Revisiting Jake Sully of ‘Avatar’ and Its Commentary on Disability

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by Sherry Toh |

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White, male, formerly nondisabled: That was the typical profile of an explicitly disabled character in pop culture when I was a kid. Even then, I can only recall two who made an impression on me. The first was Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X of the “X-Men” movies. The second was Jake Sully, the protagonist of “Avatar.”

Both men were wheelchair users who grappled with the effects their choices had on loved ones — much like myself, though my disabled state is the result of SMA, not a traumatic injury. Unlike Charles Xavier, however, Jake Sully didn’t have a continuous stream of films released to remind me of his existence. Not yet.

I was 10 when the first “Avatar” film was released in 2009. I’m now 24. In the subsequent decade, my interest in and memories of Jake faded into a haze, like the dizziness I experienced after watching “Avatar” in 3D. (Back then, cinemas in Singapore, where I live, didn’t have very good 3D technology. We’ve upgraded since.)

What didn’t fade was my dad’s love for “Avatar.” It’s one of his favorite stories, and his marvel at the featured planet, Pandora, and the technology that created its every plant and inhabitant remains everlasting. So when I saw that the film’s sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” would be screening in theaters on my 24th birthday last month, I suggested we celebrate the occasion by watching it.

Though I wasn’t as big a fan as my dad was, movies are our mutual passion, and I love talking with him about them. Around a week before the big day, I rewatched the original to refresh my memory of where we left Jake and Pandora 13 years ago.

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A whole new, blue world

Revisiting the original “Avatar,” I was surprised by how much depth Jake’s story had. I picked up on multiple details I missed as a kid or forgot about. The vague recollection I had was that his arc hinged on his interest in acquiring a cure for his disability through the titular science program, where humans created and piloted bodies — avatars — resembling the blue humanoid Na’vi aliens who were indigenous to Pandora.

Jake’s nondisabled Na’vi form allowed him to again experience the sensation and control he lost in his lower body while serving in the United States Marine Corps. In return for his participation in the program, he’d be paid enough for a procedure that could repair the damage done to his human body.

The last scene we witness is that of Jake achieving a magical cure by transferring his consciousness to his Na’vi self. But walking around without a disability again was only Jake’s initial goal. As he got to know the Na’vi and their tribe, he fell in love with the tribal chief’s daughter Neytiri and her community and way of life.

When the humans threaten the Na’vi with bombs and gunfire in pursuit of a rare resource on Pandora worth millions, Jake risks disabling himself all over again, in Na’vi and human form, by fighting the humans.

In most stories with the “magical cure” trope, the cure is always the ultimate goal. But Jake’s story dives deeper and shows it’s often what comes with the cure that people desire: community, love, and the ability to be oneself fully. Jake didn’t have anyone before joining Neytiri and her tribe. His brother had just died. No other family is mentioned. And certain comments he receives from other humans in the beginning of “Avatar” give a taste of how isolating disabilities can be, and how your disability can define you to people before they know you.

In the scene where Neytiri saves Jake from suffocating in battle and lays her eyes on his human body for the first time, her loving expression, before she speaks a word, tells us that she sees him for who he is.

Additionally, Jake’s background as a Marine functions as commentary on our societies’ inequitable, broken healthcare systems. Jake risked his life in service to his country and paid a dear cost, yet treatment for him was not a given. He had to venture to an alien planet to acquire it.

I’m not as courageous as Jake, but through my own fight to acquire treatment for SMA, I know the specific pain of fighting to prove you’re worth the expense.

We’re now in an era when we’re seeing a greater diversity of disabled characters in pop culture, most of whom I relate to more than Jake. “The Witcher,” for instance, has Yennefer of Vengerberg, whose story also cleverly dissects the “magical cure” trope. But it’s safe to say that, whether or not multiple “Avatar” sequels lie ahead, Jake Sully made a bigger impact on me this time around. I won’t forget him any time soon.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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