Wars, Genders and the Academy Awards
March 9, 2010
submitted by the author to portside
I started writing this the week running up to the Academy Award Ceremonies
for best picture, best director, best story, best of whatever. It would be
dishonest of me to act as though I am not interested and engaged in all the
hype and beauty of it all. And even though most of the panorama is about
fantasy and chimera and glitz, movies matter and speak and reveal the
cultural stories that they tell. So it is no surprise that in 2010 while the
US is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, that two of the most coveted films
with nine nominations each are about war, and death, and the gendering and
racializing of each. As such Avatar is poised in competition with The Hurt
I saw Avatar first. I went off to see it with my anti-militarist female
feminist friend and her eleven-year old daughter, and my pacifist life-long
male partner. We all felt we had to see it - the new-old imperial story in
new gorgeous digitized beauty that everyone was talking about. Too many
people said it was a 3-D extravaganza not to be missed. We were told to
suspend belief/s and not be bothered with the out-datedness of the
colonial/warrior story. We tried.
We watched as white men bombed the "natives". The "natives" depicted as
indigenous and primitive and environmentally caring types in the end get
some of the white male warriors to take their side. It is an old story of
white privilege - told over and over again across the globe through history.
But it is not just an old story, but an old story told in new ways, with
avatars and digitized embodiments of people. Race and gender appear less
constraining for the digitized avatars.
Old stories need newness or they die. So Avatar becomes a perfect mirage of
a new-old story for this incredibly militarist moment on the globe. As the
US wages its present day wars with drones the US public is gifted Avatar -
a fantasy look of goodness that can come from imperial acts, a
new anti-war imperialism of sorts. But there wasn't enough fantasy for the
four of us to forget the militarist country we inhabit.
The "digitized natives" appear to have an equality of sorts - beautiful
strong and long bodies for both male and female. They fight similarly and
with equal skills. Both are actors in the war and anti-war narratives.
Females are not silent and absent as they are so often depicted. They
instead seem awesome and skilled. Females are warriors too - a kind of
androgyny, but not quite. Yet, the hetero normative narrative prevails.
The "indigenous" Chief and military higher-ups remain male.
These beautiful digitized bodies and avatars do not force us to mourn in the
same way as flesh and bloodied bodies do. Their deaths seem less final.
Spirits can be transferred. Yet more troubling today is that there is no
clear divide between the real and its fantasized form - there are real
fantasies and fantasized realities.
The Hurt Locker presents "real" war with "real" Marines, but not quite. The
three men who form the narrative of the film struggle with death and war but
each does so in his own way. Christopher Hedges' idea that war is the
adrenaline that motivates men and gives their lives meaning underlines the
film. Sgt. William James is addicted to war; JT Sanborn counts the days
until he can leave Iraq; and Owen Eldridge, the "specialist" fears death
and seeks out psychiatric assist. He asks his psychiatrist to spend a day
with him in the field to see first hand how hard it all is, and when his
doctor does so, he is blown to pieces.
The Hurt Locker is moving and compelling and yet not quite "real". We see
none of the known atrocities. There is no horrific and random use of
imperial power. We see different kinds of dying and its randomness in war,
but no blown to pieces "innocent civilians". The atrocities are delivered
by the insurgents, but not by us.
I am not sure if Avatar is more dangerous for fanaticizing war with beauty;
or Hurt Locker is for showing how addictive and seemingly inevitable it
sometimes is. When James Cameron, is asked on Sixty Minutes who will get
the best director award he says Kathryn Bigelow, his former wife will. He
says they will have to give it to her. He says that the moment is too
perfect and is ready-made for such a choice. She is female and yet is as
tough as nails. She is a woman who has directed a "man's" film and so the
Academy will have to acknowledge her as such. Bigelow responded that she
does not want to be seen as a woman director, but a director. She says she
is compelled by raw emotion and is fascinated by passionate commitments and
the pull to war and her femaleness is not at issue.
Both Avatar and The Hurt Locker are compelling and yet troubling films.
Avatar presents life as though it does not have to be lived with the
consequences of embodied people with deeply anguished struggles - one can
transpose and change oneself and live forever as an avatar. The Hurt Locker
shows three men struggling with war and succumbing in their different ways
to its demands while silencing the wounds of war for the tens of thousands
on the other side of it.
In Avatar we looked at gorgeous flora and fauna and tried to just be in the
moment. We are continuously asked to forget real bodies, lose them, morph
them...so there is a not-seeing of death. It is real bodies that die, not
avatars whose spirit exists without/outside a body. The digital games that
use avatars, like Cameron's film, remind me of the drones the US uses over
Afghanistan and Pakistan indiscriminately killing and maiming real bodies.
In each film war is naturalized and normalized while it is also exposed as
corrupting. In the end females wage war in Avatar much like the men do;
whereas in Bigelow's version of The Hurt Locker no females are to be seen.
Little has changed here, and everything has. Modern war is an addiction for
many "manly" men so-to-speak. But I would argue that this gendered
gendering of men makes war plausible and necessary for many males and
females alike. I am not thinking of gendering as simply a biological
assignment, like male and female. Directors of anti-war films can be male
and/or female. So females will become "manly" as the need and necessity
Now, I ask you to fast forward to the morning after the Academy Awards. The
evening did its usual panorama of the beautiful people and high fashion.
The academy once again did all it could to mobilize an audience, when TV
viewers have been waning. They had two hosts instead of one; 10 nominees
for best picture instead of the usual 5. Maybe this is part of the
dispersing and pluralizing inherent in the new technologies that the academy
both embraces and is also unwilling to acknowledge.
Before the award ceremony there had been much talk of how actors would not
vote for Avatar as the new digitality challenged their very own jobs. Then
Cameron and the actor playing the Na'vi princess Neytiri said that actors
are still needed and that the digital simply enhances, compliments and
extends what the human form can do. So which is it? Does Avatar reflect the
new tech and the new modern and with it celebrate its billion-dollar magic?
Or is Cameron a bit too avant-garde and imaginative and need to be shown his
place by limited recognition by the Academy? Or do movie-goers feel
comfortable with nine-feet tall "digital natives" who glide without the
constraints of real bodies or real histories or real wars? Or, as usual, is
it a bit of all these stories? In the end, I am reminded that the brutal
market loves a winner and then loves to hate her.
When I was watching the awards ceremony I could not help but think about so
many endangered jobs in the US just now, like in the US Postal service. US
mail desperately needs updating. Email and other digital choices make much
of what it does/did outdated. And yet, not everything the post office does
can or should be replaced. So what about the old and the new? 3-D anyone?
This new rage is said to maybe pull people back to the theatres and away
from their dvd's. Maybe Karl Marx did have this right about technology and
I thought Hurt Locker should win some awards, and so should Avatar if awards
are the chosen venue for deciphering success. But the lopsided recognition
of Hurt Locker simply reminded me of how off target the marketed/consumer
culture is. It is all about excess: extremes rule and one receives almost
all or almost nothing. The fact that Kathryn Bigelow won amidst this excess
troubled me. It was just too over the rainbow...and did not feel meaningful
enough to make a difference that matters in this war-torn world.
dr. zillah eisenstein
prof. of political theory and anti-racist feminisms
ithaca new york 14850
From: marcy winograd
Sent: Friday, March 12, 2010 12:59 PM
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