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
APRIL 5, 2010 9:36AM

Culture vs. Race: M. Night Bends It His Way

Rate: 7 Flag

Poor M. Night Shyamalan. Apparently he's been caught off guard by the protests over white actors playing many of the lead roles in his movie The Last Airbender. It's ironic, he told UGO movie blog writer Jordan Hoffman:

"[I]t is the most culturally diverse tent-pole movie ever made. And I’m proud of it. It’s part of what drew me to the material, to see the faces of our whole world in this new world. And only time will assuage everyone and give them peace. Maybe [the protestors] didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected. We’re in the tent and it looks like the U.N. in there."

Last week, Shyamalan sat down for a breakfast interview with several film bloggers, journalists, and what Hoffman calls "three stoked webmasters from Airbender fan sites" in a love fest for the movie and its auteur. The live-action film, based on a Nickelodeon cartoon series, opens July 2.

There's plenty of room in the public forum for a sophisticated analysis of race and culture. Many writers have noted that race is a social construction, not a biological absolute, and to reduce all debates about difference to skin color is to miss everything else that influences the way others perceive us.

The problem comes when invocations of "culture" or "cultural diversity"—the new watchwords—end up erasing racial and cultural inequality. In this case, the casting practics of Hollywood, that maker of dreams, are on display.

It is ironic. There's no better illustration of the global melting pot than the anime-inspired Airbender franchise. The original series was created by two white Americans (Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko), who cite Asian martial arts and Hayao Miyazaki as influences. Most of the cartooning was done in Korea. Now an Indian American is at the movie helm.

But as an update of "We Are the World," Shyamalan's vision begs the question of why white actors are playing three key roles. This includes Aang, the main character for which the movie is named.

Shyamalan's critics are not interested in the usual Hollywood multicultural mix—all those extras and bad guys who could be pulled from Los Angeles jury pools. Blogs like Racialicious are full of responses to him "spouting a load of BS," in the words of one commenter:

"I don’t see how anyone who has ever taken the time to step outside of their own cultural box can look at [the Airbender cartoons] and see 'white'. The series is filled with cultural markers that are blatantly Asian in depiction, so when people go on about Aang being white (or even Sokka and Katara, who are obviously browner than everyone else…), I really have to question whether they’ve ever stepped outside or are they just so used to white appropriation that they see everyone as white...."

We haven't reached post-racial nirvana yet. We may have a biracial president who identifies as African American, but a casual perusal of Tea Party websites should convince anyone that racism is not dead.

While Shyamalan says anime is racially "ambiguous"—it is indeed a cartoon realm in which characters often have big blue "power" eyes and pale skin—many fans would argue right back that these characters are culturally Asian (and, more specifically, East Asian). Back in 2005, the Airbender creators said in Animation Insider that they "wanted to base [their mythos] in Asian rather than European background."

I've written before about my own disappointment over Airbender heroes like Katara and Sokka getting white makeovers. My young son, a Vietnamese adoptee, deeply identifies with these cartoon characters.

What makes this all so complicated is that cultural affiliation is many-layered, even if you aren't an international adoptee. For example, there's Vietnamese culture (and the subcultures and dialects of Vietnam). There's mainstream American culture. And there's pan-Asian-American culture, which is marked by physical appearance more than a set of beliefs. That's just for starters.

Regardless, I know my son wants to be the hero in his favorite stories. Of course those fictional heros don't always have to be Asian, though these days, they often are. He didn't like being stuck in the role of Yoda, as he was when playing Star Wars with white friends in kindergarten.

This should not be a big leap for Shyamalan. Women professionals from Laura Bush to Sonia Sotomayor have cited the importance of Nancy Drew as a role model. In fact, the Airbender cartoons are popular with many progressive moms because of the strong female characters.

So imagine you're an Asian American boy (your background may be Vietnamese or Chinese or Korean or Japanese, but the American part matters, too). On TV, you see a slang-talking teenage hero named Sokka with a black top-knot of hair and brown skin. Sokka throws a boomerang in battle, tells bad jokes, and gets to kiss the moon goddess. You see yourself.

In the movie, Sokka is played by Jackson Rathbone in an Eskimo parka.

I'm trying to give Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt. His Last Airbender does include at least one Indian actor in a lead role: Dev Patel as Prince Zuko (although this casting change came after the protests started). In some of the other online pieces spun from his breakfast interview, the director reflects at length about decisions he made in creating the various nations in this fantasy world. Shyamalan seems to have thought hard about why racial mixing, for example, might make sense in a culture of nomads like the Air Nation.

But his explanation, quoted by Hoffman of UGO, of why he's changed the pronunciation of character names from that of the original cartoons comes off as a defensive slap against his critics:

"Now this is, for me, because, at the end of the day a South Indian guy directed the movie. It’s a personal thing. So 'Aang' is not [like Tang] but 'Aang' [like Tong.] It’s 'Ang Lee.' See, my first name is Manoj [as Man-oh-j] and everyone mispronounced it in school and butchered it as 'Man-ahhj.' So, this is coming from a specific place, from a multicultural appreciation."

He's the auteur, all right. He doesn't want to be roped into a boring paint-by-numbers franchise in which he's beholden to fans. I can see the pickle he's in, and his "multicultural appreciation" may pay off. But changing the pronunciation of names from a long-running TV show seems benighted. It's like focusing on your own little tree in a huge forest.

Fans have a culture, too. So why isn't there room for them in M. Night's "tent-pole movie," especially when their protests say a lot about our own changing but very real world?

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Excellent writing. I'l look for it. adding you as favorite, Alicia
Martha- I couldn't agree more with the people who say that they should have cast Asians in those roles. Friends who are Asian American have told me how it felt to grow up with no role models on TV or in the movies. It hasn't gotten that much better since the 70s!
Although it's been discussed, no one ever really questions the Northern European Norse-Celtic racial makeup of "Lord of the Rings". So why not respect the Avatar-Airbender's vision of an Asian fantasy epic universe? The answer is of course, money and broad audience appeal. I just wish Shyamalan et. al would have taken the risk.

By the way, this has also been an issue for Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy, most recently adapted for the SciFi channel. See here for her essay on it (she was very much against "whitening" it):
Chiller, I was just going to make the same point about Earthsea. I've read about a million fantasy novels since then and few come close to that trilogy (in my heart, at least). And the characters are supposed to be "brown". So they make the worst possible film version, everyone blue-eyed and blond, everything sanitized, the underlying meaning of the story completely lost.

I am not familiar with "airbender" (which is actually called "Avatar" according to my son) and perhaps to the uninitiated it will be fine, but my guess is that once you're messing with the underlying cultural sensibility of the story you've done some huge damage to some core of the story that goes beyond the simple plot.

Maybe if Ged had been "brown" in the film version it would have been a bit closer to the books, but only a smidge, and it would still have sucked in terms of telling the real story, giving us the real atmosphere, which is one of dread not oooh, oooh the blond handsome guy! In fact Ged is scarred through most of the story.

So maybe even with the races being inaccurate, if it's done correctly we'll still feel the underlying story. Of course, this MNS hasn't done anything decent in years, so I guess we'll have to see. Does Airbender have some ridiculous twist at the end? We'll see if he can tell a story without one.
ChillerPop--I wish Shyamalan had taken the risk, too. The sad thing is, I think he has the clout to have done so. The protests may have pushed him in the direction of casting Asian actors in key roles in the second and third parts of the trilogy (this appears to be the case with one fan favorite, Toph). Regardless, this is planned as three movies, and we'll be living with his version for awhile.

Of course it's possible The Last Airbender will be a dog and a flop, but based on the most recent trailers, I'd say it looks pretty compelling.
anybodhi--My son calls it "Avatar," too, because the original series was called "Avatar: The Last Airbender." It's one more confusion for the under-ten set. The film producers dropped "Avatar" because of the James Cameron movie of the same name. (I really like "anybodhi," btw.)
anybodhi: "Does Airbender have some ridiculous twist at the end?" No, it ends pretty much exactly as it's meant to all along. It is a kid's show, after all, and even very very good kid's shows have to play to the level. Even the heel-face turns are broadcast well in advance. But who knows how MNS will play it? Maybe he thinks he's actually his caricature from Robot Chicken.
Martha and Anybodhi,

I'm not familiar with the cartoon, but my understanding is that it was specifically, deliberately created to represent a fantasy world derived from many different Asian cultures, and Native American as well. I'm sure a lot of tetchy people will come back with "race doesn't matter" "reverse racism" etc., but given that the epic fantasy genre is virtually dominated by a European/Celtic motif, why NOT make this exclusively Asian? Besides, the Chinese sword-and-sorcery genre (Wu Xia, I think it's called?) has met with some success in the U.S. - think of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero.

Earthsea is amazing on many, many levels, and no SciFi production going to do it proper justice.

(and yes, I added the Airbender there because I can't help thinking of blue people when I mention Avatar)
I second BlueinTX's opinion. Look at a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not only is it in subtitles, but the entire cast is Asian and it made a whopping $130 million ten years ago. Casting whites in Asian roles is ridiculous. People are still making fun of Mickey Rooney and John Wayne for attempting to play a Japanese man and Genghis Khan respectively. There's enough roles for whites, let's give the Asians a chance.
I ve seen a lot of anime where all of the extras/background characters have distinctive ethnic characteristics: they're definitely white, black or Asian; definitely male or female; definitely kids or adults. But the central characters in these stories all seem mixed, as if the artist couldn't decide whether to make them white or Asian, male or female, kids or adults; and therefore just made all of them pretty much the same mix of everything. So Shamalayan is not the only person making a hash of characters' ethnicity.

(Besides, since when did Shamalayan make movies that made sense? With a body of work as silly as "The Village" and "Girl in the Water/Pool/Lake/Whatever," actor ethnicity is the LEAST of his problems.)

Although it's been discussed, no one ever really questions the Northern European Norse-Celtic racial makeup of "Lord of the Rings".

That's because everyone knows Tolkein wrote that story based entirely on English folktales, stereotypes, legends, etc., for an audience that was, at that time, mostly white. The only non-white humans in that story were the men of Harad, who pretty much looked like the stereotypes of Moors, Turks and Arabs that filled Christian folktales and bedtime stories since the Crusades. Say what you will about Tolkein, but he was NOT pretending to be "multicultural."
Motherwell - Ethnicity in anime is its own issue altogether, and not one I could claim to understand well. I'm sure there's no shortage of studies on it.

But to my understanding (correct me if I'm wrong), Avatar-Airbender's creators (that is, the creators of the anime series), who are American, I believe, were also NOT pretending to be multicultural. They created a fantasy world with specific varieties of race and ethnicity based on Asian or Asian-descent cultures, just as Tokien did with English/Celtic/Norse. As I understand it, there are no white people in the Avatar world. Again, I'm not terribly familiar with the series so please correct me if I'm wrong.
First, I totally agree that they should have cast asians. It would just have been better. So tired of whites playing ethnics (and I'm white!).

Second, the movie looks like it's going to suck compared to the TV show anyway so who cares? :)

(My four year old and I have been watching the whole series - we LOVE it and have no plans to go see the movie, which looks much, much darker than the TV show and just Hollywood-lame)
Motherwell and ChillerPop -- Yes, the main point here is that Tolkien was drawing from a particular cultural tradition; ditto for the Airbender creators. However, Airbender began as a TV cartoon show for kids, not as a trilogy of books. Such cartoon programs, anime-inspired or otherwise, often pull from a mix of pop cultural referents. Many of the voice actors were white, and regardless, they sound like American teens.

It's not quite correct to say there are no white people in the Airbender universe. There are walk-ons, for sure, in bit parts (including some swamp dwellers who sound suspiciously like hillbillies--the equivalent of Tolkien's men of Harad).

Still, the Asian mythos in the cartoons is quite explicit.

As for the ambiguity of anime, I would agree that cultural referents like hair color, eye color, and clothing are often intentionally mixed up. The online fan base for anime is global. And the uses and abuses of race in Japanese cartoons are most definitely worthy of a separate story.

But here's the thing: After fording through some of the Shonen Jump "Naruto" site yesterday (my son wanted to know more about the backstory behind the characters on the trading cards), he and I watched a sample subtitled episode with our mouths open. Pale skin, big eyes, yellow (or pink) hair--and a sensibility that seemed very, very Japanese. At the very least, it didn't seem American.
Interesting discussion. I would agree with certain points, particularly regarding the altered pronunciation of names (an odd strategy). However, I would point out that this type of criticism seems conveniently one directional. I do not necessarily agree that culture, as opposed to race or ethnicity, is at issue here. Perhaps that is another discussion entirely. From what I’ve seen, the criticism of The Last Airbender relates directly to race or “skin color”.

Interestingly, these critics remain conspicuously silent when Will Smith is cast in the stead of the traditionally white lead in such films as I Am Legend and Wild Wild West. As a huge Will Smith fan, I felt the casting to be perfect. In one instance, the film self-consciously recognized the racial implications (using them as plot points), while the other ignored race entirely, effectively moving beyond the triviality of race in a post-apocalyptic world.

More recently, the casting of Angel Coulby as Guinevere, in the TV series Merlin, utterly subverted traditional character associations. This is, perhaps, a more critical substitution, insofar as the Arthurian legends are situated within a socio-political framework (however mythological), in which lineage (hence ethnicity) is central. Yet, outspoken criticism against the casting of Coulby has been minimal. I just find this seeming double standard to be conveniently hypocritical.

That said, as a fan of the Avatar cartoon, I feel that Asian or at least Eurasian actors would have contributed a certain atmospheric authenticity, especially since the visual culture of the cartoon is decidedly Asian. Ultimately, you may have hit upon the truth of it in your post: Children want to see themselves as the hero of the story. Since the target demographic of the major motion picture version of The Last Airbender is a predominantly non-Asian audience, it follows that the business interests at work would encourage the use of actors who resonate with the market – non-Asian, that is. What makes sense from a rational cultural standpoint rarely corresponds to what makes sense as a business model.
Nerds need to stay out of race.
tomreedtoon--yes, there's turkey potential with MNS. I would say his casting decisions are of a piece with other kinds of movie-making decisions he makes. In viewing the cartoons with my son--we just watched an episode of the original series tonight--I frame the issues through that lens, but once the movie has been released, there may well be many other bones to pick.

C Wright -- I don't think a lack of outcry when actors of color are cast in traditionally white roles is a double standard, although you raise a very interesting question. For me, it's about numbers--there just aren't that many openings for Asian American leads, especially in action movies. That's not to say it couldn't change. If it did, then it would make sense to question protests about whitewashing. God knows, it would be nice to get to a place where we really are talking about the content of one's character and the best actor for the job.
21 (the movie about bringing down the house in Vegas) was the most egregious example of this. If there was ever a time to try to sell Asian-Americans in a cast, it would be a movie about MIT math whizzes winning poker by counting cards.
M. Night has done some fine work, small but great. I'm sorry he has to go the way of James Cameron and make giant movies. The more people you have to work with, the more problems and snares there are to ruin your project. I wish he would return to Hitchcock.

Catherine Grimace