Cynthia Ward on “Watching Avatar While White”

A huge thanks to Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward for guest blogging here at Booklifenow the past two weeks. This is Ward’s last post, and the last post from either writer, who together are responsible for Writing the Other, a book I recommend in Booklife. The following post I find particularly fascinating because of the “what-if’s” Ward explores below. Fiction tends to gain part of its power from complication and complexity—the ways in which events or character interactions lead to unexpected places. Character diversity, if not just window dressing, is one way to introduce further complexity to narrative. This is part of writing individuals rather than types. (I have to say that both Nisi and Cynthia are a lot more patient with Avatar than I am—I thought it was just flat-out awful.) – Jeff

[SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie Avatar, you may want to skip this post.]

I went into Avatar knowing little about it, beyond a few accusations that it was “a ripoff of FernGully: The Last Rainforest” or “a ripoff of Dances With Wolves” or “a ripoff of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The World for World Is Forest,” and a lot of descriptions of Avatar as “so awesome, you should see it in 3D.”

Having seen Avatar, I would agree with Nisi Shawl’s take that Avatar is beautifully immersive. I haven’t been that stoned on a movie since 1982’s Blade Runner (although, when I was leaving the theatre in ’82, I didn’t trip over the stairs and reel into the walls. If someone re-releases Blade Runner in modern 3D, I suspect my head will literally burst).

I haven’t seen FernGully nor, unfortunately, have I read The World for World Is Forest, but I did see Dances with Wolves. And, yes, Avatar is an uncredited, SFX-drenched reissue of that old story (which we’ll get back to in a moment).

I also thought that writer/director James Cameron was borrowing heavily from other sources—palpably obvious inspirations I’ve rarely (if ever) heard others mention: the Dragonriders of Pern (clearly, Hollywood has finally developed the technology to bring Anne McCaffrey’s intelligent, human-bonding dragons convincingly to ‘life’) and the three major series created by Edgar Rice Burroughs: Carson of Venus, John Carter of Mars, and Tarzan of the Apes.

Burroughs’s Barsoom (Mars) series came to my mind initially because of all those multi-legged alien animals. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia description of Amtor (Burroughs’s imaginary version of Venus) might as well be a description of Cameron’s fictional planet, Pandora: “Amtorian vegetation, particularly on Vepaja, tends to be gigantic. Vepaja is notable for the enormous forests…with trees reaching into the inner cloud envelope.” If I recall correctly from my childhood reading, Amtorian forests are even the same color as Avatar’s.

However, the main reason Avatar reminded me of Burroughs’ most popular series, and the movie Dances with Wolves, was because of the way they made me feel.

Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and Burroughs’s series tap a very old human desire: the yearning for a better world. It’s a desire expressed in the myths of Eden, the Golden Age, and the Satya Yuga. It’s a desire that speaks to you whether you’re religious or agnostic or atheist; whether you’re black or white or brown; and whether you believe that the world was once a better place, or believe it never was. Who doesn’t at least occasionally want to live in a world where war is rare or nonexistent, and life is simple, and one is in complete harmony with the earth—a world where human nature hasn’t fucked everything up yet?

Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and Burroughs’s Mars and Tarzan series evoke and fulfill (or, at least, attempt to fulfill) that desire for a return to prelapsarian purity—in short, a desire for redemption. And, in itself, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to escape the bad things in life. Where these books and movies get into trouble is where they put an unfortunate racial spin on the universal desire for redemption.

In the worlds of Pandora and the imaginary Dances “Wild West” and Burroughs’ Mars and Tarzan, a white man doesn’t just find himself redeemed from his impure, inharmonious, and sinful state. He finds himself redeemed specifically from the evils of colonialism, slavery, and the other forms of oppression that whites have imposed upon people of color for centuries.

Even more unfortunately, the people of color don’t just redeem the white man from the sins of his race—they deem him their superior. John Carter is not only loved by slaves in the Old American South, he’s appointed the Warlord of the whole planet of Mars, which is inhabited largely by human analogs with red or green skin. Tarzan of the Apes is so much better than even the indigenous peoples at living in equatorial Africa, he gets to be chief of one tribe and viewed as a god or devil by others. Hell, he’s so much better than anyone else, he can single-handedly kill animals that would normally tear a lone, knife-armed human to pieces in moments. The white cavalryman of Dances with Wolves is not only fully accepted into the Lakota tribe, he gets to bugger off (with the girl, no less) before the U.S government overcomes the remaining free Sioux. On the planet Pandora, Avatar’s white male protagonist isn’t just accepted as one of their own by the non-white indigenous population. He isn’t just the unifier of their tribes. He is their savior/messiah, chosen by the goddess-consciousness of Pandora herself!

As a white person, I feel the appeal of that. I don’t like that this feeling is stirred in me, but I still feel it. I feel the desire to be forgiven for the sins of both my genetic and cultural ancestors and myself. I want to be forgiven for the evils of slavery, colonialism, and other forms of oppression. I’d love to escape responsibility for the bad things that have formed and benefited me.

Now, I doubt every other white viewer/reader of these works feels this particular desire. But, given both the perennial popularity of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the boffo box office for Avatar and Dances with Wolves, I know at least some other whites do, even if not many of us are likely to say so in a public forum.

My point is not that white people shouldn’t have these desires. Nobody has control over the feelings that come to them, after all.

My point is that we (all of us, regardless of race, gender, etc.) can and should control what we do with our feelings and desires.

And, as writers, we can and should control what we write.

If it sounds like I’m urging self-censorship, that is not what I intend.

The point I want to make is that writing is considered speech. We should consider the effect our words will have.

Does anyone really want the effect of their writing to be “patronizing unearned-redemption fantasy for whites”?

I believe this effect is not the one that James Cameron intended in Avatar. But it’s the one he did convey, to numerous viewers of every race.

I’m being naïve about Hollywood again, I suppose. But, when I was watching Avatar, I wondered what the effect would have been if the human occupying force had been more ethnically diverse, instead of mostly white. I wondered what the effect would have been if the protagonist had been a person of color. And I wondered what the movie would have been like if the whiteguy protagonist had turned out to be not very important at all to Pandora or its people, who organize a successful overthrow of the invaders on their own.

I know that, as a writer, I don’t want my readers thinking “shouldn’t she have written this differently?” I want them thinking that what I wrote is perfect and wonderful and inevitable—“it couldn’t have been done better any other way, it couldn’t have been done any other way at all!”

I know, of course, that I’m not going to achieve this goal.

But when I consider what I write, when I rewrite to eliminate the messages I don’t intend to convey, I get a lot closer to my goal.

12 thoughts on “Cynthia Ward on “Watching Avatar While White”

  1. The whole "redemption" idea only makes sense if you buy into the essentially Christian redemption concepts of contemporary anti-racist theory. If you don't, if for example you're a working class soldier who has been following bad orders, joining the other team may not have anything to do with redemption. It may just be about doing the right thing, no matter which side you start on.

    The idea that Avatar is all about white guys is also at odds with Palestinians becoming Navi to dramatize Zionist oppression.

    By the way, did John Carter have slaves? I never got the impression that he was one of the 300,000 rich folks who controlled the Confederacy. Being an officer suggests he has some money, but not enough to buy himself a generalship. I think one could assume Carter was like Robert E. Lee, someone who was opposed to slavery, but thought his state was more important than his nation.

    Also, whites did join American Indian tribes. Google one of my favorite examples, Simon Girty, or see, for example, this site:

    The native people of this continent tend to see people in tribal (ie, cultural) terms, not racial ones. There are exceptions, of course, like the modern Cherokee, but they've adopted the racial outlooks that Europeans brought to this continent.

    Mind you, I think Avatar's a flawed film, and making the hero the guy who rode the biggest bird was overkill, but "white" people are not the only people who write stories about outsiders who become champions. It's a fairly common element of folktales everywhere. It's about belonging.

  2. Hi, Will. My 'take' on AVATAR is based on my white liberal reactions to it. I know it's not other people's interpretations (which seem to be wildly variable), or even necessarily many other whites' and/or liberals' reactions.

    > the essentially Christian redemption concepts of contemporary anti-racist theory.

    This I wouldn't know anything about. I understood the Christian concept of redemption to predate American slavery, or for that matter the United States, but the house minister is in another state at the moment, so cannot double-check:)

    Anyway, my point isn't that my reaction (or Nisi's, or both our reactions) is/are the lone legitimate interpretation of AVATAR. It's that writers need to consider the effects of their words.

    Here's hoping I've sufficiently considered my words tonight:)


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  4. "By the way, did John Carter have slaves? "

    The only clue we have from "A Princess of Mars" is that the father of the fictional editor of the book (Edgar Rice Burroughs maintains the pretense that John Carter is a real person who gave him the manuscripts) owns slaves. They were said to have fairly worshiped the ground he walked on. That would seem to indicate he did not, at least, mistreat them. He was a confederate officer who, after the war, went out West to prospect.

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  6. <q>My point is not that white people shouldn’t have these desires. Nobody has control over the feelings that come to them, after all.</q>

    This is a bit misleading. It's true enough that emotional reactions are automatic, but the triggers and the responses to them can be changed over time. Psychologists have developed methods for alleviating phobias through prolonged, subtle exposure to the object of the phobia. Buddhists train themselves to give no heed to their desires, and some of them end up happier for it.

    Giving up the desire to join other cultures and dominate them is probably a good idea. In this case, all this would require is a change in the genre conventions that movies like these follow. It wouldn't even interfere with the fantasy of redemption; if Avatar didn't feel the need to have a Big Damn Hero, it could have done about the same plot without so much emphasis on who exactly is leading the Na'vi rebellion. Make it an ensemble film–certainly there are a lot of war stories like that already.

    I'm making it sound easy to change a century or so of literary tradition. It's not; it would require a generation of people with Cameron-like influence to make stories according to new aesthetic standards. And not just stories, but Hollywood blockbusters, so we're talking about a lot of money.

    (It's fine to write stories with Big Damn Heroes, but those stories probably shouldn't try to be about the redemption of an entire culture's sins.)

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