A Failure of Imagination: The role of disability in AVATAR

Curator's Note

"When I was lying in the V.A. hospital with a big hole blown through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. But sooner or later, you always have to wake up." – Jake Sully, Avatar

This opening dialogue from James Cameron’s “game changing” blockbuster sets up the troubling dichotomy that pervades the film: Sully’s paraplegia is in direct opposition to his desire to be free. Hence, YouTube user AJewelledGirl’s admonition in this video excerpt: “F--k Broken Bodies.” (1)

In a movie celebrated for its visual imagination and technological innovation, the future of those with disabilities remains couched in conventional ableist terms. Despite its widespread use of CGI, the film casts Jake in what many wheelchair users have noted is a circa 1990s chair, operated by an able-bodied actor. It’s not enough that Jake’s the psychological inferior of his twin brother; to be a true hero, he must be physically “inferior” as well.

The film furthers its ableist representations by pitting portrayals of the mechanically-assisted body against “natural,” organic bodies. Mechanical technology aligns with the villainous corporate-military complex, and flesh-and-blood bodies with the altruism of scientific exploration and the victimized Na’vi. The wheelchair, as a mechanical substitution for legs, serves as a symbolic reminder of Jake’s status as victim and pawn in the corporation's oppressive regime. In this narrative world, a body aided by equipment cannot succeed; only the “naturally” able will win. 

Ultimately, in Avatar, disability is a condition that must be escaped. Jake's disability is exploited for suspense in the climactic battle scene, as his useless human legs prevent him from reaching his life-saving breathing apparatus. He succeeds not with his disability, but in spite of it. His ultimate act is to abandon his own species (or “race,” as the film has it), transcending his “defective” body to become a Na’vi himself, and fully rising to the status of (able-bodied) hero.

As developments in CGI technology enable greater fidelity to "real life" (and the life of the imagination), the absence of heroic, differently abled bodies in cinema becomes more difficult to defend. AJewelledGirl sardonically calls out these shortcomings, asking, “Mr. James Cameron, if you can build all these things…  robots and whatever else is in the movie…” why can’t you build a world that simply embraces the body with a disability?

(1) Watch AJewelledGirl’s full post here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw_O-2EjTnM


Thanks for a great post, Jen!  I think it'll tie in nicely with some of the upcoming posts that deal with aging and the body.

From the perspective of the "broken body," your post is interesting because it highlights a theme that runs throughout action films (specifically 'hardbody' action films) - the necessity of the hero to overcome the frailties of the body in order to succeed in his quest.  We see this most frequently in the 1980s action films (Die Hard, Rambo, etc.) in which the hero encounters a tremendous amount of physical abuse on his way to victory.  In a sense, the hero's body is his limiting factor, and his will and determination are what gives him the strength to survive where "lesser men" would give up.

I see something similar in your example.  Jake's body is seen as weak, and he must transcend his body (literally) in order to realize his goals more fully.

This also speaks to a more broadly philosophical perspective that runs throughout Avatar: that of the ability to strictly separate the mind from the body.  Within the film, consciousness is seen as something separate from the body, something that is not dependent upon a medium for its meaning.  The body here is a limiting factor to the the freedom of the mind.  What the film ignores are the very real effects that the body has on consciousness.  I'd be interested to hear how you think this works with your example of disability/ability...

Thanks, Drew, for this thoughtful response. You're right on that action films rely on the body as a limiting factor to increase suspense, which is part of what I find so fascinating about this genre. As Yvonne Tasker and others have pointed out, however, the hardbody variations of the genre (especially the 80s films you mention) involve the exposure of the body and its muscles as a way to both make the body vulnerable to attack (suspense) while also reminding us that the hero is powerful enough to overcome those attacks.

What I find interesting (and troubling) about Avatar is that we don't have that dichotomy contained within a single individual - it's either a broken (human) body or a super-human (super-Na'vi?) body. And clearly the Na'vi body is more desirable.

Your points about the mind/body dualism at play here are interesting as well, though I would suggest that the film is more about freedom of the body that of the mind. What Jake responds to, especially at first, is the newfound freedom of his avatar body and the ability to do things he couldn't do even as an able-bodied human. He eventually discovers the appeal of culture and the mind, but this area is rather scantily developed in the film, and the focus is on movement, action, visuals - the body. It's because of the real effects the body has on consciousness that Jake wants to "escape" - his mind can't be fully free or developed in his "broken" body (hence, he didn't train or bother to educate himself about the Na'vi before coming to Pandora). 

These are great observations - thanks for allowing me to expand on them.


I'll add my thanks to Drew's, Jennifer.  Great post! 

I was taken by AJewlledGirl's observation that the movie could have easily reversed its take on Jake's supposed disability by using his familiarity with machines as the key to the heroic action he would eventually perform.  Her script-doctoring points to a readily available feature in the genre, that of the "mechanically-assisted" hero who enhances his or her abilities through technology. 

You rightly point out that this option wouldn't mesh with the film's villainizing of technology.  Yet the curious result seems to be that the film uses the technology of CGI to create a "nature," in this case the Na'vi, that can nonetheless perform all the feats that would otherwise result from technological enhancement and so it retains the pleasures and prejudices of technophilia while maintaining its anti-tech, pro-nature message. 

So I suppose I'm wondering about the full extent of the film's imaginative failures and how I would know whether what I'd call failure might (also and however regrettably) be a defining element of the genre.  In your remark about the increasing difficulty of defending "the absence of heroic, differently abled bodies in cinema," you seem to have hope for the possibilities that CGI offers the genre.  I'm keen to hear any thoughts you'd be up for sharing about the possible successes of the imagination for action movies.

Your post inspired a spirited debate with a colleague (always a pleasure) that led me to ponder the view of able-bodiedness in Pixar's Wall-E.  I'm not quite sure how to categorize the genre of Wall-E, though it is certainly more akin to science fiction than action. 

That said, it presents a set of characters for whom the loss of the body's use is a new norm.  For the exiled earthlings of that film, their entire fabricated surrounding caters to their non-movement, hence creating an entirely new system of existence in which machines facilitate motion.  Is this vision of an alternative mode of existence at all supportive of the notion that culture creates the conditions of able-bodiedness in the first place?

Our own cultural norms, of course, intecede in the climax of Wall-E, depicting the earthlings are more fully human once they leave their chairs.  The thought experiment of Wall-E intends to make that world seem strange rather than familiar, but it was the best example I could conceive in which differently-abled characters function just fine largely because they live in a world that does not penalize them for failing to move.

I'm largely sympathetic to Jennifer's reading of the film, but I think Avatar is a bit harder to pin down ideologically when it comes to disability than she suggests, which is part of what I find so interesting about the film. There's a sense in which, for instance, the Na'vi body is just a different sort of prosthesis, only an organic, natural one instead of a technological, man-made one. Does that make it more problematic? Moreover, it's a prosthesis suited for Pandora. Remaking Pandora to suit Jake or any other human being, able-bodied or not, is the film's bête noire. The film thus advances a pro-prosthesis, anti-universal design argument. Subjects must adapt to the environment rather than adapt the environment to them. Does this suggest a tension between the environmentalist and disability studies movements?


These are all great points and challenges. To reply way too briefly:

@Eric This is an excellent question, and my first thought goes to films like the X-Men franchise (and many other comic book adaptations), which essentially showcase the ways disabilities shift from a liability to a unique superpower. The X-Men movies, of course, mythologize disability in rather political ways (the "mutants" are literally societal outcasts and criminals - but they're also our heroes). I also find it interesting that the "mecha-suit" from Cameron's earlier film Aliens was utilized as an iconic symbol of power as Ripley defeats the alien, only to return here as a symbol of villainy. So those are two examples that come to mind when thinking of a heroic disabled body - or mechanically assisted body - that we're missing in Avatar.

@Karen That's a really interesting example. Even in the X-Men films, the "mutants" aren't allowed to function "normally" in any environment. I'd like to hear if others have ideas or examples - especially in sci-fi, as a subset of the action film (I suppose) - of disabled bodies presented as the norm. The Star Wars films do this to some small extent with Darth Vader as a powerful mechanically-assisted figure (cyborg?) and even Luke with his mechanical hand (at the end of Empire) - many characters seem to be aided or enhanced with technology throughout these films -  but not on the level you describe with Wall-E.

@Matt I agree that this ideological assessment of Avatar is probably too simple. However, I'm not sure that I can see the film as pro-prosthesis; after all, Jake actually becomes his avatar at the end so he would no longer have to live with a prosthesis (which also feeds into the colonial critiques of the film). Neither his human body nor his prosthesis is sufficient. Cameron also makes a similar argument Aliens (the colonists try to adopt the planet for themselves, but fail) but he seems more willing to play with alternative visions of the body (and gender) in that film than in Avatar.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.