Avatar from inside a feminist debate

From the perspective of this blog, James Cameron's film Avatar shares a lot of qualities with traditional "world music". The way imperialism is portrayed not least, primarily as the replacement of (very literally here) roots culture with "light beer and blue jeans" shares a whole deal of qualities with the rights and wrongs according to the world music paradigm. But what really clicked with me while watching the film was how well it paralleled one of the classic central debates within feminism - and that a critique of it from that perspective is valuable for further world music debate as well.

There are a lot of possible readings of Avatar that will portray it as racist in various ways, but on the other hand it portrays the native Na'vi in an extremely positive way. They are made beings of almost saintly qualities, and even just humanising character traits like (legitimate!) jealousy are played down to almost nothing. What more, their positive qualities are greatly accented by making the (dominant, powerful) humans stupid, insensitive and brutish, except for a select few that nevertheless are much less perfect than the lofty na'vi. Humans and na'vi exist as opposites and contrasts to each other, to a very large extent.

Portraying inequalities like this is within feminism the domain of the now-unfashionable difference feminists. According to their thinking, men and women are fundamentally different from each other, biologically, and the qualities of of women are vastly better and are only repressed because the world is run patriarchally. Interestingly, these qualities are in many ways similar to what Cameron portrays as the positive qualities of the na'vi: deeper connection to nature and life, caring, spirituality over cold rationality, collective mutual responsibility over individual competitiveness, equality and consensus over hierarchy and rhetoric. (A difference, in a somewhat bizarre way, is the strangely warlike nature of the na'vi. This, on the other hand, is what several commentators find most problematic...)

A cynic could possibly read a general critique of civilization into difference feminism, when looked at this way. Or maybe the opposite is true, and the na'vi are, as it were, feminised, with their female spiritual leaders and flat gender structure in the hunt? Cameron has expressed feminist sentiments in the past. Whatever the case, it emphasises the fairytale nature of the story: in real life, women continue to be caught in a patriarchal system, and badly-armed locals don't beat high-tech helicopters and guns. Precisely the qualities espoused as positive are the ones that don't succeed in a capitalist-patriarchal society, instead dominated by the "evil" ones. Which, of course, a difference feminist would say is precisely the point.

A worse accusation against difference feminism is its locking of individuals, with various different characteristics, into a strong binary dichotomy. From a queer perspective, the opposition to uncertain gender identities and transsexualism is as bad as any patriarchal dominance, and any individuality is suppressed into essentialist collectivity. And here's my main problem with Avatar as well: the movie has precisely the same problem. Both humans and na'vi are derisive and exclusionary to the other, categorising into a very strong us and them; especially the latter group has a complicated ritually maintained community model designed to exclude any outsider from the inner circle. The avatars, potentially queering and deconstructing the binary, are distrusted by both humans (represented by Colonel Quaritch) and na'vi, the latter considering them positively demonic.

It is notable that the movie's protagonist/transsexual/na'vi trapped in a human body, Jake Sully, is not allowed to stay in his, as it were, pre-op state, but is forced to end up a full-on na'vi in the final scene. For all the cyberqueer possibilities of the avatar characters, any mixture or playful role-switching is discouraged, and only studious and reverent acceptance of all the attributes of one side leads to being included in the desired in-group.

Where this analogy halts a bit, of course, is that Cameron idealises the fairy-tale, dichotomised other from the position of an outsider himself. In this respect he's very much like world music fans, whose own dichotomies lead them to aggregate a lofty other to adore, one that no longer includes individuals but merely the whole world. And like James Cameron they give this collective qualities that will ensure its continued subjugation in the real world, and discourage any single person trying to use their agency to be something different.

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