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Saturday, April 3, 2010

‘Avatar’ or Abled-Disabled

Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.
Helen Keller

[*Entire article is a spoiler alert] I seem to be going against the grain – a lot. In the 1980s song "I'm A Stranger Here," by Five Man Electrical Band, Aliens come to Earth are told that the planet is paradise but they hear children cry. The song protests injustice and environmental abuse. (In the 80s.) The extremely popular film Avatar is largely about environmental abuse and an Alien race: “[It] is a 2009 American science fiction epic film written and directed by James Cameron and starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez and Stephen Lang. The film is set in the year 2154, when humans are mining a precious mineral called unobtanium on the lush moon Pandora in the Alpha Centauri star system.” (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia)

There are many disabled feminists who say that being in a wheelchair is not a tragedy which requires a cure (Spritzophrenia). I completely agree but I also believe that the film ‘Avatar’ moves beyond that. I think that it is very important to show an able disabled guy on the screen. Yes, his avatar is able-bodied but it is also not human-Alien, other. A militant straight white guy in the film calls the race ‘savages’ and ‘blue monkeys.’ Disparaging remarks regarding “otherness” mirror many in our culture.

The fact that in the end the disabled guy CHOOSES to become one of them is subversive to say the least. He gets legs but he also gets otherness. Of course his new reality would suggest he is now one with all but he is set apart from humans. Good or bad is subjective.

I really like that he’s shown to be very capable in all states. It’s very affirming, I must say. As a disabled woman confined to a wheelchair I have dreams in which I am jogging and I really do not believe in a correlation between image/identity and pictures. I feel free to use an older able-bodied author picture because I do not feel that a contemporary photo would be more accurate. Having an avatar is not false.

I met a guy online that I really liked and I learned that his profile picture was a completely different person than him. I ended up feeling nostalgic for an image that I associated with his ‘voice’. I am a big supporter of shifting identities so I really had to assess the idea of image. In Avatar and in my older pictures there is a hybrid quality which points us to identity. I guess that his choice really put me to the test because all it pointed was who he wanted to look like and while I miss the fake him, I can adapt. He might even actually be a “she.” Sexuality is now foregrounded – I cannot make gender a given. It is valid to choose to side-step image; confusing though it might be. We might want the “whole,” “closure,” or the “complete” but in my view the “fractured” is way more interesting. That is why I like this film’s idea of an avatar. The oneness or whole/the environment is juxtaposed with a fractured image but I digress – that’s a different article.

Many voices deal with the presentation of disability here: “There are many articles, blogs and disability chat room posts floating around the Internet that say yes, the movie that has made over $200 million in ten days is a big insult to the disability community for two major reasons. The first reason being that the fantasy film - and the key word here is fantasy - does not give an accurate portrayal of life with a disability. The second, surprisingly less important, reason is that Sam Worthington, who plays paraplegic Marine Jake Sully, is not actually a paraplegic.” (Drummond) I am so not insulted.

Also; “It could be seen as positive that disabled people are not hidden away. But a closer analysis reveals that the popular cultural images of disability commonly perpetuate negative stereotypes, and often pander to the voyeuristic tendencies of non-disabled audiences.” (Disability in Media) Lots of dissention.

The whole idea of not being “hidden away” resonates profoundly with me. In my non-fiction book 'Again' I quote David Boles and say; “Recently, I was seated to eat near the kitchen in a restaurant. I am currently disabled and in a wheelchair. My mother said it reminded her of segregation. I will never let this happen again. I will insist on being seated elsewhere. An out of sight, out of mind mentality will not apply to me. That this mentality by others continues to pervade is astonishing. ‘Are you aware in the early-to-mid 1900’s it was illegal to be “found ugly” on the streets of some mainstream American cities like Chicago, Illinois (Chicago Municipal Code, sec. 36034) and Omaha, Nebraska (Unsightly Beggar Ordinance Nebraska Municipal Code of 1941, sec. 25) and Columbus, Ohio (General Offense Code, sec. 2387.04)?

Your punishment for being caught (in) public ranged from incarceration to fines of up to $50.00 USD for each ugly offense.

Here’s how the Chicago Municipal Code described and enforced The Ugly Law:

No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense.

The goal of Ugly Laws was allegedly to preserve the pretty facade of the community. The disabled, the indigent and the poor were a part of society, but nobody wanted to deal with them and fewer still wanted to actually look at them. So laws were passed to keep the deformed — especially those with Cerebral Palsy and other disfiguring diseases — inside and out-of-sight.’

The way I think and the way I look now will just have to be dealt with.” I know that I am far from ‘ugly,’ whatever that means, but being in a wheelchair seems to categorize me or puts me in a box. There are so many categories that leak or don’t apply.

In the film, the avatar is neurologically connected to the user and physically it is a hybrid of the user and foreign race. There is a new definition of identity. The amalgamation of various states is complex. I think that we need to reconfigure identity on several levels. In Life I would take this idea further. For example, not all disabled people are the same, have the same mind-set and speak for one another. To be lumped with others, into a “community” is offensive, not having an able-bodied actor portray a disability. Sure, commonalities between persons with disabilities exist but the same could be said for red-heads, Canadians or tennis-players. What I’m trying to say is that there is uniqueness amidst commonality. We tend to ignore our differences and in my mind we should celebrate them.

In my other non-fiction book 'You Never Know: A Memoir' I say: “Difference is something that most people avoid. Fitting in becomes a goal. Personally, I think difference is valuable. It’s the “same” that irks me. Variation is not the same as inconsistency. One can be incredibly multi-tonal and consistent.” (p. 23) I perceive difference and otherness as beneficial and positive.

Representations of disabled people in pop culture are so rare (the television show Glee is changing that) that accuracy almost becomes a ‘beside the point’ idea. We rarely show able-bodied people going to the bathroom, for example, in standard film or television so if Avatar takes a fantasy approach to our disabled character, well, there’s precedence. It might be contentious but it’s usual.

There are some films that deal explicitly with disability. Avatar is not one of them. In You Never Know: A Memoir I say: “Bonnie Sherr Klein made a film on disabled people called SHAMELESS: The ART of Disability (2006), which I saw in Montreal. I remember studying her and her film, Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography (1981), at McGill, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” (Star Wars, 1977). She had a stroke several years ago, had brain surgery and still managed to make this film. She is a definite new inspiration for me. It must be difficult to make a film generally, but when you are disabled you have to wrestle with external and internal demons. Being suddenly disabled is traumatic on so many levels.” (pp. 132-133)

I’m not the kind of person who gives a hoot about what other people think of me in general but any kind of positive representation of disability is good. Let it be dominant enough to be a cliché. Then I will discuss alternatives. I do not perceive our current representation in Avatar as “pandering.” (Lynne Roper) Black persons, Jews and Gays have a tradition of being sorrowfully under-represented in popular culture media. No one is going to tell me that absence is the way to go.

It is wonderful to me that our lead disabled character chooses to step outside the mainstream.


Boles, David W. “Enforcing the Ugly Laws.” (accessed September 14, 2008)


Cameron, James. Avatar. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation . 2009.

Disability in Media
Lynne Roper of Stirling Media Research Institute introduces some concepts and activities for considering the representation of disability.

Drummond, Megan. “Avatar & Disability: Does the Film Give a True Picture of Disability? Does it Need to?”

In the 80s. “Greatest Eighties Protest Songs.”

Klein , Bonnie Sherr. SHAMELESS: The ART of Disability. NFB. 2006.

Shiller, Romy. Again. Victoria, BC: Trafford. 2009.
-------------------. You Never Know: A Memoir

Spritzophrenia’s blog. “My Avatar Spiritual Experience.” “Avatar & Disability: Does the Film Give a True Picture of Disability? Does it Need to?”

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia

Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online

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