Saturday, January 16, 2010

Avatar perpetuating a "White Messiah" myth?

The thought never occurred to me that James Cameron's Avatar was filled with racial undertones rendering the tiresome "White Knight In Shining Armor" cliche. Yes, I am attuned to racial-gender inequality in American society, particularly entertainment, but I didn't think anything of the like while watching it in twice in theaters; that is until last week. The NY Times ran an article from Columnist David Brooks who asserts that the era we live in produces a perpetual "White Messiah" fable.
Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.
This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

 He continues stating later on,
Yet of all the directors who have used versions of the White Messiah formula over the years, no one has done so with as much exuberance as James Cameron in “Avatar.”  “Avatar” is a racial fantasy par excellence.
This leaves me wondering though, did HollyWhite just slip another subliminal "White Is Right" artificial flavor into my movie drink? I tried my best to look at it from another perspective. Avatar is about taking a stand against corporations and saving the planet which our generation has contributed to polluting, right?

Yes, its a no brainer, but it is also conniving because as Brook argues the movie rests on the assumption that only White males are Alpha enough to lead their crusades. Additionally, only White males can pass the litmus test of acceptance into another ethnic group.  Brooks alludes to other movies which present similar themes: Fern Gully, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai.  I'll add a couple of others to the list: The Last Airbender, 21, District 9, The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (thankfully, Justin Lin was director who pushed for Sung Kang's role to stay juicy).

What's interesting is that I seriously cannot recall a single movie where a foreigner, an Asian male at that, integrates with White America in a similar fashion, becomes the hero, and gets romantically involved with a White woman. The only movie that comes to mind is Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story which is based on real life events where you see what kind of overt racism Lee dealt with living in America.  Has much changed since then?  I'm not convinced that it has. Its as if only White men are capable of integrating with a foreign culture, yet we are not.
The media is the most powerful entity on Earth.  They have the power to make the guilty innocent and to make the innocent guilty, and that's power, because they control the minds of the masses.  -Malcom X
Is this the kind of massive manipulation the US entertainment-media complex is ingraining upon us where sites like Asian Male Revolutions are so critical of?  


  1. It's an interesting analysis. It was hanging over my head the first time I saw, and I've seen the movie twice! One of my white friends commented that he's hasn't seen that much "white guilt" in a movie in awhile.
    I still like the movie, but can definitely see where the "white savior" aspect is coming from, especially since "Avatar's" closest relative seems to be "Dances With Wolves."

  2. A couple of good articles on this topic:

    "White Anti-Racists who hope to be White Saviours believe in White Supremacy"

    "The Evolution of 'Avatar'”

  3. @ Invasion: I've never seen Dances With Wolves, but I imagine it follows a similar theme like The Last Samurai. The day I came across Brooks' article I watched The Last Samurai again to compare and contrast between the two movies. Sure enough from the onset, like Avatar, it follows the "White Messiah" paradigm that has become all too predictable and ridiculous. I started to question,

    1. How did Tom Cruise's character win the hearts and minds of the Japanese so effortlessly?
    2. How is it that the children cried when they saw Tom Cruise's character leave the village to go into battle, but showed zero emotion when they found out their own Japanese father died?
    3. How come the emperor didn't listen to Katsumoto when he initially requested to purge Westernization, but listened to a Tom's white character instead?
    4. Why was Tom's white character, not Katsumoto, the one to lead the Samurai rebellion and be the last survivor?
    5. MY FAVORITE. When was the last time you saw a white guy denounce his own race and treat Asian men with such great respect to fight for their cause? All I've seen is WMs denouncing their WF counterparts, placing AFs on a pedestal, and then trash talking AMs.

    I will watch Dance with Wolves next and provide some feedback.

    @ Lxy: I read both articles you sent me and got a good chuckle out of 'em. Thanks!

    They almost had me fooled.

  4. I haven't seen the film, but from the comments and article:

    - The "white savior" motif is common in American film but I'm not sure if we can expect anything else. After all, whites are the majority. It's their film. Their films will reflect them. And they will naturally play the hero. Of course, as a non-white, it can get tiresome and annoying after a while.

    - The "white guilt" motif is also common ... and in the long run, not a healthy thing for white people. Everyone deserves pride in themselves. (Although I question having pride in simply being "white")

    - What I find most bothersome, personally, is the white / non-white dichotomy. It's as if the world is divided into just two peoples: whites and non-whites.

    This is a gift guide for "people of color".

    Again, for them, the world is binary: white or colored. There was some commentary on this in the blogosphere as well.

    Pretty good rundown here:

  5. Looks like there are a lot of people who have beef with Avatar.

    The Chinese are now pulling the movie from its theaters due to its popularity taking away too much market share from other Chinese movies and the sensitive nature of forced evacuations for corporate development (or because of a guilty conscious in their treatment of Tibet).

    Damn. I wonder if the Blue Man Group feels discriminated against too.

  6. "@ Lxy: I read both articles you sent me and got a good chuckle out of 'em. Thanks!

    They almost had me fooled."

    What do you mean they had you fooled?

    Those articles were serious analyses of Avatar both as a film and as an allegory for the White Savior/Colonizer identity in general.

  7. I mean "they" as in Hollywood almost had me fooled, not the blogs.

    The blogs were great!


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