The Utopia Isn’t So Perfect After All

It has become common knowledge that those with disabilities in western, modern society are constantly faced with social barriers that prevent them from fully participating within their community. I personally believe that with time and effort that these barriers can begin to diminish. However, the influential and powerful pop culture today plays no role in helping reducing the barriers for people with disabilities, because movies and advertisements are constantly portraying disabled persons as helpless and useless. We, society, are unconsciously influenced by these endless amounts of media portrayals that surround us on a daily basis.

Definitions and terminology play a strong role in defining the negative perceptions placed on those with disabilities. For instance, the individual model of disability uses a physiological approach and states that impairment is due to genetic heritage, accident or disease. This definition clearly claims that those with disabilities do not follow what the majority of modern, society defines as ‘normal.’ Official terminology, like the individual model of disability, has the capability to affect how society perceives those with disabilities. If the terminology is giving a negative connotation on those with disabilities then the perception of disabled persons by society will also tend to have an undesirable implication.

You might be wondering now what media portrays disabled persons in a negative light. One example is a top selling box office movie hit in 2009, Avatar. Not only does Avatar make those with disabilities appear weak and unworthy, but it also has numerous racists and gender stereotypes remarks. No wonder thousands of articles were published critiquing the movie after it was released.

Lets first focus on the portrayal of those with disabilities. For those of you who do not know, Avatar is about a white man named, Jake Sully, who abandons his disabled body and goes to a world called, Pandora. In Pandora he is suppose to persuade the nature-loving Na’vi tribe that lives there to make way for humans to come in and mine in their land. Eventually, Sully switches sides and falls in love with the Na’vi princess and leads the tribe to victory against the white men. Sounds familiar, right? To begin, Avatar takes place in a utopian society, meaning it is an imagined place where everything is perfect. Yet, one aspect that does not appear ‘perfect’ is Sully’s disabled body. Throughout the movie, Sully expresses that he prefers his Avatar body because in it he is able to walk and is not restricted in his wheelchair. The movie delivers the message that one should be happier and life is better when you are not disabled, for Sully’s character only feels powerful and useful when he is in the Avatar world and not in his wheelchair. In addition, the utopia created in Avatar is extremely high-tech and futuristic. Technology is constantly aiding researchers on the Avatar world and helping them solve their problems. In other words, the movie is predicting that in the future it is possible that technology might be able to solve multiple problems for it will become so advance. It is quite interesting how the technology in this utopia is used in multiple ways, yet it appears that it was never used to study how it can assist those with disabilities, showing that disabled persons’ life style remains the same in the present and the future and they will always have barriers restricting them.

While on the topic of Avatar, it is relevant to mention the gender stereotypes and racists remarks that occur throughout the movie because these are still ongoing issues that surround us. Lets first take a look at the structure of the Avatars:

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Avatar’s Body Structure

Notice how both are practically naked and that the male is muscular, strong and has a defined six pack and the female is thin and physically fit. Both the male and female Avatars are given the ‘ideal’ body image of their sex. Even in a utopian world, media shows that there is still only way to appear attractive.

The racism throughout Avatar is the plot of the entire movie. If you recall the plot summary, Sully, is a white male that leaves his disabled body and becomes an Avatar in Pandora. Although Sully physically appears as one of the Avatars, white privilege – advantages that white people benefit from that is beyond the common advantages experienced by coloured people – remains with him throughout. Sully does not necessarily get the whole Na’vi experience because he always has the choice to switch back to human mode, giving him an advantage over the rest of the Na’vis. Lastly, the movie ends when the white man, saves the ‘helpless’ coloured people, in this case blue people, from the white peoples’ attacks. As usual, the white person is accepted in the coloured world, becomes the most loved person and then eventually becomes their leader and saves them. Again, media is emphasizing that coloured people always needs a white person to rescue them, even though we all know this is not true.

Although Avatar may have been a box office knock out, it is no secret that the movie discriminates those with disabilities, reinforces gender stereotypes and reiterates the historical white people-colour people relationship. With pop culture producing movies with these messages, it is no wonder that barriers exist for minority groups today.

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One thought on “The Utopia Isn’t So Perfect After All

  1. Wordtothewomen5, I am glad that you have introduced the topic of disabilities in this blog. Often disabilities, be it mental or physical, are considered separately from other issues we face in our society, for example, gender and race. I believe it is essential that we view disabilities as a subject that interrelates with other topics, in order to remove the barriers that individuals of this minority face. According to Thomas Gerschick’s essay, “Toward a Theory of Disability and Gender” (2000), in 1994 more than 54 million people had some level of physical or mental disability in the United States. Moreover, approximately 26 million of these individuals had what is classified as a severe disability. These numbers are expected to increase, particularly in the upcoming years as the Baby Boomers age, for many disabilities develop later on in life. These high numbers of citizens with disabilities, make people with a disability represent the second largest minority population (with women being the first) (Gerschick, 2000). Where disability becomes a more multidimensional issue, is with the notion that disability is not only a physical or mental condition, but it is also a social and stigmatized condition (Gerschick, 2000). People with disabilities are stigmatized daily, whether intentional or not. Our society was not “built” for those with disabilities – be it societal norms, physical accessibility, and social and vocational expectations. Even simply the term “disability” has so much negative connation and misunderstandings attached to it, that people tend to shy away from the term out of fear and uncertainty of what it entails. In popular culture, for example, television and movies, it is quite common to have a character with a disability nowadays, however, this disability is often compensated for and even in many scenarios the individual overcomes their disability. Take for example the popular television series, “Glee”. Although a character is a paraplegic, there have been certain episodes where in a “dream world” he has been able to walk. It is as though the viewers could not accept the fact that he will always be in a wheelchair due to the nature of his condition, so the producers have to occasionally remove him from his disabled body, and make him “normal” and able-bodied for once.

    While the television series, “The Bachelor” has been the cause for much criticism; I do praise them for broadening the diversity of their cast in the latest season of the show. A woman, who was born without a left arm was among one of the contestants, along with two women of Asian decent and three African-American women. The women with one arm’s biggest fear coming onto the show as the first contestant with a visible disability was that she would be treated differently than the other women. As Gerschick (2000) states, “people with disabilities are engaged in an asymmetrical power relationship with their temporarily able-bodied counterparts”.

    Disabilities can be even more closely tied with Gender issues. For example, with all the gender norms and stereotyping present in our society, it can be very difficult for an individual with a disability to identify himself or herself with a particular gender. Quite often, the physical appearance of the bodies of those with disabilities can make them vulnerable to being denied recognition as a woman or man. This makes it more difficult to develop relationships, have children, and can even create obstacles in the workplace. With respect to the workplace, women with a disability, in particular, are less likely to have stable jobs in the labour force compared to able-bodied women and men with disabilities (Gerschick, 2000).

    The inequalities faced by people with disabilities is an ongoing battle. I strongly believe that if people with disabilities in popular media were not glamorized nor given compensation for their disability, that this would play a small role in eliminating negative perceptions and reducing barriers for individuals with disabilities in the real world.

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