The Idea of Orientalism Portrayed in James Cameron’s Avatar Abstract In brief, this study discusses about the representation of orientalism idea which is portrayed in the film Avatar. The film tells about the conflict between human and native people in Planet Pandora, where human exploits the land and oppresses the native. This study explores in what way the idea of orientalism is represented and how both narrative and non-narrative aspects of the film helped in delivering that representation. Indeed, to explore the focus of analysis, the study will be completed by applying orientalism criticism proposed by Edward Said.
Thereby, this research will be a qualitative research where the data is taken from the film Avatar, library research, journals, and other resources which appropriate in conducting the analysis. This study discovers that Avatar shows the idea of orientalism in three different pursuits: an academic discipline, a style of thought and a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient. Thus, hopefully this will be completed as expected and may give contribution in literary research focusing on film analysis. Key words: Orientalism, Oppression, Narrative, Non-Narrative, Orient.
Introduction The European colonialism towards almost the whole Eastern regions has caused the cultural dominance of Western. The European tends to see that they are more civilized and advanced than the colonized people. Tyson states that the colonizers saw themselves at the center of the world; the colonized were at the margins. Furthermore, he also states that the colonizers also saw themselves as the embodiment of what a human being should be, the proper “self”; native peoples were considered “other,” and different (419).
The colonial discourse of “self” and “other” thus leads to the practice of othering, which is the practice of judging the different as less than fully human (Tyson 420). This practice of othering can be seen not only in the written text such as literature but also in the narrative of the performed human culture. The “other” that is created through narratives is imaginary, stereotypical, and biased. But the details of the narratives lend crucial insight into the identity formation of the “self” as differentiated from the exaggerated “other” (Roberts 4).
There is another specific form of othering called Orientalism. The term of Orientalism appears in the book with the same title Orientalism written by Edward Said, a preeminent scholar and an important figure in postcolonial studies who is also known as an activist n Middle Eastern politics. Orientalism purpose is to produce a positive national self-definition for Western nations by contrast with Eastern nations on which the West projects all the negative characteristics it doesn’t want to believe exist among its own people (Tyson 420).
Said’s Orientalism is a study of ‘the West’s’ representation of ‘the East’ and, in particular, how they underpinned imperialist political ambitions and administrations (Baldwin et al. 169). As an academic discipline, Orientalism emerged in the late eighteenth century and has since assembled an archive of knowledge that has served to perpetuate and reinforce Western representations of ‘the East’ which is also known to be ‘the Orient’ (Ashcroft 57). The idea of Orientalism in recent days can be found in current Western depictions of Arab culture and the discussion of politics in Middle East which is closely associated with terrorism.
However, the idea of Orientalism does not merely exist only in either the current affair of Western and Middle East or the literature works which represent the distinctive identity between ‘the West’ and ‘the East’, but also in the recent movie production. In 2009 there is one movie production titled Avatar which has a strong depiction of Orientalism. Avatar is directed by James Cameron. This is an adventure sci-fi movie which is delivered in a 3D format. This movie got 56 nominations and won 3 Oscars and 25 other awards.
The film reached the second highest blockbuster movie gross in its first month release date and also became the first movie that delivers truly photo-real CG technology. Besides all the awards and the technology this movie has presented, the clear depiction of Orientalism idea in this movie becomes the main reason Avatar is chosen to be the subject of this study. The plot of this movie tells about the exploitation done by human towards Planet Pandora, the place in which the valuable mineral can be obtained.
In that place, human has to face and overcome the struggle of the native called Na’vi who opposes the land exploitation. Human scientists invent the avatar program which enables human to drive their avatar body, a genetically-bred human-Na’vi hybrid, and therefore human can freely observes and persuades the native to surrender their land. Here, the idea of Orientalism clearly depicted in the way human represents the native as primitive and uncivilized and how human tries to educate and build the native in the way human believes to be the best way.
There are several critics towards Avatar which states that this movie contains racist themes in which the white hero once again saving the primitive natives. The editor in chief sci-fi magazines Jesse Washington writes that Avatar reminds her of Pocahontas story which also tells about how the main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens or people of color, and then go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed.
Furthermore, she criticizes the way Avatar is picturing the native incapability to save their selves (The Huffington Post, 2009). This review also supports the idea of orientalism since being white man wan an idea and reality which involved a reasoned position towards both the white and non-white world. Said further suggests that being a White Man, in short, was a very concrete manner of being in the world, a way of taking hold of reality, language, and thought (226). However, Avatar is the new film production which contains the idea of orientalism.
This film represents the story in a more advanced technology. Also, during the process of this research, there is no publication of other researches which is using this film and the idea of orientalism as their main subject. Thus, Avatar is worth to be analyzed in this study. From the previous explanation about the issue which will be analyzed, this study will mainly focuses in analyzing how the idea of orientalism represented in the movie through the depiction of the human and the native relation and also how the narrative and non-narrative aspects of the film build that idea.
Orientalism by Edward Said is believed to be the most appropriate theory approach of the study. The theory of narrative and non-narrative of film also will be used in this study since the subject of this study is a film, thus the analysis cannot just rely on the story or narrative of the film, but also the non-narrative aspect which plays the same important role in shaping the film. The Idea of Orientalism Represented in Avatar The analysis will be focuses on the representation of the idea of orientalism portrayed in the film Avatar.
The film tells about the conflict between human and the native of Planet Pandora called Na’vi which is caused by the oppression and land exploitation done by human. A valuable mineral called unobtanium which only exists in Pandora is the main motive why human try to conquer the place. Pandora, which has the different geographical condition from earth, becomes the object of learning and discovery by human. Thus, Pandora represents the Orient and human represents the Occident. A. Orientalism in the Narrative of Film One way of approaching films is to see them as stories.
It involves analyzing the various ways in which some common recurring features of storytelling and plot structures are developed. The term narrative is really quite simply used as another term for story. But it can also be seen as a more technical term relating to attempts to theorize the principles by which stories are structured (Benyahia et al. 50). Narrative cinema’s function is storytelling not description. Furthermore, narrative refers to the strategies, codes and conventions employed to organize the story (Hayward 256). The story of Avatar is brought by one narrator who is also become the main character, Jake Sully.
Through his narration, the story of the film is delivered in his perspective and emotional attachment. From the paralyzed marine, he becomes the hero of Na’vi people. The narrative of the film clearly shows the superiority of human. Jake Sully comes as the chosen hero character which in the end of the story saves Na’vi people from human ambition to conquer the Orient. The appearance of Jake Sully as the narrator of the story also initiates that this character has the power to represents the Orient and the Oriental. Thus, human still represented as the superior one since the Na’vi people cannot save themselves.
They are saved and helped by the coming of Jake Sully. Even the spirit of Eywa, the native’s goddess, gives the message that places Jake Sully as the important character in the first place. The idea of Orientalism is portrayed in the way human defining the Orient as a dangerous place and its people as irrational and uncivilized. Baldwin et al. suggests that Orientalism is not simply a process of description, but a relation of power and domination whereby one group gets to define identities for all by defining the ‘Orient’ and ‘Orientals’ in certain ways (172).
Part of the pervasive power of Orientalism is that it refers to at least three different pursuits, all of which are interdependent: an academic discipline, a style of thought and a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 57). Those three different pursuits of Orientalism appear in Avatar and will be explored specifically. 1. A style of thought Said argues that Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient and the Occident (3).
Mostly covered by forest, Pandora is seen as the dangerous and mystical place. The place is dominated by giant plants and wild animals. With all its exotic and challenging condition, human tends to see Pandora as the place which is waiting to be conquered. This representation is clearly stated in the beginning of the movie when Colonel gives a speech to the newcomer marines. Conversation 1 (scene 0:06:15) Colonel: You’re not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen. .. Behind that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies or squat in the mud wants to kill you … f you wish to survive, you must obey the rule… As for the native people, human places them in the inferior side. Na’vi is determined to be irrational and uncivilized. Na’vi lives in group and they settle in one big tree deep in the forest. They find their food by hunting. They believe in the spirit named Eywa and the flow of energy that lives through all the living things in the planet. Besides their custom, their biological appearance is also different from human. They are two times higher from human and they have blue skin, a tail and a long braid hair which is functioned as their bond device.
From all those differences, both appearance and custom, human places themselves in the contrary position of Na’vi. Thus, human are rational and civilized. 2. An Academic Discipline Said suggests that Orientalism is the discipline by which the Orient was – and is approached systematically, as a topic of learning, discovery and practice (73). In the film Avatar, both Pandora and Na’vi people becomes the object of the study of human. The Avatar program itself is the scientist project in combining the DNA of Na’vi and the DNA of human which will become the driver of the avatar body.
As described in the film, Pandora has become the specific field of study. Some books have been written by the scientist and those books have been the sorts of knowledge in order to get a description of Pandora, especially for human who never set foot on that place. Conversation 2 (0:10:20) Norm: Grace Augustine is a legend. She’s the head of Avatar Program. She wrote the book. I mean literary wrote the book on Pandoran botany. Conversation 3 (1:11:54) Grace: There is something really interesting going on there biologically. I would die to get samples.
Both conversations above clearly show that Pandora has become the topic of learning for human. The knowledge of Pandora is built through the human’s understanding. Thus, the scientists speak for Pandora and Na’vi people. None of the Orient and Oriental can speak for themselves. 3. A corporate institution for dealing with the Orient The third definition of Orientalism as a corporate institution is demonstrative of its amorphous capacity as a structure used to dominate and to authorize the Orient. Hence, Orientalism necessarily is viewed as being linked inextricably to colonialism (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 57).
In the film clearly describes that human try to give Na’vi people education, transportation and health-care through the company policy. Human wants to build Na’vi based on their agenda so that they can dominate and authorize the native. Conversation 4 (0:12:38) Parker: Look, look, you’re supposed to be winning the hearts and the mind of the natives. Isn’t that the whole point of your little puppet show? If you look like them, talk like them, they’ll start trusting us. We build them a school, we teach them English … Na’vi people are taught to speak in English and they are also invited to attend the school which is built for them.
Human needs to educate Na’vi people to think like human so that human can freely explores the richness of the land. Furthermore, the main reason the Avatar Program is created is to become the diplomatic solution between human and Na’vi people. Appears in the same biological body with the natives, human intends to persuade Na’vi people to give away their land. Thus, all the corporate institution that is built to Na’vi people in the film Avatar clarifies the intention of the Occident represented by human to dominate and authorize the native. The idea of Orientalism in the film then portrayed hrough the human dominance in the power of knowledge. Human tends to see Pandora as the subject of the study and the place to be conquered of. This idea can be seen in the three different pursuit of Orientalism: a style of thought, an academic discipline and a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient. B. The Supporting Non-Narrative of Film Non-narrative aspect of the film is functioned as the supporting elements in strengthen the idea and meaning proposed by the narrative aspect. Non-narrative contains of cinematography technique which is separated from narration such as setting, costume and make up, and character appearances.
In analyzing this study, several non-narrative aspects mentioned above will be analyzed briefly 1. Setting The setting of the film only takes place in the Planet Pandora, the place where human exploits the land to obtain a valuable mineral. The distinction geographical condition between the Orient and the Occident does not appear in the film since Pandora is the only setting of the film. Pandora is located in six years travel time from earth. The planet is mostly covered by wild forest. There is hardly human building since the native lives inside the forest.
The setting is dominated by green and giant plants. There are also flying mountains which significantly differs the geographical condition of Pandora and the Earth. The setting of the Orient represents the dangerous and untamed nature in which the Occident try to conquer. Wild and large forest, flying mountains and steep cliff are the dominant setting of the film. Those setting represent the dangerous and challenging nature. Although the setting in which the Occident is represented is the same as the Orient, but there is a clear distinction between the two places.
While the Orient is represented in the wild and dangerous environment, the Occident is represented in an advanced technology environment. Human build the headquarters which filled with high technology equipments. There are no green or giant plants in the setting of the Occident. Thus, from the distinction of the setting the message of superiority is clearly shown. Human rules the native through the power of knowledge and technology. 2. Character Appearance The Occident characters are represented through several human characters portrayed in the film. First is Jake Sully, the main character and the hero.
He happens to be unexpected person; invalid and not fulfill the requirement to drive the Avatar body, which surprisingly overcome the task by which he is given to. Second is the Colonel character, the man who sees the military force is the best solution on every problem. Third is Grace, a scientist which creates the Avatar program who sees Pandora as the place of learning and discovery. The Orient character is best described by Neytiri and Tsu-tey. Both of them have a great ability to fight and hunt. It is their belief and dependency towards the spirit that clearly shows their weakness.
However strong they might be, they still cannot save their people by their own power. 3. Costume and Make Up The distinction between human and Na’vi is clearly shown since Na’vi has a different biological appearance. Na’vi appears in the blue skin and twice height of human. Bellantoni states that many films use an intense turquoise blue as an exotic presence that, because it’s combined with green, visually warms the conservative forces in a tiny village (131). Here clearly stated that the skin color of the Na’vi signifies the exotic presence which always associated with the Orient.
The Na’vi barely wears any clothes and there is only some fabric and beads which covers their vital organ. The distinction then does not appear in the costume wear by human compares to Na’vi people, instead it appears on the Avatar body which is driven by human. Although they have the exact same biological body, Avatar body wears the proper clothes according to human custom. Thus, from the distinction of costume it can be clearly seen that Na’vi represents the uncivilized part while human, although becomes the driver of the Avatar body, represents the civilized one . Conclusion
Based on the analysis, it can be concluded that Avatar contains the strong idea of Orientalism. Through the distinction power between the Orient which is represented by Planet Pandora and the Occident which is represented by human, the idea of Orientalism is delivered in three interdependent pursuits proposed by Said. First is Orientalism as a style of thought. Pandora is seen as the dangerous and mystical place. Since it has a different geographical condition with earth where human comes from, human tends to see the Orient as the other, the different and contrary identity from them.
With all its exotic and challenging condition, human sees Pandora as the place which is waiting to be conquered. Second is Orientalism as an academic discipline. Pandora has been the object of the scientific study by human. Several books and science projects are created in order to give the broad examination of the Orient. Thus, human has the whole knowledge about the Orient. Human speaks for the Orient according to their understanding and none of the Orient able to represent themselves. Third is Orientalism as a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient.
In the film clearly describes that human try to give Na’vi people education, transportation and health-care through the company policy. Human wants to build Na’vi based on their agenda so that they can dominate and authorize the native. The idea of Orientalism which is portrayed in Avatar is supported in both narrative and non-narrative aspect of film. Narrative is the story of the film which contains the plot structure which forms the sequence performed in the film. Avatar is narrated by the main character Jake Sully, which then initiates the emotional and perspective attachment towards the problem.
The appearance of Jake Sully as the hero who saves Na’vi people from the destruction of human shows that human indeed still has the superiority towards the Orient and Oriental. Na’vi is described to be incapable to save themselves and thus it places them on the weak and inferior side. The film shows that Jake Sully is the chosen one, the character which will be the savior for Na’vi people. The non-narrative aspects of the film also becomes the important part in giving the supportive power in strengthen the idea which is presented in the narrative aspect.
The non-narrative aspects analyzed in this study are setting, character appearance, costume and make-up. All four elements in non-narrative aspects give the supportive power in strengthen the idea of Orientalism and the clear distinction between the Orient and the Occident. To conclude, Avatar is one film which contains the issue of Orientalism. Although it is not rely on the specific Western and Eastern region as proposed by Said, but the role of the power of knowledge which defines human as the superior clearly shows the main idea of Orientalism. Moreover, this ilm has achieved three Oscars and has listed in 53 nominations throughout the world. Then it is undeniable that this film gives a great impression towards the film critics.
Works Cited Ashcroft, Bill, and Pal Ahluwalia. Edward Said. London: Routledge, 2001. Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver. Twentieth Century-Fox, 2009. Baldwin, et al. Introducing Cultural Studies. London: Pearson Education Limited, 1998. Bellantoni, Patti. If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die. Focal Press, 2005. Benyahia, Sarah, Freddie Gaffney, and John White. As Film Studies: The Essential Introduction. Routledge, 2006. Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concept. London: Routledge, 2000. Loomba, Ania. Colonialism / Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998. Purdue OWL. “MLA Formatting and Style Guide. ” The Purdue OWL. Purdue U Writing Lab, 2009. Roberts, Kathleen G. Alterity and Narrative: Stories and Negotiation of Western Identities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Tyson, Louis. Critical Theory Today. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. , 1999. Washington, Jesse. ‘Avatar’ Critics See Racist Theme. The Huffington Post, 2009.