As you've seen and enjoyed, 2009 has been a great year for sci-fi. But as we come to the end of our mini-renaissance, and breathlessly wait to see where it will go, I can't help but see some very troubling themes within sci-fi fandom. For a genre that's all about being open minded and exploring the unknown, we're incredibly comfortable with it taking massive shortcuts right into the land of cultural and sexual stereotype.
If you've seen even a trailer for Avatar, you can't help but notice the obvious similarities between the Na'vi and Native Americans. There wouldn't have been a million Dances with Wolves jokes if it was subtle. It's no surprise that the movie paints them with an even broader tribal brush, though to be fair, it throws in some African and Aboriginal Australian anthropology so as to seem a little less obvious. But when you've cast the great Wes Studi as the Na'vi chief, you clearly want us to be imagining them as blue Powhatans, but without the responsibilities of portraying them accurately.
Avatar's production designer Rick Carter* basically said as much to the LA Times back in September: "Take Dances With Wolves. Although God knows it was a wonderful movie and did as well as any movie could hope to do, it still had to run in that middle ground between the truthful Indian existence, as perceived today, and what is acceptable to the Indian community and then still be a Hollywood-oriented star vehicle for Kevin Costner. There was a lot of lines to toe and issues of political correctness, almost, to tell that tale. Now if you go back and make a movie that tells the story and is free of that ... All of that creates a "there" where you can stage a story that you can tell with a real freedom. The three of four leaps that you've taken, if you make them credible, you can mirror back on those themes that you were talking about and say what you want about them."
But my problem with Avatar was that it didn't create a "there." The Na'vi James Cameron presented to us was your basic New Age Native American stereotype -- innocent, nature-worshipping, matriarchal, in tune with the ancestors. Yes, it's a positive stereotype of native culture, but it's still a stereotype, and one that some Native Americans find demeaning. For example, many felt Disney's Pocahontas was a slap in the face because it showed them communing with animals and nature to the point that it made the natives seem like animals. Considering Avatar actually does make them into some kind of human / animal hybrid, it may not be positive to have them borrow Native American traits at all.
I'm not going to pretend I was offended. I'm a white girl, after all, and to do so would just be silly and apologetic. Initially, I was just annoyed that Cameron had been so lazy with his Na'vi creation because I wanted to see something new. After all, he'd gone to the trouble of designing a language for them, and for creating a CGI world full of obsessive detail. As per The New Yorker, Cameron even knew how the rock should look: "'This looks like petrified wood,' [Cameron] said, circling the offending part with a red laser pointer. 'It has a longitudinal grain structure. It looks very fragile to me. This hard, crystally structure looks like barn wood. We want to say that this arch formed as igneous rock, that it's a lava formation that got eroded, but it's fracturing out along the crystal planes of minerals.'" But when it came to the Na'vi, he took the shorthand route and just gave them enough Native American characteristics that we can imagine the rest. Think about it -- do you ever really see the daily life of the Na'vi? We spend 2 hours in Na'vi immersion alongside Jake Sully, but what do you really picture about the rest of their lives? Don't you basically picture Dances with Wolves' campfire / tepee scenes, but with blue cat people? Why do you picture that? Because Cameron told you to.
But the more you think about it, the more unpleasant it becomes. It borders on racial profiling considering the Na'vi are primarily played by Native American or African American actors and actresses. A lot of stress was put on creating "ethnic" features according to Jordu Schell: "I certainly got no reference to go from, other than a whole stack of photos of actresses that he [James Cameron] really liked, not necessarily that he was going to cast in the role, the vocal role or ... the motion capture. Not necessarily for the motion capture, but for inspiration in terms of the beauty of a kind of ethnic face. I remember he very much liked the face of a girl named Q'Orianka Kilcher, who starred in The New World, which was a Pocahontas movie with Colin Farrell. But, you know, I had pictures of Mary J. Blige and all these different people on the walls of really beautiful ethnic women."
That might explain why the gorgeous Zoe Saldana was almost completely lost within her Na'vi face -- it wasn't her. It was a vague "ethnic" image (by Schell's own admission, largely unchanged from when Cameron first drew it) that she managed to make into something her own. While I'm all in favor of using ethnic beauty (faces on cinema screens shouldn't be white, white, and white), I'm dismayed that Cameron's idea of "alien" is really just other human races. Shouldn't the Na'vi be their own ethnicity, and not recognizably drawing from our own Earth people culturally or physically?
Now, there's nothing wrong with borrowing elements from an existing culture. J.R.R. Tolkien did it with Anglo-Saxon and Finnish culture. George Lucas did it with Japanese. Gene Roddenberry did it with a variety of cultures. None were egregiously offensive. (Until the Star Wars prequels when the Trade Federation and Jar Jar Binks employed truly heinous stereotypes.) But all of them also managed to invent something relatively new with their borrowings. When you think of a Jedi, you don't immediately think of the samurai and their feudal system. You probably think of the Force, the Dark Side, and how anger leads to aggression. Even if your mind then leads you into a samurai association, the association is a positive one. And neither Lord of the Rings nor Star Wars depends on a John Dunbar storyline. Aragorn doesn't come in, become an elf, and then save the elves from destruction because they're incapable of saving themselves. Luke Skywalker is not The Last Samurai. He's the last Jedi, but he's a Jedi by birthright.
And again, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the Na'vi. They are the good guys. They know better. There's nothing wrong with respecting life, being in touch with your ancestors, and being "one" with your planet and your people. But in the context of the story, they're still in need of a superior outside influence. The story relies on the fact they are technologically inferior to humans. (No matter how many "they evolved beyond technology" arguments you make, the fact is that they are outgunned and outmatched in battle.) They're so "innocent" that they seemingly don't understand they're about to be conquered and destroyed until Jake Sully tells them. Despite that we see arrows sticking out of one bulldozer wheel at the beginning, no one in Hometree seems particularly worried about the long term consequences of the humans setting up base.
They even sent their children to the human schools to learn English -- why? Cameron never says, though every character is quick to describe them as hostile and uninterested in peace treaties. So, what? In colonial history, schools are often a damning symbol of cultural assimilation -- send us your children so we can teach the native out of them. With that grace note, Cameron is suggesting that the Na'vi are already conquered. Yet for two hours Sully is supposed to be learning about them so we can conquer them more effectively. As a people, the Na'vi are awfully passive about the process until it's too late.
If you're drawing parallels with American history (and its impossible not to) the implication is deeply troubling. Will viewers walk out and think "If only the Native Americans had a white man who could save them!" Or "If only they hadn't been so busy praying with trees and stolen some guns! Man, native people are kind of dumb unless someone helps them." I'm already hearing about people who wept because the story hit home. Are they simply unaware that this storyline was reenacted for real in numerous countries, but with an unhappy ending? Or are they relieved that this time, a conqueror stuck up for the natives and there was a happy ending? Or is it just that the entire idea of guns, germs and steel is just so much more palatable when it is stripped of nasty realism, lit with phosphorescence, and splashed liberally with romance?
And oh, the romance! Let's not forget that centuries of literature and decades of film have loved portraying any foreign culture as a place where a white man can lose himself in exotic sex. Native women all over the world are supposed to be wild, sexy, and uninhibited, unlike the European women our hero is used to. If you think Avatar skirts that, think again in terms of Cameron's ultimate directive for Schell's concept designs: "Well, he wanted them to be very beautiful. And I do believe that, at some point, he said something to the effect of ... the audience has to want to f*** her [Neytiri]. I mean, Jim is very plain in his language." Indeed. Would the Na'vi have been doomed if they'd been ugly and unsexual? Probably.
So what? Why examine every facet of Cameron's Na'vi characterization? Because I found that broaching the topic caused an immediate kneejerk reaction. When I made a crack about "ethnic stereotypes" on Twitter, it started a debate that fueled for 2 hours. I received hundreds of replies from followers dismissing or apologizing for Cameron's creative decision. Basically, the consensus was that stereotype was how moviegoers processed information, and he needed to be accessible to a wide audience. He didn't have the time to make a detailed native culture or people. (After 20 odd years of development, I cry foul on that one.) So he went with imagery everyone already knew, and there was nothing inherently wrong with that. (By that argument, every racist character found in old animated films is also okay -- they just needed viewers to make snap judgments!)
But there is. Not only is resorting to stereotype cheap characterization, but it helps reinforce what viewers already know, or think they know. Considering science fiction is (generally) about a future where we're supposed to be more enlightened, I hate to see fandom accept tried and true stereotypes because they are what we already know. We don't really have to waste any time thinking or exploring the alien culture, because hey, it's just like the Australian Aborigines or Africa's Maasai tribe. Or rather, it's what we already think we know of that culture. We all know what the Maasai look like (cool jewelry!) or that the Native Americans thank an animal for its meat. By using stereotypes, we're cheating existing cultures and the fictional culture we're supposed to be learning about. We can just categorize it with the tidy symbols we already know, and let the CGI play out, because the spectacle is more important.
In 2009, the great year of sci-fi, these are not the excuses we should be making for our entertainment. Stereotypes are not characters. Plots that rely on "going native" aren't good stories. (For more on that, I urge you to visit io9 and read Annalee Newitz's piece -- she covered this ground already.) While I love political, mythological, and historical allegory, I'm alarmed that people think that Avatar skirts condemnation because it engages in a thin recreation of colonial horrors. Just because the film has a nice message doesn't excuse the fact that it delivers that message by way of tribal profiling. Shrugging off one film's stereotype just because it makes a "big" story go down easier is dangerous territory. Where does it end? The answer is that it doesn't. The more people apologize for it, the more it'll be used. The less people think, the quicker we will judge. We won't boldly go anymore, and allow sci-fi to question what we hold to be self-evident. We'll just allow sci-fi (and perhaps every other genre too) to reinforce what we already believe. Because hey, the spectacle is the thing.
*ETA: I apologize, I misattributed the quote. The quote originally came from an LA Times Article with Rick Carter, not Jordu Schell.