at least in part about references to Earthling cultures, and Earthling actors.

  29. #29 Peter Beattie
    January 2, 2010

    “Well, sure”? Your own post has “racist” in the title, but you agree that it’s demeaning to the concept?

    And as to the discussion in part being about Earthling actors etc., that has nothing to do with what I wrote. I focussed on different points — just as you chose not to refer to some points that I made. And in any case, the casting is just as well explained by someone wanting to draw attention to the fact that blacks, just as well as Native Americans, have been and still are the targets of exploitation. Simply to assume, without further evidence and without even referring to anything Cameron has said, that his casting is racist, is self-righteous at best. And nobody is being helped by that either, that I can see, certainly no victim of real-life racism.

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    January 2, 2010

    the casting is just as well explained by someone wanting to draw attention to the fact that blacks, just as well as Native Americans, have been and still are the targets of exploitation.< \em>

    I was thinking that as a possibility and it is definitely a hypothesis worth exploring. Of course, I might expect such a director to also but a black person in a major positive role and NOT paint them blue .

    without even referring to anything Cameron has said

    What has Cameron said?

  31. #31 Sivi Volk
    January 2, 2010

    Ignoring the racism for a moment (sort of hard, since it’s a huge thing in the movie – watching it with my girlfriend, who’s Native, was interesting), I was pissed by one of the end messages, namely: you can have a shitty plan and still get saved by the magical forest just because you prayed to the tree god.

    Seriously – they couldn’t intentionally stampede the behemoths? They couldn’t cover the gunships with a scent attractive to the banshees? No, just charge straight at the army grunts and hope the automatic weapons don’t cut you all down in the first rush.

    Gyah.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    January 2, 2010

    you can have a shitty plan and still get saved by the magical forest just because you prayed to the tree god.

    That’s a tricky one, though… the forest really was magical, I mean, intelligent. That’s a complication. This bothered me as well.

    May the fossorial neurons be with you…

  33. #33 Sivi
    January 3, 2010

    I will admit though, I loved Sigourney Weaver’s line as she’s dying and they take her to the tree (paraphrased): “I need to take samples.”

    Is it sucking up to the blog author for me to like the anthropologist character most?

  34. #35 IanW
    January 8, 2010

    Greg Please! If you’re going to link us somewhere else, please make sure it’s a decent site with a functional intelligence behind it instead of an adolescent spittle-soaked rant with more than an unhealthy dose of conspiracy theory behind it!

    Seriously. This movie wasn’t a party political broadcast. It wasn’t a documentary on the environment. It wasn’t a military manual. It wasn’t a personal lifestyle primer. It wasn’t a religious imperative. It was nothing more than movie for godsakes, intended as nothing more than entertainment! And clearly it worked since it’s pulled down well over a billion US so far without the world rioting in the streets.

    It’s bad enough that self-inflated juveniles feel compelled to masturbate so fervidly on such a non-topic, but for them to ejaculate in public is as pathetic as it is laughable.

    The biggest mistake this jackass makes is the very same one he’s apparently appalled by: racism! Or more accurately here, Earthism! He ignorantly assumes that an alien planet will be exactly like Earth right down to the motivations and behaviors of its hominin populace. How sad is that?

    I mean there’s no way in Hell that Cameron could have possibly chosen his actors the way he did because he wanted to create a certain atmosphere and transmit a certain feeling in his audience and determiend that the ones he chose would be the best ones to do this. Nope! No Way! It had to be solely because he wanted white folks to rescue the downtrodden so-called minorities because some ranting drone on a blog said so! Give me a break!

    I’ve rather come to expect a little more perspicacity from you than that, Greg.

  35. #36 Stephanie Z
    January 8, 2010

    adolescent spittle-soaked rant

    Thanks for the demo, Ian, but if you were actually correct about the posts Greg links to (which you’re not), we’d hardly need another.

  36. #37 Greg Laden
    January 8, 2010

    I reserve the right to link to whatever drivel I want to!!!

    But seriously, Ian, yes, analyzing everything as racist or sexis can get old and it can be over done but the truth is that much of the sexism and racism in our society is transmitted not through party political broadcast, a documentary on the environment, a military manual a personal lifestyle primer, or a religious imperative. Rather, most of that stuff is transmitted through nothing more than movies for godsakes, intended as nothing more than entertainment!!!!

  37. #38 IanW
    January 9, 2010

    Great argument from… nothing, Stephanie! How can we possibly not be won over by that!

  38. #39 IanW
    January 9, 2010

    Greg –

    If you label everything racist, then the term is robbed of all meaning. But please, do let’s take this to its ultimate “logical” conclusion by all means: whites are obviously racist because they have white skin and refuse to paint it black? black skin is racist because its owners refuse to get a multicolored skin graft? If that’s how anal we wish to become, then we’d better figure a way to make rainbow feces; brown feces is so obviously disgustingly racist!

    So Avatar is racist because Cameron hired the best actors he could get to portray his vision? If the character of Jake Sully had been portrayed by a black actor would that also have been racist because it showed that only a black person could save the day and white folks couldn’t? Maybe Cameron should have hired the Blue Man Group to save the day? What conceivable confluence of color correction and character cosmopolitanism could possibly have mollified someone as over-the-edge as SEK?

    So let’s not be blindly seduced by SEK’s appeal. Such unbalanced (interpret that however you wish) radicalism is laughable. Yes there is racism in life; no, everything in life isn’t soaked with it. Sometimes a movie is just a movie, and whilst we’re taking the juvenile tack of trying to garner attention for ourselves by misfocusing on scary shadows, we also miss focusing on more important targets for our attention. In this particular instance, one such target might well be SEK’s hypocritical behavior in screeching that Cameron is racist whilst he insists that the aliens can only be understood when viewed in Earth light!

  39. #40 Stephanie Z
    January 9, 2010

    I’m sorry, Ian. Would your prefer that I note that your first post is a combination of concern trolling, requiring an invocation of Moff’s Law, special pleading and adolescent spittle? Or that your post at 39 is a slippery slope fallacy combined with begging the question and an ad hominem attack that is laughable in its lack of self-awareness–a little pot calling the porcelain black, if you will? And that the whole thing is wrapped in the typical, slimy, myopic assumption that somehow talking about racism is ten times more dangerous than racism itself?

    Better?

  40. #41 Greg Laden
    January 9, 2010

    Ian, it’s all a matter of calibration. Without all the available information and a bit of time to add perspective it is impossible to calibrate with any certainty. I’m sure that applies to the very interesting circumstance of Cameron having hired only non-whites to be blue. At the very least it is interesting. Well, at the very least it is an utter coincidence.

    As I have said, it is very easy to label everything racist (and/or sexist) and that … is less interesting and less productive.

  41. #42 IanW
    January 10, 2010

    Greg –

    I don’t want to eat up your time by endlessly commenting on an old blog, so this is the last comment I shall make to you here.

    You’re saying that ‘hiring only non-whites to be blue’ is an issue. I’m questioning that. Suppose, for example, we had, instead, a movie about exploitation of Africa. Would such a movie be racist if only black Africans were hired to play black Africans? It seems to me that’s effectively what SEK is arguing here, and he’s offering nothing to support his position other than his apparent mantra that, in effect, James Cameron is racist. He explores no other PoV.

    Isn’t one of the strengths of science supposed to be that you look at the pros for a hypothesis and also the cons and if the pros outweigh the cons then you tend towards the pros until and unless something further is dug up to suggest an alternate direction? I see none of that in SEK’s rant.

    His isn’t a science blog, but it is being linked to from a science blog, and his is the only PoV to which you link here. SEK is entitled to rant about whatever he likes. That’s not the issue. The issue is to how much of his ranting we need to give creedence, and based on what he said in the link you gave, I see nothing worthy of it. On this we shall have to agree to disagree!

    Clearly other commentators are won over by unsupported rants and feel that calling attention to such a thing is to be derided and belittled. I’m a bit more open-minded. He may have a point, but if he does, it’s lost in his gibbering,and I see no support offered other than his own personal conviction. I think it’s a mistake to let ourselves be imprisoned by our own convictions.

    In Science Blogs you guys do so well at this scientific approach when discussing science, which is why I adore this blog set, but then we get to something outside the realm of pure science (like reviewing Avatar) the rational approach seems to be overwhelmed by a resort to prejudice, anecdote and unsupported opinion. I’ve seen this disturbingly often. (Am I some sort of racist to think this is because scientists are human?!) It’s to be expected, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of what it can distort and remind ourselves of its potential.

    I found myself surprised that SEK doesn’t raise the issue of hiring only humans to portray aliens, or of the “racism” of portraying only the alien moon and not showing anything happening on Earth. But ultimately all that SEK offers is a lot of accusation without investigation. I think this tells us far more about SEK than it does about Cameron and is therefore not of much value as a link. I would suggest that you could have linked to a better conveyance of SEK’s perspective than the one we got.

    And BTW, I don’t believe Cameron’s choice was a coincidence, but I do believe it’s not quite as SEK would indoctrinate us and I shall continue to believe that until someone musters sufficient evidence to convince me otherwise!

  42. #43 IanW
    January 10, 2010

    Stephanie –

    Better? If you consider nothing, “with 30% more hominem ad-ded!!!” to be better, then who can argue with you? Oh, and I loved the cutsie non-law thrown in for free. That’s a real slayer.

    If you ever get past both your evident emotional attachment to rants _and_ the first paragraph I wrote, do be sure to publicize it. Meanwhile, as entertaining as you are, I have other things to do irl.

  43. #44 Stephanie Z
    January 10, 2010

    Ian, it’s very difficult to do anything but insult you when you include so little content beyond, “He shouldn’t have said that!!!!” It is not an ad hominem to do that, however, as pointing out your fallacies and inconsistencies is decided attacking your argument.

    As for your new posts, you undercut yourself dramatically right up front by equating blacks with aliens. Then, of course you go straight into troll bingo: “It’s not sciencey enough.” “So-and-so needs to present my take on things too.” “So-and-so needs to calm down.” “Anyone who disagrees with me is being closed minded.” “So-and-so is the kind of person who would do this dramatically silly thing s/he hasn’t come anywhere near doing.” “You’re being emotional.”

  44. #45 Nate c
    January 12, 2010

    Everyone who thinks this movie is racist is just straight up retarded. thats your opinion, and im sure “cameron” had no intention of making this movie racist. it is a sci fi movie so shut up