Orientalism in Avatar

When I first watched Avatar as a kid, I was too young to really absorb the story. Instead, I loved it for all the bright colors and fun action sequences. However, after rewatching the movie recently, I noticed that it follows the basic structure for Orientalism in movies. Jake Sully, a white man, becomes a part of a study of the native “aliens” (the Na’vi) of the planet Pandora. The beginning of the film contains many scenes depicting the Na’vi as a wild and uncivilized group that needed help from humans. The main researcher, Grace, even tried to create a school on Pandora in order to teach them to live like humans. However as the film progresses, Jake begins to learn the ways of the Na’vi people and eventually be integrated into their community. By the end of the movie, Jake Sully acts as the leader of the Na’vi in order to protect them against the humans trying to take over Pandora. Basically, a white American man is thrown into this uncivilized group, learns their ways and begins to appreciate them, and finally ends up being a better version of them and becomes their leader.

I was shocked when I first noticed this. How did a sci-fi movie about an entirely different planet still manage to have Orientalism? This really scared me. A movie that isn’t even about Earth managed to spread the message of Orientalism. What’s even scarier is that Avatar is the #1 top grossing movie. How many people have watched it and not picked up on its problematic message? Although it has been criticized many times in the past, I doubt most of the world really took the time to look into what is so problematic about it. How many children have watched this movie and are subtly being influence they are better than people from other cultures? I also wondered, how many other movies have I watched with not-so-subtle Orientalism that I just didn’t even pick up on? How many other movies are spreading these messages around without anyone noticing or caring? Although I doubt that I will always pick up on all the different problematic themes in movies, I definitely will be paying more attention from this point forward.

4 thoughts on “Orientalism in Avatar

  1. Brigid B

    Rewatching movies from years ago, there are so many that contain blatant Orientalist themes, alongside sexism, racism, and countless other themes. There’s a lot of discussion in media about the sensitization of people on those topics in particular, but I think that our society’s growing ability to recognize those undertones of oppression is what will make us better than the people who came before us.


  2. Gigi D

    This post was so interesting to read considering I have watched this movie several times and never took the time to reflect about the “white savior” theme that this movie reinforces. Although the characters in this movie are alien, they are seemingly made to portray the stereotypical unknown culture.



    I definitely didn’t notice it when I was younger either. The whole idea of it reminds me of how white americans forced assimilation on native americans. I wonder if the movie is orientalist o purpose to show the parallels to that or if it was done intentionally for a different reason.


  4. ariel m

    I’ve only watched the movie once but reading over this reminded me of just how stereotypical it is when referring to things that people don’t understand. The white savior complex is such an issue as well and I didn’t even realize it until you said it. Really good job!


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