Boycotting “The Last Airbender” and “Prince of Persia”

I must have a really juvenile sense of humour, because every time I hear the phrase "airbender", I think about farts.

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 internal monologue of this creature: "why do I live???"

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.

I want my kids to think that the original Power Rangers was all about the Yellow Ranger -- all them other Rangers were just backdrop. She got the coolest Zord anyways -- saber-toothed tiger versus a frickin' stegasaurus? No contest.

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. 

The world according to "The Last Airbender"

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 subjectPrince 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!” 

Jake Gyllenhaal has apparently mistaken being Persian with being almost criminally ungroomed. "Defy the future"? How about, "defy all sanity"?

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.  

Dear Jake Gyllenhaal: I think I just learned how to quit you.

Act Now! Join me (and a whole bunch of other angry Asians) in boycotting The Last Airbender when it hits theatres this July 2nd, and in boycotting Prince of Persia this Friday.

Wanted: Queer/Korean Women in the L.A. Area

Yeah, I know. It's a total cliche to put a picture of Margaret Cho on a post about queer Korean women...

 Are you queer? Are you Korean? Are you a woman? Do you live in the L.A. area? Do you want to be in the movies?

If you answered yes to most of the questions above (or, you know someone who would), please read on!

Nina, one of this blog’s readers, is a filmmaker who is hoping to highlight the voices of queer/Korean women in a documentary she is making. In talking about her inspiration, Nina writes:

This project sort of focuses on giving a face/voice to the stories of queer Korean women (obviously, I suppose) through filmed interviews.  

I started working on this project after I realized that this is a part of the queer/Korean community that is oftentimes neglected and repressed, and growing up I found it really hard to find other queer Koreans, like me.  I am hoping to represent/build a community of queer Koreans through this documentary… but the reason why I am making this documentary is also the reason why I can’t seem to find very many to interview!

I’m hoping to find at least ten people to interview (I’m restricting myself to the LA county & surrounding areas) and meet with, and I would like to represent a variety of perspectives.  In particular I am having trouble finding queer Koreans who are much younger (younger than 20), much older, transgender, and mixed– though, of course, I would love to hear from any queer Korean women, even if they are living outside of this area.

Nina hits on an important problem within the APIA community: too often, the voices of queer APIAs are unheard within the larger mainstream of the pan-Asian political identity. The same is often true of the queer community: queer APIAs are either invisible, or dehumanizingly fetishized. We need more media that hope to shine the spotlight on queer APIAs, and let them tell their stories to us, unfettered.

Act Now! So, if you are interested in participating in Nina’s project, or you know someone who would be, please contact her ASAP at aperfectstrang3r@gmail.com. Also, feel free to forward this post to all of your friends and family.

Texas Attack Ad Plays on anti-Asian Stereotypes

Here is my latest post over at Change.org:

Texas Attack Ad Plays on Anti-Asian Stereotypes

Republican Governor Rick Perry of Texas is running in a tight race for re-election this year, with recent polls finding that Perry is just 4 points ahead of his Democratic opponent, Houston mayor Bill White. And as with any heated election, attack ads are flying back and forth across the Texas airwaves. But one ad paid for by the Perry campaign is sowing anger and confusion among the Asian-American community.

In the ad (titled “Man on the Run,” a response to White’s biographical ad called “Man on the Move“), White is criticized for (supposedly) hiding a history of liberal politics. For example, the ad accuses White of “running from his support for Obamacare,” while showing an image of White juxtaposed against a similarly-posed one of President Obama. The ad goes on to accuse White of “running from his shady foreign business deals,” and shows images of him lunching with a group of Middle Eastern businessmen. Such imagery is clearly trying to portray White as untrustworthy and out-of-touch.

And then perhaps the ad’s weirdest moment happens. White is shown standing next to popular Houston Rockets basketball player and Chinese national, Yao Ming. Floating over this screen is the charge that White is “running from his support of cap-and-trade.”

What? How is a photograph taken with Yao Ming supposed to make White appear particularly sinister? And what does such a photo have to do with cap-and-trade?

read more

DC Comics Kills Off Ryan Choi

R.I.P. Ryan Choi (aka All-New Atom)

I have to preface this post by saying that I have not been collecting comics lately. Thankfully, a friend of mine, who still keeps his finger to the pulse of the comic world, tipped me off to a major development in the world of comic books that has ramifications for the Asian American community.

Four years ago, after the presumed death of Ray Palmer, DC Comics introduced a new Atom, remarkable because he quickly ascended to being one of the foremost Asian American superheroes in comic-dom. He was one of the few Asian American superheroes to receive their own comic book title — All-New Atom — which was penned by Gail Simone. Simone developed Atom, and his alter ego Ryan Choi, as an Asian-American in virtually every sense of the word; although he was born and raised in Hong Kong, Ryan lived and worked as a professor in an American university. Part of his personal evolution involved struggles between his more Americanized identity with the expectations of his strict, overbearing father.

Now, when Atom first launched, I heavily criticized the book for its persistent dependence on stereotypical Asian/Asian American tropes. Choi was still one-dimensional and his book contained inappropriate racially-charged jokes that seemed out-of-place in a book that should’ve been a landmark for Asian American comic fans. Despite being set in at an academic institution, the series suffered from a bizarre absence of Asian American female characters. To me, All-New Atom was jarring — Ryan Choi had none of the ease in his Asian-American identity that Asian American characters written by Asian American writers do. Unlike the characters of Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, or even the writing of Greg Pak’s Amadeus Cho in World War Hulk, Gail Simone’s Ryan Choi felt like a character forced into an Asian American skin. His relationship with his Asian-ness seemed fake and inauthentic. All-New Atom felt like a book about Asian Americans written by a non-Asian. 

Interestingly, when I wrote about my disappointment in All-New Atom, Simone came to this blog defending her writing. She addressed concerns about the inauthenticity of Ryan Choi. Simone even emailed me a little bit to exchange ideas about adding a female Asian American character to All-New Atom‘s cast.

Sadly, soon after these exchanges took place, All-New Atom was canceled after just 25 issues. Ryan Choi went on to help find the lost Ray Palmer, Choi’s predecessor in the Atom mantle. Palmer and Choi worked together as members of Checkmate, but suprisingly, Choi was virtually absent in the major cross-over events that subsequently swept the D.C. Universe (e.g. Final Crisis, Sinestro Wars, Blackest Night). In fact, Electroman tells me that Choi appeared in only one panel in Final Crisis.

Last week, not content to allow Ryan Choi fade into obscurity, D.C. Comics made a decision to bring the All-New Atom back… in a gory death scene. In the first issue of Titans: Villains for Hire, a title contained under the year-long Brightest Day story arc currently sweeping the D.C. Universe, Deathstroke assembles a team of mercenary villains. As one of his first acts as leader of the new, evil Titans, Deathstroke breaks into Ryan Choi’s house in Ivy Town. After a brief battle, Ryan Choi is fatally impaled on Deathstroke’s sword.

Now, as Blackest Night has hammered home (and by “hammered home”, I actually mean, beaten like a “dead, dead, really really dead horse”), dead characters in the D.C. Universe rarely stay dead for long. If nothing else, comic book writers are very good at coming up with wonderfully creative ret-cons to undo a character’s death. Even Jason Todd, the second Robin, who was supposed to be the only character in D.C. Comics whom editors swore would never come back from the dead, was resurrected and now fights crime as the homicidal Red Hood.

So, it’s quite possible that Ryan Choi will be back.

But for now, Ryan Choi is dead.

And beyond merely being dead, Ryan Choi is pointlessly dead. It seems as if Choi died only to demonstrate how Badass(tm) Deathstroke and his new Titans are. And, as Justin Slotman commented about the recent deaths of Jin and Sun on Lost, “killing off beloved characters to prove that Bad Guy is Really Really Serious is the laziest kind of writing.” Some fans have argued that Choi’s death is racially motivated because D.C. Comics was uncomfortable with an Asian American wearing the mantle of the Atom; with Choi bumped off, Ray Palmer would be free to reclaim his superhero identity. Would a prominent non-Asian superhero have died so meaningless a death? 

While I think the phrase “racially motivated” is rather charged, I tend to agree with the notion that D.C. Comics sets a dangerous precedent for so casually eliminating one of the few prominent Asian American superheroes when he appears no longer necessary. D.C. editors seemed apathetic to persistent cries to have Ryan Choi treated better in the pages of his title, and, now, they seem callously unconcerned about killing the character off. Ryan Choi barely had the chance to become a “beloved” character — of Asian Americans or fanboys at large — before he was tossed aside in a gruesome and unnecessary death. In life, and in death, Choi served as a placeholder — first for Ray Palmer’s Atom, and now for Deathstroke’s evil plan. Choi never really manages to come into his own as an Asian American character and as a superhero — throughout his four year run, he stood perpetually in the shadow of Whiter, more well-known characters.

So, rest in peace, Ryan Choi. Too bad you never became what you could have been.

Update: Yikes. Don’t write a blog post while simultaneously watching the penultimate episode of Lost, kids! This post has been edited for grammar and clarity.

Asian Americans Against SB 1070

Illegal immigrants from China are among the highest populations of illegal immigrants in the country.

Undocumented Chinese are the second largest group of illegal immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Last year, ten times as many Chinese illegal immigrants were arrested by Border Patrol along Arizona’s southern border, compared to the year previous. The Arizona Department of Health Services remarked that while the Asian-American population in Arizona represents only about 2% of the population, it is one of the fastest growing minority populations in the state, nearly doubling in size between 1990 and 2005

Contrary to popular perception, SB 1070 will undoubtedly affect Arizona’s Asian American population.

Yet, neither conservative supporters of SB 1070, nor Democratic opponents to the bill, have identified the Asian American community as putative targets of this legislation. Democrats have not taken strides to invite Asian Americans into an anti-SB 1070 coalition; indeed, national press has painted SB 1070 as an anti-Latino law.

These efforts not only detract from efforts against SB 1070 by marginalizing in Asian Americans a small, but vocal, political group that could help raise opposition against the law, but discourages political participation within the Asian American community.

Some Asian Americans are seeking to rectify the situation. They have started an online petition — Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Against SB 1070 — specifically to help Asian Americans lend their voice to the growing movement against SB 1070. Here is the text of the petition:

We the undersigned oppose SB 1070, the bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. SB 1070 will create second-class citizens of those who are perceived to be foreign and undocumented. We ask that Governor Brewer and the Arizona state legislature repeal SB 1070.

The Asian American and Pacific Islander communities particularly understand the unequal burdens of this law because of the racially and economically motivated restrictions on Chinese immigration in 1875 and 1882, Alien Land laws in western states, and the unlawful imprisonment of Japanese Americans based on their ethnic heritage during WWII. Various politicians have noted that the bill is not meant to apply only to Latinos but also to Chinese and Middle Eastern individuals as well.

We believe this bill is unconstitutional.  Individuals stopped for traffic violations or infractions of city codes will have to prove their citizenship to any law enforcement officer who has reason to question their status%u2014based on dress, behavior, and accents.  This places an unequal burden of proof on immigrants, foreign-born individuals, and people of color, and violates the right of equal protection under the law.  

We protest the criminalization of humanitarian efforts to aid undocumented migrants through provisions of water, food, and sanctuary.  We further condemn the assumptions that undocumented immigrants are criminals. Most immigrants–documented or undocumented–are hard-working individuals seeking economic opportunities that are not available in their homelands due to structural and global inequities. Furthermore, these immigrants–documented and undocumented–are recruited as a result of US immigration admission policies, and/or hired by US employers.

We urge groups and organizations that were planning on hosting conferences, meetings and conventions in Arizona to boycott the state and move their events elsewhere, to explicitly protest this law. This call to observe the boycott does not extend to those coming to protest and work with local organizations to overturn SB 1070.

We additionally call for immigration reform by the US federal government that treats all people equally and provides ways for immigrants who are contributing socially and economically to the United States to gain naturalized citizenship, reunite with families, and protects migrants from exploitation and crime.

As Asian American and Pacific Islander individuals, and organizations representing AAPIs, we sign in the spirit of other AAPIs such as Yick Wo and Gordon Hirabayashi who, in challenging local and national laws based on economic and racial considerations, strengthened the US constitution and our democracy.

Act Now! If you agree with the above petition text, please sign the petition. In addition, forward the link to your friends and family. Let’s be heard, folks.