WisCon 34 Panel: Race & Gender in Avatar


Panel Description: While James Cameron’s film Avatar contains a strong anti–imperialist message, it is yet another movie where a white character joins an indigenous people (the Na’vi) and then becomes the “most awesome” member of that group. Adding to this dynamic, most of the Na’vi are portrayed by actors of color, and much of the Na’vi culture seems to be appropriated from indigenous cultures on Earth. What are the effects of cultural appropriation in this film, and what is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing? How is the militarism in the film related to race and gender? How are issues of environmentalism raised in the film, and how is concern for the environment linked to racial and social justice?

Panelists: Cabell Gathman, Nick Murphy, Annalee Newitz (moderator), Terry Bisson, Nnedi Okorofor

Annalee gives some background on her io9 story (When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar”?), white guilt and its American history. But also how people who aren’t Americans are taking the story for their own.

Cabell hated Avatar, but wants to learn how to talk about it without offending people.

Nnedi went to the movie not knowing anything about it except that people kept telling her it reminded them of her book Zahrah the Windseeker. She ended up loving everything about it.

Annalee asks the panelists for their thoughts on the colonialist themes of the movie.

Terry Bisson: Deeply informed by American themes. Not just colonialism and white supremacy, but also Intelligent Design. “The whole movie is a refutation of evolution.”

Nnedi doesn’t see the white supremacy in the movie. She sees Jake as being acted upon as well as being an actor in the drama. Jake knew he couldn’t die in his Avatar body, so he had a different approach to taking risks.

Cabell felt there was a “wannabe Indian” vibe to Avatar. She decided she hated the movie when Jake got to ride the turok instead of Neytiri.

Nnedi: He was the only one dumb enough to do it.

Annalee: Except for their great leader who did it generations before.

Nick quotes the Playboy interview with James Cameron where he says that Neytiri had to have tits, even though it makes no sense because the Na’vi aren’t placental mammals.

Nnedi says that’s funny, because Neytiri actually wasn’t that well endowed. Being a tall, thin person, she identified with her freakish physique.

Nnedi says that even though the story wasn’t new, it wasn’t the worst version of it. She lists various things she liked about it, including the leaders being both male and female, Jake’s joy in his avatar body after being paralyzed — she has been paralyzed before, and wept watching this scene.

Another woman of color in the audience says that she hated Dances with Wolves, and was surprised to love Avatar. She identified with the Na’vi and felt represented on screen in a way she never had before.

Terry: “As a piece of science fiction, it takes us back to Burroughs.”

Nick Murphy: Jake asks how he will know which ikran he should bond with, and is told, “It will be the one who tries to kill you.” To me, that implied that the flying creature did not give consent.

Terry Bisson: Cameron is really a green activist. That is the real message of this film.

Claire Light: great overview of the messiah concept and how Jesus was actually one of the colonized. Real stories of colonizers who have “gone native” and helped the natives to triumph don’t exist. Instead, anyone who goes in with a crusading impulse inevitably ends up writing narratives of total despair, because they realize they can’t fix the problems.

Na’amen in audience: There’s a scene at the end where [Neytiri] sees [Jake’s] human body, and I kind of wanted her to say, “You’re so damn ugly.”

Annalee asks if people think the movie is successful as an environmental story?

An audience member mentions the movie Yanomamo, a musical documentary about a Brazilian rain forest tribe and the destruction of their way of life.

Terry: What’s the emotional message of the film?
Cabell: Strip mining is bad.

About the author

Janice Dawley

Outdoorsy TV addict, artistic computer geek, loner who loves people.

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