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Depictions of Gender and Ethnicity in The Last Airbender

September 30, 2010

Circumpolar Indigenous and Inuit People

In the animated series, Katara and Sokka have darker skin than the other characters and are inspired by indigenous cultures like the Inuit. [source] When the film adaptation of The Last Airbender was greenlit, Paramount had–for the first time–a chance to cast Inuit leads in a tentpole film using popular characters from an established franchise.

Instead, the production cast white actors to play two of the main protagonists, Katara and Sokka.

This shift in the characters’ design is strikingly apparent in the film’s promotional materials, where characters depicted with black hair, and brown skin in the animated series were depicted with light skin and blonde hair in marketing materials for the movie.


Left: Scene from the animated series. Center:: Art from a children’s book for the film. Right: From the cover of the official comic book adaptation of the film

The production could have recruited young actors from the English speaking Inuit communities in Alaska (boasting a 15.6% Alaskan Native population) and Canada, including Nunavut, which is 84.8% Inuit. Resources could have included the Inupiat Theatre in Barrow, Alaska. An expansive search could also have been conducted within the greater Native American/First Nations entertainment community or even to other communities of color.

Instead, Paramount Pictures released August 2008 breakdowns requesting “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” actors to play Sokka and Katara, and the roles ultimately went to Jackson Rathbone (Twilight) and unknown Nicola Peltz.


Screenshot of a casting call for ‘The Last Airbender’ [source]

Despite the lack of effort the production put into recruiting Inuit actors for the roles of Sokka and Katara, the production spared no expense traveling to the Inuit town of Ilulissat, Greenland in March 2009 to film on location, shipping 11 fake igloos and 10 shipping containers of supplies to the remote town. The production also hired flintknapper Barry Howe of Lethal Lithics, who specializes in the reproduction of indigenous North American artifacts, to create weapons for the film.

80% to 88% of Greenland’s population identify as being Kalaallit, a branch of Arctic Inuit people. So when the production of The Last Airbender recruited the local population to portray the animated series’ “Southern Water Tribe”– Sokka and Katara’s home–the result was several scenes of white stars portraying Inuit-inspired characters in the foreground, while the “real” Inuits played set dressing in the background.

“It’s pretty much an Inuit village, since they live in igloos, wear giant fur coats and, well, because everyone in the village except them and their grandmother looks Inuit,” film critic Zack Oat of Television Without Pity wrote. “It’s tough to defend casting white actors in arguably ethnic roles when they stick out like sore thumbs; it’s like the tribe adopted three white people.”

The reason why Katara, Sokka, and their grandmother are white while the other members of their tribe are Inuit is never explained in the film. (Were the backstory in the animated series applied to the characters, Katara and Sokka would still have been 3/4ths Southern Tribe. Regardless, none of the people portrayed by Inuit actors play a significant role in the film; significant Inuit characters were cast with white actors.)

“The unintended exhibition of the ‘white heroes’ at the beginning of the film seemed to be topped off with a shot of Sokka making his way to one of the tents wile being ‘cutely’ followed by a line of Inuit children,” Racebending.com volunteer Corey B. said.

The Inuit children appear in a handful of village scenes. Some older adult Inuit extras also appear when the film’s primary antagonist, the Fire Nation Prince Zuko, demands that the town bring him their elderly.

The film features two “Water Tribes,” a southern one populated by Inuit people with nonexistent leadership, and a northern one populated by white people who follow a Princess (played by white Hispanic actress Seychelle Gabriel) and a Waterbending Master (played by white actor Francis Guinan.)


In a scene from The Last Airbender, helpless Inuit characters scream and duck for cover as a “Firebender” uses their own firepit against them.

Circumpolar indigenous people are rarely depicted in movies, but in The Last Airbender, they are voiceless–depicted as disempowered and terrorized. The helpless Inuits cower. Aware of an impending attack by the “Fire Nation,” the Inuit Southern Tribe does not even take simple precautionary actions to defend themselves; such as putting out fire pits so the “firebenders” cannot use the pits to attack them.

In contrast, the Northern Tribe–led and populated by white people, assisted by the white heroes–launches a formidable defense against the invading Fire Nation and wins the film’s climactic battle.


The set of Inuit Southern Water Tribe in Ilulissat. [source]

The set of the white Northern Water Tribe. The Official website reads: “The Southern Water tribe has been ravaged from the war and mostly lives in primitive conditions – whereas the Northern Water Tribe is surrounded by a fortress and has built larger structures to protect themselves from the Fire Nation.”

Animated series fan Amberguesa pointed out: “The tribe full of white people is the one that is a beautiful pristine city, while the one full of people of color is the tribe that is devastated and full of ramshackle tents.”

Although the Southern Tribe is also depicted as more decimated by the war than the North in the animated series, both Water Tribes were populated with Inuit-inspired characters in the show. The casting of all white people to play the citizens of the advanced Northern civilization, while casting all Inuit people to play the “primitive” citizens of the South–except for the important ones with dialogue!–puts these scenes in a different context in the film.

When producer Frank Marshall completed the shoot in Greenland and returned to the United States, he tellingly remarked that it was “good to be back in civilization…”

It’s a shame that for once, Hollywood made a film featuring Inuit heroes–and then chose to cast white people to play them.

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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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