The reviews of Avatar are in — the CGI effects are incredible, the motion captured acting is solid, but the story is mediocre and tends to repeat the Hollywood myth of the ‘white man as savior of indigenous people’ (a la Dances with Wolves). While the naïve portrayal of the Na’vi was questioned consistently by the mass media, other stereotypes in the film have barely been mentioned — the solipsistic, college professor who smokes while she broods, the overly-muscled, violent military commander who takes no prisoners, or the corporate profiteer who cares only about acquiring “unobtanium” while destroying the environment.
The story that these film characters weave together is a familiar one for academics. The stereotype of the college professor as “uppity” or out of touch with the public is nothing new. (Obama is feeling this pain right now…) Academics need both government and business to fund and implement time-intensive research, and we run into all kinds of ethical and cultural problems along the way.
Except for a few critical readings of the screenplay, Avatar will be remembered primarily for its visual aesthetics and for what the hundreds of names in the credits reveal — it takes a small army of artistic workers to create an avatar. Cameron did, in fact, consult with a number of USC college professors for research on the film — faculty from the Institute for Creative Technologies, faculty who work with facial screening technology, linguist Paul Frommer (who developed the Na’vi language) and anthropologist Nancy Lutkehaus (who helped with youth initiation rituals). Cameron definitely has respect for college professors, as well as for Marines—his younger brother served in Iraq.
But it’s his relationship to mothers that I wonder about… I did find one story in Canada’s National Post that describes how Cameron’s free-spirited mother, Canadian artist Shirley Cameron, was taught in her youth to assemble a gun while blind-folded.
Sigourney Weaver’s character, biology professor Grace Augustine, is “rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes,” said Cameron. She is not an overtly maternal character--although she does start feeding Jake whenever he wakes up from his avatar treks. As Cameron was quoted in the New York Times, “Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which… is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games.” Grace is so focused and committed to her biological research of the planet Pandora and to her anthropological understanding of the Na’vi that she doesn’t seem to have time for a partner—much less for playing video games--and certainly not enough time for reproducing, other than her seven foot tall baby avatars. Another female character, the military helicopter pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez, is also alone, and so committed to her principles (while rebelling against the Marines') that she flies her copter into a no-win battle situation. Both women wind up dead by the end of the movie.
But Grace’s death on camera has some interesting moments. After being shot by the Marines, Grace gets wrapped up with the electromagnetic tendrils of the “tree of souls” in an attempt to save her life and to communicate with Eywa, the “Earth Mother.” (The humans from Earth have already killed Eywa on their home planet.) With her dying breath, Grace claims that she doesn’t just feel the presence of Eywa, but that she is with her — a new kind of spiritual communion for Grace that her academic life did not seem to provide.
Now, I’m guessing that I don’t have to break down the contradictions inherent in Grace’s character for you, nor do I have to point out that part of the "Mama Phd" challenge is with reversing some of these cultural stereotypes about female academics — that female professors tend to be alone, focused, stressed out, without children, martyrs AND spiritual, maternal centers of the universe.
Avatar supports the importance of academic research by men and women, mothers and fathers, for our present and our future. In the end, though, we probably need to respect Eywa if we want to keep the peace in this digital environment.