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The Blog of Gene Luen Yang - The Last Airbender Casting Controversy
The Last Airbender Casting Controversy 


Iíd like to give my $0.02 on The Last Airbender casting controversy, which my friend Derek Kirk Kim so eloquently commented on last week.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is unmistakably Asian. I canít really see a way around that.

Yes, it was created by two white guys. Yes, it was produced by an American cable network for a largely white American audience. Yes, all the scripts were written in English.

But the entire fantasy world of The Last Airbender - from the clothing to the architecture to the Chinese writing on the scrolls - draws very blatantly from real-world Asian and Inuit cultures. The characters themselves are as Asian as Marvel Comics' Black Panther is Black. I know that Aangís big, round eyes might confuse the uninitiated, but big, round eyes are an anime convention, and in this instance they indicate youth rather than race. When Aang grew out his hair in Season 3, it was jet black, not bright blonde.

I think the aforementioned Black Panther offers a useful comparison. Here's an ethnic hero created by two white guys for a largely white American audience. He's the king of a made-up nation - Wakanda - with a made-up culture that draws very blatantly from real-world African cultures. Now, imagine this: Marvel Studios decides to make a Black Panther movie. During casting they announce that, really, what they want is an emotional connection with the audience, and race ought to take a back seat. In the end, they give the part to an up-and-coming Caucasian actor, who states in an interview that he thinks he can pull the role off just fine with the help of a tan, a perm, and some good old-fashioned suspension of disbelief. How do you suppose the public would react?

To be clear, I don't believe that director M. Night Shyamalan and the other creators of Paramount Picturesí The Last Airbender movie are motivated by intentional racism. They probably just want to make the most entertaining (and profitable) summer blockbuster they can, the best way they know how. But intentionally or not, they are adding another chapter to Hollywoodís long, sordid history of Yellowface. By giving white actors roles that are so obviously Asian - and by stating from the get-go their preference for Caucasians - they tell Asian-Americans that who we are and how we look make us inherently inadequate for American audiences, even in a movie that celebrates our culture. Like the schoolboy who pulls up the corners of his eyes at his "Oriental" classmate, they highlight our otherness.

The way I see it, Mr. Shyamalan and Paramount Pictures now have an opportunity to take responsibility for the old wounds theyíve re-opened. Whether and how they do so will reveal quite a bit about their commitment to the source material, their understanding of their professionís history, and the respect they have for their audience.

If you have strong feelings about this, I would encourage you (even if you disagree with me) to voice them to the film's creators. The good folks at Aang Ain't White have posted information on how to contact Paramount Pictures. I'll be sending my letter in today.

Ricardo Bittencourt 
I, for one, would like to see movies with a black Superman and an indian Batman.

Ted  
Gene,

My 3 year old is fairly "bouncy" but stops whatever he's doing when Aang and company are on then fusses at me when a commercial comes on. He may not get the horrible casting choices but I'm paying for the tickets if we go to a movie and I do.

I get that some northern indigenous tribes(Saami)can be fairly caucasion looking. I get that maybe Aang could be an orphan taken in by the Airbenders. I also get that the "Avatar" universe is supposed to be asian based culturaly and personally and that not casting those character as such is insulting and very dissapointing to millions of devoted fans of the animated series.

The feel of the movie I get from trailers is that I won't be taking my son to see it. Katara comes off as whiny and weepy. The character in the animated series is a young lady, bereft of her mother at a young age, took on the houshold work in her home/culture and is strong-willed and faithful. Aang is a happy, golucky 12 year old kid with World Changing powers trying to hold onto his youth, have some fun, and still live up to his function as the "Avatar".

My impression from the trailers is I'll wait for it on cable or maybe the $1.00 vending machines.

The offensive and insulting casting choices will reap their own rewards.

Administrator (Gene Yang) 
Hi Martha and everyone else,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I'm working on a short comic right now to "commemorate" the opening of The Last Airbender movie. I'll post it up on the blog as soon as it's done, hopefully by the end of the week.

Martha Nichols 
Dear Gene -- I just wanted to let you know that I've linked to your excellent post about the the racebending controversy (and also to Derek Kirk Kim's post) in one of my own on Open Salon:

http://open.salon.com/blog/martha_nicho ... racebender

I'm coming to this late, because my son (and Asian adoptee) and I only started watching the Airbender cartoons a few months ago.

BTW: Last fall, I happened to attend a tween girls book group in Berkeley during the session that they discussed "American Born Chinese." They were all white. They liked it but kept insisting that the kind of racism described in it doesn't exist anymore in their public schools. I'd call that an example of the very problem you're talking about...take care.

George 
In response to: oohrah

This movie wouldn't have so much casting controversy if there was at least one lead asian actor as a protagonist. Hollywood cast all the main actors white at first, until Jesse Mccartney dropped out. And by the way, Frank Marshall who is the executive producer of this film also directed the movie Alive which had a casting controversy as well....so think about that.

George 
If Hollywood can't find any talented asian actors in the U.S., they should be able to find an english speaking actor/actress in asia (and some asian actors can speak english very fluently). Why does Hollywood bring in actors from Europe and give them lead roles (some of them don't even speak english very fluently) and yet they won't give asian actors lead roles from overseas (other than martial arts roles that is)?

josh 
Like you said - a cartoon made by a couple of white guys for a white audience. Isn't it fitting that the movie show white ignorance for anything foreign? lol, ok jokes aside ...

I don't think the series/movie should be taken for anymore than it is - a deep, involving storyline aesthetically influenced by Asian and Inuit culture. That is all. It does not claim to, nor does it represent the cultures it borrows from. Just because I used mom's recipe to bake these cookies doesn't mean mom baked these cookies.

Personally I think whoever accuses the casting agents of this film of racist practices should take a good hard look in the mirror because these are the same people who are claiming a white actor could never pull off an Asian character because of their look.

oohrah 
i am a avatar nerd, but i am not asian, im black. i will be the first to admit that hollywood has white washed alota stuff, especially in regardes to asian culture, Dragonball evolution being the biggest example in my mine. But in my opinion, if u gonna hate on the movie, then u gotta hate on the show. as it was said above, this show was NOT a anime' and was white washed from the get go. and the comparison between black panther and aang isn't a very good one, cause at no point in watching the show was i ever convinced aang depicted a asian person. he is probably the most wonderbread person in the entire show! while the premise for the entire shows plot is obviously drawn from asian culture, the avatar world still showed different cultures other than asian. The swamp water tribe definatly wasn't asian. The ancient sun tribe where zuko and aang learned firebending was more native american than anything. Basically my point is Aang isn't asain, nd if he was meant to be then they could have done a better job portraying that. the show is not a anime, it just used anime stlye cause dats wats hot now and days. I mean racist wise i should be pissed off cause da main characters travelled around da whole friggin world and aint encoutered a single black person!! I mean wat gives! Black folk like mystical elemental kung fu too! I was a lil upset bout zuko and his uncle not being asain cause they always stood out to me as the most asian cast members, especially by voice. Anyway in my opinion i think folk is over reacting especially if u like da show, plus all u avatar nerds who would take time to read this comment know u r gonna watch da movie and its probably gonna be cool so stop whining. but hey that's just me.

Weixi  
Hey I know some fans are disappointed in the Movie.
As an Asian looking at this really makes me think.....Why can't Asians just be Asian? Is American Hollywood really blind? Can't they see how different the world is..How cultures can be different. The world of avatar isn't fiction it is mirror to real life Asian culture. To use Asian culture without the people is like destroying the culture itself.
Without Asian people there wouldn't be Asian culture. Without Asian culture there wouldn't be AVATAR THE LAST AIR BENDER.
AVATAR THE LAST AIR BENDER composed of Asian martial arts, Philosophy, Monuments, Building, Asian names, Asian writing system, Asian Characters. Entertainment has mass effect on children minds these days such as what clothes, Music, Movies are hip. But what Hollywood doing is suppress Asians by taking there culture and throwing back at the face. Claiming even if it is their culture they cannot portray it.
And it sickens me that some actually fall for such mind traps. As actually agreeing to there behavior. But it is not their fault since people of America as long been expose to entertainment brainwashing.
If one day someone made a Jesus Christ movie and cast an Asian as Jesus how would people respond? Is it okay to cast an Asian as Jesus?

What make the characters white? Well Hollywood and that bottom line is racist.


Tim Judy 
Great post. It will be very disappointing if they make this movie with this cast. I'm a huge fan of the show. What's surprising is that Dimartino is producing the film too. It's a shame that someone so closely connected to the animated show would allow such a thing to happen. This whole situation surrounding the cast of the film just reeks of greed. I hope it is fixed and they postpone the release date (if necessary of course) so that the loyal fans of the series get the movie they deserve.

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the truth 
To Artmonkee:

I have heard that "they are in the world of Avatar, not in Asia, so they dont have to use an Asian actor" defense a lot and i still have to disagree. Do you watch the show? If you did, you would notice the writing in the show is Chinese, much of the clothing is asian influenced, many names are chinese, they base the bending techniques on martial arts, the architecture for many of the buildings are asian inspired, many of the characters have slanted eyes, etc. just about everything about the show is asian inspired. if you closed your eyes, heard a dog bark and petted it, would you be like "i cant see it, so its as likely it could be a person with furry clothes on barking as it is a dog"? if it looks like something, sounds like something, feels like something, etc. shouldnt you give it the benefit of the doubt that it is that something?

bringing up hobbits in LotR isnt really relevant. if some black person said all black people are criminals, just because hes black doesnt make it any less racist. just because little people didnt make a fuss then doesnt mean this case with Avatar the movie isnt racist. furthermore, every race in LotR was fictional except humans. elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, wizard people, etc. hobbits were another fictional race that happened to be shorter. yea, i know youre gonna say that the people in avatar are a fictional race that happen to look asian, and i would be forced to concede except for the numerous cultural influences mentioned above. and additionally, unless im mistaken, little people arent a race nor do they have specific "culture" per se. if you wanted to make the stretch with hobbits and little people, we could say "i didnt see ugly people up in arms about their portrayal by the orcs in LotR, so white people in Avatar shouldnt be a big deal"

im not trying to say people should be crying racism every time something remotely offensive happens. i like every case to be analyzed rationally before making a decision. however, this case is clear to me: hollywood, as usual, is giving asians the shaft because they feel casting white people instead of asians will earn them more money. we as minorities shouldnt be afraid to speak out just because white people might be disdainful for our "hypersensitivity". white people in america have never known what it was like growing up never seeing a role model in the media who looked like you. most have never grown up surrounded by people who looked different and have never been singled out because of this difference. and if they have and still dont understand why asians are upset because of this whitewashed casting of Avatar, then they have serious hypocrisy issues

Tara 
I agree with most comments here.
I'm a white-bread adult in Texas who's been watching the TV show and enjoying the whole story. I usually don't care for most anime and don't have any Asian friends. Some may say that the Water tribe comes from the pole so they are Eskimo-ish, okay. But AANG IS DEFINITELY ASIAN & SO ARE THE OTHER NATIONS.

We are talking about Ba Sing Se, not Seattle or even Mumbai. Does ANY part of this show remind you of American culture (other than the English they speak). Just google it and you'll read about how the show mirrors Asian language and cultural traditions.

Of course Rhett and Scarlett were white Americans, but I didn't expect the Harry Potter kids to look Asian or not speak with British accents. I just expect Asians to look and act like Asians! I think the American public will get along fine with Asian actors in major roles. If it only grosses $200M instead of $210M so what. The USA grows up and proves to itself that Asians can act and rake in $$ too. The ones who don't see it because of the Asian cast will either "get it" later or not. Pandering to them cheapens everything and Aang's story is better than that.

And casting the worst actor from Twilight as Sokka is just plain sad. Here's hoping the 2010 movie will be better than "the Happening"!
I gotta run now...poor Noah Ringer is at my door asking if Aang REALLY needs to be bald with blue arrow tattoos. I'll give him a scar and he can be Zuko.
LMAO

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artmonkee 
I'm Filipino, and I initially was a bit offended about this controversy. I sat with my son the other night and I mentioned the Avatar movie with him and asked his view about having Caucasian actors. I asked him if it bothered him to have a Caucasian actor to play Aang in the movie. His view was the show doesn't take place in Asia (which we as adults assume it does due to the cultural influences in the art design), so it doesn't matter if he's Asian or not. In regards to Katara and Sokko, he says they are Eskimo so they should be Eskimos. No comment on Zuko.

After giving it some thought, he actually had a few valid points and I think it's worth considering his perspective as child and as a fan of the show. As adults, I guess we are more sensitive to racism and automatically react to things like this as if there is a racist intent or ignorance. If you think about it, the world of Avatar is definitely Asian inspired by design, but all-in-all it is a FICTIONAL realm with FICTIONAL lands and races. So it seems to me, that many of us are getting upset over a FICTIONAL movie and its casting but allowing the whole racist thing overshadow everything. I don't remember hearing this much controversy defending little people when Elijah Wood and Sean Astin were cast as a Hobbits for LOTR. I haven't read all of the posts here, but have noticed a few admit they know nothing of the Avatar property but simply chime in on their views of racism.

My personal view... while I am still sensitive to how Hollywood tends to cast Asians, my son has changed my initial perspective on the casting for Avatar. If they stay close to the story, and this whole racist/reverse racist attitude doesn't overshadow the spirit of the movie, I think it should make for a fun and entertaining film. It would be nice if they blew it out into a trilogy of sorts.

I wonder if this was what the creators view was and maybe that's why they approved of the casting?

After A Might Heart and Tropic Thunder made black face acceptable, popular and funny it was only a matter of time before mainstream attempts at yellow face and other (insert "minority color" here) face stereotypes would start to emerge. The studio is obviously trying to usurp themes that are distinct to Asian culture, from a series based on the diversity in a pan-Asian universe, and erase all the Asians. I cant understand how people fail to see or understand the deliberately offensive whitewashing of this movie. It's incredibly common throughout Hollywood and much of this country, but when will the marginalization of minorities end? In a country that will soon be "majority minority" you cant make movies for one segment of the population and ignore the needs of the others.

hymnia 
Alex,

That's not the way I see it. From my perspective, the live-action Avatar films have (or had) the *potential* to be the next Star Wars/Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings blockbuster fantasy franchise, if they're done with the same kind of care and excellence that those films were treated with. While it's now painfully obvious that probably won't be the case, I think that I and many of the people who are outraged by this are viewing the situation from that assumption. If the films were done right, these films would be *very* mainstream, and the leading roles would be *very* desirable for any actor to add to his or her resume. You seem to have come into this with the assumption that the live-action films would be poor imitations anyway, but I had no such assumption when I first heard the casting announcement (maybe it's b/c I didn't know enough about M. Night to mistrust him).

Anyway, whether or not the films would have been poor anyway, I still don't think it's useless to protest. I know the chances of a complete and fully satisfactory re-cast are small. But if enough bad press about the decision is generated, it may make studio bigwigs think more carefully about how to be fair in future casting decisions. Because Avatar has a large fanbase, and because it has connections to other fandoms (anime, sci-fi/fantasy, Nickelodeon) through which the word can spread (and is spreading!), the protest has the potential to generate a large and vocal following that some other recent casting travesties might not. Maybe it will be enough to get Hollywood's attention.

Alex 
Hi jedifreac,

I'm not calling for complacency - my contention is that the Airbender movie will, like most ill-conceived films, end up in the dustbin of film history and eventually (probably *quickly*) forgotten, along with whatever efforts the Asian and Asian-American community make to clean it up.

I just think our efforts are better spent lobbying to get Asians into mainstream roles. I know Avatar isn't just a simple beat-em-up, but I'm willing to bet Shyamalan's film will be. Once the coke-snorting Hollywood execs are through stripping every ounce of soul from the source material, all that will be left is a bunch of white kids doing bad kung-fu impressions. I don't see the point in begging Paramount to shoehorn a few Asian actors into this mess.

Dragonball is prime example. They got Chow Yun-Fat to be in that turd. Chow Yun Fat.. I doubt his resume will be any better for showing up for that one, nor will any of the other Asians in that film.In fact, since Chow Yun Fat showed up on our shores, he's been offered nothing but martial artists and hitmen (in some cases, both in the same role).

We deserve better, that's all I'm sayin'.

shavenheadbigbelly 
LAME LAME LAME !!!

As an Asian American, a martial artist and a father I am really, really disappointed. The show Avatar has "mined" Asian arts, culture and history for the show and now wants to "whitewash" it for the sake of what they think is higher marketability.

My year old daughter and 5 year old son are also very disappointed. They don't "get" the logic/reason.

I would like to hear what the creators of Avatar think since they are obviously close students of things Asian.

jedifreac 
Alex, I understand the point you're trying to make but I've gotta say I kind of disagree with you on this. I mean, yeah, it's a cartoon--but it's also a show for kids. (Got to get the colored kids desensitized to this kind of under-representation; might as well get them started early?)

With M. Night attached the movie was doomed from the start, I agree. But it wasn't both doomed AND laden with discriminatory casting practices until recently, and it didn't have to be. I know that it's just a movie, but in this day and age, they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. If it was blackface, people would be all over this shit.

I don't know if you've seen the show or not but Avatar is more than just a simple "martial arts" show. Yes, there's some action and fighting, but the show really goes out of its way to impart interesting values and tell a heroic journey story. It's got martial arts in it the same way Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings has martial arts in it--just set in a WuXia inspired setting instead of a sci fi or medieval european one. It's not Mortal Kombat IV. There is waaay more to this series than "Asians beating the shit out of each other." It's an adventure show, so there's fighting. But it also has depth. It's good stuff.

(Although I would argue that if we are going to have "Asians beating the shit of each other" movies, having real Asians play Asians is still better than having white people play Asians. If "The Last Airbender" IS analogous to "blaxpolitation" as you claim, I would still posit that they should do us the 'courtesy' of offering the roles, William-Hung-style, to us. Then at least the Asian American community would have the privilege of turning them down.

Asian American actors didn't even GET the opportunity to be an Uncle Tom in this situation.)

It's pretty obvious the casting decision is based on the perceived marketability of the product. Financially-driven discrimination is still discrimination, and the protesters are trying to make it clear that no matter what the motivation, this kind of flagrant discrimination is still wrong. We are trying to give them a hard time about it:

- To make certain Paramount Pictures cannot pretend to be unaware that MANY people are offended by their casting policy.

- To raise awareness of this issue specifically, particularly among those who aren't already in the fan community.

- To pressure Paramount into responding -- they've yet to make a statement of any kind, let alone address concerns regarding the casting

- To raise awareness of how minorities are marginalized in American entertainment, and help create an atmosphere in which this kind of decision can't be made again.

It's doubtful they'll recast the movie, but at least this ruckus might make other filmmakers think twice before trying this stuff. This kind of yellowface representation has continued for so long because of the Asian American community's indifference and lack of agency.

We're not in a post-racial world yet. I wish we were, because THEN we could talk colorblind casting.

Maybe banging out the casting glass ceiling like this isn't going to convince them to let Asian American actors out of the basement. Sitting down with our heads in our knees isn't going to help, either. If they're going to pigeonhole Asians into a the "genre ghetto," we should still at least be allowed to be involved in trying to portray nuanced characters despite the genre.

Watching the tv show it's clear that the characters on Avatar are not 'martial artists' or 'kung fu Asians'. They're lively and unique characters who also know martial arts, just as many Asian folks in the world are unique individuals who happen to know martial arts. This kind of representation isn't a stereotype. It's a positive representation of some aspects of Asian culture (martial arts, architecture, clothing, tradition, Taoist/Buddhist/Hindi philosophy) and Asian American actors should be given a chance to depict it.

It's better to be in on the production and make changes than to sit out completely. With this film, Asian American actors were not even given the option.

The movement may prove fruitless; I really don't know. Still beats complacency.

Gabe from Indiana 
I apologize for the double post, and I'm not quite sure how it happened. I don't have the option of deleting the second post either.

Gabe from indiana 
Let me first disclose that I am white with Native American ancestry. My great grandfather was born on a reservation that resulted from the trail of tears. I am not Asian, but I am an admirer of Asian film and culture much like avatars creators. I started a local meetup for those interested in modern Japanese visual culture, anime/manga/video games. I hope that the group itself is not symptomatic of orientalism, because I've grown up loving Asian culture.

Two relatives of mine are high profile practicing buddhism who supplied land for the building of two Tibettan monestaries and a Tibettan cultural center in bloomington Indiana, that was administered by a high level Lama and Professor at IU, Jigme Norbu, the Dali Lama's brother. The monestaries and cultural center were consecrated by the Dali Lama personaly and programs are in place to help Tibettan refugees find a new life in Indiana. I would like to get their support as well as the support of several local Native American groups to oppose the white washing and yellow face politics that are at work here.

I have high level connections in the Native American community localy, who are very active in improving the lives of the many tribes in Indiana.

I am starting tommorow by lobbying my local art museum which has a very large permanent Asian art collection with pieces dating back nearly five thousand years. They are showing a Kurosawa classic with my group in attendance, and I intend to speak to several staff members. I will ask that all the members of my group of 35 join your letter writing campaign and my friends in the professional world, including an editor on World News Tonight with Charlie gibson, who is chinese, may also join.

I would also like to create a short film a "POD" for Current TV about this issue showcasing both Native American and Asians treatment in film and the cultural impact signified. I would like your support in both endeavours. Forgive this indirect means of communication but I have just discovered this rather disheartening news about the casting from Current and my search for additional contact information on your efforts lead me here. I apologize once again for the unconventional means of contact. Please repond to me at bobnozal@msn.com


Alex 
If I may offer a dissenting opinion -

I think you make a lot of good points - many of which I agree with in the particular, but I don't see the casting of Airbender as being worthy of this level of ire.

Personally I'd rather motivated Hollywood to put Asians in more mainstream roles instead of continually shuffling us off to the martial arts or genre ghetto. I'm *still* waiting on an Asian-American romantic or dramatic lead, and I don't think calling Shyamalan to task over Airbender is going to help the cause.

Just my 2 cents.

Here's a full post on the subject at my blog:

http://yellow-menace.com/2009/01/why-i- ... airbender/


stranger 
the dbz movie isn't really something to complain about,
goku isn't even from earth.

but the what paramount is doing now is just shameful.
i sent in my letter a week ago. godspeed.

Gabe from Indiana 
Let me first disclose that I am white with Native American ancestry. My great grandfather was born on a reservation that resulted from the trail of tears. I am not Asian, but I am an admirer of Asian film and culture much like avatars creators. I started a local meetup for those interested in modern Japanese visual culture, anime/manga/video games. I hope that the group itself is not symptomatic of orientalism, because I've grown up loving Asian culture.

Two relatives of mine are high profile practicing buddhism who supplied land for the building of two Tibettan monestaries and a Tibettan cultural center in bloomington Indiana, that was administered by a high level Lama and Professor at IU, Jigme Norbu, the Dali Lama's brother. The monestaries and cultural center were consecrated by the Dali Lama personaly and programs are in place to help Tibettan refugees find a new life in Indiana. I would like to get their support as well as the support of several local Native American groups to oppose the white washing and yellow face politics that are at work here.

I have high level connections in the Native American community localy, who are very active in improving the lives of the many tribes in Indiana.

I am starting tommorow by lobbying my local art museum which has a very large permanent Asian art collection with pieces dating back nearly five thousand years. They are showing a Kurosawa classic with my group in attendance, and I intend to speak to several staff members. I will ask that all the members of my group of 35 join your letter writing campaign and my friends in the professional world, including an editor on World News Tonight with Charlie gibson, who is chinese, may also join.

I would also like to create a short film a "POD" for Current TV about this issue showcasing both Native American and Asians treatment in film and the cultural impact signified. I would like your support in both endeavours. Forgive this indirect means of communication but I have just discovered this rather disheartening news about the casting from Current and my search for additional contact information on your efforts lead me here. I apologize once again for the unconventional means of contact. Please repond to me at bobnozal@msn.com

sad 
how about the dbz movie ? that is even worse!

Anson Jew 
Great post, Gene. I'm not a fan of the cartoon. Never watched it. Don't have any personal investment on how faithful they are to the source material. But casting this way in this day and age is completely inexcusable. I too sent a letter to Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, and posted it on my blog and elsewhere. Hopefully someone will get the message.

Anson

illament 
I concur. If they actually make this movie it would be a disgrace.

jenn 
hey gene, i love that yellowface illo/graphic.

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