Over the holidays I had the pleasure of going to see Avatar with my son-in-law and three grandsons, ages 16, 13 and 9. The animation was out of this world and the many themes of the movie were powerful. I loved one of the ending messages: “Protecting their family gives men a purpose.” I thought about how a powerful message like this might impact my grandsons without them being aware of its influence.
The movie made me think of the power of subliminal messages, defined as: “words or images presented below our conscious awareness. Usually we think of short frames cut into a video feed, where the subliminal message appears so quickly (usually less than one tenth of a second!) that our minds do not register their appearance.”
In the movie I noticed how some groups of animated characters were blue with distinctive features: one group had three fingers on each hand, some had tails and many had unique markings on their faces.
There were powerful messages about the importance of loyalty to family as well as allowing outsiders to become accepted members of a family or group. It made me think about the excellent 2016 book, Myth of Race by Robert Wald Sussman. This book states that there is scientific evidence that refutes the belief that there are a variety of biologically-based human races. The book gives powerful evidence that there is only one race: the human race, homo sapiens. We are all one species. Skin color differences and other superficial differences are the result of 1.2 million years of evolving as some humans moved from the original place where humans first existed in Africa. All races’ ancestors began as dark-skinned people because this was necessary to survive in the heat and intense sun-exposure of the climate.
“As Homo sapiens populations began to migrate, the evolutionary constraint keeping skin dark decreased proportionally to the distance north a population migrated, resulting in a range of skin tones within northern populations. At some point, some northern populations experienced positive selection for lighter skin due to the increased production of vitamin D from sunlight and the genes for darker skin disappeared from these populations.”
But it seems to be in the nature of being human to want to dominate other groups of human beings, to overpower and enslave any groups, often defined by their race, as vulnerable. This has occurred since the beginning of recorded history.
My hope with a movie such as Avatar is that the subliminal messages about race will contribute to promoting equal treatment of all races and a spirit of anti-racism all over our country. The changes over time may be subtle but ultimately very powerful. Something to consider is how we can make subliminal messages conscience ones? One way is to examine experiences we have, looking for subliminal messages, engaging in conversations with others about what these subtle messages were. Doing this can take the cover off subliminal messages and make them messages we may want to keep, change or discard.
Our children and grandchildren will determine the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors demonstrated towards people whose skin color is different from theirs. I felt very encouraged by what I saw in the power of this movie. Subliminal messages can be very powerful!
Invitation for Reflection
- Can you think of a TV show, play, movie, or other media that transmitted subliminal messages to you? How did those messages impact your attitudes, beliefs and behaviors?
- How do you think subliminal messages are being transmitted today? How about messages that promote racially equality?
- How can you facilitate being conscious of making healthy subliminal messages with your family and friends?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute