Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf

The good-white-guy/saviour trope reproduces the very racisim [sic] that it supposedly aims to ‘critique’ and in my view at least, it’s clumsy, painfully bad story-telling that attempts to keep an incredibly boring, repetitive trope alive.

- Westerly

I'm also tired of the old white-guy-going native-to-act-as-savior trope which I believe started with the telling of TE Lawrence's story by Hollywood. I don't care about how one of the "oppressors" feels about his and his people's actions. I want to see how the "natives" feel about having their land and way of life encroached upon by outsiders.


Yes, I saw Avatar. No, I was not impressed. Although, I was not disappointed, since it was pretty much what I expected, especially from a director who had the following exchange with Playboy:

PLAYBOY: We seem to need fantasy icons like Lara Croft and Wonder Woman, despite knowing they mess with our heads.
CAMERON: Most of men's problems with women probably have to do with realizing women are real and most of them don't look or act like Vampirella. A big recalibration happens when we're forced to deal with real women, and there's a certain geek population that would much rather deal with fantasy women than real women. Let's face it: Real women are complicated. You can try your whole life and not understand them.

PLAYBOY: How much did you get into calibrating your movie heroine's hotness?
CAMERON: Right from the beginning I said, "She's got to have tits," even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na'vi, aren't placental mammals. I designed her costumes based on a taparrabo, a loincloth thing worn by Mayan Indians. We go to another planet in this movie, so it would be stupid if she ran around in a Brazilian thong or a fur bikini like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.

PLAYBOY: Are her breasts on view?
CAMERON: I came up with this free-floating, lion's-mane-like array of feathers, and we strategically lit and angled shots to not draw attention to her breasts, but they're right there. The animation uses a physics-based sim that takes into consideration gravity, air movement and the momentum of her hair, her top. We had a shot in which Neytiri falls into a specific position, and because she is lit by orange firelight, it lights up the nipples. That was good, except we're going for a PG-13 rating, so we wound up having to fix it. We'll have to put it on the special edition DVD; it will be a collector's item. A Neytiri Playboy Centerfold would have been a good idea.

PLAYBOY: So you're okay with arousing PG-13 chubbies?
CAMERON: If such a thing should ­happen—and I'm not saying it will—that would be fine.

Keeping it klassy, Mr. Cameron. Also, I could clearly tell where most of Avatar's estimated $400 million budget went, and it was not to the writing of the script.

For further analysis, read these:

Avatar: Count the "isms", by Ariel, Feministing.

When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?, by Annalee Newitz, i09 via Racialicious.

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. Jake never really knows what it's like to be a Na'vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode . . . When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it's only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

[ . . . ]

Whites need to stop remaking the white guilt story, which is a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white. Speaking as a white person, I don't need to hear more about my own racial experience. I'd like to watch some movies about people of color (ahem, aliens), from the perspective of that group, without injecting a random white (erm, human) character to explain everything to me. Science fiction is exciting because it promises to show the world and the universe from perspectives radically unlike what we've seen before. But until white people stop making movies like Avatar, I fear that I'm doomed to see the same old story again and again.



Asian Americanist said...

Actually the Project 880 scriptment had quite a few interesting things that were cut. It also downplayed Jake's "chosen one" status to more of something he needed to earn.

That said, without Jake turning on his "own," you'd basically get a story of the aliens getting massacred after their home is blown up. Is that the movie that you'd rather see?

As for the io9 article, I kinda wished that the author had actually addressed that it isn't that black and white. Yes, I'm sure that ultra-white Trudy Chacon only turns on the RDA when she assimilates into the Na'vi culture. Oh wait.

Makes me wonder what would have happened if it it had been Will Smith instead of Worthington.

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