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racebending

The Last Airbender and Shyamalan's Response to Critics


Full disclosure: I have not seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. But I am a big fan of the Nickelodeon animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” of which I’ve seen every episode. I am a 21-year old Chinese-Canadian female. I am new to the “racebending” controversy, but having digested many movie reviews and much blogosphere chatter, I wanted to share a few thoughts about the racial politics surrounding the movie and in particular, I wanted to directly respond to Shyamalan’s defense of his casting choices.
 
M. Night Shyamalan have been feeling heat of the fan backlash on the “whitewashing” of The Last Airbender. I think his fullest defense of the movie came from a media roundtable Q&A which you can read here. The argument he presented here has basically been repeated every time he’s been asked a casting question. Ultimately, I think Shyamalan is unsuccessful and his reasoning doesn’t reflected the outcome of the film, despite his stated intentions.

I will go through Shyamalan’s answer point by point and try to unpack some of the embedded racial politics.

This is the question he was asked: “There’s been a lot of controversy regarding the casting and how all the heroes are being portrayed by Caucasian actors, while all the villains are all being portrayed by non-Caucasians. How do you respond to those who are saying that The Last Airbender is racist?


"Well, you caught me. I'm the face of racism. I'm always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it."
 

The ambiguity over the term “Asian”--
Like all terms designating race, “Asian” has many different meanings. Does it designate inhabitants and descendents of the entire continent? Is it limited to East Asians? What about Middle-Easterns? South Asians? Southeast Asians? Russians? Like all racial categories, “Asian” is very board, comes with heavy historical baggage, and inevitably problematic. The ambiguity over the term has been a major feature of this debate--what's the "right" kind of "Asian"? We should all be more careful in employing these terms.

Shyamalan exploits the ambiguity of the term “Asian” by pointing out that himself is Asian. But being non-White himself doesn't give Shyamalan a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

"Here's the reality: first of all, the Uncle Iroh character is the Yoda character in the movie, and it would be like saying that Yoda was a villain. So he's Persian. And Dev Patel is the actual hero of the series, and he's Indian, OK? The whole point of the movie is that there isn't any bad or good. The irony is that I'm playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I'm racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect."
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Color politics--
I'm going to ignore the Yoda comment, because I'm not sure if it makes any sense at all. But I think Shyamalan's argument goes something like this: (1) In the movie, "there isn't any bad or good," so you can't associate bad or good with skin colors. (2) It is the audience who is racist because it is the audience associates skin colors with bad and good. (3) Shyamalan is actually outsmarting the audience by turning their own prejudices against themselves.

This argument borders on being nonsensical. As numerous people have already pointed out, it is a fact that people associate good and bad with skin colors (the doll test). Also, how can Aang's story not be about good and bad? The entire premise of the series hinges on an imperialistic, militaristic nation bent on taking over the world and their genocide of a people? The Last Airbender is a morality tale of epic proportions.
 
Let's grant Shyamalan that the bigger message of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is that everyone is capable of both great evil and great good. Like ying and yang, we all have bits of good and bad in us. I don't know how this message translates to The Last Airbender, but the color-coding of the movie still baffles explanation. Are darker skinned people more prone to their capacities for bad? Are the fair skinned protagonists more capable of being promoters of good? If this isn't racism, what is?

The less convoluted argument goes: The casting is not racist, because a Persian and an Indian are heroes of the story. Too bad the movie ends before the audience discovers that Zuko and Iroh are protagonists. As far as The Last Airbender is concerned, Zuko and his uncle are Aang's nemesis. Shyamalan can't use what's not in the film to justify the film.

Shyamalan is not "playing on the exact prejudices" of his detractors, he's confirming them. He cast the entire Fire Nation with dark skinned actors. But two members of the Fire Nation are actually heroes. These are exceptions that only prove the rule.
 
 
"There are four nations, and I had to eventually make a decision about what nationality each of them are. What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid. To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean. Every monk you see in a flashback, in that world, are all mixed race because they're nomadic. I felt that really worked as a culture. OK, so that's one-quarter of our world population. The second group is the Fire Nation; when Dev was cast as Zuko, I said, OK, I have to cast an Uncle Iroh that looks like his uncle. We're going to go from Indian/Persian to Mediterranean, all that group with all its darker colors including Italians.

"So now we're  one-half of the population of the movie which is not white. Moving on to the third group, which is the Earth kingdom (which is the biggest kingdom in this fictional world): I liked a bunch of the people who happened to be Japanese, Korean, Philippine, so I decided to make the Earth kingdom Asians. Now we're at three-quarters of the world. Now I have the brother and sister left. If you don't have an edict of 'don't put white people in the movie' then the Water tribe can be European/Caucasian. So that's how it ended up."

Dividing up the world-- Shyamalan claims to have put a lot of thought into the fantasy world. However, these divisions are utterly perplexing. I will buy that the Air Nomads are mixed race. But Shyamalan inexplicably places darker colored people all within the Fire Nation. Indian, Persian, Mediterranean--that's a very big territory covering countless different ethnicities and nationalities. And when he specifically mentions Italians, does he only mean the darker skinned Southern Italians as oppose to the fairer Northern Italians? This is baffling. It is not a matter of nationality, but a matter of skin color. If the actor is sufficiently brown--in the Indian/Persian/Mediterranean way--then s/he may be a member of the Fire Nation.

This fantasy world is constructed completely on skin color.

Furthermore, Jesse McCartney was originally cast as Zuko. If Dev Patel didn't replace him, would Shyamalan have envisioned a white Fire Nation?

Shyamalan claims that the Water Tribe be European/Caucasian. Apparently Italians are not "white" enough.

This is the big point. In the scenes depicting Sokka's and Katara's tribe, everyone in the background were Asian/Inuit. Let me repeat that, everyone in the Southern Water Tribe were Asian/Inuit. Except Sokka, Katara and their grandmother. So did Shyamalan only mean the Northern Water Tribe are European/Caucasian? Did he miss Sokka and Katara's tribe in his color blocking?

What's really going on here?
 
"Here's the irony of the conversation: The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I'm not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color – no one's even close. That's a great pride to me. The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of ... not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You're coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I'm casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn't in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!"

Cultural diversity-- There is more to cultural diversity than having diverse supporting characters and extras.

Shyamalan takes great pride in the African-American village in the Earth Kingdom--but this flies in the face of his previous statements about the Earth Kingdom being Asian--morely specifically, Japanese, Korean, Philippine. Of course, it is possible that the Earth Kingdom is more diverse, but the inconsistencies are perplexing--shouldn't they belong in the Fire Nation by Shyamalan's color blocking logic?

The fact is, the African-American village is there only for the sake of diversity, as a token.

Furthermore, Shyamalan claims color blind casting when we all have seen the damning casting calls specifically requesting: "Caucasian or any other ethnicity."

The color blocking of the four nations of the "Avatar" world shows, if anything, the lack of sensitivity for cultural diversity. Italians are lumped with Persians. All the East Asian ethnicities are considered one. Everyone's ethnic identity have been reduced to physical appearances and skin color.

"Avatar" succeeded because of its celebration of Asian/Inuit cultural diversity. Drawing from the philosophy and cultures of a diverse set of Asian/Inuit civilizations, "Avatar" showed a world that is diverse, multifaceted, and most of all harmonious (at least during time of peace). It showed that Eastern culture isn't monolithic or homogeneous, but vibrant and rich and full of different ethnic traditions and philosophies.
 
"And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say "Ahng" instead of "Aaang" because it's correct. It's not "I-rack," it's "ee-Rock." I'm literally fighting for all this. And who's getting blamed? ME! This is incredible. And so it's infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here's the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me, and if it doesn't stick, then be quiet."

Asian pronunciation, non-Asian actors-- Here, we see more inconsistencies in Shyamalan's defense. He insists that the pronunciations go back to being "Asian pronunciation." Last time I checked, Asian was not a language. I wonder which Asian language served as Shyamalan's reference? Chinese? Sanskrit? I think we need more clarification.

In "Avatar," traditional Chinese characters were employed for every piece of writing we see.

What is really baffling about these pronunciation changes is that Shyamalan denies that the cartoon characters look East Asian or Inuit, but insists that their names be pronounced the Asian way. If their names are Asian, shouldn't the characters be Asian too? Whatever "Asian" that the pronunciation Shyamalan is referring to.

 
"Whenever we're on set, it's crazy, I love it. We're in our cafeteria, it looks like the United Nations in there! And you're not supposed to be thinking about this because it's so diverse. And again, this is what really frustrates me, when we get to the second movie (hopefully), since its based in the Earth Kingdom, suddenly the movie will seem entirely politically correct Asian, and the accusers will feel like they won. YOU DID NOT WIN! YOU DID NOT WIN! That's not what happened, you were wrong. As you can tell, it's a frustrating thing. Look at the movie poster with Dev Patel in it. I'm not understanding ... he's not politically correct?

"I could go on for half an hour on that subject ... in the end it's like that saying, 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions.' "

Political correctness-- Again, there's the ambiguity over the term "Asian." But Shyamalan misses the point.

This is what is politically incorrect: Mickey Rooney in yellowface as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

"At the basis of this, a fascinating thing, it didn't even occur to me until the first mention of this came up: The art form of Anime in and of itself is what's causing the confusion. The Anime artists intentionally put ambiguous features on the characters so that you see who you want to see in it. It's part of the art form. My daughter looks identical to Katara; I saw my family in that series when I was watching it, I saw them in the faces. I'm sure that every household feels the same way in that they see their own families in them. It's a fascinating thing about how people perceive it. If there's an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there ... take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me."
 

Race in anime-- No one in real life can look like an anime character. The big doll like anime eyes can only be achieved through digital manipulation (i.e. Lady Gaga in "Bad Romance" video). Shyamalan argues that the anime characters can be anyone and that their features are interpretive.

The bigger point is, of course, it is not possible to interpret without context. And the context of The Last Airbender is a fantasy Asia. How can the context not be any more clearer when the only written language we see in "Avatar" is Chinese.

If the Avatar characters' can be interpreted to be non-Asian, shouldn't the characters' names also be interpreted to be non-Asian pronunciations (whatever that means) also?

Shyamalan attempts to shift the blame to the creators of the animated series, however, the creators have been clear that "Avatar" takes places in a world populated by East Asian/Inuit/Tibetan people. Just as The Lord of the Ring trilogy was set in a fantasy Medieval Europe, "Avatar" was set in a fantasy Medieval Asia.

 

I hope some of these points haven't already been made. Please let me know if I have stated any inaccuracies to quotations and facts. If you agree or, especially, if you disagree with my take on the issues, please comment!

Do you think Shyamalan was truly thoughtful in the casting calls? Are you convinced by his arguments? Do you think the charge of racism is fair?
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