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
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?
- Bowman, Cynthia Ann and Jaeger, Paul T. Understanding Disability: Inclusion, Access, Diversity, and Civil Rights. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT: 2005. 165 pp. ↩