What could be behind this “Avatar” depression
This article and especially this video left me with a strong sense of unease. I couldn’t tell how much of this was an authentic story and how much of it was just (mostly like unpaid) P.R. for “Avatar”—look, this movie is so awesome it’s making people sad they can’t live in it! I felt dirty just watching it for this reason. I was also furious at the therapists they had on the show; if they’re legitimately concerned about people’s well-being, they need to address them and tell them they a) need to get out of the house more and b) need some help in general.
Still, I couldn’t help but think there was something to this story. I remember, when I was watching the movie, thinking about how it really felt like porn for sedentary people. Cameron went out of his way to contrast the Na’vi and the humans in terms of physical movement and freedom. The humans live in cramped interiors and move sedately, whereas the Na’vi are constantly on the move, feeling the wind in their hair and adrenaline in their veins. In case you don’t get the point, the main character is wheelchair-bound, whereas his avatar is a badass.
In fact, going into the avatar takes the experience of watching an action movie or playing a video game, and grotesquely exaggerates it. In a movie or video game, you sit quietly and the people on the screen run around and provide a simulation of moving your body around. In “Avatar”, your human body does more than sits there—you go into a kind of coma, and your avatar runs and jumps and has physical experiences. As I’ve repeatedly noted before, I think that’s a fine way to spend some time and have some fun. But of course, only if it’s mixed in with other experiences, including the kind that compel you to get outside and move your real world body, to experience that flush of activity and that surge of adrenaline for yourself and not just vicariously. Unfortunately, so much of our culture is geared towards making sure that you rarely have the opportunity or even desire to really move your body, that a lot of people can and do go for months and even years only experiencing physical activity secondhand, as an activity on a screen.
As awful a movie as “Avatar” was, the scenes of the Na’vi running and climbing and flying felt really quite real, and invoked in me a longing to stretch my legs and run around a bit, or do something physical with my body. Like I said, it had that kind of visceral pornographic quality to it. But for me, the feeling was fleeting, because I’d worked out that day and just have a lot of opportunities in my life to really move my body around—I like going dancing, I walk a lot, and when it gets warm, I’m guessing the bike will be coming out more. But for people who don’t have those outlets, I can’t even imagine how that visceral longing would feel. I can totally believe it would feel downright depressing. Maybe even more so because it’s fantastical, since it provokes an urge but doesn’t define it for you, which could make you think what you’re longing for is the world onscreen itself, instead of just an opportunity to feel the emotions depicted onscreen. Getting that longing watching ordinary people participating in imaginable movements would be different, because it might be a little easier to say what it is that you want, but this might just add some confusion to the mix. The comments they get certainly sound like that to me—people filled with a longing they project on to the movie.
I’m not usually one to panic about the state of modern society in this sense, but I do think one of the biggest drawbacks to our lifestyle in this country is the sheer lack of exercise and even fresh air that people get, and this little segment really drove home to me how that problem has many facets. There’s a lot of focus on how lack of exercise contributes to weight gain and to bad physical outcomes like heart disease and diabetes, but I rarely hear much talk about how lack of exercise has big drawbacks for mental well-being. Doctors and therapists know it, of course, but it usually only comes up in individual consultation with a person who already has problems. But in terms of a larger social problem? You don’t really hear much about it, about how a lack of exercise could be creating this kind of cultural malaise and exacerbating depression. And how making it easier and more appealing for people to get out of the house and move their bodies might do a lot to improve people’s mental well-being, which of course has all sorts of implications for productivity, energy, and just being able to get along with other people.
I think part of the reason we don’t talk about the need for the joy and pleasure of exercise—and instead it’s treated like a grim duty performed to keep your waistline slim and your heart working—is that same old American puritanism. Ironically, the unwillingness to talk about exercise as a pleasure stems from the same sort of abhorrence of physical pleasure that leads people to talk about the pleasure of eating as a sin, to be cagey about alcohol, and to treat sex as somewhere between a dominance game and a sad inevitability. You’d think a culture as sports-obsessed as ours would have a friendlier attitude towards talking about body movement as a desire, pleasure and need. Instead, I see a lot of ads on TV that have an interesting discourse about the body in sports—Nike and Gatorade sell their products by showing appealing images of the body moving and of strength, but all the text is about winning. The visceral pleasure of seeing a body moving is undermined by the suggestion that it’s only acceptable as a means to an end.
But “Avatar” showed the Na’vi moving their bodies because it feels good. Even when it was a means to an end, such as hunting, the pleasure principle was at the forefront in the scenes of physical activity. It was straight up emotional manipulation, and it made me feel weird to see it. On the flip side, I couldn’t help but admire Cameron a little for touching on something that’s more taboo than I realized in our culture.
My thoughts on this obviously need more work. I feel like I’m stabbing at something, but could certainly stand some more thoughts on this. What I do think about is this: I was traveling with an athletic friend of mine a few months ago, and we had to change flights in Atlanta. But our flight had landed slow, and we were worried we’d miss our connection. And so we ran through the airport as fast as we could, arriving with plenty of time to spare. When we stopped, we started to laugh with all that pent-up sitting around a plane energy being released. “It feels great, doesn’t it?” my friend asked. And I thought, huh, if it weren’t him and me talking, that would have felt weird, but we’re not ones for self-censorship around each other. But in another circumstance? It would feel a little bit taboo.