Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)

Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 1, 2010 11:32AM

How I Became an Anime Fan—Not a Racebender

Rate: 12 Flag

For My Son’s Birthday

Who would have thought I’d develop a midlife crush on anime?
It’s true that at a recent showing of the New England Anime Society I felt a hundred years older than the mostly male geek audience. I had to leave within five minutes, unable to sit through the dialogue. An approximation:
“Look at his underpants!” “Ooh, he’s wearing underpants with a heart on them!” (Snigger, snigger.) “Careful, that girl on a bicycle has breasts.”
I won’t claim cartoons like this grip me. I've never been a big animation fan. But The Last Airbender, the epic Nickelodeon series, exists on a different plane altogether. Everyone in my small family—husband, son, me—became obsessed with these Asian-inspired airbenders and firebenders months ago.

So. I finally embrace the strange pleasures of anime, and what do I get? A controversy over the casting choices in the upcoming live-action movie of The Last Airbender. Reports that white actors will be playing many of the young heroes have sparked vigorous online criticism from Asian Americans.
I am frankly appalled. In a good play on words, critics have called this racial reworking of the movie yet another example of "racebending."
I know I’m on suspect cultural ground here. Yet my son, an Asian adoptee, is growing up in a white American household. The Airbender cartoons are a hybrid of Japanese anime created by two white American guys with the help of Korean animators—a fitting metaphor for us.
Now here comes a big-budget, special-effects extravaganza of a movie, one my son will surely beg to see, which is another kind of metaphor. It will symbolize why Asian adoptees often feel like honorary white people.
Because my son has just turned eight, I want to celebrate what he so obviously loves about the animated series—the martial arts sequences, complete with lightning and ice arrows; the teenage heroes—and its particular meaning for us as an adoptive family.
I do worry about how my boy will put himself together as an Asian American man; I've come to see his fascination with anime and manga cartoons as a way for him to grapple with his heritage on his own terms.
But with the Airbender movie, he'll get no help. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, it's in the works for this summer and may soon become a juggernaut. It's slated for an ad during this year's broadcast of the Superbowl
Shame on you, M. Night Shyamalan. I want to point everyone to for information about the movie protest.
My husband and I can never claim that we have a personal understanding of racism. We could even be accused of ripping off Asian culture in adopting a child from Vietnam. Our family can't be reduced to that, but if I'm mercilessly honest, I have to admit that Asian culture is as appealing to me as it is to other white Americans who dabble in martial arts and yoga, attend anime festivals, and go to Chinese New Year's parades.
That makes it even more important for parents like me to challenge racism, unconscious and otherwise, and to name it for what it is.
When I mentioned to my son that white actors will be playing many of his favorite characters in the movie—including Aang, the last airbender and center of the story—he said, "What? That's weird. That doesn't make sense."
No kidding. Here's a fun YouTube montage from the animated original:
Aang is a bald 12-year-old monk with a blue arrow tattooed on his forehead. He's also a reincarnated spiritual leader known as the “Avatar.” He's the Dalai Lama, not Gandalf.
Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired on Nickelodeon in 2005. Because we watched all three “Books” on DVD long after it was broadcast, we could see as many episodes as we wanted in a sitting. Every time we’d say a collective "No!" at the end of one—my son always adding, "What a cliffhanger!"—we’d look at each other and hit play for the next. (In case you’re wondering, the Avatar cartoons have nothing to do with the James Cameron movie.)
When the series opens, the Fire Nation is ruled by an evil lord who wants to take over the world. In The Last Airbender universe, benders have magical powers based on the four elements—air, water, earth, and fire. The Avatar is the one person who can bend them all. Aang is very young to become the Avatar. But the Fire Lord is on the march again, and Aang, with the help of his loyal companions, has to learn fast how to bend the other elements.
For those who don't love fantasy, there's no way to avoid the inflated portentousness this gloss implies. It’s manga-meets-The Lord of the Rings-meets Buddhism.
Yet it works. At least the anime version does. Thank God we've watched the cartoons before Shyamalan's epic rolls out. Here's the movie trailer:
Impressive as it looks, it seems too bombastic and literal. As for the racebending casting choices, cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Yang have written eloquent posts about why this is a problem, even given the mostly white voice actors in the original animated series. Take these excerpts from Kim's post, written a year ago "on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration":
"[I]magine if someone had made a 'fantasy' movie in which the entire world was built around African culture. Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape...

...but everyone is white.

How offensive, insulting, and disrespectful would that be toward Africans and African Americans? How much more offensive would it be if only the heroes were white and all the villains and background characters were African American? (I wince in fear thinking about The Last Airbender suffering from the latter dynamic—which it probably will....)

But curiously, when similar offenses are committed at the expense of Asian Americans, and Asian American men in particular, this sort of behavior goes mostly ignored by the press and the people involved." 
It's true that outcries of racism by the model minority are generally shrugged off by mainstream America. This trailer from an upcoming documentary called Yellow Face emphasizes why protesting the racial reworking of a kid's TV show is not just "silly" or a waste of effort.
The Shyamalan movie, the first of a planned trilogy, will likely get a big promotional push, especially after the success of Cameron's Avatar. That Shyamalan, an Indian American, went with such casting choices indicates how unconscious racism can be. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire will play the crucial role of Prince Zuko, but only after replacing the original white actor cast for the role.
Just to be clear: Japanese and Korean creators of anime characters, be they super-ninjas or ghetto-talking African Americans, aren't off the hook for perpetuating racist stereotypes.
These days, there's an endless parade of martial-arts superhero franchises (and action figures and trading cards to buy), but most of this drek never rises above the ridiculously rote. There still aren't many positive, complex images of Asian characters in popular media—people who aren't karate-chopping villains on speeding trains or running nasty industrial cartels.
Which is why it's such a shame that many of the Airbender heroes won't be Asian in the movie.
In the Airbender cartoons we get Katara, a waterbender with healing powers and an appealing maturity, and her brother Sokka, resident goof and complainer. We get Toph, a blind earthbender who can bowl over bad guys four times her size and sees the world through her feet. We get Appa, Aang's flying bison, whom the loyal troupe rides through the air.
There are kick-ass evil girls as well as good ones; soldiers who ride bird-horses; a haiku rap contest; even an old and cold soul in the spirit world who steals people's faces.
There are romantic entanglements, far more than in the buddy-plot of The Lord of the Rings. Aang’s cheeks often turn pink—in best anime style—in the vicinity of Katara.
Most important, there's character development and moral ambiguity, especially in the person of Prince Zuko, the banished teenage son of the Fire Lord. Zuko starts off trying to capture the Avatar in order to regain his father's approval. By Book Two of the series, Zuko is in a major tug-a-war of conscience over which side he's on.
Adults will get more of the satirical references in The Last Airbender cartoons, but I think my son really understands and wonders about the same conflicts I do. To "bend" this story racially in order to appeal to a more mainstream audience is to do a real disservice to the complex questions about history and family the cartoons raise.
In an early episode called “The Library,” Aang and his companions, along with a professor of anthropology, find a legendary library of all the world's knowledge almost completely buried by sand in the middle of a desert.
Once they enter the library through an upper window, they meet an Owl-like spirit who runs it. The Owl is not warm and fuzzy. This amoral spirit looks like a kabuki-painted demon in a black shawl.
Still, the Owl agrees to let them stay as long as they don't take away knowledge in order to hurt other humans. Sokka, in particular, doesn't keep that promise, and then the Owl flies into a scary frenzy. They flee for their lives, just escaping before the library collapses forever into the sand.
On the way out, however, the professor can't make himself leave. He stays behind and disappears with the rest of the library.
"Why didn't he leave?” my son asked. “Didn't he die?"
“Some people will do anything for knowledge,” I said.
He didn’t look convinced.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “Some adults just get obsessed.”
"Why?" His voice quivered. “Did he die?”
I wanted to comfort my boy then, as if he were a baby, murmuring it will be fine, it’s all right, you will never lose anybody you love. Ssshh, real adults don’t act that way.
I reached for him, but he slapped my hands away.
“No!” he sobbed.
I stayed with my son as he cried and raged—internally kicking myself. Stupid professor. Except I understood the man’s love of books and his obliviousness, just as my son already knew that some adults really do disappear.
More recently, he and I have talked about which Airbender episodes are the most disturbing. He doesn’t want to watch something like “The Library” again, and I’ve since wondered if I should have spared him the disturbing parts. But on balance, I'd say no.
Birthdays have their own emotional weight for adoptees. My son was an infant at the time of his adoption, so the weight of celebration seems less heavy for him than it might be. Yet birthdays inevitably evoke missing parents, too—and in his case, a missing race and culture. At eight, my son is full of joy. He may also be excited by the prospect of traveling beyond his white American existence, a desire that churns up guilt and grief.
The point is, his journey will be complex. Shyamalan's movie version of The Last Airbender may ask big questions, too, but he's got a hard act to follow.
Late in the animated series, Prince Zuko visits his family’s summer house on a remote island, discovering photos of his mother and father when he was a small child. In the pictures, they're laughing; they seem happy. Teenage Zuko, estranged from his father, his mother gone, becomes more furious and sullen.
As we watched Zuko burn the photos, my son snuggled closer to me.
“It’s sad,” he said.
I nodded my head against his glossy black hair. “It’s very sad.”
Oh, my dear boy. Happy Birthday.
All drawings by my son and used with his permission.

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Thank you for bringing this to our attention! You pose some great questions about race and perceptions of race. The casting of mostly white actors to play characters of another ethnicity is highly insulting. I'm sure this is one studio exec's twisted view (that he or she believes) will get more box office return by doing this.
Great post, Martha. It's an old debate and I can see both sides of the issue. Personally, I lean on the side of casting the best actor for the job that will make the role believable.
Yet another post that requires more time than I have at first reading. Oh, Martha Nichols you make me think.

Meanwhile I wanted to share this with you if you don't know it already: It's also a magazine and it's about Asian-American culture. Many of the staff (often unpaid, such is the level of commitment) are of mixed race or adoptees.

My all white son worked for them for awhile after college and ran their online store. (That led to him having a built-in fan base when he returned to MN - he was at a party and heard some kids saying that "his name" from GR was there and getting excited to meet him. Irrelevant but amusing, only in part because he's incredibly shy.) He also reviewed anime for the magazine. I won't have time with him for a couple of weeks but you have opened a good topic for conversation when we have dinner next. (Prediction, he will initially dismiss the racebending issue with a remark about box office returns as Photoguy pointed out.)

His adolescent interest in anime and manga led to him taking university Japanese language classes while in high school. While I don't share it, I understand and even admire your interest and your sharing it with your son.

More slightly off-topic about my son - when he was about your son's age or a little older he was obsessed with the movie "Mississippi Burning" and its story. It was difficult and even traumatic but with some guidance it became a beneficial factor in his development. Your son's reaction to the professor and the library remind me of that.
Did you ever see the American TV version of Journey to the West? It was a facepalm moment for my Chinese-American husband. They made the lead character of an extremely well-known and important Chinese folktale a white guy. They didn't cast any of the characters of the story as white- they just framed the whole thing through a white narrator. It was terrible. That said- I think the casting for Airbender could be a whole lot more white-focused than it is. I'm excited to see Dev Patel and Aasif Maandvi. (Husband got me into Avatar- I'm sure we'll be seeing this movie) It's also interesting how many American movies will use non-white actors to play virtually any ethnicity. Chinese actors play Koreans- Japanese play Chinese- Indians play Middle-Eastern. It's very interesting. Do we see them as interchangeable? That said- the racial/cultural features of Avatar are already blurred. There are some Chinese aspects to it- some Japanese- some Native American. I think this was intentional.
Very interesting post. I will have to check out the cartoon series with Jacob. I had no idea what it was about. I love your son's drawings too. R
In response to Nick Leshi's comment, it is possible to hire the best actor for the job without having to change the ethnicity/race of the character or go with an actor that is white. There are many talented, out of work actors... its just a matter of putting the effort to find the right person without sacrificing the character's intended race.... and not insult the source material and people too.
Nick -- What Photoguy said about the casting. If you decide filling those roles with Asians matters, then you can find plenty of talented young Asian-American actors who are native English speakers.

N.C. -- I've come across Giant Robot, but thanks for bringing it up. I also loved all the connections with your son.

JustJuli -- I'm happy about Dev Patel and Aasif Maandvi, too, though the latter is playing one of the major bad guys. The original cartoon series was definitely meant to blend a bunch of different Asian cultures and traditions, but I have to agree with cartoonist Gene Yang (he wrote the terrific young-adult graphic novel "American Born Chinese") that there's no question the Airbender world is Asian at its very core.

Casting white actors for the main teen hero parts of Aang, Katara, and Sokka is what's really disappointing. For one of them, sure. But all three??
tomreedtoon--I thought that I had made clear the Airbender cartoons were a hybrid created by two American white guys. You're right, it's stretching to call it real anime, but it is certainly done in that style and by Korean animators (and, yes, they likely work for slave wages), who do much of Japanese anime.

I'm not a huge fan of animation in general, but I've seen more anime (the Japanese stuff) because of time spent in Asia and because my son is into it. The short about the breasts was definitely Japanese and also definitely not porn. It was pretty typical of the genre in its mix of sophomoric humor and surreal visuals and story.

I think one of the reasons anime-inspired Airbender works for us is because it's a hybrid, and we're a hybrid. I like it's epic storyline, the can-do heroes, the moral ambiguity. It's a mix of Asian and Western storytelling elements.

So does that mean, what the heck, the movie has every right to be a hybrid, too? Sure, at some level. But then I come back to my son's need to meld some of those Asian elements into who he is. It's not just that Airbender includes positive Asian role models for Asians. It's that kids of all colors want to be Sokka or Katara for Halloween.

As for M. Night S., we'll see. He could pull it off, or it could be another wretched mess like The Village. The trailer doesn't inspire me on all sorts of counts.
Eric -- Yes, I remember the episode where Aang is supposed to give up all his worldly attachments, even his love for Katara. It was actually quite amazing, and it was another one that had my son thinking and questioning for days.

That alone makes me love the thing. As for it just being the movie industry, I know. This is certainly not the first instance of racebending--it just hit me again, after I'd been so enjoying the Airbender cartoons.

I do have to ask: why does Hollywood think mainstream America can't accept a non-white hero? Is that really true?
Such creatures hath been to my home, in the dead of night. Devils. (HurumphHurumph) Amen.
Good anime is awesome! I really like Princess Mononoke and How's Moving Castle. Bad anime is just bad.

I'm surprised that this kind of "racebending" still happens. It's sad when there are great Asian American actors that could fill the roles. I am a big fan of John Cho, who is a fantastic actor and a good role model for kids.
Good article, Martha. I've been following this for awhile. Personally, I think the series is fine as an animation and I really hate to see it as a film, unless it is a new story. As far as casting goes, I think it's a shame not to cast Asian actors in Asian roles. I think it's disgusting when directors like Rob Marshall say things like we used Chinese actors because there are no good Japanese ones. (!!!) On Ang, Sokka and Katara, I never thought of them as Asian. I thought they were more likely Native American (Inuit) Arabic (think girl on the Nat Geo cover) or Kalash (believed to be the descendants of Alexander the Great and live in Pakistan). I think the creators of the series have danced around what their intentions were for these characters and have let the audience determine for themselves what they want the characters to be. (And it is precisely for that reason that I think the film will be a disappointment for the fans.) Everyone blames the studio execs, but that's not how casting works. No one wants it to be that Shyamalan made these choices (he did) or that he consulted with the creators (he did) and determined how they saw the characters.
Gwen--you're so right that anime swings from the sublime to the awful, but you could say the same about any media genre that crosses cultural lines in interesting ways.

-ttfn--I like your analysis, and I'm sure you're right that the cartoon creators (white guys) wanted to mash up a whole bunch of cultural influences. The waterbenders, certainly, are based on Inuit culture. But I don't think these guys are off the hook for giving fans the impression that this is East-Asian-based. It is anime-styled, a genre firmly embedded in Japanese and Korean culture.

The creators were happy to jump on to the girl-power bandwagon for the show, and have made almost feminist comments about why so many of the heroes in the series are female. But when it comes to making claims about it being an Asian-centric series that provides good role models, they have been much more squirrely.

I'm also glad you reiterated that M. Night S. shouldn't be allowed off the hook for casting decisions. He's the one that made them, for sure, not anonymous studio execs.
Just an interesting sidebar about anime´ - the reason most manga and anime´ lead characters have round eyes is that they were originally created to appeal to the Caucasian audience in America.

In that light, casting a white boy to play Aang - or any other anime´ lead, for that matter - makes perfect sense.

It's only become an issue since anime´ flourished and became internationally accepted form and the original reasons for many of its lead characters looking white have been forgotten.

That said, while the original look of anime´ characters may have been created to appeal to Americans, manga and anime´ have long since been accepted as a Japanese culture-specific artforms and since Avatar: Last of the Airbenders is a creation based on Japanese anime´ forms, with characters with Asian names, Mr. Shyamalan [who probably wouldn't have been been aware of any of the preceeding information about the creation of manga and anime´ characters, anyway] should probably have used an all Asian cast for his movie trilogy based on the Airbender TV series.
OK, you true anime fans are helping me a bit, though I I have to argue that I'm seeing this partly through a mom's eyes--which doesn't really get me off the hook, because I know my son will take from this what he wills--but part of the point of my piece is to convey what such racial casting choices mean to a family like mine, in which a child has very specifically gravitated to Airbender because of the racial imagery.

So, calveras, I sort of agree with you on a larger level--of course Paul Simon and David Byrne can play "world" music--and yes indeed the Japanese originators have and still are quite obsessed with white skin and American culture, and most certainly can be accused of racism for a variety of reasons.

And yet. It's the unconsciousness of what these casting choices mean to kids that gets me here.

Sheldon -- I've heard that those round anime/manga eyes also represent youth as well as a desire for round (Caucasian) eyes. I think this cultural imagery floats on a number of different levels, and I'd never claim to get it all. However, I am quite intrigued by looking at Japanese anime's attitudes towards race and comparing them with American ones.
ok, so here's were I confess my geekness. I used to be a member of a very large anime society (they have screenings of 500+). Back in the day, they used to go to Japan, pick up films (and tv shows) and then translate and subtitle them. This was more than 15 years ago, so, I'm not a newbie when it comes to animation. Most cartoons in America are drawn in Asia and have been for many, many years. The round eyed look is a direct response to Disney cartoons. Miyazaki himself said that they saw the Disney cartoons and copied the style, trying to make it look more Disney, which resulted in rounder eyes. In Japan, white is relative. There are many Japanese who see themselves as white, so a 'white' cartoon character does not mean that it is Caucasian. Neither does hair color or eye color, especially when the main character is supernatural. The power color will match the color of the character's eyes, clothes, hair, etc. And it will match the toys, et al that you buy for your little fan (the Japanese are always mindful of the marketability of a character.) Characters with no power often look normal.
-ttfn -- I appreciate the geekness. I've got plenty of geek in me. Were you ever a fansubber yourself? Also very good points about power color of eyes and white skin--which I did know (and, boy, how I was thinking about all this while in a store this evening called Tokyo Kid, as my son agonized about how to spend some birthday money from Grandma), but it does bring the discussion of race as a constructed social category front and center.
My wife is Japanese. Naturally, while watching Memoirs of a Geisha, she was put off by the fact that nearly every actor in the movie was Chinese. It can't be helped though because there are many more english-fluent Hong Kong born actors than Japanese. Similarly I can guarantee you that practically all of the English voice actors in Avatar are white. In situations like this, with a big budget action film aimed at children in you son's age group, speaking with a clear accent will invariably be a target for the producers. This is probably the root cause of the casting. We all enjoy Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies but, in all honesty, their accented english can be difficult for children who have little experience with it to understand. Would it be ideal to have all Asian actors? Sure, but Racebending? Hardly.
Yes, Davilus, the creators of the original Airbender cartoons used white voice actors because they were going for an American, English-speaking audience. Kung Fu Panda uses mostly white voice actors, too.

But I would argue that there's a difference between cartoons and a live-action movie. Unless you're talking about the rare instances when another woman's singing voice is dubbed in for Audrey Hepburn, as in My Fair Lady, in movies the actor speaking the lines is the one you see on screen. In cartoons with clearly Asian-identified characters, even if the voice comes from a white actor, my son sees that hero as Asian. That's what he takes in.

And you can't tell me the Nickelodeon creators couldn't find teen Asian voice actors who sound as American as anyone else—just as Shyamalan could have. You just need to make that your priority.
Dalivus, I'm shocked by the thoughtlessness in your above comment. You say that the casting of Chinese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha "couldn't be helped" and that it's important to cast (persumably white) actors because foreign accents are too difficult for kids to understand.

Have you never met Asian Americans? There are plenty of Asian Americans, including many aspiring actors, who speak perfect American English and do not have an accent! They were raised in the US just like Martha's son. And they are rarely given a chance to play lead roles in film.

It IS racebending because it is implying that white actors are more qualified to play Asian characters than ethnically Asian actors are. This assumption that all Asians, even Asian Americans, have thick accents is one of the oldest stereotypes in the book.
@ martha
I do agree with you about live action films. Like you, I wish they would at least put forth an effort. Just because an actor is an unknown doesn't mean the movie will not succeed. Take Ahney Her for example, despite her being selected out of high school for her role in Gran Torino she excelled at it and gave the entire film its heart. We should see more of this. If a role calls for Hmong, Japanese, or any other ethnic group I think casting directors have a commitment to pursue a person of that origin.


Um, did you read what I said? I'm certain there were asian-americans in Geisha; the problem was that very few of them were Japanese. And I never held up the 'importance of casting persumably white actors', you made up that last racism yourself.
Davilus, the casting in Gran Torino is a really good example of why this makes sense. Thanks for bringing it up.
Martha, you;ve covered a lot of ground here... from giving a crash course in anime (which my Asian self has never really understood), to Hollywood casting choices, to self-identity. So much fodder, which I look forward to having more discussions about in the future.

Hollywood casting: There are plenty of Asian American actors, and plenty more would-be actors who are dissuaded by lack of viable roles. Sure, movie making is a business, and the actors with the most name/face recognition are going to lure in more viewers. In our culture, those actors are usually white. There's no way to force a business to change its actions... but speaking out about it and speaking with our movie-ticket-buying dollars can at least stir the pot.

(See my post about the controversy over Asian American roles in The Karate Kid.)

Self-Identity: As an Asian, who was born in raised in the US to Asian parents, I can tell you that the nascent issues you see in your son are not confined to adopted children! He is lucky to have a mother with the level of awareness that can help guide him (or at least be a listening ear) as he muddles his way toward forming his own identity.

Great post.