Body-fascism in Avatar and homophobia everywhere

So: my first week of spring term has come to an end, and I’m finally ready to blog again.  I’ve watched a lot of movies lately, started some classes, read some comics & nonfiction, listened to the new Evelyn Evelyn album, and of course read a bazillion things on the Internet. Lately both Ashley and I have been browsing the very awesome website Sociological Images, which has stirred all kinds of new ideas about how bodies are presented in the media.

Speaking of which! This morning I was reading the latest issue of Sight & Sound and received a pleasant surprise. In the Letters section on the last page was a missive from Dariush Alavi complaining about Avatar; he pointed out how S&S‘s review of Cameron’s mega-opus was, like everyone else, “cheering the money” despite the film’s “execrable politics.” (Politics which Ashley and I have attacked ourselves at great length; see here.) Alavi’s letter really struck home with one particular portion, which highlights some very problematic parts of the film I noticed, but hadn’t been fully able to vocalize.

Avatar must be one of the most racist, body-fascist and unimaginative high-profile American movies I’ve seen in a long time… With their cornrows and ‘generic African’ accents, [the Na’vi] represent all the worst aspects of the notion of the ‘noble savage’, and are evidence of the movie’s patronising attitude to its characters and audience. The uniformity of the Na’vi appearance – from the perfect teeth to the ridiculous waists – is almost as horrific as their facial features, which seem to be an extrapolation of the ‘nipped and tucked’ look favoured in California.

I think this letter makes some fantastic points. Superficially, Avatar is a simplistic man vs. nature epic, contrasting the technology and violence of the humans with the Na’vis’ spiritual connection to their environment. But the Na’vi (aka symbolic Native Americans/Africans) aren’t given subjectivities of their own, and Cameron colonizes them – and all indigenous peoples by extension – just as much as his evil humans do. They’re not characters so much as aesthetic objects, and they remain entirely passive (albeit still so visually pleasing) until brought into action under Jake Sully’s leadership.

And this passivity and objectification is intensified by Cameron’s total disinterest in individualizing the Na’vi. They live communally, I guess, so they don’t need to bother with any but the most cursory personalities – the chief, the priestess, the princess, and rival, and… the rest. Most of the Na’vis’ roles in the film pretty much amount to being eye candy – their director’s motion-captured harem. As Alavi points out, this isn’t just creative laziness: it’s also a desire to put good and evil in the most audaciously obvious of physical terms. Colonel Quaritch is scarred, therefore he’s evil; the Na’vi are enviably tall and thin, a race of Mary Sues, therefore they must be good. The most apt descriptor for them as a race isn’t even “peaceful” or “meditative” so much as “beautiful.”

As was discussed at length, Avatar‘s story basically mirrored that of District 9, but made everything so much easier. In District 9, Blomkamp asks his protagonist and audience to empathize with a race of spat-upon, crustacean refugees referred to only with the pejorative “prawns.” But who’d think twice about becoming a Na’vi? Every subversive piece of Cameron’s story was itself undercut through extreme use of cliché, and the glamorous, better-than-human appearance of the Na’vi fits in this pattern. I think “body-fascist” is the perfect word for a movie that makes its oppressed minority into a species of supermodels, out of the fear that if any Na’vi were possible fat, or ugly, or not quite so sparkly as Edward Cullen, then the audience might fail to identify with them. By which I mean, fuck James Cameron.

Anyway! That’s enough for now about Avatar, the movie so bland it earned a zillion dollars. Why don’t we move on to something more interesting, like flatworm reproduction? Or alternately, also worth discussing: another letter from Sight & Sound, in which Andrew Brettell writes, “Why do film directors feel the need to add these qualifications to works about gay characters?” He refers to a statement from A Single Man‘s director Tom Ford, wherein he said, “It’s not a gay story, he just happens to be gay.” This ties in beautifully to a book I’ve been reading for months, Vito Russo’s classic study of LGBT images in film, The Celluloid Closet. [Caveat for what follows: I have not yet seen A Single Man.]

Russo introduces the chapter “Frightening the Horses” with a series of quotes from filmmakers involved with LGBT-themed movies of the ’60s and ’70s – William Wyler (The Children’s Hour), Rod Steiger (The Sergeant), Gordon Willis (Windows), Rex Harrison (Staircase), and John Schlesinger (Sunday, Bloody Sunday). The gist of all these quotes? The films aren’t about homosexuality; they’re about some other, non-gay theme, usually loneliness. It’s strange that despite the passage of 40 or so years and the flowering of a whole queer independent cinema in America, directors of mainstream movies about homosexuality are still compelled to qualify their work, and even when the directors themselves are gay, like Tom Ford.

I don’t necessarily blame the people making these statements, but I think it does provide insights into our straight society’s attitude toward stories about, gasp, gay people. It’s as if straight moviegoers need to be cajoled into the theaters. “Don’t worry; you won’t be asked to share in Colin Firth’s homoerotic desires. It’s just about loneliness! You can identify with loneliness, can’t you?” So maybe this method of framing movies is double-edged: it certainly looks like cowardice, backing down from the content of your own film, but it can possibly serve as a Trojan horse, a way to lure vaguely homophobic or at least homo-anxious people into a movie they might not otherwise see. They sit down in the theater, they start identifying with Colin Firth, and by the end they might say, “Wow! Oppression based on your sexual orientation does suck!”

So that’s a possible defense of these wishy-washy statements, which admit that the characters are gay, but insist that the movie’s about more universal themes: they’re giving a special point of entrance to ignorant, self-absorbed straight viewers. I think this also reveals a lot about how straight is seen as the incontrovertible default or norm. (Kind of like, oh, how women are women and men are people, or how black is an alternate option.) Even now, homosexuality is identified as, yes, different, strange, abnormal, wrong, sinful, and of course as synonymous with sex-obsessed. So gay men can’t be trusted with Boy Scouts, for example, or if you try to incorporate a gay character into children’s fiction, you’re perverting them and soiling their innocence.

Do you remember the outcry over King & King? Or any number of books for children with totally nonsexual presentations of gay characters? This is the big issue here: even though stories for kids are absolutely full of hetero relationships, whether it’s between princes and princesses, or mothers and fathers, or animals that fall in love, once you switch the genders, then it becomes dirty and sexual. Because male/female relationships are always pure and chaste and kid-friendly, and they reproduce in clean and unobjectionable ways, right? But if you say the word “gay” to a child, you may as well be shouting “ANAL SEX!” in their ear over and over. Except… that’s not true; the image of homosexuals as always craving and having sex is just a malicious stereotype. However, since the people (men) in charge – whether socially, politically, or economically – decide the stereotypes, they decide the children’s books, and they decide what’s normal.

There’s also been an outcry over mentioning homosexuality in middle/high school sex ed courses. Which basically shows how parents want their kids to grow up either not knowing that gays exist – invisibility – or else regarding them as weird, vaguely predatory, but ultimately pitiful creatures who crawl around the fringes of cities (i.e., the dominant image presented pre-1960s, and sometimes post-). There are so many entangled fears here that it’s hard to straighten them out, but I think a huge one is fearing that their sons/daughters just might be gay (“I knew I shouldn’t have listened to so much Elton John when I was pregnant!), and if they learn about homosexuality in an accepting social climate, then dear God, they might just feel comfortable coming out. And then not only will the queers have invaded the TVs and radios with their icky, anal-sex-having selves, but they’ll have invaded poor God-fearing folks’ families, as well. As if homosexuality is a tumor you can eliminate with enough bigoted chemotherapy.

So that’s my brief take on, oh, the fears that put the “phobia” in “homophobia.” It reminds me of a basic tenet from my melodrama class last year, propounded by Linda Williams: “home as a space of innocence.” One of her exemplars of this theme, it’s worth mentioning, is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which could make a pretty good template for the kinds of new homophobic myths that have been developed over the past few decades. According to these hateful, deluded people, they’re just protecting their homes – be that literally, or  referring to all of America as Reagan’s “shining city” – and spreading homophobic lies is just like preemptively nailing all the doors shut or putting up a fence. Thankfully, through the beauty of tolerance and increasing education, that’s all starting to change.


Filed under Body, Cinema, Media, Politics, Sexuality

4 responses to “Body-fascism in Avatar and homophobia everywhere

  1. I love this post. I can’t really comment on the Avatar bit (haven’t seen it, only read a few well-conceived reviews like yours), but regarding homophobia and queer artists (like Tom Ford) in particular: this raises an interesting point about the political power of artists and the politics of representation. I’ve heard a number of artists strive to distinguish their work from their other identities, arguing that collapsing these things — gay director; queer experimental musician (Xiu Xiu); or (in the case of poet Lenelle Moïse, who visited Carleton two years ago: queer, female Haitian poet — pigeonholes them, makes both them and their creative output somehow more consumable and controllable. According to this argument, a “gay” film or photograph or experience is somehow _less_ a film or photograph or experience, and even less so the more identities that become attached to it; proclaiming the homosexual aspects of this film or photograph or experience doesn’t help to diversify our understanding of any of these things, but just compartmentalizes it.

    I don’t know if I buy that argument completely. But were I to have some kind of artistic career, I think I would feel better being known as, say, a writer who’s adamantly queer rather than a queer (gay — no one says queer) writer. I don’t know if that’s internalized homophobia speaking, but I also don’t think one option is necessarily less political than the other. However, this becomes more complex, in ways I can’t really delineate, when we get to somebody with Oscar-nominee clout like Tom Ford (or maybe Gus Van Sant?). I feel disappointed when I hear A Single Man (haven’t seen it) or My Own Private Idaho or, hell, Brokeback Mountain described as not reeeeally a gay movie; it’s a lost opportunity, something I could have identified with even more and taken some kind of pride in. But I don’t feel that way when I hear Lenelle Moïse recite her poetry in a tiny low-lit venue before an audience of twenty on a college campus, telling us she is, first of all, a poet.

    On the one hand, maybe it’s not fair to fault queer/otherwise oppressed artists for highlighting the universals of their work and themselves. They’re people, too, and calling themselves bisexual or multiracial people might not change the impression that “people” will tend to mean certain things that they are not. But on the other hand, maybe it’s not fair to their audiences when they fail to highlight the particulars, particulars that could mobilize and affirm.

    • Thanks a lot for commenting, and for helping me try to sort out the complexities of these issues. It’s so hard to straighten out the distinctions between how artists prefer to identify themselves, how they’re identified by the media/public, how their work is identified, why, etc., and I think you pointed out several of the benefits and problems with each approach on the part of the artists and us as spectators.

      I think it becomes harder to tease out artist intentions, however, when you’re dealing with the film industry, since then it becomes a matter of how a movie (which is also a product being put forth by a company) is framed in the interest of attracting a paying audience, and that definitely factors in to some degree with A Single Man, Brokeback Mountain, and the work of Gus Van Sant.

      But even in those cases, the point’s still very valid: these filmmakers, as well as the marketing machinery publicizing their films, are entitled to use whatever primary identifier they choose (like you said, gay director vs. director who’s gay), but those choices subsequently affect the political meanings and uses of their work, and not always in clear-cut ways – like the mixed results of universality vs. specific meaning for an oppressed group, as you observed. So basically, it’s hard to generalize about the significance of artist self-identifications.

      Hope that was coherent and non-repetitive; I’m currently in the grips of insomnia. Thanks you very much for reading and commenting! I really appreciate it.

  2. Well, well, well, Google sometimes takes you to some interesting places!

    Thanks very much indeed for mentioning my letter and for the link to my site. I don’t know if you noticed, but S&S printed two rebuttals in their next issue, which made valid points of their own, but didn’t really understand what I’d tried to say. At least your post here reassured me that I managed to get my message across to someone.

    Thanks again :-)

    • Wow, thank you for commenting! I did read the follow-up letters – one was totally glib and unhelpful, while the other made more sense, but still didn’t seem to get the point. (I.e., that it’s worth discussing the politics and racial representations in the highest-grossing film of all time.) I’m glad you enjoyed my post, and thanks a lot for writing the letter that sparked it in the first place.

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