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The Last Airbender casting controversy [Jan. 29th, 2009|08:52 pm]
[Current Mood |annoyedannoyed]

So Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite TV series ever. It's an animated series that manages to be suitable for kids while not being suitable only for kids, based on Asian culture, themes, and mythology.

There's a live-action movie being made of it by M. Night Shyamalan. And Night (as he likes to be called) has, inadvertently or advertently, triggered a controversy with his decision to cast four actors of non-Asian descent in the lead roles. (One of those stars, Jackson Rathbone, made some remarks about playing an Asian character that might seem a trifle insensitive—"I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan"—but as he's just a kid and probably being taken out of context anyway, I don't hold that against him.)

(Here's the most balanced article I've seen about the kerfuffle so far. Here's another article about further insensitivity in the casting of extras for the film.)

Given that the characters these actors are playing are "supposed" to be Asian, the reaction this casting choice has provoked has turned rather ugly. As can be seen on aang_aint_white, many people consider this casting choice to be a throwback to the days of blackface and taped eyes, when actors of ethnic minorities were not considered good enough to play characters of their own ethnicities.

Make no mistake, that sort of casting was common, especially in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Asian characters such as Charlie Chan were played by Westerners such as Werner Olandt and Sidney Toler, and it was common for the Japanese villains in World War II era films (themselves a deplorable ethnic stereotype, albeit an understandable one given the events of the era) to be played by whites. George Takei has a story in his autobiography Inherit the Stars of acting alongside Alec Guinness in eye-tape, and Guinness's complete lack of respect for the Asian culture he was supposed to be representing. Even into the later 20th century this persisted: Bruce Lee did a lot of development work on the '70s TV series Kung Fu—but the network did not want an Asian actor to be seen in the role of an Asian character, so the lead role was turned over to westerner David Carradine instead.

There's been enough of this sort of thing over the years that Asian actors for Asian roles has become a hot-button issue for many Asian-Americans, and it's hard to blame them. All the same, I have a hard time seeing the casting decision in the Airbender movie as having any sort of racist motivation.

For one thing, look at the cast of the animated TV series. There are remarkably few actors of Asian descent in that. Mako, certainly. George Takei had a guest appearance in one episode. Jennie Kwan played Suki, James Hong had a couple of guest appearances…but of the dozens of voice actors, fewer than ten are obviously of Asian descent. Yet, I don't recall people complaining much about the lack of proper ethnic casting in that. We Americans are used to actors in dubbed movies, including dubbed Asian movies, sounding American, because American accents are what sound, to us, culturally neutral.

When you get right down to it, Avatar is supposed to represent a fantasy Asia, not any specific real-world country or ethnicity. That gives the casting director a lot more latitude to cast people of any ethnicity. (And there are Caucasian peoples in the real Asia, too—the Ainu, for instance.)

With that in mind, I would frankly rather see the cast selected for acting ability first and ethnicity second. (And it seems that by and large the fans over on avatarspirit.net agree with me in this.) It's not as if they're And Shyamalan is Indian himself; I find it hard to believe that he would intentionally try not to cast Asians if he felt the Asians could do better in the role.

But on the other hand, I'm not Asian-American. And I expect that if I were, I would probably feel differently about the whole thing. I certainly won't deny their right to be upset. It will be interesting to see if M. Night Shyamalan has any response to the upset Asian-American community.

At any rate, whether or not the controversy brings about any casting changes, it will probably end up selling more tickets—which is probably the opposite of the effect the protesters want to achieve, but that's the way these things tend to work.

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[User Picture]From: foomf
2009-01-30 03:50 am (UTC)
The characters in the animated series were represented as Asian phenotypes, and that is sufficient reason to look very carefully at what is going on when they change it.
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[User Picture]From: ravenbell
2009-01-30 08:12 am (UTC)
Air - Tibet
Earth - China and Korea
Water - Inuit
Fire - Japan

There are a lot of different influences mixed in there - Water has some Polynesian and Fire takes a lot from Tang Dynasty China. The portrayals are far from accurate, but the sheer amount of detail that was worked into the show makes it clear that the racial coding was deliberate.

Plus, for added confusion, everyone's eye color matches their nation's element: gray for Air, blue for Water, green and brown for Earth, and yellow for Fire. A cool idea, but has led to choruses of "Katara and Sokka must be white because they have blue eyes!"
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[User Picture]From: eyebeams
2009-01-30 09:44 am (UTC)
Inuit are not "Asian." They're Inuit. And the argument that Katara and Sokka are Inuit seems kind of hilariously racist ("They eat fish and wear parkas, d00d!")in a patronizing fashion to anyone who knows actual Inuit people.

That said, the consistent look of whiteness in the cast (note this is not the same as *being* white -- I have no idea how the actors identify) is a big problem. The characters are obviously not supposed to be white and have only been coded that way because of default, comfy Hollywood racism. I can see a strong case for Aang looking vaguely Saami but that's it.
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[User Picture]From: foomf
2009-01-30 11:29 pm (UTC)
All of them. Take a look.
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[User Picture]From: foomf
2009-01-31 12:01 am (UTC)
It has been stated by the creators, and just a tiny bit of looking at the animation makes it casually obvious. It's not really necessary for a Racial Position Paper to be written out by the creators for their origins to be clear.

The Water Tribe people are modeled with features generally found in various Inuit peoples (yeah, not a single tribal group, that's just a general code name).

They add the "swamp tribe" who look a lot like various Cambodia/Thailand resident boat dwellers - the ones who were visited by Anthony Bourdain a few years back - and then they notably pasted some "southern American hick" accents over the top of them.

The Earth and Fire nations are modeled off various Japanese, Korean, and Chinese sources. The Air Nomads are generally modeled off Tibetans.

They also use specific clothing, art, architecture, and writing styles that are characteristic of particular Asian cultures. Also something you can recognize for yourself if you watch the animation.
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[User Picture]From: foomf
2009-01-30 03:49 am (UTC)
Racism is not lessened by being unintentional.

In this case especially.

And Shyamalan is Indian himself; I find it hard to believe that he would intentionally try not to cast Asians if he felt the Asians could do better in the role.

Also, please to step back and remember that racism is not a white-american-and-european phenom. It's every bit as pernicious in India, in China, in Indochina ... While there is no prima facie reason to declare Shyamalan a racist, there is also no reason to assume that he won't be thinking in a racist fashion.

Edited at 2009-01-30 03:55 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: ypawtows
2009-01-30 07:31 am (UTC)
I am ... annoyed about the whole thing.
It would be nice had they found Inuit, or at least Native American for the roles of Katara and Sokka.
It would be nice had they found people of Asian descent for the roles of Aang and Prince Zuko.
And, and, and....

I'll still go see the movie, even though I kind of expect to be disappointed.
M. Night kinda frightens me.
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[User Picture]From: ravenbell
2009-01-30 08:01 am (UTC)
You've left out a major Asian member of the cast - Dante Basco, who's Philipino, voices Prince Zuko. He's probably the shows's most popular character, and is supposed to be played by Jesse McCartney in the movie. So, while they didn't go for a full Asian cast, two of the five major cast members in the first season *were* Asian - Basco and Mako.

I don't think the voice actor argument really works, though. Animation is one of the few instances where you really can have colorblind and age-neutral and gender-neutral casting without being inappropriate. Most boys are voiced by middle aged women whose voices won't change over multiple seasons. Several cartoons featuring characters who are clearly Asian - "Jake Long," "Hi Hi Puffy Amiyumi," and "Samurai Jack," have their share of black and Caucasian voice actors playing Asian characters.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-11-08 08:18 pm (UTC)

Hollywood doesn't really care

I like your article. There's a saying - if you know someone in the job you're trying to get, it's easier to get that job. There's a inner circle with Hollywood, and the actors were picked out even before the production of the film. Hollywood means well, but they don't seem to care on the quality of the show. They think by having recognizable actors (Jesse McCartney who was originally cast) would bring in money which is understandable I suppose, but it's not really fair for the fans of the show. What's happening is instead of trying to be creative with the story and filmmaking and what not, it's turning out to be another generic and static Hollywood nonsense. Look what happened to the Batman franchise with George Clooney and recently with DB movie. Disney also was not listening to the fans of their animated movies, and if you notice, we're seeing more of the 3D films instead of the usual broadway type animated films (not that I'm against musicals, I LOVE musicals, I just don't like it in animated films, it can be annoying because it gets so cartoony). It all boils down to is common sense and respect for everyone (given this film obviously has asian influence).
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-12-10 06:15 pm (UTC)

Zero-Sum Solution

Please take 10 minutes of your time to read this through and pass the message along if you agree with me:

Casting primarily Caucasian actors for ALL the main roles of a movie based on a show with OBVIOUS and PREDOMINATE Asian themes while relegating a few minor and marginal roles to actors of color (any color, that is, with even fewer being actual Asian ethnicity) is a shameful farce in poor taste. To be fair, M. Night Shyamalan may have the artistic license to change certain aspects of the original TV show for his live-action movie adaptation and the original TV show itself is entirely fantasy and doesn't have any canonical rules regarding race. However, given the CLEAR depictions of CHINESE and other EASTERN ASIAN style writing, clothing, food, architecture, rites, etc. in the show, the effort of using almost all Caucasian cast, or rather, the lack of effort in seeking out Asian actors, is ridiculous in a racial, social, and artistic sense. Without going in-depth into the various arguments and counter-arguments regarding this stance, just imagine if the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Narnia films had all Asian, or African, or Hispanic actors.

However, given that it is already this far into the production of the film and that it is going to be released this summer, it is too late to change the cast short of Viacom or Paramount picture scuttling the entire project to considerable loss to themselves, their investors, and the people working on the film - that that is NOT going to happen. What is left is simply to boycott The Last Airbender in protest. Although the cause is ideologically significant, its repercussions are not. A couple thousands or even a couple tens of thousands of people is a drop of water in an ocean when compared to the overall movie-going masses of the United States and the rest of the world. At the end of the day, it'll be business as usual, and the millions of movie-goers who have never heard of The Avatar or are ignorant to such racial / social issues will still chip in their $7 - $11 at the theaters.

In order to amplify the voice of the protest against STRUCTURAL RACISM of the entertainment industry and AVERSIVE RACISM of the American society at large, the message must not only be written in words, but also in an more universal language - money. I propose that as many people as those who care about and support this cause contribute to the distribution of FREE versions of The Last Airbender movie upon its release. Find a link to some website that offers good quality of the movie for streaming or for download, and give that link to all of your friends and associates, and have them tell their friends and associates. Invite your friends to come over to have your own private screening of the movie together at your house for that movie theater experience if you want to. If you have the know-how, upload your own versions of the movies, provide subtitles in other languages for the other countries that this film will be released in (you can check the film's website for the release dates and countries).

If everyone can see or have seen the movie for free (and I doubt it'll be a great enough film for someone to actually go see it again at the theater), there's no incentive for them to shell out money for it, and so Viacom and/or Paramont won’t get paid. If this is carried out on a large enough scale and results in a noticeable financial loss to Viacom and/or Paramount (as long as the difference is statistically significantly greater than the average range of financial loss due to piracy), then an otherwise marginal yet fundamentally important issue would be given the proper weight. Piracy is a severe problem in the entertainment industry and something that I do not endorse. However, given the situation, I feel that it would be a potentially effective and poetically just (China is known for the piracy of films, so why not bring some additional “Asian themes” to the movie?) way of addressing the issue of structural and aversive racism exacerbated by the farcical casting decisions made for The Last Airbender. Mainstream society and the industries that cater to it need to stop externalizing the cost of aversive racism – pass along this message to help.
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[User Picture]From: robotech_master
2009-12-10 08:01 pm (UTC)

Re: Zero-Sum Solution

That's an interesting point of view.

Does racial discrimination give you moral standing to break the laws of the land and incite others to do so?

I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong. Certainly the Reverend Martin Luther King was ready and willing to break the law in the form of civil disobedience. So was Mahatma Gandhi, for that matter.

But they were also ready and willing to take the punishment if they got caught—to martyr themselves for their causes if necessary. Can you say the same?
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