Is Avatar a Feminist Movie?

What Women Really Think
Dec. 22 2009 11:55 AM

Is Avatar a Feminist Movie?

On Vanity Fair's Web site Rebecca Keegan makes the case that James Cameron is Hollywood’s closet feminist, pointing out that he loves his strong, female characters (as well as his wife and his mother, if that counts for anything):

The women of Avatar are just the latest in a long line of this director’s alpha females. Ever since he left the fate of the world in the hands of diner waitress Sarah Connor in The Terminator in 1984, Cameron has given women more power, authority, and strength than any other mainstream director has been able to get away with. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day , which made $520 million worldwide in 1991, a sinewy Linda Hamilton broke out of a mental hospital with a paper clip to save not only her kid but humanity as well, perhaps the best cinematic metaphor for the ingenuity of single moms. Cameron’s heroines aren’t just Rambos in drag, either-in movies like The Abyss and True Lies , his female characters are given emotional journeys of their own to travel.
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It’s true that Sigourney Weaver as an ultra-sharp scientist and Zoe Saldana as the gorgeous Na’vi princess Naytiri are both strong characters in Avatar . But ultimately, the success of their struggles is entirely dependent on a male-Jake Sully, the paraplegic jarhead who comes into their land, learns their ways (better than the Na’vi even-he becomes the first Na’vi warrior in generations to tame the dragon bird), ends up leading their war, and mating with their princess. The male is still the chosen one in Avatar, just as John Connor is the chosen one in Terminator . And Sarah Connor’s strength-and Naytiri’s strength in Avatar, for that matter-lies in doing what mothers are supposed to do best-protect their children (Naytiri’s loyalty to her land is positioned as a relationship-the defining feature of their world is its Mother Earth vibe, or, I suppose, in this case it should be dubbed Mother Pandora.) Meaning: They're not exactly rocking the gender stereotype boat, they’re just good, developed characters.

I guess it comes down to this question: What exactly makes a movie feminist? Should featuring developed female characters in one’s movies be a feminist boon, or should it simply be status quo-and should a movie with one-dimensional female characters be considered just a bad film?