As I noted earlier, I decided to teach an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender in my "American Manga" class even though only half that title applies. (It's technically "American anime.") I chose the penultimate episode, "The Ember Island Players," because it 1) requires almost no knowledge of the series to understand and 2) it performs the show's fraught relation to its Japanese forebears. I'll tackle the first item today, the second tomorrow.
Before I continue, I'll add the same caveat I have to all these analyses designed for freshmen-level composition courses: they're designed for freshmen-level composition courses.* I'm attempting to model engaged cultural criticism for students who consider culture something to be passively consumed, i.e. I provide the tools then teach them how to construct a persuasive rhetorical argument.** On with the show:
"The Ember Island Players" requires little knowledge of the series because it consists of the main characters watching a play that recapitulates it. All I need to tell the two students who haven't already seen every episode is that the kids are about to go to war with the Fire Nation, and that this play (as the title of the episode indicates) is being produced by a Fire Nation theater troupe. As soon as Sokka—the Zeppo of this crew—discovers the poster, the difference between the kids:
While the Na'vi may be blue, the people who played them are not. Consider:
It could be the case that all the other models for the Na'vi are white, but it seems clear to me that Cameron chose these actors for the central Na'vi characters according to racialized criteria; i.e. while he didn't necessarily choose them because they weren't white, his vision of a primitive, native culture didn't include white people. The representatives of humanity, however, were not only overwhelmingly white, even the exceptions played to stereotype: Dileep Rao played an Indian scientist and Michelle Rodriguez played a Latina tough. My point in the previous Avatar post about the film indulging in the white fantasy of becoming the proverbial other is, then, made literal by Cameron's casting decisions: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Joel Moore play three white characters who inhabit bodies otherwise occupied only by actors of color. I'm not normally one to invest much of anything argumentative based on what happens on a casting couch, but in this case, Cameron tipped his hand with all the subtlety of an overconfident drunk: the purpose of the avatars is to place white brains in blue bodies that would otherwise be inhabited by black ones.
Stop howling already: I know that, within the film, the purpose of the avatars is to allow humans to breathe on Pandora; however, the humans have masks that can and do fulfill that function. I also know that another purpose of the avatars was to allow human anthropologists to interact with the Na'vi, which is why the xenobotanist played by Sigourney Weaver establishes a planet-side school. For now, set aside Cameron's confused notion of what a botanist does, because while it suggests that his script is, at best, ignorant of departmental niceties or, at worse, internally inconsistent, it could also be the result of the Gaia metaphor, in which the population of the entire planet are semi-conscious functionaries of a fully-conscious tree. (I kid!) Focus instead on 1) the fact that the film is called Avatar, and 2) the likelihood that Cameron spent years developing this technology in order to avoid the throwaway line about terraforming required to account for the astonishing frequency of breathable atmospheres on far-flung planets.
In short, if you believe that the existence of the avatars can be justified on the basis of inhospitable environs, you've not simply placed the cart before the horse, you've put the invention of the wheel before domestication of animals. Because, as the title indicates, the avatars aren't incidental to the film: they're its raison d'être. The whole point of the film is to stuff brains in those bodies, so which brains are stuffed into which bodies is not a minor point, it is the point. Moreover, within the narrative, the bodies they were being stuffed into were utterly infantilized: the Na'vi don't think for themselves, as even animal husbandry is beyond them. They require a direct neural connection in order to domesticate an animal.
That they teach humans to be similarly dependent upon a necessarily benevolent planet is, I understand, the point—but it is a terrible one if, as many claim, Cameron wanted to press a message of ecological interdependence. The Na'vi possess all the agency of a leukocyte: they may respond individually, but they are not, properly speaking, individuals. As progressive propaganda goes, this rises to the level of what conservatives believe our nefarious motives to be. That the quasi-coherent leftist politics of the film are intended to be inspirational only makes this incoherence and, more importantly, its dubious racial politics all the worse, because "inculcating dubious racial politics in the next generation of environmental and anti-war activists" doesn't count as a victory for the forces of democratic freedom. (Or only counts as one in that hilariously limited sense.) Even in the film, as my friend Aaron argues, the result of such thinking is also infantilizing:
Jake Sully, in other words, is a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood: pure id, he revels in the toys that the world has provided for him without understanding that someone had to make them, without ever questioning his own right to have them. I think that’s why I don’t feel contempt for him, but visceral, gut-level, and troubling disgust. I recognize his desires, because we not only have to get past them to be adults, but because they stay with us. Perhaps we still are, on some level, the sociopaths we were when we were children (that I type this while home for the holidays, in the bedroom I occupied when I was seven, only seems appropriate). Yet it’s also one of the worst aspects of the American cultural tradition that going back to childhood is somehow the fountainhead of political virtue (see, for example, Jefferson, Thomas and Roosevelt, Theodore) because it’s so rarely the childhood of curiosity, games, and sociality that the tradition extols, but rather its reverse, a very particular fantasy of careless anti-social boyishness that tends into misogyny so easily because, to again refer us to Nina Baym, it feminizes the “encroaching, constricting, destroying society” that we American boys must seek to be free of by lighting out for the territories.
Finally, let me clarify a few minor concerns about my previous Avatar post: