When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”?

By Annalee Newitz
December 18, 2009 – http://io9.com

The Movie "Avatar"Critics have called alien epic Avatar a version of Dances With Wolves because it’s about a white guy going native and becoming a great leader. But Avatar is just the latest scifi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy. Spoilers…

Whether Avatar is racist is a matter for debate. Regardless of where you come down on that question, it’s undeniable that the film – like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year – is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it’s a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?

Avatar imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America’s foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent. In the film, a group of soldiers and scientists have set up shop on the verdant moon Pandora, whose landscapes look like a cross between Northern California’s redwood cathedrals and Brazil’s tropical rainforest. The moon’s inhabitants, the Na’vi, are blue, catlike versions of native people: They wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes. Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we’ve seen in Hollywood movies for decades.

And Pandora is clearly supposed to be the rich, beautiful land America could still be if white people hadn’t paved it over with concrete and strip malls. In Avatar, our white hero Jake Sully (sully – get it?) explains that Earth is basically a war-torn wasteland with no greenery or natural resources left. The humans started to colonize Pandora in order to mine a mineral called unobtainium that can serve as a mega-energy source. But a few of these humans don’t want to crush the natives with tanks and bombs, so they wire their brains into the bodies of Na’vi avatars and try to win the natives’ trust. Jake is one of the team of avatar pilots, and he discovers to his surprise that he loves his life as a Na’vi warrior far more than he ever did his life as a human marine.

Jake is so enchanted that he gives up on carrying out his mission, which is to persuade the Na’vi to relocate from their “home tree,” where the humans want to mine the unobtanium. Instead, he focuses on becoming a great warrior who rides giant birds and falls in love with the chief’s daughter. When the inevitable happens and the marines arrive to burn down the Na’vi’s home tree, Jake switches sides. With the help of a few human renegades, he maintains a link with his avatar body in order to lead the Na’vi against the human invaders. Not only has he been assimilated into the native people’s culture, but he has become their leader.

This is a classic scenario you’ve seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member. But it’s also, as I indicated earlier, very similar in some ways to District 9. In that film, our (anti)hero Wikus is trying to relocate a shantytown of aliens to a region far outside Johannesburg. When he’s accidentally squirted with fluid from an alien technology, he begins turning into one of the aliens against his will. Deformed and cast out of human society, Wikus reluctantly helps one of the aliens to launch their stalled ship and seek help from their home planet.

If we think of Avatar and its ilk as white fantasies about race, what kinds of patterns do we see emerging in these fantasies?

In both Avatar and District 9, humans are the cause of alien oppression and distress. Then, a white man who was one of the oppressors switches sides at the last minute, assimilating into the alien culture and becoming its savior. This is also the basic story of Dune, where a member of the white royalty flees his posh palace on the planet Dune to become leader of the worm-riding native Fremen (the worm-riding rite of passage has an analog in Avatar, where Jake proves his manhood by riding a giant bird). An interesting tweak on this story can be seen in 1980s flick Enemy Mine, where a white man (Dennis Quaid) and the alien he’s been battling (Louis Gossett Jr.) are stranded on a hostile planet together for years. Eventually they become best friends, and when the alien dies, the human raises the alien’s child as his own. When humans arrive on the planet and try to enslave the alien child, he lays down his life to rescue it. His loyalties to an alien have become stronger than to his own species.

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. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. 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.

This is not a message anybody wants to hear, least of all the white people who are creating and consuming these fantasies. Afro-Canadian scifi writer Nalo Hopkinson recently told the Boston Globe:

In the US, to talk about race is to be seen as racist. You become the problem because you bring up the problem. So you find people who are hesitant to talk about it.

She adds that the main mythic story you find in science fiction, generally written by whites, “is going to a foreign culture and colonizing it.”

Sure, Avatar goes a little bit beyond the basic colonizing story. We are told in no uncertain terms that it’s wrong to colonize the lands of native people. Our hero chooses to join the Na’vi rather than abide the racist culture of his own people. But it is nevertheless a story that revisits the same old tropes of colonization. Whites still get to be leaders of the natives – just in a kinder, gentler way than they would have in an old Flash Gordon flick or in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels.

When will whites stop making these movies and start thinking about race in a new way?

First, we’ll need to stop thinking that white people are the most “relatable” characters in stories. As one blogger put it:

By the end of the film you’re left wondering why the film needed the Jake Sully character at all. The film could have done just as well by focusing on an actual Na’vi native who comes into contact with crazy humans who have no respect for the environment. I can just see the explanation: “Well, we need someone (an avatar) for the audience to connect with. A normal guy will work better than these tall blue people.” However, this is the type of thinking that molds all leads as white male characters (blank slates for the audience to project themselves upon) unless your name is Will Smith.

But more than that, whites need to rethink their fantasies about race.

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.

Send an email to Annalee Newitz, the author of this post, at annalee@io9.com.

Source: http://io9.com

21 thoughts on “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”?”

    1. I have seen and met an Alien from another planet that live on earth. There are many that live among us. Perhaps some of the stars of Avatar are associated to Aliens from another planet. They look exactly like white people. They are very intelligent, and communicate via telepathic communication. For example, at time I would be on the phone, and they would ask me to excuse them because another alien is trying to communicate with them.

      The Vatican and other leaders are familar with this. They travel on ships to and from earth.

      In addition, they were created by God, and they believe in God. One of the Planets name is listed as a book of the Bible.

  1. As a person of color I totally disagree with your perspective. District 9 did have racial tones, but as for both these movies being about white guilt and their portrayal of alien races (colored people), I really think you missed the mark and need to do some more research before writing such an elaborate article on the topic.

  2. Frank,

    It’s amazing that you think it appropriate to totally dismiss “such an elaborate article on the topic” with so terse a response. Your admonition to do further research seems to be one that YOU should take a look into.

  3. I am white and I rarely fantasize about racial identity or watch movies like “Avatar”. It’s a shame what happened to the Americas, but I don’t even feel guilty about that. I even learned to do that Jake Sully trick–I can speak Spanish. I can even fool them sometimes. It is cool being in Mexico. Yeah, it’s even cooler having a blue passport and an American accent when I come back.

    But if you feel this way why do you even watch Hollywood movies? Why don’t you watch something from France, Africa, Mexico, India or Russia instead? It’s a big world. To answer your question White people will stop making movies like this when they stop being White people. I personally don’t have time to make movies like this. I am too busy watching movies from France, Africa, Mexico, etc. and you could be too.

  4. “When will whites stop making these movies and start thinking about race in a new way?” It is not only white movies that gets these racially motivated slants Annalee, but history books, and all forms of social science researches and analysis . We therefore relish the occasional twinge of the moral conscience of liberal minded white folks like yourself to speak out on the historical malady, while we at the same time pray and hope that that historically maligned victims would emerge and be that much needed , and essential voice themselves. Too many unfortunately prefer to be complicit corporate media whores, and agents of the powers that be . Although we understand why , we disagree with it and are sometimes powerless to rectify the problem.
    With respect to your concerns about movies, perhaps it begins with members of the viewing public who can stop watching the typical Hollywood escapist crap,be it ET, Star wars, 20012 , Men in Black , or I am legend . Next to that encourage our kids to not only remain fixated on becoming doctors ,nurses , teachers ,sports jocks ,musical entertainers ,comedians , and lawyers . How about a few writers, movie producers , directors, critics, and we’ll throw ion a few conscious social scientist as well for good measure?
    What does Monster Ball, Color purple , and Training Day have in common? They brought much wealth and fame to black leading actors and actresses, but at the same time either portrayed blacks in typical despicable fashions as callous ,abusive ,carefree,childish , criminals ,that would be better served to follow their white more civilize counterparts.Interesting subliminal messages for young folks of the Diaspora , yes?
    Imaging that ,Hale Berry had to lie on her back ,to fulfill the fantasy of a white racist abusive ,correction officer , who was responsible for sending her husband to the gallows. Poor Danzel, after doing thousand of uplifting movies of the calibre of Malcrom X , he had to portray a corrupt police thug ,so that Hollywood can give black gullible puppets a second Oscar after almost one hundred years – or so it seems. As for Woppie Goldberg, and now famous Oprah, Stephen Speilberg could have had to shave his ugly beard , and give away all his money to get two Jewish women to do the equivalent of a similar movie. That would mean ultra feminist ,and self hater Alice Walker would have remained an obscure second rate writer who believed that she too was cursed as a result of being born black and from the State of Georgia.

    Years ago New distinguished York City College Political Science Professor Leonard Jeffries ,denounced Hollywood elite power structure for it’s negative portrayal of African Americans. Had he left the subject there as most timid intellectuals had done before, then all would be fine in all “land of the free and home of the brave.” He however had the audacity to touch on what he proclaim as Jewish power and control of that arena ,and other well established scientific affairs on racial pigmentations and cancer. For this he was academically destroyed,and that was the end of him as an educational pro African force . Served him well some would say , why could he not behave like that other City College Alumni Colin Powell.Know his place. He too could have operated under the radar like Professor Gates and produce soft historical African trills, while proud of his elitist Simi whiteness , until he was busted by a equally racist white Cop in of all places his own yard.

    Come on Miss Annalee, enjoy the ride will you. Do you think that the jokers in Bollywood for example, would work against their interest and produce a Slumdog millionaire equivalent? No ,no , it took white Director Danny Boyle to do that. Can you expect that any of those Nigerian movie producing jokers that feeds , and peddle to black folks the usual cheap titillating nonsense , or the South Africans that pretends that they are a first world country , as Aids run rampage , or crime, and poverty destroy that nation ,would take a chance on recapturing the political idealism of early post Apartheid SA Nelson Mandela , via a movie like Invictus? Never! It took white conservative Clint Eastwood instead.Perhaps we should really live and let live , hmmmm?
    P.S. By the way I like Director Lee Daniels empathy for fat folks . You watch out for Precious , He did it again , the two leading actresses ,and the movie as a whole should walk away with a few awards , if the liberal Hollywood establishment elite have any say in the matter.
    Ahhh! Where would the conscience of America go , without black folks to jolt them , Annalee?

  5. I agree with the article for the most part, except I do not believe it is really about White guilt, in a general sense. We are still dealing with an unabashed, White supremacist mindset that attempts to put a different twist on history. Although some Whites acknowledge that indigenous people were exterminated, brutalized and generally oppressed by Whites, they still feel proud of their perception of accomplishment over indigenous people and they still operate with a sense of entitlement. They excuse their conduct with the poorly understood concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ – so they feel Whites were destined to rule over all others.

    It is within this framework that they continually portray Whites as the saviours of others. They make it appear that Whites can, over a short period of time, ingratiate and gain the sensitivities of indigenous people and, to add insult to injury, rise to become masters of indigenous cultures.

    So the White liberators operate on two fronts: they are portrayed firstly as militarily superior and then morally superior to all other people.

    Also, this type of double portrayal of Whites serves another agenda. Victims of White abuses are discouraged from viewing the brutality as a collective White responsibility and mindset, because, after all, it is the Whites who are also their ultimate saviours. But, on the other hand, Whites can still continue their generalizations and stereotyping of all other people. Their governments can bomb nations with impunity and treat non-Whites in general as their enemies.

    So I think it is not really about guilt; it is more about ensuring non-Whites remain fragmented in how they view the evil of Whites while White Supremacy is maintained and encouraged. Unfortunately, this only works because many non-Whites believe the propaganda.

    On another note: It is understandable that some Whites can present these perspectives. The White social hierarchy offers limited social mobility and some Whites, because of their economics, their size and other features that they may be discriminated against, realize they are not going to get opportunities to move upwards (by most people’s perception of upward which is really downward in my view) in elite social circles. The level of alienation they feel causes them to gain a little insight into the experiences of non-Whites and thus they express these perspectives. There is nothing wrong with that if they are targeting their White audience. However, this does not mean that their superiority mindset has changed. Their newfound legs when engaging these issues can lead to smugness. And, when they preach to non-Whites, they can also be viewed as trying to exert their superiority from the White-saviour mindset.

    Whites can never truly get the experiences and mindset of indigenous people, some of whom are conscious of their history and their current environment.

  6. An interesting article with good points but I disagree. Avatar highlighted if anything the glaring disrespect that HUMAN beings have come to have for their environment and Mother Earth. We have lost touch with our Mother. There is a line in the film: ” there is no greenery on earth, Humans have killed their mother.” I also found the movie to be a good analogue for Trinidadians…we have lost respect for our environment and we go about stomping and guns blazing on those who do. Avatar is a great film…so what if it depicts white people a certain way? Until we have more coloured writers and producers in Hollywood, then ethnic groups will always be depicted a certian way…TOUGH.

  7. Well, you can always watch Wesley Snipes movies for the opposite. “Bet on black…”

  8. When will black people get over it. They are always trying to put the guilt on white people, even though these people have cloth them and teach them a language. Why are they always racist.

    Maybe if any black person someday decided to invent or help in the scientific world like ever other race have, then yeah talk like this. But they have done nothing but cry cry cry.

    Get over it, your great grand parents were slaves but guess what, this was the ticket for you into the white man and everyone elses world, or else you will still be in africa, and still no written language. You should be thanking them everyday you wake up.

  9. Rudy,

    I think your comments are very interesting, but maybe you should check out some links and reconsider your comments. They are from american/european sites so you may trust the information. There are several sites by Africans as well but you may consider them to be the rants of racists, so i’ll give you the ones in your comfort zone

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writing_systems_of_Africa (language and writing)

    http://biology.about.com/od/genetics/a/aa021105a.htm (science)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clothing_in_the_ancient_world (clothing)

  10. I pray to God that you Rudy are not of African decent or further more that you are not coloured (anyone who is not white is coloured). Such an absolutely ignorant statement would be too indicative of regression!
    Having said that I love the analysis. It means that we’re thinking about it (the movie). However, I’m not sure if you, Annalee, actually saw and understood the entire movie. You claimed;

    “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.”

    The fact is however that at the end of the movie Jake does become a Na’vi through the same ritual used in anattempt to save the life of Sarah (I think that is what her name was). Therefore his “white” privileges were completely surrendered. Because of this fact the “guilt fantasy” extends not just to whites, but to all people and races who dominate any other group to achieve some selfish or otherwise justified goal (I thought the movie “Blood Diamond” gave a similar feel of empathy by the way).

    The movie “Avatar” though is one I think all persons in the field of Intercultural Communications or its Studies should view, simply because it forces us to ask the question “Is the society we know and are a part of the ‘way’ its supposed to be?” If honest to one’s self we would acknowledge that no one way of life or culture is correct or wrong but should be allowed to exist without forced interference from others.

    Thus the movie, in my estimation,held a general message for all of “us” as human beings by targetting the powerful and more historically at fault “white” race.

  11. As long as the majority of Hollywood movie goers continue to be uninformed and disconnected to history, sociology, and politics, Hollywood will continue to produce these sorts of films with underlying messages. Do you remember 300? LOL! The story will be told again and again in different forms of how a few take on the masses and against all odds prevail against everything that is not like them.
    I don’t think most people are able to make the connection that you have made. They live in conquered societies that either force the natives to accept, assimilate, and conform, the new order or suffer and parish. Many of them have accepted this programming as a norm and therefore are resistant to any opposition against that norm.
    As long as the masses are programmed to accept subliminal messages of this nature, there will be Hollywood productions that portray natives as lesser beings.

    Rudy is a perfect example. Have you ever heard of Peanut Butter Rudy? What about the stop light? Maybe you have opened a refrigerator, needed new spark plugs, or gave a child a tricycle? These are all inventions most of us in the world enjoy.
    By the way, Sanskrit, and hieroglyphics are written languages. Perhaps you need to go back to school. It’s clear hat your instructors failed to teach you anything.
    Here is a place to start:

  12. Ever so often a blogger comes along and make a comment , assertion , or simply regurgitate memorized mantras he or she learned at the feet of a misguided parent or teacher. We the savvy have a choice, and perhaps respond in kind , blow a gasket , or have pity for such creatures as they seek solace and cry out for help. That’s Rudy in this case dear friends. Loose little sleep over him , I admonish.
    Karl Marx once said that “religion is the opiate of the people,” and perhaps no truer words were ever spoken. I sometimes choose to define education as new religion. Never know who it can ensnare in it’s tentacles.

  13. RUDY….please do not make such an UNEDUCATED statement ever again please! Just remember that the MOST advanced civilisation complete with science and architecture; THE EGYPTIANS, came out of Afrika and continues to influence the world today.

  14. rudy your an ignorant, narcasistic individual who thinks your race is gods gift to this planet, well i have news for people like you well before your idiocracy came along black people held their own, and to this day still do. hey we r running the world now and will for a very long time to come.

  15. I found the movie disturbing on several levels. one; why do we continually promote conflict as entertainment; two, why are women continually portrayed as sexually and emotionally fickle beings – one minute Neteri is pledged to Tsu-tey, next she is with Jake Sully; and three; why is anything remotely related to respect for nature and a tendency towards a simple way of life, considered backward, tree-hugging, and ignorant.. The few moments in the piece when some good insights and self reflection took place were few and far between. And in even this movie, the ‘black guy’ dies- Tsu-tey had clearly African features- (i wonder who did his voice-over). i spent the entire length of this movie being alternately horrified at the injustice meted out and being amazed at how callously, white, American diplomatic relations over the decades (big-stick policy, gun-boat diplomacy,guerrilla tactics etc) are thrown in the face of those of the non-white genus. How effective is the propaganda, and subliminal messaging emanating from Hollywood; we need only look at the millions of non-whites around the globe who engage in activities running the gamut from bleaching of the skin, to drastic pseudo-racist behaviour to rate it…

  16. The actress that portrayed the character of Neteri wasn’t acting. That’s how she is in real life. That was the type of role that she lived for. Look at her character in all of her movies. She is definitely happier with a certain type of actor portraying her opposite.

  17. Nice job, Rudy. Take a rational discussion with reasonable disagreements and inject unadulterated racism. You are not white trash. You are just trash. Tinuke, that biggot will never read the links you posted for him. Like the dog that he is he smells the truth, and he will avoid it like it was a history book. Rest assured he is in the minority of whites that think (don’t think at all) that way…of course I don’t live in a single-wide trailor with my drunk mother in West Virginia. (How do you like THAT stereo-typing, Rudeo?)

  18. Ken, please. Don’t be as ignorant as Rudy. “we are running the world today…” I don’t believe you could run a toaster oven if you realy believe that. Must every-one be a bigot? My race did this..my race invented that. You aren’t inventing shit but more problems with your ignorant post with poor grammar.

  19. Rudy ia a Troll. Pay no attantion to him.
    Ken is angry. His opinion doesn’t matter.

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