* (jedifreac) wrote in racebending,

Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Gender in The Last Airbender

Yesterday and today, Paramount screened The Last Airbender to Racebending.com for free as kind of an olive branch, and also to show us just how diverse the movie is--to prove us wrong. Here are my preliminary thoughts on the movie, in conversation with Ken (another Racebending.com volunteer who went to the press screening with me.)

While we had a lot of concerns about racial sensitivity going in, we at least had some idea of what to expect. It was pretty much as bad as we thought. The poor way the movie treated women and feminism--in comparison to the animated series--other hand, floored me. I just...yeah. If you were expecting M. Night's version of Airbender to at all reflect the way the animated series treated gender, well...

Minna: I guess what pisses me off the most is that all of the villains and antagonists in the movie are people of color. All of them. In contrast, the three lead heroes are white. All of the heroic characters with names were white.

Ken: Yeah, it was really obvious and awkward that all the extras in the Southern Water Tribe scene were Inuit. The extras in the southern water tribe are very obviously ethnically Inuit/Eskimo; Sokka and Katara (and GranGran) very obviously aren't.

Minna: I guess--since I'm all caught up in the portrayal of people of color in this movie--what was really disturbing to me was that none of the characters of color, except for the villains, had agency. There were no real efforts by any of the people of color to defend themselves.

Ken: Well, to be fair, a lot of the white characters didn't, either. Sokka and Katara didn't do much--they followed Aang around. And talked about him. Even Aang just mostly did what the magical dragon told him to do.

Minna: You mean 'Ong,' right? M. Night says you're pronouncing it wrong.

Ken: Yeah, whatever. I can see how Shamalyan might have intended to have a really diverse movie, but between the whitewashing of Sokka and Katara in the opening water tribe scenes, and the extended "White heroes inspire/save the helpless asian/black villagers" montage, it's clear that people of color aren't being allowed heroic roles. Every villain in the movie is a person of color; every heroic person of color (aside from Iroh) needs inspiration from a white person first.

Minna: The show was so thoroughly East Asian but the only scenes with East Asian people were scenes like the one with Earthbenders in an internment camp--scenes where they cast real survivors of Japanese internment camps from World War II. They're surrounded by dirt, and they have the ability to throw rocks at their captors, and the captors cannot generate their own fire so they can use the dirt to smother any fires really easily...why couldn't they just break free!?

Ken: But they were all beat down! And Asian! They needed the white people to show them the way! I mean, I get that they were despondent and that they needed the Avatar to show them hope. But it wasn't really well done.

Minna: And then there's this scene where Aang meets an "Old Man in a Temple," who is this friendly old Asian mentor stereotype who is all affectionate to him and then backstabs him! It is a twist! And then there was the scene with the East Asian masseuse. Since they cut Suki out--even after bragging about including an Asian actress to play this character--that means that the most prominently featured East Asian actress was a woman giving a foot massage. What is wrong with these people? Even after all the accusations of racefail, they throw in that unnecessary stereotype. And what was up with the "African American" village?

Ken: They weren't African American. They were African.

Minna: No...M. Night said they were African American and that he didn't have to include them, but he did, to be diverse.

Ken: They were on screen for all of a minute. They were just one of the villages in the "clearing out the Fire Nation Montage."

Minna: How they have the guts to say that's "diversity" and not merely "tokenism" I just don't know.

On the movie versus animated series

Ken: I can't think of anything the movie did that the television series didn't go better. It's like one of those college papers where someone plagiarizes by rewriting things just a bit so it sounds like their own work.

Minna: For someone who can read some East Asian calligraphy, it was so jarring and offensive to me. Like, imagine Lord of the Rings. Except in every scene where there is a book, map, or scroll, it is written in Engrish.

Ken: The fake written language looks pretty silly, even to someone who can't read Chinese (or Japanese, or Korean, etc.); there's an odd combination of blocky, vaguely Chinese-character-y stuff and swirly lines. The "more authentic" changes in pronunciation of the names is even more silly in light of the fake calligraphy; also likely to confuse kids.

Minna: The pronunciation changes made me so angry. M. Night claims to have "corrected" all of the pronunciations from the series so his version is more culturally sensitive. But there are clearly some words that are still mispronounced, like Yue and Yin and Yang. And really, that's okay! But don't brag like you fixed it, when you didn't.

Ken: The great thing about the show was that it had a lot of good one on one fights where talented element benders counter each other.

Minna: It was more personal that way. When it's a one on one battle, the audience is more invested in the motivations of the characters involved in the fight. They know both of the characters and what makes them tick.

Ken: The movie had a lot of one on one fights where it was just Aang versus a lot of people. In the show Aang isn't really more powerful than anyone else. He has more versatility as the Avatar, but that's it. He can't really fight everyone one on one in this version because if he can control all the water in the ocean and make huge waves by himself, if he's just more powerful than everyone else, than how is he at all going to have a fair fight with Zuko in the movie?  Why does he even need to learn the other elements to fight the Fire Nation?

Minna: That's the *wavy fingers* Avatar State from the series helping him with the water show.

Ken: But that's not explained at all in the movie. In the movie it's just like, "He's this guy who sometimes glows a little." It's how he powers up. Zhao mentions like, six times, that he found this scroll. Explaining the spirit world...in the great library. And they mention a million times that the Fire Nation has machines. But they don't explain why Aang's face lights up.

Me: There was this one fight scene where Ong was like, "This is the practice room!"

Ken: Yeah! Where he was telling himself and the audience "This was a practice area" as he walked into the practice area, in the middle of a big fight.

Minna: The room of practicing! Look, if your characters are ever explaining their motivations by talking to themselves--explaining to the audience--rather than just showing the audience, then your script needs a little clean up. Zhao says to Iroh "you're a gifted strategist" and we're just supposed to take this at face value. And then there are moments that just don't need explaining. As a cave in occurs, we don't need the characters to explain, "Oh my, a cave in!" If the Fire Nation shows up with it's machines, we don't need a character to explain, "The Fire Nation is here. With their machines." The script uses various iterations of, "Oh no, the Fire Nation is here" and mentions the fact that they have "machines" like 8 times.

Minna: It's not just the exposition, it's the useless trivia. Like, does the audience really learn from Aang that the best monks can meditate in the same spot for four days? What happens if they have to go to the bathroom?

Ken: What? Oh. The monks?

Minna: Yeah. Would they get a urinary tract infection? Cuz that's what happens when hold my pee for too long. It's all about streamlining the right things and getting rid of useless exposition. Like Ong asks Yue, "I have to talk to the dragon spirit. Is there a place where I can meditate?" And Yue's exact line of dialogue is: "There is such a place. A very spiritual place. The entire city was built around this place. But we must hurry." If she was in a hurry, couldn't she have just said, "Yes, let's go!"?

Minna: And then there's the scene where Dev/Zuko explained his escape plan in monologue to himself and the audience. He says: "I'll just wait until everyone is fighting everyone, and then in the night, we'll slip out." Thanks. And another scene where Aang's friends are searching for him, and Katara actually voiceovers to herself and to the audience, "Calm down. You'll find him!" We're told these very pat statements instead of taught them. Yue literally says: "There is no love without sacrifice." It isn't touching. It's clunky. Sometimes exposition is played twice. Once in a long "explaining" scene and then again just minutes later when Aang remembers being explained to.

Ken: Zhao says the Northerners "openly practice waterbending." Is their opposition to other forms of bending strategic or some sort of philosophical thing? Never really explained.

Minna: Poor Aasif Mandvi. He was delivering his badly written lines like Daily Show lines. "We could bring down the Northern Water Tribe City. We could. Show the World. The Strength. Of FIRE." And why was Fire Lord Ozai the only character to have a British accent?

Ken: They didn't really explain that, either.

Minna: And Zuko's dialogue is all like, "We will catch him soon, Uncle. Then we can think about pretty girls." (This was a real line of dialogue. It was awkward.)

Ken: Unlike in the series, Zuko's kidnapping plan in the north isn't dumb and impulsive. As the blue spirit, he apparently murders several guards. He comes off as far less of an angry teenager and more of a bastard. Shamalyan's claims that he is clearly a hero don't seem to be justified; he doesn't seem any more conflicted than Zhao, who has to psych himself up to kill the fish which the Fire Lord has ordered him to do.

Minna: So in the show, when Zhao goes fish killing, it's cuz he's ego happy and a little delusional and he can't see past the glory to the ramifications of, I don't know, destroying the moon? It is clear to everyone in the series that destroying the moon, is a very stupid idea. But in the movie, the Fire Lord is like, destroying the moon? Genius that he is?

Ken: It was the Fire Lord's idea to kill the fish in the movie. Zhao was like, hey, I finished my research on the scroll in the library. You know how no one believed there was a library but remember, I found it and there was this scroll? Remember how I figured out what the Ocean Spirits were? And the Fire Lord is like: "Let's kill it." Zhao isn't even really that into killing the fish.

Minna: Maybe the School Library Association paid for product placement. And the dialogue for stabbing the fish directly quoted like this:
    Zhao: Why do spirits take the form of such benign things? It leaves them so vulnerable.
    Iroh: To teach us kindness and humility.
    Minna: I don't follow.
    Zhao: The Fire Nation is too powerful to worry about children's superstitions!
    Minna: Then why the eff did the Fire Lord send you to kill the fish?!

Minna: And then he stabs the fish and there's a loud foley knife effect. And the movie is incredibly vague about what exactly happened or why there needs to be another fish or why Yue should be that new fish, other than Iroh getting a zoom up on his face and hulking out. And as the mooks run away, a line of dialogue is added in post where one of them yells, "he made fire without a source!"

Minna: So....Water guys. If the Fire guys can't make fire, don't leave your city--the target of the fire invasion--filled with a bunch of torches lying around. Make them work for their fire and hit them while they're rubbing their two sticks together!

Ken: And in the final confrontation, Iroh tells Zhao, "You stand alone. That has always been your mistake." But that wasn't his mistake! He wasn't alone, he was always hanging out with the Fire Lord! And the fish killing was the Fire Lord's idea and with his backing!

Minna: Yes! In one scene he'd be but he'd be like in the middle of the Earth Kingdom one scene, and then suddenly back in the Fire Lord's living room. And then there isn't a climactic fight with Zuko or Zhao letting his hubris kill him in the end. Four faceless (and coincidentally, white) random Water Tribe soldiers approach and drown Zhao. It's a relatively long scene compared to other shots in the movie. They pick him up and cover him with water and shake him around a bit and then toss him on the ground. Pretty anticlimactic death that ultimately has no impact on the ongoing battle. The heroes never even interact with Zhao, except for Aang who met him once when he was kidnapped.

Ken: So, the race stuff was worse than I thought it would be, but the gender regression was even worse.

Minna: I know what you mean. In Season One of Avatar: The Last Airbender, feminism is such a central theme and Katara deals with all these feminist issues. Starts in the pilot, where she discovers Aang only because she got into a fight with Sokka about being sexist. I noticed in the film, every other one of Sokka's lines--especially in the beginning--is him bossing Katara around. Her first lines are an apology to Sokka.

Ken: Katara doesn't really get to be a hero or even have much of a personality. I was expecting the racefail but the thing that was most disappointing was how weak Katara's character was. I wasn't expecting such a failure on a gender balance level. Katara was really cool in the series. She had ambitions (to become an expert waterbender) and a character. In the movie, all she talks about is Aang.

Minna: Not exactly passing the Bechedel test.

Ken: Does Katara even talk to another woman?

Minna: Uhhh. Her grandma.

Ken: Yeah, they talk about Aang.

Minna: She doesn't get to talk to other women characters a lot in Season One of the series, either. But the feminism plotline continues with the Kyoshi Warriors, all the way through to the end of the season.

Ken: In the movie, she doesn't get to stand up to a sexist waterbending master. She doesn't get to have a solid fight with Zuko, either.

Minna: She's like, "I am Katara. The last waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe!" Like, why would you tell him that about yourself? And then he knocks her out in two moves.

Ken: She gets taken out like a chump! And then later in the movie she does the waterbender equivalent of sucker-punching him in the back when he is busy fighting Aang, and it's like yay, girl power? That's her girl power moment? She also isn't a great water bender; she's far less powerful and coordinated than Aang, repeatedly splashing Sokka when she tries to fight.

Minna: I understand cutting out some of the side characters like Jun, who was a great female antagonist. But after all that dog and pony show about the movie being diverse, about having these Asian Kyoshi Warriors and casting Jessica Jade Andres, an Asian American actress--her role was so insignificant it was cut from the movie all together. She wasn't even in the credits.

Ken: The only thing we hear about Avatar Kyoshi is that she "liked games". And GranGran makes a vague statement about destiny, instead of being the feisty old lady from the animated series.

Minna: And Yue wasn't a powerful figure even though she was a princess and ostensibly, the ruler. (God, Sokka even exposit the exact reason why she is a ruler in a long string of dialogue half an hour earlier. Something about a dead father.) All of the logistics are run by Pakku. He tells her she's the "inspiration."

Ken: Does Yue get to make any decisions?

Minna: She decides to kill herself. All of the women in the movie were more vehicles for exposition than anything else.

Ken: Yue does get to heroically sacrifice herself, but she's the only person who is capable of doing so. In the movie, a woman never gets to show herself the equal of a man in any act that both are capable of doing.

Minna: So now we've got to sort through what we tell Paramount, what feedback we give them. Ugh, this thing really needed a script doctor. Uncharitably, it reminded me of Star Wars: Episode II.

Ken: It's like there were so many bad things about this movie that you're going to have to prioritize what you want to talk about. Having white heroes be members of a non-white society is pretty much the definition of yellowface/brownface. The Southern Water Tribe was comprised entirely of "Inuit actors except for the heroic characters who go to do stuff get to be white."

Minna: But what about all the people who explain that Sokka and Katara are descended from the north, which is white?

Ken: Not explained in the movie, but okay, even then, why aren't any of the Inuit people there in any way important? And I would also talk about the "white people show up and tell the Asian people they can fight back if they felt like it" scene.

Minna: Well, you know, we people of color don't like helping ourselves until a whitewashed child messiah shows up to remind us. So what's the verdict?

Ken: Another movie not improved by the addition of CGI dewbacks.

Three insights we got from watching the film:

1. Every villain in the movie is a person of color. Every heroic character with a name is white. Every person of color who does a heroic action--aside from Iroh--needs inspiration from a white character before he can take action.

2. In the movie, a woman never gets to show herself the equal or better of a man in any act that both are capable of doing.

3. Adding a CGI dragon and three 3D CGI dewbacks did nothing to cover the massive amounts of boring exposition, genderfail, and racefail.

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