Friday, January 22, 2010

Avatar: It's Not Pocahontas In Space

Everywhere I turn, I come across the Failbog Image that outlines the Pocahontas plot slashed with Avatar characters and events.

Yes. We know.
Avatar is a completely predictable plot that seems to follow almost action for action the plot of Disney's Pocahontas.

Except cooler, obviously.

The thing about
Avatar is this: it is simply another traditional American narrative set in space. And, brace yourselves, it comes with a twist. Shocking, isn't it?

Euro-turning-Native is nothing new, not even in
Pocahontas. It happened to Cabeza de Vaca (till he was rescued many years later). It happened to John Smith (also, not the first). It happened to Mary Rowlandson (to an extent).

And then James Fenimore Cooper spawned Natty Bumppo from his pen. Natty Bumppo was an Euro adopted by Natives, who eventually grew up to be a better Indian than the Natives. Golly Gee. Doesn't that sound familiar? Of course, Natty Bumppo didn't get frisky with the gender that constantly swooned (Cooper, I hate you), but the principle is essentially the same.

Because of our history of frontier expansion, narratives of this nature helped carve out an identity for the colonials that eventually came to call themselves "American." Cooper, in part, was extremely influential in writing a narrative that was distinctly "American" in tone (I put American in quotes because this is from a colonials' view point, a perspective uninterested in the fact that they stole, murdered, and exploited the Native Americans for their land). Such tales romanticized the colonization experience of westering. They glossed over the blood shed, the exploitation, and made it into something beautiful, celebrating the rugged identity they sought to cultivate while hiding all the monstery bits under the rug. Such ideas appeared in nonfiction as well: Frederich Jackson Turner, while musing on what constituted "American" identity detailed in a speech that, to conquer the land, frontiersman would have to turn Native first -- else they would not survive.

These stories are "America's" blood. Today, they are still "America's" blood.
Dances With Wolves. The Last Samurai. Even Twilight (and every other teenage lit obsessed with romancing the undead, complete with the desire or event to be "turned"). And, lately, Avatar.

So, with such a backdrop of tradition, what's the twist? In every other instance I've mentioned, the Natives, in particular, are a nonentity. Shortly after De Vaca rejoined the Spaniards, the Native Americans who had traveled with him were massacred. Cooper titled a novel
The Last of the Mohicans even though there was a settlement of Mohigans nearby. Within Cooper's novels, the Native Americans are depicted as a race that are dying out. They are portrayed as "noble savages" running wild in the woods instead of as a civilized people with their own identity dwelling in towns, growing crops, etc (this trope has also appeared in numerous traditional literature by the dead white guys). Even though Pocahontas, like all Disney movies, ends on a happy note with Pocahontas standing on a cliff, the wind in her hair complete with appropriately swelling music, the typical audience knows that's not the real end of the story as they try to forget the nasty bits by ending it prematurely or ignore it by telling stories that make them feel better about themselves (stories like Natty Bumppo and Pocahontas which speak of supposed assimilation, harmony, and even love between two cultures while conveniently ignoring the genocide, exploitation, and slavery).

Within these stories, the Euro-Turned-Native is portrayed as the last -- and usually the best -- of the Native kind. Even though these stories serve to "humanize" to an extent people who have been stereotyped as "savages," the Euro is still ultimately portrayed as being the superior. Yes, this does happen to an extent in
Avatar because Jake literally swoops in and saves the day on the back of the giant bird. However, I would also argue that because heroes of the Na'vi had done so several times before, this element is somewhat mitigated, though still present.

But, more importantly, the Na'vi are victorious. They suffer, but they do not lose Pandora to the colonials, as it happened in the titles listed above. Their lands are not taken from them under the guise of the so called "noble" ideal of westering. Their independence is not stolen from them in the name of civilization. They are depicted as a nation and as a people with an identity, not like a "noble savage" running wild in the woods alone, the last of his kind, with only a white man for company. The characters are clearly cast: the earthlings are the savages, not the Na'vi, and, like all heroic stories, good conquers evil.

I don't know. Perhaps I am indulging myself in privileged romanticism, but I think the end of
Avatar acknowledges the horrific mistakes of the past. It twists the traditional narrative by telling the story of how history should have unfolded, instead of how it did.

And is that not one of the roles of science fiction? The might have beens, the should have beens?

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