July 01, 2010

Dismissing the pro-Airbender arguments

M. Night Shyamalan has said his casting in The Last Airbender was "color-blind." By that he means transforming the series' Asian and Inuit cultures into mixed-raced cultures where three of the four leaders are white.

Since the whole basis for the series, the reason fans loved it, was its Eastern orientation, this is a stupid reason to change things. Would you take Superman's Krypton or the Lord of the Rings' Middle Earth and make it black or Asian? Why not, if you sincerely believe in color-blind casting?

A couple postings demolish the arguments for Shyamalan's whitewashing of Airbender. These apply to other works of fiction too. For instance, eliminating Indians in the TV show Crusoe or casting Johnny Depp as Tonto.

Is 'The Last Airbender' Racist ... or Just Drawn That Way?

By Gary Susman[A]re Shyamalan's critics being fair? After all, the 'Airbender' characters are just fictional creations in a fantasy world; why can't they be whatever color he chooses? Did anyone complain when African-American Will Smith played James West, a character who was originally white, in his adaptation of the TV series 'Wild Wild West'? Did anyone complain when Michael Clarke Duncan played Kingpin in 'Daredevil,' or when Samuel L. Jackson plays 'Iron Man' character Nick Fury--both characters who originally appeared as white in the pages of Marvel Comics?

Well, context matters. All of those characters are relative ciphers, people who don't have much backstory, and what little backstory they do have isn't especially tied to their race or culture, the way it is for the main characters in 'Airbender.' Also, white people don't have a long history of being underrepresented in Hollywood films, or of being reduced to racial caricatures, or of only getting to play villains.
And:The standard Hollywood argument used to be that Asian lead actors (like other actors of color) weren't dependable draws at the box office. This argument hardly seems viable anymore at a time when overseas receipts make up a larger-than-ever portion of a Hollywood movie's revenue stream, or when Will Smith and Jackie Chan are two of the most popular stars both inside and outside of America. Certainly, the relatively unknown stars of 'Airbender' weren't chosen for their proven box office strength; the biggest name in the cast is Patel. Rather, the movie's selling point is its recreation of the fantasy world of the cartoon, a world that had already proved its ability to generate fan excitement.Actually, Nick Fury is black in Marvel's Ultimates universe. I, for one, did object to making the Kingpin black.

As for the The Wild Wild West, it was a decades-old property that no one cared about. Besides, it was so devoid of racial context that casting Smith didn't matter.

Marketing isn't the issue


By Q. Le[W]hile “Prince of Persia” offends with its casting of a A-list white actor for marketing reasons, “The Last Airbender” offends even more with its casting of newcomer/lesser known White actors over equivalent Asian actors to portray its starring Asian characters. The marketing reasons attached to famous actors do not apply here; instead, the marketing assumption is that White actors are more “capable” than Asian actors for pulling in viewers, with a possible secondary assumption in their “superiority” in acting abilities. This overarching assumption is the basis for an institutionalized racism innate to Hollywood’s long, long history of ethnic narratives.And:By openly preferring Caucasian actors over Asian actors in an open casting call, Paramount demonstrated their innate racist assumptions–that a no name White actor was more capable of increasing box office numbers and (perhaps) “acting” than an equivalent Asian actor regardless of the Eastern-based characters in the series. Additionally, by casting Asian actors as secondary or supporting characters, Paramount clearly wished to create an “authentically diverse” universe, one that is distinctly Eastern and non-Western in its roots.I hope that last point is clear. Why cast most of the secondary roles as Asian if The Last Airbender is supposedly "diverse" and "color-blind"? Answer: Shyamalan wanted to have it both ways. He wanted the ease and comfort of casting any white actor who walked in the door as his leads. No painstaking search for Asian or Inuit actors required. But he also wanted Asian actors in the background so he could claim he was true to the source.

Le continues:This assumption is wrong, unfounded and offensive on so many levels. Who is to say a Asian American boy is less articulate in English and capable in acting prowess than a Caucasian boy? Pixar casted Japanese-American Jordan Nagai to voice act Korean-American inspired Russell in their 2009 film “UP,” and it was arguably one of the most commercially and critically acclaimed successes of the year.

And who is to say Asian actors in distinctly Asian narratives are any less capable of drawing in American audiences? Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000 opened the gateways to a Hollywood flood of Hong Kong and Asian cinema that had been established by star Asian actor predecessors such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
More bogus argumentsDefenders claim that this just a fantasy universe, some stating that they saw main protagonist Aang as a “White guy” and that the casting is simply “interpretational.” This again misses the point completely–this is a narrative based explicitly on Asian roots, and for a movie that lavishes in the history and beauty of Eastern culture its casting of White actors in the lead “hero” roles is racist and ethnocentric. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have stated multiple time that the story is Asian inspired–characters, costumes, scenery, everything. They envisioned a fantasy universe that dealt with Asian folklore, with cultural and image aesthetics derived from their respective Eastern roots.The "fantasy" argument misses another key point. In every controversy of this type, the "fantasy" character or world is changed from brown to white. No one ever says, "Hey, let's make our movies more diverse. Let's close our eyes and cast the characters' race at random. The next time we get a Star Wars or Harry Potter or Spider-Man franchise, let's make the main characters minorities."

No, most worlds start out white, and the brown ones often become white. This pattern is evidence of Hollywood's racism.

Would fans of Superman or Lord of the Rings accept their beloved characters becoming black or Asian? No, of course not. Then why should fans of The Last Airbender accept this whitewashing?“Isn’t it time we stopped looking at race?”


This argument flies from the ends of Shyalaman and Paramount defenders, who believe that in this day and age we should all be colorblind to race and its associated implications.

However, as presented in the PBS award-winning documentary “Unnatural Causes,” it’s been proven that ethnic minorities, compared to White Americans in the same socioeconomic statuses, have higher rates of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks than their white counterparts.

These higher rates are the result of allostatic load and weathering–the resultant and combined stresses that can result from differing levels of racism that are either explicit or implicit.
In other words, minorities suffer tangible, measurable harm as the result of being stereotyped or omitted from the media. The Last Airbender and other productions starring minorities are one way to correct this. When audiences see that minorities can be heroes, leaders, lovers and so forth, they'll stop treating them as separate and unequal races.

For more on casting The Last Airbender, see M. Night vs. The Internet: The Airbender Mash-up and Last Airbender Is "Completely Atrocious." For more on casting issues in general, see Denzel Washington as JFK? and Indians Hold Steady at 0.3%.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for presenting a very objective and well reasoned statement on what many are referring to as the 'white washing' of the Last Airbender movie. It's such a tragedy that some people in Hollywood still think this way, and even if Last Airbender means the end of M. Night's career, and damages the wonderful cartoon series if it flops at the box office, at least it's brought the issue of discriminatory casting into the main stream.

dmarks said...
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dmarks said...

About the above post: racism can be tied to power, but it is not necessarily so. Racism practiced by those who are supposedly powerless, against those who supposedly have power is no less racist. Power just makes the effects of racism worse, that's all.

Back on the subject, this is a pretty big issue. The hourly ABC radio news on AM radio is mentioning the outcry/protest over "Last Airbender" whitewashing the characters/cast.

Anon said: "and even if Last Airbender means the end of M. Night's career"

He might have a few more bombs to go before they say goodnight to M. Night. Hasn't he been making bombs for many years now? Still, they let him make more.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea Reagan or Kennedy were Irish. When you say "Irish" I think leprechauns and green beer.

Is that why you disabled comments above? Because you knew your examples of "what people think of when you say 'Irish'" were bullshit?

You also said that Irish stereotypes haven't been a problem for about a century, then later you refer to lots of television stereotypes from the 60s. Maybe you disabled comments because there was already too much arguing just within your own post.

So far the only overarching pattern to when comments are allowed or disallowed seems to be the strength of the original argument.

Honestly no, the Irish don't have near the problems from and with stereotypes that the American Indians do, but that point is now overshadowed because you've tried to make the difference out to be even more in favor of the Irish than it actually is. If you'd have been honest you could have made 70% the same post and still driven home the point with the added benefit of being taken seriously.

Every time you artificially prop up your positions though it weakens your legitimate points and hurts your whole argument.

I know you'll delete this because that's just what you do when a comment proves you wrong or merely calls something into question that you don't have an answer for. But that's OK because you'll have read it first, and when it's gone, I'll know that you know you were wrong, just like I know that you know you're wrong anytime commenting is disabled.

dmarks said...
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dmarks said...

I did find many points in the above closed post that I agreed with, Anon. I did also agree with his examples of

But this one also deserves comment:

"In short, fighting racism and stereotyping is part of the class struggle"

So, fighting racism and stereotyping is part of a struggle which itself is based on more stereotyping/generaliztion/prejudice?

The concept of "class struggle" is one of the many invalid concepts to come from Marxism. It relies on extremely simplistic stereotypes and generalizations of people based on some dim economic perception. When hate and discrimination based on "race" get out of fashion, the haters will fire up the ovens to kill people based on "class" instead. Sometimes it happens at the same time: the dictator of Serbia in the 1990s was in line with Marxism "class struggle" ideology as he also engineered race-based genocide against the people of Kosovo and Bosnia. It is all really so so similar.

One should really divorce racism from "class". If they are so tied together, then it is somehow less bad to use anti-Native raciam against the Connecticut Pequot than it is, say, inhabitants of the Rosebud reservation. One group is in a different economic class, in general.

One can also remember the extreme Native racist with the inexplicable "Jewish Tribal" name who earlier commented how Jews are all rich, so the Holocaust matters less because of it. He's a perfect example of someone who ties race with "class".

Anonymous said...

Fantastic points dmarks.