There’s no hiding that Avatar is a politically correct piece of semi-coherent agit-prop lurking behind a lot of over-praised CGI effects. While the fanboys hype it as the next great leap forward in filmmaking, it actually takes a huge step backward by employing one of the oldest and lamest of clichés – the white guy hero representing Western civilization who comes along and saves the natives while embracing their simple yet wise ways.
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This “noble savage” archetype, embraced by the romantic primativists of the past and today by those who stopped their intellectual development as UC Berkeley sophomores, has been around for centuries. In Avatar, James Cameron substitutes his blue-skinned Na’vi aliens for American Indians and it’s off to the races with Seen That Before taking an early lead and Gimme A Break a close second.
Now, the purpose of this cliché is to critique Western culture by comparing the culture of the children-of-the-Earth, in-touch-with-nature, “authentic” natives with the hero’s repressed, emotionally-stunted, alienated-from-nature, technology-obsessed Western culture. This cliché requires that the natives be portrayed as paragons of moral and physical perfection – and that those of the hero’s culture be shown as just the opposite.
But in doing so, filmmakers necessarily infantilize the natives. To portray any group as flawless is to make them something other than human – they stop being individuals and start being caricatures instead of characters, symbols instead of people. American Indians, contrary to the old Hollywood stereotype, were not just bloodthirsty savages. But in contrast to the new Hollywood stereotype, neither were they just paragons of virtue. Instead, they are human beings, with strengths and weaknesses – but treating them like human beings doesn’t help the agenda so their humanity must be sacrificed on the altar of political expedience.
The other problem is that embracing the cliché means ducking the hard questions. In Avatar, apparently civilization will end if the humans do not get the minerals beneath the Na’vi land. So, is Cameron’s view that we should just sit back and die as penance for despoiling the Earth? He doesn’t dare answer that question. Certainly many of the climate change scammers would be thrilled to see our civilization crumble as punishment for our refusal to shiver in the cold and darkness of their Luddite utopia, but most of us don’t embrace the notion that our only moral course of action is ritual suicide.
Filmmakers can decry the conquest of North America, but they never actually grapple with the implications of their position. Would they really prefer the Europeans had lost? The brutal struggle between Native Americans and the Europeans had plenty of atrocities on both sides, but the world is enormously better off by the rise of the United States and Canada. Would Cameron have it otherwise? Well, at least we wouldn’t have to put up with the hype about Avatar.
What is also interesting is how this view simultaneously slags our culture and that of the indigenous people. It holds that our culture must somehow be controlled, regulated and constrained in order to control these horrible capitalist/military tendencies. Clearly, this is a job for our liberal overlords. But the natives themselves, being innocent children, must likewise be protected and overseen. Why, that’s also a job for our liberal overlords. Funny how giving liberals more power to control people’s lives always seems to be the answer no matter what the question is.
And we’ve seen the practical consequences of this attitude suffered by the American Indians. The liberal prescription during the last century was to bureaucratize the reservations, creating what James Watt memorably called “an example of the failure of socialism.” The only thing that got the liberals madder than Watt’s accurate assessment is the fact that many tribes have finally found the prosperity they deserve thanks to capitalism – their casinos are a wonderful example of prospering by finding a need and filling it.
Now, simply because a Western character encounters members of a non-Western culture does not necessarily trigger the cliché. Lawrence of Arabia was the true story of an Englishman’s work with Arab tribesmen during World War I. It hardly portrayed the Arabs as perfect – in fact, much of the film’s conflict revolved around their failings.
Other films use Western characters solely as eyes to allow the audience to see into the native culture. In Zulu the European missionary is merely an observer as the Zulus prepare for battle. His dialogue with his daughter and interaction with the warriors provide the viewer information, but in no way does he have any influence on the situation. Of course, the Zulus did not need any help – they were one of the few native peoples to ever fight a large Western force and win.
In Avatar, the white guy (representing Western civilization) coming along to save the natives meme is particularly heavy-handed, but then the movie is hardly subtle about anything. His natives aren’t noble savages; they’re just noble. We’re the savages. But we savages are also the noble natives’ only hope. Or something like that.
But trying to decode the mixed messages of movies like Avatar will only give you a migraine. So save yourself some time and some Tylenol – just accept that Western civilization is the root of all evil and the message will have come through loud and clear.