Avatar’s “Hidden Messages”: Who’s Hiding?

During this last holiday season one of the biggest selling new releases was the movie, Avatar.  Today’s post is by a guest writer, Kurt Kessler, who read my original post titled Avatar-Hidden Messages Not So Hidden, But Still Entertaining. Kurt has a graduate degree in Philosophy and Religion from Syracuse University.  

clip_image001I agree with The Wild Mind; the messages in Avatar are far from hidden, but I’d go further and point out that they’re not messages. They are themes integral to the movie. And I’d add that underlying the designation of a particular movie as having “hidden messages” is the assumption that stories, be they cinematic, printed or oral, don’t generally have themes, don’t generally grapple with relevant issues. Throughout history and across cultures, the role of stories has specifically been to challenge and teach, as well as entertain. And yet, when a film addresses an issue overtly, the tabloid critics (i.e. those that write criticism that sells specifically because it doesn’t challenge or teach), act as though it’s an odd thing for movies to do.

The reason the tabloid critics act in this way has every thing to do with the nature of their market. Their intended audience (real or imagined) doesn’t want to be challenged or taught. They don’t look for themes in movies and only find them when they are particularly overt. If those themes support their current beliefs and values, they either feel all warm inside or pumped and proud. If those themes challenge them to rethink things, or see another side of an issue, they are offended. The tabloid critics can’t point out the obvious fact that almost all movies have themes and deal with issues, because if they did, they’d be pointing out that there is a depth and complexity to movies, and the arts in general, an entire sphere of meaning, that the tabloid audience is missing even though they are surrounded by it. They’d be challenging the tabloid audience to accept that they’ve been missing it, and maybe even challenging them to step up and see that depth and complexity for themselves, challenging them to be challenged and taught by the arts. Issuing this sort of challenge can only reduce the critic’s market share. Either the tabloid audience will be repulsed by the challenge and turn to a non-challenging critic, or they’ll take the challenge on and start thinking thematically about film as well as criticism, which is to say, they won’t have much use for the tabloid critic.

The Challenge of Religion and the Tabloid Congregation

There is a parallel in religion. Here, the themes are always more or less explicit, and the stakes are more directly personal. Accordingly, there are those who go to the temple, church, schul, or mosque because that is where they will hear and experience their beliefs and values validated. They go to feel right and righteous, and to support each other to that end. Others go, maybe even to the same temple, church, schul or mosque, to be challenged to the very core of their being, to be transformed into who they truly are, in relation to the world as it truly is. Of course, even the most challenging priests, rabbis and clerics back off now and again. If you want people to stay in the vehicle (of Truth) you’ve got to go easy on the pedals. People like a cushy ride. That said, in the mystic Jewish and Islamic traditions, angels are terrifying, as is the presence of God. On the Christian side, Meister Eckhart once said of hell, that the dying person who is attached to worldly things thinks that demons are tearing his life away, when in fact angels are freeing him of his or her attachments, so he can move on to communion with God. Buddhists teach that the only way to escape suffering, is through the heart of it. Shamans, vision quests, and sweat lodges need to be understood in this same vein. Through all traditions there is this dichotomy. Those who want to be told there is no need for them to learn or change, as they’ve already got it right, and those who seek to be challenged and transformed. There are those who cling to what they know, and those who seek the challenge to become what they don’t yet understand or even imagine. And of course, there are the people in the middle that need to be coaxed to the side of seeking challenge.


Perhaps I should tell a story of my own, drawn from one of my several traditions, to help pull this all together. When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai, those left behind were afflicted with doubt and grew scared. In order to protect themselves, they built a golden calf, something concrete and solid they could believe in. Had they created and viewed that golden calf as art, in all its meaning and complexity, it wouldn’t have made them feel safe. It would have challenged them to stand in the presence of God; it would have become Sinai rather than merely a golden calf. And so I offer that the theme I have been addressing since the beginning of this rant is the nature of idolatry. Given the explicit and personal nature of religion, escaping religions challenge demands explicit and personal idols, in our age, this is usually specific beliefs about the nature of Reality. In the case of the arts, things are less personal and more subtle, and therefore so is idolatry in film criticism when it occurs. Here, the golden calf is the belief that the only legitimate thing going on in film and the arts in general, as well as in life itself, is entertainment and validation. The deeper spheres of meaning, those that challenge us to venture into what we don’t yet understand, these deeper spheres, don’t exist.

Oh, About Avatar

Since I am purportedly writing about Avatar, I should probably say a few things about it at some point. First, I’m not saying that Avatar is a sort of Mt. Sinai, far from it. It’s the arts in general that I’m talking about. But as for Avatar, it did deal somewhat accurately, albeit superficially and therefore inadequately, with the relationship between Western colonial and post-colonial powers, and indigenous peoples, and the exploitation, lack of understanding, disrespect and oppression that characterized that relationship.

I think the problem with Avatar is its tendency to over idealize its characters. The characters we are presented in this film basically fall into three pure and simple categories: the good, the bad, and the redeemably ignorant. The good are the indigenous people. The bad are the committed mercenaries and corporate leadership. And the redeemably ignorant are the colonizers who overcome their ignorance and learn to respect the indigenous ways. We don’t have any indigenous people selling out or suffering from any other moral or spiritual failings. We don’t have access to the internality or conflictedness of any hardened soldiers, and none their values are presented as positive. The sympathizers all move toward recognizing the indigenous worldview is correct, without expressing any positives in their own Earthly worldview. The movie suffers from the same characterological over simplification that afflicts similar efforts by Disney to address this subject. It reduces all its characters to monochromatic symbols expressing the new age liberal Gaia cosmology and ethos. This is problematic not only in terms of inadequately addressing the complexity of the issue, but it actually participates in the exploitation it attempts to criticize.

Contrast this with the writing of James clip_image003Welch, a Native American Novelist. In Welch’s work, such as Fools Crow, the Native American characters are allowed to be human. There are sins committed entirely within the native community, there is a respect for the wisdom in tradition and a deep understanding of how oppression has negatively impacted the Native American community, but also there is insight into the need to adapt to changing circumstances (rather than merely hanging on to the old ways) and there is a willingness to accept cultural exchange. (For example, novels are a Western genre, and Welch is a Native American novelist). In short, Welch doesn’t reduce his Native American characters or his portrayal of Native American communities, to rarified symbols of romantic naturalism, but leaves them in as much complexity as he can as a writer. His characters and communities are struggling not only with white men and white culture, but with themselves and their own culture as they make their way in the world. They are Native American people.

In reducing indigenous peoples to mere symbols of romantic naturalism, Avatar, and similar works, are appropriating images of indigenous people and culture to create a Western (liberal) morality play. These images are the raw materials for a product intended for Western consumption. In short, such works engaged in a form of post-colonial cultural exploitation. Rather than encountering indigenous cultures in these movies, we merely encounter a liberal Western cultural commodity fabricated from processed images of indigenous people.

How does Avatar Fair as a Morality Play?

I need to clarify some things. First, I’ve got no problem with morality plays. They, more often than not, are an effective genre of story telling: They can challenge, they can teach, and they can entertain. I’m also not saying that any story can some how be a window onto the material it deals with. When I was in the service, I visited the Louvre. I remember looking at some of Rembrandt’s paintings, the portraits with the lace collars. They are so vividly three dimensional that it’s breathtaking, until you step closer to the canvas. Seen up close, those collars are crosshatched swaths of paint. The three dimensionality, the portrait itself, is an illusion. The same is true of Welch’s writing. In his work, we are not encountering Native Americans or their world. We are encountering language. It’s merely a linguistic illusion, a story. The question I’m asking, in relation to Avatar, is what kind of story is it, one that challenges and teaches (while entertaining), or one that merely validates and entertains.

Avatar is a Western liberal morality play that provides a critique of Western post-colonial conservatism as it relates to indigenous peoples and the environment. It offers no critique of the Western left’s romanticization of indigenous cultures and nature, and it provides no substantial encounter with the issues and conflictedness indigenous peoples grapple with in their encounter with the West. Because of this one-sidedness, the right will be entertained by the special effects but reject the critique. They leave the vehicle because Avatar is too heavy on the pedals. The left will merely find validation for their “appreciation” of indigenous peoples (“appreciation” should be read “patronization”). For the left, this is merely a golden calf. Neither side will be challenged and taught.

Avatar could have presented us with the depth and complexity of our relationship to indigenous people, and their relationship to us without sacrificing its entertainment value. It could even have given an appropriate amount of ambiguity to the distinction between indigenous and Western, but it doesn’t. As a story, as a morality play, it falls flat. The only dimensionality and depth it provides go away when you take off the 3-D glasses.