Avatar: The Way of Water is poised to dominate the long holiday weekend in the US. Christmas is traditionally one of the biggest movie-going periods of the year, though we have yet to see what it really looks like on the other side of the pandemic, and before anyone writes off The Way of Water because of its under-performing opening weekend—in which it still made $134 million—let’s see how it does during the holidays. This was always going to be about legs, not opening weekend. At least this time around it’s a better movie, not relying QUITE so hard on the visuals to do all the work, but man if you took those visuals away… I guess we’re just never going to talk about how these movies skirt Indigenous representation.
People definitely talked about the Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas of it all when Avatar came out in 2009, but it is so GLARING this time around, mainly because the quality of storytelling IS better and thus, the stereotypes only come off cheaper and lazier. James Cameron wants to use all the symbology and stereotypes—you can’t shake a stick in Pandora without hitting a “magical Native”—but bear none of the responsibility for those choices. And I don’t know if the anti-colonization message saves it, either. The stereotypes are still there, even if Avatar is basically a Western telling us to root for the American Indians, not the US cavalry. Never mind that Cameron’s thoughts on the Black Hills War are problematic as hell:
Over the weekend, a tweet went viral quoting this passage from a larger interview with Cameron about his efforts to aid Indigenous Amazonian tribes, but the original poster had to lock her account after white people had a totally normal one in her mentions. Cameron’s belief that “if only the Lakota fought harder, things would be different” is pretty typical, frankly, but hardly accurate. The Lakota, and every other Indigenous nation in North America, fought like hell to defend their land, but they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned (if you want to know more, check out the book Guns, Germs, and Steel). It’s not fair to say, “If only they fought harder,” because the entire point is that there was no amount of “hard enough” to fight. The deck was stacked from the first moment of contact when disease began to ravage the continent and wipe out most of the Indigenous population long before the US government got serious about genocide.
I don’t want to assign bad faith to James Cameron, because I don’t think he’s operating from a place of purposeful ill intent, just a place of extreme rich white guy (of a certain age) privilege that has gone largely unchecked. That The Way of Water evinces the same stereotypes as Avatar tells me he made no effort to expand his worldview after the criticisms lodged against that film. If anything, he doubled down, because now we have a full-on Lieutenant Dunbar character, and idealized assimilator, in Spider, the human kid who grows up adapting to Na’vi ways of life. It’s basically “Adrien Brody on SNL” as a film character:
Complicating this conversation is the fact that the blue cat people of Pandora are an excellent “sci-fi escape hatch”, which is the phenomenon of fantasy elements covering for real world references and implications. For instance, people who insist Star Wars isn’t political because there is no “galaxy far, far away”, never mind that the Empire is explicitly coded as evil using imagery leftover from the Nazis, are using the sci-fi escape hatch to avoid seeing their own politics reflected in a bad light. Sci-fi escape hatches abound in speculative fiction, and often they’re harmless, or they exist to allow us to examine difficult subjects in a less pressurized environment (e.g., vampires and werewolves as an allegory for puberty/sexual awakening). But sometimes, they give cover to problematic story elements that deserve to be questioned but become more difficult to discuss because of the number of people escape hatching their way out of the conversation.
Everything about the Na’vi is fake—their physiology, their language, their culture—so you can just point to the imagination of it all and excuse all the war whoops and thinly veiled tribal references, but those things still exist. We’re still talking about co-opting cultural references and imagery that exists in the real world, and applying the same stereotypes used to reduce Indigenous peoples on screen to “noble savages” as a kind of shorthand for the Na’vi. The water cat people, the “Metkayina”, are obviously influenced by a mishmash of Polynesian and Māori cultural references; they are one with the water and commune with whales, and none of this is supposed to be problematic because this is all happening on an alien world, these are aliens, so it’s okay. Right?
Stereotypes make a good (“good”) shorthand for the story Cameron wants to tell, and he uses them liberally because really, he’s not interested in the story in and of itself. He’s interested in the Tolkeinesque worldbuilding of Pandora as a biome, and the tech he’s creating to get the elaborate images he wants. So he’s reliant on oversimplified, stereotypical tropes and characterizations because it simply reduces the headache of working out a fulfilling narrative with complex, interesting characters, when that’s not the part of this process he’s into. But it does seem like, at some point, we should talk about using cultural stereotypes as shorthand and whether or not rendering it in a sci-fi world makes it okay (it doesn’t). I doubt that will happen any time soon, though.