Why This Stupid Last Airbender Shit Matters

Let me give you some background information so we're all on the same page: Avatar: The Last Airbender was a hugely successful, wildly popular, animated Nickelodeon martial arts fantasy. The show took place in a mythical land, however, much of the architecture, writing, and character designs were based on many cultures, with emphasis on ancient Chinese and Inuit cultures. There's a little Hinduism, a little Buddhism, a little Japan. Hollywood decided to make a live action film about it, and M. Night Shyamalan of The Happening fame was tapped to run the show.

And then they cast all the main characters as white kids.

Rightfully, a large segment of people were concerned. Whether you know it or not, many adaptations, such as 21, "white wash" diverse casts to make them white and therefore "more relatable" and "appealing," which is already a suspect claim. A much larger segment of people didn't see what the big deal was and was totes stoked to see dudes throw fireballs at each other.

For a long time, I've always been annoyed at the circumstances of Asian Americans, particularly Asian American males, in Hollywood. There were few leading roles, so they were often relegated to sidekicks, with an awful yellowface history, most notably Charlie Chan in the 1920s to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Leading roles were restricted to Jet Li and Jackie Chan types, who were not even masculine enough to be depicted as sexual. Jet Li got to hug Aaliyah at the end of Romeo Must Die, despite every white action film in the history of man ending with exactly the same kind of victory make out. Harold and Kumar, a film with two leading Asian Americans was certainly a landmark, but also the exception, not the rule.

The argument for not casting Asian Americans in leading roles is often, "There are no bankable stars." Meaning, no one on the A or B list is Asian, or how can we put them in a movie without putting our film's success at risk? Of course, that's a self-perpetuating cycle. But then here comes The Last Airbender, a blockbuster license that doesn't need a big name, that can support actors of any race and rocket them to some notoriety. What an opportunity!

So they cast Caucasian actors in the leading roles.

I'm not the only one who saw this as ridiculous. Whenever this is brought up somewhere on the internet, or in columns, or somewhere public, there is always this weird push back. Their arguments are often shallow, and I thought it would be a therapeutic exercise to go over them here.

1. How can it be racist if Dev Patel is the main villain and M. Night Shyamalan is directing?


First, no one is exempt from racism. This is not to say Shyamalan is bigoted, malicious or prejudice. Just that his ignorance of the meaning and importance of his film's casting choice has racist effects. Contrary to popular belief, one does not have to actually be racist to perpetuate, reinforce, or do racist things. You don't have to be a chef to cook. You don't have to wear a white hood to support the worst racial institutions in like, say, Hollywood.

Secondly, Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire was cast after the original actor couldn't make it due to scheduling conflicts. Originally it was supposed to be Jesse Fucking McCartney and it still would have been if he hadn't had to go on tour. Then we have the whole fact that all the heroes are white and all the villains are people of color, but I don't want to get into that, and I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that it is an awful coincidence (that will have kids socialized to empathize with the white heroes and root against the colored villains)

2. How can you pick a race based on a fantasy cartoon where no race is explicitly stated? It's all fiction! They can be anything!


If you agree that they can be anything, then doesn't it disappoint that Hollywood took that wide open possibility and made it so that they're white, just like every other movie? Think about this: The architecture, the writing, the design, the inspiration is all explicitly Asian. If you don't think this is supposed to be Asian, I don't think you understand cultural signifiers. The creators of the cartoon have said as much. Yet the main characters, the heroes, are white. They stand out amongst the dozens of extras and background people, who are all colored.

Even fantasy has ethnicity. You would have cried murder if Aragorn was played by Denzel Washington in Lord of the Rings, because Lord of the Rings is a densely European myth and everyone knows it. Even worse, imagine Denzel as Aragorn, and all of his family and countrymen are depicted as lily white. It would make no sense and we wouldn't stop talking about the optics.

3. The cartoon characters look white to me.


I can't do anything about your interpretation, but when the entire world it is set in is THICK with Asian and Inuit influences, you don't think those are supposed to be cues to interpret the characters that inhabit that world are also Asian and Inuit? Look beyond the hexadecimal code or the hue of peach used in the coloring process and look at the context.

Even if we agree to disagree about precisely what ethnicity these goddamn cartoons are supposed to be, the fact is that it is at least debatable, and therefore, they had the golden, open opportunity to do some inspired, brave casting and they decided to shit all over it and make it another example of Hollywood's subconscious, institutionalized racism.

4. The race shouldn't matter, the best actors should get the part.


This is the same argument people use against race-based scholarships, or Black History Month, or anything involving any ethnic spotlighting or specialty. If people in power don't make proactive change to include those who have been historically left out, then that's not progress. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, and some ladders of opportunity are necessary.

The fact is, to say that there aren't talented Asian or Native American actors in Hollywood so he had ta' cast white people is insulting. There are. Maybe your casting call shouldn't emphasize Caucasian people first and foremost.

5. It's not racism, it's just about money, and white leads get more money. C'est la vie.


This is a defeatist attitude that has never helped anyone. White leads get more money, so you cast more white leads, and they continue to make more money. C'est la vie is only an option for those who can walk away from this with a full range and potential in our mass media culture.

It's not racism in the sense that Shyamalan and Paramount are malicious and just want to punish the brown people for being brown - that kind of cartoon racism is hard to find, and most people are smarter than that. Modern racism is slightly more subtle.

Less than 2% of leading roles in Hollywood go to Asian people. I imagine that 2% is occupied by the same two to five people. Imagine if every movie was Val Kilmer and Jennifer Garner. There are thousands of actors out there clawing for a real shot at the big stage. There aren't major racist studio heads that decided to make it that way. Just ignorant studio heads, on a case by case basis, where 98% of the cases end up the same way, that decided to go with the poison of safe money over meaningful casting. They assume that the American movie-goer is so racist that they could never relate to a person of a different heritage as the main character. C'mon. Prove them wrong.

6. It's just a movie! It's just a cartoon! What's the big deal?


And this is it. And this is the fucking kicker that gets me every time. Because they are absolutely right.

It is just a goddamn pop movie.

Do you want to know the truth? I don't even follow the show all that much. Not the biggest fan in the world. But I do like seeing people of color on the screen, and it bothers me greatly when potential roles are taken away from them for the sake of making more white role models in pop culture, as if they were sorely lacking. No, it's not the biggest example of racism or hegemony in today's society. It is not the prison industrial complex, it is not Arizona's new immigration laws, it is not the war on drugs.

But popular culture is how the vast society understands each other. It is how we learn things, in addition to our education, but we all know which one is leading, at least in this country. Children grow up watching TV, listening to music, being socialized and learning what is "normal" and what is "abnormal." They are taught what lies inside social norms and what is considered "the other." Pop culture is so goddamn powerful.

If you aren't familiar with something personally, you learn about it from pop culture. If you have never been to the north pole, you only know what you've learned from pop, and pop says penguins live in the north pole. They don't. Imagine if that was someone else's race. What do you know about Hindus? Okay, what about Aboriginals? Or Hmong? Or Lezgians? Or Gagauz? Or Gorani? Nothing, because your pop culture hasn't portrayed shit about them. So you fill in the blanks with what your pop culture HAS told you.

It is just a goddamn pop movie. And it can do so much to change minds.

The trouble with talking and expressing racial politics and identity is that it is very often hard to articulate. It requires an open minded acceptance of sociology, an understanding of certain parts of history, a certain refusal of what you were taught. But this? This goddamn cartoon movie? This is plain as day, black and white, easy as pie. If we can't even change the majority of society's minds about something easy like an M. Night Shyamalan movie, then what kind of uphill battle are we facing in Arizona?

This is why something as inconsequential as a movie franchise about kids throwing fireballs at each other matters. Because it is indicative of a larger culture of denialism, a willful ignorance of the state of racism, and a support of the cultural machine that aggresively fights progress. There is no reason getting all kids heroes that look like them on-screen has to be such a goddamn battle.