Sunday, December 20, 2009
I was going to join the masses and go see Avatar, and then I was going to write about its glaring white-centricity, but now I don't have to. Instead, I just read, and can highly recommend, an excellent take-down in precisely those terms at (of all places) Gawker.com.
This piece (excerpted below) is by a person with a familiar name, Annalee Newitz. Among her varied publications, Newitz is the co-editor of a foundational Critical Whiteness Studies volume, White Trash: Race and Class in America (she's also the author of many other smart things).
In her review of Avatar, Newitz places it in the context of other white-centered fantasies of racial redemption -- formulaic, big-money spectacles in which "a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member." Here are some excerpts from Newitz's analysis, and I highly recommend the whole thing (but not, predictably enough, the comments below it).
"When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like 'Avatar'?"
Critics have called alien epic Avatar a version of Dances With Wolves because it's about a white guy going native and becoming a great leader. But Avatar is just the latest scifi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy. Spoilers...
[It's] undeniable that the film -- like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year -- is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it's a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?
Avatar imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America's foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent. In the film, a group of soldiers and scientists have set up shop on the verdant moon Pandora, whose landscapes look like a cross between Northern California's redwood cathedrals and Brazil's tropical rainforest. The moon's inhabitants, the Na'vi, are blue, catlike versions of native people: They wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes. Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we've seen in Hollywood movies for decades.
And Pandora is clearly supposed to be the rich, beautiful land America could still be if white people hadn't paved it over with concrete and strip malls. In Avatar, our white hero Jake Sully (sully - get it?) explains that Earth is basically a war-torn wasteland with no greenery or natural resources left. . . .
These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color -- their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.
Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. . . .
Read the rest here