Karate Kid Remake a Mixed Bag of Stereotypes

My latest post over at Change.org:

Karate Kid Remake a Mixed Bag of Stereotypes

The 1984 film Karate Kid was a classic. If you were born in the 80s, you can probably remember spending hours practicing crane kicks and “wax on-wax off” technique as a child — all while fantasizing about beating up the evil Cobra Kai. So it’s no wonder that the Karate Kid films are being remade for a new generation of moviegoers to appreciate.

Unfortunately, this year’s updated Karate Kid (which made $19 million on its opening night) comes complete with a mixed bag of stereotypes that are raising eyebrows in the Asian-American community.

Okay, it’s not like the original Karate Kid films were without their fair share of stereotypes. While growing up, I had to remind kids that — unlike Mr. Miyagi — I did not possess the magical ability to heal people with a single clap of my hands. I could not catch flies with my chopsticks. I do, in fact, speak English fluently.

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Red Dawn: A Contemporary Remake of Yellow Peril Hysteria?

My latest post over at Change.org:

Red Dawn: A Contemporary Remake of Yellow Peril Hysteria?

Recently, I blogged over at Reappropriate.com about why I am boycotting The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia: both films reinforce backwards racial stereotypes of good and evil. But perhaps no film this year will be more racially divisive than the remake of Red Dawn, slated for release this November.

For those of you who missed the 1984 original, Red Dawn follows a group of American teenagers who face the sudden invasion of their tiny Colorado town by allied Cuban and Russian Communist forces. After surviving the initial attack on their town, the teens learn to survive in the surrounding Colorado wilderness. Ultimately, they form a rebel militia dubbed the “Wolverines,” and resort to guerilla terrorism to resist the Russian and Cuban occupying forces. By the film’s end, the Wolverines have morphed into American freedom fighters and patriots.

The 1984 Red Dawn film has been simultaneously praised as one of the best right-wing films of all time, and criticized as “xenophobic,” “survivalist porn” that caters to crazed militiamen. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that MGM decided to remake the movie, betting on the cult classic status of the original to draw in contemporary viewers.

Except this time around, the new villain is China.

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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.

The Evolution of “Avatar”

In a far-flung place, an alien world has just been discovered by humans. It is a world completely unlike our own, full of bizarre trees, strange fruit, and unnamed animals. Discoverers have yet to fully explore this strange place, but as they encroach, they bring their guns and their best soldiers to tame this foreign environment. 

They have already chosen a name for this “New World”: America.


Except that name was taken. So they named it: Japan.

But that name was also taken. So they named this new frontier “Pandora”.

In this wild, untamed world, humans have established an outpost — a small measure of humanity in the wild and rugged edge of civilization. Why has humanity encroached upon this world? Well, it turns out that in this untamed wilderness, there is something precious, something valuable, something truly unobtainable, buried deep within the soil of this world. We could call it something ridiculous like “gold” or “spice”, but let’s call it something like this: “unobtainium”.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter what it is (or even what we use it for), it just matters that we want it. We want it bad.

Enter our protagonist. He is a dangerous but good-looking hero-type. He’s the kind of guy we all can identify with — all the guys want to be like him and all the (straight) girls want to be with him. Yet, recently, he fought in a terrible battle where he was badly wounded, leaving him an empty shell of a person (which we can tell by his excessive facial hair). 

Except our hero’s kind of short…

… and he’s in a wheelchair.

Meanwhile, the native people of this wild, alien place are completely unlike us. They appear to be stronger than us. They ride horses and use bows, arrows, and small bladed weapons to fight. They have long black hair (maybe with feathers or beads in it) but over their bodies they wear almost nothing at all (mostly coarse animal skins shaped into cloaks or loincloths)…

…except let’s make them blue!

Our hero initially distrusts the Natives (let’s call them the “Na’vi”), but through irrelevant plot twists, he ends up being brought to the Na’vi camp. He meets the old Na’vi leader, and the war-like, untrusting, Na’vi prince (who is next in line to lead the Na’vi community). Although they should probably have killed our hero because they are at war with his people, instead (for irrelevant plot reasons) they choose to care for him. And eventually, our hero is taught their ways and their language by the beautiful daughter of the chief Na’vi. This woman is a member of the Na’vi, although she doesn’t quite fit in like the others:

Yet, she knows the ways of the Na’vi. She’s also beautiful, feisty, yet wildly sexy…

… and she’s blue and has a tail!

Underscoring how wild and unusual the Na’vi civilization is, our romantic love interest has a strange, virtually unpronouncable name, like “Taka” or “Neytiri”. But, our hero soon finds that he integrates into the Na’vi civilization, and grows to love their deep spirituality and “one-ness” with their surroundings. He learns about how they are in tune with nature, and grows to find his own deep connection with the wilderness.

He grows his hair, and changes his appearance to look more like his newfound Na’vi brothers and sisters.

He also falls in love with our romantic love interest (and even takes her as a mate), cementing his inclusion into their society.

But then, the people of our hero’s old life, whom he now sees as the wild and untamed ones, once more make an appearance. So hellbent are they on getting “unobtainium”, that they threaten to destroy the peaceful way of life of the Na’vi. Their ferocity is embodied by a villain who represents pure capitalism, and one who represents warlike viciousness.

Our hero is torn between his new life and his old life. Complicating matters, he is initially cast out by his Na’vi brothers because he is still unsure if he remains a part of his old people, yet his old war buddies believe that he has “gone native” and can never return to his old ways.

To regain the trust of his Na’vi brothers and sisters, our hero masters their ways, and becomes a legendary warrior even by the standards of the Na’vi. Perhaps he shoots buffalo better than the other Na’vi…

or maybe he wields a samurai sword better than the other Na’vi warriors…

 …or perhaps he even manages to tame the biggest, scariest bird in the sky (a feat accomplished by only five others in all of Na’vi history).

Either way, he proves that not only is he like all the other Na’vi, he’s actually better than all the other Na’vi. In so doing, our hero becomes the de facto leader of the Na’vi tribes. In that position, our hero wages war on his former civilization, pitting their guns against the bows and arrows (and guerilla tactics) of the vastly outnumbered, underdog Na’vi.

At this point, insert a giant battle scene that consumes 75% of the film’s budget.

Whether the Na’vi win or lose is really kind of irrelevant, but sufficed to say, our hero proves himself a full-fledged member of the Na’vi. At the end of the movie, he gets the girl and the Na’vi, in turn, embrace him as one of their own and he goes off into the still untamed wilderness to live out the rest of his days as a Na’vi warrior and husband.

Cue blackout, roll credits, and watch the ticket money pour in.

(This post aside, ‘Avatar’ is a visually stunning movie, and you should really go check it out.)

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