Fan Protests, Cultural Authenticity, and the Adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender
Patricia Nelson / FLOW Staff
Between February 2005 and July 2008, Nickelodeon aired three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated fantasy series depicting an Asian-inspired world. The magical reality in which the show takes place represents a mish-mash of various Asian cultures; the American creators, Michael Danter DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, list their inspirations as Asian mythology, kung fu, yoga, Eastern philosophy, and anime. Although populated by child protagonists, Avatar attracted, from the onset, an audience beyond Nickelodeon’s target demographic of children ages 2-11, and in January 2007, Paramount, MTV Films, and Nick Movies announced a three-picture deal with director M. Night Shyamalan to adapt all three seasons of the animated show into a live-action film trilogy.1
Among fans of the television show, however, Shyamalan’s adaptation, entitled The Last Airbender (2010), has already been met with significant backlash—specifically, the choice to cast white actors, including Jason Rathbone (Twilight) and pop singer Jesse McCartney, as the film’s protagonists, instead of Asian actors. Since the casting announcement in December 2008, fans, backed by the Media Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), have organized websites and letter-writing campaigns to protest the casting. While these complaints may have been responsible for the decision in February 2009 to replace McCartney with Indian actor Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) as the film’s villain, many fans continue to protest Paramount’s refusal to recast the series’ three heroes with Asian actors, advocating a boycott of the film. Interestingly, MANAA claims that “most of the outraged fans threatening to boycott are white, black, and Latino.”2
The marginalization of Asian and Asian American actors by no means represents a new development in Hollywood. As Kristen Moon points out, yellowface, the practice of white actors portraying Asians, emerged in the mid-nineteenth-century; casting white actors as Asian characters remains far too prevalent.3 Numerous statements from those affiliated with the film The Last Airbender display astonishing ignorance of racial politics, as when actor Jason Rathbone stated that to convincingly play an Asian character, he simply needed a tan. This article certainly does not aim to excuse or justify Paramount’s casting choices; rather, I am interested in considering how fans have relied upon notions of cultural authenticity in justifying or condemning the choice to cast white actors as the films’ leads.
Before plans emerged for a live-action film, much of Nickelodeon’s marketing of the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender tended to emphasize the cultural credibility of the show, what one might call its “authentic Asian-ness.” Unlike Japanese anime programs airing on Cartoon Network contemporaneously, Avatar was created for an American audience, and the series’ two creators identify as white American males. Yet unmistakably, Avatar’s hook was its recognizably Asian flavor, apparent in the series’ landscapes, costumes, and in its plot centralization of martial arts and vaguely Hindu spirituality—and, perhaps most obviously, from its title screen, in which the Chinese characters for the elements are printed above the title. In other words, this is an ancient Asian world composed of all the elements an American child who had seen Disney’s Mulan might associate with Asia, decontextualized from any explicit historical or cultural roots. Avatar’s world is not Chinese or Japanese—it is, for all intents and purposes, accessibly and generically “Asian.”
In interviews aimed at an adult audience, the creators emphasized the simultaneous originality and authenticity of Avatar. They highlight their extensive cultural research for the series, discussing their trip to China4 and the “dozens of books” from which they learned about the “rich cultures and proud traditions” of Asia.5 Yet in each interview, they are also careful to articulate their own role as creators and innovators, emphasizing that they were only “inspired” by these sources and that the mythology of the Avatar world is fundamentally their own, stating, for example, that they discovered how important the Hindu-based concept of the Avatar was to “these other cultures” only after they came up with the concept for the series. Thus, even as the creators repeatedly affirm the broad Asian influences of the series, they display an investment in their ability, as (American) outsiders, to innovate their own (still authentic) vision of Asia.
Similarly, a 2005 New York Times article about the series offers telling back-to-back quotations: sentences after one co-creator explains, “We were really into yoga when we started this show, which is probably why we wanted to do something that was Asian influenced,” his partner, discussing the series’ kung fu advisor and Chinese calligrapher, states, “I think people recognize when something is authentic.” One has to wonder if the article’s author recognized the irony. The juxtaposition of these statements allows the creators to be, personally, “regular” Americans, dabbling in Asian culture, and artistically, authorities of Asian cultural authenticity.
Returning to MANAA’s assertion that most of the fans threatening to boycott the film are not Asian, I would like to suggest that perhaps these audiences feel so attached to the cultural and racial authenticity of the film The Last Airbender precisely because creators of the animated series have offered a model for them, as non-Asians, to be advocates for the “Asian-ness” of the series. As stated earlier, “white-washing” of Asian roles occurs frequently in Hollywood adaptations, and seems to be almost standard in live action adaptations of anime cartoons. Yet the fan backlash to the casting of The Last Airbender has been considerably more vocal than, for example, negative reaction to the casting of white actors as the leads in Japanese anime adaptation Dragonball Evolution (2009, 20th Century Fox).
For the American adult fanbase of the Avatar animated series, many of whom are familiar with these interviews, part of being a fan means struggling to maintain that authenticity through protesting the inauthentic casting of white actors. To do so, fans educate themselves and other fans about racial discrimination, with the most prominent fan site offering FAQs interrogating the myth of a post-racial world and debunking the notion that all Asian have the same eye shape. However, these FAQs, while certainly well-intentioned, contribute to the pervasive sense that the fan boycotts of The Last Airbender are aimed at convincing white fans of the existence of racism so that they can champion Avatar’s authenticity as a depiction of ancient Asian cultures.
Indeed, in many of the comments on the fan protest’s 4500-member facebook group, the injustice of the casting becomes notable only because it disrupts white fans’ enjoyment of watching an accessible (but authentic) spectacle of Asian-ness. One facebook commenter states:
I’m as white as a white girl gets. I’m Irish. I speak only english. And this movie disgusts me. I’m heavily insulted that these hollywood jerks think I can only relate to other white people and white cultures. Theyre destroying this beautiful opportunity to give people a look at this rich portayel of asian culture.
Just as DiMartino and Koniezko repeatedly returned to their position as educated white Americans to assert their right to “invent” and define Asian culture, many protesting fans evoke their position as outsiders to the culture being discriminated against as validation of the importance of their objections and of their right to be heard.
Certainly, other perspectives on the casting of The Last Airbender have emerged as the controversy has gained internet buzz. But especially within fan communities, a tendency to uncritically glorify the adaptation’s source material predominates, and the objection to the casting of white actors in Asian roles rests on the indisputable cultural authenticity of the creators’ vision for the Avatar world. This tends to mask the structural nature of Hollywood discrimination against Asian actors, writers, and directors, making Avatar, in essence, a “special case” whose authenticity uniquely deserves to be championed. Lacking or absent are necessary considerations of who defines what “authenticity” means, and whether perhaps this label sometimes serves to legitimize cultural appropriation and cultural voyeurism.
1. Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 1 DVD Cover
2. A fan-created image juxtaposes the animated protagonists…
3. …to photos of The Last Airbender actors in costume
4. An example of Avatar‘s “Asian-inspired” imagery
5. An example of Avatar‘s “authentic” Chinese calligraphy
Please feel free to comment.
- Pamela McClintock, “Shyamalan’s ‘Avatar’ also to bigscreen,” Variety, Jan. 8, 2007. [↩]
- “Paramount Discriminates Against Asian American Actors for Movie Adaptation of Asian Based TV Series,” Media Network for Asian Americans, April 29, 2009. [↩]
- Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface: creating the Chinese in American popular music and performance, 1850s-1920s, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2005. [↩]
- Jerry Beck, Not Just Cartoons: Nicktoons!, New York: Melcher Media 2007. [↩]
- Aaron H. Bynum, “Interview with ‘Avatar’ Program Creators,” Animation Insider, August 29, 2005. [↩]
This is a great and thoughtful article. I have been following the Avatar debate and was happy to read this work.
I think that the reason people who are not ethnically Asian are protesting the movie so strongly is because they feel a real attachment to the original story in a way that they don’t get attached to the original versions of other forms of anime. I think that the white washing of Asian characters occurs without the awareness of the typical American audience and this is one opportunity where the discrimination against Asian actors was blatant and opposed to the original version of the story. The characters are clearly portrayed as Asian in the television program and so when the movie was announced there was a real shock among fans that the film would cast white actors. I think this is a unique opportunity to engage the typical white American fan about the racism in Hollywood that they typically don’t see.
I also disagree that the fans of the Avatar series are delusional in thinking that this show is representative of traditional Asian culture. It seems that what the fans appreciate is the fact that the story is a rare glimpse for Americans into all Asian cultures and mythologies in a fantasy and fairy tale realm. Most of our fantasy texts are derived from European texts and Avatar uses a wide range of Asian texts and symbols to create a world that is unique to American fantasy stories. I think that this is what the white fans are protesting.
The Avatar series is a rare view for most white Americans into an Asian fantasy realm and the movie challenges are a great opportunity for both highlighting discrimination as well as an opportunity for curious fans to learn more about the history of various parts of Asian culture and an open mind to view historically accurate representations of Asia with interest.
This really was a really interesting article and well-appreciated. It’s very true that our website is mostly aimed at an attempt to ‘convince’ people that Avatar: The Last Airbender is Asian (Inuit/Yupik cultures included) and therefore our cause is worthy, our argument founded. It’s our way of attempting to educate and ‘spread the word’ so to speak, so people who might be neutral on the subject might be then prompted to boycott the film – or even better, join in the cause.
I got into the cartoon only a few months before the movie cast was announced, but I’m pretty sure there have been discussions amongst fans of cultural appropriation vs cultural homage when it comes to the two creators. No one can say exactly what their feelings are except themselves, but the point being that yes – many fans of the cartoon are aware that the cartoon’s mythology definitely has its appropriative problems on a meta-level. One thing that I personally believe is that while I do have some higher level cultural critiques, I feel that its main purpose – exposing children to a non-European fantasy story where characters of colour are the main, heroic characters – really succeeds.
It does become somewhat murky when it comes to the movie – since the rights are the property of the movie company and not the creators, there is no obligation to preserve anything Asian in their live-action: not the costumes, not the writing (the Chinese calligraphy is being replaced with ‘gibberish’), and definitely not the heroes. So then it becomes an issue of what’s worse: having a cartoon with a well-incorporated Asian fantasy world (akin to well-incorporated Euro fantasy world) created by two white guys, or having a movie where the producers have stripped that cultural ‘hook’ and replaces it with generic mottled semi-Euro, semi-Asian (in the background only!) fantasy? I’m neither white, black or Hispanic; and I can definitely say I prefer the former. :)
It’s great to read such a thoughtful critique of not only Avatar-the-cartoon but also the sociological aspects of Avatar-the-protest.
That said, I believe the level of discourse and analysis in this article is accessible mostly to people who have already been talking about issues of race, authenticity, and cultural appropriation before coming to the protest activities. Most of the backlash from people who don’t see anything wrong with the whitewashing is Racism 101 stuff … if that. So for the purposes of garnering attention and support, most of the protest sites and comments that you cite do not offer higher-level analysis of Avatar-the-cartoon. Doing that would only muddy the waters and confuse people who are new to either the show/protest or to discussions of anti-racism, aversive racism, cultural appropriation, and media representation.
Also, the politics of “whitewashing through casting” are somewhat different from the politics of “who is allowed to create a show with entirely non-white characters”; I don’t think that the two can be compared as though they are both weighted in the same fashion. In the first, a universe populated solely by characters of colour has been changed so that white people have not only been introduced, but are now the heroes struggling against dark-skinned villains. This provides no sites of either pleasure or positive representation for Asians. In the second, two white men have been allowed to make a show based on Asian/Inuit cultures, which many non-Asian viewers have enjoyed as “authentic”. It is absolutely (as you have pointed out) consumption of the East through the lens of the West, which is problematic, but to an Asian woman like me it is also a rare opportunity to see the faces and cultures and items and ideas that I know, presented as The Norm/The Heroic instead of being derided, ignored, or exoticized.
I definitely think there’s room for critique of the show (it has problems from a feminist standpoint, as well), but I think those conversations are best held by people who are more deeply invested or interested in the topic.
Thank you for writing this article!
The points you bring up here are worth discussing, for certain, but as an Asian American woman, I find myself more irritated by the things you don’t address: namely, any issues relating to the Asian audience. All statistics aside, one would think that the opinions and concerns of Asian viewers would be central to a discussion of appropriation of our own cultures.
Seeing as this whole protest is about color, about Asian-ness, why are the non-Asian gazes, the non-Asian voices, being weighted in your discussion? Out of all the fan comments that it’s possible to quote, why highlight the one from a white girl? If you’re going to talk about us, why are we, once again, not in the room?
In other words, this is an ancient Asian world composed of all the elements an American child who had seen Disney’s Mulan might associate with Asia, decontextualized from any explicit historical or cultural roots. Avatar’s world is not Chinese or Japanese—it is, for all intents and purposes, accessibly and generically “Asian.”
Just as Celtic, Greek and Norse mythology is de-contextualized in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but the *characters* in Airbender are Asian, and they were cast as white people. That is a problem, that is discrimination, and I believe that is worth protesting no matter one’s race.
Questions surrounding the white creators of the TV show, its audience, and cultural appropriation and voyeurism are certainly legitimate and worthy of exploration, but I can’t help but think it may be harmful to conflate that issue with the racist casting, and a little disingenuous to suggest that this is only about a bunch of white people arguing amongst themselves.
Thanks for all the incredibly thoughtful comments!
What I think that all of you raise, and what I try to address in the article, is that this issue, while on one hand very simple (I think we can all agree that there are serious problems with Paramount’s casting), serves, in many ways, as a locus for considerations of race and culture that are incredibly complex. For that reason, Loraine’s suggestion of considering how the series (and, I would say, the protest as well) works on a variety of levels becomes useful. As people who have watched and enjoyed the animated series (a group in which I would include myself), we can appreciate the ways in which Avatar succeeds—in at least bringing some cultural diversity to children’s television—even as we critique the elements of the series which are more problematic.
As Marissa highlights in her comment, there’s a degree to which knowing your audience becomes a necessary consideration in walking this line between praise and critique. I think you’re correct when you state that when talking to someone who doesn’t believe that Avatar is Asian-influenced or who’s new to any sort of critical discussion about race, critical analysis of the series may “muddy the waters.” However, I still maintain that there’s a need for more fan self-awareness than I have seen as I’ve followed this controversy. Perhaps this is where a more academic space like FlowTV can serve as a useful forum for a different kind of debate than occurs on a more activism-oriented space like racebending.com.
Finally, Yvonne, you bring up an excellent point, and one that I attempted to address explicitly in the piece (although I’m willing to acknowledge that I may have failed). The point that I was striving to make with the pull-quote was in fact that it seems as though Asian voices are being pushed aside in much of the discussion as many white fans assert their whiteness in order to lend credibility to their objections. I attempted, in other words, to make underlying threads of white privilege visible. However, your criticism is well-taken, and one that seems to be raised often in studies of whiteness (Dyer’s White comes immediately to mind)—at what point does talking about whiteness become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution? That’s a question with which I continue to struggle.
I still maintain that there’s a need for more fan self-awareness than I have seen as I’ve followed this controversy.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think the key thing here is that you haven’t seen much critique and discussion as *you’ve* followed the controversy. In any controversy the people with the loud voices and simple statements are easier to find. These conversations and analyses have been happening, it’s just some of them are happening where you haven’t (or can’t) see them.
Which leads us back to the point that Yvonne made and that you touch on in your response: is the white gaze/white voice the only or most important perspective from which to interrogate this issue?
Also, you may not have realized this but most of the people on the masthead at racebending.com are Asian themselves, so it’s fair to say that every part of the protest site is in Asian voices. I don’t think that Asian voices are being “pushed aside” for white ones. I think that the phenomenon in the comments where white protesters self-identify is a manifestation of the social idea that if even *white* people care about racism, it must be really bad. When I make protest comments, I rarely mention that I’m Asian because a) people will dismiss my comment as “too emotional” or use other variations of the tone argument and b) I am not immune to social conditioning and so I feel that mentioning my ethnicity is either unnecessary, pushy, or pointless.
As Loraine has mentioned elsewhere, it’s a catch-22 situation: if mostly Asians talk about it, the protest is dismissed as only important to Asians who are overreacting and too emotional. If a lot of white people talk about it, the protest is dismissed as only white fangirls upset over casting. The undervaluing and ignoring of Asian voices in this is ironic, to say the least!
Marissa, I completely agree with the analysis you offer in your last two paragraphs. When I used the term “pushed aside,” I referred specifically to what is happening in comments that invoke whiteness, such as the one I cited, rather than in the protest as a whole. The white privilege that often makes white fans particularly eager to state their race while Asian fans may tend to “rarely mention” theirs, and the larger social trends and racial politics that produce the catch-22 you articulate, are exactly what I was trying to nod to with that example.
Thanks again for your comment!
Okay, yes, the white fans asserting their whiteness as credibility while Asians try to de-emphasize their own does smack of white privilege, but I don’t think it should be dismissed as just that. I think it’s significant that the black and Latino support is being emphasized just as much as the white support, if not more so, and we do have quite a few very vocal suporters that are neither Asian nor white. That MANAA quote you used wasn’t trying to lend the movement by saying “look, white people support us, so listen to them if you won’t listen to us”–it was saying that it’s not just Asians being oversensitive and self-serving, that people of many races were getting involved as well, that it affects everyone, not just Asians. Nor, indeed, just Asians and white people.The discussion is not reducible to a ping-pong match between those two groups–there are other groups involved as well, other individuals of many races and many nationalities, and they shouldn’t be pushed aside in favor of a caricatured false dichotomy between white privilege and Asian American interests. Even if we’re focusing on Asians for this movement, that’s because of the specific topic of this particular effort. This is part of a larger dialogue than just The Last Airbender. (Also, small but nevertheless significant point–it’s Media Action Network for Asian Americans.)
Anyway–even if some of the non-Asian fans or even the creators themselves are interested in the “authenticity” of the show for voyeuristic reasons, that doesn’t change the sheer normativizing power of just having it out there. That’s one of the reasons why this keeps getting brought up: it gives the broader American audience a foil to the insularity of common perceptions about race and agency. Five years before, the best we had that I can remember was Disney’s Mulan, which was about as culturally sensitive as Disney ever is; and Cho Chang from Harry Potter–a Madam Butterfly in miniature, doomed to tragedy and ill-advised romances with white dudes. In ten years, we will have young adults who grew up with popular images of Asians who had things to say besides just wax on wax off or Aiyee! or sucky-sucky five dollah. Sure, it was a pair of white guys behind the scenes writing those words, but still–if that can be accepted now, then maybe in the future, when the younger generation comes of age, they’ll be ready to say their own words and expect to be heard, or to listen as equals to words spoken by non-whites. This is a war of culture, and we are fighting an uphill battle; every fractional increment forwards is valuable.
But the way the movie is being handled is delimiting that acceptance to the realm of plausible deniability rather than explicit text, and that’s why I’m angry.
I think asking for greater self-awareness from AVATAR’s fan base is probably asking too much. They may have their own issues regarding cultural voyeurism however their instincts are correct to protest. I’d have preferred a protest of the entire AVATAR series from its initial airing, but protesting this “White washing” will do. For me, since AVATAR has “made it” this far, the least the production team could do would be to cast “Asian” actors (and if they’d like, they can approximate the cultures corresponding to whatever eco-system represented within the show’s milieu). Since it has come to this point, it’s now about the business of Hollywood and casting choices and opportunities for Asian/Asian-American actors rather than cultural appropriation.
Srsly, the problem isn’t in “cultural appropriation” or whatever. Every fictional series draws on some aspects of real life, seeing as it’s much easier to base a fictional culture on an existing one than to make up a new culture from scratch. Bryke being white folk who took a lot of authentically Asian things and packaged them into their own thing.
The problem is just taking something like that and going out of one’s way to make everything not Asian.
Finally, I have found a forum where all of us can discuss this subject in a logical and civilized manner. I have visited many forums and I have found that the controversy became a “race” issue instead of the importance of portraying this film by “faithfully” adaptating to the original animation source.
Many people do not understand that when you adapt a movie from another source whether it is from a book, comic book or in this case an animation, all the elements that makes that particular world unique should not be changed. I refer these elements as “Primary” and “Secondary” elements which I refer to as the “spirit” or the “life line” of the story that supports the plot and the main story.
Examples of primary elements include, aspect that make that characters unique to that world and story. This includes characters “ethnic or cultural” background. For example, if the main cast of Lord of the Rings were “multicultural”, it would have been distracting since the story is heavily inspired by northern european mythology. Other examples include rumours that Beyonce, the singer, starring as Wonder Woman, one of the greatest comic book heroine of all time who is iconically a beautiful caucasian or specifically southern european dark haired amazonian woman. Ironically, the first wonder woman in a tv movie was blonde and along with a poor story was a huge bomb. Talking about not faitfully adapting to your source.
Another example of primary element is the “cultural or environmental” setting or backdrop of a story. For example, there was a rumour that Steven Spielberg was originally interested in making the Harry Potter series. He proposed to make the setting from a british to an american one, where Hogwarts resemble a type of american school. Luckily J.K.Rowling, the author said no because that would had been a disaster. I admire Ms Rowling for her strong belief in her work. And true enough all the movies are wonderful and has captured the books so well. Remember He-Man the masters of the universe movie. For those of you who remember, it was a bomb. It destroyed the main actor career. The director, script writer decided to change some things around. They decided to choose Earth as the setting instead of Eternia. Along with a stupid plot, it went as one of the greatest stinker of all time.
Relating back to the Avatar world, one has to be “visually” blind not to noticed that avatar is a fantasy world inspired by ancient Asiatic cultures which would include eas asians and inuits and eskimos cultures. Since this world is “asian” it is only logical that the characters would be asian as well. I think it is stupid for people to argue that the cartoon characters does not look asian etc. Every element in this avatar world are “actively” asian inspired including but not limited to writing, costumes, food, martial arts etc. I have read some people argue that it is a fantasy world therefore there is no China, Japan etc which would be okay to cast these characters as caucasian. Ofcourse, I believe this will be one of the worst mistakes the producers will make. Not only that but I am dissappointed of the creators of the original avatar animation. I think the fact that they have sacrificed their legacy for the allure of hollywood is not only sad but insulting to their own creation. I just do not think these guys have the same backbone as Ms Rowling in protecting their own works.
Secondary elements that one can take a more liberty of changing can be more forgivable. Now, of course it is not ideal to change anything from the original source but it can be forgivable within context. For example in one of my favourite tv show, Smallville, the creators decided to hire Kristin Kreuk, who is both Chinese and dutch, to portray Lana Lang, a red headed beauty of exclusively european background in the Superman mythos. Lana Lang is a supporting character or secondary character and along with the rest of the characters live in Smallville, a fictional place which is supposedly located in “modern” state of kansas. Although the character in the comic book did not state Lana has any asian background, but logically, many americans do have european and aboriginal native bloodlines. After all Aboriginal peoples of North America can trace their ancestry back to Asia. Therefore, the character outward appearance does not really distract from the heart of the story. It does not change the main story or affect it in any disastrous way. Now if Clark Kent aka Superman was being portrayed by a non-european actor, now that is a different story. Other secondary elements examples is the character of Chloe, which was invented for the show of Smallville. Now, she does not appears in the comic. However, this character does not in any ways destroy the world of Superman mythos, although it may be challenging to explain how she may fit into the comic world of Superman.
I believe that although this movie may be successfull as a summer blockbuster (after all most young people may not care and would probably watch anything), a great legacy instead will be destroyed. Trust me, fast forward a generation later, and this avatar legacy will not be continued. It will not be like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings which will continue to outlive us. I fear that this movie like the He-Man legacy will be gone.
Therefore these are the reason, I will not watch this movie. To me it is more of a sense of ethic. I will stand my ground.
So James thinks that it would be okay to replace authentic American Indian peoples with Asians and that no one should raise a stink when one group gets the leg up on another group that has already been marginalized and typecasted by Hollywood only because he thinks they “look” the same? Tsh. That is simply an act of yellowwashing and is just as disrespectful against Indians as any sort of whitewashing on other races would be. Native Americans =/= Asians. By that term, any African can play European roles, especially Southern Europeans because Caucasians are descended from an ancient African populations. I see the good old Bering Strait theory is used to color over American Indian history and make it seem trite and unoriginal because Asians, Caucasians and Negroids can be their own people but OH NO, Indians HAVE to be anchored to another population. Natives for Native roles!
Uhmm, okay, you have made your point. I thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. By the way, no need to shred me to pieces, I have merely expressed my opinions, it is not like I have written a dogma or something.
Actually, I am Canadian, so I have met inuits or eskimos people in my travel. The “culture” of the water tribe in avatar is supposed to be “inspired” by these cultures. These people are not considered “asian” in culture (because there is no such thing as asian culture, oh lets say 50,000 years ago) but “most likely” the ancestors of modern inuits do have a genetic origin in Asia from a distant past. Inuits looks more closely to modern east asians than let’s say europeans, africans or south asian or middle eastern peoples. That is if you accept the old theory that there are three groups that the human race is divided under: negroid, caucasoid and mongoloid.
The Bering strait theory? Well, that is still up for debate. It is most likely that is the place of origin for inuits peoples thousands of years ago. Although I do believe we all come from Africa millions of years ago in the far, far distant past, however it is in Asia where the “mongoloid” peoples seemed to have originated from in the recent past.
I never said that it is okay for “modern” asians to portray inuits inspired characters but it probably would be “less” distracting than having a caucasian actor portraying inuits inspired characters. Naturally, it would be ideal ofcourse to have not any native peoples but specifically inuits to portray the water tribe.
Aside from the water tribe, I think we can all agree that the rest of the avatar world is predominantly east asian in cultures and peoples.
Thanks for reading…
Actually, even though the creators of the Bender Universe — Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko — researched East Asian martial arts, religion, philosophy, and mythology, I believe they intended this world to be sort of an alternate Earth universe inhabited by “halfbreeds” with an East Asian culture.
This “race” would probably consist of the Eurasian (chinky-eyed whites), North African Mulatto, Asia-Pacific, and Caucaso-Inuit-American Indian (mestizo) gene pool.
Considering all these, you can have the likes of Camilla Belle, Kristin Kreuk, Alexa Vega, Tiger Woods, Adriana Lima, Rosario Dawson, Thandie Newton, Vin Diesel (Mark Vincent), Alicia Keys, Ben Kingsley, Benjamin Bratt, Beyoncé Knowles, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson filling the roles of the characters.
Wouldn’t hurt to have chinky-eyed actors anyway.
Which reminds me of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy which consist of minorities and many sub-races of Man. Amongst the sub-races: EDAIN = light-skinned, dark waivy-haired, Mediterranean looks, made immortal by gods and later punished by them; NORTHMEN = Scandinavian looks; HARADRIM = dark-skinned African tone; EASTERLINGS = Middle-eastern amalgam mix; WOSES = “forest” animal-like Men; HOBBITS = yes, that’s right. They are actually a race of “Man”. And that’s only some.
Most of these sub-races of Man, all of which originated from the eastern continent, fell to the tyranny of the dark lord. Only the Men who migrated to the western part of Middle-Earth (that’s the middle continent) held on to their noble heritage. They consisted of a mix of sub-races here and there and were led by the long-lived Edain (Aragorn’s stock), barbaric Northmen (Rohirrim stock), and provincial Hobbits, accompanied by Elves, Dwarves, forest creatures plus one particular Maiar Avatar named Gandalf (looks human but is not).
According to the Tolkien Universe, the “colored” sub-races were unlucky to have been conquered by the Dark Lord. Which explains why the heroes appear to be white (Elves ares actually pale, Dwarves are earth-toned) and enemies appear to be colored. This is not a racist gesture. The “bad guys” in the story were just unlucky enough to have been born on the wrong side of Arda.
What’s the whole point in all this? The Last Airbender movie is about a different world so it’s unfair to compare it with our own too much.
Such a very well-written, insightful article! I originally had issues with this live-action remake of Avatar, but I didn’t even bother to think about the relatively racist aspects of it.
I was originally ticked off because of how much it varied from the series. Some things about these characters are iconic–Aang’s solid-colored blue arrow, and Zuko’s extremely prominent scar. These aspects, though, lack the presence they need in this adaption (as I see.) There are a TON of teenage cosplayers that could do much, much better when it comes to casting and character design than these Hollywood bigwigs. When it comes to sticking true to original character designs…good cosplayers are better than the professionals.
Asian actors should definitely be implemented in the series as opposed to Caucasians. As the article stated, Avatar is based in a general Asian setting, and contains generally Asian (and perhaps Native American/Inuit) characters. Considering this, the quality of the film would probably go up if the actors were Asian (or Native American, in the places where such a character is needed).
But as all of us should know, artistry and true adaptions are unimportant and pretty much nonexistent in why adaptions are made. A movie company sees something that is popular and selling (think Twilight) and decide the make a movie adaption. Fans will go see the adaption, and even if they’re disappointed in the outcome, the company will have still made their money. (But you can expect less DVD sales.)
For all the people who are disappointed in the Hollywood re-tellings of current popular works, the only way to truly get them to notice this is a mass boycott of sorts. They make an adaption to make money, and if they adaption doesn’t bring in the dough (along with numerous fan complaints), they’ll see that something is wrong. If I would have known how awful of an adaption that “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” was going to be, I wouldn’t have bought the ticket for it.
Tell me any episode that specifically says Aang is asian and I’ll give you all a cookie for your troubles.
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