Disability Representation and Avatar (The Blue One, Not The Airbender)

Do I need a spoiler warning for an 11-year old movie that’s won a ton of awards? I dunno, I suppose not everyone has seen it. Consider this your spoiler warning for James Cameron’s Avatar.


Avatar, in short, is a 2009 film with award-winning CGI in which some humans go to another planet full of tall, blue aliens to take its resources and stuff. The humans are able to control genetically modified blue alien avatars. Our main character decides he is on the wrong side and sci-fi action ensues.


Some questions I had about this movie as a kid, like, “Why are they saving them if he tried to kill them?” and, “Why does he get the coolest dragon-thing if he’s the new one who doesn’t know how this works?” might be most simply answered by, “Because he is the protagonist.” They also have a bunch of more complex answers through a variety of thematic lenses that we won’t get into here.


I want to talk about the representation of disability, specifically of being a wheelchair user, in this film. Having mentioned previously that this particular piece of media is over a decade old, I know my analysis isn’t exactly new, but I feel it’s still something that needs to be said.


In Avatar, our main character is a paraplegic wheelchair user. This is sometimes remembered with surprise in conversations about representation of disability in media, in my mind for two reasons: one, magical modification is almost immediately made to make our main character fit in with the rest of the able-bodied cast, and two, in the limited amount of time that we see Jake in his wheelchair, it has little to no bearing on his character.


I know that the magical solution affects Jake’s avatar and not his human body, but this fact doesn’t absolve the film for me, since we spend most of our time with the avatar.


In the moments we spend with Jake in his human body, his paralysis doesn’t appear to inform his character in any really impactful way, except to set him up as an underdog (the clear second choice over his able-bodied but unfortunately deceased brother, only chosen as a last resort due to his genetic compatibility with the avatar) and make him the target of several unnecessary insults. There are a multitude of other actions that our antagonist characters take to make sure that we know they’re the bad guys. They don’t need to insult the disabled character. We know.


Jake does have trouble getting to safety when our sci-fi base gets damaged in the climax of the film; however, I would hazard a guess that the same would occur if our protagonist were able-bodied; the area has suddenly lost all oxygen and he is rapidly losing consciousness. Also I’ve seen action movies. It’s about the suspense. Is our hero going to survive, or valiantly sacrifice himself in the fight for the cause, giving the few remaining good guys the push they need to win the day?


He does find joy in his ability to run with the avatar, which is believable for his character; while he doesn’t necessarily treat his paralysis like a huge loss, the majority of characters around him do, and that stuff is really easy to internalize. And with Jake’s disability being a change in his life, with a before and after, where mine has been a constant, I imagine it would be exciting to return to the experience that is treated as normal and better than. But that joy is only mentioned once- there was no excitement at being able to climb trees or more easily traverse rough terrain. This doesn’t just impact running.


I think at this point, the bottom line is, if people have to be reminded that your main character is in a chair, or otherwise physically disabled, your film isn’t exactly good representation. (Sorry to all my friends who rely on this one when I ask for examples of action movies/series where there’s a disabled character who’s not treated as a sidekick- if you have any, feel free to let me know!)