The West gets Avatar‘d and Feathered

Any Quadrant readers forced like me out of family love to sit through Avatar: The Way of Water will know what a piece of silly anti-Western propaganda it is.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary includes one definition of an avatar as ‘an electronic image that represents and may be manipulated by a computer user’. If Director James Cameron is the ‘user’ in question, it certainly meets this description.

For those not familiar with the movie series, the storyline is simple and unsubtle. The inhabitants of earth have come to mine and colonise the planet Pandora inhabited by a human-like (if you overlook the tails) native people whose fragile existence is under threat. It’s just like the colonisation of native lands by Europeans, geddit?

It is a story without nuance. Except for a scientist or two, the colonisers from earth (mostly white and male) have no redeeming qualities. They want money and control and will indiscriminately destroy anything to get it. They seemingly have no interest in beauty – their new colony on Pandora is bereft of any greenery or elegance. They have no families or ties of sentiment. What they have in abundance is technology, which is violently put to their selfish ends. They are a caricature of Western colonialists.

In contrast, the native Na’vi of Pandora are full of dignity, goodness and kindness. They are (of course) in the closest harmony with nature to which is attributed pantheistic goddess-like qualities. While deeply threatened by the technology-bearing earthlings, they are always superior in battle unless the odds are ridiculous, and their alternative medicine nearly always works a treat. Unlike the earthlings, they are shown to have families, rituals, morality, and a meaningful past. If there is conflict, it is always because there are two legitimate opinions or just the natural foolishness of the young. The elders are always noble and wise.

There are no shades of grey: we are meant to despise the people from earth and to love the Na’vi. In other words, despise ourselves as Westerners and to feel great shame that something so beautiful as the pristine world of the noble savage should have been violated by us.

However, it tells us something important that, in order to achieve this emotional affect, Cameron had to resort to the most absurd and condescending stereotypes. Europeans, especially the British, did not merely come to plunder and rape but to build and settle. They were not devoid of sentiment, law or history but brought each of these with them in the civilisation they created. They were also able to create the possibility for human habitation far beyond what pre-industrial societies could achieve.

Likewise, the life of the native peoples possessed no such magical perfection as the Na’vi. They were not free societies and typically deeply patriarchal. The individual was subordinate to the whole. They had limited capacity to innovate and increase their population, so death rates had to roughly equal birth rates.

Of course, these stereotypes are Western inventions, however much they have been co-opted by indigenous activists since. They illustrate the delusion at the centre of much liberal thought and the campaign for the Voice: Aboriginal disadvantage only exists because of us terrible Westerners, so if we just get our foot off their neck then voila: either a return to the life of the Na’vi or some beautiful Wakanda-like fusion. Anything to avoid the truth that indigenous culture itself must transform to successfully deal with modernity.

There is a further irony in Avatar. The movies actually strongly endorse a conservative life: respect for elders, the law and the past. The passing on of stories and tradition. The focus on the family and the good of the whole community over the individual alone. Even despite the obligatory and absurd equality between men and women in battle, the characters are distinctly male and female, not only in how they look but in their behaviour, including innocent flirting and courtship. The film ends with Jake Sully repeating ‘a father protects. It is what gives him meaning.’ A more conservative line could hardly be spoken. Ironically, all these values in the West have been repeatedly attacked and undermined from the Left in the last 60 years if not longer, to our society’s great detriment. Cameron himself claims testosterone is a ‘toxin’ that has to be worked out of the system. So much for fathers.

Of course all this Avatar conservatism is clouded by the ever-present Western self-loathing and the delusion of the noble savage. But if a moderate conservatism could (again) be cultivated within the conditions of modernity, that could offer hope for all Australians, regardless of their pre-1788 histories.

10 thoughts on “The West gets Avatar‘d and Feathered

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Identity politics, apart from being rebadged racism and sexism, is also condescension on steroids, and Avatar is an excellent example of that.
    When it first came out, many thought that the plot of the first Avatar was also a rip off, specifically of Disney’s cartoon Pocahontas. The comparison between Pocahontas (Avatar) goes as follows:
    In 1607 (2154) a ship carrying John Smith (Jake Sully) arrives in the lush “new world” of North America (Pandora). The settlers are mining for gold (unobtainium) under supervision of Governor Ratcliffe (Colonel Quaritch). John Smith (Jake Sully) begins exploring the new territory, and encounters Pocahontas (Neytiri). Initially she is distrustful of him, but a message from Grandmother Willow (the Tree of Souls) helps her overcome her trepidation. The two begin spending time together. Pocahontas (Neytiri) helps John (Jake) to understand that all life is valuable and how all nature is a connected circle of life. Furthermore she teaches him how to hunt, grow crops and of her culture. We find that her father is Chief Potowan (Eytukan), and that she is set to be married to Kocoum (Tsu’Tey), a great warrior, but a serious man, whom Pocahontas (Neytiri) does not desire. Over time John (Jake) and Pocahontas (Neytiri) fall in love. Back at the settlement the men, who believe the natives are savages, plan to attack the natives for their gold (unobtainium). Kocoum (Tsu’Tey) tries to kill John (Jake) out of jealousy, but he is later killed by the settlers. As the settlers prepare to attack, John (Jake) is blamed by the Indians (Na’vi), and is sentenced to death. Just before they kill him the settlers arrive. Chief Potowan (Eytukan) is killed, and John (Jake) sustains injuries from Governor Ratcliffe (Colonel Quaritch) who is then brought to justice (killed with arrows). Pocahontas (Neytiri) risks her life to save John (Jake). John (Jake) and Pocahontas (Neytiri) finally have each other and the two cultures resolve their differences.
    I leave you to draw your own conclusions, but personally I find in particular Grandmother Willow / Tree of Souls unconvincing as a coincidence.

    • ianl says:

      The truly despairing aspect of all this is that Cameron has successfully made an enormous amount of money catering to the lowest common IQ.

      He also made (I think) a completely exploitative sequel to Ridley Scott’s brilliant Alien (the first, original film). By exploitative, I mean Cameron used Scott’s genuinely talented exposition in Alien to anthropomorphise the “monsters” for the very cheapest of thrills and a guaranteed huge box office.

      • pmprociv says:

        As H. L. Mencken (1880–1956) wrote: “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
        Oh, to be so simple . . . I find it almost impossible these days to find a movie worth watching, while the garbage proliferates, its budgets (and profits) seeming to just spiral upwards.

      • mrsfarley2001 says:

        Can’t watch any of this stuff. Find it unbearable. To call it “garbage” is unfair to actual garbage, some of which may be recyclable. Apropos of film-makers and their moribund wares, I hear Disney is going broke these days – no surprise to one of the critical school that believes that Disney became less and less good after Snow White.

    • Paul from Sydney says:

      A very interesting parallel. I think it is fair to say it is a trope now but unlike when Pocahontas was released it is now seriously driving politics. It is of course largely fantasy which is of great concern to anyone who cares about the future of our country

  • dolcej says:

    Some wonderful insights in this article, Chris. Also in the comments section, Ian MacKenzie’s about Pocahontas.
    I also particularly liked mrsfarley2001’s twisting the cliche: ‘To call it “garbage” is unfair to actual garbage, some of which may be recyclable.’ Haha.
    In my review of Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, in Jan-Feb 2023 Quadrant, I quoted UK poet Don Paterson, recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the TS Eliot Prize, who considered Dylan’s book. ‘ ‘[a] lazy, half-written dog’s dinner…’ In a similar manner, I reposted: ‘Personally, I’d be a lot kinder to my dog.’
    In Apr 2020 Quadrant, I wrote about the series, ‘Yellowstone’, and referenced the first Avatar film:

    ‘Yellowstone is also a series that features the latest stereotype of the indigenous Native-American: ‘the Casino Indian.’ Others that have done this include The Killing and Banshee. These days, anytime you have Indian reservations in a film, it seems you have to have a casino. The image of the Native-American has been transformed many times, over the years, from the ‘ignoble savage’, in early cowboy-and-indian films, where they were almost always portrayed as bad guys, (in a way similar to how Nazis, Russians and terrorists have been in the past); to the lofty elevation of ‘noble savage’ ie. the primal ‘First Person’, more in touch with the land, with a preternatural eco-spirituality, than the ‘civilized’ white folk.
    In James Cameron’s, Avatar, the Na’vi people, on the planet Pandora, echo this Native-American trope, complete with bows and arrows and a spiritual culture, centered on their ‘Tree of Souls’. Some critics have called Avatar a sci-fi version of Dances With Wolves. In Avatar, as in Dances With Wolves, there is a ‘white savior’ soldier, who arrives on Pandora as part as the colonizing military force, but discovers the beauty of the indigenous Na’vi culture, falls in love with a native girl and switches sides to help the locals fight against the colonizers.
    We also see this ‘white savior’ theme in the film, The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick. Inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, led by Saigō Takamori, Nathan Algren, a US Civil War captain, played by Tom Cruise, is sent to Japan, as a military advisor, to help the Emperor defeat disaffected rebel samurai.
    But Algren discovers the values of the samurai way of life and joins with them to resist the Emperor’s modern army.
    In an interview, from Indian Country Today, Percy White Plume, who is Lakota, and had an acting role in Dances With Wolves, recalls that when it first came out, ‘everyone was on board. The non-Native people got an inside look at us and how it must have been 200 years ago. And that part was good.’
    But White Plume did not like how the white ‘saviour’ dominated the movie: “It was a white man [Costner’s character] coming into the Lakota country and learning the language and leading the way.”

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Interesting comments on Dances With Wolves. White saviour narrative is very woke, indeed close to a definition of woke. The reality of the Plains Wars isn’t the only thing Costner gets wrong. He has his Indian warriors speaking female Lakota. Bruce Beresford did much better the following year with Black Robe. Although the main character is also white and intent on trying to save the natives, the film makes it clear that he fails, presents a much more realistic view of Indian life, and manages to get the Cree, Mohawk, and Algonquin languages used correctly.

    • Andrew L Urban says:

      Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe is his masterpiece, produced by Sue Milliken. I was fortunate to visit the Canadian set during the shoot and spoke to some cast and crew. Authentic is the word…

  • mrsfarley2001 says:

    Christopher Koch was interested in the idea of Beresford making a film of “Highways to a War”. No substitutes for attention to detail and a serious approach to the craft.
    “Black Robe” was a fine film.

  • bomber49 says:

    I found Avatar II entertaining despite the fact I knew it was the same old cliché of the clash between the noble savage and the evil advanced culture. I’m no bleeding heart greenie, but look around at own world where jungles are being cleared for palm oil or subsistence farming. This story will be retold over and over again where the shortcomings of the noble savage are always glossed over.

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