The Real World and the Dream: Society Portrayed through Avatar

I completed this final paper for my Sociology and Technology class where we discussed the basics of sociology as well as how technology affects it. For this assignment, I was to choose one of the provided films and analyze it based on what we learned throughout the class. This analysis was considered our final test, so there were specific requirements for the sources we used such as two different discussion posts made in class, different topics from the text, and outside sources we used for assignments. I chose the film Avatar as it depicts many aspects of society and technology today.

Society is portrayed using a variety of methods. Music, drama, art, literature, and television all display some sort of aspect of society, whether it is subtle or not. One of these tactics, film, uses many hidden meanings and interpretations of society at the time the film was produced. One film that depicts this concept quite well is James Cameron’s Avatar, which was produced in 2009. The plot of the film revolves around the protagonist, Jake Sully, a handicapped former marine who takes his twin brother’s place in the avatar program. The program involves taking on the form of the native people of Pandora called the Na’vi. Jake Sully becomes entranced in the world of the Na’vi, falls in love with a Na’vi princess, and is caught between reality and the dream as he defends the home of the people of Pandora. Avatar displays many concepts of today’s society such as the virtual world, culture difference, and reversed gender stereotypes.

The film opened with images of the military using robotic-like machines instead of the traditional human soldier. Humans were operating these machines in order to search for valuable resources and battle whoever stood in their way. This concept is known as McDonaldization. According to a discussion post by Lisa Dugas, this “reduces the need for humans to be put in harm’s way” (05/21/12). Not only did the military depict McDonaldization, but the avatar program did as well. Technology and machines were used to transport each individual to their avatar in order to explore the environment and learn the ways of the Na’vi. This also protected those in the avatar program as Pandora’s atmosphere was poisonous to humans.

Once Jake Sully was recruited into the avatar program, he encountered his avatar for the first time. Norm, a scientist who was part of the program, commented how much the avatar resembled Sully (Avatar). According to the article “Expressing My Inner Gnome: Appearance and Behavior in Virtual Worlds,” many individuals choose a character that resembles him or her (Lam and Riedl 104).  The avatar program is similar to participating in a virtual world or game in today’s society. The “players” entered a world as an entirely different being, yet they bore a resemblance to their human appearance in some ways. When Jake Sully first entered his avatar form, he was overcome with joy as he began to use his legs once again. This began Sully’s attachment to the “virtual world.”

Once Jake Sully began his mission as Grace and Norm’s bodyguard, he depicted the stereotype of the male role in media. He protected others and was unafraid. Sully even taunted a large creature he came across in the forest (Avatar). Once he encountered creatures too vicious for his taste, he became the damsel in distress. Sully was rescued by a Na’vi princess named Neytiri, who truly put him in his place. According to a discussion post by Ashely Sixta, media stereotypes depict the woman as “the stay at home housewife” who “didn’t have an outside job” (5/21/12). Sixta goes on to say how society is constantly changing, in which “gender stereotypes” are “changing as well” (5/21/12). In this particular scene, the roles were reversed as the female character rescued the male character. Throughout the film, Neytiri taught Jake Sully the ways of the Na’vi such as how to hunt, navigate the forest, and ride dragon-like creatures. The role of the woman in Avatar was portrayed as strong, independent, and a leader—all stereotypical male characteristics. Society’s view of gender roles truly are changing as this is depicted in media such as this film.

Culture was a major theme in the movie Avatar. The entire film depicted the ways of the Na’vi and how the protagonist learned to accept their culture and was eventually accepted as one of the people. When Jake Sully first encountered the culture of the Na’vi, he judged it based on his own culture. According to the text, this is referred to as ethnocentrism, “when a person uses his or her own culture to judge another culture” (Intersections Collection 49). This concept was shown when Jake Sully was surrounded by the seeds of the sacred tree. He attempted to swat them away, but Neytiri prevented him from doing so as she stated that in her culture, they are pure spirits (Avatar). Later in the film, while Sully recorded his video log for the day, Grace pointed out that he has to “try to see the forest through her eyes” referring to Neytiri as she taught him her culture’s ways. Colonel Miles Quaritch and Parker Selfridge, on the other hand, judged the Na’vi in a different way. They represented the term xenophobia, “fear and hostility toward people who are from other countries or cultures” (Intersections Collection 49). Instead of trying to understand the ways of the Na’vi, they sought personal gain, as well as an ego boost. They viewed the people of Pandora as threats as they pursued a valuable source where the Na’vi resided. The characters showed hostility and power by destroying Hometree as well as other sacred trees.

Throughout the film, Jake Sully and Neytiri developed a close relationship, which evolved into a romance. Neytiri stated that she and Jake were “mated for life” (Avatar). Sully became quite involved in his “virtual world” that he developed a relationship with a woman within the world. This is similar to today’s society and online dating. According to Arnold Brown, “While face-to-face dating will never entirely disappear, the process—and even relationships themselves—will happen more and more in virtual space. Especially for young people, relationships made in virtual space can be just as powerful and meaningful as those formed in the real world” (30). Virtual worlds, as well as online communities and relationships, are growing more popular among individuals in society. Jake Sully stated, “Everything’s backwards now, like out there is the real world and inside is the dream” (Avatar). The real world became the fantasy and the virtual world became his reality. Jake Sully referred to humans as “aliens” by the end of the film (Avatar). Arnold Brown comments how “Increasingly, over time, distinctions between real and virtual identity will become less sharply defined, particularly for people who spend substantial amounts of time in the virtual world” (34). The events in the film shed light on how society today heavily relies on virtual worlds more than reality.

The climax of Avatar portrays a large amount of violence and rebellion. The military instigated a riot by invading the Na’vi’s home and destroying it in the process. This is referred to as a riot, “emotional and violent disturbances of the peace by a crowd” (Intersections Collection 8). Hysteria unfolds as the Na’vi witness their only known home burst into flames and crash to the ground. According to the text, hysteria is “a heightened emotional status that can lead a group to violence” (Intersections Collection 8). The Na’vi reacted to the military’s actions by gathering other Na’vi tribes together in order to fight to protect what was left of their homes, as well as their culture.

Media is one of the leading methods of portraying society today. Avatar is no exception as it depicts many different aspects of society. McDonalization, virtual worlds, gender stereotypes, views of different cultures, virtual romances, and modern day riots all compose the film. What message does the movie deliver to its audience? One could be about cultural acceptance. Another could be about virtual worlds taking over society as a whole. Since technology is advancing more and more in today’s society as the main source of information and entertainment, film, such as Avatar, seems to be the only option in depicting an eye opening message or two.

 Works Cited

Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana. Lightstorm Entertainment / 20th Century Fox, 2009. DVD.

Brown, Arnold. “Relationships, Community, and Identity in the New Virtual Society.” The Futurist 45.2 (2011): 29+. World Future Society. Web. 13 June 2012.

Dugas, Lisa. “McDonaldization.” Desire to Learn. Dakota State University, 21 May 2012. Web. 20 June 2012.

The Intersections Collection: Pearson Custom Sociology. Ed. Ralph B. McNeal, Jr., Kathleen Anne. Tiemann, Morten G. Ender, and Betsy Lucal. Comp. Viki Johnson, Ph.D. New York: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. 8, 49. Print.

Shyong (Tony) K. Lam, John Riedl, “Expressing My Inner Gnome: Appearance and Behavior in Virtual Worlds,” Computer, vol. 44, no. 7, pp. 103-105, July 2011, doi:10.1109/MC.2011.211

Sixta, Ashley. “Media and Technology.” Desire to Learn. Dakota State University, 21 May 2012. Web. 20 June 2012.

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