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Sad, Racist, or Firebendingly Hillarious?

"Avatar: The Last Airbender is a truly unique comic adventure with rich animation and incredible martial-arts choreography. Creators Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino designed a fantastical Asian world with compelling characters and interesting creatures that will capture kids' imaginations and spirit."
-- Marjorie Cohn, Executive Vice President, Development and Original Programming, Nickelodeon

This week, Entertainment Weekly leaked the alleged cast for M. Night Shaylaman's film adaptation of the (awesome) Nickelodeon animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

While the revelation that the most emo-est firebender in all the land will be played by a blonde teenybopper popstar rankled the shippers, many fans were also visually assaulted by the alabaster skin of the youthful cast. The uproar isn't that they cast white people, but over the fact that this is one of the few movies where they could have also cast diverse actors--but like, totally chose not to do so.

omg you guys it's because we aren't good enough.

It's true. Young, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, Inuit, Aborigine, Pacific Islander, First Nations/American Indian, and other assorted brownish actors just can't compete with the photogenic looks and amazing talent of Jesse McCarthy's Beautiful Soul.

Colored folk are not supposed to be offended by this casting decision because obviously, M. Night Shaylaman (who is colored, yes?) and his ilk have decreed that we have moved past the litigation-worthy discrimination faced by minority actors into a new, Colbert-esque, colorblind utopia!

You may ask: To accurately and sensitively depict Asian-inspired characters and cultures, shouldn't we be exhausting all options and painstakingly seeking for a actor of color before immediately defaulting to whiteness?

NO goddammit. Because to not allow white actors to play parts that would traditionally go to minority actors would be racist. And to not allow colored folk the opportunity to play parts that are based on or inspired by minority characters is like, so not racist at all. Get with the program, people.

Would you like to see some ironic foreshadowing from almost a year ago in which I predict racist casting, and, for whatever reason, that they will cast "someone like Jesse McCartney" from January 2008? (Do you think I jinxed it? Ken says I was tempting fate. ::cries::.)

Honestly, we should have saw this coming. Remember when the casting sides came out and they read "Caucasian or other ethnicity"? I mean, the words "Other Ethnicity" speak for themselves. We are Others. Caucasian was already the stated preference months ago. We should have flipped out then--but I guess no one thought they would go so far as to make the principal cast (and, since the supporting cast is comprised of the characters' families) completely Caucasian. . Ooops.

Okay, okay. So, the uproar isn't that they cast white people. We are upset because this is one of the few movies where they could have cast diverse actors--but didn't.

The white creators of Avatar the Last Airbender painstakingly created the Avatar setting off of Asian and Inuit cultures. To ensure accuracy and respect in their depiction of aspects of those cultures, they even went as far as to hire several different Asian cultural consultants, such as a kung fu Sifu fluent in several different Asian martial arts, a Chinese Caligrapher, Chinese translator, etc.

Paramount's failure to be culturally inclusive in their casting reflects on their lack of respect or understanding of the source material, which pays tribute to Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Indian, Inuit, and Aztec cultures otherwise underrepresented in traditional fantasy and animated fare.

By casting wholesome "American" good looks, Paramount has squandered plenty of good will by making a dangerous assumption: that the show's diverse fanbase will accept the whitewashing of characters that come from an obviously diverse background.

Avatar is one of few animated shows on TV with ethnically ambiguous, yet distinctly Asian, characters. It was proof that despite Hollywood's assumptions, little kids will watch TV shows even if none of the characters on the show look white.

Given the diversity reflected not only in the Avatar setting but also in American society, this casting decision sends a terrible message to young children of color--already underrepresented--who will see empowering characters who looked like them replaced by presumably more "acceptable" white children. This casting decision mars not only the reputation of the movie, but also the reputation of the studio. Paramount, M. Night, Mr. Aibel, you could have viewed The Last Airbender as an opportunity to cast young actors of color, who are rarely offered lead roles. Your studio would have been praised for the revolutionary decision and received plenty of positive publicity.

I publicly apologize on behalf of the assortment of yellow and brown folk interested in this movie everywhere. Obviously, this casting is not because the studio has seriously warped priorities, but because we yellow and brown people can't act. I am so sorry we were not good enough to be cast in this movie. ::cries::

I will begin brainstorming now how to explain to little Asian kids why they don't have "the white right look" or enough "srs acting skills" to be in a movie that is based off a cartoon where the characters look like them, even if the show is based on their own culture.

What a tweest!


If this is the final casting, I will never see this movie.
If you get a moment, you should write the producers and tell them this!



Did so last week when it first came out. ;-)


Speak English, please. Your FFFFF accent offends me.

Re: -_-

oshi sorry, forgot I was in AMERICA

also note that I have taken a page from the Avatar movie people and recast my userpic so that it is less Asian

Re: -_-

He looks KIND of Asian. If he has an Asian accent that TOTALLY makes him "one of us"

Re: -_-

He is ENGLISH. Proof that white people can totally play EVERY RACE EVAR, rite?

(here from metafandom, seething for you all wellmeaningly, albeit in what ultimately ends up being a colonialist gesture)

Re: -_-

dance colonialism, dance!
Most of the kids I mentor are black or other "colored" ethnicity. I was shocked that they defined me as American and themselves as something else. They weren't quite sure what, but white=American.

That really bothers me. We need more movies that aren't cast pale so people see people. Am I making sense?
Yeah. I've met people whose only real exposure to Asian people was through Jackie Chan movies. It's SCARY.
I kinda totally love you and everything you post about. Link? Heck yes! Friend? HELLS YEAH.
I can't believe you called Jesse McCartney being cast. That's amazing in a totally horrible way. (I don't even know who he is... a Disney kid??)

This is so, so fail. I guess they were scared about making a movie with no white people in it, so they just whitewashed the whole society the story is set in. Of course they still might throw in random non-white background actors, just to be super fail.
Well, you know, we wouldn't want to engender reverse racism by denying white actors the roles who -desperately- need the money...

I -like- Avatar, but what pisses me off is that it's 2008 and Americans still can't get a role based on racism.
Everyone desperately needs money right now. White actors merely have more opportunities to make that money, including, apparently, in M Night's movie. =/
Studio heads are old and don't know a damn thing so they always market the most disgustingly conservative fare to children just to appease their gut instincts as to "what kids want".

The executive version of "what kids want" can be regularly seen on Disney Channel as we speak. I think of this as just another extension of said mindset that brought us the wonderfully diverse casting of whatever that bullshit show is on Disney Channel. The asian actress on Disney Channel makes me ashamed to be associated through racial identity.
What, you mean "Wendy Wang: Homecoming Warrior"? At least they cast Asians in that, unlike ABC Family's "Samurai Girl," where the sensei (Asian in the books) was white. And hot. But still white. ::facepalm::
I'm ambivalent about this because my mind goes: the parts are so bad, why do we even want them?

I think it's just a matter of there being more writers willing to define what the nouveau AA experience is and legitimately trying to market that or casting directors willing to cast AA in typical bit parts as opposed to stereotypical "Asian" roles.

I mean, how important was it that Hattie McDaniel got the part that she did in Gone with the Wind? I think parts like John Cho's in Off Centre and movies like Better Luck Tomorrow do a better job in really advancing these roles but. I don't know, I have an ambivalent relationship with this issue.

Is it better if the shockingly ignorant representation of Asian culture is done by a white actor or an AA actor is what I'm pondering.
It was Wendy Wu and she's talking about how the main actress in that movie regularly plays a ditz in "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" (not sure if the spin off has her or not, but I've been away at college and not watching Disney channel, so I have an excuse). I much prefer her in the role of someone intelligent, tbh. Then again, I'm annoyed at token ditz characters anyway.
I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I mean, sure, she plays a ditz, but we can't say "Look, we want roles, but they can only be positive, competent, and intelligent portrayals of us!" In a way, she's going against stereotype by saying, "look, Asians can be ditzes too."

The problem lies in the fact that there are disproportionately more negative depictions of Asians than positive ones.
True, but it's more I don't really like how it's either one end or the other. Either Asians are portrayed highly intelligent or they're not teh brightest crayon in the box. Why not have one that's in the middle? (Much like Wendy Wu was, IIRC, but it's been a while since I've seen the film) After all, I have several Asian friends online and off and they're closer to in the middle than super genius. True, they still make good grades, but certainly not 100s all of the time.

Too true no matter how you look at it. And this movie should be a great place to start that. 'Tis why I'm writing letters to as many people as possible so that we can get more positive role models in minority acting roles.
Yeah, most Asians are closer in the middle. You know, average. That's why I hate the model minority myth. But when they want to show someone closer to the middle, the usually depict a white person. It's...weird.

Keep up the letter writing!
Exactly. The only real way to show that not all Asians are some random stereotype is to have them in a "normal person" role. But of course no one cares to do so. *rolls eyes*

Damn straight I will! I intend on getting envelopes tomorrow (don't have enough here and even then, they aren't business envelopes ><) and sending them off as well. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I'm more than willing so that I can see a little variety in my entertainment, especially when the source material deems it so!!
Thank you!
I thought I was the only one who noticed that ;-;

Dude, I just love you mentioning South East Asians. NO ONE EVER REMEMBERS US! We're like the losers right at the back of the party who everyone refers to just as "Oh, don't worry. It's only South East Asian folks. Want a chip?"

Anyway, agree to everything you said. Us yellow/brown people can't do anything right. :(
Sure we can! They love our kung fu movies and our general tso's chicken! And our women are so "exotic" and our countries are so "beautiful!"
That's disgusting; thank you for bringing this to my attention. If nothing else, I know I can still make a statement by not spending money on a movie I otherwise would be interested in seeing.
You're welcome. People are also getting the word out at aang_aint_white if you want to send letters to let it be known!
I agree that the casting here is, for the most part, absurd, but at the same time, I highly doubt that casting, for example, Jackson Rathbone, was primarily racist in nature. I mean, yeah, it's there: Sokka and Katara are clearly supposed to be Inuit, but I really think that his choice has less to do with race than it does Twilight. Even though he played a relatively minor character there, the media attention is still there. If the inclusion of an attractive actor from one of the year's most wildly successful movies brings them even half of Twilight's audience (whose age group is generally the same target as Airbender), the movie will be a thousand times more successful. And if they chose to cast him, they have to pick someone for Katara who could believably be his sister. This rationalization also probably had a part in casting Jason Isaacs.

While I personally think that Aang really does look white, there's no rationalization for casting Jesse McCartney as Zuko. I mean, if they had to pick a white actor, I'm pretty sure they could have found one who looks a LITTLE more like his character.
Oh, don't get me wrong, I think it's all about the $$$ and pulling in the Twilight fan girls.

But um, denying/changing the character's ethnicity (Water Tribe folk were pretty obviously a brown minority) or the background of the show (heavy Asian and Inuit influences) in order to make that extra $$$ from Twilighters is a little racially offensive, I think, because they were willing to sacrifice this acknowledgment of diversity in the show in order to make the $$$ (which they are not going to make now, anyway--at least not from me and many other fans who feel this way.)

I mean, it's going to be a little awkward for me, as an Asian American woman, to see a bunch of white people in kimonos and shaolin monk outfits and inuit clothes and omg Zuko's topknot lol, to be honest. Kind of like the incongruity in seeing men in drag play women in Shakespeare plays back in the day, and how that was sexist.

While I personally think that Aang really does look white
A lot of people have been telling me that they think Aang looks white because he has big eyes. This is really bothering me because I don't know why there's this pervasive stereotype that Asians have small eyes. Aang has big eyes because he's an anime-stylized character and all anime characters have big eyes, not because he's not Asian. =/ I really hope people are examining why they believe Aang looks white to make sure it's not based on the small eyes stereotype. My eyes are bigger than my white boyfriend's. =P

tl;dr: They were more $$$ motivated than racially motivated, but that doesn't mean it's right. And Aang's big eyes don't necessarily mean he is not Asian.

Bug eyed Asian people protest now plzkthx! (Attn: Vickie Zhao!)
It's not just that he has big eyes. It's more that his big eyes are also blue, and his skin is fair. Not that there aren't pale Asians, but his skin tone doesn't exactly have olive undertones. I wouldn't be opposed to an Asian actor playing him, but I'm equally unopposed to white representation.

I didn't mean to say that misrepresenting the characters' obvious ethncities is morally right, just that the production companies are in business to make money, not a statement. On top of the fact that Jason Isaacs already did the voice for Zhao, Deathly Hallows, which he figures more prominently in, comes out the same year. Jackson Rathbone will have been in two Twilight installments by then, and if they keep up with their current release schedule, there's a good chance that the third will also come out in 2010. Connecting Avatar to those two powerhouses is a huge motivation, financially speaking. I'm not agreeing with their decision, but it's naive not to at least consider other reasons for the decision.
Whoa, when did they confirm Jason Issacs as Zhao. That's really odd. Hmm. Dammit, if they cast Jason Issacs, why didn't they also cast Jack DeSena? :_:

(I know, I know, $$$)

I'm not trying to be naive by denying the money thing. I'm saying that they should have done it right by casting correctly despite the money thing because it's offensive. =/
I think it's confirmed? It might not be, but I've seen/heard people talking about it, so I dunno.

All I'm really trying to say is that whatever racism is present in the end result, I have doubts that the production company was thinking about that when they cast. They were probably thinking more along the lines of, "Well, these actors are already known to that age group from being in wildly popular series, and look enough like the cartoon characters to pass for them in makeup, so why turn down the big fat bonus casting them would bring?" Because the thing about cartoons is that very rarely are the ethnicities completely clear, so there's room to fudge (even if it's not the morally correct thing to do). And by 2010, Avatar will have been long over, so they'll need any extra publicity they can get. (It would be nice if said publicity could have come from the film's own merit and not... this... but there you have it)

Even taking fudging into account, though, Jesse McCartney? Either they're totally blind, or he made one HELL of an audition. Honestly.

If anything, I think the most effective thing to be done against corporate media whitewashing is just writing more, better material for minorities. It would take a very long time, but if people like you and me wrote more books and movies that not only featured, but were dependent on having a diverse cast of characters, public perception of the "norm" would slowly shift to a more accurate median.

If anything, I think the most effective thing to be done against corporate media whitewashing is just writing more, better material for minorities.

I agree, and I think part of the reason why so many people are so upset about this casting is because Avatar is excellent material for minorities. It is one of the few opportunities out there and that opportunity was blocked off to court the Twilight fans instead.

Even writing material for minorities isn't the answer completely--minorities want to be able to play in mainstream roles. Part of the reason why minority actors are so frustrated is because when roles are written for minorities, the roles are often steeped in race, and the character does not stand for itself--and you get stuff like, say, The Joy Luck Club. When the character does stand by itself and race isn't factored in, the default casting option is still white, and that's a big part of the problem. Ideally, the character shouldn't have to be "specially written for a ___ actor" in order for the minority to get a chance at being the character. In addition to writers who are willing to create stories like Avatar, we also need more people producing and casting who are willing to court minority audiences rather than offend them and aim for Twilight fans instead.
Yeah, I agree. I just think that, as nice as it would be if writing letters and complaining a lot would get anything done, that the real problem/solution lies in actually changing the way people think, which is an exceedingly difficult and slow thing to do. While I agree that there is racism in the casting, I don't think it was a conscious thing--and THAT is the real problem. Making a big, obvious fuss is nice, but changing people's subconscious assumptions and perceptions of the world is a very slow process. And I don't think that the people who did the casting intended to be malicious. It's easy to get caught up in the storm of offense and rage and lose track of the fact that the people who did the casting probably didn't want to offend anybody or didn't realize they were doing it. Not that that makes it okay, but it definitely puts everything into a certain perspective.
It's definitely sobering. I wonder if they expected this kind of outcry. 0_0

Sometimes I also wonder if part of this is a way for the studio to ratchet up publicity for a film that might bomb just because M Night is attached to it, even if it is negative.
I know I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, maybe to a fault, but I know that if it were me, I'd be quite upset by the reaction. If that is actually the case, I'd feel really bad for them, because having already cast the main characters, there's very little they can do now. The reason I have doubts that letter-writing will work is that, since the announcement of the official casting is so public, changing it now might be too much bad publicity for the film to handle.

I do think that the casting also had a lot to do with Shyamalan as a director. Since his last few films have failed so badly, they probably went with safer options, despite what he wanted. (Because it's not like his decisions have panned out to much lately.)
haha yeah, one of my letters was already returned to sender.

I've wondered how they could spin it if they did switch the cast. Maybe it could generate positive publicity for their film ala "We have decided to have a very diverse cast! Come ye, diverse families!" It certainly would restore a lot of good will lost from fans due to the casting decisions. I am definitely not considering seeing the movie right now, but if after all of my efforts (including propping up fellow fans who are coordinating this behind the scenes) they did mix things up a bit, I would want to go see the movie to support their willingness to have a diverse cast.

On the other hand, it could be seen as giving the fans too much power (ala Zutara) and make them the laughing stock of Hollywood, I don't know.

I basically knew the movie was doomed as soon as Shyamalan came aboard (the daunting task of adapting something as complex as Avatar Season 1 into a 2 hour movie? Good luck. Not to mention it's Shyamalan...) So a part of me is also worried that they WILL listen to fans, cast a diverse cast, and then the film will bomb anyway, and then they'll go, "See, colored folk just aren't worth it. We should have gone with Twilight."
I was actually kind of excited to see Shyamalan. He HAS directed some very good movies in the past, so it's not like he's a total talentless hack. I really want to see what he can do with a script that, for once, he didn't write. Still, combining a whole season into a two hour movie is a daunting task for anyone.

There is always a risk that a movie will be terrible, regardless of the ethnicity of the actors in it. There is an equal chance that the all-white cast will give an absolutely phenomenal performance. It's just that in this case, how well the movie does makes a huge statement.

In a way, I think it's kind of sad that the production of a movie, the technical aspects and planning, has to make such a huge statement. Part of me thinks that it sort of takes away from the art. I think it should be the story making the statement rather than the creation of it. But I suppose I live in a dreamworld.
I think it should be the story making the statement rather than the creation of it.

My impression was that the Avatar story as seen in the animated series WAS making a powerful statement, and that this has been fucked over by the casting of solely white actors, and that this is why all the Avatar fans are so upset?
Damn right changing people's minds is a slow process. That's the reason why people who work against racism, or any other sort of discrimination, can't afford to pass up even a single opportunity to increase awareness.

Even if it "doesn't work" in the sense of not making the producers re-cast Avatar with actors of color, it might just work in making some people think a bit further the next time. Maybe even make them question whether their nice, non-malicious, just-wanna-make-even-more-money intentions are so innocent as all that.
It's more that his big eyes are also blue

Interesting trivia: Aang's eyes are actually grey, Katara and Sokka's eyes are blue, Zuko and Azula's eyes are goldish orange, and Toph's eyes are a pale green. The eyes of the different nations match their elements. It's really neat, and really sharp eyed fans can even point out that whenever the Gaang is visiting some town that is bordering other nations, the eye color varies due to intermixing. It's really cool. (But this is again part of my argument that in the avatar world they wanted to vary eye color by having it correspond to their elements.)


Aang's race

It's funny how people still think Aang is blue, considering the facts (brackets being how I would use the fact as a decision maker).

Aang practices martial arts. (Predominantly an Asian practice)
Aang is dressed like a Shaolin monk. (Asian origins)
Aang has fair skin. (Could be Causasian/Chinese/Korean/Japanese)
Aang has black eyebrows. (Mainly Asian, could be Caucasian)
Aang lives in an Asian influenced environment. (Duh, Asian)
Aang has grey eyes. (Given that no race has naturally grey eyes, this is a "For fun" addition)

All the factors above indicate that Aang is... white??? How??? It's like concluding that Spider Man is actually a Japanese man living under American pretensions.


If they wanted the Twilight audience, why'd they pick the guy who had two lines (if that), will be unrecognizable from character to character (blonde curly haired Jasper vs. black haired mohawk-ponytailed Sokka), and who was chosen for his previous role because he is so pale he literally sparkles in the sunlight? Why Jackson Rathbone?

Why didn't they pick the affable Taylor Lautner, whose character is worshiped by approximately half the fanbase (Team Jacob), who will be replaced in the sequel because he is too young and goofy to play a srs! romantic lead (hello awkward moves on Suki), who may or may not be NDN but is brown enough to be cast as one and not look ridiculous, and who is a 4X martial arts champion, making him over-qualified? Seriously, check his bo staff stuff on Youtube from 5 years ago. Watch that and imagine the space-sword duel with Master Piando. That could work.

I understand the desire for crossover fanbase appeal. But when there is a far more suitable candidate in the SAME movie? It's ridiculous. I'm not even a Twilighter (hate the series actually), and I am blushing by recommending "Shark Boy" here, but Jesus. My armchair casting is a million times better than this fail.
Oh wow. I didn't know this. Very good point. 0_0 Maybe he wasn't pretty enough and they think white people are purtier?

Which is stupid because there are girls obsessed with Corbin Bleu.
M. Night's control over the film hinged on the success of The Happening, which tanked at the box office. He wanted to cast unknown actors who knew martial arts and, presumeably, would be actors of colour (which is probably why they're unknown). It is unlikely that he's responsible for the casting.
Yeah, I know. On the other hand, it would be better for the movie that these kids cast are the ones he actually wants, rather than kids imposed on by higher-ups.

I wonder how he'll explain to his kids, "sorry, I know cartoon Katara looks like you, but we've cast someone who doesn't look like you instead for the movie." Or um, if he feels sell-outy at all. =/ Even if he doesn't have control, he could quit the project or something (and go without food, I guess. :sigh::)

I still don't think a whitewashed cast is going to save the film, though.

here from Metafandom...

just can't compete with the photogenic looks and amazing talent of Jesse McCarthy's Beautiful Soul.

You win the Interwebs. Your prize will be relief from your amazing (and terrible) psychic ability to predict truly insane and awful events like the above.

::: waves wand :::

So, who'd they cast for Iroh? Tom Arnold?

ETA: Someone should send them Mako's biography and if that doesn't make them cringe with shame, nothing will.

Edited at 2008-12-24 02:29 pm (UTC)