Theory Teacher's Blog

Avatar and Postcolonial Theory

Probably no other movie will be watched by as many people this year or win quite so many awards as Avatar. If you haven’t seen it yet, you just might be the only one. And this makes me happy since I’m teaching postcolonial literature this semester, and Avatar provides a rather easy way for me to explain my subject to my students. The movie is basically about an indigenous, local culture being destroyed by greedy business interests that use high-tech military force in order to gain access to a valuable natural resource. Does the plot sound familiar? Although the movie is a science fiction story set in the future (year 2154) and the “native” Na’vi people on the planet Pandora have blue skin, the allegories to the history of colonization should be somewhat obvious to anyone who’s ever read a history book — Europe’s greed-driven conquest and exploitation of Native Americans, Asians, and Africans. In addition, critic Roger Ebert suggests the movie can easily be read as an allegory for contemporary politics because of the strong anti-war, anti-colonialism, and pro-environmentalist messages.

However, on the other hand, other critics have attacked the film for repeating colonial fantasy narratives such as the classic tales of of Pocahontas and Last of the Mohicans, not to mention more recent movies Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and even another sci-fi movie, Dune. Just like in all these other colonial fantasy narratives, the protagonist of Avatar is a white male who is sent to subdue a far-away people, then comes to identify with those people after he falls in love with one of them, and eventually somehow assumes a leadership role in their doomed struggle against imperialism. So common is this narrative that one critic asks, “when will white people stop making movies like Avatar?” He claims such movies are basically symptomatic of white guilt about the history of atrocities against black, brown, red, and yellow peoples and attempt to symbolically redeme the audience. And for sure, almost all of these stories contain a redemption allegory in which the white male finds redemption for his past  by coming to a new Eden-like land and identifying with the victims there. Another critic dislikes the white character’s ability to literally become an incarnation (or avatar) of the other cultural identity, and he compares Avatar to earlier “black-face” narratives in which white characters not only “go native” but become even more adept at the native skills than the actual natives (like Tarzan or Natty Bumpo.)

Probably the most balanced and interesting response to the movie is this blog post by the Native American scholar and writer Daniel Heath Justice. Although he admits to how effective the movie was at evoking an emotional response in him, he also argues that the plot line of good guys vs. bad guys is too simplistic. In his view, the movie’s director James Cameron missed an opportunity to enable the American audience to really understand colonialism. Real colonizers are not cartoonishly evil people but often nice people who, because of their social position, do bad things. He worries that such a romantic good vs. evil story allows the audience to feel overly self-satisfied when they emotionally side with the good guys without really questioning how everyone is morally complicit with colonialism — even the “good guys.” In sum, the question that all these critics raise is why the white male hero is there in the first place? Why not just focus on the Na’vi characters and their struggle against the sinister forces of commercial empire? What is the difference between how the movie represents colonialism and how real colonization and oppression happens? And most importantly, why does the white male character become the leader of the “colored” (blue/red) people in their own struggle?

Hence, interestingly, we have two very contradictory readings of this movie. One reads it as an anti-colonialist story, and the other reads it as a colonialist story. And importantly the cultural identity of the reader is not the determining factor in how one reads it. Daniel Heath Justice observed that responses among the Native American community were very mixed, some liking the movie, some hating it, most somewhere in between; and as one can see from this little note in the right-wing National Review, some conservatives have claimed that the movie is anti-American because it inserts phrases from George Bush’s speeches about terror and preemptive strike into the mouths of the villains, but other conservative critics have praised it for its libertarian values. A few of my Oromo friends read the movie’s anti-colonialism and its reverence for a tree as an allegory for their own sturggle against Abyssinian imperialism in Ethiopia and the Oromo reverence for the Odaa tree, which is a symbol for their liberation movement. But other Oromo really can’t stand the fact that the Na’vi have to be saved by a white guy.

The diverse reactions to the movie, I think, indicate why postcolonial theory can be difficult, and hence there is quite a lot more that could be said about this movie than I have time to write about here. But there are a couple of points I’d like to make that I haven’t seen made yet, especially in regards to postcolonial theory. First, although it’s easy to compare the movie to films like Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves, there are important differences, and I think critics ought to pay attention to the differences as well as to the similarities. As the theorist Homi Bhabha observes, postcolonial writing and art often mimic colonial forms — just as a lot of colonial writing  and art were borrowing from indigenous forms and ideas — but mimic them with a difference that moves the narrative and the reader’s response in other directions.  In Avatar, for instance, the most obvious difference is that the Na’vi win. Also, while in the Pocahontas story the Indian betrays her people by falling in love with John Smith, Avatar‘s story is actually the opposite.

We might also consider too the essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by Gayatri Spivak. Her answer to that question is no, the most marginalized peoples can’t represent themselves. One of the strongest criticisms of Avatar is why the whole story is narrated from the white male character’s point of view. In this way the movie is similar to Dances with Wolves. The alternative to this scenario would seem to be to have the movie narrated from the point of view of one of the Na’vi — perhaps Neytiri’s character. But for Spivak, this would not be satisfactory either for several reasons. First, does Neytiri speak for all the Na’vi or just some of them? Second, along those lines, wouldn’t the movie then have to begin acknowledging the forms of oppression and disparity that existed within the Na’vi culture? After all, feminist and Marxist critics have reminded the upper-class, male postcolonial writers that things were not all roses before the colonizers came. Third, how would Neytiri or any of the Na’vi be able to speak about the colonial system unless she had spent some time within it or had some position of authority that would give her access to all that knowledge. Fourth, any articulation would really be a translation. Fifth, few of us really understand our identities — we are, in other words, when all things are considered, strangers to ourselves.

Perhaps a more avant-garde film could explore the multiple points of view and theoretical problems of representation, but such a film would miss the romantic inspiration of Avatar‘s plot; such romantic plots require a simple identification between audience and character, and good romantic plots aim to inspire and morally reform the members of the audience by means of that identification.

We might also consider Edward Said’s discussion of discourse in his classic book Orientalism and how the discourses of anthropology, biology, and other sciences all operated to give the colonizer expert knowledge of the exploited other and encouraged the colonizer to exagerrate the differences between himself and the other in ways that were dehumanizing, racist, and simply inaccurate. One of the things I appreciate about Avatar is that it included the ambivalent role of the scientist in the colonial project. Although the scientist is sympathetic to the Na’vi and even takes their side, it is precisely her knowledge and science that is used by the greedy bad guys and gives them the tools for how to win against the Na’vi.

But although the movie explores the problematic position of science, here the movie seems to repeat a lot of the biases of such colonial scientific discourse. Such discourse represented (and still represents) indigenous people as nature people, incapable of progress or development. Such representations were always used by the colonizer as the rationale for why it was OK (in the name of progress) to subdue them. Interestingly, Native Americans and environmentalists have turned that “nature people” image to their own advantage and used it as a tool for critiquing the environmentally destructive practices of capitalist imperialism. Although there are many debates about this among indigenous communities, many Native Americans have gladly identified with that image. In effect some Native American and postcolonial theorists have exploited the incoherence of colonialist ideologies and discourses that value pristine nature and human liberty but destroy them anyway.

What is perhaps most unrealistic about the movie is the strategies of the colonizers. In the movie, the evil military commander just wants to blow up the Na’vi, and so all the Na’vi unite to fight back. But historically, empires usually used a divide-and-conquer strategy. Years before any formal conquest took place, merchant colonizers formed alliances with segments of the indigenous society and sowed the seeds of discord. Some of the indigenous actually benefitted (often temporarily) from these alliances. The political reality was never a simple binary of good and evil. After all, why would the Na’vi be such good warriors if they weren’t already fighting amongst themselves before the humans came? Hence, for postcolonial theorists, one of the most challenging problems was (and still is) how to unite people under the banner of a nation or form pan-national or pan-ethnic movements. For sure, Avatar simplifies this problem in a troubling way by allowing the white, male character to do the uniting after he tames the giant flying Toruk. But I don’t think we should so easily dismiss alliances between native and non-native cultures. The Trinidadian scholar C. L. R. James was very clear about the power of such alliances in his famous history of the Haitian revolution, as were Linebaugh and Rediker in their history of the revolutionary Atlantic. And theorists Negri and Hardt indicate that social movements today in the age of globalization are necessarily transnational and multiethnic. And for sure, most oppressed people know that they can’t defeat an empire by themselves and need allies, so it is a bit ridiculous for anyone to simply criticize Avatar for exploring the possibility of that cross-cultural alliance. At the end of the day, the movie does dramatize the important possibility of a colonizer learning, growing, and changing his mind. And according to this CNN article, it would seem that Avatar is, if anything, having a significant effect on people’s minds.


January 28, 2010 - Posted by | movies, Theory--capital T


  1. Steve,

    Excellent article concerning a movie that has been seen from two sides: those that hate it and those that have seen it three time. You bring forth an excellent question regarding its relationship to the other movies it is similar to. Is it really the same? Your analysis has made sense to much of the reading in our Loomba readings. Thank you!

    Comment by Jason | January 28, 2010 | Reply

  2. I enjoyed this blog immensely and found the post-colonial arguments interesting and relevant. I, however, had an “environmental” experience with Avatar. Before watching the movie, I had an Environmental Education professor comment on “the horror of this 3D, overly-computerized movie.” He went on to say that he thought movies like this shouldn’t be made because it makes humans under-appreciate the value and beauty of nature and the real world around us and causes us to sink deeper into our deluded computerized realities. I sort of laughed off his comment, thinking that Avatar couldn’t really be visually stimulating enough to cause this kind of reaction. Then I saw the movie. And read Dr. Thomas’ blog as well as the article CNN posted about post-Avatar depression. I can understand how people would be upset by the movie, longing for some Eden that doesn’t really exist. One of my first thoughts about Avatar was that it would soon spawn a following similar to that of Star Trek…I guarantee someone out there has already learned the language of the Na’vi. So people are watching this movie and feeling depressed about the world in which we live and what are they doing about it? They are threating suicide and sinking into depression. Is anyone taking action to clean up their neighborhood or reduce their carbon footprint? Or is it easier to sink into a computerized world where things seem perfect and no work has to be done except to learn a fake language and choose your new Avatar name? Perhaps my professor is on to something…

    Comment by Megan | January 31, 2010 | Reply

  3. Steve — Still haven’t seen the movie yet, but as we already had this conversation before you wrote this blog post I feel I have to say something. Henry Jenkins over at his own blog ( wrote about five ways to read Avatar, something I found deeply interesting. His end point is that these five visions are only a part of what makes Avatar hard to place on a political and social spectrum. Jenkins is actually teaching a class at USC about participatory culture, which is why I’ve started following his blog. Great stuff in the post, though — Just a few more reminders why I need to take more classes on theory. 😀

    Comment by Megan G | February 2, 2010 | Reply

  4. I haven’t seen Avatar yet, and I doubt I will. Still, we can’t ignore the absurdity of a film that, while ostensibly promoting awareness of environmental destruction, uses so many resources to produce, promote, and disseminate. These film makers are relying on a collective amnesia, or collective denial, when they release a film like this. At once, we must both glory in the capitalistic splendor that allows us all to consume this cinema and glean personal motivation from its ecological undertones. We can analyze the mindset of the producers of such an apparently ambivalent film, but what about our own ambivalence as we view it?

    Without having seen the film, here are some guesses on my part:

    I bet that, at several points in the film, Cameron positions us as Jake, the Avatar version of John Smith/Kevin Costner. And as Americans – many of us white middle classers who can afford a jumbo popcorn and overpriced movie ticket – we are pretty solid contemporary comparison. We are meant to sit in the driver seat here, to immerse ourselves in this native world, to be transformed by its beauty and natural perfection. And so we feel the pride at the end of the film, both as capitalists who support this film and newly enlightened multi cultis/environmentalists, when Avatar gives us the inevitable emotional uplift of the victor (this is what I assume happens, but as I already admitted, I haven’t seen the film). As you say, Steve, this tactic is simple and old hat, but still remarkably effective.

    This film permits (probably encourages, maybe demands) a kind of orientalist approach on behalf of its viewers. Along with Jake, we are the so-called objective party that enters the new land, as Gardner laments, easily goes native. The privilege of our position allows to inhabit any world we choose: “[Jake] gets to be a marine and a scientist, to wed the seemingly irreconcilable divide of opposing cultures as posited by the film’s Victorian logic.” But like the orientalists of old, our assumptions of personal objectivity blind us to the hypocrisy we reflexively engage to enjoy this film. So we swallow the message of environmental preservation as we participate in one of the most wasteful rituals of our time – going to the megaplex. This seems like the same kind of “incoherance” that postcolonial theorists criticize in colonizer idealogies, enacted regularly and mindlessly.

    I still have lots of questions about this film, many of which could be answered by just netflixing the darn thing. As you highlight in your post, Steve, there is something more complicated about the collusion between the “native” and the “natural.” It seems culturally appropriate that so often representatives from the colonized culture are female, while their colonizing counterparts are male.

    Comment by Victoria | February 3, 2010 | Reply

  5. Wow, I’m so pleased that one of my former students and two graduates of my university (never to be named on this blog) have offered such brilliant and insightful comments. And thanks for the encouraging words, Jason. I really do appreciate it. I’ll try to respond a bit and as I do so, I’ll also try to include some responses to my blog that people made on FaceBook. (Why they responded on FaceBook and not on the blog itself is a mystery to me, but cyberspace is a wacky world.)

    So, in response to Megan D. — I’m pretty sure I disagree with your education teacher, because there’s nothing new about technology here. I wonder how he feels about Lord of the Rings — not just the movies, but also the novels, which similarly create a utopian nature space threatened by exploitative technologies. What about most Disney movies? And lots of 16th century literature painted America as this Eden we could escape to; how would your teacher feel about that? I guess this question is whether it’s the technology of Avatar that’s producing the effect on the audience or the story itself? One of my friends on FaceBook raised exactly this question about the relationship of the pleasure of the visual effects and the anti-imperialist story. And although CNN is reporting mass depression, that’s CNN. It seems if anything this movie has got people talking about issues of colonialism and the environment, and talking about those two issues together, which I think is how we should talk about them. Al Gore’s movie Inconvenient Truth fails to link environmental problems to the history of colonialism as Avatar rightly does. One of the things Avatar shows that few other movies show — and also what the American news media did not show about the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions — is the trauma of the local people. Those scenes are horrifying, and the anguish is intense as the Native American writer I mentioned above appreciated. As for what political action we should take, perhaps that’s not the role of movies, but that’s a good point.

    In response to Megan G., Jenkins’ blog is pretty cool, and I think he’s right, though I think there is more going on than just those five things he mentions, and he doesn’t explore the political implications of the movie in as much depth as I think we should.

    In response to Victoria (whose essay about Spike Lee’s Bamboozled — I’ve heard through the grapevine — looks like it might be published in the not too distant future, congrats and shout-outs), I think you should go see the movie in the theater. Why not? Anyway, yes, you are quite right that the camera positions the audience as Jake several times. We see the world through his eyes both when he is Jake and when he is the avatar — notably, when he first wakes up as the avatar. Thus, the camera and editing encourage the audience to identify with Jake, and you are absolutely right that this colonizer/colonized relationship is gendered in the movie the way it has always been gendered in colonial discourse. Meanwhile, I am reminded of something I read recently in the book Colonialism/Postcolonialism. A black author was asked if he identified with the black characters in Hollywood movies like Tarzan and Indian Jones. And he said, no, he identified with the heros of the movie, even though they were white and racist. That’s how movies work, as you eloquently point out.

    However, I think you are far too quick to dismiss the movie and seem unwilling to consider that more might be going on (which was the point of my own blog post by the way.) For instance, a good movie will exploit this identification that you mention and then reverse it. (Bamboozled does this a lot.) I think Avatar and also the revision of the Pocahontas story in the 2005 movie New World do that a bit in ways that most other movies with similar plots do not (e.g., Dances with Wolves.) We also see Jake from Neytiri’s point of view as a bumbling, destructive idiot. And I think the reversals in this movie are the reason why some people have reacted so angrily to the movie and others just feel depressed (in contrast to the reactions to Disney’s Pocahontas, for instance.) One of my friends on FaceBook gave me a couple of links to YouTube clips that have spliced the Disney Pocahontas and Avatar trailers togeher to suggest how identical they are. They are quite amusing:

    But ss I mentioned in my blog and you seem to have missed, it’s easy to lump all films into a theoretical category, and I think you are taking the easy theoretical way out without seriously thinking it through. As I said before, I think one should attend to the differences, too. Avatar is not actually the same story as Pocahontas. It reverses the ending and it also reverses the objectivity of the scientist that you mention and exposes its complicity with exploitative capitalism. Contrary to what you and a lot of the critics I mentioned in my blog argue, I don’t think we leave the theater simply feeling proud of our identification with the good guys in their victory. We feel confused… hence all the depression and anger that the CNN article and Megan D mention.

    It is common for theorists to assert that seemingly anti-colonial movies aren’t really anti-colonial because they don’t convince the audience to change the world they live in. I don’t think that’s fair. The people doing the colonizing are not always the same people making the movies and literature about it, so it’s not the case that the literature will always so simply support the colonizing mission. A classic case in point is the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Sometimes it is the case that literature rationalizes and justifies colonialism, but not always. In my view it is a false isomorphism, and I am sceptical of that kneejerk response by many theorists and critics. The relationships among literature, ideology, and actual colonization are more oblique. And consider this: for all of the 19th century and much of the 20th, British, French, and even Americans were explicitly and publicly proud of their empires. But after George Lucas’s movie Star Wars, the word “empire” will forever be associated with the evil Darth Vader. No American politicians today could publicly express pride in the American empire. It’s not possible. Now, it’s true that Star Wars gives the audience the easy escape that you claim Avatar gives us, and it’s full of all sorts of contradictions and nonsense that you rightly suspect Avatar of being full of, and it doesn’t force us to really deal with our complicity with evil as I mention in my blog about Avatar, but still, as one of my friends on FaceBook pointed out to me, movies like Avatar and Star Wars make an anti-empire argument more convincingly for the average person and especially for young people than a lot of the postcolonial theory books I’ve read. For sure, it’s not as complex and multifaceted as a novel such as Amitav Ghosh’s Glass Palace, but I think it’s useful to contrast anti-empire movies like Avatar and Star Wars with the extremely racist, pro-empire crap like Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom, Rambo, Apocalypto, and most Chuck Norris movies.

    Lastly, I was a little confused by your comment about movie watching as being one of the most wasteful rituals of our time. Really? More wasteful than tourism? So, are you saying we shoudn’t make and watch movies anymore? The internet uses quite a lot of energy too and books are made out of trees, so should we not have conversations about the environment on the internet or in books? Would you say the same thing about Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth? I remember when I was teaching Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which makes an anti-corporate argument, one of my students called Klein a hypocrite for publishing an anti-corporate argument on a corporate publisher. I pointed out that we live in the world we live in. There’s no such thing as a “pure” lifestyle, that even the monks rely on financial support from elsewhere (often getting lots of money from corporations that engaged in criminal activities.) As Karl Marx and many other theorists point out, dialectical action means you make use of what’s available to you. As Ani DiFranco sings, anything is a weapon if you hold it right. Instead of dismissing Avatar out of hand, what if we instead hold it right?

    Meanwhile, one of my friends encouraged me to check out this movie Birdwatchers as a contrast to Avatar, but I don’t know if it was ever available in the United States:

    Comment by steventhomas | February 4, 2010 | Reply

  6. Thanks for this, Steve. I’ve been having a rough go in an MA theory course lately, doubting both myself and the material, and this blog dragged me back into the energy of it all. Nicely written.


    Comment by Dave H | February 26, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks Dave, that’s exactly what I was hoping.

      Comment by steventhomas | March 5, 2010 | Reply

  7. Hey Steve and all Avatar fans: Check this article out (from NPR??)…pretty interesting stuff, and if nothing else funny.


    Comment by Nick Kurtz | March 4, 2010 | Reply

  8. Thanks Nick. I never would have thought to compare Avatar with Ke$ha’s music video “Tik Tok” as that article does, but I can see the point, since both are overproduced and glossy, and “Tik Tok” seems like it could provoke the kind of mixed response that Avatar provoked.

    On the one hand, Ke$ha’s song appears to be an insipid, brainless copy-catting of other pop sounds and iconography that condenses them all into a single alcoholic party-girl image or “garbage chic” as she has called herself. All of the images and sounds (from P.Diddy to Black Eyed Peas to to Mick Jagger) are just mixed together pointlessly and without any sense in a way that might appeal to teenagers who fantasize about an exciting life but don’t have one. It mixes together all the other music and images they listen to on their iPods. But on the other hand, her song is kind of interesting for precisely its over-the-top recklessness and nonsensical pastiche of pop culture references. Precisely because it copycats and mixes together a bunch of recent pop sounds and juxtaposes it all with images of white suburban innocence, it critically reveals — as it revels in — the vapidity of 21st century American culture.

    That said, I disagree with that article a little bit. I think Avatar wasn’t intending to mix together older colonial fantasy narratives in the way that Ke$ha mixes together contemporary pop culture. Avatar never makes allusions or references to them. No character says, “oh, like Dances with Wolves” or “blue like the Smurfs” or something like that. Rather, it’s the reviewers and critics who are making those comparisons. What I’m actually struck by is the unwillingness of these reviewers and critics to notice the differences between Avatar and the other movies. They seem so intent on showing off their knowledge of movie history by pointing to the similarities with other movies that they don’t take up the film on its own terms. I pointed out these differences above in my original blog post and in my response to Victoria. What Avatar does make explicit allusions to is not other examples of pop culture but the language of President George W. Bush and the issue of global warming. These allusions are pretty blatant, and maybe there are other explicit allusion to other things, but I didn’t catch them. So, I think the movie has a clear ethical and political vision (controversial and problematic for sure, but still pretty clear) in a way that Ke$ha does not.

    But the article is right about the glossiness of Avatar. My own analysis of the movie via postcolonial theory really doesn’t address just how beautiful and seductive the film is, and how simultaneously (and paradoxically) compelling and fake it feels. I wish I had something smart to say about that. My own knowledge of aesthetics and theory about aesthetics is unfortunately pretty weak.

    Comment by steventhomas | March 5, 2010 | Reply

  9. Hi! My name is Kish, and I’m a 1st-year college student. I was kinda helpless a while ago in making a postcolonial analysis of Avatar, until I found this very nice blog of yours! 🙂

    I was so delighted that I found someone who could shed light to my current misery!Someone undeniably a genius in the field of postcolonial theories! (Well, I have this tendency of making exaggerated statements whenever I’m so happy.)

    I’m required to make a postcolonial analysis of the movie, w/c is to be passed next week, via it’s depiction of hybridity, identity and imperialism. Actually, I’ve already made a rough sentence outline of my paper. Please inform me if we can talk through mail or anything. I hope you could help me with my paper.

    That’s all for now. Thank you and God bless! 😀

    Comment by Kish | March 8, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks so much Kish for your exaggerated statements!!! They made me happy. 🙂

      If you waant to talk more, please feel free to brainstorm any ideas you have about Avatar and/or postcolonial theory in further comments on this blog. I’d be very interested in anything you have to say, and probably the 25 students in my “postcolonial literature” class would find the thread of our conversation helpful since they sometimes all feel just as helpless as you did. As I’m sure you can understand, I don’t think it would be wise for us right now to talk through e-mail, because I need to devote my time to my own students and also to my own writing, since I need to publish some more stuff if I want to get tenure at my university. I’d encourage you to talk to your teacher instead of me, but at the same time, I’d love to continue this conversation in the comments of the blog.

      One piece of general advice I have is to think of postcolonial theory as a series of questions and a debate, not a clear or definite answer. That’s why I started my blog with two completely opposite perspectives on Avatar — some thinking it’s colonialist and some thinking it’s anti-colonialist. I’ve noticed that sometimes students get stressed out about papers because they think they have to know the right answer, but if we knew the definite answer, then there would be no need for the theory. Unfortunately, the theoretical debate has gone on for a long, long time, which is why it’s so confusing for students stepping into the middle of it for the first time. For instance, you mentioned “hybridity.” One might think of that concept as the opposite of “essential” and “authenticity,” but sometimes it is also thought of as the opposite of “nationalism” or even “pan-Africanism.” It’s is kind of a funny word, actually — some like it, but some don’t, and people disagree about what it means or how useful it is. I can say more about the reasons for that disagreement if you wish.

      I’m curious if you noticed any notions of hybridity in the movie Avatar? I didn’t talk about it in my blog, but I think you’re right that there’s something there. What do you think?

      Comment by steventhomas | March 9, 2010 | Reply

  10. Steve, I was wondering what you think of Zizek’s musings on Avatar. He compares the fictional Nav’i to the Naxalites, an ethnic group undergoing an eerily similar tragedy in India (they happen to live atop a rich mineral deposit that outsiders are trying to seize). This is his conclusion:

    “The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself – the film substituting for reality.”

    Comment by Doug | March 25, 2010 | Reply

    • Doug, I’m often a fan of Zizek and have cited him in my blog several times before. And I see that his review of Avatar includes a big quote from Arundhati Roy, who is one of my favorite postcolonial activists (and also has written the critically acclaimed novel God of Small Things.) She and another author named Mahasweta Devi (whom my postcolonial literature class will be reading later) work very hard on behalf of ethnic groups such as the Naxalites in India and elsewhere.

      I think he is right about this and in many ways echoes my point in my second paragraph (and echoes the many other criticisms of the movie) about the “colonialist fantasy” narratives. The problem for the cultural critic, as I understand it, is this — why do American movies such as Avatar, Star Wars, etc., etc., always side with the rebels in movies, but the Americans who enjoy these movies always side with the repression of the rebellion. So Zizek alerts us to how our fantasy is often the opposite of our real social committments. This contradiction/paradox tends to be resolved in Hollywood movies through the romantic, sexual union, and oddly the traumatic event ends up serving to give the romance plot a deeper meaning. This is why Zizek mentions so many other movies in his article, because he’s demonstrating how typical this story is. And he’s also making a psychoanalytic point about the complex relationship between fantasy and reality.

      But, although I totally agree with his critique just as I agree with Victoria’ comment above, I would prefer to situate the film differently. Instead of condemning the film for engaging in a fantasy that is so antithetical to the reality of America’s political commitments and economic practices, I think critics can be more positive and say to audiences, “Look, on an emotional level, you clearly sided with the Nav’i, so now look over here at the Naxalites or over here at the Palestinians or over here at this Native American tribe, etc. After watching Avatar, do you now see their struggle differently than how it’s been represented in the newspapers and network news? But the movie is just a movie, so now lets really look into this.” So, that’s how I prefer to pitch it–using the movie as a jumping off point for addressing real concerns, and I think that is one of the roles of critics and teachers. I applaud Zizek for actually mentioning a real contemporary struggle since many of the most hostile critics of the movie seem oblivious to them, but I think he could spin it in a more positive direction.

      On a more theoretical level, one could point out that Zizek is not accounting for the diversity and range of feelings and perspectives in any given social field. He has reduced a movie to the expression of a single, unified consciousness. Why does Zizek assume that Cameron wouldn’t support the Naxalites just because Cameron’s government won’t? So, other theorists starting with Derrida and Foucault in the 1960s, have critiqued the Lacanina psychoanalysis that Zizek does for not accounting for the multiplicity of the social field.

      Comment by steventhomas | March 27, 2010 | Reply

  11. Hello, professor. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve linked to your blog on mine and that I found your article very helpful in doing research for a belated review I wrote on my blog. I also especially like your point about “Can the Subaltern Speak.” Plus, what would it even mean to speak from the point of view of an entirely fictional indigenous people under oppression?

    The awareness that Avatar lends us seems particularly poignant now though, especially in light of the recent release of Restrepo. What do you think?

    Comment by Neima | July 15, 2010 | Reply

    • Neima, sorry it took me a while to reply. I just read your blog on Avatar and really loved it. You wonderfully do exactly what I wasn’t able to do — talk about how the aesthetic experience.

      As for the movie Restrepo, I just watched the trailor on its website, and it looks a lot like Hurt Locker, except that I guess it actually is “real” instead of something that merely looks real — funny, how the difference between documentary and action-thriller have blurred. I’m guessing that, like Hurt Locker, Restrepo will focus entirely on the Americans and never give us any perspective from the Afghans. That would be a shame and seems lazy on the film-maker’s part. In that way, Avatar is significantly different (and in many ways is a better, more truthful movie, ironically, than the documentary), because it’s about the “American” learning the Other’s POV. And as your blog points out, because of Avatar’s aesthetics, we leave the theater disoriented and not know how we feel it. Hence, paradoxically, the fantasy of Avatar is more realistic in this one aspect than the documentary’s hyper-realism. Or rather, watching a movie like Avatar can teach us how to think critically about Restrepo and show how much a documentary film is just as ideological and narratological as any fiction story.

      One of the problmes I had with Avatar (that I mentioned in my blog) is that it simplifies the good versus evil story. The bad guys are obviously bad. But in reality, the difference between bad guys and good guys is never all that clear at all. In fact, I would venture to say (hypothetically) that if the Avatar story was re-made and filmed in a faux-documentary style like Hurt Locker, its “bad guys” would probably very much resemble the heroic individuals in Restrepo.

      Comment by steventhomas | July 28, 2010 | Reply

  12. Oh and my blog is this:, in case you want to take a look.

    Comment by Neima | July 15, 2010 | Reply

  13. […] Blog Post Eleven:  Apply some element of po-co theory to the chosen film. This link might help you think about how to approach the blog post: […]

    Pingback by Week 11: Thinking about film | KU Postcolonial Theory and Texts: Spring 2017 | April 9, 2017 | Reply

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