January 25, 2010

Dominance and Disadvantage: Avatars and Blind Sides

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Have you seen Avatar? The Blind Side? If not, you may want to wait to read this until after you see them!

Both movies deal with issues of power, dominance and subordination, privilege and disadvantage. Both have at least one member of the dominant group as the hero who “saves” at least one member of the subordinate group.

Avatar serves up a battle between humans and the Na’vi for their home planet’s resources, which amounts to a battle over the very lives of the Na’vi. To the Na’vi, all life is interconnected: on their planet any destruction of life, including plants, is tantamount to killing them. James Cameron gives us a beautiful glimpse into a world, culture, and society where there is little inequality and stratification, although leadership positions are inherited.

The paraplegic Marine whose avatar “goes native” (as did Kevin Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves) emerges as the savior, rescuer, and leader of the Na’vi. They prevail over the human invaders with their flying partners, ”borrowed” armory, and bows and arrows.


The Blind Side is based on Michael Lewis’s book about the true story of how a rich, white family changed the life of pro-football star Michael Oher, who was a troubled and homeless young man when the family found him. The story culminates with a pro-football contract and snapshots of the real family posing for photos on the football field and other venues.

Throughout the movie, the mother, Leigh Anne, gets some guff from friends for her decision, but has complete support from her family as she takes on the task of saving this young man from the streets and his drug addicted mother.


In both movies, the subordinate group (or the person in the disadvantaged group) is saved by a person from the dominant group. It appears that they have the knowledge, skills, connections, and guts to save the person(s) who are at a disadvantage. Both stories are told from the perspective of the hero or savior..

The “white savior” is a common theme in American films, from Dances with Wolves, Gran Torino, The Soloist, Ghosts of Mississippi, Mississippi Burning, and all the way back to To Kill a Mockingbird. The movies often purport to be about the disadvantaged person, but the narrative is focused on the white savior as hero. We learn much more about who they are and their experience in helping the others rather than seeing the story from the perspective of the disadvantaged person. The purported victim is often simply a device that allows us to reflect on the hero’s actions and motivations – and to identify with the hero.

If one analyzes these movies in the order in which they were released, one does see some improvement in how the disadvantaged person(s) are depicted. In more recent movies, the disadvantaged character is developed more fully and more time is devoted to suggesting how social context and life changes may have been responsible for their plight. On the other hand, all of these movies assume some inability of the disadvantaged to prevail without the white savior’s help. In reality, one does need coalitions between groups to change society from an unjust one to one in which equal rights are afforded to all. It was paramount that white people support the civil rights movement for racial equality, just as it was crucial for men to participate in giving women the vote and important for straight people to understand why marriage rights are important to people who are gay and lesbian.

However, to see so many movies in which the disadvantaged are rescued from their plight from someone in the dominant group is to see our societal power structure and stratification reflected and even justified.

Avatar has the one human save the entire Na’vi society, although this only happens once he partners with the biggest flying creature and assumes leadership. It really bothered me that Cameron gives us this glimpse into a society based on interconnectedness and equality, yet in the end the leader is still chosen by having the biggest weapon. This reliance on our own culture’s emphasis of competition and dominance – success comes from using the biggest gun in the rack – was somewhat disappointing and disruptive to the story line for me.


The Blind Side’s Leigh Anne mentions setting up a scholarship program to give the school “more color”. She also shows some concern about Michael’s biological mother’s struggles with addiction. While saving one person from a life in poverty and violence is certainly a positive activity, nothing is done to alter the situation of other young men and women in the same situation. Nothing is changed in society to deal with the source of the problem so that more young men and women could also live better lives with more opportunities and quality education.

The school that Michael Oher actually attended, Briarcrest Christian School doesn’t appear to have any more “color” or fund raising for these purposes. This movie does seem to be more sensitive and complex than the others listed here. It does include scenes such as the one in which Leigh Anne reflects on her assumptions after the NCAA investigates whether she and her family had taken Michael in solely because they wanted him to play football for their alma mater.

These stories, real or imagined, are stories of the savior hero, not of the disadvantaged person(s). Even when the movie’s purported subject is the person at risk, the story is told from the perspective of the savior. In the Blind Side, we learn much more about Leigh Anne and not much about Michael. In Avatar, we see the world from the Marine’s eyes, not the Na’vi. We are then forced to identify with the role of the “hero”, not with that of the person(s) at risk, as the character becomes our own avatar. However, this blinds us to the other side of the situation as the person(s) at risk become symbolic and unreal, partial characters who serve as foils to our heroism.

Volunteering to help one person does indeed help that one person. But it doesn’t do anything to deal with the conditions that put that person at risk. It doesn’t change the status quo. It can help people in the dominant group feel like they’re doing something important. And while they may be doing just that for that one person, it doesn’t alleviate the context of the problem thus no one else will be spared. Those with privilege will continue to enjoy it at the same time those without it will continue to live in their disadvantaged state. Helping one person may provide some insight into such struggles but it can sometimes help the savior more than the oppressed.

What other movies present this type of story? Here are a few others I thought of: Radio, Hardball, Finding Forrester, Dangerous Minds, Cool Runnings, Thunderheart, Cry Freedom, and Blackboard Jungle.


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some people help others for different reasons ,some people are very rich but money is never enough and they will try to get the little which the disadvantaged has.The savior hero want to be famous and praised by misrepresenting the disadvantaged.

"Nothing is changed in society to deal with the source of the problem so that more young men and women could also live better lives with more opportunities and quality education."

I agree this is the crux of the problem. I do not know how to show this on film, or at least how to make it useful if it is shown on film. How do we show or inspire people to see that our society does not have to reproduce itself the way it does?

I am not thinking well, but maybe movies like "Crash" and others (?) do a better job of presenting this message instead of the line of films that you are talking about. Of course it is a shame that Avatar has become so big and is not doing the message justice.

You’re right that there seems to be one hero in each tale. The role they take is not a small one in the stories; they have to completely change the lives on one person, or save the lives of many. It’s astounding to think they people believe they are obligated to take on such a huge task to perform small miracles. In Avatar the task of being accepting into a society is a hard role, when being from a different society that is destructive and war bent, but Jake take on the role smoothly and ends up saving the village from utter doom. Things like this are inspiring to watch, and hear about.

According to Alain de Botton, Greek tragedies, where the hero is befallen with circumstance 'tragic' due to one small character flaw, served the purpose of reminding the audience just how close, but for one small folly, they could end up murdering their father, sleeping with their mother and gouging their own eyes out.

Empathy for the downtrodden is the natural extension of Art such as this; the disadvantaged are viewed not as losers but as people not so different that could be any member of society if the right (well, wrong) set of circumstances befell them.

Film-makers can only make what will be watched, otherwise they will not be given the budget to tell their next story, which of course means their films must be marketed towards the mainstream of society. On top of that, what good is an enlightened message if nobody see's it, nobody grasps it other than those that already get it?

Mainstream films are for the mainstream/dominant ideology, and telling the story from the dominant ideologies point of view is the obvious and perhaps plainly necessary way to make the film appealing by the people who pay the money that in the end is the reason films are able to be made.

Avatar has the audience cheering along with the Navi as they kill Humans (humans that seem to be pretty American...), surely serving a good purpose in at least tacitly reminding the viewers that in any battle, there are two sides, and a death on one side is just as tragic as a death on the other.

The reverse on the dominant helping the disadvantaged seems to be an obvious trope to be mined, but off the top of my head I can't think of any films where the traditionally disadvantaged group helps the traditionally dominant. Except for that song Mr Wendel by Arrested Development.

Good track that.

The movie "Blind Side" really shows us how a person's status reflects how they he/she lives and is treated. Michael had an ascribed status in this movie. That being, an African American who was basically homeless because of his mother who is struggling with addiction. Michael did not chose this life. He was born into it and by his parent's choices, he was forced into a life like he had.
When Michael was picked up by Leigh Anne, his life completely changed in a way. He still had that ascribed status. He could never get rid of it, but from being taken in by Leigh Anne, he earned an achieved status. He was introduced to football by his new family and soon became a college football player. He earned that status.
Michael experienced multiple status changes during his life and that must have been difficult to deal with. After reading this post, it made me realize how one's status can change just like that, but you will always live with your ascribed status.

I happened to see both movies. I would say you are exactly on with the hero aspect on both. I did enjoy the part in Avatar with the equalness. But its not very realistic with the way our government is. Our government just takes over everything. With the movie blind side it does show how everything you do will relfect how you are in society. Unfortunatly the boy in this movie was brought up in a drug environment and was not put in school. To make it worse he was African American in an almost all white school. Here again we see that even though we claim we do not discriminate .. we do! Michael in the BLind side could not change his past and how people viewed him but he was at least given a chance to prove that he could make something with his life.

Don't forget "To Sir, With Love" (it works both ways) and better one than none

I'd love to know what led to the inclusion of "Cool Runnings" in the list of similar movies. I'm till trying to figure that one out – is it because John Candy's character was a American teaching Jamaicans about ice and bobsledding? I think the geography pretty much sets up the premise for that one.

It's also pretty clear that Irv Blitzer's character (John Candy) is only one part of an ensemble team. We identify with all the characters – perhaps Derice Bannock most, actually. Every one of the ensemble, though, shares about equal screen time and each also has a sympathetic character arc, which is later influenced positively by the team as a whole – not any one individual. If anything, it's the white guy who's in the end really saved by the "disadvantaged" black guys – 'cause as washed out as Irv is, he makes for a pretty lousy white savior.

Still, I could have missed something.

Every movie has a hero. White or black. In fact more and more movies have the black guy as the hero. Ever seen a Will Smith or Morgan Freeman movie. Dances with Wolves would not have made sense if will Smith was cast as John Dunbar. Try not to be so narrow in your analysis.

In my opinion, I did get the view of Michael's life and how he suffered, I truly felt for him and if I were in LeAnn's shoes I would had done the same thing. Even if you are able to save one life from drugs and poverty that is better than none at all. I felt that this movie made you think about others misfortune and if you can make a difference and have the means than you should do it regardless of anyones'prejudice.

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