“Avatar”, the Noble Savage, and Why White Boys Piss Me Off

So people keep asking me what I thought about the movie Avatar.  And I  try to be tactful about it, and not start spouting off a bunch of jargon about semiotics and systems of signs and how much I wish that Sam Worthington’s character had just died very early on in the film.  So my usual answer has become simply, “it’s pretty.”  Because despite everything that’s horribly wrong with the story, the film does have a lot of pretty pictures.

But this is a blog, and I don’t have to be tactful.

Let’s start with one of the more obvious problems with the film: the idea that an uncouth, uneducated, colonialist American military-grunt white boy could learn enough about a culture in just a few short weeks to not only become sympathetic to their cause, but to actually become a full-fledged tribe member, and even a leader of the people.  Sorry, but no.  Especially when it becomes clear that the Na’vi have refused to accept Grace as one of their own, when she’s a trained anthropologist and astrobiologist who’s been among them for years.  This quick induction into the native culture goes completely against the portrait of the Na’vi as a cautious, secretive people which is otherwise maintained throughout the film.

Realistically, Jake should have died a dozen times over before ever becoming a full-fledged warrior of the Na’vi.  He should have been killed for blundering stupidly into their forests; he should have fallen from a tree and broken his neck; he should have been trampled to death by any number of forest creatures.  And he definitely should have been tossed off the floating mountain by the Banshees.  Taking and copulating with a betrothed woman (especially when that woman is the chief’s daughter) should have gotten him slaughtered by Tsu’tey, and let’s not even get into the whole Toruk thing (can I just say, predictable as all hell?).  Jake Sully should be thanking his lucky stars for all the hero-friendly Deus Ex that seems to have fallen in his way (Cameron uses that trick a lot, it seems).

I guess the movie just wouldn’t have been as interesting if Jake had gotten himself killed by his own stupidity within the first half hour, but it sure would have been more realistic.

But it’s not just Jake’s inexplicable survival that makes his character so problematic.  Like FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Disney’s Pocahontas, this movie is yet another example of “idiot white boy charges in and saves the poor little native peoples”.  Because of course, they couldn’t possibly save themselves.  It takes a strong, white male presence to pull them all together and lead them into victory.  Ah, racism.

Now, defenders of the film will undoubtedly argue at this point that we needed a human character to be the hero, because we couldn’t have empathized in the same way with a Na’vi character like Tus’tey, or even the beautiful Neytiri.  But this seems to me to be a pretty weak excuse.  Despite the cat ears and the tails and the blue skin, the Na’vi are very human-like.  They’re meant to be that way, so it doesn’t seem disgusting when Jake and Neytiri have sex.  The Na’vi have basically human features, and are built like slim and athletic human beings — right down to the belly buttons and breasts (despite the fact that they’re not placental mammals, nor do they nurse their young).  They even speak English through most of the film, for goodness sakes!  I’m pretty sure we could have made the small cognitive leap (more like a “step” than a “leap”, really) and felt some pathos for them.  Would audiences have felt less joy when the bulldozer was shut down if it had been Neytiri who’d done it?  Would it have been less impressive had Tsu’tey tamed the vicious Toruk (a feat only accomplished five times in the past) and led the battle in the sky?  Would a Na’vi have been capable of giving rousing speeches and bringing the people together to fight the oppressors?  Would Eywa have responded to help her people without the intervention of an outsider?

Yeah, the film could definitely have been done without Jake.  And it probably would have been better for it.  But just eliminating his character wouldn’t have fixed all of the problems, as I will illustrate below.

Problem number two: the Na’vi.  I hope I don’t need to explain to anyone that the Na’vi have some very obvious similarities to certain “primitive” human cultures, such as Native Americans and the Aboriginal Australians.  While the Native connection to Mother Earth is somewhat more of an abstract concept, the Na’vi have a very literal connection to their Mother Goddess, Eywa, and to the world around them, as expressed by their ability to “plug in” to each other with their ponytails.  They live in perfect harmony with nature and all of Pandora’s creatures, and feel deep sorrow at any sort of death or destruction.  Of course, this doesn’t stop them from killing and dominating the creatures around them, but we’re talking about concepts and ideals here.

All this brings up a rather nasty concept tied closely to European colonialism: the ideal of the “noble savage”.  This is a term that is mostly associated with the 18th and early 19th centuries, when white Europeans were storming all across the globe, wiping out cultures and people left and right.  While some people worked to disempower, destroy, and convert the “savages” that they encountered, others saw native peoples as somehow more “pure” than civilized Europeans, and sought to find that purity in their own lives.  “Romantic primitivism” during this period often involved white people traveling to colonized countries and “living among the savages” — a misleading phrase, as they didn’t live “among” them so much as “on top of” them, building large vacation houses with all the European comforts, where they could sit and observe the activities of their native slaves.  And it wasn’t just limited to observation — many of those native women wound up in the beds of their white oppressors, who found them exotic and exciting (not too much unlike Jake and Neytiri, really).  The white men would then write long journals or accounts of their travels, which would be published back home to much acclaim, and when the romantic traveler returned home he would inevitably have many examples of native art and artifacts to display in his living room, or to sell for a profit.  Less adventurous Europeans would try to capture this experience by spending time at country houses, copying native art (and creating their own versions of it), without ever understanding the history or meaning behind the original creations.

Obviously, the “noble savage” was a lovely ideal, but his way of life was still completely incompatible with civilized society.  He still needed to be taught English (and have his old language beaten out of him), to learn European history, and of course they had to be converted to Christianity and stop this silly earth-worshipping of theirs.  They were wonderful, but still infinitely inferior to white Europeans.

The Na’vi are pretty much the personification of the “noble savage”.  They’re just different enough from us to be exotic, yet enough the same that we can see they are beautiful and desirable.  They live in harmony with nature (an ideal that many of us find sympathy with in our modern quest for “green living”), and they do not have wars or strife.  Yet they lack any force in their personalities — they mindlessly obey orders (only Jake will disobey), can’t be innovative to solve problems (Jake has to come up with all the grand plans), and when trouble threatens they just throw up their hands in defeat (instead of planning their defense, they just decide to stay in their tree and die … until Jake convinces them otherwise, of course).  Their connection to Eywa is admirable, and yet their Goddess won’t step in to save them in a direct way (well, at least not until a white man asks her to).  And even though in the end they do win the fight, their home has been destroyed and they have lost much of what they had before (not unlike many post-colonial societies, which now have sovereignty, but have already lost everything they had before the white man came).

And now for the third problem I had with Avatar: Eywa.  Eywa is basically the Pandoran version of Mother Earth, a Goddess who is really just a personification of nature.  But unlike our Mother Earth, Eywa is active and able to fight back against what is done to her.  A nice idea for modern people (especially modern Americans) who don’t want to make the effort to save our planet: look, Eywa can just save herself; maybe Earth can do it, too.  It’s comforting, it’s idealistic, it’s infantile.  Let’s face it: if Earth ever does make a move to protect itself, humans probably aren’t going to survive the shift — nor will much else that’s alive on the planet today.  Mass extinctions have happened before, and will happen again, and they’re not pretty and controlled like what we saw in Avatar.  Eywa is really just an excuse for the modern urban human to feel better about what we’ve done (and are doing) to the planet — because if we were fighting against an armed opponent, it would make the whole thing much more morally acceptable.

I find it funny that people have accused Cameron of being “anti-American” after seeing this film.  If anything, Avatar is just a huge justification for the American way of life.  Idiot military grunt white boys can save the world and get some hot, blue poon while they’re at it, and the earth will save itself so why stop drilling for oil?  Sure sounds like an endorsement of American stupidity to me.

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2 Responses to ““Avatar”, the Noble Savage, and Why White Boys Piss Me Off”

  1. “Now, defenders of the film will undoubtedly argue at this point that we needed a human character to be the hero, because we couldn’t have empathized in the same way with a Na’vi character like Tus’tey, or even the beautiful Neytiri.”

    I respectfully disagree. I think we need a human hero because the audience doesn’t want to identify with the mainly human villains of the story.

    The only reason the audience seems to have for accepting that this soldier is welcomed into the Na’vi tribe first is that he is more in line with their tribal ideal for males. Warriors. (They do have wars and strife as far as I can tell, given that they have warriors and have needed to have such unifying figures as the Turok riders in the past.)

    I’m not sure what your second objection actually boils down to, other than the depiction of a ‘noble savage’ people being less than competent. Though that sort of makes sense, given their lack of full comprehension of the situation they are in and distrust of the warnings thereof.

    Concerning the Earth defending itself: even if the audience was to think about Earth in the same way as Pandora, namely sentient and potent in its own defense, the ability of the Earth to fight back doesn’t change the moral situation involved. Nor does it make the idea any more appealing if it did ease the morals of the situation. The fact remains that the situation would inevitably grow dire for whoever it was that was raping the environment. Either global climate change kills you or the planet jumps you when you think you’re on top.

    I also think the movie framed racism in a fairly negative light. The humans who spoke down of the Na’vi species were the bad guys, by and large; while the Na’vi who spoke down on the humans eventually came around and accepted the value that Jake was bringing to them, only then truly gaining protagonist status (especially Tus’tey).

    *shrug*

    • “I think we need a human hero because the audience doesn’t want to identify with the mainly human villains of the story.”

      But why couldn’t the hero be one of the Na’vi? Why do we HAVE to identify with a human, instead of with an extremely human-like alien?

      As to my second objection, the whole concept of the “noble savage” is a longstanding stereotype that has been used by many colonial cultures as a way of rationalizing the colonialist lifestyle. And yeah, the Na’vi in the movie lived up to it perfectly. Which is pretty offensive when you consider that this whole thing was written by a rich white male, the product and pinnacle of a colonial structure. Cameron is basically living just like the early colonial rich white men, who would go to a “new world”, wreck up the land and kill or take advantage of the people, and then write home about this “fascinating culture” that he’s in the process of raping — and then he makes money for writing it.

      “the ability of the Earth to fight back doesn’t change the moral situation involved”

      I have to argue this point. There’s a big difference between stabbing an armed opponent and stabbing a helpless infant. Of course the idea of the earth protecting itself is ridiculous, and reveals itself as such with very little mental effort expended … but the trouble is that most people simply don’t expend the mental effort, especially if the truths being revealed are uncomfortable ones. A movie like “Avatar” doesn’t outright say “earth can defend itself, stop worrying”, but it does provide one more little moment of hope and justification for a person living in denial (as so many people are these days, with regards to climate change and the harm that humans are causing).

      “I also think the movie framed racism in a fairly negative light”

      It did and it didn’t. On the one hand, the intolerant and destructive humans are pretty clearly “evil” characters. But on the other, the Na’vi are very clearly stereotypical and have a disturbing physical resemblance to Native American, African, and Hispanic peoples. So while the movie overtly says “racism is bad” it still slips covert racism in there pretty liberally.

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