Teens, Feminist Politics, and “Avatar”

Last week, my kid and I decided to catch a matinee of James Cameron’s much anticipated Avatar. The trailers made it look interesting, and I really loved his last big hit (Titanic). As an added bonus, it looked like a good bet for entertaining someone of the 16 year-old techno-geek set. I figured I’d be amused for a couple of hours at worst and, at best, I’d be impressed with the animation/special effects. And, I thought, I might (just might) find something interesting to discuss with my angsty emotional roller-coaster riding/hormonal distant teenager.

Before the actual movie started, I laid even odds that the most exciting part of the entire experience would be my first glimpse of the theatrical preview of the latest Johnny Depp/Tim Burton endeavor—Alice in Wonderland. It hits theaters just in time to celebrate my next birthday in March. Squeeee! Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter + Tim Burton = automatic cinematic masterpiece. But I digress.

It turns out that, even though the aforementioned preview of Depp/Burton goodness was awesome (as expected), Avatar itself was nothing short of amazing. Despite some fairly obvious flaws as well as some problematic plot themes/elements, it is a beautiful film, both as an epic story and as a technical marvel. In my mind, it was worth every bit of the $10/each I paid for us to see it—and I’m a wait for the DVD (cheap) sort of girl.

Before you read any further, I must warn you: SPOILERS AHEAD. If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie—stop reading now. Phew. Glad that’s out of the way.

Now then. Back to the movie. As I said, it has some fairly problematic elements. As some have rightly argued, it is essentially a very expensive, techno-savvy retelling of Disney’s Pocahontas. I think there are interesting and not-so-great things going on with whiteness and guilt. I am also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the main character is less-than because he is paralyzed from the waist down. He becomes “whole” again by occupying his Avatar—a body that can walk. And, to be really nit-picky, it irritates me that they are a bit off on some of the details of being a Marine (as the main character supposedly is).

They did get some things right, though. For one, this version of Pocahontas was way less one-dimensional than Disney’s take. The storyline has a greater depth, I thought, than the Prince/Princess fairy tale version. The way they treated Native beliefs regarding connectedness to the Earth, for example, was much more nuanced than the previous one. Plus the portrayal of female characters in general is more rounded than guy saves girl, girl swoons, they marry. Michelle Rodriguez plays a bad-ass for instance. And the girl lead part includes saving the boy—and killing the villain while the boy is unconscious! I think that is great, especially compared to fairy-tale love stories in general.

But by far the best thing about the entire experience, for me, was that it opened the door for my kid and I to have a great, long talk about U.S. Colonialism, history, popular culture and its tendency to portray women as weak and dependent (like Bella Swan), disability, foreign policy, the difference between U.S. Military and private/privatized mercenary armies and the list goes on and on. It was (and is) so cool to be able to talk about these things in light of something that the kid is really interested in. Sure,we’ve talked about most of these things before—probably, from the teenaged perspective, ad naseum—but this was different. There was a new level of engagement with the subject(s) at hand. The movie shed light on a lot of these things in ways that helped all of the things I had said before ‘click’ in ways they hadn’t previously.

So..I guess the moral of the story is this: if you’re looking for a fun way to get your kid engaged in some of these topics, this movie is a good bet. It has its problems, but, overall, its an enjoyable movie plus it has a lot of reference points for discussing topics that don’t come up in your typical U.S. History class—important topics that, imho, we feminists have an obligation to revisit beyond the sanitized version of events offered by most schools.

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