Sunday, December 27, 2009



To be sure, Avatar in 3D is visually stunning, and sort of amazing.

But it is also... a little bit boring, slowly plotted, trite, and predictable.

The story is pretty basic, a sort of Fern Gully/Pocahontas (myth and Disney, not actual history) for grownups-- backstory is, humans find a new planet with some ridiculous rock substance, they develop work sites, the native population doesn't like them, humans try to establish a school to teach them English and modern things, the natives are like "Um, no. We like our lifestyle, thank you very much. Neurotoxin arrows, anyone?", and things fall apart.

The story, as we join it, is the transformation one "dumb" ex-Marine goes through as he learns of the interconnectivity of life, falls in love with a native woman, and manages to get accepted by a tribe (including, surprise surprise, her aggressive former suitor). It is HORRIBLY predictable. You know they will fall in love, you know that he will be accepted, and you know they will triumph. The foreshadowing over small details is even enough that you end up being able to predict those too. But predictability, in itself, isn't a killing stroke-- after all, men and women are both portrayed well in the movie-- as strong individuals, with rich emotional lives, capable of being scientists or warriors. They actually do a pretty good job on that front, without reducing toooo much to gender stereotypes. Though, of course, they make the military leader of the natives a hereditary male role, and the spiritual leader a hereditary female role. Which, yawn. Whatever. It's to be expected, I guess, even if it is an unconscious nod to the patriarchy. the inclusion of a woman as the lab PI and a woman as the best fighter pilot sort of help to make up for it on the feminism front, at least.

But the movie still has other problems. for a 3D movie, it's villains are awfully 2D. Their motivations are greed and bloodlust, and they have no complexity or moral qualms. While I know there are people like that, if you're going to have a movie as long as Avatar, with as much time spent on slow exposition, you might as well at least invest another ten minutes into making your villains real, into establishing some level of something more than simple disgust for them.

My biggest problem though goes back to the tired and played out trope of the Noble Savage. A quick Google search will show you plenty of people better able to talk about it at length than I am. But still-- it irks me, from the way the lead woman's voice is accented to her clipped stereotypical speech, to the way the native men regard the protagonist, to just-- the trappings of the culture.

I think the reason this all disappoints me so much is that it has the potential to be so much more. Stories about conservation and interconnectivity with nature are important, as are stories that feature strong women as scientists and warriors. But in the end, Avatar doesn't live up to it's promise.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Myths and Marks

Yesterday, I touched some on the whole societal expectations of women's beauty thing. And... then I kept thinking about it.

My first true exposure to ideas like The Beauty Myth and the male gaze of advertising were during my freshman year of college. We were all required to take a basic English class, because it was presumed that as a bunch of science nerds we'd be terrible at basic English skills. All of the classes had "fun" themes, and I ended up in the pop-culture based class. In some ways it was terrible-- I was a huge nerd, and didn't KNOW pop culture-- every celebrity, music, and tv reference went over my head. In other ways, it was awesome-- my research paper for the course was on the history of Barbie dolls and the suble image changes the company tried to project as America changed.

But in this class, we talked about things written by Naomi Wolf and her contemporaries. I'll admit, I'm still woefully uneducated in feminist literature, and the way it was presented by the grad student teaching the class pissed me off, but years later the idea that there is no unmarked woman sticks out-- though i'd say most men are marked too, even if it takes less to mark a woman. Marking is an outward showing of who you are-- the argument is that, in the business setting, men aren't marked because they have a standard "uniform" of suit, conservative shirt, conservative tie. The options for women are larger-- even a woman who wishes to be conservative sends a message. Skirt or trousers, color of stockings, any accessories, makeup, and haircuts. There is no "standard" hair cut or style for a proffesional woman. But there are standards. And men today seem to have more opportunities to show their personality through their clothing than they used to.
The beauty myth, too, has troubling aspects. The basic premise is that ideas of female beauty exist to further control of the patriarchy. I see where its coming from, but at the same time, a lot of the ridiculous things women wear are for other women-- there's a certain amount that's done for men, sure, and a certain amount that appeals to them, but some of the more aggressive forms of beauty, like extreme dieting, overly dramatic makeup, and certain types of jewelry are generally way more attractive to girls than they are to guys. And that's accepted as a given by most people in my age bracket that I've discussed this with. Do we compromise our self expression for beauty ideals? Yes-- both women and men. I feel like a failing of these theories is focussing on repression of women by men-- but ignoring that women help with the oppression, and men are subject to their own branches of it.
I'm still warring over how much I buy into the oppressiveness of the beauty myth, and of the marked nature of women vs the ability of men to go unmarked. I do think both theories have merit-- but I also think they go a little further than they really should. I also know that I need to read a lot more on this subject to be able to fully evaluate it-- but for now, this is where I stand.