Avatar and the American Man-Child: “Don’t you want to be an Indian little boy, and put feathers in your hair?”

by zunguzungu

“I am a firm believer in children living out their lives in the mythical stage: in the period when they ask and answer themselves questions about nature…The child is a born savage…the child is born a naturalist…[To the children:] Don’t you want to be an Indian little boy, and put feathers in your hair? Wouldn’t you like to dig a hole and live in the ground, and wouldn’t you like to roam at will in the big woods? Certainly you would.”

Francis W. Parker, “The Child,” 1889 (via Kevin Armitage)

Asking if Avatar is racist is the wrong question, I think, however necessary it may be; a negative answer is impossible, but a positive is insufficient. To build on what Scott and Annalee have written, then, I think we should look closer at what it actually uses its warped racialism to say.

After all, defenders of the movie will point out that the natives are the heroes, that the main character’s journey is towards a greater understanding of the native culture and appreciation for all sorts of values that his own society, a damnably capitalist, militaristic, and scientific culture (with a different figurehead for each value), has given up, to its own profound detriment. And I think Wax Banks is right that the best ending for this movie would have been to submerge Jake into the collective and produce “an eco-disaster film in reverse, with the audience cheering for Nature to wipe out the goddamn army,” without any “heroic” focus at all. He’s right because the movie wants its politics to be an argument that “modernity” has profoundly harmed us, and that because we, like Jake, have been crippled by the times in which we live, we have to go native, go natural. But this means that while the movie is profoundly patronizing towards its natives, it infantilizes them only because it idealizes them for that very infancy, making them into children because it, too, wants to retreat from the adulthood/modernity.

This is why, for example, Jake Sully is such a spoiled brat. To note that he is the worst stereotype of the ugly American isn’t nearly enough; he’s profoundly satisfied with his ignorance and his self-absorption is so awesomely complete and all-encompassing that it seems perfectly natural when other people make huge investments in him, to the point that he makes saying “thank you” all about him. He isn’t surprised or humbled when it turns out that the entire world revolves around him – who else could it possibly revolve around? – and when he first puts on his Na’vi avatar, he thinks nothing of ignoring the advice of people that know better and doing exactly as feels like doing. A shameless and shallow asshole, the only thing that makes him even slightly uneasy is his intermittent “video log” because it forces him to confront how thoughtless he is. But while people will excuse the shallowness of his character on the basis of it being just a popcorn movie or a kid’s movie, or whatever, that shallowness isn’t a bug, it’s a feature, just as George Bush’s mask of ignorance was precisely what made him appealing to so many Americans.

Jake Sully, in other words, is a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood: pure id, he revels in the toys that the world has provided for him without understanding that someone had to make them, without ever questioning his own right to have them. I think that’s why I don’t feel contempt for him, but visceral, gut-level, and troubling disgust. I recognize his desires, because we not only have to get past them to be adults, but because they stay with us. Perhaps we still are, on some level, the sociopaths we were when we were children (that I type this while home for the holidays, in the bedroom I occupied when I was seven, only seems appropriate). Yet it’s also one of the worst aspects of the American cultural tradition that going back to childhood is somehow the fountainhead of political virtue (see, for example, Jefferson, Thomas and Roosevelt, Theodore) because it’s so rarely the childhood of curiosity, games, and sociality that the tradition extols, but rather its reverse, a very particular fantasy of careless anti-social boyishness that tends into misogyny so easily because, to again refer us to Nina Baym, it feminizes the “encroaching, constricting, destroying society” that we American boys must seek to be free of by lighting out for the territories.

Where the movie goes wrong, then, is in making the sociopathic immaturity of a spoiled Western brat into the ideal form for the child-human that it wants anti-modernity to be. After all, while even your Rousseauvians understand the noble savage as a contradiction of modernity, as a cleansing bath washing away its discontents, the Na’vi only confirm Sully’s most childish presumptions of privilege: their world turns out to be nothing but toys to play with, nothing but one long summer camp fantasy of being the fastest, bestest, most awesomest ninja-Indian ever, and then a big giant womb to hide in when it all gets to be a bit much. There are no consequences there, nothing you can do to make mommy stop loving you (though Lord how he tries!). Like toys and parents to a three-year old, it is unthinkable that they say no or exist without you, and all they can ever ask is that you play with them.

When Scott suggests that Jake Sully-in-avatar form is a version of the black quarterback “problem,” the racialist desire to find a black body with a white brain in it, I think he’s not wrong, but I think he’s also not quite right. After all, Jake Sully is never Payton Manning; and the attribute that the Na’vi identify in him is precisely not “rationality” but the fact that he has “a strong heart, no fear.” It’s not a coincidence, by the way, that stupid reckless bravery makes poor Zoë Saldaña hate him only to then hate herself for loving him, or that the empty-headedness Sigourney Weaver initially despises him for is what makes him, eventually, the thing she most wants herself to be (because, as the Na’vi say, it is hard to fill up a vessel that is already full). Which is why, while one might have expected him to use his superior knowledge of the evil capitalist company to defeat them, the closest thing he has to a battle plan (as the nihilistic kid notes) is GO FOR IT! But again, the having of no plan other than be as reckless as possible is supposed to be his virtue, a quality the movie substantiates (as Gerry points out) by retreating into pure fantasy.

And this is why the fact that it’s a very particularly American fantasy is important. The dominant British/European mythos of civilization’s contact with “natives” was usually what Scott is talking about, a higher rationality confronting a primitive vitality, and the “JaMarcus Manning” fantasy of the super-ego and the id working in productive tandem will be instantly familiar to anyone who has read much of the old British imperialists holding forth on the collaboration between white discipline and native labor. That myth certainly had its adherents in the new world as well; guilded era capitalists and apologists for slavery alike saw the good society as a fruitful “partnership” between higher, rational discipline and primitive, bodily physicality. But there is also the Jeffersonian tradition of making creole primitivity into a virtue or Teddy Roosevelt wanting to become a boy again by shooting things and getting away from women. And Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis dominated the historiography of the twentieth century precisely because he argued that America’s particular virtue (and its contrast with Europe) was exactly its reversion back to primitive democracy; as frontiersmen became like Indians, he said, they got rid of all that troublesome modernity and effete emasculated over-civilization, becoming boys again by supplanting the Indians they came to resemble in doing so.