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Were the Avatar Movies Racist? Or, 'Predator vs Avatar'
In which I make an ill-advised foray into film crit.
Recently, there have been calls from some parts of the Left to boycott the Avatar movies, on the grounds that a) their depiction of the fictional Na’vi people constitutes a form of cultural appropriation, b) the protagonist Jake Sully is a prototypical white saviour, c) the movies are otherwise racist and regressive, and d), as a Tlingit friend of mine put it, it’s about colonizers literally wearing the skins of Indigenous people. Meanwhile, other voices on the Left, most notably the hosts of the popular podcast Chapo Trap House, have sort-of-ironically-but-mostly-sincerely pointed out that in many ways, the Avatar films are some of the most blatantly anticapitalist pieces of media to ever emerge from the American mainstream, and not only that, but they communicated this anticapitalist message while smashing box office records.
It’s true that the movies portray capitalism, very bluntly and overtly, as a completely dystopian system: a cataclysmic monster which literally devours worlds, which warps its adherents into soulless, alienated murderers, which is completely antithetical to any kind of sustainable balance with natural ecology, and towards which the only possible stance is total resistance by any means necessary. In the films, a fascist megacorporation with its own private army is intent first on strip-mining the entire world of Pandora and then, in the second film, on eradicating its native biosphere, and thus its indigenous inhabitants, so that humans will be able to colonize it. The brutality of this corporation — which seems to be less of a state-owned enterprise and more of an enterprise that owns its own state — and the insanity of its mission are central to the movies, as is the unstoppable momentum of the greed which propels its activities. The protagonist, Sully, an ex-Marine who ‘goes native’ and takes up the fight of the indigenous Na’vi against the human invaders, is convinced that if there is any hope of the invasion ending, it is only through unconditional war against this capitalist meat-grinder.
The Chapo hosts point out that the reason Sully is able to become a top general for the Na’vi and lead them to (limited) victories against the corporate mercenaries is not necessarily because his race makes him superior to the indigenous people of Pandora but because unlike them, he knows what his Earth compatriots are capable of. The Na’vi, who exist in a relatively low-complexity society without agriculture, written records, organized states, standing armies, complicated technology or the other trappings of ‘civilization’, have no way of understanding the stakes, because they have nothing in their experience with which to compare the human invasion. They have no way to conceptualize literally limitless greed, or the teeming (over)population of Earth, or the inexorable extractive logic of empire. Sully, on the other hand, knows capitalist empire all too well, having been its foot-soldier. On Earth, he had been resigned to it, seeing no other possibilities. But on Pandora, in a new body — the eponymous ‘avatar’, genetically designed to be able to survive in Pandora’s biosphere — and adopted into a new culture in which capitalist alienation does not exist at all, he undergoes a psychospiritual transformation. He declares himself the enemy of the society that has ground him down and is now trying to grind down the Na’vi.
In this sense, it’s absolutely true that the films are a scathing indictment of industrial capitalism. They channel the psychic horror so many of us feel at the violence, meaninglessness and avarice animating the system we live in, and our longing for an unalienated existence, where we are at home with the natural world instead of parasitical upon it, where our social relations are robust and face-to-face, where we have simple material abundance without endless pointless drudgery. There is a message there worth considering and — the bittersweet irony of consuming anticapitalist media from deep within the capitalist beast notwithstanding — enjoying.
However, while I think boycotting the films is fairly pointless, I think the way they treat indigeneity is absolutely worth looking at critically.
The setting of the Avatar movies is very obviously a parallel for European colonialism, which is fine. But the Na’vi are a hopelessly shallow mishmash of indigenous tropes, a vision of indigeneity which is (xeno)anthropologically incoherent and at times seriously cringey. They are shamelessly presented as ‘noble savages’, essentially magic elf-people who can commune with nature (literally, they can plug their brains into their version of Mother Earth). They exist in a state of ‘primitive communism’, which is fair enough, but seem to have no actual economy of any kind, which is frustratingly unrealistic. They paint themselves with spots and stripes and tattoo themselves with patterns blatantly mirroring those used by existing indigenous cultures on Earth. They solemnly recite their seemingly random taboos and traditions. They speak using generic-wise-foreigner speech patterns (‘The Way of Water’, the ‘Tree of the Ancestors’, ‘in the Days of the First Songs’, etc), and, even though they’re in movies with some of the biggest budgets of all time, for some reason all have different, bad, generic-wise-foreigner accents.
To put it bluntly, these aliens are very transparently a white North American guy’s lazy notion of what indigenous humans are like — or more accurately what a bunch of different indigenous groups were like hundreds of years ago — put into a blender, reconstituted, painted blue, and given tails and magic dreadlocks that can let them talk to alien dragons. In truth it’s less a matter of cultural appropriation and more of a matter of unthoughtful cultural pastiche, the screenwriting equivalent of telling an AI to draw you a blue Indian. The Na’vi, even though they are the focus of the story, are remarkably two-dimensional both as characters and as a culture. They don’t come across as real people. (The exception to this is, in the second film, Sully’s half-Na’vi children, who are more relatable precisely because they think and behave more like Sully does.)
And that is because the Na’vi are not a people: they are a dream, a symbol, an archetype, a slot into which the protagonist (and by extension the viewer) can insert himself in order to struggle against the society that has alienated him to such a degree. As such they play the role that Indigenous people have so often served in the Euro imaginary: a foil against which to measure, for better or for worse, ‘our’ own society. This process of ethnographic comparison in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and some people (Graeber in particular) have argued that contact with Indigenous nations in North America was so confronting to Europeans that it shook their civilization to its core and kickstarted the Enlightenment. However, apart from the fact that trans-Atlantic contact ended up being devastating for Indigenous nations, it’s also obvious that many, or frankly almost all, of the depictions of Indigenous people in Euro culture for the past 500 years have been fanciful, biased, stereotyped, and often shockingly racist. Further, for all that Euros have been living in the same lands as Indigenous people for centuries, depictions of Indigenous people in mainstream Western media which do not feature a Euro protagonist are more or less completely nonexistent. I remember reading, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Years of Rice and Salt, a chapter set in Haudenosaunee (‘Iroquois’) society in an alternate timeline in which Europeans did not colonize the Americas. As I was reading I was shocked to realize that up until then I had literally never read or watched any media at all that a) depicted Indigenous North Americans living in a functional and fully fleshed-out society and b) did not show them through the eyes of a European explorer or European-descended settler. And this was in an alternate history novel1.
The Avatar films recycle the exhausted trope of a Euro-coded protagonist learning the ways of an Indigenous people and then, through his bravery and skill, proving himself to be their natural leader. As with virtually all media using this format, the Indigenous group in question is flat, rife with stereotypes, and serves mainly as a way to highlight the struggles of the non-Indigenous protagonist and to give the audience a way to imagine themselves inhabiting a radically different society than their own. It also gives audiences in Europe’s settler-colonies a kind of catharsis with regard to the constant, low-grade psychic distress generated by the awareness of the genocides which paved the way for Euro settlement. I don’t believe that all the viewers or even all the creators of such media are engaging with it in a consciously racist way, but there are clear racist implications in media like this, which I think manifest primarily in the following three related ways.
First, media like this explores Indigenous existence and resistance only or primarily through the perspective of Euro or Euro-coded characters. This stale Eurocentric perspective is boring, racist, and outdated, recapitulating as it does a worldview in which Indigenous people are the perpetual mysterious Other, to be explored and studied, maybe conquered, and perhaps even venerated or imitated, but never to be treated as normal people with whom it is possible to identify in a straight-forward way. Trans-Atlantic contact began five centuries ago; this worldview is hopelessly archaic.
Secondly, this kind of media neglects to create Indigenous or Indigenous-coded characters and cultures that are as three-dimensional as the Euro and Euro-coded ones. Because it does not need to present indigeneity as something which can be identified with, it does not need to present Indigenous characters and cultures which feel convincing; it only needs to present characters and cultures which feel like they fit satisfyingly into a set of tropes.
And that is because, third, media of this type uses indigeneity (or more accurately, lazy stereotypes about indigeneity unencumbered by much genuine understanding of how any real indigenous peoples have functioned) as a plot device rather than as a meaningful cultural setting or worldview in its own right. Indigeneity in these stories is used precisely because it occupies a slot in the literary canon, a slot similar to the desert island, the ‘Lost World’, or the pirate ship. But unlike the various Robinson Crusoe islands or travels to Atlantis that featured in early European adventure fiction, the ‘Indians’ and ‘savages’ depicted in Westerns and 19th century explorer novels — and Avatar — were based on actually-existing people. And while these older, racist depictions were bad enough in their own time, no one today could seriously argue that Indigenous people remain a inscrutable, mysterious Other who should only be depicted when a writer from the broader culture needs a particular kind of backdrop for a story featuring their Euro protagonist.
I want to pivot now to another film I saw recently, Prey. A recent prequel in the Predator franchise, Prey is about a Predator which lands in Comanche territory in the 1700s and begins its ritual hunt. The main character is a young Comanche woman named Naru who, bored with the tasks more traditionally reserved for women, and encouraged by her older brother to pursue her interests, practices hunting and tracking. After seeing several strange signs she realizes that there is something out there on the land much more dangerous than a bear or a wildcat, but the young men she hangs around with don’t believe her, so she sets out to trap it herself. While on this mission, she witnesses the Predator kill a bear and realizes the situation is far more serious than she thought. She is then captured by a party of French fur trappers, who are also tracking the Predator and intend to use her as bait. Their plan fails when the Predator slaughters almost all of the party, and the Comanche main character is able to escape. As she does so she observes the way the Predator uses its senses, weapons and defenses. Using this information, as well as a gun taken from the Frenchmen, she is then able to formulate a plan to defeat the Predator.
Like the Avatar films, Prey is a big-budget blockbuster scifi action-adventure movie featuring Indigenous(-coded) and Euro(-coded) characters, and antagonists with vastly differing levels of technology. Unlike the Avatar films, it is one of the better depictions of historical Indigenous people I have seen in any mainstream media. The Comanche characters are convincing, well-acted, and relatable, and their culture — though very different from the culture the viewer lives in — is presented in such a way that it is not difficult to see it as a real, living, breathing thing. In other words it isn’t difficult to identify with the Indigenous characters as Indigenous characters, and the plot doesn’t require a Euro protagonist through which the viewer can explore the Comanche world. In fact the European characters, when we meet them, are frighteningly strange, clutching their muskets and blabbering in guttural French2, as opposed to the clear, naturally-accented English, representing the Comanche language, used by the Comanche characters.
It would have been easy to write a script for Prey in which the main character was one of the European fur trappers. In fact it practically writes itself. Here is how it goes: he is a young man trying to prove himself. He has conflict with the leader of the party, who is boorish and cruel. His party captures a Comanche girl and he is forced to treat her badly, but secretly resents this. When the Predator attacks the group he helps her escape, but he is injured, and she helps him and takes him back to her people. On the way they grow close in spite of their differences. Once back at the Comanche camp her brother, a mighty warrior, and the chief, a grizzled elder, are suspicious of him but she argues in his favour, saying he saved her life. She teaches him the ways of her people as he heals. The people don’t believe their story about the Predator so eventually they set out to prove it is real by killing it. He uses things he has learned from the girl, plus his natural bravery and cleverness, to defeat the Predator. Maybe at some point in all this the brother dies, but before he does, he acknowledges the protagonist’s worth despite his being a foreigner. They arrive back at the camp with the Predator’s head and the chief anoints him as a hero and he marries the girl.
Note how smoothly this narrative flows, how we are already familiar with its plot because we have seen it over and over again. In fact, with some details changed it is essentially the plot of the first Avatar movie, not to mention Pocahontas. It’s easy to write, easy to make, easy to sell. It slides effortlessly into a pre-existing slot. Yet the writers of Prey chose to do something different and create Indigenous characters who were important in their own right, not just as a backdrop for a Euro character’s development arc. Further, they chose to represent historical Comanche culture in a manner which humanized it and made it real.
I’ll give an example. When the female main character follows the young men out hunting and tracking, they don’t solemnly say “It is a taboo! You must remain with the women!”, faces impassive and haughty, bearing noble and stern. Instead, as is the way real people behave in real life, they pressure her in various ways, tease her sarcastically, and let her know that if she wants to play with the boys she’d really better be able to keep up. Rarely in any real culture are you going to have 21 year old men earnestly reciting the implicit understandings of their society as formal rules. It’s as if someone wore their shoes into your bed and you stood up and said, “It is not done. We do not sully our sleeping-places with unclean foot garments.” Avoiding this type of opaque-foreigner exposition is not just good writing, it’s also a conscious choice which rejects racist tropes about the inscrutability and tradition-bound ways of the Oriental hordes and the frontier savages.
People coming up with stories choose what they put into the stories. They can literally put anything in; that’s the point. When James Cameron was coming up with the plot of the Avatar movies he chose to set them among a group of aliens indigenous to the planet Pandora, the Na’vi. He chose to make the Na’vi an exact stand-in for historical Indigenous groups, down to the ululating war cries and the Polynesian tattoos. He chose to make the main character a non-Na’vi who is adopted into the indigenous culture and becomes one of their leaders. He chose to present the Na’vi as a weird, flat mishmash of ‘noble savage’ tropes.
And the thing is, at any point these choices could have been changed. For example, the Na’vi could have been far more alien than they are in the films. They could have been six-legged (like almost every single other Pandoran life-form shown in the film), skittering about in the branches and communicating in clicks and screeches, with males three times bigger than females and an economy based on parasitic mushrooms or something3. Okay, you want them to be kind of relateable, you want the possibility of a love interest, so you make them a bit more human-like, fine. But why do they have to be solemn warriors in loincloths and beads with tribal tattoos and bows and arrows, who commune with nature via a magic tree, exactly like Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas? Is it really so impossible to imagine something else? You could resist the urge to be lazy and you could come up with interesting new social structures from scratch. Or, if you’re going to base them on a set of historical human cultures, there are a lot to choose from. Their society could have been based on Ice Age mammoth-hunters, or groups deep in the central African rain forest who traditionally lived in moities with big sex-segregated common houses for each age grade, or ancient proto-Celtic cattle-herding societies, or whatever.
But, alright, you want to make a statement about colonization, fair enough. It’s a topic worth commenting on. So you make them transparently analogous to historical Indigenous hunter-gatherers. Why does the main character have to be from the culture analogous to the colonial powers? The main character could be a Na’vi who is captured by humans, learns how their technology works, escapes and leads a resistance against them. Or a group of Na’vi who capture human troops and force them to give up their secrets. Or a Na’vi who leaves to go work for the humans, discovers their true intentions, and goes back to warn her people. Or, if you want to be really analogous to history, a group of Na’vi who welcome a group of human defectors and helps them to survive, and gleans from them the knowledge necessary to resist the colonial forces. By all accounts this was a constant problem for early colonial settlements, from which settlers were always escaping to go live with people who thought the concept of wage labour and kings was absolutely insane. Crucially, though, these societies did not end up being led by these defectors, who would in reality be essentially useless at any helpful tasks for years, would struggle to communicate, and would have to completely readjust their entire worldview in order to fit in.
To conclude: at every step of the story-writing process choices were made which led to Avatar being Pocahontas in space. This was unnecessary and lazy, and it resulted in a worse movie, with remarkably flat characters and obvious racist overtones. The movie relied almost completely on its (admittedly amazing) special effects and cinematography, at the expense of its script, anthropological world-building, and characterization. As an anti-capitalist I appreciated the messaging about capitalism, but as a science fiction fan and an anti-racist I found it incredibly disappointing. I hope that someday soon we can move on from such lazy and pointlessly racist tropes and begin to treat all human beings (even if they are being presented as giant blue aliens) as though they are full, true people.
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Even though it is set in an alternate timeline, The Years of Rice and Salt is in my view one of the best books ever written in terms of its historical, geographical and anthropological treatment of the peoples of the world. Its scale is vast, it is deeply humanizing, and its central premise — a world in which Europe is basically erased from history in the early Middle Ages — means that it completely evades the Eurocentrism so frustratingly prevalent in alt-history and historical fiction.
Hilariously bad French, as it happens, but I digress
Indeed in the second film one of the characters (arguably the best one, frankly) is basically a sentient whale. How many sentient species are there on Pandora that we don’t know about???