i couldn’t not see avatar. i read reviews, spoilers, heard first hand accounts. i’ve lately been reading up on the singularity, i’ve always been a science fiction lover, i’ve literally drawn other worldly humanoid figures since i could put pen to paper, the technology was groundbreaking, AND it was in 3D, AND it was a story of ecological or environmental justice?

(from here out this is a journey of spoilers. go see it, and then read this, if you like surprises.)

overall it was stunning, enthralling, a journey in and through a magical world, a success.

and it was a white hero story.

and the gender dynamics got murky in the end.

and it was a mainstream movie that had the audience cheering when the military was outmaneuvered.


    the good:

– visually my breath was jolted to a full stop in my body several times as I experienced flight, ducked unimaginable creatures, lifted through floating mountains…I want to see it over and over, and go there, and do that.

– the organic technology presented in the film and by the film…to be able to embody a physical avatar, to be able to easily physically bond with an animal or a plant…the way they animated the creatures based off of actors performances…this is leaning into ‘the singularity’ thinking in ways that should make us uncomfortable, but mostly made me feel giddy. [half of me is running towards the composting simple life of what we can grow, living within the space we can walk. the other part wants to fly, time travel, space travel, integrate technology and humanity towards a more evolved and capable existence.]

– the ecological analysis, that the world is a web of complete interconnectedness, of life…that life is precious, that a planet and everything on it is connected…this is very much what i believe. it is what i have spent the last several years trying to slow down enough to experience, to lean in close enough to smell and feel, to embody in my work. they made it phosphorescent, magical, lighter than life. but this planet can feel like that, too.

– the critique of war, particularly the war on iraq, was overt and radical and impressive in a movie with such a mainstream target audience. the terms “shock and awe” and “preemptive” were used by the bad guys, the destruction could have had a halliburton stamp on it. i appreciated the grief and anger james cameron put into the script, written and directed and produced parallel to iraq, afghanistan.

    The bad:

– I hated that the strong female indigenous lead, who teaches the human avatar Jake Sully to speak, eat and live, has to step back and jump behind him (physically and hierachically) after they mate, when danger strikes. its not for long, and she comes back into her strength before the end, but that moment was too alpha for me.

– the fact that ultimately the white human in avatar body has to not just be accepted but has to become the leader of the struggle, the hero, and the one who lives…this reinforces a level of white supremacy that goes all the way into the heart of whiteness. if he had come to fight, taking leadership from the Na’vi (the indigenous people on pandora), providing his intel and taking a place in the tribe, it still would have been a reach. this is the part of the story that most needs to be relinquished. if there is ever to be redemption between white people and all the peoples they have conquered, displaced, oppressed, enslaved, bamboozled, hoodwinked, jim crowed, concentration camped, left to die, forced to work, exoticized, called minority and worse, and felt superior to…then there must be a true release of the hero myth.

– the whole idea of an individual savior is both put forth as necessary and questioned as hypocritical in the film. jake sully has to tell the Na’vi they are in danger, once he escalates their danger. and yet he is powerless, all the force he can muster is nothing compared with that of the creation force. he is vulnerable and needs community and nature and spirit. in a scene towards the end you see the tiny frail human in the arms of the massive Na’vi female and it was such a Pieta moment – her as the delivery system and protector of the savior. i am only glad he couldn’t have done it on his own tho, more action heroes need such a reality check.

    The gray:

– is this the only kind of story that will allow mainstream america to consider embracing indigenous wisdom and ecological sanity? we watched it in a suburban michigan theater and folks were cheering as english-speaking human military were taken out, collectively sad and silent in watching the destruction that humans were exacting on the planet. action scenes, white male hero, awesome technology…is that the only way to slip radical analysis to the masses?

– is it wrong that i felt jealous of jake sully’s journey? to be able to leave behind the human/western way of interacting with a planet and be fully embodied in a new life, new customs, new freedoms and spiritual connections. i came home and flipped through pictures i drew a decade ago that look like the world in that movie, i have been aware for some time that i am being called towards a belief system that is counter to how i was raised. ‘i want to go to there.’ beyond the cool flying part, and getting to leave capitalism behind, the idea of becoming indigenous again is one that i have heard come out of mouths of people i greatly respect (both currently indigenous and not – with melissa nelson as a key thinker on this) as ground we need to explore, carefully, with humility, without coercing or co-opting. the idea that a process of rediscovering our own indigenous history and building new connections to the land could actually be an organic one, and an opening past resistance to resilience, interests me.

the grayer:

fundamentally, this movie posits a theory that has been explored before – that it is necessary for a certain number of oppressors to actually switch sides and stand with oppressed peoples in order to end oppression. and while i don’t think that in that switching sides there should be a hero role, or even much applause (to paraphrase chris rock, don’t give credit for shit people are supposed to do), i do think there is a very necessary piece in that story to be considered. historically we have seen that the basic tenets of colonization and oppression have been so counter to some indigenous cultures that they were incomprehensible. in such cases, oppressors who liberate their minds can help win a victory for the oppressed peoples.

the thing is, jake sully doesn’t win. he is defeated after he alerts the life force of the planet about the danger to come. this is the life force which is networked throughout the entire planet – is all and knows all. it’s not even clear that sully’s warning was needed. that life force rallies all of its creatures and forces together to drive out the oppressor. as breathtaking as the action was, it is quite possible – it is the most plausible outcome – that the power of the web of life would have been generated without a hero.

the heroics of jake sully were a necessary part of his being able to participate in the revolution – i just don’t think they were necessary for the revolution to succeed. i have come across jake sully types in my work many many times. i, and other people of color and/or women, have spoken about this: is the only way a white man or any man can truly relinquish the power to oppress is to believe he is gaining a new power, a new and higher place in a hierarchy of people…in the case of white man, it is a trajectory from slavemaster to savior.

men, particularly white men, need to hear and see stories that help them (and anyone else engaged in violence and dominance behavior) recognize they have a part to play in a new way of living, and it requires a release of the whole dynamic of power over others.

but how does that message get delivered? even if it’s in 3D, i don’t know how many millions will turn out to see an eco-justice anti-war tale about mother earth rising up against the military.

and since the story is so deeply a story about our relationship to this planet, our obliteration of our natural resources, our disrespect of indigenous cultures and forgetting our own indigenous stories, our displacement and destruction of the only place we have, the only water that we know exists and can sustain us…since it is SO close to home…can we perhaps as people with analysis, see it as a step in a process?

i don’t know the answers to these questions, but i think the gray areas are very important in terms of us figuring out how to continuously engage in a revolution of behaviors and dynamics. we aren’t in a fantasy, we can’t just kick the oppressive destructive forces off the planet…they are in us, of us, with us. our solutions have to be ones that deconstruct the impulses and behaviors of oppression, and that has a place for ex-oppressors in our visions of the future. not a hero role, but a meaningful, life-affirming role.

p.s. i am ready for the coming wave of 3D movies, and may write something about how 3D is basically bringing the experience of safe group tripping into the mainstream.

Author: Adrienne

VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): Your uprising against the forces of darkness has got to do more than say "no." A fierce, primal yes should be at the heart of your crusade. (rob brezny, long ago)

9 thoughts on “avatar”

  1. sci fi sister, you know b and i eagerly awaited this film coming out…. totally agree with you on many levels. i think we are in changing place relating to spiritual practice and ethnic/racial origin. i have one friend that hesitated for years about committing to the buddhist practice because she felt she didn’t come from an asian ancestry and that she should be exploring african and african diasporic spiritual practices (ones that she felt we “hers”).

    there are indigenous north american stories about the rainbow people – spirits of native americans reborn in all different nations. this moment was anticipated a long time ago. we are watching so many barriers come down and there is so much positive that can come from it. the negative side is the misappropriation of traditional beliefs and culture vulturism. the positive is that we get closer to some fundamental truths – no matter what racial or old traditions we come from.

    and the more i learn about indigenous people from all over the world, the more i see we are all so similar. we need ceremony – and ceremony can be the old ones, but they can also be new ones. sankofa – we will go back but we will go forward and do something new too….

    I share your longing for a taste and vision for what a techno-sustainable future looks like. i long to live there in my being.

  2. Yes!! Thanks for this Adrienne! Great review, it spoke directly to my feelings and thoughts about it. So much beauty, so many radical notions wrapped around a white male savior fantasy…

    “it is necessary for a certain number of oppressors to actually switch sides and stand with oppressed peoples in order to end oppression. and while i don’t think that in that switching sides there should be a hero role, or even much applause (to paraphrase chris rock, don’t give credit for shit people are supposed to do), i do think there is a very necessary piece in that story to be considered.”

    Yes. This was so close to being an amazing fable of being an ALLY, and not the Great White Hope. I may have still been fine with Jake Sully “becoming” Na’vi if he occupied a humble position. The hardest moment for me is when (spoiler) the Na’vi start bowing to him after he rides in on Toruk. And THEN all the other male leaders are killed off to place him in a space of no male competition for leadership…? Its almost embarrassing, this view into the white male consciousness, what is fantasized about. Yes, i imagine a version of Avatar where Jake Sully is simply a white man of conscience and a good ally who doesn’t try out-native the natives.

    i also imagine a version of Avatar where the lead female Na’vi isn’t the only strong female character to *survive*. I couldn’t believe how Michelle Rodriguez’ character was an exact carbon copy of Vasquez in Aliens. The kick ass, latina marine who fights valiantly but has just gotta die. what’s that about?

  3. I saw this movie last night and while I too was enthralled with the graphics and the beauty, a wall came down for good inside me when I saw the part where Jake masters and rides the great red bird (can’t remember its name). It was too much disbelief to suspend when he managed to do what only five other indigenous warriors have done in the history of their people, and Dances With Wolves came to mind. I was also turned off by the emasculization of the brother warrior, who had to give up his place in the hierarchy (setting aside male hierarchy within the Na’vi for the moment) in order to defer to the white savior. And it was too much when he actually had to become the mouthpiece/translator for Jake Sully. That said, your review helped me to see the shades of complexity the different issues and has opened it up in my mind for more questions and reflection. After all, I don’t know how much good it does to simply dismiss it as “supremacist” without acknowledging that it’s a little more complex than that. Thank you.

  4. Wow! I really like this. My favorite part is the “organic technology”–being able to physically bond with other organic beings. This was the piece I found most significant as far as information about HOW we can make this shift. Of course, this is all possible because of the “ecological analysis” of complete interconnectedness. And I love the point about the fact that it is put in there in a way that can actually be accepted by mainstream society. Yes!

    The things pointed to as “bad,” for the most part, I hadn’t noticed, but I’m glad that she did–the woman stepping behind after mating & the white human as hero… good points! I feel a bit confused, though, by the placement of the mixed message of “individual savior- necessity & hypocritical” in this section. It seems to me that was one of the good things; not that we need an “individual savior”, but leaders are certainly necessary and the fact that he could not do it alone, and in fact would have died were it not for being saved by his mate. I was, of course, frustrated throughout the movie by the fact that he was giving the military information and that it did not seem to occur to him why this might be problematic. I mean, giving the location of the Tree of Souls… COME ON!!!

    As far as the question: is this the only way to slip this info into mainstream… I think it may be, at least for now. If it were not for the white hero, it’s quite likely it would be less accepted. Isn’t it better to get people to see what they can rather than try to force what they’re not ready for?
    Could the power have been generated without a hero? Maybe… but leaders serve the purpose of focus, pointedness, direction. His vision allowed the vision of all the other people AND the Life-force itself to be focused on a goal. Perhaps without that focus the Life-force would have done what it needed to protect itself and bring balance, but that may simply have meant something like the ground opening and swallowing everyone, or something like that. IT has no preference that the people be there!
    The point about the necessity of white man to believe that he has an important part to play is a good one. So fine… if that’s what the boys need–let them have it. Are we missing the fact here that perhaps all people need this, or at least all westerners? Yes, white men may need it more but the simple fact is: people need to be needed–to feel like they have a purpose.

    Lastly, it seems to be implied that the method of “deconstruct[ion of] the impulses & behaviors of oppression” are not in the movie. I disagree. I think Jake’s learning to live in that way–the singularity–IS the way to do so. Experiencing the world as One, and us as connected, is how we contain our destructive/oppressive impulses. If we can feel how the oppression of other is the same as oppression of self, for the most part we would choose otherwise.

  5. Hi, Adrienne! I haven’t read your blog much until now, but Dani told me about this post and I wanted to check it out. I’m totally feeling your analysis — it definitely clarifies a lot of my own thoughts / feelings about the movie. I’m going to send this to the other people I saw the movie with.

    I read The Singularity is Near a while ago (have you read the whole book?), and it really blew my mind. I don’t buy all of his analysis (I think he’s too optimistic and has no class consciousness), but I think his overall theory is really plausible. I also went to the Singularity Summit when it was in San Francisco a few years ago:

    This also describes me perfectly:

    “half of me is running towards the composting simple life of what we can grow, living within the space we can walk. the other part wants to fly, time travel, space travel, integrate technology and humanity towards a more evolved and capable existence.”

    Part of me thinks we’ve done so much damage already that we’re basically going to need to figure out a way to save ourselves using advanced technology to save ourselves (for example, we’ve pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere already that we might need to think about some geo-engineering to keep things from spiraling out of control; the right kind of nano-technology could probably help us clean all sorts of toxic chemicals up … etc).

    Have you read any Neal Stephenson? The Diamond Age is a book you might want to check out. Snow Crash is also awesome. Vernor Vinge is also an amazing author — Fire Upon the Deep is amazing, and Rainbows End is amazing so far (haven’t finished it yet).

    This is a pretty fun website that I used to poke around on a lot:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.