When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Io9 article here

Anna lee Newitz, wrote a piece for IO9, a blog about sci fi, arguing that Avatar is the classic ‘White Guilt’ story about a white man throwing in his lot with the oppressed natives to overcome his ethnic guilt at being white. I haven't seen avatar, but she makes some pretty valid points, and lumps in a bunch of movies like 'The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves' and alleges that basically every sci-fi book written by a white guy is about the white guilt of cultural colonization.

It's interesting that Anna Lee seems to associate conquest and the defiling of conquered natives with Caucasians. Specifically the British empire's expansion phase and it's impact on South Africa and North America.

The story of one culture invading and destroying another culture is as old as the concept of culture. Perhaps the concept of guilt over cultural destruction has come about post the British empire's expansion phase - but very few of China's expansionist emperors were Caucasian. Genghis Khan, not Caucasian. Italians? Generally not considered to be Caucasian anytime before the 1900s. The Persians? Not Caucasian. The Zulu's and their expansion through the tribes of southern Africa? Not a Caucasian in sight.

"going to a foreign culture and colonizing it" is a story as old as time. It extends beyond cultural boundaries. It extends beyond ethnic divisions. It defines human history. It defines human evolution. Fundamentally, since the dawn of time we have gone out, found life and used it. We domesticated dogs and cattle. We domesticated corn and rice. We have wiped out uncountable species of life in our cultural expansions.

It's not terribly interesting or engaging to write about going out and conquering non sentient life and it's cheaper on the special effects budget to do bipedal, roughly humanoid aliens. But thinking that it's a white guilt thing is an interpretation so rooted in the narcissism of the cliché American traveller who complains about Italian pizza being wrong that i can't help wondering if Anna lee was trying to get published at the Onion and ended up with IO9 picking it up instead.

The pundit pieces from non Caucasian writers bemoaning the whole arch type of going to another culture and conquering it in particular make me giggle. Especially when they’re coming from people who’s ethnic groups of origin are right now in the middle of cultural conflicts (Hello Israel! Hi India and Pakistan! And a big Howdy to everybody in the audience from an Islamic nation!) pointing the finger at whitey and saying we’re warmongers with a guilt complex is the kind of racism that usually gets labelled ‘reverse racism’ like there’s a discernable difference between it and normal every day racism.

At the end of the day – There’s no one alive today who’s not descended from someone who fucked someone else over for poor reasons. As a fiction writer – I write about characters who behave (I hope) like humans. If my human characters have gone forth to conquer another culture (and they have) – It wasn’t any kind of white guilt. It was my observation of how humans behave. Quite frankly – if I’m writing a conquering villain, basing my model on the British imperial expansion sounds terribly boring. There’s much more interesting character models in the Asian and middle eastern cultural groups, or in the more modern, multi cultural west. Unless we’re talking Pirate conquerors – in which case Western Europeans certainly had their share of awesome.


deltabelle said...

I'm so excited to have found this blog. I always hoped, based on your writing over at The Idiot Board pt. 1, that you'd start a blog of some sort eventually. I'm looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say, and hopefully from Nikki as well.

Anonymous said...

Great commentary, I knew something about that article rubbed me completely the wrong way but I couldn't quite get my finger on it. Hope you've got time to keep writing more, look forward to reading it.