In the year since its highly anticipated release, James Cameron's Avatar has had a colossal international impact. It has grossed nearly $3 billion, been screened in over sixty countries and revolutionized the new media landscape with its innovative special effects. It is a film whose essence lies in the sensational power of 3-D technology. Avatar immerses its viewers in the fictional world of Pandora, a distant moon whose iridescent flora appear to be enticingly within reach. Neon plant fronds lurch from the screen, misty cliffs reveal dizzying depths and limber blue beings bound through endless layers of topiary. In the literal sense, it is truly spectacular. And yet, underneath all the cinematic flair unfolds a hackneyed tale. The aesthetic glitz delivers a stereotypical story in which boy meets girl, colonizer rescues indigenous, and the erasure of disability serves once again as the ultimate happy ending. At the heart of this brave, new dreamscape lies the familiar story of a disabled character driven by fantasies of able-bodied bliss.

Main character Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) narrates the first shot of the film, an aerial drift over a lush rainforest, with the following: "When I was lying there in the VA hospital with a big hole blown through the middle of my life, I started having these dreams of flying. I was free. Sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up." Waking up, for Jake, means confronting the physical impairment of paraplegia, acquired in military combat. When we first see him immediately after this narration, he is tightly framed in the cold confinement of a cryogenic chamber. The space is suffocating and small, the lighting cold and utterly sterile. The contrast between these two initial scenes is jarring, and intentionally so, since from the start we are to understand that Jake's journey into the exoticized land of Pandora will come to symbolize freedom from his disabled body.

Hired to replace his deceased twin, Jake Sully accepts a job as an avatar operator on Pandora. Genetically linked to a nondisabled body that resembles the indigenous Na'vi, Jake works to negotiate Na'vi resettlement so that his employer can pillage their land for minerals. While Jake succeeds in gaining acceptance into the Na'vi, his love for the chief's daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and his burgeoning appreciation for the Na'vi's environmentally sustainable culture lead him to abandon his mission. Aided by a few sympathetic (human) scientists, Jake successfully leads the Na'vi in battle by driving out the predatory humans. In the film's closing scene, the Na'vi transfer Jake into the avatar body permanently, eradicating his disability and neatly delivering him from his original role as a white colonizer.

Even before he uses the avatar, Jake bargains for able-bodiedness in a deal with the company's military leader, the hyper-masculine Colonel Quartich (Stephen Lang). Quartich likes the idea of having a jarhead in the avatar crew and sees an opportunity to obtain military intelligence: "You get me what I need and I'll see to it you get your legs back when you rotate home." Clad in a robotic suit, he then leans in and points a metallic finger at Jake, saying, "Your real legs." The irony of Quartich using an artificial hand to emphasize this point swiftly fades as Jake grins, "That sounds real good, sir." In this key scene, Jakes concedes to two assumptions made by Quartich. The first is that Jake wants to be able-bodied; the second, that his disabled legs are not his "true" self.

Central to the narrative logic of Jake Sully's character is a concept that Robert McRuer has termed compulsory able-bodiedness (381). McRuer notes that definitions of able-bodiedness are articulated in negative terms as in "free from disability" so that able-bodiedness is always dependent on disability in same way that heterosexuality is definitively dependent on homosexuality (385). While such a binary implies two choices, people are socially compelled to adhere only to one, rendering the expectation that everyone at all times desires to be able-bodied. In Avatar, this fantasy of able-bodiedness is interwoven with a return to heteromasculine military readiness and the possibility of romantic (heterosexual) love.

Upon first entering the avatar body, Jake rips off his monitoring cables and jubilantly sprints through the Pandora forest, relishing the sensation of running that he has been unable to access in his human form since his spinal cord injury. Thus, his first journey into Pandora represents a smugly celebrated freedom from disability, a point underscored by the dramatic visual attention given to his first run with his "new" legs. While the other scientists struggle with their anthropological study of the Na'vi, it is Jake who gains entry into the group by means of a seemingly mystical blessing from the forest. When Neytiri first spots Jake, she raises her bow and arrow to kill him, but stops when a glowing white seedling gently drifts down into the frame: Something about him is different. Somehow, we are shown, he is sacred. Sure enough, after their first discussion, the seedlings overwhelm Jake's body as he holds his long, blue arms outstretched in a divine Christ-pose. It is an image steeped in paternalism: at last, the white, able-bodied savior has arrived.

In addition to his shift toward able-bodiedness, Jake also experiences a racial transformation. Over the course of the film, he undergoes a series of rites of passage that incorporate him in the Na'vi. He learns to hunt, is given ceremonial induction into the tribe, and beds down with Neytiri. While this romanticized pattern of "going native" is hardly new (see, for example, the Kevin Costner film Dances with Wolves), his permanent transfer into the avatar body adds an unsettlingly literal level to the process of shedding whiteness.

Jake's love affair with Neytiri ritualizes through sex a process that bell hooks has termed "eating the Other." For hooks, intimate contact with racialized Others often figures as a way to assuage the guilt of the colonizer and to bypass the thorny issues of domination by trying to actually become the Other (25). Since the biotechnology of Jake's avatar actually makes this physically possible, Avatar manages to extend this cultural phenomenon to the level of corporeal spectacle.

As Jake makes himself over as Other, he is shown to be shedding the guilt of his role of colonizer, but not necessarily the privileges ascribed to it. As the film nears its climax, Jake becomes the military leader of the Na'vi as they wage war on Colonel Quartich's imperial forces. During the showdown, Quartich calls Jake out on his race traitor ways: "Hey, Sully, how does it feel to betray your own race? You think you're one of them?…Time to wake up." Quartich then turns from Jake's avatar and proceeds to smash open the (human) Jake's avatar chamber, exposing the Jake's human body to the poisonous atmosphere of Pandora. Although Jake is unable to reach the oxygen mask, he is quickly rescued by Neytiri, who slays Quartich and revives Jake, cradling him in her arms. In this scene, disability switches Jake from the enactor of paternalism to its recipient. However, this temporary reversal is short-lived, as the Na'vi reward Jake's bravery with permanent assignment to his Na'vi body — and concomitant able-bodiedness — as the pathway to full acceptance into their community.

Compulsory able-bodiedness is not only central to the narrative of Avatar, but was also a key part of its production. Although there is not a single frame in which Jake Sully's human body walks, an ambulatory actor (Worthington) was nevertheless cast. To provide the appearance of a paraplegic's atrophied legs, director James Cameron commissioned the production of prosthetic legs for Worthington, and post-production, digitally edited out any trace of the actor's actual legs. The special effects team, Legendary Effects, created these prosthetic legs by casting the legs of an actual paraplegic man.1 This tortuous process of special effects and additional effort demonstrates quite dramatically the extent to which compulsory able-bodiedness is always defined by the presence of disability.

Works Cited

  • hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press. 1992. Print.
  • McRuer, Robert. "Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence." The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2010. 383-392. Print.
  • Stamberg, Susan. "Belief On The Big Screen: Secrets Of Special Effects." National Public Radio. 5 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.


  1. Despite extensive efforts, I was not able to locate the name of the sit-in whose body was copied in the process of digitally creating Jake Sully's legs. National Public Radio correspondent Susan Stamberg describes him in a curious sentence: "They found a Sam [Worthington]-sized young man — whose paralysis didn't stop him from playing basketball — and made a cast of his legs." Apparently it was more important to Stamberg to marvel at this man's physical abilities than to mention his name. Her statement presents disability as an obstacle to be overcome and it is precisely this kind of perception that perpetuates compulsory able-bodiedness.
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