Why I Won’t See The Last Airbender

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This is a short one, but it’s one I really feel needs saying.  I love sci-fi, and I love fantasy.  I have to admit, I’ve never been that into anime, and I’ve never watched Avatar: The Last Airbender.  But I did see the trailer and for a moment thought — wow.  COOL. And after a little searching on the animated series, it does sound cool.  And it STILL looks cool.

Too bad I won’t be seeing it.

Why not?  Because of this picture:

Yes, I realize this is old news.  Very old news, by online standards.  But I’m getting up on my soapbox anyway.

Now, look.  I am not the most sensitive person when it comes to undertones and subtext.  A lot of times these things go straight over my head, especially when they’re more subtle.  So, when I raise my eyebrows and turn away in disgust, you know it goes over and beyond subtle and subtext.  This is blatant.  It’s one thing, when remaking a series or a book, to modernize, and to make progress.  More women in Battlestar Galactica?  Good thing.  Putting a gay couple into the travesty that was Sci-Fi’s (excuse me, Syfy)’s adaptation of Riverworld?  I’m there.  But why are we moving backwards?  Why are three of the four main roles (all of which are Asian kids) not being played by kids of Asian descent?

In an ideal society, the actor who is best suited for the job gets it, right?  Well, yes.  And for lots of roles, you can cast colorblind.  But the thing is, when someone is acting, appearance does often matter, because so many times, a character’s race matters.  Our nationalities and heritages are a part of who we are.  No, being from a certain place or having a certain color of skin doesn’t make us inferior or superior.  But it does influence our experiences, our memories, and our interactions with the world, and it’s part of what makes each of us unique.  It’s part of what makes a character unique.  Acting is one of the few times race matters, because sometimes being of a certain race does make one more suited for the job, just like being skinny or fat, old or young, tall or short, or anything in between.  I mean, look how much complaining there was that Daniel Radcliffe’s eyes are blue, not green.

Are these kids playing three of the four main characters talented?  All joking about child actors aside, probably, yeah.  (They also aren’t all “children”.  Jackson Rathburne is 25.)  But are any of them big names, big box office draws?  Not really.  So, why, for the love of anything, could they have not used kids of Asian descent?  Don’t even try to tell me there were no talented Asian kids trying out, because I really don’t think that’s possible.  And okay, I might understand if they happened across one child who they simply could not make the movie without, and I even get that two of the characters are siblings, thus dictating that they have to be the same race.  But three of the four heroes?  (And originally all four of them, since Jesse McCartney was originally offered the part of Zuko, which is the one main role being played by a non-Caucasian actor.)

But there’s makeup, right?  That’s a time-honored Hollywood tradition.  And yes, sometimes the makeup job can work.  Sometimes you want the same actress to play a character at various stages of life.  Sometimes your actor really is a big name draw, and the makeup job adds to the appeal of the character.  There are justifiable reasons for pulling this sort of stunt.

But what are the reasons here?  According to Roger Ebert and other sources, the original casting call was phrased in a way that actually suggested a preference for Caucasian actors.  And it’s not like these kids came from the area: the film was made in Pennsylvania, and the kids hail from Texas, Los Angeles, and New York.  (And even if they were geographically limited, eastern Pennsylvania is not exactly lacking in diversity, especially when you add in other cities in easy driving range.  Come on, people, this is the eastern seaboard, not a tiny remote village of 561 people.

There might not be malice involved in this decision.  In fact, I find it fairly rude to accuse the filmmakers of such a thing without ever having met them in person.  The kids very likely can act.  So I’m not diving in with claws out and hissing “EVIL!”, because I just don’t know enough about the people involved.  Heck, I don’t really know enough about the project itself.

But yet… yet.  A quick glance at Google tells me that Avatar: The Last Airbender is pretty popular with kids.  I watch Sesame Street with my boys — the majority of the characters aren’t white, and it still is one of the longest running and most beloved children’s shows on the air.  If we want our children to grow up believing that all are equal… that all human beings are deserving of a basic, inherent respect… well then, why can’t we show a few more of them in our entertainment?  And why can’t we direct more of that entertainment featuring non-Caucasians at the mainstream, for everyone to enjoy?  Why can’t we credit that people will pay to see a movie starring people who don’t look like your typical Hollywood stars?  We want to see people like us sometimes — not just in terms of race or nationality but in terms of body size, sexuality, religion, intellectual capacity, whatever.  Yeah, The Last Airbender is, in its way, not doing anything other movies haven’t done.  But these days, the same old song isn’t good enough anymore.

There are good intentions here, I’m sure.  But you have to explain intentions, and they don’t always show in the results.   And what matters is, when all is said and done and the interviews have faded, one of the lasting legacies of this film will be “Asian kids aren’t good enough to play heroes or main characters; we had to have the white kids do it instead.”  And that’s not a legacy I want to be a part of.

So no, I won’t see The Last Airbender in the theaters, or rent it, or in any way give my money to this effort.  And if anything I said here resonates with you, maybe you’ll do the same.

Thanks for listening.

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17 Comments

    • irony indeed.
      my problem with the racism-accusation is along the same lines: so far i haven’t heart from many asian people having a problem with this movie. instead it all seems to be: ‘we whites are telling you asians that you are supposed to feel insulted’. talk about being condescending.
      a big part of rascism has always been ‘we need to tell those poor colored people how to feel and behave. it’s for their own good’

  1. I don’t see any irony in it, and I’m not sure why you think the issue is the race people “prefer” to see. No, the issue is that the characters were written as Asian and Inuit, and that was not taken into consideration in the casting decisions.

  2. *claps* I’m entirely with you on this. I don’t know much of the original show, other than my college roommate used to wake me up weekend mornings to watch new episodes, but I’ve heard good things. And it is *insane* not to cast Asian kids, and *make up* a language. No thanks.

  3. Perhaps it’s due to the smallness of the pictures, but none of the cartoon versions of the characters look particularly Asiatic. Something I came across in the Wikipedia article which I think is important is that the culture in the series is Asian influenced. And in a fantasy series, just because a nation has a culture near-identical to a particular real world culture doesn’t automatically mean they have their racial characteristics. Exhibit #1: The Crackpot Hall Series by Ysabeau Wilce (in case you haven’t read it yourself already, Lissa, I believe it would be right up your alley). In it, the Huitzil Empire’s culture is plainly based on that of the Aztecs. Yet the Huitzils themselves don’t have Meso-American features. Exhibit #2: The TV series Legend of the Seeker. This one has a fairly typical medieval Europe-ish setting. Yet there are a fair number of characters who are decidedly non-Caucasian.

    All that said, it does seem rather odd to cast white kids as characters who are plainly dark-skinned.

    • I do have to agree that it’s a fantasy world, and therefore there’s a bit more gray than, say, if they’d cast Liam Neeson instead of Morgan Freeman to play Nelson Mandela in Invictus. And yeah, there are some non-typical physical attributes- the girl’s eyes are blue in the series. (I’m told this has something to do with her being a water bender or something.)

      I think you can make a case for it either way, but the case I find resonating more strongly with me is that the characters are of Asian appearance: use Asian actors. If you don’t, you’d better have one heck of a reason for not. I don’t think it goes nearly as far as the old Hollywood practice of yellowfacing, but it’s still… All four of the main heroes were originally supposed to be white? Really? (The role that went to Dev Patel was originally offered to Jesse McCarthy.)

      From what I understand (and correct me if I’m wrong), a lot of things are actually being changed about the movie that just make no sense. For example, I gather that some of the kanji /characters in the animated series are actual kanji, and have real meanings. In the movie, they’re replaced with scribbles. I imagine this is to reinforce the fantasy aspect of the movie, but again, come on. There comes a point where you have to ask yourself “is this creating a fantasy, or is this going to come across as needlessly erasing things that are specifically Asian?”

      I’m not that familiar with either series you cite, so I can’t comment on those. But for this series, I’ve seen enough of the pictures to really raise my eyebrows.

      (Although, if Roger Ebert is right, the movie is worth staying away from for other reasons, too, i.e., it sucks.)

      • Legend of the Seeker is a fairly old school fantasy. You know, unassuming shmuck learns that he has A Destiny and is given a magic sword. Overall nothing special, but still moderately entertaining.

        The Crackpot Hall novels are very much worth checking out. I hate to compare them to the Harry Potter novels, because that’s the sort of thing clueless reviewers unfamiliar with the fantasy genre would do. However, they are in the category of Young Adult Fantasy Novels which can be enjoyed by older adults and can serve as a good fix now that the Harry Potter series is done. It’s also interesting that the lead protagonist is a female who isn’t drop dead gorgeous, and is in fact short, overweight, and has frizzy red hair. The titles are Flora Segunda and Flora’s Dare (with a third entitled Flora’s Fury in the works).

  4. I’d like to add to this discussion that while this movie is apparently terrible judging from the reviews – don’t judge the cartoon series on it. The cartoon series is fantastic. It’s family friendly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not epic. At it’s worst moments, it’s “just entertaining”, and at it’s finest movies, it rivals Miyazaki.

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