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Measuring the cultural weirdness of "Avatar"

A guest piece from internet culture researcher Adam Bumas

Thanks to the internet, it feels like we can actually measure how popular something is culturally. We can count up all the shares, and the likes, and the views and feel like we’re getting somewhere. And we can look at cosplayers and read fanfic and argue about fan theories and know that other people are experiencing the same media we are. But what if there’s a piece of popular media — possibly the most popular piece of media ever created — that has none of those things? In short, what do we do about Avatar?

Well, Adam Bumas, a writer for Meme Insider, tried to figure that out. And it turns out, Avatar is a much weirder cultural artifact than you might think. And Adam has the data to prove it. So I’m giving today’s email over to him. And, yes, he made charts.

Avatar By The Numbers

Avatar: The Way of Water is the movie of the moment. As of this week, it’s nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, and it’s the sequel to the highest-grossing movie ever made. It’s taken so long to come out that children who were born after the first one came out are now allowed to go see the PG-13 movie unchaperoned. Both the first and second Avatar movies are enormous — but there’s still a feeling they should be bigger.

In fact, for almost a decade, discussion of Avatar has been dominated by the idea that it has no cultural impact. Wikipedia cites 12 different news articles on the subject of no one remembering or caring about Avatar, and they all tend to follow similar themes: No one remembers the characters. There’s no fan community to keep it alive. It isn’t a regular Comic-Con presence... and there are no memes!

But is that still true of the franchise following the release of The Way Of The Water? And can we prove it? Well, cultural impact is hard to define. Every single person has their own perspective, which means the best you can do is try to take an accounting of these perspectives by looking at other kinds of art. For instance, if someone mentions a movie in a song, the song is part of the movie's impact for everyone who hears it.

Avatar's impact needs to be put in the context of just being one movie that wasn't based on anything and never got a sequel until a month ago. So, first, let's compare it to the highest-grossing movies of a given year in the same category:

As you can see, this list is all over the map. But it also begs the question, where are all the people saying no one ever talks about Gravity or Mr. & Mrs. Smith or Hancock?

Anyways, Avatar doesn’t even belong on this list anymore because it now, of course, has a sequel. So let’s see how it stacks up to all the other movies that recently got sequels after more than a decade of waiting:

This list of movies feels like it puts Avatar in better company. People definitely talk about Mamma Mia more than Hancock. (Or do they?)

Now that we’ve got some films to compare Avatar to, let’s start with the easiest number to look up from that list of places where Avatar supposedly falls short — the number of fanfics.

Internet fandom is driven by lore. But there isn’t much of a fan community around Avatar because there was, up until recently, just one movie, without years of sequels or reams of books and comics most modern blockbusters come attached to now. But are people making up their own Avatar lore?

Well, Archive Of Our Own, the internet’s central hub for fanfic, makes it really easy to see exactly how much interest there is in fanfic about a certain work. In fact, the genesis for this whole study was a Tumblr post from November showing that fanfic about the nonexistent Martin Scorsese movie Goncharov had outpaced Avatar.

One problem with that, though, is that Avatar came out in theaters just three weeks after AO3’s first public release. So fanfic writers who walked out of the movie with Pandora on the brain wouldn’t have been heading there, they would have been going to Fanfiction.net, by far the most popular home for fanfic at the time. So how does Avatar compare to the other movies we mentioned if you take numbers from both websites?

Oh hey there Inception!

How did the Christopher Nolan thriller rate so far above everything else? If you delve into the data, you see that over 75% of the fanfics on both sites are listed under the Arthur/Eames ship: Two handsome boys with contrasting personalities, played by Tom Hardy (who said “of course I’ve had gay sex” on the press tour for Inception) and Joseph Gordon Levitt (who spends most of the movie dressed like the Once-ler).

Brave doesn’t quite measure up on FF.net, but it has more than 4 times as many stories as Avatar on AO3. Other than timing, the most obvious reason for that is it’s part of the “Rise Of The Brave Tangled Dragons”, a crossover fandom along the same lines as SuperWhoLock, but entirely for kids’ animated movies (it’s Brave, Rise of the Guardians, Tangled, and How to Train Your Dragon).

Outside of these two, Avatar stands just as tall as Na’vi do among humans. But how does it compare to the other set of movies, the sequels? For the previous chart, I only counted fanfic that was written before December 1st, back when Avatar belonged on that no sequel list. Here’s how it stacks up just a month later as a movie with a sequel:

Once more, this list makes Avatar look like it’s right where it belongs, at the middle of the pack. And once more, we see the outsize influence of hunky dudes who just can’t get along, which made Top Gun one of the biggest movies of the 80s and did it again with the sequel this past summer.

So clearly, the Tumblr sexyman effect is powerful when it comes to counting fanfic. But what about if we look to other parts of popular culture? How about song lyrics? If something is casually mentioned in a track by a major artist, that means the general public can be expected to understand what they’re talking about. Singers known for deep cuts, your Steely Dans and MF DOOMs, are the exception rather than the rule.

I went to Genius and did a lyric search for all these movie titles, and tallied each of the results I could find from Genius Verified artists (to control for songs meant for a wide audience) which were references or allusions to the movie. That means, for example, Pitbull singing “I’m like Inception/I play with your brain/So don’t sleep or snooze” counts, and Jay-Z singing “When you been hustling since your inception/fuck perception” doesn’t. So how do the one-and-done movies rate?

There’s a fascinating distribution here — also some really fun lyrics with movie references in them. I was a particular fan of a JPEGMAFIA track where he sings “They playin’ with my name/Young Peggy bring the pain/I click a bitch, I’m Adam Sandler, bringing major pain”. Click ended up relatively low on the list, as you might expect from a survey of mostly rap lyrics, though it was a little sad to see Brave completely shut out.

The big winners here are Inception and Ratatouille, and the high numbers show what cultural ubiquity actually looks like. I counted every time “Inception” was used in conjunction with dreams, sleeping or “an X within an X”, because none of those would make sense as reasons to invoke the word if not for the movie. Similarly, I counted the many times “Ratatouille” is used to just mean “rat”, whether it means an animal or snitch, for the same reason. I also counted all the references to Migos’ smash hit “Bad and Boujee”, where Quavo sings “Still be playing with pots and pans, call me Quavo Rata-toolie”.

Most Avatar references by Genius Verified artists are in the same vein. People tend to invoke it to describe how big and/or blue something is, whether they’re cars, sad feelings or stacks of hundreds. Special attention goes to Lil Wayne, who was clearly affected by the movie enough to invoke it multiple times purely on its own merits. A Meek Mill remix in 2011 has him saying, “Prolly on a skateboard, tryna learn that new trick/I just fucked a Avatar, now I got a blue dick”, and his single a year later proclaimed, “It’s Young Money or it’s take money/Long hair don’t care, call me Jake Sully” (though the latter doesn’t go towards the count since it doesn’t name the movie).

But how does Avatar stack up to the sequel movies? It’s a little more complicated.

This was already a labor intensive process, but reading through every time a rapper mentions Space Jam was my limit. I tapped out after counting a hundred, where roughly 1/4 of those were specifically talking about the limited edition Jordans put out as a tie-in to the movie. Top Gun and The Incredibles also place well above Avatar, which I would say is partially a matter of how well both titles lend themselves to rap lyrics. Even so, Avatar is lagging behind everyone but Mamma Mia, where most references were either to the ABBA song or just the Italian expression.

These lyrics are where cultural perceptions begin. These secondary works of art that go out to a wide audience are what build up people’s impressions of things, outside of the actual things. Watching Avatar at the movies only takes up a few hours of your life, but hearing people allude to it in song, or reading fanfic about it, or whatever else, will build up over time.

And if you don’t feel like people are talking about Avatar, that means it hasn’t built up for you. As the examples of people rapping about Brave or writing fanfic about Bridesmaids shows, that could just be a question of not being in places where Avatar is prioritized. I tried to find the most common and universal way of alluding to movies I could, one that would be as inescapable as possible, but where there was still raw data available to people like me who aren’t NSA agents.

Let’s look at the GIFs. Ever since bandwidth and storage limits got big enough, people have been turning movies into gifs — one form of moving picture into another is a natural progression. I did a survey of five GIFs from each of these movies on Tenor and Giphy, the two largest GIF directories. Since there’s no public way to view the number of times people have linked to them, I put them in TinEye’s reverse image search, which I’m using because Google has a cap on the number of images any image search will return.

The number isn’t anything close to a full accounting of every time someone has publicly shared the GIF, but it’s still a useful number in relative terms. First, here is how Avatar’s GIF footprint compares to our non-sequels list:

Shockingly bad, it turns out. Remember what I said about places where Avatar isn’t prioritized? Looks like we found a big one! And I think the paltry numbers for sharing Avatar GIFs goes a long way towards explaining why there’s such a widespread notion of no one talking about it, since out of all the movies here, the only ones lower are Hancock, Gravity and Click, the latter of which doesn’t seem to exist on Giphy at all.

How about our sequel list?

Cartoons and sexy men win the day, once again. On the other end, it’s nice to finally see Bridesmaids getting its due, with all the famous quotes and gross-out gags putting it at the top of the list. Below that is Space Jam, a movie where most of the characters are Looney Tunes, meaning it’s more or less built for GIFs. Inception, the usual top dog, makes third place, but that’s only because I removed the huge outlier of DiCaprio squinting from the data set. Memes throw off the curve!

Also, Avatar, as said before, hasn’t been the source for many memes at all, and I think the low GIF shares provide a clue as to why. Most of these high numbers make sense. Cartoons make excellent GIFs, every single motion has to be painstakingly and manually created. Comedies make good GIFs, since a good joke can be just as funny presented as a reference. Movies that have huge stars front and center work great for GIFs, since a famous face making a big reaction is a great way to emphasize a point in conversation.

Avatar isn’t just 0-for-3 there, it’s set up in a way that actively makes GIFs worse. The world of Pandora was designed to be as singular and cohesive as the story itself, and that creates a great effect when you’re actually watching it, but the effect won’t work nearly as well when a few seconds of it are cut out and presented with no context.

In the same way that not every book can make a great movie, not every movie can make a great GIF, or get turned into huge memes. Each medium has different priorities and tendencies, and you can see that even when you’re just looking at it through the lens of how a bunch of movies translate. Avatar was made for the movies, and if you step back far enough, it’s gotten pretty popular as movies go. Definitely more so than Goncharov.

***Any typos in this email were inserted during editing by accident by me probably***


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