September 13, 2009

Whitewashing Natives in Last Airbender

Suspension of disbelief

The Daily’s Hannah Freeman exposes whitewashing in the film industry

By Hannah Freeman
Many of Avatar’s longtime fans, therefore, were thrilled at the prospect of a live-action movie, under the name The Last Airbender, to be directed by M. Night Shyamalan of The Sixth Sense and Signs. As details leaked regarding casting for the four main leads, however, an immediate outcry arose: why were Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Zuko–nearly all the major roles, and all marked as characters of colour by their features, hair styles, clothing, and surroundings–to be played by four Caucasian actors? Kim described why he found these casting decisions particularly painful: “The Last Airbender has the potential to be something like Star Wars–something with lasting value that could give new heroes to your average household in America. And to have something for Asian-American kids, and ethnic kids in general, to look up to. To let them know heroes can also look like them and speak fluent English like them. I think it could give immeasurable confidence and pride to these under-represented kids.” Instead, The Last Airbender will reinforce what Guy Aoki, Founding President of MANAA, characterized in a second open letter to Paramount as a “glass ceiling blocking off Asian-American actors from playing lead protagonists.”

Hearing these casting rumours, many fans of the series, as well as MANAA and the East West Players, a prominent Asian-American theatre organization, began to decry the whitewashing, calling out Paramount for this decision. A letter-writing and protest campaign sprung up quickly, marshaled by fans who organized around web communities like and–the latter of which has gone on to protest other negative representations, like the hate crime scene in recent film The Goods. Commentary on the casting was generally insightful; as fans pointed out, not only will The Last Airbender be an opportunity lost for non-white heroes, it will actively reinforce racist divisions. One fan, who blogs under the name anna and watched the show with her three Asian-American nephews, explained on her blog at, “My nephews will either have to succumb to it or untangle it later in life but they are already being cued to believe, to know that non-white people/PoC [people of colour] have no place as active protagonists in mainstream culture, cultural content, or society. They are being taught that culture, society, and the audience really means white culture, white society, and white audience.” While her nephews and other non-white audience members are generally expected, in their average trip to the movie theatre, to be able to identify with white heroes, Paramount appears to believe that an insufficient portion of their audience would be able to relate to non-white leads, rationalizing their whitewashing of the central characters for what appear to be profitability concerns.
Comment:  This article doesn't say it, but Sokka and Katara's culture is more Inuit than Asian. But the same analysis applies to Native actors. They too face a glass ceiling blocking them from playing lead protagonists.

For more on The Last Airbender, see Villains and Losers in Airbender and Get a Tan, Become Asian (or Inuit).


Anonymous said...

But Rob, aren't the Inuit a distinct group from American Indians? I've read that they're not the same people at all since they're not classified as Amerinds like the majority of Native people throughout the Americas.

Rob said...

Yes, the Inuit are a distinct group from American Indians. But both groups fall into the "Native America" category as I define it. As do Native Hawaiians in some cases.

Nor is this unusual. The US Census has a category called "American Indian and Alaska Native." This corresponds roughly to what we call "Indian country" or "Native America" colloquially.