Gender Roles in Avatar: An Overdue Step Forward for Science Fiction

November 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Several of my fellow classmates have written blog posts about their discomfort with the misogynistic angle that several science fiction stories adopt. Rightfully so, I would argue — the hypermasculine protagonists and the passive, meek female characters are canon of scientific literature. However, Avatar approaches this issue with a much more modern viewpoint, centering its plot around strong female characters. Granted, the film still contain some overly-masculine characters, but they are portrayed as the villains as opposed to the heroes. This is a refreshing occurrence and what I would claim to be an overall positive contribution to the genre

Dr. Grace Augustine is the first of the strong female characters to appear in the film. As the lead researcher of the Na’vi people, her position in and of its self is contradictory to traditional science fiction. She frequently doles out knowledge about the indigenous species and clearly asserts herself as a knowledge authority. Augustine frequently encounters disrespect from her male counterparts in the military arm of the human force. It is in these moments though that she asserts herself most though. I particularly enjoyed her exchange with Parker Selfridge at the beginning of the film, when he notifies her that Jake will be joining her squad. Rather than passively accepting this, Augustine spits back at the male, making snide comments at the violent nature of the military personnel. If we look at this instance from a high level, it is a female loathing the instruction from a male to add a male to her task force. Long are the days of the helpless females in science fiction, as Augustine exhibits a knowledgeable, adamant force in this film.

As well, the main female Na’vi character, Neytiri exemplifies traits of a strong independent women, which are historically scarce in this genre. We first see this in her interactions with Jake, as it is clear that she is in the superior position between the two of them. As she shows him the ways of the Na’vi lifestyle in Pandora, Neytiri takes on the position as teacher and guide to Jake. She holds a bevy of knowledge and distributes it to him in a strict manner, bopping him on the head as he incorrectly pronounces words. As well, after becoming attached to Jake, she fearlessly stands up to Tsu’tey (the blue dude who is to become the next political leader of the Na’vi (ASIDE: apologies for using the names of all these characters, it is really hard to distinguish the names from the movie itself, and I found myself looking all these names up)). Again, this scene represents a moment in which Neytiri has every opportunity to let Tsu’tey inflict harm to Jake, but instead she stands up and risks her own life to save him. This interaction with her own people also underscores the fact that Neytiri’s position of strength in the face of males is not limited to only encounters with foreigners.

Finally, my personal favorite female character — Trudy, the badass human fighter pilot. Although she is sexualized in appearance to a degree (frequently wearing a low cut tank top), Trudy’s behavior is very much unlike the typical gender roles of science fiction. Much like the actions of Augustine and Neytiri, she exhibits characteristics of independence and strength. As she departs from the bombing of Pandora, while stating, “I didn’t sign up for this”, Trudy blatantly disobeys the orders of her masculine superiors. Instead, she elects to follow the actions that are in line with her own moral compass. When she later breaks Jake out of the detainment area, she physically exerts her dominance over the male guard, which further demonstrates her empowering position in this film. Perhaps my favorite moment of the whole film was in the final battle scene when Trudy attacks the main human ship and triumphantly exclaims, “you’re not the only one with a gun, bitch”. The explicit, aggressive action and language is so contradictory to the traditional image of women in science fiction.

Of course, this story still contains a testosterone-infused character — Colonel Quaritch. From his actions on screen, it appears that his hobbies include lifting weights, wearing tank tops, and blowing things up. However, he is very clearly made out to be the villain of this story. His masculine brashness is not idolized in this film, but rather it is demonized.

It seems that Avatar has flipped the script of the conventional science fiction, and I believe that this is a welcome motion for the genre as a whole.

— Kyle Uber


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