I don’t know nothun’ ‘bout “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. Seriously. I haven’t seen so much as five seconds of the cartoon. Heck, I generally avoid Nickelodeon products like the plague. Maybe that makes me a bad fangirl. I don’t know. But that’s also why I’m like a year late on blogging about the racial controversy surrounding this movie.
What I do know about Avatar: The Last Airbender is what I read about on Wikipedia. The show sounds a little bit like an updated version of Dragonball. Basically, Avatar is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world where people are capable of manipulating the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The main character of the show, named Aang, is an Avatar — which makes him special in a way that the Wikipedia articles fail to adequately explain. From there, it seems as if Aang (who starts out with an Airbending ability), and his animal familiar — a flying… buffalo… — embark on some crazy adventures to learn how to manipulate the remaining three elements and take out a genocidal Fire lord person.
The point here is that Aang, and many of his friends, are supposed to be clearly Asian. In fact, the Avatar world is based on many East Asian (and particularly Buddhist) concepts of chi, martial arts, and reincarnation. Not having watched Avatar, I was a little skeptical of exactly how obviously Asian the world of Avatar was — until I read that in Season 2, one of the characters learns to manipulate the fifth element: metal. The idea there being a fifth natural element, and that it is metal, is a uniquely East Asian idea. So, colour me convinced — Aang and his friends are Asian.
And as any parent of colour will tell you, finding shows and toys that help reinforce positive racial identification is quintessential. As CNN demonstrated in their updated Doll Test, kids rapidly internalize racial stereotypes of good and bad from TV and movies, particularly when they aren’t exposed to any other explicit discussions of race. When kids see images on television of good, smart kids being overwhelmingly White, while bad, dumb kids are overwhelmingly Black, they make connections between personal attributes and skin colour that alter their perception of the world. Hence, when kids are shown images of identical dolls differing only in skin tone, they will associate lighter skin tone with positive attributes and darker skin tone with negative attributes. This occurs regardless of the child’s own skin colour; in the CNN doll test, even Black children demonstrated preference towards lighter-skinned dolls. What remarkable self-hate these children are learning at the ages of 2 and younger — and all because of the dearth of positive, minority protagonists in children’s shows and toys.
No child of mine is going to grow up thinking that they are ugly or stupid because of their race. If and when I am a parent, my kids will not get blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie dolls for Christmas. I’ll probably be the parent who buys their kids the Jade Bratz or the Quick Kick G.I. Joe. My future children will watch Ni Hao, Kai Lan until their eyes bleed.
So, I can only imagine how valuable a show like Avatar: The Last Airbender is to today’s Asian parents, who use shows like these to instill some measure of racial self-esteem in their children.
And I can only imagine their disappointment rage when they learned that the live-action feature film based on the show, called just The Last Airbender (because, of course, the term “Avatar” is now inextricably linked to blue cat-people), was going to star a virtually all-White cast. Both Aang and Katara, the male and female protagonists, are played by unmistakably Caucasian actors (even though Katara is actually brown-skinned in the cartoon). The studios did the same calculus here that they did for other American remakes of classic Asian films (including The Ring, My Sassy Girl, and The Departed): there’s a belief in Hollywood that while Asian stories will sell, Asian faces won’t. These film executives are sending the message: “Asians simply aren’t familiar enough — not “American” enough — for White movie audiences to relate to”.
So you end up with White-washing of Asian movies and the take-home message, yet again, that Asians aren’t good enough to be the heroes. We’re neither good enough to play romantic leads nor are we heroic enough to have elemental energy-balls shooting out of our hands. Is it any wonder that kids are colourstruck?
To add insult to injury, apparently minorities aren’t good enough to play heroes, but we’re totally bad enough to play the villains. Not like I really know anything about Avatar, but from what I’ve read, the Fire Nation = the bad guys. And lo and behold — the folks behind The Last Airbender have no problem casting people of colour in the roles of the evil Fire people. Cliff Curtis, who is of Maori descent, plays the Big Bad Firelord Ozai. Aasif Mandvi and Dev Patel, two Asian Indian actors, play Firelord Ozai’s right-hand man and his son, respectively.
Which means that The Last Airbender is going to be two hours of eye-candy schlock, reinforcing the same tired message to kids: White = good and heroic, and Brown = evil and genocidal.
Not like I was rushing off to pre-purchase my Last Airbender tickets on Fandango, but I’m with Gene Yang on this one: boycott, please!?
And, while we’re on the subject, Prince of Persia (set to hit theatres this Friday) is yet another example of the White-washing of American cinema. I first saw the trailer for this movie in the theaters, and I literally (and I do mean literally — electroman can attest) yelled out to the screen in front of a crowded theatre audience, “What the FUCK?!? Jake Gyllenhaal‘s not Persian!”
You can’t fake your race with a bottle tan and four weeks of facial hair growth, Jake! Gemma Arterton, who plays the love interest of the Prince of Somwhere-That-Is-Clearly-Not-Persia, is British (although, at least she, unlike Jake Gyllenhaal, uses an accent to sound vaguely… uhm, Persian-ish?). And again, the White-washing of the cast is reserved only for the movie’s protagonists: Ben Kingsley, one of the most famous Asian Indian actors around, plays the primary villain of the movie.
Really? Way to ruin the first computer game I every played, Disney. Thanks, but no thanks. I think I’ll be boycotting that one, too.
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Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!