June 28, 2011

WAIT, ARE THERE REALLY ANY STRAIGHT WHITE MEN...:

When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"? (Annalee Newitz , io9)

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.

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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?


...who weren't rooting for the Marines to blow up the tree?

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Posted by at June 28, 2011 5:09 AM
  

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