Sunday, January 03, 2010

We saw AVATAR...

We saw Avatar a few days before Christmas. Using my cell phone, I thought I'd take a few notes as I watched the film, sending the notes as brief text messages to my email account. There was so much wrong that I quit after a few minutes. My txts are in bold. In parenthesis are my off-the-cuff response.

arrows in tires
(Modern day covered wagons!!)

sig weaver (anthro) wears bead necklace.
(She's the Indian lover. I guess Cameron never read Deloria or listened to Westerman's "Here Come the Anthros")

indigenous school provided by humans
(Hearing that part made me think that Cameron HAS read some history and DOES know a little... )

na'vi are called savages
(no surprise)

their homeland most hostile environment known to man.
(the wild west)

braids and tail. 
(Drawing from lots of "other" there, collapsing them all into na'vi... )

flute and drum music
(Of course!)

they're (na'vi)  watching us
(Just like the Indians in Little House on the Prairie!!!)

riders on horses
(Plains Indians!!)

the riders whoop 
(Classic Western)

A lot of people say that the special effects make the movie enjoyable. A lot of people wave away problems with the story because of the special effects. Those defenses are given again and again in response to critiques of children's books. A lot---a WHOLE LOT---of people defend Brother Eagle Sister Sky because taking care of the environment is more important than Indian stereotypes. Same thing with Touching Spirit Bear. The "good" it does for students who are bullies is more important than its misrepresentations of American Indians.

Support of books like Brother Eagle, Sister Sky and Touching Spirit Bear plays a role in the embrace of films like Avatar.  In my view, we're all kidding ourselves. None of it is worth defending.

UPDATE. Monday, January 4, 2010

This post has generated a lot of email to me, mostly from people who share my view of the film. In some, people are surprised that this sort of thing is still happening. I think some of those individuals are not close readers of film or children's and young adult literature. AVATAR is only one film of the last two months that has given viewers Indian stereotypes. Here's others:

BLIND SIDE---I did not see the film. I saw the trailer, though, and in it, Sandra Bullock and her husband (that's a guess) and her little boy are in their car. The child is in the backseat, wearing a headdress. I can only imagine why. If anyone has seen it, let me know!

THE PROMISE---Betty White's character is out in the woods "dancing" and chanting. This movie mostly takes place in Alaska.

INGLORIOUS BASTARDS---Lots of references to "Indian" methods of killing. And of course, scalping was a big piece of the story.


Carol H Rasco said...

Thanks, Debbie. The movie is not my favored genre, and I probably would not go anyway; but you have finalized my decision, I will NOT go. I appreciate even more your comments "A lot of people say that the special effects make the movie enjoyable. A lot of people wave away problems with the story because of the special effects. Those defenses are given again and again in response to critiques of children's books." Thank you. I often hear the same things about disability issues, a front on which I have fought since my son's birth 36 years ago....amazing what people will use as an excuse over and over, isn't it?

Unknown said...

I've seen people defending Avatar based on the environmentalist message as well.

@Rasco--Avatar is not the greatest re: disabilities, either. I've seen the gamut of reactions from "great" (usually from able-bodied people) to "they tried, but that's not saying much, is it?" to "awful".

Honestly, even IF a heavy-handed, simplistic environmentalist message (and I am an environmentalist, don't get me wrong) and some "cool worldbuilding" or "great effects" justified a stereotyped, offensive plot, cliched script, and mediocre acting--you'd have to actually HAVE good worldbuilding and great effects.

I was seriously, seriously unimpressed with the "science", and didn't think the effects were particularly ground-breaking. It's just a more advanced way to cartoon giant blue elf-cat-reptile people with oversized eyes and no skin texture to speak of.

It also had some icky gender stuff. Seriously, I cannot think of a movie that has managed to be bad and/or offensive in more different ways! About the only thing I can say for it is that it's kind of pretty if you like the color blue a lot.

Anonymous said...

i think Avatar would be one of the worst films I have ever had to endure.

Megan McCullen said...

Thanks for your thoughts Debbie! Dylan Miner and I were talking about the movie just a few weeks ago. We liked that it was a movie where the indigenous people triumphed, but the weird pan-Indigenous stereotypes were really problematic. I ended up spending so much time trying to figure out what I thought of their representation of indigeneity, that I missed the other parts of the movie that were really neat, like the special effects. I was anxious to hear what some folks had to say about it.

Debbie Reese said...


I think it lets people feel good about how 'good' they are, about how 'critical' they are, in the safety of a dark theater. I seriously doubt that watching that film changes anyone's way of living.

It amounts to little more than pat yourself on the back for "getting it" but not actually DOING anything.

Unknown said...

being opened minded doesn't exactly mean bowing down to the greater's just accepting things the way they are...avatar is just a movie - whose ideas and suppose over-view of history man created such a film for the wide world to all its popularity, humans...if they are human at all...realize that there are exact similarities from history i.e.: governments, genocide and such atrocities committed by greed and power. The movie was really good...i love science...i love nature, i love culture and i loved the movie. IT was a fantasy brought forth with depth in that truth was somewhat revealed full force. MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE THING ABOUT THE MOVIE IS THAT THE NAVI WON!!!!!!! so screw all the western films (cowboys and indians), this is the modern/futuristic western film! GO AVATAR MOVIE!

Tenille said...

I watched it too! Argh. Some of it killed me. Just killed me. I reviewed it here - very lightly:

It was frustrating, for sure.

Derek Wall said...

I thought it was excellent terms of flagging up the real cases of corporations murdering people to get oil, for example, at Bagua.

We should all be shouting about this.

Carole McDonnell said...

enlightened white male with noble savages....yeah, it was all a bit much. I always get very nervous when someone in hollywood attempts to do political or cultural "good." It's like I appreciate that they're trying to "push the envelope" or "open the box" but if they're unaware of the size and shape of the envelope/box, they're still working within its frame...even with the "best" of intentions. Alas, the box is still intact.

Kurt Johnson said...

I agree completely with your assessment. I was sent to preview the film for my wife. In trying to describe the film to her, all I could think of is... Mix Dances with Wolves together with Disney's Pocahontas. Make sure to use all the cliques and stereotyping from both films. Then add a touch of An Inconvenient Truth. I saw little to no creativity in the storyline and could have predicted several of the key story plot endings within the first third of the film. In fact, I was just waiting for introduction to the horse tribe as well as the Northwest 'ocean' tribes.

Kapila said...

Oh Debbie, I squirmed and squirmed and squirmed while watching the movie this past weekend, and wondered how on earth people can see Avatar without seeing the Noble Savage imagery, all the mishmash of 3rd world-isms, my absolute favourite of which was the Kecak ceremony (Na'vi are sitting in a semi-circle with their arms stretched out, chanting) that originates from Bali and traces its roots to the Ramayana! And the victimization and simple-mindedness of the Na'vi, despite the fact that they're ostensibly a complex society -- they still need Tom Cruise (Last Samurai), or Kevin Costner (Dances w/Wolves) to come and rescue them.

The irony is that the REAL story of the Na'vi, from the Na'vi's own, true perspective can never be told in mainstream Hollywood, because this story would lack a White Male character. Then what good would it be?!

Your comment about people feeling good after watching a movie like this because of its anti-colonial and pro-conservation messages but not doing anything about it reminds me -- One of the challenges we face in this particular time is that there are no social movements outside of the movie theater that ordinary folks who "get" the movie could join. On its own, the movie doesn't do much at all, and easily sets racism or racial portrayals much farther back in the history of film. I'm so glad people are talking about it though - writers or publishers of children's books, or makers of movies will go ahead and make whatever it is they want to make - it's up to the rest of us to raise the dust and bring the inherent conflicts to the fore. Thanks for your post!

Nina Lindsay said...

Debbie, thanks for sharing your list of notes. Other notes on my list:

Most of the aliens have a "Latino" accent...unless it's a "Island" accent.

"Whooping" seemed to me to be a cross between Classic Western "war whoop" and some kind of "Middle Eastern" ullulation. A nice old hodge-podge.


JCD said...

I was very excited about Avatar until I read Roger Ebert's review:

"The Na'vi survive on this planet by knowing it well, living in harmony with nature, and being wise about the creatures they share with. In this and countless other ways they resemble Native Americans. Like them, they tame another species to carry them around--not horses, but graceful flying dragon-like creatures."

That raised big flags. Here we go again, I thought. I haven't seen the film yet. I'm trying to figure out how to have a meaningful discussion about my problems with the movie with my daughter - who saw it and loved it.

CPN said...

I kept seeing this film as Dances With Wolves meets Matrix. But the going Native theme is old in film and literature. Unfortunately, New Age-ism has given it a new veneer to be brought forth in the media.

Anonymous said...

I hope that you left the theatre to text yourself, unless your cell phone is completely light free while in use. There is nothing ruder than someone flashing their cell phone around during a movie.

Richard Smith said...

Oh, please! If anything this is a stereo typical response from Native Americans. I don’t see Native shamanic cultures from Africa, Australia, or even the pacific islanders complaining about the movie. You also have a decidedly narrow view limited to your subject of study that is typical of academia. You should be the least of the sub-cultural people that could complain about elements of their culture mirrored in this movie.

The pointed ears alone remind us of fantasy cultures of Elves that were popularized by The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. He at least had two magical trees created by the Gods that represented the light of the sun and the moon. There is nothing in Native American culture that could match that. The Elves were caretakers of nature. But why stop there. He took most of his creation from The Poetic “Elder” Edda of Norse Mythology. Why stop there.

There is also the Book of Ogham that focuses on trees in particular. A language and divination structure that extended through Celtic cultures, Wicca, and Celtic shamanism. But this is mostly seen as a dead area because the culture itself is viewed as dead or absorbed into conquering cultures. Clan trees were a big thing with these pagan cultures and care of the land meant survival of the culture and people.

As for natural energy systems nothing beats the stone circles of megalithic Europe. Few people are so spiritually dead that they do not feel some form of energy flowing though the stones that are dated to be as old or older then 5,000 years. It was the ignorant Christians that had most of them torn down simply because they saw them as demonic, and that they made great building materials for their homes.

But this just scratches the surface of what is mirrored across many cultures over millennia of humanity. But you are forgetting that it is fiction and a story. You need to get into the other cultural areas and find the mirroring of other cultures instead if “defending” your own from outside unrelated parallels. You see it as stereotypes while other people follow a more philosophical view of it being Honor. It shows the beauty of cultures that integrate with nature, and humanity needs more of that at a time like this. The Native Americans that I have met do not go by the label of Native American or American Indian, they go by their tribe names just as the pagan cultures of Europe went by clan names. As for bows and arrows, I learned how to use one in my teenage years and still use it at times. It helps me focus and bring me into a state of Zen – another parallel culture and philosophy with its origins in Taoism, another nature oriented structure.

Real people that respect nature do not sit behind desks and laud titles but live with nature. If you are so in touch with your people why did you have to go the school to learn about them? The reality is that the blue color of their skin is just that, a color. In many ways the movie portrays a culture that is no different then our own.

Richard Smith

Delux said...

Some of the comments to this post embody everything you point out that is a hot mess about this movie.

And you are completely on point about the way it gives people an excuse to feel good about themselves. I think some of the heated passionate defenses we've seen of this movie come out of a reaction to having that 'goodness' criticized.

To me, it is similar to how Cassie Edward's native/white romance novels function-- as a "Mary Sue" which allows women to fantasize that they would have been supportive of or involved with Native communities (and their hot men!), as opposed to all those other unenlightened white folks who oppressed them.

Delux said...

@Richard Smith,

There has been plenty of criticism of the imagery in Avatar by people of color other than Debbie Reese and other than Native Americans. I would suggest that you familiarize yourself with the body of literature on the criticism of imagery and representation that has been going on in these communities for decades.

Shayana said...

Not sure if you knew it, but Na'vi is Native without the ET. That's straight from Cameron.

Debbie Reese said...

Shayana---is there a link to an interview with Cameron online, where he says that?

Richard Smith said...

Movies are meant to challenge, motivate and question ourselves and our environment as much as they are designed to create heroes and villains in a stark presence. The film in my opinion brings this out and challenges us to be more active in our society. Americans, like many other cultures has sunk into a deep state of apathy, socially and politically. Children in their teens feel they are entitled, something that would have been laughed at in my generation. The movie also shows motives, right and wrong, and the motivation behind those actions. Life is conflict. The Japanese have adapted The Book of Five Rings as required reading for executives because they see business as war. Economic survival for their culture, and in many ways they are right, they just haven’t figured out how to internalize it while integrating it with the world culture. What American that has been laid off hasn’t heard the phrase, “it is just business, nothing personal”.

But under all of what was presented, the movie lacked the core of what needed to be presented because the common population would not care to deal, face, or accept what the movie should really be pointing out. Again, the public is not looking for true answers only physical reaction in a cause-effect knee jerk response. On the human side, executive management of people is viewed as applying resources (physical and material), and those resources are just bio-tools to be used and cast away when they outlive their usefulness. Eradication of a culture for any resource is not an answer. Many cultures won a battle only to lose the war.

Nature oriented cultures in our history have not found ways to effectively integrate physical science with bio-science. Both seem to ignore a quantum physics level that is now emerging in our culture against strong resistance by science. To the current majority, science equals profit. Profit is right, profit is God. If there is a sequel to this movie, it should address how the natives are able to communicate with “nature” and how the two elements could/should be integrated for a greater whole. One thing has been constant; conflict creates the environment for the most rapid changes known to man. Atomic power was not created out of a science fiction alone, it was developed out of a need in war. Fear is still the strongest motivator. Were the native culture in the movie to find a way to integrate both cultural structures that would be far more interesting a movie. It has been speculated that this is what Moses did, he took both the Egyptian religion and the Jewish faith and blended them. but that is in the past.

But romanticizing the environment is shallow wishful thinking. Acting on making such a place real is far more difficult in such an apathetic society. Humans for the most part would rather pretend then do. That is why change is so difficult. And we would rather have someone else do it. Again, it is fear that blocks us, fear of change even if it is for the right reasons.

Richard Smith

Richard Smith said...

I am familiar with it, I just see it as shallow between shallow adversaries. The race card has and is played far to often. The movie is not about race it is about conflicting cultures. Look at the bigger picture, not the me-race against you-race.

R Scott Smith

Richard Smith said...

>>Not sure if you knew it, but Na'vi is Native without the ET. That's straight from Cameron.<<

I remeber running across it in one of the books on the movie, if I remember correctly.

R. Scott Smith

Delux said...


If you see it as shallow and adversarial, I'm just going to go out on a limb and say you have the privilege to be able to not take it seriously.

Anonymous said...

Avatar definitely had every cliche and stereotype seen in movies before in regards to Native Americans. That was really annoying.

BTW- in Blind Side, the little boy had a head dress on because he had been in a Thanksgiving program.

Rob said...

I agree with M. Avatar is a pretty fairy tale for 12-year-olds, not serious science fiction for adults. It's so black and white that I doubt it'll change anyone's mind about environmental or indigenous issues.

Elisabeth Marie said...

Was this movie really like Ferngully on steroids? I've heard this comment from 3 people - none of whom know each other.

Katharine Kierek-Pearson said...

well I am not American, I come from Europe so I hope I can bring over what I would like to say. I love SF so I loved Avatar or any other SF movie for this matter and I grew up with sterotypes about Native American (not only), which oh wonder made me more sensitive about culture, race differences in the world, and I mean it in the good way. In the country where I grew up all children wanted to be the American Indians (sorry if I am not political correct here) and fight the bad white people, even when in the old westerns those where mostly shown as the heros. Sterotypes don't have to be bad, they exist everywhere. Native American sterotypes are not the only one, see sterotypes that exist about americans in Europe, see sterotypes that exist about Ost Europe in West Europe, see German sterotype, see the latino sterotype, see... you name it, you have it. I do think you can use some of those sterotypes to change them (mostly when you laugh about them), you can use some of the sterotypes to *sell* a message.
Did this movie used sterotypes, yes it did (I did not see typical Native Americans but I have seen natives all over the world, the main white hero, well in the end he would have lost if not the nature stepped in, would he not? Could they skip the white male hero part, yes they could ;) Could Cameron make it different, I don't know, maybe all who are against this movie could write how it could have been done better, different. The movie was suppose to entertain, make you feel good? maybe, on one site you wanted the native to win and you knew they will (stereotype) and it felt good for me. But it also felt bad; it showed once again what human race will do for profit. We do it everyday, we destroy everything around us; nature, people. Does the movie change anything; no it does not but you can use it to talk to your children who found it cool about the sterotype, about the history of genocide, about environment. You can ask them what can we do to change this, maybe just maybe because they loved this movie, they will start to think about it.

Anonymous said...

Front page story on about Avatar and racism. Here is the link:

Tom Kaun said...

Note the recent banning of Avatar in Chinese theaters. Their concerns have to do with issues other than the ones expressed here. People in China are using the movie to protest the treatment of rural peoples and the destruction of the environment. I guess it all depends on your point of view.

In re Blindside: why wouldn't a kid be wearing an "Indian" headdress on his way to a Thanksgiving pageant. Whether one likes the notion of kids wearing inappropriate Native costumes or not, it does happen in real life and I think that's what was being portrayed in the movie.

Anonymous said...

Another disturbing image of Native people in popular culture is two Russian figure skaters performing an "Aborigine" dance. See the NY times article:

GirlWithCurls said...

This post is in response to the comments more so than the actual article.

The movie Avatar has impacted my generation like no movie ever has. I've observed the trend on five social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter. Its the most emotionally moving work of cinema we've ever encountered and it is launching new interest in space exploration and planet preservation.

The movie Avatar has done what Discover Channel's Planet Earth started to do. Millions of people, planet-wide, are gathering under a single banner to save our planet from consumption and greed.

I think the director was trying to avoid discussions like this one by strategically using an alien planet with an alien race that had specific moral qualities which promoted conservation. In doing so he was trying to bypass our offenses so that we could accept the main message. He wasn't talking about Native Americans. He was talking about the many-faceted human spirit.

I suggest that, in your mission to change how Native Americans are portrayed or perceived, you find a way to use Avatar - not fight it. I bet you'll find that youngsters like myself are more eager to listen to you than ever before. We are so hungry for understanding and so desperate for peace. Avatar evokes a wide range of feelings that you could be using for educational purposes. There is a revived interest in Native American culture that you could be answering to.

I'm not posting to argue. I'm posting to give you an urgent heads up. You're not going to convince anyone that Avatar is bad or evil. If someone has already seen it and loved it, they will continue to love it and will discredit your voice instead.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I can't believe I didn't find this posting sooner, but I'm glad I found it! I actually railed on this movie in MY blog, but it generated soooo much hate mail that I had to delete the posting. Kudos to you for keeping yours up!

Incidentally, I'd like to know: what was your take on this op-ed about "white man as savior" from the NYT?

Anonymous said...

I am in college and the people in my class have no idea what a Native american is other than television or movies. Avatar is an excellent example of white understanding of Native people(all jumbled up into one category). The movie was made for white people (hence the white hero). Some not all Native Americans liked the movie (we actually think for ourselves, not as a collective). If Natives want to correct this stereotyping they will have to take a more active role in the writing,directing, and production of movies and television.

Sam Jonson said...

With James Cameron making Avatar 2 and 3, (see here, here, and here), I would love it if you (or Beverly Slapin; she can really tell incorrigible a story is) did an in-depth review of the screenplay(s) of the first film and of the next two films when they're released (along with Avatar: An Activist Survival Guide and James Cameron's Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora, which contain all the worldbuilding material, like the Na'vi cultural practices and pottery(!), that was not shown in the film--you see, it's not easy to put all that much background information in a film without delaying or ruining the plot), to see what James Cameron could or should have done differently. (You see, one day I want to see the Avatar films remade so that there are few (if any) racist, sexist, or ableist stereotypes in it, yet Jake Sully remains...and is a BIPOC human, like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is.)
Also, there's the script for Project 880 (the original script written in 1995), which contains some important things, like Sully has a much more believable response to walking again and it is revealed that Earth's environmental problems are such that Sully has never seen any forests. Lastly, both the Na'vi and the humans are equally to blame for atrocities. That is, the Na'vi and humans have a Grey and Gray Morality, like in the film Battle for Terra or with World of Warcraft's Alliance and Horde. It's a trope that probably shouldn't be used in an allegorical story about Amerindians (because of land theft and genocide--one cannot write a "balanced" book about Wounded Knee) unless one wants to add in a few "battered wife" extremists, like those in "Third World" countries usually are, as explained here.
Right now, I have the feeling Cameron wanted to create a cool film, but, trying to avoid alienating too many (white) audience members or giving too many infodumps (or something similar), settled for a film with a tired plot (which is not, as several have suspected, from Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas or Ferngully, but rather from John Carter of Mars, with an environmental twist). The plot might have been better if 1) Neytiri had used her neural braid to insert instructions on where to find Toruk and how (she thought) to tame him into Sully's brain during that mating ritual thingy; 2) Sully had not been made ruler of the Na'vi, but rather a army general; 3) the neural braid was shown, for instance, to allow a blind Na'vi horsewoman to look through her horse's (although colorblind) eyes; and 4) at least one-third of the story had been presented from Neytiri's perspective.