James Cameron’s Avatar: Watch Some -isms This December!

I’m editing this post to ad, since a lot of people are arriving here with the search term “Avatar racist,” some links to thoughts on race in Avatar elsewhere on the Internet: Sek writes “Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist” and Annalee Newtiz (linked in Sek’s post), wrote: “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar?

Amanda Hess over at The Sexist drew my attention to James Cameron’s Avatar by asking me if we were going to be covering it at FWD. I initially thought she was talking about The Last Airbender, based on the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has been attracting a great deal of ire for whiteifying characters who were formerly people of colour. Once I got that straightened out and took a gander at the available information on Avatar, slated for a 18 December release date here in the good old US of A, I just about blew my stack.

James Cameron is a filmmaker who specializes in, uhm, using a lot of blue light. The blue obsession apparently is hard to kick, because this epic project features a race of blue people. Which I assume will involve the use of a lot of blue lighting.

Ok, enough making fun of James Cameron and the blue light thing (but seriously, people…think about any of the works of James Cameron that you  have seen. What you do remember? That’s right, you remember BLUE LIGHT). The story behind Avatar is that it’s apparently a project he’s been thinking about and working on since the 1990s, waiting for filmmaking technology to get to the point that could do this amazing masterwork of cinema justice.

The film is set on the moon Pandora, occupied by a people called the Na’vi. Who just happen to be nine feet tall, blue, and sparkly. Oh, and they live “in harmony” with the natural resources on their planet. The writeups I’m seeing are making references to “simplistic people,” “unspoiled world,” “deep connection with nature,” etc etc. Hellooooo, noble savages!

Naturally, peaceful blue aliens cannot be allowed to live out their lives unmolested, because this is Hollywood. Enter Jake Sully, a white human male who is sent to help humans establish a foothold so that they can exploit the planet’s natural resources (what these people need is a honky!). The Na’vi are naturally not onboard with this plan, hence, conflict! Our plucky human falls in love with a Na’vi woman, of course, and becomes trapped in conflict between, well, colonialism and noble savages. Ah, an allegory for the ages.

Excuse me while I gag a bit.

Ok, now that I’ve cleared my throat, let’s move on to the disability fail. Because this is FWD, so you know there’s got to be some disability fail to discuss. (Although it is true that I will leap at almost any opportunity to mock James Cameron.)

Jake, you see, is a veteran with paraplegia. And the reason he wants to go to Pandora is so that he will be put in an able body: An Avatar, as they are known in the movie. Or, at least, his consciousness will be projected into that body, since only the Avatar can survive in the environment on Pandora. Oh, hey, did I mention that the Avatars look like the Na’vi, so Jake is going to be in, well, blueface? Yes, the paraplegic needs to become a racial impersonator in order to overcome his disability.

Yeah, that’s right. This is a movie which is not only racist as all getout, but also centers around a Miracle Cure! Which, of course, means that the disabled character will be played by an actor in crip drag. And, of course, this story automatically assumes that having paraplegia and being a wheelchair user is a tragedy which would make one bitter and furious at the world, and that, of course, everyone would want a cure. I would not be surprised if they threw in a healthy dollop of PTSD, probably portrayed in the most offensive and infuriating way possible.

I really can’t wait for this movie to come out so that I can rip it a new one in full, but it’s worth pondering the fact that Cameron has been thinking about and developing this project for over a decade, and he apparently has not identified any content in it which might be considered problematic. Indeed, they’re shooting for a PG rating, evidently, just to make sure that people of all ages can be subjected to ableism and racism this holiday season.

Thanks to Amanda for drawing my attention to this. (And anytime y’all want to see us cover something that interests you, drop one of us a line!)

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

29 thoughts on “James Cameron’s Avatar: Watch Some -isms This December!

  1. Dear Mr. Cameron,

    Bored now.

    No love,

    More seriously… In the past, I’ve really bought into the idea of the timelessness and universalism of certain stories and the history of shared narratives, but lately I’ve realized how inaccurate this picture is. These stories aren’t universal at all, but reflect the status quo. I read Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake over the summer, and was incredibly disappointed by the ablism in his narrative, especially when he seemed to start with a strong character (trying not to be spoiler-y, but if anyone’s interested, there’s a comprehensive review of Robert J. Sawyer’s Wake by Kestrel. The only thing she doesn’t include is the similar treatment of the protagonist’s father). I love Sawyer’s style and had been desperately waiting for his next book, but as much as I kept trying to love the second half of the novel, it didn’t go. I couldn’t get past my disappointment about his plot devices, which were ablist and obvious. Sucked the enjoyment out of the entertaining parts of the book.

    I am finding colonialist and ablist storylines hella boring now that I recognize them as overdone tropes (oh, what a difference a Bingo card can make), but I know plenty of people still enjoy them and find them compelling. And I enjoy my share of tropes and cliches in other (preferably non-oppressive) forms! But I seriously wonder what it will take for people to give up on these narratives, like Noble Savages and Miracle Cures, that they seem to enjoy so much.

  2. I like that the guy who is coming in to colonize this “unspoiled world” is named Sully. Unintentional irony?

    Intentional, I think; it’s not supposed to be a good thing. Which, obviously, doesn’t negate the tropes discussed or anything.

  3. I saw a preview for this movie recently and agog. So many racist and ableist tropes so poorly disguised. The Na’vi costuming is so, so obviously drawing upon racist notions of “primitivism,” etc.

    And you are very right about James Cameron and the color blue.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Debunking Neanderthal Nonsense Part II =-.

  4. Blergh.

    The whole “virtual reality cure” thing reminds me of a “kids” show my sibs used to watch. I think it was from New Sealand. It was a sci-fi- show about a world without grown ups, and the bad guy for one season was a boy in a wheeelchair. He wanted to enslave everyone so he could built a virtual reality where he was able to walk.

    Also, you just know that people are going to respond to the critics by saying that hey, it is very important to point out the evils of colonialism. Because obviousely, the only way to do so is to portrait the people whose home is being taken over as noble savages. If they were actual people instead of stereotypes, it might damage the message!

    There is a reason I don’t spend much money on going to the movies. Somebody let me know when there is something really worth watching.

  5. This dovetails extraordinarily well with a post I’m going to do on Cameron’s massive problem with women…as revealed rather explicitly in a recent interview.

    So yeah, colonialism, ableism, racism…now with added sexism flavour!

  6. is it bad when you want to see a movie JUST to confirm what you knew all along: that it was going to suck? because i kind of want to buy a ticket to Avatar just to see if J.C. can prove me wrong this time. the most annoying part of this movie, to me, is that it has been heralded as an ‘original story’ and a ‘technological triumph,’ when it is obviously trading in the most tired and offensive tropes. it’s a shame that this new technology couldn’t have been accompanied by a more updated worldview.

  7. Oh, amanda, I fully plan to see Avatar to have my suspicions of terribleness confirmed. Although I might sneak in the back door of the movie theatre to do it.

    You raise a good point here, too; it’s really rather a pity to think of all this terrific and innovative movie technology being wasted on such a pile.

  8. it’s a shame that this new technology couldn’t have been accompanied by a more updated worldview.

    That’s where I’m at–I’m really excited that the technology is there to make non-cheesy fantasy and SF movies. I’m really pissed that almost all of the movies being made with this nifty technology are piles of prejudice.

  9. My favourite part of the trailer is where the show a clip of Sully’s avatar giving a rousing speech to all the Na’vi and he says “…this is our land!” (3:19 in the extended trailer). OUR land? Please, you’ve been there for a week at best. It is not your land at all.

  10. This movie is literally Pocahontas In Space. Hooray for reluctant white heroes who step down from their mountains to save us all!
    Has anyone else taken issue with the use of the word “avatar,” an appropriated word?

  11. @ Kim, I actually read an article recently.

    Those of the Hindu faith would like a “disclaimer” to be included in the movie, so the word “avatar” in the movie won’t be confused with its uses in Hinduism.

  12. I assumed that Avatar was going to critique imperialism and genocide and the Iraq war and how the US provides no support for injured veterans–and in my beloved genre of science fiction too! But now I’m skeptical after reading this post. James Cameron, to his credit, did pretty well with Ripley and Sarah Conner, but sounds like Avatar will be lacking in strong women.

  13. Have you seen this?


    A series of short clips in which the actors introduce the characters they’re playing in James Cameron’s Avatar have been released. And I start wondering about something: in Avatar it seems most humans are played by white people and there are only black people and Native people playing as aliens (as the Na’vi from the planet Pandora)? Check for yourself:

    Update: following this post (?), those official videos have been tagged as private by Fox in their youtube account…

  14. I wanted to see it when I heard it one of trailers would be for “My Name Is Khan”* but info on whether the trailer would be seen everywhere, just in India, or just in cities around the world where the company assumes there is an audience. (Not Memphis, in other words.)

    *In MNIK, Shahrukh Khan plays a character with aspergers – he’s Muslim and after Sept 11, the authorities interpret “the visible aspects of his condition as “suspicious” behavior.”


    If the movie comes to Memphis (it better!), I was thinking of dragging my mom along because she works with special ed kids. But now I’m hoping that someone will post here in February about the movie. (It could be awesome, or it could be terrible – Karan Johar is directing.)

  15. With due respect, I think it might pay to save the negatives until after we’ve seen the movie? I haven’t seen it – yet. I’ve been told as a special effects movie it’s fantastic. Let’s face it, love or hate his movies Cameron does do “epic” very well imho.

    Thanks for alerting me to some possible themes I hadn’t thought of. I’ve tweeted this page as justice/fairness/feminist issues are important to me. However, I shall reserve judgement until after I’ve seen it. I think that’s only fair?

    Peace to all

    Jonathan 🙂

  16. Jonathan, I firmly believe that media critique before pieces are released plays a valuable role in the overall discussion about media and the themes in media. And, in fact, even after things are released, people actually are allowed to talk about them without having seen them (as, for example, in the case of people who can’t see Avatar because it is playing in inaccessible theatres). “Wait until you’ve seen it” and “you can’t talk about it until you’ve seen it” are two arguments which are classically used to silence people who critique media from an anti-oppression standpoint. And I personally am tired of them.

    I specifically wanted to address issues which were glaring in the promotional materials in part because the film is being promoted with these attitudes, which seems to suggest a clear message about society and media. Even if the film isn’t racist, sexist, and ableist, which it sounds like it is from all the reviews I’ve read, shouldn’t we talk about the fact that it was promoted with racism, sexism, and ableism front and centre? The fact that this kind of marketing is believed to appeal to moviegoers is, I think, something worth discussing. The fact that one would promote a movie by saying “hey, this is totally -ism filled, you should watch it” and that this would be viewed as a potentially profitable promotional technique says a lot about our society.

  17. Have you actually seen this movie? I’m a wheelchair user and not only did I not find it offensive, I thought it was a much more accurate, positive portrayal of disability than any other film in recent times.

    1. Crip Drag-Normally I’m completely against this but they produced the technology used to produce the movie captured the actors’ movements to create the characters. Since the avatar walks, runs and jumps, the actor has to as well. Not ideal but admissable.

    2. The protagonist does not spend much time sulking over his disability. As a newly injured formerly highly active person, it wouldn’t be illogical for him to experience some desire of being able to walk again, especially in a future where that’s possible just not affordable for him. It’s explained at the beginning but in the end the choice he makes does not indicate sulking at all. I won’t post it as it’s a spoiler, but see the movie and you’ll understand.

    3. The protagonist is shown to be employed in a highly demanding job. Yes his superior isn’t happy with him being on her team but at no point is his disability even brought up as being an issue. He gets around base easily and independently. Never is he shown as being a burden.

  18. Anna, as discussed above, this post is specifically a critique of the framing of the movie in promotional materials. A separate review of the film will probably be going up later.

  19. “but it’s worth pondering the fact that Cameron has been thinking about and developing this project for over a decade, and he apparently has not identified any content in it which might be considered problematic”
    That’s so full of win. My best guess is that he was too busy thinking about how to incorporate as many fiber-optics as humanly possible into the Pandora ecosystem rather than actually plot and story development. I’ve seen the film and it’s basically Pocahontas in Space with pretty lights and floating mountains. I find it impossible to believe Cameron was working on the story itself. After all this story’s already been written, time and time again.

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