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Let’s talk about movies

January 25, 2010

(this post motivated, in part, by this wonderfully dismissive paragraph:
Over the last month, it has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes; not to mention fans of Soviet-era Russian science fiction; the Chinese; and the Vatican. This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.
Part of a much larger wonderfully dismissive article that uses the phrase “projected their issues” repeatedly. Here’s the link.)

Let’s talk about Avatar.
There’s a lot of people talking about Avatar, and was it racist, and why are women pissed about it, and why can’t people just shut up and enjoy a good movie? The argument is that it wasn’t intended to be racist etc., that James Cameron is a good guy, so we shouldn’t talk about any possible issues we have with. Here’s my thing: intent doesn’t matter.
Avatar may not have been intended to be racist, but it features a white person saving the natives, retells the noble savage meme, and does seem to be an attempt to assuage white guilt, all of which are troubling.
Avatar may not have been intended to be sexist, but the main character is a man, the majority of strong women are killed, and it features an alien race where women are, just like most human cultures, second to men, all of which are troubling.
Avatar may not have been intended to be heterosexist, but there are no obviously queer characters, while there are obviously straight cissexual characters.
Avatar may not have been intended to be ableist, but the main character is portrayed as complete only when he has full use of his body.
Avatar may not have been intended to be a statement about the military, religion, the environment, imperialism, or capitalism, but it certainly can be seen as saying something about each of these things.
And that’s okay. Avatar doesn’t have to be evil for having these possible flaws, and James Cameron is not to be hated for making this movie, because Avatar simply reflects the cultural attitudes of America today. Like so many movies before it, it tries to be simply an interesting action movie, and stumbles headlong into all this baggage becuase it wasn’t paying attention, and I don’t think it’s evil for that. I do think we should discuss it though, because it doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. I don’t have numbers for any of the other categories, but I do have this link from xkcd, putting some numbers on the near absence of women in lead roles in movies. I can think of a half dozen ways avatar could have feature women in stronger, more equal roles, and it’s worth discussing why that didn’t happen, and why it so rarely happens.
Avatar reflects the attitudes of the culture that created and consumes it. That’s why we should talk about it. We should talk about why a disabled person might have issues with Jake’s character, and we should talk about why disabled people also liked his character. We should discuss if it was troubling that the Na’vi seem to be an amalgamation of various Native American tribes, and why people are upset that it was a White Guy who saved the Noble Savages. We should discuss these things exactly because Avatar wasn’t trying to speak to these things: this is what happens when American’s aren’t thinking about these issues. This is what happens when we’re not paying attention. I’m not saying what’s right or wrong about this movie (and honestly, I liked it enough to consider buying it, which puts it in pretty elite company), but I do think it’s important to discuss it. I think we learn a lot about what we didn’t even realize we were doing, and we get a chance to understand why someone else would view it completely differently, and that can only be good.

(UPDATE: Melissa at Shakesville happened to post a relevant thought while I was writing this which speaks to one of the points of my post)

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