Sans Cilice

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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

On Avatar: My one and only post

See Huffpo’s full article.

Responding to the question of why the Na’vi in Avatar have boobs, despite the fact that they don’t even have genitals, director James Cameron told Playboy:

“Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’ even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals,”

Additionally, Cameron said that in creating the Na’vi, he wanted to “focus on things that can create otherness that are not off-putting.” 

Now, there are so many reasons to criticize this movie (it sucks, it’s too long, its story is lacking, its acting is lacking, it’s a simplistic interpretation of colonial narratives, it’s a reductive allegory for American foreign policy, etc) that I don’t really want to go into it too much, but as food for thought, I will be pondering two questions:

1. Why does Cameron call the Na’vi as a ‘race’ not a species if they are ‘non-placental mammals’? (obviously the answer to this is that a degree of relatability is necessary cinematically) Considering the presence of multiple human races in the cast, did you view the Na’vi as a race or a species?

2. What can be said about Cameron’s implication that there are features of “otherness” that are not “off-putting”? Isn’t part of the “essence” of “otherness” a degree of off-puttingness? Would eliminating the breasts have turned the Na’vi from Others to something actually different?

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10 Responses

  1. jonolan says:

    Removing the tits would have definitely lessened the plausibility of the romantic sub-plot. You can’t have the Na’vi bioform differ too fundamentally in secondary sexual characteristics if you want to have a sexual / romantic component to the movie that is acceptable to the mass market.

  2. A.Y. Siu says:

    1. Why does Cameron call the Na’vi as a ‘race’ not a species if they are ‘non-placental mammals’? (obviously the answer to this is that a degree of relatability is necessary cinematically) Considering the presence of multiple human races in the cast, did you view the Na’vi as a race or a species?

    Scientifically, of course, the Na’vi are a species, but they have so many human characteristics, that they seem to just be a blue race of human. “Race” isn’t really a scientific classification, anyway. Race, as Noel Ignatiev puts it, is a biological fiction but a sociological fact. As long as people classify giant alien blue beings as a “race,” they are a race.

    2. What can be said about Cameron’s implication that there are features of “otherness” that are not “off-putting”? Isn’t part of the “essence” of ”otherness” a degree of off-puttingness? Would eliminating the breasts have turned the Na’vi from Others to something actually different?

    He could have had the Na’vi look more like tarantulas than humanoids. He could have had them look like the aliens from Aliens. There’s a lot of stuff he could have done to have them be “off-putting” (high-pitched screaming as a form of communication along with the sign language of nails on a chalkboard). Basically, the idea is that they be human-like without actually being human. The breasts Cameron just threw in for his own lust, I guess.

  3. Sans Cilice says:

    I definitely agree with both of you that Cameron’s Na’vis had to be human enough in order for the love story to work. The fact that race isn’t a biological category makes it even more interesting that Cameron created a group of beings that he wanted to treat as a race but had to go beyond just making them tall and blue. With out the decidedly non-human adaptations, would the Na’vi have been too human like? Despite the movie’s obvious dealings with race, it seems like Cameron didn’t actually want to have to talk about race.

  4. jonolan says:

    No – it’s quite obvious that Cameron didn’t want to risk his movie and his future career by talking about race. He wanted to just have it there as part of the overall environment, a technique that very effective and less likely to lower the box office take.

  5. Sans Cilice says:

    Yes, definitely. And I think that’s one of the many reasons why I didn’t enjoy the movie and am disappointed that it’s probably going to win Best Picture. The whole thing was so sterilized. As I’m sure you can tell by now, I’m quite prone to critiquing pieces of art that bother my political consciousness. Avatar’s narrative and screen play were so edited and so safe that I didn’t even feel like talking about it after we left the theater 40 minutes before it was over (three weeks ago).
    * fingers crossed for The Hurt Locker *!

  6. jonolan says:

    There’s little or no need for all movies to have “anvilicious” political or societal messages. Indeed, it could be reasonably argued that, since a few special interests control Hollywood, such messages in films should be discouraged.

    In any case and irrespective of ones beliefs about the proper role of entertainers and Hollywood, a $350 Million movie is not the forum with which any sane man want to take too many chances.

    Just enjoy it for decent dialog, acting, and scenery.

  7. Sans Cilice says:

    I mean, I wasn’t expecting any sort of thoughtful dealing of colonialism but it wasn’t even exciting as a fantasy/action flick! Dialogue and acting were stiff (especially Sigourney Weaver!). The scenery was neat, but it wasn’t enough to sustain me for three hours.

  8. annamcglynn says:

    i haven’t seen the movie but i have heard complaints similar to yours. a similar (i am guessing, cause i havent seen avatar) sci-fi flick, district 9, was also criticized (i suppose in some ways justly) for being racist. however, it was a silly sci-fi movie, AND it did get pretty deep and moving, and made you really really love those scary bug aliens! i guess Pete Jackson did a similar “humanizing” thang with the little alien’s big doe-y eyes, but whatever; i coulda seen going home with the father bug after a long night of dancin at the club/saving the world–human-like body or not!

    • Sans Cilice says:

      lol– there really is an uncanny masculinity to large arthropods. I actually wasn’t really offended by Avatar– well I guess I should say, my taste but not my morals were offended by Avatar. I think I would have been more intrigued by it if it was more offensive. Would have provided more food for thought.
      I plan on watching District 9 all the way through at some point– I’ve only seen the first half hour. While I did sense that the ghettoized aliens were raced to an extent, I didn’t find it to be offensive because it was aiming to create a somewhat believable analogy to the way poor people and people of color are ghettoized around the world. Additionally, I thought the aliens’ weaponry was an interesting twist on the power potential of an oppressed alien (in other cases like Avatar, indigenous) group. Anyways, I’ll have to finish it!

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