The Perpetuation of Hegemonic Representations of American Indians in James Cameron’s Avatar and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
“In examining James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ and Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden,’ this comparative analysis explores the perpetuation of hegemonic representations of American Indians, shedding light on the ways in which both works depict and reinforce prevailing stereotypes, despite their different contexts and mediums.”
This thesis statement highlights the focus of the comparative analysis, which examines how Cameron’s “Avatar” and Thoreau’s “Walden” contribute to the perpetuation of hegemonic representations of American Indians. It acknowledges the different contexts and mediums of the two works, while emphasizing their shared tendency to depict and reinforce prevailing stereotypes.
(To approach this task, one could begin by researching the historical context in which both works were written, exploring the ways in which they each depict American Indians, and analyzing how they contribute to and reinforce existing stereotypes. In addition, one could consider the effects of these depictions on contemporary audiences and the implications of their perpetuation. Finally, the analysis could draw conclusions about the impact of Cameron’s “Avatar” and Thoreau’s “Walden” on contemporary American Indian representation.)
This thesis argues that American Indian stereotypes within American social and cultural gap serve to maintain hegemony over America’s Indigenous populace. The film Avatar and its white hero who presents an alternative but a ‘safe’ parallel with American history and the transcendental Memoir Walden as an icon that leads to a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings and a voyage of spiritual discovery. By presenting American Indian representation via cultural appropriation, it is plausible to assert that ideological image of Indians or Native Americans and the area they occupy are important in characterizing and approving this process.
(Native Americans culture and manner of life are undeniable and omnipresent in Cameron’s “Avatar” and Thoreau’s “Walden”.)
Since their arrival on the Americas, Euro-Americans have looked for ways to understand the native inhabitants. They conquered their lands and often devalued their culture. Americans fabricated stories about Indians in literature, science, and cinema to fulfill their own need for adventure and to rewrite a painful history. Native Americans were either labeled as ignoble or noble savages. Both were instilled that because they were indigenous, they were uncivilized and unchristian according to Euro-Americans. While these views are not accurate for all Native Americans, they do provide us with an insight into those making the assumptions.
In his influential work “The White Man’s Indian,” Robert F. Berkhofer explores the construction of Native American identity in the eyes of white Americans. According to Berkhofer, the prevailing perception of Native Americans by the white population can be characterized by the portrayal of Native Americans as a distinct and singular “other.” Whether this depiction was one of admiration and nobility or one of disdain and degradation, the common thread was the perceived alienness of Native Americans to the white culture. Berkhofer constantly implies that white men were to blame for having represented the Indians in the image of their own desires and needs. “Since the original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere neither called themselves by a single term nor understood themselves as a collectivity, the idea and the image of the Indian must be a White conception. Native Americans were and are real, but the Indian was a White invention and still remains largely a White image, if not stereotype.” (Cpt. 1, 3)
Despite its impressive worldbuilding and stunning special effects, James Cameron’s 2009 hit Avatar is a story with basic yet powerful themes: nature versus technology, greed versus selflessness, and good versus evil. The Na’vi in the film are used as a representation of Native Americans, but they are not an authentic portrayal and instead are based on stereotypes. Additionally, the film employs the trope of the white savior, which is outdated and no longer useful in modern storytelling.
In the past, Hollywood has consistently failed to accurately represent Indigenous cultures. In the classic westerns of the 1950s, Native Americans were often portrayed as savage and had to be defeated by the white protagonist, even being played by white actors in redface. While more recent films have depicted Indigenous Americans in a more sympathetic light, such as Dances With Wolves (1990), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and even Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), but they still perpetuate the problematic white savior narrative.
Avatar is a simplified version of previous films, using the Na’vi as a metaphor for Indigenous Americans, portrayed through common and shallow imagery and symbols. The exposing clothes and gorgeous physiques entice viewers to objectify them, especially women of color. Their long black braids and the use of a bow and arrow further perpetuate the Native American stereotypes. The name “Na’vi” even appears to be a rearrangement of “native,” suggesting a lack of originality.
As a matter of fact, the Na’vi in Avatar conform to the “noble savage” stereotype. They are uncorrupted by civilization, innocent, primitive, and live in harmony with nature. Their ability to psychically communicate with animals through a neural whip in their braid and their animalistic appearance reinforces the stereotype that they are genetically more linked to the natural world.
(“Avatar” is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that.)
(The story, set in the year 2154, involves a mission by U. S. Armed Forces to an earth-sized moon in orbit around a massive star. This new world, Pandora, is a rich source of a mineral Earth desperately needs. Pandora represents not even a remote threat to Earth, but we nevertheless send in ex-military mercenaries to attack and conquer them. Gung-ho warriors employ machine guns and pilot armored hover ships on bombing runs. You are free to find this an allegory about contemporary politics. Cameron obviously does.)
(Pandora harbors a planetary forest inhabited peacefully by the Na’vi, a blue-skinned, golden-eyed race of slender giants, each one perhaps 12 feet tall. The atmosphere is not breathable by humans, and the landscape makes us pygmies. To venture out of our landing craft, we use avatars–Na’vi lookalikes grown organically and mind-controlled by humans who remain wired up in a trance-like state on the ship. While acting as avatars, they see, fear, taste and feel like Na’vi, and have all the same physical adeptness.)
(This last quality is liberating for the hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who is a paraplegic. He’s been recruited because he’s a genetic match for a dead identical twin, who an expensive avatar was created for. In avatar state he can walk again, and as his payment for this duty he will be given a very expensive operation to restore movement to his legs. In theory he’s in no danger, because if his avatar is destroyed, his human form remains untouched. In theory.)