Avatar is progressive in many ways. It represents racism towards native people as stemming from imperialism. It notices that imperialism is about capital accumulation, indicting a corporation along the way. It shows an ‘economy’ in which spines can be repaired, but only if you have the dosh. It metaphorically revisits the violent imperialist foundations of America – and any such settler colonial state – in a forthrightly disapproving way. It supports the right of native people to violently resist conquest, even when Americans are doing the conquering.
However, it is also deeply patronising towards native people. To quote David Brooks’ article in the New York Times:
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
And, even better, here‘s Annalee Newitz at io9.com, on the subject of Avatar and movies like it:
These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.
Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.
All true, if old news.
My interest here is in the fact that ‘The Power of Kroll’, a Doctor Who serial from 1978-9 that could only have dreamt of having a hundredth of the budget of Avatar (and that not even many Doctor Who fans like) did much, much better.
It covers much of the same ground as Avatar politically. It represents racism towards native people as stemming from imperialism. It notices that imperialism is about capital accumulation, indicting a corporation along the way. It metaphorically revisits the violent imperialist foundations of America – and any such settler colonial state – in a forthrightly disapproving way. It supports the right of native people to violently resist conquest, even when Brits are doing the conquering.
However, it is much better than Avatar – and many such stories – on the matter of native people.
The Swampies – the alien natives in ‘Kroll’ – are not innocent. Their existence in a ‘state of nature’ does not translate into either moral or intellectual purity. Some of them exhibit dishonesty, self-deception, political bluffing, cowardice, cruelty, callousness, paranoia, etc. Some are merciful, shrewd, etc. In other words, they are not cyphers, mere noble victims or symbols of lost innocence. They are people. It is their similarity to the humans that is stressed by the characterisation. The Swampie leader and his second-in-command in many ways mirror their opposite numbers amongst the human colonists.
The Swampies are not wise or mystically enlightened. They have no access to higher spiritual truths than Whitey. They are not mysteriously connected to their environment in a sentimentalised, Gaia-hypothesis-sorta-way. Their conceptions of the numinous are explicitly shown to be wrong; something that some of them realise through observation and reasoning. Their beliefs are just that: beliefs. Moreover, those beliefs have a historical context that both predates their oppression and is then effected by it. In short, they have a history and a culture that stems from their social existence rather than purely from nature via some mystical link.
The Swampies are not untouched. They have bound books, windows, etc. Some of them are servants for the humans. They deal with a gun-runner for human weapons. There are no glamourous Swampie women (there are no women at all – a serious flaw) for a white hero to shag… but the Swampies have had social intercourse with Whitey. This might not seem like much, but it bucks the trend of portraying natives as unreachable or undefiled by contact with white civilisation, which is just an expression of cultural condescension of the kind that sees natives as prelapsarian children, while Whitey (for all his faults) is the bringer of adult knowledge.
The Swampies don’t acquire a human (i.e. white) leader. In countless stories about native people, whether they’re encoded as aliens or not, the white hero becomes one of them and, very often, becomes their leader, or at least a trusted member of the tribe. This is all about Whitey’s desire to recast himself as a friend of the natives, to assuage the liberal guilt of being from a civilisation that has decimated native peoples again and again. It is the desire for the victim to smile and say “that’s okay, we forgive you”. It is still, however, an expression of the colonizing mission and attitude. Whitey infiltrates, assimilates some lessons and then succeeds within the tribe, often then going on to lead and save it. Avatar is possibly the most extreme example of this kind of thing ever made, more so even than Dune. The Swampies are saved by the Doctor’s defusing of the final orbit shot, sure (as is one of the humans)… but neither he nor any other human becomes part of the tribe and leads it to victory. The Swampies reject the false friend Rohm-Dutt and lead their own attack, killing Thawn all on their little old ownsomes.
The Swampies do not ‘win’ in a way that relieves the white guilt trip by way of a pleasing fantasy. Sure, the Refinery will close down because Kroll vanishes, so the Swampies’ll probably be able to stay where they are… but they don’t particularly want to stay on their ‘reservation’. They’re only there at all because they’ve already been displaced from their home. Staying there unmolested is their minimum requirement. What they really want is to return home, but it plainly ain’t gonna happen. The Na’vi get their native world back, in full. The Swampies never will, anymore than will the Nez Perce.
Sadly, both stories put the onus of responsibility – at least for events within the narrative – onto one villain, who is shown to act conspiratorially rather than as an agent of an imperialist state.
For sure, ‘Power of Kroll’ is not perfect… but it manages to be at least as angry as Avatar, without also sentimentalising or patronising native peoples, or coming off like a white guilt-relief fantasy. In Avatar, the sole remaining human on the colonized world ends up physically becoming one of the natives and being welcomed permanently into the tribe as a hero. In ‘Kroll’, the sole remaining human on the colonized world ends up encircled by hostile natives who hate his guts, while the Doctor saunters off, leaving the natives to decide for themselves what to do with their unwelcome final guest. He offers them no advice, no sermon. He evidently thinks its their business, not his.
That is why Avatar feels like a liberal complaint but ‘Kroll’ feels more like a radical snarl.