Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
We’ve gotten this question from fans of the show an awful lot: “Why does Racebending.com label Zuko as an ‘enemy’ rather than a hero? We know that in the end of the series, Zuko joins the good guys –Aang and his friends–to save the world!
It’s a very fair question, but one that we have to place into the context of the casting of the film adaptation, historical Hollywood discrimination and depictions, and messages the film The Last Airbender will send to its young viewers.
His Royal Antagonistic Highness, Prince Zuko
In the show, Zuko starts out as the primary antagonist of the series, and remains an antagonist until Season 3. Hence, Season 1 cover art, where he’s Mister Threatening Scary Eyes.
Zuko is a very complex character with deep motivations, and certainly not a cardboard stock villain or “bad guy.” He’s a confused kid who wants his daddy’s attention. He is however, still Aang’s antagonist.
Aang wants to master the elements and save the world. Zuko wants to put Aang in sack, drag that sack back to his daddy, and restore his honor. He is a direct challenge to the goals of the primary protagonist, Aang. So in a sense, he’s set up to be Aang’s enemy.
Is Zuko a Villain?
We established above that Zuko begins his character arc as an antagonist, a foil to the lead protagonist, Aang. In that sense, he’s Aang’s enemy in Book One, and in the movie. But is he a villain? The actor portraying him in the film adaptation, Dev Patel, believes he is, telling IGN.com at a set visit:
“This guy [Zuko] in a nutshell, he’s a villain with a heart. He’s not evil for the sake of being evil.”
Zuko’s Reputation as Evil
As fans of the original series, we don’t think Zuko is evil. Anyone who watches the original series knows that the show was more complex than black and white, good and evil.
But that is currently how the Dev Patel version of Zuko is being marketed and perceived by the public: as a bad guy. As evil.
In May 2009, when Paramount gave USA Today the first new photos of Dev Patel in the movie, it was published with the caption and article reading:
“The bad guy: Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel plays Zuko, a “firebender” who can manipulate flames.”
In June 2009, IGN.com was invited to visit the set of The Last Airbender. They also described Zuko as evil.
“Dev Patel — in his first post-Slumdog Millionaire role — plays evil-yet-vulnerable, Prince Zuko.“
In January 2010, when the Los Angeles Times interviewed M. Night Shyamalan, they also wrote:
“The movie hits theaters on July 2 and stars Noah Ringer as Aang, Dev Patel (of “Slumdog Millionaire”) as the evil Prince Zuko“
The Fire Nation is waging a ruthless, oppressive war against the other three nations.… Dev Patel plays the Fire Nation’s evil prince Zuko.
In any compelling story of ‘good versus evil,’ everybody knows you have to have a great villain. So, getting someone to match Ringer [Aang] in the part of Prince Zuko would be key.
evil guy can’t catch a break.
No matter what fans say to defend Zuko, his character can’t seem to escape the villain reputation–at least in terms of his role in the film adaptation–within the film’s marketing public perception of the character. People who are unfamiliar with the series (particularly Zuko’s character arc) have already marked him as evil.
Fire Lord Ozai tried to conquer the entire world. Commander Zhao killed a fish and by doing so erased the moon. (For those of you who haven’t seen the series, this makes sense, we promise) Uncle Iroh is Zuko’s assistant in his quest to capture the Avatar. All three, along with Zuko, are leaders of an Imperialistic Fire Nation that committed genocide, killing an entire nation of people, the Airbenders.
Fans of the show know that one of these Fire Nation adult characters has a gentle soul and a good heart, the other two characters…not so much. People who aren’t familiar with the show…
Light and Dark; Good and Evil
The Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series uses the character of Zuko to subvert tropes about good and evil, light and dark. But it is the casting of the film adaptation that really brings racial politics to the forefront by matching other patterns in Hollywood: Where people of color are constantly cast as the villain, but never get an opportunity to be the good guy.
A difference between the original Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series and The Last Airbender film is that there is not a color divide between the protagonists and the antagonists in the animated series.
In the film, the lead heroes all have light skin and the lead villains all have dark skin, reinforcing an incorrect belief that studies have found children hold–that white people are good and people of color are bad.
Why This Color Divide is Significant – Colorism
The Last Airbender is a tentpole family film, marketed to children and families. According to several studies on how children perceive race, children from all around the world–whether light skinned or dark skinned–are exposed to colorist messages.
Colorism–a form of skin color stratification–is a process that privileges light-skinned people over dark skinned people. This form of discrimination is present not only in diverse countries such as the United States but also within specific cultural groups and internationally.
Colorism is discrimination in which human beings are accorded differing social and treatment based on skin color. In film industries all around the world, not limited to Hollywood, actors with lighter skin generally have access to more opportunities. Actors with darker skin have less opportunities and are more likely to play the bad guy. The media helps reinforce to viewers that light is good and beautiful and that dark is evil and ugly.
Child psychology researcher Rebecca Bigler’s study, Shades of Meaning: Skin Tone, Racial Attitudes, and Constructive Memory in African American Children, found that children showed better memory for stereotypic, rather than counter-stereotypic, information about skin tone.
In the study, children were told a story featuring a “good guy” with dark skin and a “bad guy” with light skin. When tested 10 minutes later on how well they remembered the roles the characters played in the story, the kids had a hard time recalling that the dark-skinned character played a positive role. Many even remembered the story incorrectly, changing the good guy to be light skinned and the bad guy to be dark skinned. Even though these children had dark skin themselves, they had an easier time visualizing people with dark skin in the negative roles in the story.
While the Avatar : The Last Airbender series showed children that kids with darker skin, like Sokka and Katara, can be heroes, too, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is doing the opposite by reinforcing the correlation–directly or indirectly–that bad guys are not only dark, but dark-skinned.
We’re not happy to label movie!Zuko as a villain on our site. But that is how he is currently being perceived and marketed, which only reinforces the Hollywood glass ceiling where people of color cannot play the lead heroes, only villains and secondary characters.
Repeated exposure to colorism changes how kids view themselves in relation to their skin tone–which was why it was so important in The Last Airbender for people of color to get to play lead characters described as something other than “villain” or “evil.”