Mad Men and Avatar

by Bryan

Note: as of this writing, I have not seen Avatar

While reading up on Don Draper on Wikipedia, it struck me that there’s something very (little-a) avatar-ish about Draper as a character, which is written to some degree as a conscious take on the Gatsy-esque Great American Reinvention Story, and a big part of the fascination with the show is whether, like Draper, you believe that there is no “American history, only a frontier” or whether you are waiting for his Gatsby-like comeuppance. Do you think one can effectively become an avatar, or is the past—or present even—destined to “catch” us?

I’ve thought about the avatar concept a lot since reading David Edelstein’s thought-provoking Films of the Decade article in New York Magazine. Using The Matrix as a starting point and (big A) Avatar as an endpoint, he notes how a large number of both large and small (independent) films are rooted in the concept of “how you want it, when you want it” — an ethos that he argues lends itself to the creation and fetishization of avatars:

In the end, we might remember the aughts less for specific films than the technology that both created them and piped them into our homes: what we wanted when we wanted it. I was recently on a panel with indie-movie veteran Bingham Ray, who pointed out the most crucial difference between watching at home and in a theater: control. In a theater, you’re forced to cede power to the projectionist and, hence, the artist, whereas in your living room your hand is never far from the remote. You don’t invest the same attention when you know you can pause, go back, or fast-forward. You’re removed from the real, uncontrollable world, calling the shots, the avatar, just like your heroes onscreen.

He cites Eternal Sunshine, Iron Man, and I’d add (at least) the Bourne movies, Synecdoche, New York, Adaptation, The Science of Sleep and There Will Be Blood as movies that reinforce the concept of, in his words, subjectivism and in my words, recreationism. Edelstein ties the Iron Man recreation fantasy directly to the fall of the American reputation in the world, with Downey’s hero representing, in a man, the only part of the the cocky Bush reputation worth saving, and brings us to him by showing us that “Americanism,” if deployed correctly (which is not to say non-violently) is still a force for good. Tony Stark is effectively George Bush’s avatar, all the parts of him he’d create in an idealized version of himself: Successful, confident, powerful, and Good. The ironic part is that politicians and other people in the public eye are avatars themselves of actual human beings over whom we hold complete control set to a standard that, with their permission, we make up as we go along. We believe that if a Senator is banging his secretary he must be a flawed lawman, as if the two are related even at the subatomic level. Charles Barkley is doing it and it’s okay, but Tiger Woods cheats and enough reporters, fueled by enough blog hits, call Accenture asking for a comment that the company lucks into a good decision and fires Woods. Hiring Woods to advertise their product, however his performance at golf is related to their consulting wizardry, is the lazy man’s way of doing what should be a clever job for however many millions they pay him when an equally eye-catching slogan could be created for the cost of a small joint. It’s wonderful that Nike has stuck with Tiger for the same reason they hired him in the first place—the man is greatest player in the history of golf, and that’s why he’s selling their products. Whether paying Tiger millions ultimately makes independently verifiable marginal profits for Nike is something I don’t know (and I think is rare is most cases), but I do suspect that if any company is making money off an athlete endorsement, it’s Nike. Tiger is an avatar for golf fans, and Nike realizes that the only thing golf fans want is to play golf better. On the political side, Republicans tend to use their powers to oust their figureheads more often than Democrats do, which leads to uniformity (the Accenture model) while Democrats tend to more associate performance with favorability,* though they tend to cling to individual politicans as avatars more than Republicans do. Hence the constant infighting. My idea is that Democrats inherently don’t have a problem with American power in the world, nor

* Grading on a curve, of course, because no matter what they make you believe, they are more like each other than they are anything else in the world

The scary part is if you find Iron Man modest. Are the knowing nods to the actual clusterf*ck happening in the actual Afghanistan gestures not of conciliation but of restraint? Is it possible that under Bush the f*ckup America actually got more arrogant as it expanded its actions in the world, and the problem was not the length by which it expanded by how the power was wielded?

That’s the argument Annalee Newitz makes, essentially, in her “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?” Newitz leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the film is racist or not, but calls it

[…] undeniable that the film – like alien apartheid flick District 9, released earlier this year – is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it’s a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?

I’ve read many reviews of Avatar (haven’t seen it), almost all of them positive, but none have taken this angle. The reviews I’ve read have mentioned race in this context, though they all mention that the film serves as an obvious racial allegory. It’s unfortunate that they don’t mention it, because the criticism seems spot-on, if merely as an attack at formulaic plotting, but it is more than that. The whole thing is worth a read,† but Newitz starts:

In Avatar, our white hero Jake Sully (sully – get it?) explains that Earth is basically a war-torn wasteland with no greenery or natural resources left. The humans started to colonize Pandora in order to mine a mineral called unobtainium that can serve as a mega-energy source. But a few of these humans don’t want to crush the natives with tanks and bombs, so they wire their brains into the bodies of Na’vi avatars and try to win the natives’ trust. Jake is one of the team of avatar pilots, and he discovers to his surprise that he loves his life as a Na’vi warrior far more than he ever did his life as a human marine.

The most interesting part to me about this is a simple, lovely coincidental play on words. The hero’s name is Sully, as in “to Sully;” on My Birthday, 2009, our own “Sully” landed a plane on the Hudson River, saving however many people were on that plane. Here was a man from another age, an unironic, confident hero who has since gone back to his job flying planes in between talk show appearances where he’s boasted of “rock star sex” with his wife. He exists in this world, and only in this one; it’s hard to imagine anyone fantasizes about wanting to be Sully, for all his fame. Our avatars exist for escapism, but he reminds us that the world relies on actual people doing actual work as themselves. Sully is a product of the Mad Men generation, where creating an avatar of oneself was a difficult but increasingly attractive option. While shows like Desperate Housewives and movies like Little Children show that the suburban idyll is itself a fantasy, Mad Men shows that it was a put-on from the very start.

Mad Men‘s appeal has been alternately ascribed to our fetishization of the past and the God-like status it affords the viewer who knows, for instance, that Kennedy is about to die. Maybe it’s about pity. Maybe we’re so adept at creating avatars for ourselves nowadays that watching Don Draper fail to negotiate the pitfalls of a second life actually makes us feel bad for him. We have it easy because we have all the second lives we could possibly imagine.

† I do wish Newitz had cited counterexamples (Star Wars comes to mind, perhaps) but I’m still fine with it.