Dominance and Disadvantage: Avatars and Blind Sides
Both movies deal with issues of power, dominance and subordination, privilege and disadvantage. Both have at least one member of the dominant group as the hero who “saves” at least one member of the subordinate group.
Avatar serves up a battle between humans and the Na’vi for their home planet’s resources, which amounts to a battle over the very lives of the Na’vi. To the Na’vi, all life is interconnected: on their planet any destruction of life, including plants, is tantamount to killing them. James Cameron gives us a beautiful glimpse into a world, culture, and society where there is little inequality and stratification, although leadership positions are inherited.
The paraplegic Marine whose avatar “goes native” (as did Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves) emerges as the savior, rescuer, and leader of the Na’vi. They prevail over the human invaders with their flying partners, ”borrowed” armory, and bows and arrows.
The Blind Side is based on Michael Lewis’s book about the true story of how a rich, white family changed the life of pro-football star Michael Oher, who was a troubled and homeless young man when the family found him. The story culminates with a pro-football contract and snapshots of the real family posing for photos on the football field and other venues.
Throughout the movie, the mother, Leigh Anne, gets some guff from friends for her decision, but has complete support from her family as she takes on the task of saving this young man from the streets and his drug addicted mother.
In both movies, the subordinate group (or the person in the disadvantaged group) is saved by a person from the dominant group. It appears that they have the knowledge, skills, connections, and guts to save the person(s) who are at a disadvantage. Both stories are told from the perspective of the hero or savior..
The “white savior” is a common theme in American films, from Dances with Wolves, Gran Torino, The Soloist, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mississippi Burning, and all the way back to To Kill a Mockingbird. The movies often purport to be about the disadvantaged person, but the narrative is focused on the white savior as hero. We learn much more about who they are and their experience in helping the others rather than seeing the story from the perspective of the disadvantaged person. The purported victim is often simply a device that allows us to reflect on the hero’s actions and motivations – and to identify with the hero.
If one analyzes these movies in the order in which they were released, one does see some improvement in how the disadvantaged person(s) are depicted. In more recent movies, the disadvantaged character is developed more fully and more time is devoted to suggesting how social context and life changes may have been responsible for their plight. On the other hand, all of these movies assume some inability of the disadvantaged to prevail without the white savior’s help. In reality, one does need coalitions between groups to change society from an unjust one to one in which equal rights are afforded to all. It was paramount that white people support the civil rights movement for racial equality, just as it was crucial for men to participate in giving women the vote and important for straight people to understand why marriage rights are important to people who are gay and lesbian.
However, to see so many movies in which the disadvantaged are rescued from their plight from someone in the dominant group is to see our societal power structure and stratification reflected and even justified.
Avatar has the one human save the entire Na’vi society, although this only happens once he partners with the biggest flying creature and assumes leadership. It really bothered me that Cameron gives us this glimpse into a society based on interconnectedness and equality, yet in the end the leader is still chosen by having the biggest weapon. This reliance on our own culture’s emphasis of competition and dominance – success comes from using the biggest gun in the rack – was somewhat disappointing and disruptive to the story line for me.
The Blind Side’s Leigh Anne mentions setting up a scholarship program to give the school “more color”. She also shows some concern about Michael’s biological mother’s struggles with addiction. While saving one person from a life in poverty and violence is certainly a positive activity, nothing is done to alter the situation of other young men and women in the same situation. Nothing is changed in society to deal with the source of the problem so that more young men and women could also live better lives with more opportunities and quality education.
The school that Michael Oher actually attended, Briarcrest Christian School doesn’t appear to have any more “color” or fund raising for these purposes. This movie does seem to be more sensitive and complex than the others listed here. It does include scenes such as the one in which Leigh Anne reflects on her assumptions after the NCAA investigates whether she and her family had taken Michael in solely because they wanted him to play football for their alma mater.
These stories, real or imagined, are stories of the savior hero, not of the disadvantaged person(s). Even when the movie’s purported subject is the person at risk, the story is told from the perspective of the savior. In the Blind Side, we learn much more about Leigh Anne and not much about Michael. In Avatar, we see the world from the Marine’s eyes, not the Na’vi. We are then forced to identify with the role of the “hero”, not with that of the person(s) at risk, as the character becomes our own avatar. However, this blinds us to the other side of the situation as the person(s) at risk become symbolic and unreal, partial characters who serve as foils to our heroism.
Volunteering to help one person does indeed help that one person. But it doesn’t do anything to deal with the conditions that put that person at risk. It doesn’t change the status quo. It can help people in the dominant group feel like they’re doing something important. And while they may be doing just that for that one person, it doesn’t alleviate the context of the problem thus no one else will be spared. Those with privilege will continue to enjoy it at the same time those without it will continue to live in their disadvantaged state. Helping one person may provide some insight into such struggles but it can sometimes help the savior more than the oppressed.
What other movies present this type of story? Here are a few others I thought of: Radio, Hardball, Finding Forrester, Dangerous Minds, Cool Runnings, Thunderheart, Cry Freedom, and Blackboard Jungle.