Guest Post: Future of Portrayals of Disability in Movies? Cameron’s Avatar

Esté Yarmosh has Cerebral Palsy. She holds a B.A. in English from Eastern Connecticut State University and is currently studying for her Master of Arts degree in English at Simmons College. Her previous guest posts are Cerebral Palsy Humor? Not so much and Disability Dismissed

I’m something of a Sci-fi fan, especially when it comes to the literary genre of science fiction. And when I first heard about James Cameron’s new Sci-fi movie Avatar, I was fascinated, and I watched the trailer(s) right away. In some ways, I was blown away by the visuals, particularly the images of the alien planet “Pandora” and the image of the incubation tank of sorts that holds the main character’s alien body. Even the idea of placing your mind in an alien body to do space exploration initially intrigued me. Also, when I read that the protagonist was a wheelchair user, I was interested.

My doubts started forming, however, when I looked more closely at two sources: the movie’s dialogue and the movie’s synopsis. I want to start with the synopsis. Through about the film’s box office numbers, I understand that Avatar is quite popular with audiences. This synopsis contains profoundly ableist language in the way it describes the protagonist Jake as “confined to a wheelchair.” I don’t use a wheelchair; nevertheless, I was very offended when I read that. We’ve been trying to eradicate terms like “confined to a wheelchair” for a while now, and to see this demonstration of ignorance on such a large scale, since it is mainstream, is distressing.

I wonder if the producers or whoever wrote the official synopsis thought that they were being more politically correct by saying “confined to a wheelchair” instead of, say, wheelchair-bound. The fact is they aren’t being PC by declaring Jake is “confined to a wheelchair.” Actually, wheelchair-bound and “confined to a wheelchair” are synonyms and the writer(s) of the synopsis aren’t helping either people with disabilities or the non-disabled population by using that term. I worry a bit because non-disabled people may think through reading this synopsis that referring to someone who uses a wheelchair as “confined to a wheelchair” is okay – but of course, it’s really not — wheelchair user, for instance, is more acceptable. I’ve checked –I know that this synopsis has flooded the Internet and it is most likely people’s main source of information about Avatar.

I also want to take the sentence (from the plot synopsis of Avatar) “Bitter and disillusioned, he’s [Jake] still a warrior at heart” to task. To me, it smacks of disability stereotypes. First, I think the sentence inspires pity in the reader, which is regressive and entrapping for people with disabilities because it signals the endurance of a vicious cycle of stereotyping – in this case, the pitiable cripple. Another stereotype that can be inferred from the sentence is that of the wounded/disabled veteran. I’ve read in one of the (few, alas) analyses of portrayals of disability in film and TV that a component of the disabled veteran is his jaded and cynical attitude towards life and people – he becomes a bit of a misanthrope.

Now, about Avatar’s dialogue – in one of the theatrical trailers, Commander Quaritch (leader of the mission says to Jake), “you’re going to get your real legs back” or something to that effect. [opens with sound] Yet this piece of dialogue overlooks a fact that’s glaringly obvious: Jake still has his legs! Yes, he has a disability, but what’s the problem with his legs and/or wheelchair? The commander is implying that there is something not just physically, but morally, wrong with Jake’s disabled legs and wheelchair use: it is unacceptable in the military for a soldier to be disabled and, moreover, to show it.

And there is another issue I have with the way Quaritch uses the word “real.” The legs Jake has while in his wheelchair are the ones he was born with, and therefore, are true and natural, albeit he is now in a wheelchair. The commander is being terribly ableist and in denial of disability issues when he makes this statement. It’s a long-held stereotype (and still exists today) that disability is unnatural in people and so must be fixed or cured (an issue brought up by Meloukhia in ou article on Avatar). The thing is, disabilities have always been with us (for both non-disabled and disabled people) and according to Paul Jaeger and Cynthia Ann Bowman, 550 million people all over the world have disabilities, so disabilities are, in fact, quite natural.[1.
Bowman, Cynthia Ann and Jaeger, Paul T. Understanding Disability: Inclusion, Access, Diversity, and Civil Rights. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT: 2005. 165 pp.]

Avatar does not even confront disability in an honest and upfront way. The film, in my opinion, takes the easy way out by putting Jake in a completely different body (the alien) and thus, it completely bypasses any meaningful efforts for dealing with Jake’s disability and the issues that arise from it. I suppose that the film’s whole plot hinges on the fact that Jake enters an alien body to explore the planet “Pandora,” but still, the film seems to willingly ignore the regular experience of Jake as a disabled person in favor of an instance of “how cool is this alien creature!” The aliens really remind me of tigers in their ferocity, tails and stripes (!). The aliens also sort of remind me of elf-like creatures I’ve seen in certain illustrations and I’ve read about in fantasy novels: the Drow. Anyway, Jake is seduced into believing that an alien body is better for him than his real, disabled one and he gleefully decides to participate in the military’s little experiment.

The word experiment brings me to another point: the so-called medical model of disability. This version of the medical model in Avatar is glossed over with fancy and distracting features: advanced technology, a futuristic setting, alien life-forms and magic. Yet when these features are all stripped away, we can see that Jake is still being worked on physically, tampered with, if you will, by scientists—the medical model. In much the same way in real life, people with disabilities are prodded, observed and examined (sometimes exploited) by doctors, who claim they know what’s best for us.

That’s how I got a snapped tendon which is currently floating around somewhere in the vicinity of my knee. It’s the result of a semi-botched leg operation, in which “we overcompensated,” my orthopedic doctor (so helpfully –*sarcasm*) let me know years later. Yeah, you really know what’s best for me. I dislocated my knee twice during the years following the operation, and sometimes I think the snapped tendon was a contributing factor, although I probably will never really know.

Also, why are fictional characters with disabilities often put in films (and TV shows) with Sci-fi plots/concepts? To me, it perpetuates the stereotype that people with disabilities are ‘freaks’ and like I said earlier in this article, somehow unnatural. The instances of disabled characters showing up in Sci-fi movies seem to lump them together with strange Sci-fi creatures like aliens, androids and robots, to name a few; yet, as we all know, people with disabilities are human! However, I think that unfortunately, the writers, producers and directors of these types of films believe that disabled people are interchangeable with said aliens and androids. The creative decision to make Jake into an (albeit artificial) alien displays this belief; it further shows that Jake doesn’t deserve to be human because he isn’t ‘whole’ or ‘normal.’ Why can’t there be films and TV shows about people with disabilities that have a contemporary setting and that take a realistic approach to their subject matter (not counting Glee, which has representation problems of its own)?

Meloukhia’s earlier post about Avatar mentioned the film’s aspects of crip drag, so I won’t go into that, but I’d like to say something about how non-disabled film-makers seem to think that a wheelchair stands for all people with impairments, whether these are physical, sensory, mental, cognitive, learning, etc. This is of course wrong: disabilities are way more diverse in nature than simply having a wheelchair, and not all physical disabilities even require use of wheelchair (such as in my experience). Although if you think about it, we can take issue with the international accessibility symbol, too – it shows a figure in a wheelchair. This is the second (male, by the way) character in a wheelchair featured in a mass media production in the past six months (Glee’s the other). When will film-makers (and TV producers) create a character that has a disability which doesn’t involve a wheelchair – perhaps Epilepsy, or Asperger’s — to replicate the vast range of disabilities in real-life?

Furthermore, it seems to me that there are few, if any, films and TV shows which center around a disabled character that is also female. I’d like to see that, and not in the distant future either. Another thing I’d like to see out of a film or TV show is a female character with a disability that has a significant sex (and/or romantic) life; I guess I’ll have to keep hoping we’ll get that someday. Avatar doesn’t deliver on these fronts (and neither does Glee), because as usual in films and TV shows, the man, disabled or not, gets the girl in the end.

I know I’ve written a really long post, but one last thing. Has anyone seen this [toy of Sully] yet?

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Future of Portrayals of Disability in Movies? Cameron’s Avatar

  1. I haven’t seen Avatar yet, but I’ve been following the news from it, as I’m not adverse to spoilers. From what I’ve read, I don’t think the Commander’s attitude would bother me as much, because it seems in-character with other actions and statements that have been attributed. I think fear may come into play there, too, because for a character so stereotypically macho military as Quaritch, losing the use of his legs may well be the thing he fears the most, even more than loss of life. Some people’s reactions to fear are aggression and derision. This is not to say that I agree with the character’s statements, because I certainly do not, but that in context I can see the motivation and psychology behind.

    However, I’m a writer, and I strongly believe in staying true to character, even if the character is a despicable jackass. 😉

    I think disabilities appear more in SF/F because it’s trivial to “cure” the disability through magic or advanced/alien technology. Deus ex machina, much? It’s certainly not a fair portrayal, because as much as I might wish for a body that isn’t in chronic pain, no aliens are going to come down from the sky and give me that. Featuring a disabled character that becomes undisabled is not diverse; it’s exclusionary.

  2. Very useful post. I haven’t seen Avatar and I’m not planning on it, but I am working on a novel which incorporates disability and this gives me some thoughts on how I can handle it. It is science-fiction/fantasy (both at once) but I’m trying to use the setting to explore how medicine and thoughts on disability change with different circumstances. Food for thought. Thank you.

  3. Yes, thank you.

    I’m writing a novel as well, just for fun, where the female main character is was born without a right hand. It isn’t a huge plot point, just part of her character, but as I don’t have psychical disabilities, I want to do this right. You’ve given me a lot to think on.

  4. Thanks for the write-up!

    Just a small point, having seen the movie last night… the “real legs” comment from the commander refers to Jake’s alien body. Jake has been running around in his Na’vi body, and the commander is reminding him that his human legs – his *real* legs – can be “fixed”. Still problematic, obviously, just a tiny bit less so?

  5. Yes, I don’t understand why people keep bringing this point up. Este clearly states in this post that it’s about the presentation of the film and how it’s promoted, not about the details of the film itself. And yet, people keep barging in with variations on this comment.

    No. It’s not ok. Whether we are talking about an Avatar or a person, in either case, the statement carries the implication that Jake Sully’s legs are “fake” (they are obviously not), and bad. If Jake Sully was an able character, other characters wouldn’t be telling him he can “get his real legs back.” This is a statement rooted in Jake’s disability, and consequently in ableism, people.

  6. The statements are not okay, but they are realistic for the character types portrayed. Having seen the movie, while certain statements and attitudes bothered me (I was seeing red at some of the disparaging comments towards Jake in the first few scenes), I don’t think the story would have worked as well if all of that had been removed. I do wish they had dealt more with the issue of his disability, because it was Big in the first part of the movie and then disappeared nearly entirely in the latter part of the movie. I wish there had been at least some commentary on it by Sully, because given his internal character conflict, that was HUGE.

    I do have an issue with promotion of this movie as being uber-supportive of disability, because it’s not. I don’t especially have an issue with Jake’s character, aside from what I mentioned above, because he’s obviously still at a point of coming to terms with his disability. Hell, I’m at a point of mine where I’d take the same offer. But disability is not the focus of the movie. It’s — hm. It’s more like a tertiary subplot. It’s not very effectively dealt with or addressed, nor are the other character’s reactions supportive in any way.

    It’s not a movie about disability. It’s a movie following the “disabled character who becomes magically cured” trope, and it shouldn’t be portrayed as anything else.

  7. FYI this post will contain spoilers for James Cameron’s “Avatar”, “Dark Angel” and the WB’s “Birds of Prey”.

    I’ve used a wheelchair for close to 30 years and in all that time I’ve very, very rarely been offended at almost anything to do with portrayals of the disabled or even jokes about the disabled. My motto has always been that as long as it’s somewhat original and funny you should be able to joke about almost anything. I’m much more offended by unfunny cripple jokes than the cripple part.

    Cameron managed to offend me with “Avatar”. It offended me that Jake is portrayed as being less than human because he’s disabled. Sure, he can be of use to his people and the military he loves but only if he is put into this able body. Throughout the movie it’s espoused that he should want to walk again.The Naavi do nothing but preach how it’s what’s on the inside that counts. But in the final climatic battle Jake is woken up and tossed out of his chamber thingy-magig (sorry to get all technical 🙂 ) and you’re thinking he might be able to defeat his enemy with his real body and not the artificial alien one! Alas, his Naavi girlfriend comes along to snatch that victory from him and save the poor defenseless wheelchair guy. Oh and in order for him to have a happy life, he’s put into the body permanently in the end. Because how could he be happy otherwise, right?

    This is not the first time Cameron has done this. In the 2000 tv show “Dark Angel” there was a character who was paralyzed from the waste down. Clearly the lead character (played by Jessica Alba) and he were on the road to a romance but to make it palatable he was cured. How grand right? I remember having discussions at the time with people who really did believe that he would have to be cured to have a realistic romance with her.

    Over at DC Comics there is a character named Oracle. She is actually Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl. In the story “The Killing Joke”, written by the great Alan Moore, she is shot in the spine by the Joker. Babs beinlg Babs, she learned the martial art of Escrima and put her computer skills to use as an data broker and supplier to superheroes. Her Escrima training came in very handy in the story line “The Hunt For Oracle”. No spoilers on that but if I were you I’d go find it. She proves she is not a pitiful person that’s for sure.

    But in the early 2000’s WB launched a show called “Birds of Prey”, based on the comic that starred Oracle and Black Canary. After it was canceled I was told by Paul Dini himself that the producers were never sure what they wanted to do with any aspect of the show so the mess it was was inevitable.

    In the show Babs has a recurring dream of getting out of the chair and walking again. In fact, she even builds a new Batgirl suit that is designed to support her legs and spine. It’s a major plot point. Because, again, how can anyone be happy with using a wheelchair?

    I’ve talked to many DC fans who claim that she should be cured in the comics because magic exists and such. I of course disagree.

    My hope is that someone, someday will make a wheelchair users a bona fide action hero. I don’t see any reason why not (again read “The Hunt for Oracle” it’s available as a tpb). My hope was that Cameron might actually be the one to do it. It’s a shame that he didn’t.

    And shame on Hollywood for rewarding such a blatant piece of bigoted drek. If Jake had had to change his skin color from black to white, there would be no Oscar nomination, I guarantee it.

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