There’s a lot about Avatar that gets talked about constantly, like its impact on digital 3D technology or its resemblance to classic movies like Dances with Wolves. An element of the film that goes largely unremarked on, though, is that it technically has a disabled protagonist in the form of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). A man paralyzed from the waist down, Sully’s chance to inhabit a Na’vi body where he can move his feet again informs one of the first CGI-heavy scenes in Avatar. The primary reasons this aspect of the feature doesn’t get talked about a lot is a combination of this character being portrayed by an able-bodied performer and Sully spending much of his screentime in a non-disabled form.
The latter detail also speaks to why Avatar’s approach to ableism doesn’t get talked about a lot…to discuss the shortcomings in disability politics in the biggest movie of all time would be a reminder of how rampantly problems in disability representation manifest in movies across the globe.
Disabilities in a Real-World Context
I’m a person with autism, a condition classified as a developmental disability, but I am not someone with a physical disability. I’m not going to pretend that I’m the expert on living with this kind of disability, but I do know several people with specifically physical disabilities. Hearing their stories, an interestingly nuanced approach to their disability begins to constantly appear. A good friend of mine concisely noted that their disability isn’t a massive burden on their life nor their “superpower.” It’s just another part of their life, something they can hate or love on a given day.
Of course, these physically disabled individuals I do know were all born with these attributes. Sully is specifically a former Marine who lost his legs in combat, a detail that’s rooted in the very real and common experiences of disabled veterans. In a section regarding disabled veterans, the Library of Congress notes that “mental trauma” related to experiences receiving those disabilities (as with anyone who is not born disabled) can plague veterans, but here too nuanced language is employed to talk about this subject matter. No paragraph can hope to encompass the endless array of the experiences of individual disabled veterans, but the writing on these Library of Congress pages also notes that these disabilities are largely seen by veterans as “obstacles or impediments, but for the men and woman in these stories, they are not roadblocks.” The endless problems for veterans to receive proper healthcare, now there’s a roadblock.
All of this and other finer points of living as a wheelchair user are reflected in countless online testimonies from disabled people, with some of those nuances including how some people (though not all) who primarily move around in wheelchairs can walk to some degree. Like many marginalized people, the lives of disabled people are far more complicated than general stereotypes.
But What Do Disabilities and Ableism Have to Do With ‘Avatar’?
Outlining all that isn’t just meant to help get to the minimum word count for this piece easier or try to prove my “woke” bona fides in referencing my physically disabled comrades. Instead, all of that is meant to emphasize the nuance of disabled experiences that Avatar, unfortunately, doesn’t quite capture. On the one hand, this is understandable, though not justified, considering the very broad nature of Avatar. Part of why the film was so successful was because it dabbled in archetypes that were surface level enough to be understood by everyone. Characters like General Quaritch (Stephen Lang) were old-school baddies, for instance, who just woke up evil. They were ripped right out of old pulp novels, not informed by modern-day storytelling demands for convoluted backstories.
Keeping things so straightforward helped keep Avatar in touch with the early 20th-century sci-fi storytelling that inspired it, not to mention make it as palatable as possible to the general public. Unfortunately, that meant disability politics got the short shrift. Avatar’s dedication to just being an old-school adventure romp ensured there was no time or space to explore Sully’s perspective as a disabled person nor expand the movie’s representation of disability beyond just one character. This isn’t a reflection on James Cameron “hating” disabled people, but rather a microcosm of how broader pop culture has failed disability representation. A movie aiming to be “classical” sci-fi would see no urge to delve into disabled perspectives. Those points of view have been largely erased in American cinema of all genres. That erasure is part of the “classical” tapestry old-school sci-fi stories will inevitably draw from. That doesn’t excuse or erase these flaws, it just lends greater context to them.
This is an especially interesting shortcoming since Avatar is conscious of ableism in its opening scenes and even uses it to help get the audience to hate the beefy military human characters. “Meals on wheels!” one soldier yells upon seeing Jake Sully for the first time while another antagonistic figure remarks “Oh, that’s just wrong” upon seeing a man in a wheelchair brought to the ferocious world of Pandora. Much like their dismissive attitude towards the Na’vi, this dismissive attitude towards the abilities and even the very existence of a disabled man is supposed to get the audience to hate the villainous human characters. Meanwhile, Quarritch’s eventual offer to Sully that he’ll give this man his human legs back in exchange for information on the Na’vi is an interesting reflection of how capitalistic institutions and people pit marginalized groups against one another. In this case, a disabled white person is being tempted with favors to hurt the film’s cosmic stand-in for indigenous lives.
What Are the Further Problems With How ‘Avatar’ Approaches Disability?
Even with the acknowledgment of how cruel ableism is and how systemic forces pit marginalized groups against one another, Avatar’s approach to disabilities and ableism leaves much to be desired. A lot of this simply comes down to the Na’vi themselves, who are, within the context of the first movie, not depicted as having any disabled individuals within their population. The Na’vi are supposed to be the “perfect” image of creation, the kindly, angelic counterpoint to humanity. In trying to convey this idea, an unfortunate undercurrent manifests in which the “pure” vision of creation is one devoid of disabled people (interestingly, Avatar: The Way of Water appears to be confronting this problem by featuring openly deaf performer CJ Jones as a Na’vi character).
The film’s ending, culminating in Sully leaving his human body permanently for a Na’vi body, the latter free of his disability, is also…complicated. A 2020 Forbes article from Andrew Pulrang notes that certain people who incur disabilities at a later point in life rather than being born with them can be more open to the idea of “curing” their disability. However, this same article also heavily emphasizes that, by and large, within the disability community, there’s a greater emphasis on curing societal woes that make life difficult for disabled people rather than the physical disabilities themselves. The ending of Avatar would be more inspirational in depicting a society that’s accessible to all people rather than just erasing disability.
A comment in that Forbes piece from activist Emily Ladau also provided me with a revelation on Avatar’s approach to ableism. Namely, Ladau mentions that, if she didn’t have her disability, she’d be a different person, a comment that resonated with me and how often I’ve considered how autism impacts my personality. Avatar’s surface-level approach to disability politics is reflective in how Sully is the same person in terms of basic personality once he gets into his Na’vi form. Sully’s taller, blue, and can walk, but he’s otherwise the same person, His later changes as a person come from a blossoming romance with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and engaging in sacrificial acts for the Na’vi.
Sully’s disability is only seen as a pronounced visual prop to suggest how different the Na’vi are from the humans, while a more cynical interpretation could read the film as suggesting that disability itself is a burden that should be erased entirely in an idealized society. The screenplay for Avatar is aware that hurling insults at disabled people is cruel, but is also oblivious to how the erasure of disabled people is similarly harmful.
Now, again, it’s worth stressing that, even with these shortcomings, the problems with Avatar’s approach to disability do not suggest an evil agenda on the part of James Cameron or anyone else involved in the film. Frankly, most of the problems with the film’s depiction of disability stem from its style of storytelling which does result in other very fun elements of the production. More importantly, though, it’s critical to recognize that these shortcomings are not exclusive to Avatar. The history of Hollywood is littered with dismal representations of disability, many of them seeing disabled people as folks solely defined by their disability.
To treat Avatar as a special case full of idiosyncratic evils is to ignore the larger problems in cinematic language with dealing with the basic humanity of disabled people (let alone contemplating the truth of how the concept of “disability” itself is faulty, who’s to say who’s “able-bodied” or “disabled”?) Highlighting these shortcomings should, above all else, get one to recognize the larger problems with disability representation in pop culture. Whether it’s an Avatar sequel, a Marvel movie, a romantic comedy, or countless other mainstream American movies, the default approach to disability in mainstream cinematic narratives leaves much to be desired.
Realizing the problems with approaching disabilities in ableism in Avatar shouldn’t lead to people focusing their frustrations squarely on this movie, but using it as a “gateway drug” into recognizing how rampant troublesome depictions of disabled people are in pop culture writ large. Perhaps with this increased awareness, not to mention the words of activists and documentaries like Crip Camp to highlight the humanity of the disabled community, future Avatar sequels and major motion pictures of all stripes can make space for disabled lives as easily as cinema has made room for blue cat people.