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January 18, 2010 / JV

Love, Difference and Disability in Avatar

Thoughts on James Cameron’s Avatar:

1. Identification based on race and (believe it or not) disability

It was a very welcomed change that the protagonist of Avatar, Jake Sully, was not an able-bodied person (when in human form). It is very rare to see characters with [physical] disabilities in movies at all, much less the main character. Furthermore, it is rare, and difficult, for people to accept it when disabled, including ‘impaired’ (ie deaf) individuals are assholes in movies. Able-bodied viewers are troubled by this because A) they expect people with physical, sensory, or otherwise limiting impairments to be quieter, or more amiable, or somehow “act their part” and B) they are put in the uncomfortable position of possibly disliking the disabled character, which they would rather not do. In Avatar, the viewer is positioned to identify with Sully, even though, for the majority of the film, he’s an asshole. He doesn’t listen to Dr. Augustine which is how he ends up lost, nor does he listen to Neytiri upon meeting. The whole time he’s in Pandora he has ulterior motives, which take the bench to his romance but are always present and acknowledged by him. We cut him slack because Neytiri sees something special about him, but the fact is he’s not too great of a guy, based on what we’ve seen so far.

Yet he is portrayed favorably throughout. (For example, when Jake is brought to meet Neytiri’s mother and father for the first time, heir to the chief and Neytiri’s arranged love interest, Tsu’Tey, along with some of the other Na’vi do not like him. This is at least partially due to the bad experiences they’ve had with outsiders in the past. That is, their distrust makes perfect sense. But despite this, the audience is positioned to see them as hostile, while Jake is somehow harmless.) This identification with Jake is problematic because it is not based on his character as we know it, but instead on the fact that he is white and U.S. American (“one of us” and assumedly with a “good heart” underneath it all), as well as the fact that he is disabled. The audience’s identification with him as a disabled person is rooted in a guilty pity (as it is surely not rooted in anything else. he is “the underdog” because he’s in a wheelchair), which is an undoubtedly unhealthy way to relate to the ostensibly progressive fact that he is a disabled protagonist.

2. Loving through difference (or not)

This point was brought to my attention when I was discussing all things Avatar with a good friend of mine. He shared that one of the most profound parts of the movie for him was when Neytiri goes into the aircraft to find Jake in human form on the ground, puts his mask on him, and holds him, saying something like “My Jake”. Their love is enough that she recognizes him and they show affection to one another for a brief moment in completely different bodies. Thus a message is sent that love transcends form, color, shape, and so on. Yet I acknowledged that as a viewer, when I realized that Jake’s and Neytiri’s feelings for each other were getting stronger, I almost instantly started thinking about what would have to change for them to be together. I wondered if the movie would end with Neytiri somehow inhabiting a human’s body and accompanying Jake back to the US where he would get reconstructive surgery. … Or if Jake would choose to stay in his avatar body and live his life on Pandora. Because of the way love and difference have been constructed, I knew there would have to be some conversion to sameness. It was not possible for them to love through difference.

And indeed, the movie ended with Jake choosing to become Na’vi and stay. And although I read that as more of a practical move than anything else (even as an able-bodied human he wouldn’t be able to maintain the lifestyle of the Na’vi people — riding birds, jumping off cliffs, etc), it is nonetheless interesting to examine it for its fulfillment of my (and presumably many people’s) expectations for sameness to be achieved in order to love.

3. More on white masculinist fantasies and ambiguously colored people

Overall I thought Avatar was a fine movie — not life-changing but good enough to keep my attention for 160-odd minutes which is saying a lot. As imaginative as it was, I thought it could be pushed further in some respects. The movie could have been entirely different had Sully not been a white male. But for some reason, white filmmakers relentlessly cast white males as leads, perhaps because they are considered (by said filmmakers) easiest to identify with as heroes and as main characters. The fact is, this story of white-man-doing-something-great, in and of itself is played way out. And particularly when it involves conquest that somehow ends anywhere close to ‘happy’. I also think Avatar had more room to breathe in creating Pandora than it allowed itself. It was.. well, unsurprising that the Na’vi people were of color, BIG, spoke with caribbean/african accents, and had such a close relationship to the earth. It was kind of like yeah, i guess this IS the most popular narrative we have for any kind of colonization or violence that has occurred against people across the world. Given that Avatar is a science fiction movie, it would have been nice for the conversation of “otherness” to expand out of our already-skewed tropes and into more interesting manifestations. ie sully being a person of color, or the Na’vi people not living in a tree, or not using bows and arrows as weapons. It was just kind of like, why are the Na’vi people “raced” (in a specifically “race”-as-a-social-and-cultural-discursive-construct way) in the first place, and moreover, in such an unimaginative way?



Leave a Comment
  1. Anthony Kelley / Jan 18 2010 1:36 pm

    Trenchant observations, sis. Thanks for the shout-out in your second point. I love your analysis of the fact that Sully is a disabled protagonist with which the audience has a conflict relationship.

    One additional comment on the white masculinist fantasies throughout the film. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the man that was most masculine (in the traditional, hegemonic sense) Colonel Miles Quaritch is actually the antagonist. He’s muscular, tough, and willing to do what it takes to get the job done, but he is the guy that everyone hates. And the man who is less hegemonically masculine (i.e., handicapped, at least moderately caring and compassionate, etc.) is the protagonist. It is useful to see alternative forms of masculinity, especially when less hegemonic forms are ostensibly favored over other more hegemonic ones.

    I always enjoy reading your comments. Looking forward to future posts!

    • the black scientist / Jan 18 2010 10:24 pm

      bredren! very pleased to see you ’round these parts.

      very interesting (and awesome) point about the colonel’s masculinity versus sully’s. i know for me, in the beginning there was a certain charm about how much of a brute the colonel was. i think because i’m accustomed to taking a small liking to the whole ‘american badass’ archetype, even when those characters may not be the best people. as part of a culture that rewards (and to an extent celebrates) hegemonic/patriarchal masculinity, i gave the colonel probably more space to act up than he deserved before i actually started disliking him.

      it’s interesting to consider how viewers relate to different performances of masculinity on the big screen, particularly taking into account who we’re supposed to be identifying with.

  2. Naima / Jan 31 2010 3:39 pm

    very brief –

    completely agree on you about making Pandora more imaginative and less, well, generic. I loved how strong homegirl was and thought it sort of pathetic how weak she became when he “chose” her as his. I wish they could’ve had a different spin on gender roles – i mean it’s science fiction, possibilities are endless right?

    but i also loved how anti imperialistic it was – a new and welcome change for hollywood.

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