Wednesday, 30 December 2009

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More on race and racialism in Avatar. While the Na'vi may be blue, the people who played them are not. Consider: Neytiri Tsu'tey Eytukan Moat Horse Clan Leader 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...

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