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How Important is Inuit Culture in the Last Airbender Movie? 
23rd-Feb-2009 11:40 pm
I've been thinking we've been focusing a lot on the Asian aspect of Avatar, and rightly so. But what about the influence of Inuit culture? I think the show makes it clear that the Water Tribe and its inhabitants are inspired by Inuits/ Northern Aboriginals (even if their bending techniques come from Chinese martial arts). However, I think we should also open a discussion on how this should affect the casting of Katara and Sokka.

To tell you the truth, when I saw Dev Patel's picture and his likeness to Sokka, I too was on the 'omg Dev should play Sokka!' bandwagon. I mean, they just look so similar! But is that really all that we should be considering? Wheter they 'look' similar because they've got brown skin? Because the fact is, there are different cultures that have brown skin. Thus, by that criteria, a light-skinned black male could play Sokka just fine, simply because they look alike.

The thing is, I find the idea of Dev Patel playing Sokka a little problematic as it creates a problem that's similar to what we've been fighting: it takes a culture and uses it, while barring the actual members of that culture to participate in the movie as they rightly should. What I mean is this: it's important to give opportunities to all actors that suffer from a lack of representation in Hollywood simply because they are not white. However, since Sokka and Katara are from a tribe that draws its main inspiration from Inuit/ Northern Aboriginal culture, I would like for actual Inuit or Aboriginal actors to get a chance to play the roles of Sokka and Katara.

After all, would it be right to deny Inuit/Northern Aboriginals the opportunity to play the two major characters whose culture are inspired by their own? Would it be right to just put in a South Asian because they have similar skin-tone? Would it be right for us to champion Asian rights but then completely and utterly dismiss the members of Inuit culture? It would be like all the people saying "yeah, the Avatar world is mostly inspired by Asian culture, but that doesn't mean the characters are MEANT to be Asian."

Again, I understand the sentiment that 'anything's better than white' but I think we should think further on this subject. I'm sure there are plenty of amazing actors of Inuit/Aboriginal descent that can play the roles and look kick ass while doing so, just as we all know that there are plently of fantastic actors of Asian descent able to play the roles that should be rightfully theirs.

But as always this is a discussion so talk away! Yay for this comm!
24th-Feb-2009 05:33 am (UTC)
I agree 100% with you. I totally see the resemblance between Patel and Sokka, but that's really not enough. I'm also not really concerned with actors "looking" like cartoon characters. That's like finding a needle in a haystack. I put appropriate race, and acting ability a million steps in front of how much they look like the character. And I mean, I think Dev Patel is a great actor, I also think he's adorable, but my first condition there is appropriate race.

Living in Vancouver, and knowing several amazing young Aboriginal people trying to break into various parts of the entertainment industry, I had my heart set on two, as-yet-unknown Aboriginal actors for the Water Tribe siblings. After the obvious let down and all the resulting fall-out, I too was at first keen on the idea of Dev Patel as Sokka. But it's still wrong. It's still marginalizing the very real issues the show talks about by saying you can just substitute one ethnic group for another.

But the worst case scenario, I think, is the one we have now. I found the casting of white kids a the Water Tribe siblings the most heinous. I think taking white actors, putting them in an visually Inuit/Northwest Aboriginal culture, and pitting them against an evil brown imperialist is just. not. on.

It's like a sick joke.
24th-Feb-2009 06:14 am (UTC)
Don't forget that there are also Inuit people living in Asia, like the Siberian Yupiks and Sireniki Eskimos! I'm pretty sure Yupki Yarangas are the inspiration for Southern Water Tribe houses.

I have a feeling it's far more likely that Sokka and Katara are inspired by Asian Inuits given the way the rest of the world is set up and how Asian it is...so under this logic, none of the Canadian/North American Inuits would be able to apply!

There's been fierce debate about this in the Asian American community, like with the Joy Luck Club (done well) and Memoirs of a Geisha (done badly.) In Joy Luck Club, non-Chinese women who still looked like they could be Chinese were allowed to audition and perform. This was okay and the logic was because there are so many limited opportunities for AA in film anyway, we shouldn't lock people out by race. Being able to appear and act Chinese is a factor but they more or less cast the best actresses for the parts.

On the other hand, Memoirs of a Geisha had non Japanese actresses playing Japanese people and people freaked. But I think on a fundamental level, it wasn't because the East Asian actresses weren't Japanese--it was because it was obvious they were cast not because they were the best for their roles, but for name brand recognition. It was not cast in the spirit of expanding opportunities to Asian Americans--in fact, both actresses were from Asia.

So I think that's the difference...and I think opening up auditions to kids who look the part is at least a start, as long as it's in the spirit of extending acting roles to those with limited opportunities. Of course actors of Siberian Inuit descent like Sokka and Katara would rock...but, I don't know. The water tribe also has influences from Japanese and Chinese culture (Tai Chi, Moon Myth) and definitely influences from Pacific Islander/Polynesian cultures---take a look at the water tribe navy. Catamarans! And Australian aboriginal boomeraangs!

While each of the Avatar cultures draw largely from one real-life culture, there are also enough references from other cultures to make them not exactly straight derivations of any single country to culture. To a certain degree, I don't think it's bad to open up casting a little...but casting white actors is CERTAINLY not in the spirit of advancing opportunities for minorities or in the spirit of an Asian fantasy world.
24th-Feb-2009 06:43 am (UTC)
so under this logic, none of the Canadian/North American Inuits would be able to apply!

What? Why not? I think you're imagining me saying things I didn't. ;-)

As a Chinese-Canadian person, I, personally, have no problem with things like Japanese-descended actors playing Chinese-descended characters and vice versa. And I would be happy with the Avatar movie if it had a non-white cast, even if it wasn't my vision of Avatar, as long as it was non-white. So I mean, I would accept Dev Patel as Zuko or Sokka or whoever, even though it's not the way I would've done it, as long as there was diversity everywhere else in the cast (that made sense to the plot etc). Right now it's just egregious that the Water Tribe siblings are white, and I'm sure we agree on that.

Also, I just don't think it's necessary to look outside of North America for cast members. I mean I think that would be fine if they wanted to do that (obviously they don't, so whatever), but there are plenty of actors of all ethnicities available right here on this vast continent. So I'd say, even if casting Northwest Aboriginal actors to play the Water Tribe siblings isn't 100% accurate, it's still a lot better than casting white actors, and it might not be practical to get Siberian Inuit actors for an American production. I know there are a few small communities in the far north, but the pool of talent would be smaller than your pool of talent for any First Nations actors. Just as your pool for Asian-American actors is going to be bigger than specifically Chinese, Japanese etc.

I absolutely agree with you that it's good to open up casting a little bit. There are more than enough First Nations and Aboriginal actors from a vast scope of places to play the Water Tribes. I don't think you need to exclude North American natives, the same way I don't think it should exclude Asian Americans - it is an American production after all. I definitely see influences from other cultures as you've stated, but I think, in a perfect world, it would be great to cast the Water Tribes as First Nations and the other nations as various Asian cultures.

That's my $.02.
(Deleted comment)
24th-Feb-2009 06:53 am (UTC)
I don't think so.

I *do* think that the makers of the film should, like, set up some form of actual concrete rules regarding what the nations *are* and cast at least somewhat accordingly! ;-)
24th-Feb-2009 07:28 am (UTC)
But they have set up actual concrete rules regarding what the nations are! Nations filled with minorities ranging from African to Mediterranean to Latino the Asian, led by heroic white characters!

24th-Feb-2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
That's 'cause they're so enlightened, they don't *see* race!
24th-Feb-2009 07:12 am (UTC)
I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm certainly not advocating a strict exclusion of other actors belonging to underrepresented ethnicities. What I'm saying is that they should look first to those with ethnicities that would most closely match the culture that inspired the tribe. So for Zuko, why not look for a Japanese person or a East Asian first and then spread outward? Why not pay special attention to these particular people? It's the same as with Katara and Sokka. There are without a doubt many Aboriginals, whether Siberian or North American Inuit that would be good for the roles. Why not try to find someone among them before looking for South Asians? I dunno that's just my humble opinion about the matter. At least pay special attention to giving these people a chance. Goodness knows they'd love to have one!

Also when you said Fire Nation = Imperial Japan I lol'd because I imagined Dev Patel and Shyamalan with top-knots lol.
24th-Feb-2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
Also when you said Fire Nation = Imperial Japan I lol'd because I imagined Dev Patel and Shyamalan with top-knots lol.

24th-Feb-2009 06:50 pm (UTC) - whoopsie
Aww, don't worry, I'm just devil's advocating. I think it would be really hard to find Siberian Inuit American actors, but also really awesome if they did.

How close to Siberian Inuit would you want to get though? (Obviously North American Inuit Americans are closer to Siberian Inuit than South Asian Americans are.) Same with the other Asian American groups. Should a Hawaiian or a Cambodian American be excluded from playing Zuko because Fire Nation = Imperial Japan.
(Deleted comment)
24th-Feb-2009 07:14 am (UTC)
Yeah I also don't like the mentality of 'they're all the same'. That's kind of what's been bothering me. Obviously allowances have to be made since the Water Tribe isn't based on one specific tribe, but still, there has to be attention to detail here.
24th-Feb-2009 07:31 am (UTC)
I would just like to see some *DIVERSITY*, really. Especially in the heroes department because Asians/Non-whites never get a chance to be the heroes. Because the American audience doesn't want that. Right? At least, that's what Hollywood thinks.

But then again, look at shows like Heroes. You have some Asians playing heroes there, yes? So yea, the entertainment biz might not be all that bad. If they just got the right casting directors and coordinators who actually cared about diversity and not just for the money. :/
(Deleted comment)
24th-Feb-2009 08:29 am (UTC)
Oh my goodness, thank you for linking Bayou! I'm totally addicted now.
24th-Feb-2009 06:54 pm (UTC)
You make good points--Bollywood aside, a lot of dark skinned Asians really don't get a chance to play roles. Actually, most Asians who don't look like the American public's perception of Asians (small, slanty eyes, pale skin, etc.) tend to have a hard time finding roles. When I was younger, I was rejected from playing an extra in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 because I didn't look Chinese enough, even though I'm ethnically Chinese. =(

On LOST, the role of Sayid--an Iraqi Republican Guard--is played by Naveen Andrews, who is Indian British, like Dev Patel. Andrews is talented and has been nominated for several awards. Should the role of Sayid have been offered to some Iraqi American actors, first?
24th-Feb-2009 09:02 am (UTC)
I agree with you. Inuit culture has pretty much taken a back seat when it comes to discussions, since Asian culture is mostly predominant in the series. Sokka and Katara should be played by actors of Inuit/Northern Arctic origins; failing that, actors who would 'look' like Sokka.

I wasn't entirely on board with the idea of having Dev Patel as Sokka; he's kind of that 'last resort' sorta option to me. The way I see it, if the studio insists on casting him as an important character, might as well cast him as a character more suited to his appearance.

The diversity in this movie should be the RIGHT kind of diversity, which is one that follows the source material. No point of having non-white actors in the movie if they're going to mix up the appearances of the characters anyway.
24th-Feb-2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
THANK YOU! You have put into words exactly what I have been headdesking and grumbling about ever since the casting issues first arose. I was actually pretty bugged by some of the comments regarding Dev's physical resemblance to Sokka, while I can certainly see it, I kept wanting to scream 'but the cultures aren't the same!' Let alone the one or two suggestions that I stumbled across where fans were wanting actors of African descent to play the Water Tribe characters. It just seemed a bit ignorant, even though I know that most fans are earnestly meaning well in their backlash against the whitewash casting.

I will admit that I'm probably biased. I may be a white Canadian gal of mixed heritage but I've always been absolutely fascinated by Inuit culture ever since first being introduced to it in elementary school. There's also been a few films in recent years that could serve as evidence that there are actual Inuit actors out there and they do kick butt.
24th-Feb-2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
Honestly, this question has been bugging me for a while. And yet - how fine do you draw that line? Where does it end? If I have a deaf gay Micmac character, do I need a deaf gay Micmac actor? What about a deaf Cree actor? Or a gay Metis actor who's a little darker than average? A deaf gay caucasian actor with a tan is obviously bad, but while we're representing the Native Actors, Micmac and otherwise, what about the Gay actors and the Deaf actors? Especially the Deaf actors, for whom playing hearing parts is much more difficult?

Because yes, acting is about faking it. You can fake being gay, bi, straight, deaf, blind, left-handed, and a million other things. You can (to some extent) fake a culture. And you can even (with help) fake a skin colour. We know the last one is wrong, because it takes jobs away from the real thing. But what about the real thing in those other cases?

I don't have any answers, I'm sorry. But I think the questions need asking anyway.
24th-Feb-2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
As you have hinted, the problem with faking a skin colour is that it mirrors a whole history of blackface, which is ugly and wrong. There are definitely questionable representations of all the other traits you mentioned played by actors who do have those traits, but I think the racial depictions are the most charged across the board.

I also believe in baby steps, and if we can't get race right, even in broad strokes, what *can* we get right?

I've seen straight guys play gay guys abominably, and I've seen them play them really well, but doing so in blackface would be a whole other story.

It also gets down to prejudices and stereotypes in the Industry, which too many people are too lazy to acknowledge. John Barrowman (Captain Jack) was rejected to play Will on Will and Grace because he "wasn't gay enough", despite being actually gay. Margaret Cho's sitcom was cancelled because she was alternatively "not Asian enough" and later (when they fired all the other Asian actors to make her appear more Asian), she was "too Asian". It is mind-boggling, and any story that features non- hetero-normative able-bodied whiteness is going to have this crap happen to it.

I just want to *start somewhere* in addressing it, and naively I thought it would be Avatar. :-(

I am seriously not looking forward to what happens to my Toph. I can only imagine that the first movie will fail so badly that the sequels will never see the light of day and she won't have to go through that indignity!

2nd-Mar-2009 02:41 am (UTC)
You're absolutely right. We do need to start somewhere, and Avatar is an excellent place, because what's been done here is wrong and appalling.

I guess what I'm saying is that even if we win this fight (whee, look at me be optimistic!) we need to not stop asking ourselves these questions. Because they are important.
24th-Feb-2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
It's really hard to say what the right answers are for this discussion, as I agree with a lot of the different points people have brought up! And I'm glad we have a safe forum to discuss it, because trying to bring this up with someone who doesn't even understand why it's wrong for white people to play non-white characters, only makes that someone roll their eyes and dismiss racial discrimination as a whole. Which is sucky.

I guess what I've done (when I saw people comparing Dev to Sokka) is projected backwards instead - so let's say that in the first round of casting releases from Paramount, they announced that Dev Patel was going to play Sokka, and then also listed off some other non-Inuit to play Katara? Same with Aang and Zuko - Aang's actor wasn't exactly Tibetan, but he was East Asian; and a mixed-race actor was cast as Zuko. All-in-all not an ethnically accurate cast, but a diverse cast nonetheless.

If this did happen, I probably wouldn't be where I am right now. I would've probably cracked a few jokes of "ahahah yep - cause we allllllll look the same to Hollywood. Bastards." but I also probably have been like "OH YAY AT LEAST THAR BE PoC AS MAIN (GOOD!) CHARACTERS, FINALLY, OMG SO EXCITED etc"

Maybe Hollywood isn't mature enough to cast an Inuit actor as an Inuit character for a kid-marketed fantasy-based major motion picture, but at least when audience members see imaginary!Dev hamming it up as Sokka, they might realize that it's not just white people who can play the heroes. And that's at least a better step in the right direction.

One day, though. It would be absolutely awesome to see Hollywood becoming much more aware and thoughtful of their casting practices. But it's al ong, painful, uphill batter - and for now, I'm okay with cheering for the minor victories, heh heh.
24th-Feb-2009 09:48 pm (UTC)
Well said!
24th-Feb-2009 10:45 pm (UTC)
*high five* Yay! We agree cause we're both Vancouverites, man. Sometimes I realize just how much of a bubble we live in compared to so many other parts of Canada/America.
25th-Feb-2009 05:40 am (UTC)
You're telling me, I live on Commercial Drive! Most of the time when I watch the news I am boggled by how the rest of the world functions!
24th-Feb-2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah I'm also glad for this site and hope that more people contribute. I like discussions like these and I think they need to happen. People have to prove that their critical agents, able to disect, question and engage with issues in their society rather than just passively accepting what goes on as unquestionable 'truth'. The later group, of course, are the ones that wonder why everyone's making a fuss about the casting decisions - simple conduits for dominant society's discriminatory ideals. *cough* But back to what your comment :D

I see what you're saying there. My only problem is, are we sure that casting a non-white person, specifically a South Asian in this role will necessarily lead to the someday increased hiring of Inuit actors? I mean, yes you can say it's a 'step in the right direction' but I always found that a vague term, because it doesn't take into account that the conditions of PoCs and how they are received in society aren't the completely same. What I mean is, while white is always considered on top and those of us that are down below simply because of our ethnicity are all here together, the opportunities that are available to us still differ in some ways, depending on society's perception of us, etc. Like Chris Rock said once, "When's the last time you saw a Native American family just chillin' at Burger King?" In a sense, while there are few chances for some PoCs to get casts in blockbuster movies, other PoCs get even less chances. I may be wrong about this, but I feel that Native Americans are all but erased from Hollywood and cinema, unless they're playing 'Indians' in historical pieces in which white people are the major characters (because Native Americans are barely even acknowledged as existing outside of a Eurocentric history of colonialization).

So, while it's definitely true that casting a South Asian as Sokka may certain help increase opportunities for PoCs in general, I'm not sure if that will lead to the more casting of Native Americans or non-Natives in Native roles.
24th-Feb-2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
Valid points! Also, I love everything that comes out of Chris Rock's mouth. XD

By 'step in the right direction' (which I agree can be a very complacent and passive term), I do mean that it will open people's eyes and expand their perceptions.

Oh please note: I fall in the camp of people who see movie makers (particularly producers and marketing execs) as soulless beings who don't really care about basic social and human rights, they only pay attention to what will make their corporation the most money. Therefore, most of my reasoning is based on that, keep in mind. :D

So back to the point! When I say 'step in the right direction', I mean that it may increase PoC visibility/accountability to subsequent audiences and also the eyes of movie makers who will realize that white aren't the only products that bring in the cash. So in further movies down the line, they might consider having Natives actually play a Native role in a blockbuster film.

...First of course, one would have to write a non-stereotypical Native role in a blockbuster film, but that's a whole other problem, ahah.

...Oh and then of course there's the issue of a Native actor playing a character instead of 'the Native role'. That would be awesome too, but it has to build from something that movie execs can clue into as a money-making potential.

I simply don't think Hollywood is ready to be as culturally aware as we'd like them to be. I'm not saying people should adopt a 'I'll take what I can get' attitude, but I do think that, if by some insane chance Paramount decides to recast the main roles on The Last Airbender to a more diverse cast, we need to take that as a small victory. The mere fact that we can't even get a diverse cast out of Paramount - never mind an ethnically accurate cast - is evidence enough that our fight is still at a very general, grass roots level.

So, while it's definitely true that casting a South Asian as Sokka may certain help increase opportunities for PoCs in general, I'm not sure if that will lead to the more casting of Native Americans or non-Natives in Native roles.

One is inclusive of the other, innit? Like, if in general, Dev-as-Sokka prompts movies to hire more PoC actors in lead roles, wouldn't that include First Nations getting lead roles since they too are PoC? I'm totally missing your point here, aren't I. *doh*
25th-Feb-2009 01:51 am (UTC)
Maybe Hollywood isn't mature enough to cast an Inuit actor as an Inuit character for a kid-marketed fantasy-based major motion picture, but at least when audience members see imaginary!Dev hamming it up as Sokka, they might realize that it's not just white people who can play the heroes. And that's at least a better step in the right direction.

Very well said! I've got to agree.
26th-Feb-2009 06:34 pm (UTC) - defining terms
I think part of this stems from concerns regarding race vs concerns regarding ethnicity and cultural appropriation. I think it's important to recognize that "race" and "ethnicity" aren't really conceived the same way, and that the term "race" is a problematic term for lots of reasons. And "ethnicity" can be conceived of as a larger term, since race is often one of the markers by which one defines one's ethnicity. The irony is that people keep trying to use race as a sort of definitive biological category but go on to define it with cultural terms, making it artificially interchangeable with "ethnicity". But ethnicity is explicitly social, cultural, and built up around social constructs and the concept of groups, of who is inside and who is outside and the interactions between those on the inside and the outside.

"Race" has an inward manifestation and an outward one, too. How does one identify oneself and how do other people categorize one. So does ethnicity, for that matter. The way one is treated by others, especially strangers, will clue one into what race other people see that person as (assuming it's noticeable). The reality of Barack Obama's life is that he's a black man because he's seen and treated as one, even though he is mixed. The reality of Keanu Reeves career in Hollywood is that he's a white man because he's cast as one, even though he is mixed. These are people who are mixed race as well as having mixed cultural heritage, and they're the 'easy' ones, each parent from a large and recognized category and inheriting discernible physical manifestations from each (and yet is it really that easy to say 'white', 'black', 'Asian' and not find subcategories?). But bias doesn't ask for a family tree before acting, it responds to the person as observed, just as class bias does.

There are differences between Chinese, Korean, Japanese, but the race differences are much smaller than the ethnic differences, and in discussing the race differences one can really see the problems with trying to define "race". Is it acceptable for a Japanese-American woman to play a Chinese-American woman in The Joy Luck Club? Her personal ethnic heritage doesn't match that of the character she plays, but racially, she's closer than a white actor or a black one. There's absolutely no evidence to say that her hiring was an example of institutionalized bias against the Chinese instead of a casting expedient. And how about this, is it acceptable for an Irish actor to play a German? How about an English actor with Norman heritage? Do you see where I'm going with this? Race is not easily quantifiable and it's not a hard and fast biological 'given'. It's not just what one identifies with, it's what others see one as because this is all about being pigeonholed. This is one reason so many Irish actors bury their accents when they work in England, too. (I'm looking at you, Kenneth Branagh, et al.)

"Passing" is a loaded term, but it's also the part and parcel of acting.
26th-Feb-2009 08:43 pm (UTC) - Re: defining terms
Casting ATLA with all white leads, and then with all white heroes really focuses the magnifying glass on unconscious racism still prevalent.

The greatest irony of all of this, I think, is how ATLA directly addresses ideas of nationalism and racism, with four distinct nations, etc., and how the homogenization of the live action leads to White completely loses sight of that in a sort of political correctness that misses its own racism. When they aren't defaulting to white, when they are suddenly talking about diversity, why is it just for the extras?

Thing is, cultural appropriation of ethnic markers isn't going to go away with something as pan-Asian as ATLA. If the writing system is Chinese, then will people complain if someone uses it if they're not Chinese? The reducto ad absurdum is always possible in discussions like this because it's a continuum, not fixed points, and the source material is already extremely mixed. Just because some people equate the Fire Nation with Imperial Japan, does that mean in an ideal casting all the actors would have to have Japanese heritage, or could it be mixed up a bit with people who can just pass for Japanese? Or is the Fire Nation=Japan idea flawed because it's as reductive as anything else we've been criticizing? One thing to remember is that the Fire Nation isn't Japanese, nor it it Chinese, or any of the other existing political entities, and neither are the Water Tribes.

This is part of translating it from cartoon, where the characters can be Pan-Asian of a sort, without prejudice, to live action where who and what the actor is then comes into question because race and ethnicity still matter and because the world isn't colorblind.

I'm not saying that everyone is the same, however, and that all yellow faces or brown faces are alike. I'm just saying that divisions by race are problematic because defining by race is problematic and because ethnic markers in ATLA are as mixed as the real world is. Which get priority? Clothes? Food? Architecture? Fighting style? What combination thereof? ATLA will always have problems in translating it to live action, if one digs enough. I would just like to have to dig! The huge, glaring surface cracks of flawed logic in the casting are disturbing in their cheery disregard for reality and their assumption of some happy fun land where diversity in the extras means diversity over all.

Me, I want to see diversity throughout the entire cast but also a recognition of the importance of the themes of race and culture and imperialism. Even if they decided to make the entire cast of the Water Nation of Icelandic extraction, as long as they use it to a purpose instead of this shopworn pablum of "oh, the best actor, who always just happens to be white if it's a leading role because that's just the way it is". To turn this away from yellowface, and to redefine the fictional nations in a way that resonates successfully with the source material but also allows them to bridge it into a new medium.

Of course, the more diverse the heroes are, the more mixed the extras would need to be in order for the characters to go incognito into the other kingdoms. I really have to wonder if they spent any time at all just thinking about how the casting would affect the film beyond "can we bank them" followed by "can they act?"
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