Avatar, Eye-Candy, & Rhetorical Racism: Moving Beyond Tokenism

(This post has been sitting on the back burner for a while, but life with school, ministry, travel, got to a point where this wasn’t able to get out when I wanted it to. Oh well – better late than never.)

I saw Avatar in the theaters and was at first in awe of visual eye candy.  No question it is one of the most visually stunning films ever produced.  I’m colorblind and I was impressed…I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a full spectrum of colors at my disposal to consider how beautiful it would be.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that Avatar was more like the magazines in the check-out aisle of the grocery store: air-brushed eye candy that is pretty superficial and devoid of significant substance or content.

Now don’t get me wrong – Avatar isn’t in the gutter with Transformers 2…that was just awful.  It was as if that film was using the article I blogged about regarding male hormones as a script to help attract men.

But in some ways, Avatar is more dangerous because people take it far more seriously.  I mean, it got a stinkin’ best picture nod.  We’ve already heard enough about the comparisons to Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai.  Instead of Native Americans and Ancient Warriors we get supersized smurfs that bear a striking resemblance to African Tribal people.

The message of the film is pretty direct: all of the characters who are seeking to expand the empire are white American men (except the hero, Jake) and Jake becomes the hero by leaving his culture and people and saves the people who are not his own, but in the end he becomes one of them.

There are several indirect messages this sends – I could critique the film at length.  I’ll focus on two:

1. On the surface, it seems like such a nice politically correct story.  Jake becomes the hero by becoming cross-cultural and becoming one of those who were marginalized.

But let’s just think about this for sometime.  First of all, Jake might be in body one of the supersized smurfs, but culturally he is still a white American jarhead.  What does it say that he becomes the hero of this people? Why not a leader who was actually native to the planet? What is it about Jake that allows for him to become the leader of a people who aren’t his own?

I won’t leave these questions at rhetorical – I think what this communicates is indirect racism that covertly implies that the redeemed white american is one who still “saves” those who can’t save themselves.  It’s covert imperialism. It’s implying that there is something special about Jake that allows for him to be the leader of the people.

And it’s racist.

What it is indirectly saying is that the Navi people are not capable of developing indigenous leadership in order and require leadership from outside to survive attempts of cultural imperialism.  So, in essence, they are saved from cultural imperialism through…cultural imperialism.

Silly James Cameron; simplistic plot lines are for kids.

2. While this is going to sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, I’m going to address the other end of the spectrum here.  As I’ve said before in other posts, I’m an equal opportunity offender.  And here is where I’m walking on eggshells…and I’m about to make some omelets here.

Americans have a tendency to idealize other cultures as a reaction to being perceived as imperialistic.  I own American imperialism – it is real and it is dangerous.  It’s tragic that a standard of beauty that causes women to whiten their skin with toxic skin whiteners and receive plastic surgery.  That women view themselves in comparison to the Western standards of beauty is dishonoring and dehumanizing to their people made in the image of God.

I’ve worked with young men of several different ethnicities who feel their standard of masculinity is considered subpar to the culturally-biased stuff that is broadcast in Christian Bookstores like Wild at Heart and helped them realize their cultural form of masculinity is by no means less than that of whites.  (BTW, I liked the book. It was important to me. It’s just very culturally bound to White american men.)

Working cross-culturally when I wasn’t the dominant culture has taught me so much on masculinity and femininity that I can’t begin to describe  how much I’ve grown because of it.  Living under the leadership of those not like me have stretched me more than I ever dreamed.

I am one of the only people I know who has had the opportunity to be under the leadership of folks of four different ethnicities (Asian-American, White, Black, and Latino) and both genders for an extended ongoing period of time (at least one year). This is something that I can honestly say has been one of the greatest opportunities for both blessing and frustration, and has grown me and stretched me tremendously.

What I can say from this experience is this: power is what typically reveals cultural strengths and cultural dysfunctions.  We are getting a glimpse of this as we get more global in just a snapshot of current events that causing dissonance.

Was the apology of the Toyota executive sincere?  If it was sincere, what are we to say of the supposed management practices of Toyota that suppressed safety information that may have been contrary to that which management wanted to hear?

For what reasons are babies being born at a rate of 120 boys to 100 girls in China and Northern India?

And what are we to say about the chicken pills taken by women in Jamaica?

If you subscribe to the worldview of Avatar, and you are a white american male like myself, you shouldn’t ask these questions.  It’s offensive.  The rules say you are only able to focus exclusively on the positives of other cultures.

But that methodology is only good for entertainment purposes at a theater…and it’s worth about $10.

When we subscribe to the worldview of Avatar, we idealize the minority on the one hand, demonize the majority on the other, and indirectly say that we the ideal minority is unable to develop it’s own leaders and has to import them from the demon majority, we live in a dangerous world that is unable to move to reconciliation.  Our response is even more dangerous: tokenism.

The response leads to develop minority leadership that is “token” in nature – in other words, minorities are put in leadership for the sake of their presence as minorities in order to appease internal white guilt.

And it’s belittling to minorities.

I got a glimpse of what it means to move beyond tokenism as a part of the search committee that brought the new pastor of my church.  We did not know that one of the leading candidates we rated for our pastor was a Jamacian born Black man.  As we continued throughout the process, we were very up front and honest with him about recent issues of race that were divisive in our church to the point of a staff person leaving.  Evanston is a diverse community, but our church is about 85% white.

Yet it became clear to our entire committee that this was the man whom God was calling to our congregation.  We knew we were asking this man to enter into something potentially difficult.  And as we made the decision, we even received racist hate mail.  But the decision has been clearly one that only God could have orchestrated in his timing, and one that only could have been led by his Spirit.  Not a spirit of political correctness, not a spirit of tokenism, but one that is reconciling people to each other and to God.

And I had a front row seat for an incredible show.

As I worshipped at our installation of the Pastor, I couldn’t help but realize the shallowness the worldview of Avatar.  Like the name of the film, it’s only skin deep.  It will never allow the deepest wounds to be healed. It will just be a vain superficial cover.  Real reconciliation requires moving beyond tokenism, image management,  and simplistic cultural caricatures to true understanding through authentic friendship.

And truthfully, that is just harder than most people really want to work.  But I still hope and dream that in my lifetime we move beyond eye-candy ethnicity and toward real reconciliation.

2 Responses to “Avatar, Eye-Candy, & Rhetorical Racism: Moving Beyond Tokenism”

  1. 1 Robert April 6, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Worth the wait.

  2. 2 andybilhorn April 6, 2010 at 11:04 am

    thanks dude. life’s been too crazy.

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April 2010

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