Wars, Genders and the Academy Awards
March 9, 2010
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 Locker.
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 remains 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. Not one.
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
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 power shifts.
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
Wars, Genders and the Academy Awards