Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Avatar": new technology, same old story

As a fan of science fiction and action movies, I was excited by the preview of James Cameron's new blockbuster Avatar. The movie looks amazing--a fascinating alien world and alien culture, a clever science fiction gimmick in the use of the "avatars" to allow the human main character to infiltrate the aliens. It appeared pretty revolutionary in its themes, with its protagonist joining forces with the aliens (the blue-skinned, cat-eyed, tribal Na'avi) to stop his fellow human's attempt to destroy the Na'avi's homeland in search of mineral resources. Anti-military, pro-environment, and anti-colonial--not your average Christmas blockbuster fare. Or so I thought.

After my initial impressed reaction to the trailer, however, I started to read more about the movie, and my excitement quickly died away. In "Avatar," the Repentant White Marine leads the Noble Savages to victory, marries the native princess, and becomes their chief, effectively appropriating their culture. Progressive? Hardly. It may challenge colonialism and champion the cause of environmentalism, but when it comes to race and gender, it fails on multiple levels. The story I wish this movie told was the story of Zoe Saldana's character, the Na'avi princess. Why does the movie assume she and her people needed a white Marine to save them? Is the story of a colonized people's resistance and a woman's leadership not interesting enough? Who makes these decisions, and why? When will white people stop making movies like this?

My frustration with this phenomenon was reinforced while trying to relax from intense finals studying the other day. I decided I wanted to watch a movie, but as I looked through my DVD collection, I discovered that very few of the movies I own are about women. Almost every cover features the faces of white men as the central focus. Many of the movies did have at least one major female character, but most of those had ONLY one such character (I call this the "only woman in the world" syndrome), preemptively failing the Bechdel Test.

Obviously I need to update my movie collection. But even if I did, how many movies are actually being made today about women? Particularly the kind of action/suspense/adventure movies that I love, as opposed to the terrible, formulaic romantic comedies that are made to appeal to my demographic?

I was discussing this with a friend of mine, a writer and director of independent films, and she pointed out, rightly, that all of her films feature female protagonists. I responded, "Well, that makes sense--you're a woman, so of course it makes sense that your work would reflect your experience." The problem with Hollywood is that there are still very few female directors or writers working on big films. My friend and I concluded that this happens because, for the most part, the producers who put their money into blockbuster films are wealthy white males who don't feel that stories by or about women are interesting enough to invest in. They look for films that appeal to them, that are about people like them. And the result is movies like "Avatar," which attempts to address the problems of colonization of native cultures and environmental exploitation, but only succeeds in being a flashy paean to white guilt and marginalizing the truly interesting story of a woman of color standing up against violent oppression.

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