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.

Let’s Have a Racist Hallowe’en, Part II

So, Hallowe’en occurred this past weekend. It is my favourite holiday of the year, and 2009 was, without a doubt, the best Hallowe’en of my life. Electroman dressed as the Joker, and I dressed as Harley Quinn. A couple of friends of ours were Joker henchmen, and we staged a robbery of the house party we attended, complete with BB guns, Smile-X gas, and fake money. Later in the evening, we put on several killing scenes for the party-goers — flash mob style — wherein either I or electroman would stab or shoot one of the henchmen, and he would die bleeding out from his chest. The fake blood was so realistic, a couple of horrified partygoers honestly thought I had just lost my little mind, and wanted to call an ambulance. It wasn’t just Hallowe’en, it was Hallowe’en-apalooza.

But, no party goes off completely without a hitch, I suppose. At this house party, we also encountered a live example of a White person in blackface. Another group, whom none of my friends knew (this was a pretty big house party, being thrown by a friend of a friend), came in a group-themed costume — they did the cast of Napoleon Dynamite. Those of you who are Napoleon Dynamite fans might know where this is going.

Apparently, there’s a character in the film called “LaFawndah”, who turns out to be the Internet girlfriend of one of the characters in the movie. There’s supposed to be a “ha ha” moment because some dweeby White guy starts dressing (and behaving) like a gangsta rapper and has a tall, statuesque Black woman as his new significant other. Here’s a picture of this character:

napoleon_dynamite_13-lafawndah

So, at this party, the cast of Napoloen Dynamite included a White girl dressed as this character. I don’t have a good picture of her, but a friend of mine took a picture of the cast standing around, including an image of the girl; while her face isn’t in view, you can see the brown makeup liberally applied to the girl’s arms.

halloween-blackface-cropped

Jesus, people, what is up with the racist Hallowe’en costumes? It is not cool to wear makeup to specficially alter one’s race or ethnicity; it is offensive to people of colour because it specifically mocks and exaggerates race-based physical features in a manner demeaning and derogatory to racial minorities. I mean, consider how this girl also wore a black wig (which hardly resembles the hair of the main character) and a butt prosthetic to mimick the large rear end of Napoleon Dynamite‘s LaFawndah. How is her costume not a stereotyping of Black women? Just don’t do it, people. It’s not cute.

Sadly, I didn’t see this person (or her costume) while I was at the party. I actually didn’t even know anyone had dressed up as the cast of Napoleon Dynamite, although I did see Napoleon himself walking around. I was out on a beer run when the cast won the group costume contest at the party (we were told later that many of the partygoers had voted for us — our group theme was better, anyways). But, had I seen this girl, I definitely would’ve given her a piece of my mind.

Thankfully, electroman did see her. And he did tell her all about herself. In fact, I think he told her that the costume was offensive. I think she apologized. I bumped into him as he was leaving the altercation, and soon after that we left. I wasn’t told about Miss Blackface until we were in the car.

But either, way, people. Intention is irrelevant. Colourface is wrong. Thousands of people manage to come up with creative and awesome Hallowe’en costumes that aren’t racist; so what’s wrong with you that you feel the need to go there? If you feel the need to liberally apply skin darkening makeup in order to achieve your costume, either your costume sucks and/or you should maybe do something else.

Or, don’t start crying with some lame apology when people call you racist.

Let’s Have a Racist Hallowe’en

costume_chinaman

Hallowe’en is my favourite annual holiday. Something about having a holiday that centers around creativity makes my heart go pitter-patter. Every year, I enjoy coming up with a novel Hallowe’en costume idea and making a one-of-a-kind costume, put together with thrift store finds or made with a hot glue gun and some fabric.

Yet, Hallowe’en is also the time when the racial stereotypes and political incorrectness come out and play. In the rush to find something “unusual” to be for Hallowe’en, too often folks fall back on a racist or offensive costume idea. The “it’s all in good fun” nature of Hallowe’en is somehow expected to excuse discriminatory and dehumanizing racism. And I think it taints a wonderful holiday.  

This past weekend, I went to a local store to help electroman put together his Hallowe’en costume. The particular store we were in was a large, well-known vintage store in Tucson, that sells clothes dating as far back as the 1900’s. Electroman was trying on items while I wandered the store searching for other choice finds.

On the other side of a rack of clothes I was examining, three tween girls were thumbing through some pre-made costumes. They were conversing about what they wanted to be for Hallowe’en; not an unusual conversation since everyone in the store was trying to put together a costume. Then, one girl turned to the others and said: “I should be an Asian for Hallowe’en”.

Excuse me?!?

How, exactly, can you be “Asian” for Hallowe’en? Do you smear yellow paint on your face, pull your eyes back in a Miley Cyrus “chinky eye”, dye your hair black, and greet everyone with a hearty “ni hao”? Do you wear one of the five thousand chi pao that vintage stores readily carry? And how is being “Asian” an appropriate thing to be for Hallowe’en? Are we some mythical creature like a ghost, a goblin, or a witch?

Could you imagine opening your door on Hallowe’en eve to see a group of kids trick-or-treating? “Oh, you must be a werewolf! And you’re Buzz Lightyear! And how about that? You’re a vampire. And you? Why how quaint, you’re a Japanese!”

I had heard the comment before I saw the girls. I wheeled around immediately, furious. But, by the time I turned, the girls were gone — they had disappeared into the crowds of people in the store and by the time I caught sight of them again, they were vanishing back into the streets of Tucson.

Frustrated, I returned to Electroman, and practically tossed clothes in his face. For the rest of the afternoon, I was seething that I hadn’t had the opportunity to confront the girls. I rehearsed in my mind the thousand and one scenarios in which I would have confronted the girls in a thousand and one different ways. In a few, I deliver a witty and sardonic one-liner before turning away in disgust. Or, I am calm, professorial, and I make the incident a “teaching moment”. In others, the girls get defensive and it all comes to blows. In still others, each girl runs away sobbing. Or, in my favourites, I handily launch each of the girls one-at-a-time through the display windows of the store; there’s blood and glass everywhere and I go to jail. Yet, I had no outlet with which to express my anger; the girls were gone and I was left the victim of hit-and-run racism.

They say that we live in a post-racial America. Yesterday, you sure could’ve fooled me.

Hey, Hey – That’s Racist!

Apparently earlier this month, Harry Connick Jr. appeared on as a guest judge on an Australian live sketch show called “Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday” involving a segment where celebrity judges rate amateur live acts. A group came on to perform a “tribute” to the Jackson Five and Michael Jackson — with the “Jacksons” in black-face and “MJ” in whiteface.

Here’s a YouTube of the entire segment, as well as the apology the show made to Connick later in the hour:

First of all, I don’t care what country you’re in, that shit is racist! Sure, America has a national history of racial insensitivity and outright oppression, but just because Australia didn’t fight a Civil War about oppression doesn’t mean that it is exempt from being  racist and offensive. A man in blackface standing alone at the North Pole is still in blackface.

After the show aired, the frontman for the “Jackson Jive” commented:

I want to say on behalf of all of us that this was really not intended to have anything to do with racism at all.

But how could you argue that the skit didn’t have anything to do with racism? Racialized make-up such as the kind donned by the self-described “Jackson Jive” is intended to caricature and mock racial physical features in an attempt to emulate a race of people, often paired with demeaning buffonery, and has been historically used around the world to diminish people of colour. What the “Jackson Jive” did is no different than Al Jolson donning blackface in The Jazz Singer or Mickey Rooney donning yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — each and every one of these people wore colour-face to play a racial stereotype for largely White audiences, and each and every one of them should have known better.

And if there was any doubt that the entire fiasco was not borne out of ignorance, consider that the “Jackson Jive” know enough about race relations to use the word “jive” in their group’s name — a clear reference to the “shucking and jiving” that Blackface minstrels performed at the turn of the last century. 

What’s truly shocking about the segment is the lack of commentary any of the two other judges made about it. Connick was clearly offended, but neither of the other judges even questioned the offensive use of blackface; indeed, the show’s host, Daryl Somers commented that the “Jackson Jive” won the variety show’s contest when they performed the same schtick back in 1998. Clearly, even only ten years ago, the producers of “Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday” saw nothing wrong with demeaning Black people around the world (and in Australia!)  by praising this kind of racism.

Later, on CNN, Somers defended the “Jackson Jive” by calling them a tribute to Michael Jackson and essentially calling Americans (like Connick) humorless for not “seeing the lightness of it”. Which sort of makes the whole on-air apology to Connick ring a little false, no? Again, that skit was funny — if you think racism is hilarious.

Sadly, while I applaud Connick for actually speaking out against the sketch and getting an on-air apology from the show, Connick hasn’t gone so far as to boycott future appearances on “Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday”. What the producers really need to do is apologize to the world’s Black community; blackface really has no place in today’s world — whether in Australia or America.