Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Racebending.com Supporters: Why We Oppose the Casting of The Last Airbender

June 15, 2010

When we collected demographic information in our supporter survey in Spring 2009, we also asked people to tell us–in three sentences or less–why they loved the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series and why they are protesting the discriminatory casting decisions of the film adaptation, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.

Over a thousand supporters from fifty different countries wrote in with their thoughts.  We’ve shared some of them below grouped by theme, interspersed with some pictures from the series and photos of our supporters from WonderCon 2010. (Please note that some comments were edited for length and clarity. The quotes are cited using supporters’ self-reported age, gender ethnicity, and hometown.)

For people familiar with our cause and for our partners in advocacy, we hope these supporter statements will affirm your feelings and strengthen your resolve to fight discriminatory practices in Hollywood. For people unfamiliar with Racebending.com, we hope these statements will help you understand where we are coming from, and why we are protesting films like The Last Airbender.

Jump To Statements by Theme:

Diversity Played a Huge Part in the Animated Series’ Appeal
People of Color Were Positively Affected by Representation in the Animated Series
Praise for Avatar’s Respect for its Cultural Roots
Skepticism Regarding the Film Adaptation’s Handling of Diversity
People of Color were Adversely Impacted by The Last Airbender’s Casting Decisions
The Production’s Handling of and Defense of the Casting of the Film
Impact on Actors of Color and their Communities
Offended by the Casting Decisions
Concerns from Parents About the Casting’s Message to Children
Thoughts from People Unfamiliar with the Franchise
Supporters’ Thoughts on Hollywood Responsibility and Making Change
Closing thoughts and Supporter Comment Text Cloud

Diversity Played a Huge Part in the Animated Series’ Appeal

Fans who wrote us shared that one of the major reasons they enjoyed the series was because of its diverse depiction of Pacific Rim characters and cultures.

The animated series was one of the very few American children’s television shows featuring heroes of color.

“I watched the original series and loved the characters because I could relate to them without them being from my background at all. I think that is a big point of the Avatar series, to introduce new cultures and worlds to people–kids especially– who knew nothing about them.”

a 17 year old Mexican and Caucasian young woman from California.

“I remember originally watching the show back in 2005. The school was in an Avatar craze.  One of the reasons why we liked the show so much was the fact the characters were Asian and Inuit. Usually main characters are white, which made Avatar that much more special. ”

a 16 year old white fan from Dallas, TX

“I always loved just how empowering the show was to all kinds of people and found it to be one of the few shows that set a good example for kids, from the way it depicted girls as equals to its use of non-white characters as heroes.”

a 21 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Michigan

“One of the most breathtaking elements of the original series was its respectful, holistic, whole-hearted investigation of other cultures and of the consequences of prejudice.”

a 22 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Kansas

“What I loved most about the characters were that they were witty, complex, and showed a whole range of human emotion… It proved that Asians were people, not caricatures.”

an 18 year old Eurasian woman from Los Angeles, CA

People of Color Were Positively Affected by Representation in the Animated Series

Many of the people who wrote in were people of color who had been positively affected by the representation of characters of color in the animated series. For many viewers in the audience, Avatar: The Last Airbender was the first time they had ever seen people who shared their ethnicity on TV, in a lead role and portrayed in a non-stereotyped manner.

“Katara was one of my favorite characters because she was culturally dark-skinned, and just awesome. Once I saw the [film] casting for her, I lost that self esteem.”

a 13 year old Filipina American from Baldwin Park, CA

“It was fantastic being able to spot things from my own ethnic background on the show, which is something that I hardly ever get to see.”

an 18 year old, who identifies as Korean, from Honolulu, HI

Avatar really shows the beauty of Eastern Asian culture. It made me proud of my Asian heritage.”

a 17 year old half Chinese, half Caucasian young man from Calgary, Canada.

“I loved Avatar–the first thing I said when I saw it was ‘Look, there’s brown people on TV!’ I loved the cultural diversity of the show, and what it stood for.”

a 17 year old Native Maldivian young man from London, UK

“My kids and I were so amazed to see people who looked like us in this amazing show!”

a 39 year old Japanese American man from Oakland, CA

Avatar was a show minorities could get excited about because, for once, we had minority leads!”

A 23 year old Guyanese American woman from Maryland

Praise for Avatar‘s Respect for its Cultural Roots

Many of our supporters shared that they loved the animated series for its deep respect for its cultural roots, and that they were astounded that the production of the film adaptation seemed to lack that same understanding and respect.

Throughout the animated series, characters visited dozens of different locales inspired by real world cultures rarely depicted in American children’s television programming.

“What drew me in more than anything, was the attention to detail Mike and Bryan [the creators] put into the creation of the world…The best part was seeing the clothes and knowing I have them in my closet, and recognizing the martial arts as parts of forms I’ve learned myself.”

a 20 year old woman of Chinese descent from Vancouver, Canada

“I just fell in love with the creativity, attention to detail, and beauty put into the show along with the great respect the creators put into representing the Asian cultures well– rather then as some kind of kung-fu gimmick.”

a 23 year old Korean American woman from New York

Avatar is one of the few shows that is very respectful of the cultures it represents, and when you take away the people that make up those cultures, you’re also taking away a huge part of the story. ”

26 year old Chinese American from San Francisco

“Paramount and those involved in the live-action movie blatantly ignored the effort and research put into the series. If they can’t respect it’s source material and what it gave to viewers, I can’t respect their choices for the direction the film is going.”

an 18 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Massachusetts

Skepticism Regarding the Film Adaptation’s Handling of Diversity

Two months after the initial cast of The Last Airbender was announced and after considerable fan outcry, the role of Prince Zuko, the film’s primary antagonist, was recast from a white actor to Indian-British actor Dev Patel. Subsequently, several actors of “Latino, Middle Eastern” descent were cast to play villains and conquering Fire Nation soldiers that are the antagonists in the film. The production also began casting “Asian and African” actors to play citizens of a country that has fallen victim to the Fire Nation. Because of these castings, M. Night Shyamalan has declared The Last Airbender “the most culturally diverse tent-pole movie ever made.”

Characters from the animated series and their depictions in the film adaptation.
Lead protagonists (played by white actors) are on the left; lead antagonists (played by actors of color) on the right.

The readers who wrote in expressed skepticism and outright disdain for the production’s claims of diversity. They argued that casting white actors to play characters of color was more reminiscent of traditional Hollywood discrimination than diversity, and that people of color had been placed in secondary and negative roles compared to the now-whitewashed main characters.

“Casting people of color for minor roles merely serves to reinforce their mindset that minority actors and actresses will never be good enough for leading roles. The Avatar movie was a great opportunity for non-white actors to advance that was snatched away.”

a 19 year old Asian American woman from the northeastern United States

“I think the best actor should get the part, but after looking at who would play who, it just seems too coincidental that the best actors that tried out for the villains are people of color and the best for the heroes are white.”

a 22 year old man who identifies as white

“I hate how putting people of color in the background is used as an excuse for ‘diversity’ in the movie when the show already showed diversity stemming from many different Asian cultures.”

a 24 year old Black, African American, Cherokee and French Canadian woman from San Diego, CA

“The casting of white heroes saving an Asian community portrays us as helpless victims who depend upon white people.”

a 25 year old man of Chinese and Portuguese descent from Oakland, CA

“Throwing minorities a bone by sticking them in supporting roles–or the roles of villains–only emphasizes that the casting folks did not trust them with being able to carry a movie on their own.”

a 23 year old woman, who identifies as black, from California

“Using Indian culture as that of the aggressive, oppressive Fire Nation is greatly offensive. White actors freeing anybody from brown people is a throwback to the days of the “White Man’s Burden”–not to mention disrespectful to my people and my culture. I support Dev Patel and M. Night Shyamalan as talented Indian entertainers, but I personally take offense at the representations portrayed in the film.”

a 17 year old Indian American young man from Cincinnati, OH

People of Color were Adversely Impacted by The Last Airbender‘s Casting Decisions

Many of our supporters are people of color. They shared how they, their families, and their communities were negatively impacted by the poor portrayal of people of color in Hollywood, and how the casting of The Last Airbender helped reinforce that hurt.

“The only strong Inuit-based characters I’ve ever found in animation or live action movies have been cast in the movie adaptation as Caucasian.”

an 18 year fan old of Inuit descent from Vancouver, Iqaluit, Canada

“We have very few movies with Asian characters as main characters–if there are Asian characters at all. White actors play in all movies, can’t they just let us star in the spotlight just once?”

a 13 year old Vietnamese American from Washington D.C.

“Growing up, I saw mostly Caucasian actors and actresses. I thought there was something wrong with me and wished to be Caucasian myself. I don’t want children today growing up thinking like I did.”

an 18 year old Japanese American woman from Torrance, CA

“Anyone who thinks this isn’t a big deal should think about the lack of minority heroes in children’s shows and be mailed a photo of my little cousin’s face when she saw a blue-eyed, fair-skinned, light-haired actress cast as Katara.”

an 18 year old Black American woman from Washington D.C.

“I have an adorable seven-year-old cousin, adopted from China at age two, who’s already starting to think to be a hero or a princess you have to be white.”

a 20 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Cincinnati, OH

Blue-eyed blondes are the minority in reality, but due to whitewashing I used to pray as a child that God would lighten my hair, skin and eyes until I realised there were more people in the world like me than in the media. I am appalled that the world’s diversity is constantly treated as the token minority.

a 35 year old woman who identifies as Aboriginal Australian and Italian Australian from rural Australia

“Asian children only ever see people like them relegated to the sidelines…To have this movie, taking place in an Asian setting, reinforcing the idea that only those who look white are the heroes, is simply cruel.”

a 21 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Massachusetts

“The creation of shows like Avatar give kids like my 10-year-old brother the role models I wasn’t able to have. What kind of message will it send to him that these characters are okay being Asian in a cartoon, but that they can’t be played by Asian actors in film?”

a 23 year old Asian American woman from Honolulu, HI

“I’m the proud elder cousin to two little half-Algonkin half-Inuit girls who never saw anyone who remotely resembled them doing anything more than “Being Indian on TV” before I introduced them to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Seeing the most recent publicity photos made me cry with the message it sent: white people can be anything – brown people are interchangeable.”

a 24 year old woman of French, Ashkenazi and Algonkin descent from Ontario, Canada

The Production’s Handling of and Defense of the Casting of the Film

Many of the people who wrote us cited the way the production has handled and defended the casting of the film as their primary cause for outrage. Jackson Rathbone, the actor cast to play an ethnically Inuit hero, Sokka, said: “I think it’s one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan. It’s one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit.” Casting director Dee Dee Ricketts made repeated cultural gaffes throughout the extras casting process, telling the press she was casting “authentic Asians” for background extras and that auditionees should come “dressed in some sort of ethnic traditional way” (ie: “if you’re Korean, wear a Kimono.”)

M. Night Shyamalan has declared The Last Airbender “the most culturally diverse tent-pole movie ever made” and claims that the characters in the animated series were racially “ambiguous.” At the same time, the production never acknowledged or responded to fans or community advocacy organizations when they expressed their concerns about the casting.

“Paramount professes that the characters in Avatar don’t have an ethnicity. We say that the character’s ethnicity and background is obvious and that Paramount should NOT ignorantly assume that all characters are white by default.”

a 21 year old Taiwanese American from Los Angeles, CA

“When I read the casting call and the ‘Caucasian or other’ bit, my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe they actually phrased it like that.

a 30 year old woman from Calgary, Alberta

“I’m offended by whitewashing, racist casting decisions and the profoundly inappropriate statements by the film company and actors about the aforementioned racist casting decisions.”

a 20 year old woman from Vancouver, BC Canada

“Diversifying” by making Asian characters white is not diversity at all.”

a 27 year old Chinese American from Hsichu, Taiwan

“The people involved in the production who defend the casting can try to convince us all they want but as long as the problems and the racial bias are still there, there will never be equality.”

a 20 year old Chinese Canadian man from Toronto, Canada

“What truly angers me the most is the studio’s attempt to placate the community that is their supposed fanbase. They ignored the majority of our concerns and failed to make any effort to consult with groups or agencies that could assist them in not creating a doomed movie.

a 21 year old Black Caribbean American woman from Pittsburgh, PA

“Whether the discrimination against Asian actors was deliberate or inadvertent, the disingenuous excuses employed by the movie’s representatives showed that they did not plan to acknowledge or remedy the miscasting–a position that should be unacceptable.”

a 23 year African-American woman from Connecticut

Impact on Actors of Color and their Communities

Some of the people who wrote into the survey were aspiring performers or had family and friends who were interested in performing arts. To them, the discriminatory casting practices employed by the production of The Last Airbender reflected a widespread problem in Hollywood.

“The ironic thing is that I’m adopted. My parents are Irish and German and my first language is English. Yet, I will continuously have to fight to be recognized in theatre and casting just because I don’t look white?”

a 21 year old Korean American actress from Bainbridge Island, WA

“I have a cousin trying to make in the acting business and while I believe he’s a great actor, he’s been turned down many times for being “too ethnic.” Is this truly the world we should live in, a world where being in the “wrong” ethnic group means that you can’t get a job? A world where children have to get used to the thought that people who look like them are villains?”

an 18 year old woman who identifies as Native and Caribbean American from Staten Island, NY

“My stepsister’s trying to make it in the music industry. She’s an American citizen, she’s lived here since she was nine, she hasn’t got a shred of an accent, but she has to fight her ‘ethnic’ name and appearance with every promotional shoot and appearance. I don’t want the people I love to be treated as an Other.”

an 18 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Pismo, CA

“The casting is giving out the message that Asians are not good enough for Hollywood, and as a result a lot of audiences are going to start believing it too. It’s difficult to believe the multitude of Asian actors that do exist were considered inadequate next to the actors chosen. It’s downright absurd.”

a 22 year old British Indian woman from London, UK

“There are so few Asian American roles in entertainment to begin with. How can it be okay to take some of the few very obviously Asian roles and give them to white actors?”

a 23 year old Chinese American from Boston, MA

Offended by the Casting Decisions

Nearly all of the survey respondents wrote that they were offended by the casting decisions, to the point where they no longer had any interest in seeing the film adaptation. Many of the people who expressed offense identified as white or Caucasian; they explained that they felt pandered to by casting changes based on the assumption that white audiences are racist.

“I am not protesting because the main characters are white, but because fair means of casting were not used, and not enough effort went into looking for cast members of Asian descent.”

a 19 year old woman of Chinese descent from San Jose, CA

“I wasn’t expecting this film to top the show, but I didn’t expect to be offended by it, either.”

a 22 year old man of Iroquois and Caucasian descent from Novi, MI

“The racism shown in erasing people of color from a world where they were the norm, in service of making more white people the main characters, is disgusting.”

a 25 year old White and Jewish woman from San Francisco, CA

“The tone of a character’s skin is not about division or segregation- it represents origin, history, ancestry, cultural integrity and, ultimately, an indelible human identity. To misrepresent the culture of the characters in Avatar is to disrespect their story.”

a 26 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Salt Lake City, UT

“As a woman of color, I’ve been told–and I know other people from various ethnicities who’ve been told–that heroes need to be White or American audiences won’t accept them. Avatar: The Last Airbender put the lie to that, and casting all the protagonists with White actors reinforces that disgusting and untrue notion.”

a 33 year old woman, who identifies as black, from Boston, MA

I am surrounded–in my hometown of Hollywood, California– by Asians of every nationality. To ignore the hundreds of excellent Asian actors in this town is just incredibly insulting.

a 53 year old Polish Irish American woman from Hollywood, CA

“I find it offensive that Hollywood thinks I’m too stupid or xenophobic to enjoy a movie that stars actors who don’t have the same skin tone as I do.”

a 20 year old Caucasian man from Massachusetts

“Even if I wasn’t offended personally or on principle , I would be offended as an audience member that these casting decisions were made in an effort to make the film more profitable and “relatable” by banking on my presumed racism and ethnocentrism.”

a 19 year old woman of mixed ethnicity from Florida

“I find the casting decisions reprehensible, because there is no excuse for excluding PoC actors from lead roles in the film when the show is undeniably grounded in Asian and Inuit cultures.”

a 22 year old man, who identifies as white, from Brisbane, QLD, Australia

“I hate it when Hollywood assumes that viewers won’t come to see movies that star people of color, and gladly panders to the racists who won’t.”

a 19 year old woman, of European American descent, from Los Angeles, CA

It’s offensive to me, as a person of color, that a character who is written to be ethnic is being played by a White actor. It was even more offensive when they said that they didn’t want to prevent white actors from being in the movie to justify casting them in the lead roles, leaving the Asian people in the background. If the studio is worried about making money and using white actors to achieve that goal, then that is wrong.”

a 17 year old man, who identifies as African-Caucasian American, from Church Hill, MD

Concerns from Parents About the Casting’s Message to Children

We received several responses from parents concerned about what messages the “whitewashed” casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender would send to their children. The fact that casting discrimination had occurred in an adaptation of a children’s franchise was a matter of great concern to these parents.

“As a parent of a five year old half-Asian girl, I have to sit next to her while she watches Avatar and explain every little detail about Asian culture that she would question. How am I going to explain to her Aang, Katara or Sokka turning white for the movie?”

a 31 year old Russian and Asian woman from Los Angeles, CA

“My son loves this series and I find it a betrayal and a shameful, lousy, perverse idiocy that if he were to go watch it on the big screen–which, by the way, he won’t be doing unless it is recast–he would not be able to see his Asian heroes.”

a 33 year old woman of White Russian and Jewish descent from Munich, Germany

“I discovered Avatar with my 8-year old son. I was horrified to learn that the show was going to be whitewashed. I am using this as a cautionary tale with my son, but I know he will be upset to miss the movie when it comes out.”

a 38 year old Anglo man from Amherst, MA

“I’m the mom of two kids who love Avatar, and we own all the DVD sets and various other tie-in merchandise. My kids and I have together decided that we will neither see the movie nor buy any more products for this whitewashed version of an otherwise really great series!”

a 41 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Mobile, AL

“It would be irresponsible of me, as a parent, to let my son see this movie as it is being cast. Yes it is for children, and no, they may not notice or care now, but they will look back with disappointment that we–the adults–couldn’t do it right when it would have been so simple to do so.”

a 29 year old Caucasian woman from Washington, D.C

“My seven year old daughter and I were originally looking forward to this movie. But the whitewashing of the cast sickens me, and as a parent, I have no desire to expose my daughter to such a blatant example of Hollywood’s racial prejudice.”

a 25 year old White American woman from Springfield, MO

Avatar is a show I have used to point out to my son that not all heroes and good guys are white or always guys for that matter, and I won’t take him to see a movie that doesn’t illustrate that, too.”

a 42 year old Caucasian woman, from Akron, OH

Thoughts from People Unfamiliar with the Franchise

Although the majority of people who contacted us for the survey were huge fans of the animated series, we also received thoughts from people unfamiliar with the franchise. Some readers had never heard of Avatar: The Last Airbender until they learned about the casting discrimination in the film adaptation, but they still wanted to show their support. Concern about the casting decisions has transcended fandom; it is a concern of the greater international community.

“I’ve never watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I’ve seen hundreds of pictures and read what people had to say about it, and I wish something like this existed for my culture. To see it get whitewashed like that is very sad and scary to me.”

a 20 year old Egyptian woman from Cairo, Egypt

“I was unaware of Avatar: The Last Airbender before I heard about the casting issues. When I read about the casting, saw the animation-actor picture comparisons, and watched some of the show I was horrified.”

a 22 year old white New Zealander from Auckland, New Zealand

“I have never watched this show or knew it existed, but after reading about the cause I felt I had to send in a letter and sign the petition. As a Latina woman I know what’s it’s like growing up thinking that there are certain things you can and can not do because of your race. Discrimination against one of us, makes it easier to discriminate against all of us.”

a 23 year old Dominican and Jewish woman from East Brunswick, NJ

Supporters’ Thoughts on Hollywood Responsibility and Making Change

Although Racebending.com supporters are disappointed by the casting decisions made by The Last Airbender, we hope that our efforts to speak out against these casting practices will help Hollywood recognize that they are in a position to prevent the discriminatory impact their casting decisions have perpetrated. Our readers expressed hope that public outcry will will result in meaningful change.

“The saddest part is that the ones creating this movie have the resources and money to support movements in diversity. The Last Airbender is a such a great opportunity for this. Yet these producers are abusing this opportunity to support diversity, and are turning it into something quite the opposite.”

a 21 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Atlanta, GA

“I sincerely hope that, even if they don’t change their minds on the casting of this film, it’ll at least set a precedent once they realize the public won’t put up with these things.”

a 21 year old woman of Jamaican descent from Miami, FL

“This isn’t an issue about pitting one ‘race’ against others, and it isn’t about complaining for the sake of stirring up conflict. It is a reaction to the long-held tradition of marginalizing people in American popular culture, and it’s about time that positive change be made.”

a 21 year old Southeast Asian and Chinese American woman from Los Angeles, CA

“The only way we can ever have racial equality is if we make racism in all its forms visible and confront it when we see it, every time we see it. ”

23 year old Nigerian Canadian woman from Ontario, Canada

Closing Thoughts

Racebending.com would like to thank the hundreds of supporters who sent us their reason for why they are protesting the movie. Although we could not share every single comment we received here on the site, we took everyone’s comments and placed them into a tag cloud at wordle.net to calculate word frequency.

Wordle: Racebending.com Supporter Wordle

We hope that as supporters of our website and of fair and equal casting in Hollywood, you will continue to make your voices be heard! Thanks again for all of your encouragement and comments.

Categories: Community, Press, The Last Airbender

About the Author

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

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