Avatar: Ableism and Normalization

Thursday, October 31, 2013
First author:
Flynn S.
Adapting the Environment I

Equality Studies Centre, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland

All authors:

Susan Flynn

Empowerment & Environment
Ableism, Identity and Media


The aim of this presentation is to prove that the film Avatar, now the most financially successful film of all time, is intimately invested in the project of ableism; an ideology that sustains the ‘hegemony of normalcy’ (Davis, 1997).


The method employed for this analysis is a close reading of Avatar as text. When examining representations of disability in society, such as those in film, it is necessary to explain the collective elements of the film text; it’s narrative elements, mise-en-scene and editing (Vande Berg & Wenner, 1991).


Avatar colludes in Medical Model ideologies which seek to ‘fix’ the individual ‘problem’ of disability. The main character’s disability is a totalizing identity that defines and harnesses him. From the very first comments the audience is positioned to assume that the disabled Sully dreams of mobility and its attendant virility. The dream of release from the constraints of the body is all the more alluring when the body is disabled; such bodies have historically served as a device upon which artistic discourses have leaned (Norden, 1994, Chivers & Markotic, 2010). Data is amalgamated by a scene by scene analysis which exposes an ableist agenda; statistics of the character’s position on screen in relation to able-bodied peers is correlated with power dynamics in the narrative. Camera angles and other editorial devices diminish the disabled character in favor of professionally superior others.


Avatar literally subjugates the disabled body with technology, in the project of creating a new, more vibrant, able world. By celebrating technological advances and reifying science, Avatar draws the audience into complicity with the contentious project of ‘fixing’ disability.


Davis,L.J. (1997). The Disability Studies Reader. New York; Routledge.

Chivers, S. & Markotic, N., (2010). The Problem Body; Projecting Disability on Film. Ohio; Ohio State University Press.

Norden, M.F. (1994). The Cinema of Isolation. New Jersey; Rutgers University Press.

Vande Berg, L.R. & Wenner, L.A., (1991). Television Criticism: Approaches and applications. New York; Longman.