Newsletter #4 - Critical Look at Avatar: The Way of Water

Hi, folks! It’s Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror  author Paul James Keyes with another newsletter!

Last time we talked about the “Stoned Ape” theory and how psychedelic mushrooms may have caused the evolution of mankind. [LINK TO NEWSLETTER 3 - THE 'STONED APE' THEORY OF THE EVOLUTION OF MAN] Today, I’d like to take a critical look at how Avatar: The Way of Water is conceptually problematic.

First off, I did enjoy the film. It’s a great story with themes that I believe are positive for society to grapple with, at least on a surface level, but boy oh boy are there a lot of troubling details that make this breakdown a mixed bag.

The analogy presented by James Cameron is an obvious one. The Navi represent Native Americans. The Humans represent Europeans. When I watched the first movie as a young man I understood it as basically Pocahontas for sci-fi/fantasy loving adults. The themes of the destruction of nature and the displacement of natives are correctly put into the light that they deserve.

The main problem with the Avatar movies is that it’s cringy to take a real people and make up a fantasy version of them as blue cat-like aliens to humanize instead of the actual humans that are still dehumanized in today’s society. I guess that’s also these movies’ strength, as they make you empathize with something that’s a reflection of real people. It makes the stakes lower for the audience instead of it being a sad period piece, everyone gets to pretend that the concepts are just fantasy.

As a white man, and the husband of a Native American woman, it has always irked me that white society’s view of Native American people seems to be locked in old westerns—as if natives were something of the past rather than a people that still exist (in shambles due to genocide and subsequent treatment). This is the same attitude that gets propagated when non-native people decide to dress up as “Indians” for Halloween. It reduces an entire people to a costume. Natives, next to ghosts and zombies, as if they are fictional characters. Reducing a people in this way is ultimately disrespectful and ignorant. If you’re thinking of ever dressing up as someone of a different race, maybe just don’t.

Avatar dresses up the natives as blue cats, as if they are feral. They have tails and pointy expressive ears that make them cute, like pets. Many of the humans in these movies view them as lesser—roots of racism much?—but the one saving grace is that the moral of these stories is that the humans are wrong to be repeating the sins of the past for profit at the detriment of these new alien natives. The problem for me is the dreadlocks and the war cries, the fact that their hair literally connects them to nature, combined with the reduction of them to a more animalistic status with the tails and hissing and other less-human mannerisms.

It really skirts the line of being down-right insulting to native people, erasing them in a new fantastical way. I’m glad he didn’t have any humans cut off the braids of the Navi, though I was half expecting it. I kept thinking it was going to happen and it actually upset me. The human Colonel at one point does say he will bring his higher-ups the scalp of Jake, the white man turned alien protagonist. Me and my wife looked at each other like ‘really??’.

At the end of the day, I think James Cameron must have love for the native people to write movies like these, but he is also removed from their struggle. His work can come across as tactless at times, despite all the painstaking detail he took to make the Navi come across as a real living civilization.  Ultimately, he is blatantly representing native people as aliens with the goal of it humanizing their plight (and making it more accessible to children who just think they are watching fancy graphics), but the whole thing comes across as a story of a dead people rather than a poignant tale of how to help native people with their current struggles. It’s a white man’s retelling a story that doesn’t belong to him.

James Cameron recently stated that he wondered if the Native people of the past would have fought harder against the white man if they could have seen the desolation of their children’s future. The implication that they didn’t fight is ridiculous and insulting, and that really frames the whole franchise for me. If the Navi weren’t so painstakingly crafted, I would have been disgusted by the whole thing, but as it stands, hopefully audiences can see the struggle of the natives and grow a little empathy for the people that were destroyed by their not-so-distant relatives. One thing that is exceedingly obvious is that this movie was not made for native people—it was made for white people.

Until next time, stay safe out there!

Freebie: Into the Beyond - Part 1: Fated - A Fantasy Horror Series


Newsletter #3 - The 'Stoned Ape' Theory of Evolution of Man

Hello again! Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror author Paul James Keyes here with another newsletter and more musings!

Last time I told you story of how I spend over a year developing my characters with a police psychologist [LINK TO NEWSLETTER 2 - HOW POLICE PSYCHOLOGIST HELPED ME CRAFT MY CHARACTERS].  The time before that I left you with a poem about cheese [LINK TO NEWSLETTER 1 - INTRODUCTIONS AND CHEESE]. Who ate it first, risking life and limb? I have no idea, but isn’t it fun how human knowledge has developed in response to necessity? You plop down two starving men and watch them forage for resources. One eats a mushroom and dies. The other eats a different mushroom, and accidentally expands his mind.

Today, I thought it would be fun to talk about the ‘Stoned Ape’ theory, and how some believe that consciousness has its roots in magic mushrooms, or more specifically, the chemical found within, called psilocybin. If you haven’t watched the Netflix Documentary Fantastic Fungi, I highly recommend it. It’s not about taking mushrooms, but it is very fascinating.

The ‘Stoned Ape’ theory originated from Terrance McKenna, a psychedelics advocate, in a book called Food of the Gods, published in 1992. McKenna states that psilocybin caused a rearranging of information processing abilities within the brains of primitive man, and that this evolution of cognition is what led to early developments in art, technology, and language for our species. Basically, more shrooms in the diet may have led to more wrinkles on the brain.

I’m not trying to persuade anyone into taking controlled substances here, I just find the topic highly interesting. My favorite description of the affects of psilocybin is to picture the pathways in your mind like a well-walked forest. These are paths you tread every day to get from one thought to the next. Psilocybin acts as a snowy blanket, covering the landscape of the mind, temporarily forcing your neurons to wake up and make new connections—new pathways—that can be more efficient than how your mind was working before. The ‘snow cover’ lets you cut new paths and work through ruts. There’s a reason psilocybin is being used alongside therapy to treat depression and anxiety more frequently these days.

Maybe the ’Stoned Ape’ theory is true, and maybe it’s not, but one thing that’s clear is that magic mushrooms have had a long history of expanding the mind. One thing I am highly passionate about is that we, as humans, should constantly be refining ourselves, growing and expanding our thoughts so that we may grow as individuals within society. You don’t need drugs for that—just good old fashioned attention and intention.

Here’s a hot tip that doubles as a great starting point for expanding your own capacity for dealing with emotions:  Point with your index finger at a ‘thumbs up’ in the opposite hand. Now switch which hand is pointing at which, and go back and forth slowly, pointing at your thumbs. Do it a little bit each day, picking up speed if you can. The fact that it is difficult for the mind tells you you’re learning something new.

This physical action of pointing at your thumbs uses both sides of the brain at once, thus creating new connections between the left and right hemispheres. It creates a superhighway of sorts, and has been shown to aid in emotional processing, among other positive benefits. Once you’ve mastered pointing at your thumbs, try giving a thumbs up while pointing your index finger at something else. Once you master that, start pointing with your pinky instead of your index finger. Find new ways to make the action you take difficult again—that’s when the brain-building happens. If it’s difficult, it’s working! Try it for a few minutes each day over the course of a few days or weeks and you just may be surprised how much this impacts you in a positive way.

Until next time, stay safe out there!

Freebie: Into the Beyond - Part 1: Fated - A Fantasy Horror Series



Wrought by Fire
Ashen Sky
Howls on the Wind
Into the Beyond - Part 1: Fated
Into the Beyond - Part 2: Far From Human
Into the Beyond - Part 3: Fires of Heaven

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