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A protester dressed as a 'Na'vi' from James Cameron's film 'Avatar' takes part in a demonstration as British mining giant Vedanta holds it annual general meeting in London, on July 28, 2010. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images/Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)
A protester dressed as a 'Na'vi' from James Cameron's film 'Avatar' takes part in a demonstration as British mining giant Vedanta holds it annual general meeting in London, on July 28, 2010. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images/Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Globe Essay

Avatar activism: Pick your protest Add to ...

Five Palestinian, Israeli and international activists painted themselves blue to resemble the Na'vi from James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar in February, and marched through the occupied village of Bil'in. The Israeli military used tear gas and sound bombs on the azure-skinned protesters, who wore traditional kaffiyehs with their Na'vi tails and pointy ears. The camcorder footage of the incident was juxtaposed with borrowed shots from the film and circulated on YouTube. We hear the movie characters proclaim: "We will show the Sky People that they cannot take whatever they want! This, this is our land!"

The event is a reminder of how people around the world are mobilizing icons and myths from popular culture as resources for political speech, which we can call " Avatar activism." Even relatively apolitical critics for local newspapers recognized that Avatar spoke to contemporary political concerns. Conservative U.S. publications, such as National Review and The Weekly Standard, denounced Avatar as anti-American, anti-military and anti-capitalist. A Vatican film critic argued that it promoted "nature worship," while some environmentalists embraced Avatar as "the most epic piece of environmental advocacy ever captured on celluloid." Many on the left ridiculed the film's contradictory critique of colonialism and embrace of white liberal guilt fantasies, calling it Dances with Smurfs (from the simplistic pro-native-American 1990 movie success Dances with Wolves). One of the most nuanced critiques came from Daniel Heath Justice, an activist from the Cherokee nation, who felt that Avatar was directing attention to the rights of indigenous people, even though Mr. Cameron oversimplified the evils of colonialism, creating embodiments of the military-industrial complex that are easy to hate and hard to understand.

Such critiques encourage a healthy skepticism toward the production of popular mythologies and are better than those of critics who see popular culture as trivial and meaningless, offering only distractions from our real-world problems. The meaning of a popular film such as Avatar lies at the intersection between what the author wants to say and how the audience deploys his creation for their own communicative purposes.

The Bil'in protesters recognized potential parallels between the Na'vi struggles to defend their Eden against the Sky People and their own attempts to regain lands they feel were unjustly taken from them. (The YouTube video makes clear the contrast between the lush jungles of Pandora and the arid, dusty landscape of the Occupied Territories.) The film's larger-than-life imagery, recognized worldwide thanks to Hollywood, offered them an empowered image of their own struggles. The sight of a blue-skinned alien writhing in the dust and choking on tear gas shocked many into paying attention to messages we often ignore.

By appropriating Avatar, activists have made some of the most familiar criticisms of the film beside the point. Conservative critics worried that Avatar might foster anti-Americanism, but as the image of the Na'vi has been taken up by protest groups in many parts of the world, the myth has been rewritten to focus on local embodiments of the military-industrial complex. In Bil'in, the focus was on the Israeli army; in China, on indigenous people against the Beijing government; in Brazil, the Amazonian Indians against logging companies.

Without painting themselves blue, people like the Indian writer Arundhati Roy and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek have used discussions about Avatar to call attention to the plight of the Dongria Kondh peoples of India, who have just won a battle with their government over access to traditional territories rich in bauxite. It turns out that the United States isn't the only evil empire left on Planet Earth. Leftists worry that the focus on white human protagonists gives an easy point of identification. But protesters just want to be in the blue skins of the Na'vi.

The Avatar activists are tapping into a very old language of popular protest. The cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis reminds us in her classic essay "Women on Top" that protesters in early modern Europe often masked their identity through dressing as peoples real (the Moors) or imagined (the Amazons) seen as a threat to the civilized order. The good citizens of Boston continued this tradition in the New World when they dressed as native Americans to dump tea in the harbour. And African-Americans in New Orleans formed their own Mardi Gras Indian tribes, taking imagery from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, to signify their own struggles for respect and dignity (a cultural practice being reconsidered in HBO's television series Treme, by David Simon, about post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans).

Stephen Duncombe, a media theorist, argues that the American left has adopted a rationalist language that can seem cold and exclusionary, speaking to the head not the heart. But by rejecting the wonkish vocabulary of most policy discourse, it could draw emotional power from its engagement with stories that already matter to a mass public.

Mr. Duncombe cites an activist group that called itself Billionaires for Bush, whose members posed as mega-tycoons straight out of a Monopoly game, to call attention to the corporate interests shaping Republican positions. He might have been writing about protesters painting themselves blue or Twitter users turning their icons green in solidarity with the Iranian opposition movement.

A team of researchers at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism - myself included - have been mapping many recent examples of groups repurposing pop culture toward social justice. Our focus is on what we call participatory culture: in contrast to mass media's spectator culture, digital media has allowed many more consumers to take media into their own hands, hijacking culture for their own purposes. Shared narratives provide the foundation for strong social networks, generating spaces where ideas get discussed, knowledge gets produced, and culture gets created. In this process, fans are acquiring skills and building a grassroots infrastructure for sharing their perspectives on the world. Much as young people growing up in a hunting society may play with bows and arrows, young people coming of age in an information society play with information.

Andrew Slack, a director of an NGO called the Harry Potter Alliance, describes this process as "cultural acupuncture," suggesting that his organization has identified a vital pressure point in the popular imagination and sought to link it to larger social concerns. The HPA has mobilized more than 100,000 young people worldwide to participate in campaigns against genocide in Africa; in support of workers' rights and gay marriage; to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti; to call attention to media concentration and many other causes. J.K. Rowling's creation, Harry Potter, Mr. Slack argues, realized that the government and the media were lying to the public in order to mask evil, organized his classmates to form Dumbledore's Army and went out to change the world. Mr. Slack asks his followers what evils Dumbledore's Army would be battling in our world. In Maine, the alliance organized a competition among fans affiliated with the houses of the fictional Hogwarts school, to see who could get the most voters to the polls in a referendum on equal marriage rights. All this may mobilize young people who have traditionally felt excluded or marginalized from the political process.

Such efforts may sound cynical (in giving up on the power of reason to convert the masses) or naive (by believing in myths rather than realities). In fact, there is always a moment when participants push aside comforting fantasy to deal with the complexities of what's really happening.

This new style of activism doesn't require us to paint ourselves blue; it does ask that we think in creative ways about the iconography that comes to us through every available media channel. Consider the ways that Dora the Explorer, the Latina girl at the centre of a popular American public television series, has been deployed by both the right and the left to dramatize the likely consequences of Arizona's new immigration law; or how the U.S. Tea Party has embraced a mash-up of Obama and the Joker from The Dark Knight Returns (one of the Batman films) as a recurring image in its battle against health-care reform.

Such analogies don't capture the complexities of these policy debates, just as we can't reduce the distinctions between American political parties to the differences between elephants and donkeys (icons from an earlier decade's political cartoonists). Such tactics work only if we read these images as metaphors, standing in for something bigger than they can fully express. Avatar can't do justice to the old struggle over the Occupied Territories, and the YouTube video is no substitute for informed discourse about what's at stake there. Yet their spectacular and participatory performance does provide the emotional energy needed to keep on fighting. And that may direct attention to other resources.

Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California and the author of Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture .

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