[personal profile] wingedbeast
I was young in the mid 90s and didn't pay a whole lot of attention to critics at the time. But, I remember Dances With Wolves getting a mostly positive reaction for its positive depiction of Native Americans. Few people that I knew of had anything negative to say about Dances With Wolves on the matter of story.

When it came to Avatar, the positives were all about the visuals. Make no mistake, those visuals were amazing. The vistas of flora and fauna of an alien ecology were beautiful. Even the destruction scenes were a thing to behold again and again. And, of course, there were secondary sex characteristics for anybody who enjoyed such things.

The reaction to Avatar's story was different. It was mocked for being simplistic and cheaply manipulative. It was also recognized as... racist.

Oh, it tried to appear the opposite. But, the Navi were obviously a generalized, simplified, and homogenized version of the general kind of sense of Native American culture and religion that a lot of people have when they don't know all that much about Native American culture and religion. Oh, and they apparently need a white guy to tell them what to do... yeah.

But, Avatar has the same storyline as Dances With Wolves. Oh, there are some cosmetic differences, but they're the same story. (which isn't an insult to Avatar, by the way. Hamlet is a pre-existing revenge play with a couple changes. Unoriginal isn't Avatar's defining failure.) Why, then, doesn't Dances With Wolves strike as simplistic, cheaply manipulative, and racist?

There are a couple additional influences that I can think of over and above the point that I've telegraphed in the title of this article. So, let's get them out of the way.

I could simply have been far less aware when I first saw Dances With Wolves. I was in my early teens. I wasn't politically or socially aware. I wasn't any less privileged than I am, today. And, while still on the more liberal side, I had passively accepted some toxic narratives.

Those cosmetic differences might actually make a difference. Dances With Wolves is set in a real history with a real conflict already in place that doesn't need some magical sci-fi element for a McGuffin. And, it included the Native Americans of a real Nation that could be accurately represented.

For the most part, I think the reason is that Dances With Wolves came at a point when it was getting things less wrong... because it certainly didn't get things right. Appropriation and Unfortunate Implications are the premise. Oh, and it also has to create an orphaned and adopted white woman so that the main character would have a white love interest. Yes, that's a pre-existing trope. No, that doesn't make it any better.

For all that, compare Dances With Wolves to Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans prior, particularly in the Western genre. Just prior, Hollywood had, for the most part, seemed to avoid the topic. Prior to that... Let's just say "Cowboys and Indians" stories weren't about complexities of multiple viewpoints and the problems of privileged narratives.

Dances With Wolves was an improvement... at the time. But, when you repeat that story after the improvement has already been made, it's no longer an improvement. Avatar doesn't take a new or more culturally sensitive look, anymore. Therefore, the problems that remained became more glaring. The cheap manipulation, the simplistic storyline, and, of course, the racism.

I can't argue that Dances With Wolves wasn't racist. Then again, I also can't argue that Abraham Lincoln, who once stated that he would never support Black Suffrage, wasn't racist. And, I also can't argue that I don't hold some harmful habits and beliefs today. I try to address them as I find out about them.

I also can't argue that I haven't said something horribly wrong in this article. I probably did. So, feel free to correct me. I don't promise to get it right in the future, but at least I'll be a little bit less wrong. That will be something, but it won't be a stopping point.



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