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White dominance, patriarchy, and Avatar

BY GRETA HAGEN-RICHARDSON | JANUARY 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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It is difficult to know where to begin when one is considering the insidious nature of the film-award ceremonies. Roughly 82 years in, praising mediocrity and pandering to the white liberal elite are the norm. Still, somehow, this past weekend’s Golden Globes left me feeling particularly distraught and a bit flabbergasted.

Among the many issues I had — from the Christina Hendricks weight comments to the absurdly excessive parade, while hundreds of thousands go days without food or water — I feel compelled to elaborate on the focus of the evening’s events. Avatar, a film that examines white guilt in the least constructive way possible, was given the coveted Best Picture award, along with James Cameron in the Best Director category.

It’s true that, while Kathryn Bigelow as a white action director was the best hope women had in the awards race this year (and probably for the next decade or so), The Hurt Locker didn’t have a chance. As an Iraq war movie (and an incredible one at that), it cannot be expected to garner much mainstream love in a culture that is still too afraid to acknowledge the implications and consequences of that war.

It also looked possible for Inglorious Basterds, with its flawless script and critical darling director, to bring home the big prize. Unfortunately, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association seems to think that four different languages in one film might be too much for the American public to handle (they just won’t get it in the Midwest).

So why so much disdain for Avatar? At base, the film’s main problems involve the dialogue and general lack of narrative imagination. Sure, it looked great. But I shouldn’t need 3-D glasses to feel immersed in the film’s world.

Beyond that, though, Avatar’s core centers on a white man (in a position of privilege by virtue) that assimilates into a totally foreign culture, understands and masters that culture, and comes to be its savior. The title itself, Avatar, refers to the Sanskrit word for earthly incarnation or manifestation of a deity.

It seems that this concept in film has emerged from a very American ideology related to our perception of masculinity. Never give up, work hard, show physical and mental strength, and all things are possible — the Protestant work ethic in all its glory.

In Avatar, Jake Sully moves from privilege and power (physical) in his own culture to privilege and power in a foreign culture without ever having to process or understand the subjugation involved in being oppressed. White men (a.k.a., the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) get to feel as if they have a film about the oppressed overcoming their circumstance, all the while identifying with a character that ends up on top (see Dances with Wolves, Mississippi Burning, or The Last Samurai).

Never mind that he never experiences anything remotely close to what the individuals in the group being eradicated experience (as in District 9, for example).

I’m sick of movies that promote white dominance, patriarchal societies, and the fallacy that anyone is capable of mastering another culture’s traditions, perceptions, and general way of life. Being part of the dominant ideology doesn’t automatically give you super powers of intellect, strength, and comprehension. Give me a film about Pandora; or, if you need a human to identify with, does it have to be white and/or male? This film about the Na’vi (Native Americans, blacks, Iraqis) becomes a film about the oppressors.

Some say Avatar should be enjoyed as entertainment and is not to be taken seriously. Let me know when a bunch of white people get rounded up, stripped of all their resources and dignity, only to be rescued by a black woman on film. I’m sure it would be action-packed and a great ride.

Don’t you want to go see that?


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