Sunday, March 7, 2010

Seeing racism where none exists: Avatar

A remarkable review of Avatar by Slavoj Zizek claims the film is racist... against non-whites.
It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the "military-industrial complex" of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs...
What brutal racist motifs does Slavoj Zizek discover? For starters he is offended that "a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle". But the outcast does this in an alien body, therefore he is no longer crippled. It's a baffling complaint.

The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man's fantasy.

I can only imagine that Zizek went into the cinema furiously angry, determined to be offended. What a bizarre response he had. The message of the film is that the humans (or modern, Western civilisation) are expansionary, violent and arrogant, while the natives are in harmony with nature and one another. It is an anti-modern message. The hero comes from this modern culture, but he rejects it. He leads the audience from modern culture to the pleasures of tribal Utopia.

If anyone should be offended it is us, inhabitants of modern technological society. Avatar's portrayal of alien tribal life is nothing like human tribal life, which has tended to be extraordinarily violent, more violent by far than modern life. While modern states like Switzerland and Ireland have shifted so far from war that it seems almost unthinkable, Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization points to extremely high death rates from intertribal war - most tribes fought wars at least once year, sometimes several times. Premodern tribes used total war: destruction of crops, mass-murder of women and children, enslavement of entire tribes and so on. Genocide was not unknown. Keeley calculates that the total number of deaths from war in the 20th century would have been twenty times higher were we all living in tribal societies.

Avatar cleans all that up and leaves the modern culture looking barbaric.

So Avatar is part of a political narrative, but the opposite one to what Zizek sees. Avatar is part of the Nobel Savage narrative, saying that sophisticated modern life is corrupting, and people in nature are happier and more peaceful. It's not true - modernity has brought peace from the chaos of constant war - but it is a fashionable narrative right now.


  1. I did find it telling that the aborigines needed to be saved by 'the great white hope'. He was the one to write the big bird-monster as foretold in prophecies (ugh) and he was the one to unite all the tribes to fight against the imperialists.

    That had, to me, quite a missionary message. The natives that needed guidance...

  2. Cheers for the comment Matthijs. Imagine the situation reversed, though, as follows:

    A peaceful modern society is invaded by primitive tribal barbarians, who proceed to loot the modern culture's resources. The film depicts the modern people as being innocent, noble and brave. The invading tribal people are depicted as mostly (with two or three exceptions), arrogant, ignorant, violent and grasping. One tribal agent becomes impressed by the superior culture of the modern people and teaches them how to fight the barbarians. He becomes modernised, dressing in modern clothes and abandoning his traditional tribal costume and customs. He even changes his skin colour and ethnicity (say, changing black for white... or blue for human). He leads the modern people to victory and the tribal, pre-modern invaders are destroyed.

    Such a story would be condemned for its "racist" depictions of premodern tribal cultures. The abandoning of this culture by the hero would be seen as a disgusting example of cutural imperialism.

    Avatar tells us that our modern/Western culture is INFERIOR to premodern tribal cultures, since its hero rejected his modernity and turned his back on our culture.

  3. I agree with you in a large part Shane. I just think that you might have missed some things that could be interpreted the other way around.

    For example: the Western hero is the one who introduces individuality to the noble savages of Avatar. He breaks their tradition of arranged marriage by following his heart and teaching the merits of following your heart instead of tradition to the blue princess. It is partly because of the heros passionate individuality that the people of Avatar triumph in the end.

    That could be interpreted as a message of 'western' supriority, or at least as 'western' moralism. A cultural critic might say that we take the values of individuality so much for granted in 'the west', that we fail to spot this kind of moralism (even when we employ it ourselves). Especially because Avatar also has a clear anti-capitalistic message (perhaps more so then anti-western/mordernistic).

    The thing about cultural analists/critics like Zizek is that they have read so much Freud and Lacan etc. that they constantly look for unconcious messages of racism or cultural superiority. This borders on paranoia sometimes (oftentimes) and it can never really be substantiated, which is a problem, but I think that it can be revealing too.

  4. That's a good point about his introduction of individualism to the tribe. Though I think his transformation is greater than that of the tribe: he changes completely and adapts to a great degree to their way of life, abandoning his own.

    In one sense there's nothing revolutionary about the story here. In the past European colonial armies sometimes employed native scouts and informants to help them conquer other natives. It is no new thing that individuals, out of greed or conversion, switch alliances. Today, though, there is this tiresome instinct to find racism in innocuous things!

    I have written that if anyone should be offended it is us of the modern world. But I don't mean that we should be offended either. I really enjoyed it, for all that the story was a bit unoriginal!


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