Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"I See You"

This post is a continuation of an analysis of James Cameron’s portrayal of women in film and whether his movies celebrate the equality of women, or instead perpetuate the stereotypical view of women as subordinate to men.  In the previous post, I reviewed several of Cameron’s movies, including Terminator, Aliens, True Lies, The Abyss, and Titanic.  They mostly failed two litmus tests designed to assess whether a film (in which women appear) tells a story from a female point of view or depicts women as something other than secondary to a male. 
In this post, I now turn to Cameron’s latest blockbuster: Avatar.  I doubt there is anyone out there who hasn’t seen this movie or if not, plans to at this late date; but just in case, there will be many spoilers ahead.
Here goes.   
Oh. My. God. (or should I say: Eywa, help us?)  I hardly know where to begin to articulate how this movie sets new lows in terms of Hollywood stereotypes.  Many bloggers and reviewers have excoriated Avatar and J. Cameron for the multiple “isms” in this film:  racism, sexism, anthropocentrism…  But the ultimate insult is that Cameron and the film’s promoters pretend just the opposite…that the movie is sensitive to the plight of indigenous people (the Noble Savage who is one with nature), women as equals to men (who kick ass as well as the men), and the amazing flora and fauna of an alien world (which reveal how great nature is and how much we should appreciate it). 
Before we dive into the sexism aspects of Avatar, let’s briefly consider a few of the other “isms” because they reveal a broader picture of how duplicitous this movie is.
Racism:  the Avatar story is about a white male (Jake Sully….sully, mar, defile, get it?) who starts out in the role of the bad, conquering human who falls in love with a Na'vi female, sees the light (that the alien world is wonderful and should be saved), becomes the leader of the indigenous people, and shows them how to expel the human invaders.  The movie pretends to be sensitive to native people (of color…literally blue color) and admiring of their spiritual connectedness to nature.  What rubbish.  If this were really a story about indigenous people and their fight to save their land from invaders, it would be told from a very different viewpoint.….say, Neytiri, the female protagonist.  But noooo.  The story is told from the viewpoint of a white, male human who wins the heart of the most desirable female native, passes the test of manhood, is accepted in a matter of months into their alien society, becomes their leader in a single daring move (by figuring out how to capture and control the most dangerous and iconic animal on the planet—something none of the current crop of aliens has managed to do), overcomes his human nemesis (Colonel Quaritch), and finally sheds his crippled, human body for a better one.   
Sounds a lot like what someone with a large male ego would like to experience, even if vicariously, by making a movie of it.  Nothing wrong with that.  Just don’t claim that it’s about something else.
Anthropocentrism: The movie was also initially praised by animal rights groups for its depiction of wondrous flora and fauna and reverent treatment of all creatures, even those killed for food.  But was Avatar really showing sensitivity for the natural world and its creatures?  Several reviewers have pointed out that the “interconnectedness” between the Na’vi people and their domesticated animals was just an extension of the white, male domination fantasy that pervades the film.  This point is driven home in the scene in which Jake, in his avatar persona, takes the final test of “manhood” by overpowering, “breaking the spirit of”, and physically bonding with (by connecting genital-like appendages!!!!) a protesting creature—the dragon-like, flying banshee.  This essay does a brilliant job of dissecting this scene and illuminating the parallels between this male fantasy scene and rape.  When you look at this scene from the viewpoint of domination (dominion over all creatures, women, etc.), it makes the scenes in which Jake shows “reverence” toward other animals seem pretty shallow and unbelievable.   
Militarism/corporatism: One message of Avatar is supposed to be about denouncing the militaristic takeover of lands from indigenous people, in this case, to acquire a ridiculous mineral, "unobtanium",  which we are never told exactly what it's used for. The greedy CEO, Parker, and his attack dog, Colonel Quaritch, are set up as the villains for Jake to fight and defeat.  They are cardboard characters reminiscent of those in previous Cameron movies (Terminator 2, Aliens).  I actually had some respect for Quaritch's character who made no attempt to hide his motives or his racist tendencies and strove to do the job he was hired for.  He was brutal, but honest.  Contrast him with Jake who deceives his employer, his "adopted" native clan, and his Na'vi lover (who sulks for only a day or so, then forgives Jake once he's revealed as the "true" leader of the Omaticaya).  And in the end, Jake turns on his own people (humans), ousting them from Paradise, I mean Pandora, to return to their devastated and doomed Earth.  No one feels sorry for them?  Jake gets to stay on lush Pandora in his stolen avatar body (built at a cost of $millions to the company that hired him) live happily ever after.
I could go on about the innumerable other “isms” in this film: dualism, environmentalism, holism, idealism, immortalism, mysticism, naturalism, spiritualism, utopianism, and vitalism. 
But the one that I'm most interested in is sexism.  A number of movie reviewers, the movie’s advertisers, and especially J. Cameron himself seem to think that the movie aligns with feminist ideals and does a dandy job of it.  What is this belief based on? Primarily, it’s the inclusion of several so-called “strong women” characters in the film. There’s Neytiri, the Na'vi princess I’ve already mentioned, who is strong physically and mentally, brave, destined to lead her people (or was until Jake showed up), and, of course, also beautiful, sexy, and sensual.  Her mother, Mo’at, is the clan’s spiritual leader who has special knowledge/powers to tap into Pandora’s energy field.  The scientist leading the research team on Pandora is a woman, Dr. Grace Augustine, who takes on any and all (men) who try to interfere with her work.  Finally, there’s Trudy, the marine helicopter pilot who defies orders and can fly and shoot as well as the guys.  So based on the presence of these "strong female" characters, we are supposed to buy the claim that Avatar is sensitive to women's issues and breaks with the Hollywood portrayal of female stereotypes?
I don’t think so.  It miserably fails the two tests: the Bechdel test and the Feminist Film Test.  I was not surprised that the two strong human females (Grace, the scientist and Trudy, the pilot) who both defied male authority were killed off.  The two Na'vi females (Neytiri and Mo'at) who are needed to fulfill the male fantasy (Jake's love interest and his permanent transfer to the avatar body) both survive.  This view of women as important only because they serve the needs of the male protagonist is perfectly captured in a single scene about halfway through the movie.  This is the scene where Jake and Neytiri are walking together the evening after he has just passed his “manhood” test.   
Here is the dialog:
Neytiri: You are Omaticaya now. You may make your bow from the wood of Hometree. And you may choose a woman. We have many fine women. Ninat is the best singer.

Jake Sully: I don't want Ninat.

Neytiri: Peyral is a good hunter.

Jake Sully: Yes, she is a good hunter. But I've already chosen. But this woman must also choose me.

Neytiri: [smiles] She already has.
Whoa.  Back up.  “And you may choose a woman.” ???What???  The prize for passing the manhood test is a female mate?  The men get to choose?  Women have no say? Sounds suspiciously like a practice from our human past, not the imaginary Omaticaya, who in all other respects appeared to be pretty egalitarian.  And Jake goes on to give Neytiri a lesson in feminism: “but this woman must also choose me”.  Aarrgh.  What a patronizing statement.  But this conversation is exactly what a self-centered male would like to hear.  It’s unclear whether this statement was calculated (to appeal to the adolescent male audience) or simply reflects Cameron’s view of how things should be (or wishes things would be). 
A couple of other things to know about how Cameron developed the character of Neytiri:  He’s admitted in several interviews that from the beginning, he knew she had to have breasts (although he used a different, derogatory term) despite the obvious fact that the Na’vi are not mammals and have no need for mammary glands.  He also brought in experts to create the Na’vi morphotype so that they would be appealing to the audience, especially men.  Large, expressive eyes—a Disney trick.  Plus cool animal features—the cat-like nose and prehensile tail. 
Would Jake have fallen for Neytiri if she looked like the creature in District 9, instead of a sensual, blue, cat-like humanoid?  

Imagine the dialog with Neytiri as the creature depicted above right:
Neytiri: You are Omaticaya now. You may make your bow from the wood of Hometree. And you may choose a woman. We have many fine women. Ninat is the best singer.
Jake Sully:  Huh? What did you say?  A woman?
Neytiri: Peyral is a good hunter.
Jake Sully:  Uuhhh….well, is that required?  Taking a woman?
Neytiri:  It is part of the ritual of becoming one with the Omaticaya people....choosing a mate for life.
Jake Sully: [gulping] For life? 
Neytiri:  Yes.  You know, I am not yet taken.  You must choose soon [wiggling her mouth parts suggestively].
Jake Sully:  I think I hear Colonel Quaritch calling me.

So to summarize, Avatar is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a movie that aligns with feminist ideals or that projects a valid image of what a "strong female character" is. Tossing in a few token women who can fly a helicopter, shoot a gun, or cuss is not what we have in mind when we say that movies could use more strong female characters.  It seems that Hollywood writers, directors, and producers think that "strong female" literally means physically strong, abrasive, defiant, or some other one-dimensional characteristic....rather than what is really required:  a strong character [played by a female]. Instead of the simplistic definition of "strong" as being physically powerful or behaviorally aggressive, a strong character might be especially capable, authoritative, smart, complex, resilient, or moral.

As I noted in the first post in this series, Avatar has so far grossed over $2 billion and has been seen by millions.  This film and others like it are extremely popular with adolescents. What an opportunity to overturn some stereotypes! Too bad it didn't.

In the Na'vi culture, the greeting "I see you" means "I see into you and all you are--a complex being that deserves my respect".  In other words, "I see your real nature, beyond just the superficial, physical attributes".  Pretty ironic.

Photo Credits: Stills from Avatar (20th Century Fox) and District 9 (TriStar Pictures) 


Fia said...

Great post, as the two before this one! I went to see it in the movies, and I don't know what was worse, - the horrible stereotypes (I don't think they were well hidden!) or the three-D vision...

DrDoyenne said...

Yes, I didn't mention the 3D aspect--a whole other topic.

I went prepared to see Avatar in 3D the first time, however. I knew I would get motion sickness, so I took a sea-sick pill beforehand. I didn't get ill, but did feel queasy during the flying scenes (I had to close my eyes a few times).