“I See You?”: Gender and Disability in Avatar
Michael Peterson, Laurie Beth Clark, and Lisa Nakamura
When we committed to write about Avatar several months ago, we had no idea that it would be the most profitable movie ever.1. The stratospheric costs of the film’s production set a very high bar for profitability. This film, which ultra-auteur James Cameron imagined 1975 but could not make until CG technology evolved to create this particular artificial world, both profits from and critiques technology. And in order to do this, it focuses on bodies–non-normative, genomically identifiable, gendered bodies. Annalee Newitz points out in “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar” that the film’s plot revisits and revises of the narrative of going native, leading many, including television’s South Park, to deride it as “Dancing with Smurfs.”
Clearly, Avatar lends itself to a critique of empire, yet has not yet been read in terms of its most striking visual trope, exploited in the trailer: disability. It is precisely because gender and disability are persistently addressed in the film but not in commentary about the film that we know how central it is. As Cameron said in his interview with Newsweek this January, “It’s the Story, Stupid,” his attempts to “sell” the movie were far more successful when the trailers depicted Jake Sully’s disabled body than when they focused on depicting the lush landscape and ultra-expensive “effects”. Cameron claims that the second trailer emphasized “story” or narrative, a feature that even the most effects-driven films must have (and a feature that keeps them well within the genre of narrative film rather than spectacle, as most IMAX films have been) and that the film’s success is ultimately due to this.
Though technology can fix many things in Pandora and in our world, it still apparently cannot or rather chooses not to fix human bodies. This is of great note in a film that both displays and is about the transcendent qualities of CGI and biotechnology. When Jack Sully transmits his consciousness into the hybrid Na’avi body that he eventually comes to occupy permanently, a world of limits is evoked. We can see that the bias against disabled people is exactly the same in the future as it is at present–one passing soldier refers to Sully as “meals on wheels” and another replies “that’s just wrong,” apparently refering to Sully’s very presence on Pandora.2 Sully’s spinal injury is repairable, but he can’t afford it. However, as we see during the avatar-training scenes, the disabled body is viewed as “waste” that a thrifty military industrial complex can recoup. Disposable military bodies, often bodies of color in this film, are continually sacrificed: Sully is given the ability to acquire a prosthetic alien-soldier body not as compensation for his disability, but in spite of it–his genomic capital as the identical twin to his scientist-brother makes him the only possible match for the cloned Na’avi body, a technology far more expensive and precious than his own defective body.
The film’s tag line “I see you” points both to the film’s innovative technological apparatus, the glasses and screen and images that let us see like never before, and to the possibility of empathy…towards aliens. What does it mean that, while it’s possible in Avatar to see a critique of both gender and disability, this is not what critics seem to be “seeing”? The disabled body in this spectacular film is the sole spectacle we are meant to look away from, the blind spot in this visual field which otherwise seems to invite immersion.
While Jake’s masculinity is called into question via these disability hazing rituals, Avatar is constructed specifically for a heterosexual male fantasy of penetration–the question is whether the film’s revisions to this structure are decorative or substantial. The movie first hyper-masculinizes Jake, who bursts into his re-born ability in a boyish romp across the avatar base, but then pursues dual tracks of developing his violence-capable masculinity and at the same time steadily feminizing him. He learns not to stab Gaia with an improvised flaming spear, but instead to engage nature through a collaborative hairstyling.
This interbraiding is probably not an intentional homage to the performance artists Marina Abromovic and Ulay, who in Relation in Time (1977) sat for 17 hours with their hair braided together, though this lengthy film does give extended consideration both to asymmetrical warfare (involving both male and female warriors) and to an exploration of spiritual connection with the world which is figured as material–that is, as scientifically observable.
One obvious visual pleasure offered up by Avatar is the spectacle of the giant, blue-skinned nearly nude Neytiri; in an interview with Playboy Cameron acknowledged (or bragged) about the centrality of her “smoking hot” body to the picture: “Right from the beginning I said, ‘She’s got to have tits,’ even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.” However, Cameron’s feminist sensibility must be acknowledged, and the violent maternal figures played by Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 (1991) and originally by Weaver in Aliens (1986) are central to the pleasure of those narratives. Cameron’s feminism, however, appears both narrow and generalized to the point of meaninglessness in Avatar.
Action films now seem either conscientious or trendy about including women capable of violence, as evidenced by the Lord of the Rings films’ efforts to beef up the roles of Liv Tyler and Miranda Otto. Here, while Weaver appears in a kind of homage to both her earlier role with Cameron and to her characterization of Diane Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist, Michelle Rodriguez essentially reprises her role from Aliens as a butch marine with a penchant for salty tag-line dialogue (and has her own moment of going native when she wears a discreet swoosh of war paint as she pilots her helicopter into battle against the human mercenaries). The film is full of gestures of equality and showcases female combat and leadership, yet those touches should not obscure how deeply the narrative is organized by gender. For example, the male Na’avi understand weapons, and the women understand the network.
The planet’s network-culture decides what peripherals or hardware can interface with each other; one could say that it organizes both ability and gender. It regulates what organ can plug into what port or orifice; echoing the technological machine culture of the military industrial complex, the planet’s animals are the peripherals or hardware that the natives employ as prostheses. The culture of positivist digital technology development, exemplified by Avatar‘s telegenic, Minority Report-style interactive displays and 3-d imaging, echoed in the film’s exhibition itself, is contrasted with the earthy pleasures to be had from the groovy eco-spirtuality of the “Gaia Hypothosis,” in which the natural world is considered as a single living organism.
Near the end of the film, after the big battle has, in effect, been won, Colonel Miles Quaritch, wearing a mecha-suit, a metal prosthetic soldier body (very similar to the suit Sigourney Weaver wears at the end of the Aliens) goes to find Jake Sully for a form of personal revenge. This battle is fought between a stereotypically virile hyper-masculine marine who controls his mechanical body physically, and a biological being, “wet ware,” controlled by a disabled, feminized body so vulnerable that it cannot reach its own breathing machine. Ultimately, Neytiri joins the fight, bringing a third term to this hard body / soft body dichotomy. She is a real being. Her body is visually but not ontologically like Jake Sully’s avatar body. The thanator, a violent and uncontrollable animal that submits to her for the purpose of this fight, signifies the seamless and intuitive connection with “nature” that crunchy feminism has often attributed to women. Neytiri and her mount disrupt the oedipal conflict between two men and their prostheses.
Neytiri is then seen cradling Jake’s tiny, frail human body. While this scene replays–with genders reversed–the scene in which a giant avatar version of Jake Sully cradles a tiny dying human version of Grace Augustine, it also has some significant ramifications for our concerns with gender and disability. The scene is an odd pieta, but rather than the Virgin Mary cradling the dying Christ, we see powerful, authentic female nature nurturing the damaged vestige of masculine humanity. Here Cameron may for the first time in the film go beyond his earlier butch feminist heroines to offer a queerer formation of gender and ability.
It’s easy to bash Avatar. In fact, the proliferation of reviews in the popular press that do a good approximation of an academic critique of colonialism leads us to wonder how this critique came to be part of popular culture. So common is the “Dances with Smurfs” critique that when someone forcefully and coherently takes a contrary view it’s worth paying attention–as with the argument made by Metafilter user Pastabagel, who asserts that “the plot is completely predictable, not because you’ve seen it before, because you actually haven’t. Avatar differs from the plot of every single one of those archetypical films in one extremely important way – the forces of civilization/progress/technology lose.” Whether this defeat is either unique or transformative might be debated, but this argument usefully demonstrates our faith in science fiction’s ability to get us beyond the trap of our own historical postcolonial moment. It seems, however, that our current ideologies of gender and disability are harder for the film to transcend.
In the final scene of the film, then, we find Scully laid at the foot of Tree of Souls in order to transfer his “soul” from his human body to his avatar/golem. If Avatar suffers from the same traps of all the nativist fantasies that have preceded it, both filmic and literary, in this fantasy the protaganist must literally die (just as humanity has been literally defeated). In order to occupy a place in the world of the Na’avi “others”, Jake Sully must fully relinquish this human form. There will be no going back. While this could be seen as another Christian reference (this time to the Resurrection), it is also a fantasy of being able to live in virtuality, leaving our physical bodies, and their political baggage, behind.
As media critics, we have a responsibility not just to bash Avatar, but to come to terms with its remarkable popularity, which has occurred either because or in spite of the ease with which the film can be critiqued for its virtual colonialism. Avatar is popular because it provides a good deal of spectatorial pleasure to a relatively diverse audience, pleasure that for some has turned into depression as they realize that Pandora is an artificial world, and not one they can enter at will. It’s no wonder that some audiences are said to experience such powerful post-Avatar blues, a nostalgia for an entirely artificial place. The film gives us a navigable-looking virtual world (modeled after the groovy visual style of Roger Dean, a favorite of the stoner set from the 70s) and it’s not surprising that audiences are disappointed that they can’t live there (without dying first). And its narratives about transcending or “losing” the defective bodies resonates particularly strongly in the age of reality programming such as The World’s Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover.
Avatar manages to bring together spectators that like war movies with spectators that like peace movies. It’s of equal interest to adults and to children. It offers points of identification for folks who are diversely positioned by race and by gender. Can we derive any reasonably hopeful message from this popularity? Is there any chance that these differently positioned audiences are talking to each other about the issues raised in the film? Or are we simply seeing the movie side by side, taking away our separate messages, and going home changed only by the weight we gained from our buttered popcorn and twizzlers? The centrality of disabillity and gender in the film’s narrative is easily hidden within its lush CGI-generated landscape–a visual achievement which is its most powerful agent and advertisement–yet which grounds it back in the body, just where the viewer finds herself when she takes off her 3-D glasses.