I’d like to revisit Avatar and Cameron’s supposedly “feminist” leanings. Part of the reason is that I just saw the movie again (on cable), and as much as I tried to view it again as “an entertaining fantasy”, I could not help analyzing it from various standpoints: the biology of Pandora, how scientists and women are portrayed, etc. Next I stumbled across a pre-release review of Avatar called “Is Avatar’s James Cameron a Feminist Ally?” That got me thinking again about Hollywood’s portrayal of women and whether Avatar breaks with tradition (as claimed) or is instead business as usual.
Why is this even worth thinking about? It’s just a movie, right? Well, when you consider the numbers of people who have seen it worldwide and the enormous amount of money it made, it seems possible that it has had an impact beyond the typical, run-of-the-mill film. Since its release on December 18, 2009, it has grossed $2,781,835,502 in theatre sales and another $183,484,783 in DVD sales (US only). Adjusted for inflation, these numbers make Avatar the fourth highest grossing film of 1977-2010 (after Star Wars Ep. IV, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Titanic (also a Cameron film)). The numbers of people who’ve seen it are harder to come by (many have seen it more than once), but we can assume it’s a lot.
The target audience was young and impressionable teens for the most part. Did it have an effect on these viewers? Apparently, it had a big impact on some viewers. So much so that some young fans have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film (because their real worlds do not live up to the fantasy world of Pandora). There is even a site for such suffering fans where they can get advice on coping with their depression. Despite the fantastical premise, the movie and its CGI characters seemed to have created a very believable world for many movie-goers. If people experienced such emotional and mental changes upon seeing this movie, it seems plausible that they also were influenced to some degree by the various depictions of corporate greed, indigenous societies, science, and women.
So on to Cameron and his track record relative to portrayal of women. Here’s a list of his major films (*wrote screenplay, ^directed): The Terminator* (1984), Aliens*^ (1986), The Abyss*^ (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)*^, True Lies (1994)^, Titanic (1997)^*, and Avatar (2009)*^.
You’ll recognize that most of these films featured “strong women”. There’s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the Terminator movies. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) in Aliens. Dr. Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastantonio) in The Abyss. Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis), Juno (Tia Carrere), and Dana Tasker (Eliza Dushku) in True Lies. Rose (Kate Winslet) in Titanic. Cameron seems to have outdone himself with Avatar, including no less than four strong female characters: Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), and Mo’at (CCH Pounder).
Does having strong female characters qualify these movies as being feminist, supportive of women’s issues, or simply good portrayals of women? Of course not.
There are a couple of litmus tests one can apply to films to determine whether female characters are central to the story or shown to be in control of their own destinies. One is called the Bechdel Test, which requires the movie to have
1. Two women (who have names),
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.
This site lists movies and how they rate according to the Bechdel Test.
The second test is one I made up many years ago, called “The Feminist Film Test”. Here’s how it works. For the movie to pass the test, it must
1. Have a female lead,
2. Who survives or succeeds,
3. Without the intervention of a man (saving her, dying so she can live, etc.).
Very few Hollywood films pass this test.