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The Racial Politics of Dune and Avatar

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Racial Politics of Dune and Avatar"

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I very much enjoyed Annalee Newitz’s critique of the implicit racial politics of Avatar and the contrast with District 9:

In both Avatar and District 9, humans are the cause of alien oppression and distress. Then, a white man who was one of the oppressors switches sides at the last minute, assimilating into the alien culture and becoming its savior. This is also the basic story of Dune, where a member of the white royalty flees his posh palace on the planet Dune to become leader of the worm-riding native Fremen (the worm-riding rite of passage has an analog in Avatar, where Jake proves his manhood by riding a giant bird). [...]

Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode. Interestingly, Wikus in District 9 learns a very different lesson. He’s becoming alien and he can’t go back. He has no other choice but to live in the slums and eat catfood. And guess what? He really hates it. He helps his alien buddy to escape Earth solely because he’s hoping the guy will come back in a few years with a “cure” for his alienness. When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

I did, however, want to chime in and say that I think this is unfair to Dune. The Avatar narrative starts with a form of reactionary anti-capitalism and thus ends re-inscribing the logic of colonialism inside an ostensibly anti-imperialist story. Sully defects to the alien camp, and they swiftly and unproblematically accept him as their (soon-to-be-victorious) leader precisely because of the great tactical acumen to which he (allegedly) has access precisely because he is not a noble Na’vi savage.

In Dune, by contrast, the willingness of the Fremen to accept Paul Atreides as a leader is explicitly portrayed as in part a consequence of colonialist manipulation by the Bene Gesserit missionaria protectiva. Thus, Frank Herbert is more exploring the colonialist logic of this narrative than performing it. And perhaps more important, the Fremen maintain their agency despite accepting Atreides’ leadership. They’ve taken the story of the messiah from the outside and made it their own. Paul becomes much more the vehicle for their concept of planetary transformation and galactic jihad than the leader of the movement. Ultimately, what Paul does and does not want has only a limited relevance to what the Fremen he “leads” decide to do.

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