Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
DreamWorks has cast Scarlett Johansson in their adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The franchise originates from Japan where the protagonist is Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg. This casting is significant because we’re seeing Hollywood continue the trend of whitewashing roles from source material that features Asian leads–all while failing to provide roles for Asian American actors.
Hollywood has been casting in this fashion since the beginning of the silver screen, whether through deliberate exclusion of actors of color or hand-wringing about “marketing” and “box-office potential.” “Conventional wisdom” argues that DreamWorks needs to whitewash the film and cast a “big name” actor like Scarlett Johansson for the film to succeed. The assumption is that most films star white men because supposedly, most moviegoers are white men. An additional assumption is that these white male moviegoers are less likely to embrace actors of color. This “conventional wisdom” has been used to justify lack of diverse casting in Hollywood and whitewashing in films, but research appears to contradict these assumptions.
A 2011 study published in in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business noted that “many of the biggest box office flops in Hollywood had stars, and many successful movies starred people who were relative unknowns.” It found that despite all the talk, producers are more important to a successful movie deal than actors are. A 2006 study from Harvard Business School found that stars do positively affect the revenue of films but “failed to find evidence that would suggest that the participation of stars in movies affects the valuation of studios that produce or distribute those movies.” The study estimates that stars are worth on average “about $3 million in theatrical revenues.” In contrast, Johansson is being offered $10 million dollars to star in Ghost in the Shell (Forbes contributor Ollie Barder estimates that the original anime cost around $5 million to produce, total.) Older studies from Rutgers University and University of California, Irvine have also found “no statistical correlation between stars and success” and that “it is the movie that makes the star.”
Year after year, the Motion Picture Association of America has released statistics showing that the majority of movie goers are not white men. Women have comprised a larger share of moviegoers than men since 2009. In 2013, “Hispanic”, “African American”, and “Other” (including Asian American) moviegoers all had higher annual per-capita movie attendance than white moviegoers. The average “Hispanic” moviegoer went to the movies 6 times and the average African American and Other moviegoers went 4 times, versus “Caucasian” viewers who only went to the movies 3 times.
In 2014, UCLA ran a study that showed more diverse casts in both film and television lead to higher box office returns and ratings. But Hollywood tradition is remarkably entrenched in developing and promoting white leads at the exclusion of other performers, even if that may actually be hurting profits.
Actors of color are already underrepresented, even without whitewashing. When Hollywood studios like DreamWorks Pictures decide to cast white actors in existing properties that originate with characters of color, it only further reinforces the disparity in opportunity for performers of color.
To figure out just how many opportunities DreamWorks Pictures affords actors of color, Racebending.com counted up all of the first-billed actors in DreamWorks Pictures films (1997 to present.) These are the actors listed first in movie credits, posters, and on marketing materials. What we found was pretty consistent with other studies on Hollywood diversity–the studio overwhelmingly prefers to cast white men in lead roles.
Reliance Entertainment bought 50% stake in DreamWorks in 2008, forming DreamWorks Studios. Since then, DreamWorks Studios has made 14 movies and all of them starred white actors. This whitewashed Ghost in the Shell movie is a joint DreamWorks-Reliance project.
DreamWorks has never cast an Asian American lead, though it has made three movies with East Asian actors Jackie Chan, Ziyi Zhang, and Ken Watanabe. When DreamWorks does choose to adapt Asian properties, such as The Ring, The Ring 2, or The Uninvited, white actresses are always cast to “Americanize” the film–even if the actress is British or Australian. When stories with Asian heroes are “Americanized,” the whitewashing is an integral part of the process–reinforcing stereotypes of Asian Americans as inherently less American. The British Journal of Social Psychology published a study in 2008 that found that American media consumers implicitly regarded white European actress Kate Winslet as more American than Asian American actress Lucy Liu. Regardless if the setting or name of the protagonists are Americanized or anglicized, this is a missed opportunity for Dreamworks to diversify. Changing the setting or the name of the character does not preclude the production from casting an Asian or Asian American actor. It’s disingenuous to characterize this casting as Hollywood bravely deviating from source material when it is more a reflection of DreamWorks and Hollywood’s biased casting practices as a whole.
This isn’t the first time that DreamWorks has whitewashed an Asian woman lead. If DreamWorks wants to invest in a cult classic with Asian characters, but minus Asian lead actors, they are actually missing out on a chance to create an Asian American household name.
Studios are not forced to whitewash. If DreamWorks Pictures’s stable of “big name” actors only includes only white actors then that’s certainly a problem for them, but they could have chosen to offer Johansson a different project. Nothing is preventing DreamWorks from working with ScarJo on a different property, without casting that reinforces racial disparities in Hollywood. They could have created an original cyberpunk property and even cited Ghost in the Shell as a source of inspiration. Scarlett Johansson did not become a box office draw or a big name until studios took a chance on her and made her one. It’s unfortunate studios don’t do the same for actors of Asian descent.
Hollywood has been casting in this fashion since the beginning of the silver screen. While it’s important for media consumers to be aware of the overt and subtle ways Hollywood depicts race, ultimately the onus to stop this racist practice falls on the movie studios that choose to whitewash. At this point, movie studios are aware of the backlash that happens when films are whitewashed, the track record of whitewashed movies, and the overall legacy of whitewashed movies. They have to decide whether or not they want to change. We know Hollywood can change when it wants to; for example, blackface and other forms of raceface are far less common now.
Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell is a story about what makes us human. Having access to powerful media representation is key for minorities to be seen as human. As a successful white actress, Scarlett Johansson has been privileged to play powerful women characters in action films. Ghost in the Shell was a chance for an actress of Asian descent to have that same opportunity. Instead of innovating and reimagining Ghost of the Shell in creative and diverse ways, DreamWorks Studios, Reliance Entertainment, and producer Steven Spielberg are making a conscious and deliberate decision to reinforce racist casting practices in Hollywood.
More Articles on the whitewashed casting of Ghost in the Shell
Special thanks to Jonelle D., Sade A. and Michael Le for assistance with this article
Jen Wang is the artist on the new graphic novel, In Real Life, a book that delves into gamer culture. She is also bringing a very real showcase of the diversity in the comics industry with this weekend’s Comic Arts Los Angeles Festival. Jen was kind enough to give contributor Gabrial Canada some of her time via email to talk about comics and gaming culture and the importance of acknowledging diversity as a conrunner.
RACEBENDING: The book explores a question as to why female gamers might not feel comfortable gaming with a female avatar or announcing their gender online. What do you choose when you play and can you address how this issue comes up as part of the story of IRL?
JEN WANG: I tend to choose female avatars but I’ve actually not played a lot of online games. I don’t know if other players knowing what sex I am would have an effect or not. I definitely feel more intimidated with the idea of talking into a headset because the connection is more intimate and the potential to be harassed is more direct. But that’s definitely what the character Liza is talking about, the hesitancy a female gamer might feel about revealing herself.
RACEBENDING: An artistic challenge of this book is that it takes place both in real life–as its title suggests– and in the game world. How much of a challenge was it to balance the fantasy world with the real one?
JEN WANG: Both worlds are definitely distinct, so the differences were pretty inherent both visually and in context. What I wanted though was show how they were similar and connected. I tried to incorporate lots of little moments that blended the two together like when Anda dyes her hair to match her avatar, or when Lucy names her in-game companion after her own cat. The online world is just as vivid for Anda as her real one so it was important to show that.
RACEBENDING:Women are gaining parity with men as consumers of both video games and comics and there is a nasty corner of both communities that has reacted to this change in a very negative fashion. Have you ever experienced this as a female comic artist at cons or in comics shops, the accusation of being a “fake geek” or feeling unwelcome in either fandom?
JEN WANG: I’m lucky to say I haven’t personally experienced any negativity in comics due to being a woman. Again, I want to stress that is my personal experience. The indie comics community is made up of a lot of people who aren’t being served by the more mainstream straight white male-centric industry so it tends to be a little more supportive of diverse voices. That said, no community is immune and I definitely know other female cartoonists who have faced harassment, particularly those who publish work on the web. At best, we’re just looking at communities that reflect the average societal non-nerd mentality toward women which is that we say everyone’s equal, without addressing the fact that we’re not.
RACEBENDING: How did you begin your collaboration with the Kibushi’s and the other great artists and storytellers in Flight?
JEN WANG: Flight! I met Kazu Kibuishi along with a bunch of other webcartoonists back in 2003 when we were all just getting started and a lot of us were still in school. Kazu wanted to put together an anthology and invited a bunch of us to join. As the project grew it became more and more ambitious and eventually Kazu decided to try looking for a publisher. Image Comics picked us up, and the following year at San Diego Comic Con 2004, Volume One came out. That was the first time any of us had been published and it was a pretty magical weekend. Many of the artists in Volume One are fantastic solo comic artists now and 10 years on we’re all still good friends.
RACEBENDING: Where can people learn more about the comics festival you are organizing? How does your experience organizing your own event make you feel about comics events you’ve attended?
JEN WANG: Comic Arts LA (or CALA) is happening December 6th at Think Tank Gallery in Downtown LA, and you can learn more at our website: www.comicartsla.com. I’m definitely more sympathetic to the limitations of a con than I was before. The vast majority of cons are run by volunteers and there is very little money. If you’re in a big city like New York, or San Francisco, there are only so many venues to work with and most of them are going to cost more than you can afford. You’re also working with the city so there’s a lot of technical bureaucratic stuff you have to keep track of everytime you bring a new idea to the table. On the other hand, the most impressive cons I’ve been to have definitely dedicated themselves to improving their events year after year. Because of the volunteer-based nature of cons it’s easy to stagnate, so it’s extra impressive to me when they continue to grow.
There are plenty of new cons every year that we can support. Some cons are only interested in serving a specific audience, and that’s their prerogative. But I think a smart con knows the future of the convention is to bring in outsiders and open it to a community more reflective of the general public. And that public is going to be diverse.
JEN WANG: It’s something the con organizers have to prioritize, and if it’s not something they care about we as attendees don’t need to go. There are plenty of new cons every year that we can support. Some cons are only interested in serving a specific audience, and that’s their prerogative. But I think a smart con knows the future of the convention is to bring in outsiders and open it to a community more reflective of the general public. And that public is going to be diverse. I was very happy that almost half our exhibitor applicants to CALA were women and a great many are people of color, and that was through no coercion on our part at all. This is what comics look like now.
I was very happy that almost half our exhibitor applicants to CALA were women and a great many are people of color, and that was through no coercion on our part at all. This is what comics look like now.
RACEBENDING: If you had to adapt one video game franchise into a comic, what would it be?
JEN WANG: If it were me I’d have to say Oregon Trail. I also know a couple artists who’d do an amazing Sonic The Hedgehog comic.
RACEBENDING: What can fans expect to see from you next and where can they find your previous original graphic novels?
JEN WANG: Comic Arts LA is the biggest thing coming up for me soon, but other than that, I’m going to be serializing a new webcomic, and I’m working on a secret project with fellow cartoonist Hope Larson. You can find my previous short comic works online at my website www.jenwang.net and my first graphic novel KOKO BE GOOD (also published by First Second) is also available.
Racebending.com thanks Jen Wang for her time and for this interview! Check out her website at www.jenwang.net
Television series Sleepy Hollow was Fall 2013’s breakout hit for Fox Television. The second season of the quirky, time-traveling, fantasy-horror series premieres on Monday, September 22nd 2014. Racebending.com interviewed the producers and cast of Sleepy Hollow as part of a promotional press line at San Diego ComicCon.
Sleepy Hollow features an exceptionally diverse cast for a network television series. When the show exceeded expectations, Fox Broadcasting execs touted the diversity in the series as part of their overall business strategy. The series even cast lead actress Nicole Beharie first, basing the subsequent casting of the Ichabod Crane character on chemistry reads with her. The show also boasts a diverse writing staff, including three women who all have sisters and bring their experiences to the story arc between Abbie and her sister.
In an interview with Buzzfeed last fall, executive producer Heather Kadin addressed the diversity seen in the cast and how the show has inverted the trope where characters of color are killed off first in horror. “It was a conscious effort to have a diverse cast just to represent our world,” Kadin said. “I don’t think it’s realistic for the whole cast to be white. I also think when you are developing a show and casting it mostly Caucasian and you get down to the bad guy and the network is like, ‘You have to have some diversity,’ then all of the sudden…that’s why the person of color is always killed [first in horror shows]. And because we have so much diversity in our cast and we’ve had the freedom to cast our villains and victims however we want, so we can kill as many white people as we want.”
Actors in the series have also shut down audience members complaining about the “politically correct” diversity in the series (even though the show has always had an established white male presence with the co-lead, Ichabod Crane, and additional white supporting characters and antagonists.) Orlando Jones took to twitter when some viewers complained that it was “unrealistic” for there to be a black woman police officer as the lead since the show is set in a suburban New England town. [The show is also about a time traveling dead guy and a demon dude with no head.] Jones pointed out that real-life Sleepy Hollow, New York boasts one Officer Wendy Yancey, a black woman and police officer. Jones has also been outspoken when media critics downplay the diversity on the series, such as when a feature story in the Los Angeles Times omitted lead actress Nicole Beharie outright.
“The show is clearly multicultural, and that is groundbreaking,” Jones said at the press line at ComicCon. “So, it’s not lost on me that that’s happening, I’m sort of very proud of it. But I’m mostly proud because it’s not about that. It’s just a fun ride with really cool characters and those other things are cool extra things but not what it’s about. For me, that’s really special.”
The show does not always handle diversity gracefully. Episodes with Romani and Native American characters fell back on cliched stereotypes. The Founding Fathers are lionized and their faults downplayed. A joke about Sally Hemmings falls flat when you remember that Hemmings was a child. Ichabod Crane is the convenient kind of time traveler–a cheerful abolitionist and a feminist. Still, Sleepy Hollow boasts more representation than other horror genre shows of it’s kind, in the show’s present and flashback settings. “We’re far from perfect (as many [fans] have pointed out) but I’m glad we’re doing our part to elevate the game,” Jones wrote in a letter to fans on social media.
The show is uniquely positioned to address diversity and representation issues and that isn’t lost on Marguerite Bennett, the author of the show’s tie-in comic book series for Boom Studios. “You can laugh if you want, when talking about a show that features demons, golems, conspiracies, George Washington, and the apocalypse, but Sleepy Hollow’s address of our own ugly history and hypocrisy is so important to me,” Bennett said in an interview with The Mary Sue. “From Ichabod’s era, when our nation was created under ideals of freedom and equality while simultaneously treating human beings as absolute chattel, to our present era, where we live in the safety of certain rights and liberties, yet still grapple with virulent racism, sexism, homophobia, the mistreatment of the mentally ill, and the erasure of indigenous peoples—Sleepy Hollow doesn;t shy away from our misdeeds, but encourages bravery and compassion the likes of which Abbie and Ichabod display.”
Fans have also stood up for the show, sparking conversations about the portrayal of Abigail Mills and other characters of color on the series. Bloggers of color have encouraged other fans to drop the word “sassy” from their lexicon when describing the show’s black women characters and noted how the character confounds tropes and stereotypes.
“Both Abbie and Jenny are normal, intelligent, flawed human beings, not cardboard stock characters,” writes Daniel Jose at The Nerds of Color. “It seems so simple yet we’ve seen it so rarely in television’s long, racist history.”
When a highly criticized, racist, New York Times feature article about television showrunner Shonda Rhimes mentioned Nicole Beharie’s character in passing and marked her a mere “sidekick,” Sleepy Hollow black twitter and fans pressured the paper into issuing a correction.
In an roundtable interview with Essence magazine, actresses Laverne Cox and Nicole Beharie discussed the reception Beharie has received for Sleepy Hollow and how it has challenged assumptions about women of color and their ability to draw an audience. Sleepy Hollow was initially advertised in the United Kingdom with advertisements solely featuring white English lead Tom Mison. “I was invited without the white male counterpart in my cast and it was packed, ” Beharie said. “They knew it was just going to be me. So that shook me.
“I ‘ve always been told and I believed that this doesn’t work without him,” Beharie said. “And there was also this notion that we [black women] don’t ‘work’ overseas. But [the event] was advertised just to be me. And they showed up…. I think what happens is it turns into less a conversation about my blackness and more about relating to humanity; because that’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re just realizing that people are capable of doing it. We’re underestimating people because people said [black women] weren’t viable.”
RACEBENDING.COM: Sleepy Hollow is one of the most diverse shows on television. Do you think that has contributed to the success of the show, and if so, how?
MARK GOFFMAN: I think it has, definitely. We’re super proud of that, you know, and I think what it reflects is a real change in how it works. Movie studios are really looking at who is going to see movies and hopefully it reflects a more accurate portrayal of who we all are.
ALEXANDER KURTZMAN: It becomes organic to the storytelling. We’re able to tell a lot of different stories about different cultures and different mythologies. And it all just works really well and blends into what we are trying to do with the show.
RACEBENDING.COM: Jenny [Mills] is a unique representation of people on television who are identified as having mental illness, and so, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that portrayal and how that plays into your read of the character.
LYNDIE GREENWOOD: That’s a very good question. It’s interesting because Jenny has–well, she’s misrepresented. There was a seen that was cut, unfortunately, from [Season One, episode six] where Jenny has a really good friend in the asylum. And I really wish we had shown a bit more of that world, because I think that it is important– I volunteered at mental health facilities in Toronto–to realize that these are problems that anyone can face and they’re not so–there shouldn’t be things that we don’t talk about. There should be things that are accessible. And I think the more that we have a dialogue, the better we’ll be able to understand these issues. So yeah, I mean–it doesn’t really play that much into the character, but I like the conversation in general. Get rid of the stigma, definitely, and talk about it.
RACEBENDING.COM: What’s it like to be on a show with such a big fandom? What’s your reaction to the fan fiction, the fan art, all those things.
TOM MISON: I mean, it can’t be anything other than a massive compliment. It shows that people are engaged in the show and we’ve said lots of times before, when you see people writing fan fiction and they’re drawing and they’re painting….To know that we’re doing work that inspires people to create their own stuff–there is not really much you could ask for.
NICOLE BEHARIE: Yeah, and Tom was born for this. Look at him. He was like, ready for it.
TOM MISON: I’m in heaven here.
Racebending.com is proud to announce that we will be hosting a panel discussion: Racebending.com Presents: Diversity in Comics at this years Awesomecon Indianapolis held from October 3rd through the 5th at the Indianapolis Convention Center.
Panelists include Jeremy Whitley (@jrome58), the Eisner nominated creator of Princeless, as well as local Indy webcomic artists and authors G Pike (@Gpike_) and Ginger Dee (@lawofgar) creators of Title Unrelated and The Brothers Grant. We hope to add more diverse artist and authors to our roster of panelists as Awesomecon draws near.
To get you excited, Here is a Thing…
Mitali Perkins is an author and educator. Her books are primarily focused on young readers. Her works include Monsoon Summer, Rickshaw Girl, Bamboo People, and Secret Keeper. Mitali Perkins is the editor and one of the ten contributors to Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices. The ten authors She brought together for open mic were herself Gene Yang, David Yoo, Cherry Cheva,G. Neri,Varain Johnson, Naomi Shibab Nye, Francisco X Stork, Debbie Rigaud, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Bboth Gene and Mitali were kind enough to step up to the mic for us as well giving us some of their time to talk about race and humor. Racebending.com contributor Gabrial Canada spoke to Mitali in October before the release of Open Mic as part of his podcast and spoke with her and Gene Yang via email one the subject of Race and Humor after the Cancel Colbert controversey and BookCon’s conspicuous lack of diversity brought #hastagactivism into the fore of public discussion on the topic.
Racebending: As a writer for Racebending.com I apprecaited your shoutout about our nifty t-shirts in Open Mic. It was fun seeing a reference to us in in print! The book is a collection about race and humor and there is certainly humor present in your work. Gene, you make use of and make fun of stereotypes in American born Chinese and that humor and embracing racial identity plays an important role in the growth of its characters. Do you have any advice or guidelines about writing this way, knowing when humor is making fun of racism or when a joke becomes racist itself. I’m thinking partly of the Cancel Colbert controversy recently.
Gene Yang: Advice? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out. Racism is funny, but it can be funny in two very different ways. We can laugh at racism because we recognize the absurdity of the racist ideas, or we can laugh because we think those ideas might be true. The dividing line is pretty fuzzy, and the same joke can be interpreted by intelligent, sincere people in very different ways.
My one regret with American Born Chinese is that I did not exaggerate Cousin Chin-Kee enough. I thought I’d gone pretty far, but every now and then I still get reader feedback telling me that Chin-Kee is “cute.” I definitely did not mean for him to be cute. I guess my advice, based on my own experience, is that if you’re in doubt, push it over-the-top absurd.
Racebending: One of the funnier things in your book is the opening in which essentially you have your ground rules there. You are trying to make sure that people can kind of exhale as it were and say, ok I do not have to worry this is not a book of racist jokes It is a book of jokes that may in fact involve race. Because it can be funny. There are funny and awkward situations that happen when anyone is growing up and that can be compounded if race is injected as something people have to contend with as a kid. Can you explain what those rules were? I think it is legitimately helpful to say this is one of the things that helps it be not offensive. To let out that deep breath and feel that this is something that is ok to laugh at.
Mitali Perkins: Right! Right! Humor is powerful and I think storytelling itself is powerful. It really becomes a question about power as I think about using humor as a way of talking about race. I feel it can be used to alienate instead of build affection.
So my first rule is good humor pokes fun of the powerful and not the weak. There is a nice video by Craig Ferguson from when Britney Spears was having her complete breakdown he had this eleven minute monologue on How the best kind of humor does not pummel someone who is down, who is weak who is broken. It really takes aim at the powerful.
My second rule is that it always builds affection for someone who is other. So it does not alienate as I said. When I teach it to my class, I teach a class on this issues of race and culture in storytelling, I show some different youtube clips to show what I mean. There are some comedians who really succeed in this. At the end of the comedy rift you feel very close to the person who is other than you. There are other (comedians) who are really funny but at the end of it you feel you have been made to laugh at someone who has been pushed away from you, its is a wider rift. I think that is another rule that it builds affection and not alienates.
The third rule is that the best humor is always self deprecatory. Usually I am very free about who can write for whom but when it comes to jokes and humor because I think the best humor in this category is about yourself, it almost seems as though it should be a little more restrictive. You can see this in jokes. When people tell jokes its like you can tell a joke about your own ethnic group but if you tell a joke about another ethnic group it just does not come off as well. So I guess it is just poking fun of your own culture that is the best way to stay out of trouble. Though there are lots of areas where it can get murky there. What if I am biracial what does that mean? How much of that race do I have to be to be an insider and to tell that joke?
It can get very complicated. It is a question of identity and self affiliation. If you are telling a joke as if it is one of us against me than it is different than if you are telling a joke about “them.”
Racebending: The Cancel Colbert Campaign recently highlighted the importance of understanding race and humor. I wonder if you had any opinion on the discussions it engendered and at the same time diversity in publishing has also come to the fore in recent weeks with the question, why do we need diverse books as the rallying cry. I would love to add your name to the chorus of authors answering that question. Why do we need diverse books?
Mitali Perkins: The Cancel Colbert Campaign underlined the need for a renewed combination of freedom, humor, and civility in discussions about race. It’s become such a fraught subject that an attempt at satire brings about a knee-jerk attempt to censor. People are increasingly worried about saying the wrong thing, resulting in a climate of suspicion, hostility, fear, and silence. To renew the conversation, smart, self-deprecatory humor is key. Funny, intelligent books and movies featuring this kind of humor can be the “water cooler” around which people gather to talk again. That’s yet another reason why #weneeddiversebooks.
You can listen to the entire interview with Mitali Perkins on Kind of Epic Show. Please note that the opinions expressed do not necesarilly represent the view of Racebending.com and the discussion itself is meant to be humorous and entertaining to fit the subject material of the book: Mitali Perkins Steps up to the Mic
Gene Luen Yang was nominated for an Eisner for his recent work on Boxers and Saints at First Second Books. The two companion graphic novels focus on the story of the Boxer Rebellion: One from a Chinese fighter who has joined the Boxers in order to preserve his way of life and the other from the vantage of a Chinese Christian affected by the conflict. Gene’s previous work has been profiled at Racebending.com externsively including his Avatar the Last Airbender comics for Dark Horse. Gene has also kind enough to sit on some of our panels which you can watch here. Gene is currently working on the third season of his Avatar the Last Airbender comics, The Rift.
We talked to Gene via email to discuss his recent Eisner nomination. His work on The Shadow Hero, a retelling of the origins of the first Asian American Super Hero, The Green Turtle. We discuss the importance of diverse heroes and diverse books. Finally we discuss his free comic book day title as well as what we can expect to learn about Toph in The Rift.
RACEBENDING: First Congrats on the Eisner nomination! You pointed out that there were other entrants from First Second in your category, why do you think First Second is able to cater so well to readers in this category?
GENE YANG: Thank you so much! I’m such a huge fan of Will Eisner. It’s an honor to be nominated for an award named after him.
My publisher First Second Books got three out of the six nominations in the Best Publication for Teens category. First Second does books for every age. They publish books for the younger set like Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon’s Odd Duck, and adult books like Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s Feynman. I do think you’re right, though. First Second seems to do especially well in Young Adult.
I’m not sure why this is. From the very beginning, First Second editorial director Mark Siegel wanted the imprint to be in between worlds. First Second publishes books from all three major comics cultures: American, Japanese, European. First Second also has solid footing in all three major markets for comics: bookstores, comics shops, and libraries. Being “in between” has been a part of the imprint’s DNA from the very beginning. Maybe First Second does well with teens because Young Adult is an “in between” category.
RACEBENDING:Are there any other golden age or silver age characters that you would like to write or reinvent as in the case of the Green Turtle?
GENE YANG: There are so many crazy Golden Age heroes out there! Too many to choose from – just google “public domain superheroes” and you’ll see what I mean. It’d be fun to revive a bunch of heroes around a theme, like the color green: Green Turtle, Green Lama, Green Mask, Green Sorceress.
RACEBENDING:Why do you think Superheroes are an important embodiment of America and how important is it that those heroes then also embody the actual diversity of America?
GENE YANG: America is embedded within very foundations of the superhero genre. Superheroes came around just as America was becoming a superpower. They were created by poor, teenage children of immigrants. You can find the fingerprints of that immigrant past in almost every origin story. Superman, the prototypical superhero, is also the prototypical immigrant. He was sent to America by his foreign parents so he could have a brighter future.
Superheroes embody American idealism, American hope, American bombast. There’s just something joyfully goofy – or goofily joyful? – about running around rooftops in brightly colored tights fighting crime. Deep down inside, we superhero fans know this. We understand the symbolic value of Spider-man, Batman, and Wonder Woman. That’s why there’s such a push for diversity within the genre now. We want to see in our comics that anybody can be a superhero, that anybody can be an American.
America is embedded within very foundations of the superhero genre. Superheroes came around just as America was becoming a superpower. They were created by poor, teenage children of immigrants. You can find the fingerprints of that immigrant past in almost every origin story.
RACEBENDING: The recent controversy surrounding Bookcon was summarized in a tweet last week as “having more cats than writers of color” in its featured guests list. While this has been remedied in the past week with the addition of Alaya Dawn Johnson, Marie Lu and others the ratio of cats to people of color is still not all that favorable. Authors have responded to this by answering the question, why do we need diverse books and I would like to ask you that same question now? Also how important is it that these cons and expo’s are inclusive? Have you ever felt unwelcome or tokenized at conventions?
GENE YANG: We need diverse books because our world is diverse. I believe in that notion of literature serving as both a mirror reflecting our own experience and a window into The Other’s experience.
I’m a comic book guy. Comic books have traditionally been a medium for the marginalized. Many of the early greats were the children of poor, Jewish immigrants. They came from families so marginalized they had to flee their home countries. Then later, the underground comix movement of the 60s served as an outlet for the voices and ideas of the outcast. “Outsiderness” is an embedded comics’ DNA.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt at home at comic book conventions. Everyone I met seemed a little offbeat. Everyone seemed like somebody I would’ve hung out with in the nerd corner of my high school cafeteria.
That’s my experience as a comic book *guy*, however. I know has been really different for comic book *girls*. The relative gender balance we see at comic book conventions these days is a fairly recent phenomenon.
We need diverse books because our world is diverse. I believe in that notion of literature serving as both a mirror reflecting our own experience and a window into The Other’s experience.
RACEBENDING: Free Comic Book day saw the release of an (amazing!) Avatar the Last Airbender book and you have The Rift upcoming. Suki took a leading role in the free comic book day issue and the focus of the story was on male gatekeepers in the culture that stigmatize girls as only being fake when expressing the same interest or expertise as men. Why do you think that kind of a culture persists in comics and how do we overcome it as fans?
GENE YANG: I don’t know why that fake nerd girl thing exists. Clearly, there are nerdy girls. Just go to your local high school, your local library, your local mall. Look around.
As a lifelong geek, it’s weird to see the obsessions I used to hide celebrated by mainstream culture. In high school, me and my comic book buddies had to sneak to the comics shop on new comics day like we were going to a crack house. Now, everybody’s talking about Batman and the X-Men and the Avengers.
I have to admit, I do get that feeling sometimes, that same feeling you get when everybody discovers your favorite indie band. It’s not logical. I should be happy everyone loves geek culture now because it means there will be more of it. And most of the time I am. But every now and then…
Maybe that fake nerd girl thing is a weird, sexist expression of that sentiment? Or maybe humans are just jerks.
RACEBENDING: In a related question will we be seeing more of Suki in the Rift and are there any other familiar faces that we have not seen represented from the show in the comics that will also be in The Rift?
RACEBENDING: As The Rift has Toph as a more central character and you have already answered some of fans’ biggest questions in past entries what questions about Toph will be answered or addressed in the new series? Does she finally get a positive life altering event because of a vacation with Zuko? Everyone else in the gang got one!
GENE YANG: Haha. Zuko doesn’t show up in the Rift either. But Toph gets a lot of panel time. I love her. We do get into some of those lingering questions about her family.
RACEBENDING: Did you feel your nomination for National Book award was an acknowledgment of comics as a medium as well as your work. Should more comics be considered for the honor?
GENE YANG: Having my books nominated for the National Book Award was one of the biggest thrills of mylife. I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky. Creators like Art Spiegelman, the Hernandez Brothers,Lynda Barry, Osamu Tezuka, and Neil Gaiman have been pushing the literary boundaries of comics for decades. They created a “literary comics” category in the minds of the general public, and I am one of the many beneficiaries of their work.
I absolutely think more comics should be considered for the National Book Award, but this is largely in the hands of the publishers. A few years after my first nomination, I had the honor of serving as a judge for the National Book Awards. Judges can request certain books, but the vast majority of books being considered are submitted by the publishers. There’s a submission fee,but if a comics publisher puts out a graphic novel they feel is particularly worthy, they ought to. In fact, I would suggest that even fans can get involved. If you read a graphic novel that completely blows your mind, write to the publisher. Ask them to submit it to the National Book Awards. And if you’re feeling generous, offer to donate a part of the submission fee.
Racebending.com would like to thank Gene Yang for this interview! Visit geneyang.com to learn more about his books.
The panel is focused on art and storytelling techniques in comics that allow fantasy worlds to mirror real world diversity. It is presented by an equally diverse roster of panelists whose own work and experience range from webcomics to running comics conventions. The panel presentation will be held on April 27th from 2:45-3:45 in panel room S402 at Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center. Panelists include Gail Simone, Turtel Onli, Gene Ha, Jay Fuller, Ramon K. Perez, and Marjorie M. Liu with moderator Gabe Canada.
Racebending.com is an international grassroots organization of media consumers who support entertainment equality. We advocate for underrepresented groups in entertainment media. Since our formation in 2009, we have been dedicated to furthering equal opportunities in Hollywood and beyond.
This website was founded by fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender who were appalled by the casting discrimination that occurred during the production of the The Last Airbender film adaptation. We are now comprised of thousands of supporters in 50 countries around the world. We are a coalition and community dedicated to encouraging fair representation in the media. As a far-reaching movement of media consumers, students, parents, and professionals, we promote just and equal opportunities in the entertainment industry.
The Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo – also known as C2E2 – is a convention spanning the latest and greatest from the worlds of comics, movies, television, toys, anime, manga and video games. Bringing the best of popular culture to Downtown Chicago, C2E2’s show floor is packed with hundreds of exhibitors, panels and autograph sessions giving fans a chance to interact with their favorite creators and screening rooms featuring sneak peeks at films and television shows months before they hit either the big or small screen!
The 1001 Arabian Nights. The Biblical flood and the family that repopulated the world. The Jewish exodus out of Ancient Egypt. The story of Jesus of Nazareth. The Ancient Egyptian gods Horus, Ra, and Set…
These movie concepts, in development for 2014 and 2015 releases, are based on stories and histories from the Eurocentric concept of the “East” that have captured the Eurocentric imagination. They’re also rare acting opportunities for actors of color that continue to be cast with white actors.
Liam Hemmsworth and Anthony Hopkins will star as leads in the Arabian Nights. Russell Crowe stars as the patriarch of the Earth-repopulating family of Noah in what the film claims is a “close adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark.” Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado portrays the role of Jesus in Son of God. White Brit Christian Bale plays Moses and white Australian Joel Edgerton plays Ramses II in Exodus. White Scottish, Danish, and Australian actors top the cast of Gods of Egypt portraying Set, Horus, and Ra.
North African, Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, South Asian–they’re already arbitrary cultural classifications. Depending on Hollywood’s purposes, these characters, cultures, and stories are either made white or racialized as a swath of brown.
The Academy Awards’ gross under-recognition of performances by people of color, both in terms of nominations and wins, is pretty much universally acknowledged. Check this thorough list from Your Media Has Problems on tumblr if you had any doubts.
One of the interesting dimensions covered in that piece is that the majority of people of color nominated for Oscars played roles that “had” to be portrayed by a person of that race. This is a sad reflection on the limited roles available for actors of color.
But what’s even sadder is the fact that Hollywood has a long history of squeezing that limitation even further by casting white people as PoC characters. From Racebending.com‘s crucial “What is racebending?” primer:
The term “racebending” refers to situations where a media content creator (movie studio, publisher, etc.) has changed the race or ethnicity of a character. This is a longstanding Hollywood practice that has been historically used to discriminate against people of color. In the past, practices like blackface and yellowface were strategies used by Hollywood to deny jobs to actors of color… Because characters of color were played by white actors, people of color were hardly represented at all–and rarely in lead roles. While white actors were freely given jobs playing characters of color in make-up, actors of color struggled to find work.
(The term “racebending” is also used refer to the usually positive and exciting practice of casting a person of color in a role previously/traditionally played by a white person, but this article focuses on the sadly much more common dark side of racebending.)
I decided to take a look back at the acting nominations in the Academy Awards’ 86-year history to see how many examples of racebending were honored with nominations or awards. The results are unsurprising, yet still incredibly disappointing.
There are a few distinct forms of the bad kind of racebending. The most obvious and arguably most egregious is “black/brown/yellow/red-face,” where a white actor plays a person of color by wearing makeup.
Then there is the strange Hollywood treatment of all “vaguely ethnic” actors as interchangeably cast-able in any PoC role. In the past, this meant actors we’d now code white playing characters of color, e.g. George Chakiris as Bernardo in West Side Story, but this lives on today with “brown is brown!” casting, e.g. Maori actor Cliff Curtis‘s globe-spanning character roster. There’s some overlap between this and the first category.
And then there is whitewashing, the insidious form racebending that erases the race or ethnicity of a character (often a real-life figure) to cast a white person in the role.
Each of these types of racebending are represented in Academy Award-nominated and -winning performances. My list below is most likely incomplete. Lists on Wikipedia and TV Tropes and articles by Michelle I. on Racebending and Tanya Ghahremani on Complex.com got me started. I then attempted to thoroughly review the complete lists of winners and nominees to find other instances. I am sure I missed some, particularly in the whitewashing category. If you can think of other examples, please share in the comments!
There are also “gray area” examples such as mixed-race Indian Brit Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi in heavy brown makeup, Siberian Russian Yul Brynner playing the King of Siam, and Robert Downey Jr.’s role as Kirk Lazarus as Lincoln Osiris in Tropic Thunder, which was meant to parody this entire phenomenon, but, you know, was still a white actor in blackface receiving an Oscar nomination in 2008. I’ve left these examples in the list but with asterisks.
Oscar-winning race-bent performances with a white actor in makeup to play a PoC:
Oscar-nominated race-bent performances with a white actor in makeup to play a PoC:
Oscar-winning race-bent performances with an “interchangeably ethnic” actor playing a PoC not of his race or ethnicity:
Oscar-nominated race-bent performances with an “interchangeably ethnic” actor playing a PoC not of his race or ethnicity:
Oscar-winning race-bent performances with a white actor playing whitewashed PoC:
The very sad moral of the story is that Hollywood never “has to” cast a person of color. White supremacy in Hollywood finds a way.
This article was originally published at BtchFlcks.com, a website devoted to reviewing films and television through a feminist lens. Check out btchflcks.com for more articles on movies—good and bad—and the roles that women play in them.
Warning: This review contains major spoilers for the Avatar: The Last Airbender series and massive spoilers for The Search. If you have yet to read all three issues of The Search by Gene Yang, keep reading at your own risk.
When the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender came to an end in 2007, fans were left with a tantalizing cliffhanger–what happened to Prince Zuko’s mother, Princess Ursa? Zuko was a popular character and his missing mother played a key role in both his back story as well as in the character back story of his younger sister and rival, Princess Azula. When Dark Horse Comics bought the license for the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, they tapped acclaimed comic book author Gene Luen Yang to write several sequel series, including The Search, which reveals the mysteries behind Ursa’s disappearance.
For Zuko and the rest of the Avatar leads, The Search picks up where The Promise left off: Fire Lord Zuko is brokering an uneasy truce in Yu Dao. An Earth Kingdom minister spouts an adage that puts a lump in Zuko’s throat: “Family is, in essence, a small nation, and the nation, a large family.” It’s a theme that might as well have come straight from the mouth of Confucius–and a deliberate literary allusion from Yang, who has never hesitated to draw connections between the world of Avatar and it’s Asian Pacific (and Asian Pacific American) cultural roots.
“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” ― Confucius
Fire Lord Ozai never got the Confucius memo, but Fire Lord Zuko has, and it hits him that he’s institutionalized his sister, incarcerated his father, and he has no idea the whereabouts of his banished mother. After handing over the reins to his Uncle Iroh, he gathers together a family of choice–Sokka, Katara, Aang, and Azula–and follows a lead from his deposed father that brings him to the small town of Hira’a.
The Search opens with flashbacks to weave Ursa’s backstory: her life in Hira’a with loving parents, her interest in theater arts, and her fellow actor and fiancé, Ikem. We learn that after Avatar Roku’s death, his daughter Rina settled with her family on the outskirts of the Fire Nation, trying to lay low. Inspired by a Fire Sage prophecy that portends that “the pairing of the Avatar’s granddaughter with my own son will yield a bloodline of great power,” Fire Lord Azulon hunts down the family and arranges a match between Ursa and his second son, Ozai.
From then on, Ursa’s life becomes a web of calculated lies and truths, woven to protect the lives of those she cares about. Her first lie is to Ikem, to save his life when he protests the new engagement. The next is to Ozai, when she promises never to speak to her parents or townspeople again, and again when she tests him to see if he is reading her letters. She lies that Zuko is not Ozai’s son–a letter that Ozai will use as a pretense to bully Zuko–and years down the line in The Search as a resource for his favorite child Azula to undermine Zuko’s legitimacy. Ursa’s final lie is to herself –one that completely subverts trope and fan expectations for the character and why she was missing all these years.
The Search provides new insights on Zuko and Azula’s family and their parents’ relationship. We learn that Ursa was basically kidnapped from her family and forced to marry Ozai against her will. Her role was be a brood mare for future generations of genocidal Fire Lords. To Ozai, Ursa is a possession rather than a partner or a person. He completely isolates her from her family–forbidding her ever from speaking of her hometown–and even arranges to have her former fiancé killed just to spite her. Their relationship is a frightening and realistic depiction of intimate partner violence (a stark contrast to the Legend of Korra playing intimate partner violence for laughs.) This may come as a disappointment to fans who wanted to believe that Ozai and Ursa had an initially loving relationship, one that dissipated as Ozai grew power hungry. But it’s no surprise that the same man who would maim his own son would also be abusive towards his wife. It would be harder to believe that the relationship started out loving and then disintegrated.
Separated from everyone she knows and loves and forced to live her life as a palace prisoner, Ursa tries to remain true to herself and resist the abuse in small ways. In flashbacks, we see that Ursa finds small ways to undermine Ozai and remain true to herself. She commissions secretly a set of theater masks as a reminder of her old life and tries to instill a love for theatre in her children (Zuko uses a mask to hide his identity later on, and Azula definitely has a flair for the theatrical.) Ursa tries to send secret messages to her family and Ikem in Hira’a. She decides to try and raise Zuko to be nothing like his father, sometimes fantasizing that his father was actually Ikem.
These small acts of resistance backfire spectacularly when Ursa writes a letter to Ikem with an damning sentence: “My one consolation is our son, Zuko” (the letter is depicted in the comic in traditional Chinese writing with a cheesy, Times New Roman-esque font–who knew Ursa had such nice handwriting!) To Ursa, the letter is a way of expressing her pain and also to test Ozai, in case he is intercepting her letters (he is.) The word “our” is an unclear antecedent–in both the English language comic and the Chinese letter–Ursa doesn’t specify who she means by “our son.” Still, that doesn’t stop Ozai from twisting her ambiguous wording to spite her. The letter is written when Zuko is a toddler and forgotten by Ursa until years later, when Ozai decides to hire an assassin to kill Ikem. Ozai also uses the letter to justify his abuse of Zuko, declaring that he will treat Zuko as if Ursa cuckholded him after all. Many years later, after Ozai is deposed and Zuko is crowned, Ozai brings out the letter again and we see that he has been saving it all this time so it can be used as a tool to remove Zuko from power.
Knowing this, it is tempting to blame Ursa’s letter and actions as the reason why Ozai is so abusive towards Zuko. It’s certainly the logic that Ozai uses to justify treating Zuko “as the son of a traitorous dog,” even though Ozai knows Zuko is certainly his son. Push aside an abuser’s warped logic and it’s evident that Ozai uses both of the children as hostages for Ursa’s good behavior, and she has no control over how Ozai chooses to treat them.
As a character in the original series, Ozai is a mysterious, imposing figure as seen from the perspective of Aang, Zuko, and Azula. In The Search we see Firelord Ozai from the perspective of his wife, and it’s striking how much of Ozai’s banal abusiveness was hidden from his children. Ursa isn’t frightened of Ozai the same way the A:TLA heroes are, so Yang’s script emphasizes his pettiness is and Gurihuru draws him with tiny pupils and bulging eyes. When Ursa stands up to Ozai one final time, conspiring to murder Fire Lord Azulon in order to save Zuko’s life, she never breaks eye contact. Gurihuru depicts this scene with a page of diagonally placed panels–the most striking page in the entire book.
At a dinner table flashback, Ozai tells the children that he thought about casting Zuko from the palace when he was an infant. A narcissistic and possessive man, Ozai probably harbored jealousy towards Zuko from his birth, onwards. Zuko was Ursa’s sole consolation in her abusive marriage. Ursa’s affection towards Zuko would starkly contrast with her cold guardedness around Ozai. Ozai probably saw baby Zuko as a rival, not only to Ursa’s attentions, but to his throne.
For Azula, Ozai decided that there will be no bonding over shared victimhood with her mother or brother. Because Azula was a prodigy, Ozai could proudly hold her up as an extension of himself. He favoritized her while abusing her mother and brother, ensuring her loyalty to him. He encouraged her to bully her older brother. He has convinced her that her mother doesn’t love her, and Ursa’s inability to discipline or relate to Azula is a persuasive reinforcer, and her abandonment of Azula is the clincher. Through his abuse, Ozai showed Azula how powerless her mother was, to the point where Azula still obsesses over her mother’s powerlessness years later in The Search.
While Zuko had the support of his uncle during his exile and Ursa was able to suppress her memories of her abuse and live a idyllic life with Ikem, Azula has never escaped Ozai’s control. Azula spent her entire life raised by Ozai and defined by Ozai. Ozai demands perfection from Azula and his regard for her is conditional on that perfection (which is why she quickly caves under pressure when he leaves her with the huge responsibility of running the Fire Nation in the series finale.) Depowered and in prison, Ozai still smiles when he sees Azula turn on Zuko. Azula is burdened with an immense responsibility to continue to please her father.
“Even when I was an infant you saw in me something you never had! Power! That’s why you think I’m a monster. My power makes you fear me!” – Azula, in The Search
So much of Azula’s mental struggle is reconciling her belief that her own mother hates her with an inkling of internalized belief that her mother actually does love her. If she believes that her mother does love her, then she also has to challenge everything else she knows about her relationship with her father and her own identity. It’s incredibly threatening for Azula to face this, and in The Search, we see that she isn’t entirely ready to do so. She wants proof that her mother does not love her and will look anywhere to find it.
Character arcs in Avatar: The Last Airbender are defined by journeys and searches. Our heroes traveled across the world looking for ways to master all four elements. For all those years, Zuko searched for the Avatar and for his father’s approval, rather than for his missing mother. This theme is of course echoed by the story in The Search, but the actual search to find Ursa is rather short. Our heroes come up with a singular destination and head to it, and Ursa and Ikem happen to be the first people they meet when they arrive in town. Assisted by a spirit, the Mother of Faces, Ursa has chosen to forget her past life, an start anew as a completely different person, a woman named Noriko who is married to Ikem and raising a young daughter, Kiyi.
The meaning of The Search title ends up encompassing several different plot threads in the book. Zuko searches for his mother and for the truth about his parentage. When Part I of The Search was first released this letter enraged the fandom because it threatened to undermine Zuko’s role in the A:TLA series. Although the letter is kind of trope-y, it is interesting to see Zuko explore the possibility that he might have a different, kinder father, and that he was not meant to have the responsibilities of the throne. He remembers who he is, though. He’s no longer the confused boy banished from his family and on an impossible task to find the Avatar.
“Banishing me was the best thing you could’ve done for my life.”- Zuko to his father in the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender
Azula searches for her mother’s love, buried under all of her father’s mental conditioning. Before she fled the palace, Zuko’s mother implored him to “never forget who you are.” Azula never received this lesson, and she doesn’t know who she is, even as she meets different reflections of herself on the way. Along with the others, she encounters a brave sister who unconditionally supports her brother with a maimed face. She meets Kiyi, a well adjusted, ordinary, and happy child supported by loving parents–her mother’s daughter and her half sister. In the end her path parallels Koh the Face Stealer’s: she’s the child of a many-faced mother, she is estranged and wandering, lost and wicked. She runs away, after an amnesic Noriko apologizes for “not loving her enough,” while still believing that Zuko stole her birthright.
Azula is a very compelling character and most interesting when she exists in a moral grey. One thing that frustrated me about The Search is the characters’ (and perhaps also the creators’) tendency to not see Azula as a morally complex character. The Gaang struggles to find empathy for her–understandable since she did try to kill them several times–but just like Iroh’s approach to Azula in the animated series, the Gaang in The Search frequently writes her off as “crazy.” It’s an ableist blip in an otherwise progressive franchise. The only character willing to challenge this idea of Azula as crazy and hopeless is Zuko, but this story ends unresolved with Azula taking off into the forest. She is no longer armed with the incriminating letter that could disinherit Zuko–and perhaps on a mission for her father. Her overall story line in The Search feels unresolved. The book would have benefited from spending at least as much time exploring the impact of finding Ursa it did on explaining how she came to be in Hira’a, wearing another woman’s face.
While reading The Search I realized it would be far more interesting for me to review it against the backdrop of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Legend of Korra, and cultural depiction of motherhood in both Asian and American culture. Let’s start by establishing Avatar: The Last Airbender as a franchise that is already lightyears ahead of other products that Hollywood puts out. A:TLA tackled the topic of sexism head on in the very first episode, where the catalyst to Katara waterbending Aang’s iceberg is an argument with Sokka about his sexist attitudes. The show has also presented a diverse array of women characters, from the story’s narrator Katara to Toph to Princess Yue to antagonists like Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, to more recent characters like Korra and Asami Sato. The franchise has successfully depicted many different forms of feminine strength. Gender remained salient all through season one of the series and continues to be an important topic within or around the franchise. For example, Zuko was initially intended to have a brother, not a sister. The production of The Legend of Korra faced skepticism from what they’ve jokingly dubbed the “sexist” department at Nickelodeon for having a woman protagonist.
At the same time, depictions of women in the world of Avatar have also been critiqued by fans, particularly recent depictions in The Legend of Korra. And the setting itself is also patriarchal–the world of Avatar is at least as sexist as ours is, if not more sexist. When the group travels around the Four Nations in the original series, all of the localities they visited are led by men–from mayors of towns like Kyoshi Island to regional Kings like Bumi of Omashu. The Order of the White Lotus is led by powerful men (the only older woman shown as in their league is Hama, but she turns out to be a villain–where are all the “good” women bending masters?) The systemic imbalance of gender in powerful positions in society is present even in the more modern setting of The Legend of Korra, where women are still outnumbered on councils, police squads, and sports teams.
Then there is the depiction of motherhood in the Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is actually quite conventional. The stereotypical depiction of mothers in Avatar: The Last Airbender works against the franchise’s otherwise relatively progressive gender politics. Over and over again, characters who are mothers are given less storytelling importance and/or less agency than characters that are not (including fathers.) Mother characters are often not given names even as character’s fathers are named. These include the mothers of Yue, Eska and Desna, Noatak and Tarrlok, Haru, Lu Ten, Mai and Tom Tom, Teo, and Asami Sato. That’s a lot of characters, and in each of these cases, we know the name or position of the character’s father but not the name of the character’s mother. The only case where this trope is inverted is with Toph and father of her daughter Lin. Why wasn’t Katara, the only other known bloodbender, present at Yakone’s trial? Why wasn’t Senna, Korra’s mother, described as a participant in determining how Korra would be raised? Why is Korra’s mentorship in Book Two a squabble between the interests of three men (Tenzin, Tonraq, and Unulaq) that fails to include Senna?
So much of our perspective on mothers and motherhood is influenced by our storytelling culture. If you’re East Asian, there’s the cultural legacy of Mencius’s mother. If you’re Christian, there’s the Madonna. More recently, popular mothers in fandom included living mothers like Joyce Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Catelyn Stark (Game of Thrones) as well as “missing” mothers like Lily Evans Potter (Harry Potter) and Kya of the Southern Water Tribe (Avatar: The Last Airbender). Mothers are important catalysts for characters’ stories, and have been for a long time.
This is where the depiction of motherhood in The Search actually turns out to be both transgressive and perhaps even progressive. Unlike Sokka and Katara’s missing mother, Kya, who embodies the saintly mother who valiantly sacrificed her life for her daughter, Ursa doesn’t fall into the trope of the perfect, missing mother. Ursa goes to great lengths to save her son’s life, but she is far from a perfect parent to either Zuko or Azula. She fails to internalize the wisdom imparted to Zuko (“Never forget who you are.” “Never give up without a fight.”)
Ursa chooses to sacrifice her memories of her trapped children in order to start a new life. It was a smart decision–Ozai could still have assassinated her, or she may have attempted to rescue her children, leading to Zuko’s death. But it also removed her from the game–she wasn’t able to come to Zuko’s aid after he was scarred or banished, or able to return to advise her two children after Ozai was removed from power.
Ursa’s decision to forget about her children is drawing a lot of vitriol from fandom. After all, the character even voices aloud in the comic both before losing and after regaining her memories: What kind of “horrible” mother chooses to forget her children?
A human mother. An imperfect one.
The Search had Prince Zuko searching for (literally) a missing princess. The Zuko from Season One of Avatar would have been pissed if he’d discovered that his mother had chosen to ditch her family, memory wipe and all, to start over in Hira’a. The older, wiser, (and free) Zuko in The Search is mature enough to accept that Ursa wasn’t perfect. Despite years of searching for her, he was even willing to leave her with her new family without ever revealing the truth to her. He is able to accept that she is not a maternal ideal, but a person and an abuse survivor herself.
Will the fans be able to accept this, though? To be honest, in my idealized fan speculation for Ursa’s fate, I imagined her leading an underground resistance scheming to remove Ozai from power and rescue her two children. Maybe she was mixing her poisonous elixirs and planning on poisoning his soup when Aang took Ozai out. Maybe she had disguised herself (hello Mother of Faces) and was watching Zuko and Azula from afar. Maybe she joined the Order of the White Lotus, or maybe she was trapped in the Spirit World. The actual truth in The Search is a more realistic response made by thousands of women who have fled from violent relationships and lost their children in the process. In a action adventure setting like Avatar, it almost feels a bit too mundane–it’s difficult to swallow that Ursa would simply give up, voluntarily wipe her memory, and start over. She forgot her children, but neither of her children forgot her, and her absence greatly impacted their health and happiness.
Still, how much of my reaction as a fan is driven by my internalization of societal attitudes around who deserves to be happy and who should be happy? Should Ursa have resigned herself to long-suffering grief? Was Ursa’s choice a sign of weakness or a realistic assessment of the situation?
Though it may not be entirely intentional, the choice to resolve Ursa’s plot line in this way, after so many years of build up, poses to fans a very interesting question: Did Ursa make the right choice? The best choice? What should she have done?
The Search (Parts 1-3) is available at DarkHorse.com in Digital format and also available in Trade Paperback online and in local bookstores and comic book shops. The collected hardcover edition of The Search will be released in February 2014.