Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega
Chicago, Illinois, USA
September 11
A (Sometimes) Respectable Negro
Editor and Founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes He has been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland's Alternet Radio Hour, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground. His essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos. The NY Times, the Daily Beast, the Utne Reader, Washington Monthly, Slate, and the Week (among others) have featured his expert commentary and analysis on race, politics, and popular culture.

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Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 23, 2009 8:23PM

What Does Avatar Tell Us About Masculinity and Disability?

Rate: 12 Flag


***I am very fortunate to have really smart friends. After seeing
Avatar, I called my fellow sci-fi geek, expert in all things Star Wars to complain about the travesty that is Avatar. Guest blogger Bill the Lizard disagreed and offered what is a compelling take on Avatar--one that I had not considered, and that goes well beyond more narrow analyses that undercut Avatar as either an ode to white guilt or a cgi version of Dances with Wolves. For your consideration.***

Science fiction provides people with a privileged insight into topics and subject matter that would otherwise be inaccessible. Within science fiction, the author is freed to fully explore social issues through the use of allegory. In turn, this use of allegory frees the audience as well--allowing them to see themes in a film from a more critically distant vantage point.

To that end, James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is sparking a diverse debate across the internet.  It is a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker that so many people can look at one work and bring to the table totally different ideas.

One such discussion is how Avatar handles race, or more specifically, how Avatar handles the racial “other.”

Annalee Newitz, editor of io9, states the following about the film: “Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.”  She goes on to state: “Whites still get to be leaders of the natives - just in a kinder, gentler way than they would have in an old Flash Gordon flick or in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels.”

In a broad sense, I agree that Avatar touches on the subject of race in a very tangible way, and that at face value, it’s often hard to see Avatar as being anything more than just a retelling of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves or John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest.

However, I disagree with Ms. Newitz’s assertion that this movie is just a classic white guilt fantasy.  Avatar is not racist, nor is it a calculated example of a kinder gentler form of social imperialism.

What many people seem to forget is that Jake Sully, the main character, is established early on in the story as being both an ostracized and emasculated character.  Thus, he does not fall into the classic white privilege archetype that you see in white guilt fantasy.

Jake Sully is emasculated in a literal sense because of a combination of physical injury, financial inadequacy and family tragedy.  Not only is Jake Sully a Marine who cannot walk or fight, but more tragically he knows that there is a cure for his injury, but cannot afford it.  Further, Jake’s closest relative, his twin brother, has been killed in a meaningless act of violence that Jake could not prevent, and now Jake is now forced to step forward into a position that he does not feel he is smart enough to handle.

Because of this, the Jake Sully we first meet is evocative of the character Jake Barnes from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  Like Barnes, I would not be surprised if Jake Sully is also suffering from some form of physical, as well as emotional emasculation. Impotence and incontinence are very common side effects with paraplegia, and since The Sun Also Rises deals specifically with the loss of optimism and innocence after a bloody war, I would suggest that there are a great many similar themes at play.

It’s clearly mentioned in the beginning of the movie that Jake Sully saw “some serious shit” in Venezuela, and James Cameron is an adept enough writer and director to pay attention to the details.  Just because James Cameron doesn’t hit you over the head with hyper-melodramatic moments in regards to Jake Sully’s disabilities, it does not mean that these elements are not present in Avatar.

As a result, Jake Sully cannot be strictly viewed as the white man who never gave up “white privilege.”  To say that Jake never gave up “white privilege” somehow infers that Jake had the privilege of racial entitlement and immunity before he joined the Avatar program.  But, as already established in his back-story, if he ever had political, social, monetary or intellectual power, it is definitely not present at the beginning of the film.

This is not to say that Jake Sully, the character, is disillusioned or helpless – he’s not.  In point of fact, Jake is determined to apply his knowledge and skills towards his own self-care and development.  However, despite his desires to better himself and initially work within the confines of his own culture, he is still an “other” who at first is forced to operate outside of the two dominant spheres of influence at the Hell’s Gate facility on Pandora: the soldiers and the scientists.

As the story develops, we soon find Jake embracing his role within the Avatar program.  While the scientists are slowly accepting him, it’s very apparent that Sully would rather immerse himself within the Na’vi culture through his interactions with Neytiri.  The reasons for this are easily apparent: not only does the avatar body give Jake all of the things that he had physically lost, but also being with the Na’vi (and specifically Neytiri) emotionally completes him.

This notion of self-completion (in both a physical and an emotional sense) is very important to recognize in the narrative. For example, we begin to see evidence of Jake’s willingness to leave his old life behind by the fact that he stops eating, bathing or taking care of his human body.  His old life, the life of a paraplegic and a type of now immediate a literal “other,” is rapidly becoming the unwelcome dream--and Sully’s ties to the Na’vi his new reality.

Furthermore, by deciding to become fully Na’vi at the end of the film, Jake makes a decision that is very similar to someone who may elect to have sex reassignment surgery.  He is changing his outside in order to better fit what he knows is correct for him as an individual.  Many people who have gender identity issues refuse to accept what is increasingly a dated notion of “medical normality,” that those in the “trans” community have a disorder. Here, gender is a social construct that is completely unrelated to biology.  Similarly, while Jake Sully may be biologically human, it does not change the fact that he knows that he belongs with Neytiri, his life-mate.

In the end, it’s all about bringing your body into harmony with your perceptions of your own identity.  I don’t think that it’s by accident that the Na’vi say “I love you” by saying “I see you.”  Neytiri “sees” Jake, regardless of what form he’s in.  When she saves Jake’s life at the end of the film, it’s easy to see the love in her eyes - despite the fact that she’s holding a small broken human who is all but helpless in her arms.  Similarly, Jake “sees” her and loves her regardless of the fact that she’s not human.  This is the dominant theme and meaning of Avatar.

As an important historical aside, I would also strongly suggest that Jake Sully is a Hugh Thompson, Jr.-like character.  Hugh Thompson, Jr. was the US Army helicopter pilot who, along with his gunners, attempted to stop the My Lai Massacre in the village of Son My in 1968.

During the My Lai Massacre some 450 unarmed civilians were ruthlessly killed by about a dozen US soldiers, and Thompson, in an effort to stop what he saw as “pure premeditated murder,” threatened to shoot the US soldiers if they did not stop.  In short, Thompson followed his moral center and fought against the atrocities that were being committed by his own countrymen.  He did this regardless of the cost to himself.

Thompson received numerous death threats for his actions in Vietnam.  He was also labeled as a “race traitor;” much like Jake Sully is in the film.

Thompson was then betrayed by his own government, by his commanders attempting to cover up the massacre, and 30 years later, while Thompson finally did receive recognition for his selfless act, he is quoted as saying in a 60 Minutes interview: “I mean, I wish I was a big enough man to say I forgive them, but I swear to God, I can't.”

Sometimes following your own moral center (like Thompson), while at the same time realizing who you are as an individual, is not “going native” as Annalee Newitz and others infer:

“Going native” is a racist and derogatory term from the 19th century imperial imagination. It is the idea that the indigenous population can corrupt a white person where they somehow ”lose themselves” to a “barbaric,” seductive, exotic culture. The indigenous population never corrupts Jake – in contrast Jake Sully is “completed” by the indigenous population and truly becomes a whole person by the end of the film.

Yes, Colonel Quaritch accuses Jake of “going native,” but that is because Quaritch is the racist (or more correctly the speciesist).  It’s Quaritch who doesn’t care about the Na’vi, and it’s his employer, the RDA (Resources Development Administration) who feels that these people are impediments to human expansion and progress.

Jake Sully understands that the Na’vi live according to their own traditional and tribal belief systems. All that Jake asks of the Na’vi is for them to judge him in the light of those beliefs.  The fact that the Na’vi accept Jake so completely, enough to even follow him into battle, shows that the Na’vi view Sully based on his actions and merit. Ironically, the Na’vi “see Jake,” in a way that his own people are completely unable to.

Ultimately, while Annalee Newitz and others may see Jake Sully as that “white guy [who] manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member,” I would argue that she is missing the mark.  Jake Sully already feels that the Na’vi are his family.  Given his background prior to the climax of the movie, is it all that surprising that he would fight to protect them?


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brilliant analysis dude!! how many ppl have even read "sun also rises" anyway?? youve inspired me to do a avatar writeup in a bit
this totally deserves EP
As a disabled man, who has been disabled at birth, I have a few comments to add to put a different take on things.

Personally, quite frankly, the notion of a disabled individual's search for "self completion" (the author's words) is the EXACT thing that people with disabilities *should* be objecting to, if they are. The notion that a disabled person can not be complete, emotionally, mentally and spiritually unless their body is "complete" is a completely Able-bodied-centric idea, that, frankly is offensive and unsulting to those of us who ARE complete, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, despite, of even because our bodies are not "complete". And, this is not the first movie to touch on this subject by any means. From John Voight in Coming Home, to Tom Cruise in Born on the 4th of July, to Water Dance with Eric Stoltz, this "redemption through physical repair" is a common theme in Hollywood movies which, frankly, as a writer myself, does an incredible disservice to those of us who ARE "fixed" because we were never "broken" to begin with, because our physical body is only a tiny fraction of our whole existance.

And IF Hollywood ever decides to give disability the respect it deserves, SOMEONE will eventually write a script about a disabled character who does not want, or need to be "fixed", but who lives a life where their disability is no more important to the story than having certain color eyes, or certain color hair, or left handedness, becuase, for some of us our disability IS that much a part of us, and if people believe our disability must be fixed, then they have to also believe that our hair and eye color and dominant hand need to be "fixed"

sorry for the rant here, but this NEEDED to be said, and I thank you for touching on the subject which no one else seems to want to deal with
As the writer of the above piece, I just wanted to say that I completely agree with what Placebostudman has posted.

Ableism (where preference is shown to people who appear able-bodied) is discrimination, and to say that a disabled person can't be complete unless he or she conforms to some idea of "normal living" was definitely not my intention.

It's important to note that the Jake Sully character wasn't born with paraplegia. His spinal injury resulted from a combat wound he received while serving as a Marine. Thus, I don't think it's necessarily wrong for him to want to return to a life prior to the injury. Like Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises, that character is basically dealing with the aftereffects of trama.

Please let me know your thoughts on this, as I would love to hear your opinions on this story angle.
I have to come at this as a person who was not disabled in any visible way until later in life. My changes make me unable to physically do things that I once took for granted. That does not make me any less complete as a person. It changes those things that I am able to do, it in no way leaves me incomplete.
I have not seen the film in question here so it is difficult to comment on any of its' intentions or the story in general. I do have an opinion on the words here. People tend to read a lot of subtext to films, most times those presumptions are far beyond the thought of the writers, producers, and directors involved in the actual production. What we see on film as the finished product is often a single minded expression of one or two peoples attitudes and prejudices. Not as a deliberate part of the message, but just as devices to fuel the story.
I can't speak for Cameron here. I speak for myself. I can't do much to change the way society in general sees issues like disability and race. I know that even with the significant changes that I face now that I am still a complete person, I don't need to "complete" myself to suit the needs of people who find any change from their own perception of normal as a fault that I live in a constant search to "fix" in order to be a part of their world. Sorry, it is quite early and I've not had nearly enough coffee yet so if I've rambled or been less than clear I will be glad to explain any point in a few minutes.

I think you nailed it. It is a singular, or dual/multiple perspective look at disability, but not a complete look at disability. To me, there are similarities with the race issue, though it's obviously not identical, because like race, there is diversity within disability. There is just as much difference between me and you, bob, as there is between President Obama and a gangsta rapper, even though they may share the same race. And to put forth only one perspective of or one view of disability, as has been done so far in the media, focusing solely on those who attain disability through war, rather than portraying stories of disability from the perspective of someone who is permanently disabled from birth will reveal an entirely different story, with their own unique lessons to be learned, and issues to consider.
I'm ambivalent about disability. The one hand, I was disabled 15 years ago when my hands suddenly started hurting and I could no longer type without pain. Sometimes I think of it as "a minor" disability because it's only my hands, it only pain, it is invisible and nobody feels to me. On other times, it totally damaged my life. I can no longer do things I love (exploring advanced ideas needing software, telescope making, cycling etc.). It ruined being close because how can you touch someone in your hands hurt and how can you let yourself be touched when your arms and shoulders hurt? How can you be close when you sleep when you need to wear hard splints and elbow pads to prevent further damage?

this experience has taught me just how little value we place on the rehabilitation and inclusion of disabled people. For relatively cheap money, we could improve accessibility on computers for a greater range of users through radically different interfaces that we are using now. Unfortunately, nobody's willing to spend the money and on really bad days I think it's because it is cheaper to shove disabled people on a shelf somewhere and let them die as quickly as possible than it is to let them participate fully in society.

if I was given a choice between being fixed or not being fixed, I would choose fixed in a heartbeat. There are so many things that I can no longer do, so many things I've lost that whatever benefits I got just are not worth it.

when I see the film on Sunday, I'll be able to address more clearly why I think this applies to avatar
FINALY! An intelegent non hate filled analysis.
Excellent work.
Still Dances With Smurfs
Well written. My thought was that Jake was free in the end. Free from not just a broken body but from broken finances, from the corporation, the military and a society that restricted him mentally as well. I understand that those who are born with disabilities don't think of themselves as broken, but Jake was one thing and then he was literally broken (his spine) and he was trapped into a situation he longed to be free of.
Jake Sully is emasculated in a literal sense because of a combination of physical injury, financial inadequacy and family tragedy.

The process for renouncing "white privilege" and becoming "indigenous," sounds a bit painful.

Is that like Jesus and the Crucifixion? You think many of the invading Earthlings will be signing up?

There's redemption people--the Resurrection.
Don't you find it rather odd to write a piece on disability and interlace it with videos that are not transcribed or subtitled? I mean, there's no need to diminish the deaf even as you seek to uplift other forms of disability.
I think this was an interesting analysis. I have to say though that I didn't find it convincing. I still think that part of the intended appeal of the movie was the way that Sully was able to impress the natives and be superior to them. He didn't enter their family as an equal, but rather as a savior and a superior being. I also am not convinced that Sully being disabled was really fundamental to the story. It was just a nice twist that made the stakes higher for him, because he had more to gain by becoming his avatar than an able bodied person would have.

I do agree with you that there was also an element of Sully having found a new family, so it wasn't only about being a savior. But it still seemed to me that a big part of the fantasy was about Sully and friends impressing the primitive natives with their superior knowledge and intelligence. I can accept that the superior technology he had access to would give him some advantages. But why was Sully able to tame the big red dragon when none of the natives could? That seemed to be just because he was more intelligent and daring than them, and the movie seemed to present that as a matter of course.

Overall I really enjoyed the movie for the spectacle, and was even able to enjoy the story when I could stop trying to take it seriously and just treat it as a tear jerker. But I found that any close analysis made me cringe for the above stated reasons.
good article...excellent writer, thanks for the job.
Thanks for your insight! It's been very curious to learn your point of view. Frankly speaking, I didn't like Avatar at all. I don't get such types of movies, they seem stupid to me. Cameron did his best when he directed Titanic)
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Excellent post and its an wonderful analysis. Thanks for sharing.
Such a wonderful post concerning sci-fi Avatar, I will use it in my dissertation discussion: