James Cameron's Avatar placed its women as the cornerstone of conscience, reason and hope

Avatar has, in many ways, paved the way for modern superhero films, which are now mindful of the representation of its female characters in their narratives.

Shreya Paul September 26, 2020 14:07:18 IST
James Cameron's Avatar placed its women as the cornerstone of conscience, reason and hope

In our new column, Through Her Looking Glass, we try to decode iconic films and shows from a female perspective. The series will attempt to understand the agency each female character holds in the film's narrative (mostly, from a contemporary standpoint) and whether the purported meaning of the film alters under such a viewing.

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Why Avatar?

James Cameron’s 2009 magnum opus stirred the cinematic world with its craft on and off-screen. Technical brilliance and box office success aside, Avatar brought to the forefront important questions regarding the balance of human existence with that of nature — the ecological harmony. But I gravitated towards Cameron’s mega-blockbuster for the unambiguously strong portrayal of the film’s female characters.

On revisiting the film, I realised that these characters were all crucial in building up the narrative as they manoeuvred it on their own terms - whether it be Neytiri, Dr Grace Augustine, Mo'at or even Eywa.

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Cameron’s 11-year hiatus from the Oscar-favourite Titanic bore more-than-satisfactory results when Avatar released in 2009. As movie-goers thronged theatres, Cameron’s brainchild seemed to provide a sea of content — from the thrill of experiencing a live video-game world come to life through the Na’vi’s Omatikaya clan, to witnessing the much-celebrated victory of a paraplegic Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) against his nemesis Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).

Avatar, in essence, may deal with the colonial othering of marginalised societies, but the film had extremely strong female voices anchoring its course of events.

Tentpole action projects often seem to include women directly at the forefront of violence (as seen in the efforts behind Lord of the Rings magnifying roles of Liv Tyler and Miranda Otto) in a bid to either be trendy or conscientious. But Avatar is full of cinematic gestures that signify equality and portray female combat and leadership. Sigourney Weaver’s role of Grace Augustine then comes in almost like a homage to her previous career-defining role in Aliens (her previous collaboration with Cameron) and Michelle Rodriguez slips under the skin of the butch marine with a penchant for sharp one-liners.

James Camerons Avatar placed its women as the cornerstone of conscience reason and hope

Mo'at is the Omatikaya clan's preserver in Avatar

Placed in the centre of Cameron’s feminist gaze is the Na’vi Omatikaya clan and their matriarchal setup. The women of this world are the protectors of its very existence, the holy eco-network. The planet’s bio-neural nexus decides every function within it, regulates what peripherals can interface with which hardware, what organ can connect with which orifices or ports and in essence, organises both ability and life in Pandora.

In Cameron's Avatar, three female figures rule Pandora's forests: Grace Augustine, Mo'at, and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

The clan chief Eytukan (Wes Studi) and his shaman wife Mo'at (CCH Pounder), the spiritual leader of the tribe, are at the helm. Though Eytukan commands reverence, it is Mo’at who functions as the mouthpiece to Eywa, Omatikaya’s ubiquitous power and life force.

When war breaks out, Cameron places the moral compass right at the centre with the Omatikaya clearly inhabiting the virtuous side, embroiled in a David-and-Goliath struggle with hyper-technical, sophisticated human space vessels.

Mo’at is not only the preserver but also the protector. She intervenes when Jake’s status as true Na’vi ally is questioned. She is the one who assigns the task of tutoring Jake in their tribal ways, to her daughter Neytiri. Even though she fails in her attempt to resurrect Grace into the Omatikaya, Mo’at successfully transforms Jake into a Na’vi, almost like a spiritual mother birthing her son, who later comes to be the ruler of her clan.

James Camerons Avatar placed its women as the cornerstone of conscience reason and hope

Sigourney Weaver is the human counterpart of Mo'at

Weaver’s Grace is Mo’at’s human counterpart as she also serves as mentor and mother figure to Jake. She not only derides him for his immature, impatient ways, but also provides crucial information about the Omatikaya despite knowing he’s spying on them for Quaritch.

Othered by the Earth leaders on Pandora, Grace chooses to concentrate on her science programme and even warns her race of the potentially cataclysmic consequences of destroying Hometree (the epicentre of all the neural connections) and disrupting the energy cycle produced by Pandora’s interconnected system.

Both Mo'at and Grace chart significant arcs through which Cameron highlights the themes behind Avatar. That nurture and its intrinsic connection with nature will be the sole exigency for the future, shines through via these female leaders.

However, Cameron's stance as a feminist is most pronounced through Neytiri. She is graceful, beautiful, and intelligent; while also displaying courage and prowess in physical combat. Her deft skills make her one of Pandora’s best warriors and also aids her in saving Jake in the climax of Avatar.

James Camerons Avatar placed its women as the cornerstone of conscience reason and hope

Zoe Saldana plays Neytiri

A proud huntress, Neytiri has mastered all possible survival techniques in her world. This Amazonian half is brilliantly complemented by her more instinctive, nurturing self that enables her to connect with the spiritual world. Her relationship with the planet’s flora and fauna is symbiotic and provides her with an aura of magical powers, qualities that mark her future as the tribe’s next shaman.

Cameron calls attention to Neytiri not only as the emotional cornerstone in Avatar, but also the palpable voice of conscience. Through her schooling of Jake and his flippant ways, Neytiri instils in him and in extension, the reader, a strong sense of propriety.

James Camerons Avatar placed its women as the cornerstone of conscience reason and hope

Neytiri and Jake Sully

Despite it being forced upon her, Neytiri’s tutelage is exacting and arduous. She is firm with Jake, but also caring. Her maternal instincts take a backseat till the very end of the film, when Jake ought to be saved. In a particularly poignant scene, Neytiri is seen cradling Jake’s frail human body — a direct callback to Jake’s avatar holding Grace’s dying body in his arms.

James Camerons Avatar placed its women as the cornerstone of conscience reason and hope

Neytiri cradles Jake's human form

Neytiri’s odd Pieta moment with Jake is far away from the Virgin Mother looking upon a dying Christ. In Cameron’s world, it signifies the calming of an otherwise intimidating and fierce Mother nature in a bid to embrace Jake’s dying body and rejuvenate it. Yet again, Cameron chooses Neytiri as his subject of portrayal.

Avatar has, in many ways, paved the way for modern superhero films, which are now mindful of the representation of its female characters in their narratives. Cameron established the (now much-prevalent) custom of plucking his female protagonists from roles of a caregiver to those that drive the plot and are riddled with complexities.

Avatar’s galactic box office figures ($2.78 billion) could have been enough evidence of the film’s success, but the critical acclaim that came with it was also well deserved. Cameron’s vision and craft shone brightly throughout the film — a film that celebrated women effortlessly. One only wishes, it could extend beyond Pandora to the actual world.

(All images from Twitter)

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