Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Maybe it isn't all about guilt?

Yesterday was my birthday.  Not being big partiers, my husband and I decided to celebrate by getting a babysitter (thank you, Grandma) and finally seeing Avatar.  He's the type that tracks down every trailer on the internet, listens to several scifi podcasts and takes note of what's said about the film, and reads a lot of fan discussion.  I'm not.  I saw the commercial, liked it, decided I'd be willing to see it.  Not cut off from the outside world completely, I heard the buzz about it being a huge blockbuster, but that was it...until the news started flashing bits of conservatives bashing it for being anti-military and anti-capitalist. 

So I went into to the film trying to keep an open mind about the conservative point of view (if only as a mental exercise).  I loved it.  I adored the effects--extra special for me because my eyes don't work together as eyes should so previous 3D has been mostly movies marred by bad coloring with a rare thing popping out in a cereal box hologram sort of way.  I enjoyed the story.  Yeah, you could see that plot coming from a mile away, but...."There are only one or two human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened before."  (Thank you, Willa Cather.) 

The conservative commentary on the movie seemed more like a secret admission from the critics than anything else.  James Cameron probably isn't anti-capitalist.  He didn't hang himself in disappointment that he's making serious money on this movie.  It's anti-EVIL-capitalist.  Unless you're evil...  The only thing that I could say I wasn't wild about when my husband pressed me later was, "It did seem a little Rambo Syndrome, didn't it?"  Surely I'm not the only who saw the first Rambo movie as a kid and thought that if vets were really like that, the war would have ended way differently. 

My husband disagreed.  After all, Sully didn't do it all by himself.  "Fair enough," I said, "but isn't it still more of the white guy riding in to save the day?"  We went back and forth on that, letting it go in the end because we did agree that, if you have to look for a message rather than just enjoying the movie, that wasn't the most important message. 

That was the end of it until coming across author Jim C. Hines's critique lead me to When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?  If you have seen the movie, or at the type that doesn't mind spoilers, take a look (skim if yah gotta) at the links.  In case you haven't and don't want the spoilers...

But Avatar is just the latest scifi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy...

Whether Avatar is racist is a matter for debate. Regardless of where you come down on that question, it's undeniable that the film - like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year - is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it's a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?
As I've said before, I think that racism is still relevant to our society and to our fiction.  The conversations are a good thing, and I'm certainly not going to tell a white writer not to in the media.  But what I keep wondering in all the negativity about Avatar I've checked out over the last 24 hours is, isn't there room for a kinder view of the narrative?  Maybe it is a fantasy about white guilt, but within that is also the story of someone who stopped viewing people--er, aliens--through differences and stereotypes, and learned to respect and understand.  That's not so bad.

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