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Questions Related to The Last Airbender

Why are people upset about The Last Airbender?
Our four minute video series breaks the issues down succinctly. We encourage people new to this site to check it out!

What did Racebending.com do about the casting/cultural competency of The Last Airbender?
Our efforts included directly contacting Paramount and the production, speaking out and drawing awareness towards the production’s discriminatory casting practices (to the media, on university campuses, etc.), letter writing campaigns, live protests, and connecting concerned fans to other media watchdog organizations. We encouraged people to boycott the movie, so as not to financially reward the studio for discriminatory decisions.

Why did Racebending.com make such a big deal out of the casting in a movie?
There are several articles on our website outlining why Racebending.com drew attention to the cultural competency practices of The Last Airbender. Our primary concerns regarding The Last Airbender were:

  • The outdated and discriminatory practice of casting white actors to depict Asian characters.
  • Casting calls indicating a preference for white actors for leads; people of color for villains, secondary characters, and background extras.
  • Culturally ignorant language used by members of the production (e.g. “If you’re a Korean, wear a kimono” and “I definitely need a tan”)
  • The colorist implications of featuring a villainous nation with dark-skinned actors and heroic nations led by white heroes who liberate the “Asian and African” nation.
  • Cultural appropriation of Pacific Rim cultures and the franchise’s core Asian concepts, despite a glass ceiling blocking off Asian American actors from playing lead protagonists.

Why was Racebending.com so concerned over just a kid’s movie?
The fact that The Last Airbender was being pushed as a family film despite its cultural competency and discrimination problems is exactly why we were concerned. The Last Airbender is a microcosm of how readily present discriminative attitudes are in society–even in children’s entertainment. We were concerned that these casting practices will be presented to children of all ethnicities as something acceptable, normal, and not a big deal at all. Some of our interviews with academics cover the impact these casting decisions might have on children in greater detail.

Are you just a small group of vocal fans angry about changes in the movie?
We comprised of several thousand supporters in 50 countries around the world. Although most of us are fans of the animated series, our supporters also identify as students, parents, advocates, academics, and professionals. Our primary concern is the bigger picture–The Last Airbender is just one example in a long history of Hollywood discrimination. For many of us, seeing this kind of discrimination associated with our favorite series is what spurred us into taking action.

Racebending.com has represented the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom at Wondercon 2010. We have also presented at several universities, including MIT, UPenn, UCLA, and USC. We are also being studied by academics from MIT and USC as an example of social media and advocacy.

Is Racebending.com saying that white people can’t play Asians? Isn’t that reverse racism? Shouldn’t actors be able to play any role?
Casting characters of color with white actors sends the message that white people are more qualified to represent people of color than people of color themselves.

“Reverse racism” isn’t endemic in Hollywood right now; quite the opposite. There are actors of color actors equally as talented as the white actors selected to play the roles in The Last Airbender–except Ringer, Peltz, and Rathbone have other lead roles (white leading characters) open to them and actors of color do not. 82% of lead roles in Hollywood go to white actors. Less than 2% of lead roles go to Asian actors and less than 1% go to Native American actors.

Asian American actors should have the same opportunities to play Asian characters as white actors have to play white characters.

How do the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender feel about the casting or Racebending.com?
The creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender have said nothing publicly about the casting of the film other than Bryan Konietzko’s declaration on his MySpace, where he wrote: “I have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CASTING WHATSOEVER for the feature film.” In a July 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, the series creators were directly asked about their thoughts on the film and casting controversy.

Racebending.com staffers frequently attend signings with the creators. They’re friendly towards us (and even remember us from previous signings.)

Other people who have worked on the show, including director Giancarlo Volpe, actor Dante Basco (Prince Zuko), artists, and cultural consultants, have publicly expressed disappointment about the casting.

Are the characters in the Avatar setting ethnically Asian?
The Avatar: The Last Airbender series was established by the creators and Nickelodeon as set in a “fantastical Asian world.” The Intellectual Property Bible affirms that the world of the series is and should be authentically Asian, and cultural consultants were hired to ensure the depiction of the world and characters would be respectful. People who have worked on the original series have also affirmed that the characters were ethnically Asian.

The default physical appearance for all characters in live-action fantasy worlds is not and should not always and only be anglo-saxon, western European facial features and coloring–particularly not in a series like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which featured ethnically Asian Pacific characters and Pacific Rim cultures.

If the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender are Asian, why don’t they have slanty eyes, yellow skin, or accents?
In traditional Western Animation, Asian characters are often depicted with stereotypical features. Avatar: The Last Airbender employs a style of anime from Korea that does not use those stereotypical markers. In addition, the voice direction of A:TLA was advised not to use stereotypical Asian accents to depict the characters. Depicting Asian characters with a stereotypical accent is an old Hollywood practice that generally no longer occurs in modern productions with Asian and Asian American characters (eg. Disney’s Mulan, Jake Long: American Dragon.)

Are the characters of Sokka and Katara White, Inuit, or Asian?
The characters from the Water Tribe are largely inspired by circumpolar indigenous cultures, with some influences from Asian Pacific and Amerindian, indigenous groups. On a DVD commentary, the animated series creators noted that even Katara’s “hair-loopies’ hairstyle (not used in the film) is even an authentic Inuit hairstyle.

Circumpolar indigenous people hail from from Canada, Russia, Alaska, and Greenland. There are many Asian circumpolar indigenous people (from the Chukchi Peninsula), but not all circumpolar indigenous people are Asian.

Some of our readers have asked “if it really makes sense” for Water Tribe characters have darker skin than the other characters, even though they live in a cold climate. The real life explanation for why circumpolar dwelling people such as the Inuit have darker skin is explained by Vitamin D consumption, melanin adaptation, and UV light exposure. It is perfectly “realistic” for Sokka and Katara to have darker skin.

Some characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender have blue/grey/green eyes. How can they be people of color?
The creators of the series gave the characters eye colors corresponding to their “elements.” Airbenders have grey eyes, Earthbenders have green eyes, Waterbenders have blue eyes, and Firebenders have orange eyes.

That being said, people who are white do not have an exclusive monopoly on blue eye color. Many people of color also have blue/green/grey eyes. And one potentially “Caucasian trait” does not invalidate a person’s Asian Pacific traits or cultural identity.

What issue does Racebending.com have with the actors in The Last Airbender, especially the white child actors?
Our issue is not with the actors selected, but with the production, which did not think children of color were suitable to play in a movie based on their own cultures. We will, however, hold adult actors accountable for culturally insensitive statements, such as Jackson Rathbone’s assertion that he would get “a tan” to play Sokka, a person of color.

What are Racebending.com’s thoughts on the original voice actors for Avatar: The Last Airbender?
While it is important to cast people of color to represent characters of color in all mediums, we are willing to give voice acting a freer pass. The voice actors are not a complete representation of the characters, as they only perform the characters’ voices. The voice actor for Appa, Dee Bradley Baker, isn’t really a bison, and Ash Ketchum from Pokemon and Bart Simpson from The Simpsons are voiced by middle-aged women. However, when characters in animation are depicted as people of color, we encourage studios to cast voice actors from those communities.

Why has Racebending.com labeled the character of Prince Zuko as the “enemy”?
For the purposes of the first season of the animated series and the film, Zuko is the primary antagonist of the main character, Aang. In the film, actors of color have been cast but only in antagonistic and ancillary roles, and this is a glass ceiling. In fact, the feature film markets Zuko as a villain.

Were the selected actors for the roles in The Last Airbender the best actors for the job?
By writing “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” on the casting sides for the lead roles, the production made their preference for Caucasian actors to play PoC clear from the beginning. (Normally when ethnicity is left open-ended, casting sides read “Any Ethnicity.”)

Jackson Rathbone and Jesse McCartney (the production’s first selection for Zuko) may be considered great thespians, but there are equally talented actors of color. When the production says these actors are “the best for the role” they are also reinforcing an appropriative glass ceiling. We believe Hollywood could have cast this film without reinforcing the glass ceiling, using equally talented actors of color. If in Hollywood, actors who are white are considered “the best” to represent people of color, then where does that leave actors of color?

70% of speaking roles in Hollywood go to male actors. 82% of lead roles in Hollywood go to actors who are white. This is not because they were always casting for the best actor and the best actor always happens to be white and male. This is because of discriminatory bias and not because women and people of color cannot act.

Why is Racebending.com advocating for actors of Asian descent to play the characters in the film if that would mean they would be playing a stereotype (martial artists)?
Casting actors who are white to play characters of color does not protect people of color from discrimination or stereotypes. We also believe the Avatar: The Last Airbender series took the proper steps to avoid being stereotypical, (eg: cultural consultants)–unlike the film adaptation.

Does the fact that M. Night Shyamalan is South Asian American impact Racebending.com’s position on his film at all?
Racebending.com believes that anyone is capable of making decisions with a discriminatory impact, regardless of their ethnicity, talent, and experiences–and regardless of their intentions. Our focus is on addressing that impact.

M. Night Shyamalan recently said that the film will be “the most diverse tentpole movie ever.” What is Racebending.com’s position on this diversity?
Racebending.com and other advocacy groups argue that there is a difference between diversity and equal representation and that this difference must be acknowledged.

Having a diverse palette of villains and extras is nothing new–Hollywood has upheld this glass ceiling for ages. The three heroic protagonist lead roles were still reserved for white actors. M. Night Shyamalan’s claim of diversity also does not address the production’s repeated culturally incompetent gaffes, including specifically casting for white actors to play the leads, cultural appropriation, and stereotyping (eg: Koreans come in Kimonos.)

The production has not acknowledged full impact of its actions. While actors of color are present in the film, they are not treated equally. Similar to a restaurant or store that employs people of color in the back room but places people who are white in the storefront, this production’s “diversity” is indicative of a glass ceiling. Glass ceilings with backfilled diversity are not indicative of true diversity.

What does Racebending.com think about Frank Marshall’sclaim that the production of The Last Airbender did not create nor intend to use the “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” language?
We are very skeptical of this claim. Marshall told UGO.com that the “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” language was “not written nor distributed by the production, or the studio, but by a local extra casting entity that did not consult with either.” Yet, when this casting language was released to Breakdown Services, it came from the office Gail Levin, then-chief of Paramount Features Casting. The “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” breakdown was the most widely distributed casting language for th film’s lead roles.

The “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” language was used on several official casting websites, including the thelastairbendercasting.com site owned by Paramount and on Breakdown Services/Actor’s Access [source].

At Racebending.com we’re more concerned about the language–and the impact of the language– the production did use, rather than the language they meant to use. The production’s concrete actions had a discriminatory impact[learn more here.]

Does Racebending.com think the people involved in the production of The Last Airbender are racist? Does Racebending.com think fans of The Last Airbender movie are racist?
No. We are not in a position to judge whether any individual–unaffiliated with the casting or not–is personally racist.

What Racebending.com can assess is the production of The Last Airbender‘s cultural competency and the discriminatory or disparate impact of the production’s decisions. A film production need not have discriminatory intent or be “racist” in order to make decisions with a discriminatory impact.

In the case of The Last Airbender, the production’s decisions–whether deliberate or inadvertant–have reinforced glass ceilings in Hollywood. The idea that Hollywood casts films with a glass ceiling is well established and has been studied extensively both in academia and by professional organizations including the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Similarly, we are not in a position to judge whether any individual fan is racist and going to see the movie is a personal choice. So many people who loved the series don’t realize that when they are supporting the live action movie, they are also indirectly supporting discrimination. Our goal is to raise awareness and inform fans that they can boycott the movie if they do not wish to financially reward the production for making decisions that have resulted in discrimination. We hope that one day, fans and media consumers will not have to choose between supporting a franchise and taking a stand against discrimination.

In November 2010, Noah Ringer self-identified as “American Indian” in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. Does this absolve The Last Airbender?

Our full response to this development is here, but essentially, our efforts were never just about hiring minorities or the “presentness” of minorities.

Racebending.com still stands by our opinion that Aang was Asian. Minorities are not interchangeable, and further tokenism in film is not our goal. Our primary concern is fair and accurate portrayals of people of color and Noah Ringer identifying as American Indian does not change our concerns about The Last Airbender. The presence of a minority lead does not change the stereotypes reinforced by The Last Airbender.

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