Boycott ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

By
April 8, 2010

I have decided to boycott ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender,’ a live-action movie based on a Nickelodeon animated series set to be released this July, because I believe the choice to cast white actors in Asian roles is racist.

Being a huge fan of the cartoon series, I do feel like I’m missing out, but not seeing the film is the least I can do to honor the show I came to love and relate to. I’ve started to feel constrained by my attachments to the franchise that, although precious to me, reeks of blatant discrimination.

The Racebending booklet comparing the 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' cartoon characters with their live action counterparts. (Melodie Miu)

It took me a few months before I decided to boycott, because, initially, I was making up excuses to justify watching the movie.

“Okay, so Aang (the hero ‘Avatar’) may look different in the trailer (the actor is white) and so does Katara…and Sokka (secondary characters, also white). And Zuko and his uncle (the villains, both South Asians) sort of look like their original counterparts. But come on, the movie looks awesome!” I would rationalize. “Besides, why am I ruffling feathers over a kids’ show?”

Yes, why should anyone push the issue when it’s just going to create tension, become awkward and potentially lead to an argument?

For me, it’s often easier to ignore the problem by pushing the nagging inner voice to the back of my mind. Countless times, I have done this in the interest of convenience, both inside and outside of the theater. But the issue of racism still remains. It’s not enough to “forgive and forget” when injustice affects so much of our lives, including the very basic, mundane aspects. 

To be clear, the show wasn’t just made for children. Everyone of all ages and backgrounds could fall in love with ‘The Last Airbender.’

When I first watched the cartoon series, I was so moved by the gorgeous, detailed art with attention-grabbing colors; the lovable, multifaceted characters, both the good and bad guys; and the countless references towards Asian and Inuit culture that were so well-researched and of great influence to the show. ‘The Last Airbender’ was a mix of Japanese anime, Eastern philosophies, yoga and martial arts so kick ass even Bruce Lee would be hiya!-ing in approval.

I felt like I was transported into its wonderful world of element benders, spirits and flying bison, just as I have been pulled into the fantastical legends and lore of ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Star Wars’ and even James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ (to which ‘The Last Airbender’ is not related). It was art in its truest form.

Before I decided to boycott, I excused the decisions of Hollywood and the director M. Night Shyamalan, who chose to cast white leads. I’m sure he did a good job in capturing the magical qualities of the cartoon, but along the way, he lost track of the original intent of the series.

The real beauty of the show was it didn’t rely on stereotypes in order to tell a great story and have great characters. It showcased not only people of color but also women who were powerful, saving the world and kicking some serious butt along the way. The cartoon was something I, a young Chinese woman, really enjoyed because hey, those characters are awesome and look like me.

Unfortunately, the cartoon version of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is a rare gem in an industry still run by prejudice. Although Shyamalan is Indian, it doesn’t excuse the fact that he unfairly cast the heroes with white actors and the villains as Asian ones who have dark skin.

I don’t agree with his weak rebuttal to the race controversy in an interview with science blog iO9, in which he explained he chose actors based on “ambiguity” when he really meant white, the default race for any protagonist. He especially didn’t support his argument when his casting call asked for “Caucasians and other ethnicities” rather than “All ethnicities.” See the difference?

Shyamalan could have tried harder, but he didn’t. I feel very grateful about the fact that the original creators of the show were not involved in the film’s casting because I don’t know if I could feel any sadder. It’s yellowface, plain and simple.

Promotional international poster for 'Avatar: The Last Airbender.' (Paramount Pictures)

I was at Wondercon on Sat, April 3 when I passed by the booth for Racebending, a grassroots media watchdog organization “advocating just and equal opportunity in film and television” and the primary protest group of ‘The Last Airbender,’ using the main character Aang’s face with his distinct Asian features as its symbol. One of their missions is to directly contact studios that ‘racebend,’ or discriminate, against actors of color, and protest/boycott those industries.

The people at the booth handed out free Racebending wristbands, pins, fliers and photographed various Wondercon patrons who are also disappointed in Hollywood’s poor decisions. Crowds held signs with such phrases as: “Aang can be Asian and still save the world,” “‘The Last Airbender:’ More sparkle Less color” and “Support fair casting.”

On their table was a booklet filled with pictorials comparing the faces of the original television characters with their live action counterparts. When I was confronted with the dark-haired, brown-skinned face of cartoon Katara – my favorite character – with her fair-skinned Caucasian actress Nicola Peltz, it became clear to me it was yet another example of racism.

After that, I picked up a pin and wristband and made my choice to protest as well. I wish I had decided to earlier.

What do you readers think about the race controversy surrounding ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender?’ Do you also plan to boycott the movie? Share your opinions and comments below.

For more information, visit Racebending’s official website or become a fan of their Facebook page.


Boycott ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ was published on April 8, 2010 in Letters to the Editor, Opinions and tagged with

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  • Lauren Soldano

    Melodie, this is a great blog. You should submit it to racealicious.com.

  • James Lew

    I’m boycotting this movie as well. Great job with the article and spreading the word.

  • http://dennykmiu.com Denny K Miu

    I believe the issue here is more than just depriving Asian artists a chance to perform in Asian roles. They did the same in the 70’s when casting the Gung-Fu TV series with a white actor (complete with artificial eyelids). And it is more than perpetuating the stereotype of dark skin villains. I believe the bigger issue here is that they believe Asian consumers are typically a silent and passive bunch. I am sure they are smart enough to never cast Fat Albert with anyone but African-Americans. Good job.

  • Campanil Staff

    Hi, this is the author of the article. I think you have misread our policy. We publish all comments unless they are “off-topic, include profanity, advertisements, or personal attacks” or do not use full names. We encourage constructive criticism and discussion amongst our readers even if there is disagreement. Although you have taken the time to read and contribute to this post, we cannot approve your comment since ‘no one really’ is not a full name.

  • Hilary Ferguson

    Our family watched this show and love it – still do! We were blown away by the values of the main characters and were in awe that we were learning life lessons from a cartoon. Unfortunately, it is now providing another kind of life lesson for our 11 yr. old son, who is CONFUSED about why the main characters are being played by white actors. We are African-American and have seen the “racebending” game played throughout history. We wanted to be surprised that it is still happening in 2010, but cannot say that we are. The saddest part, however, is that the movie studio felt the need to take these fictional heroes away from not only the Asian community, but from the rest of us as well. In our house, heroes from all cultures are respected whether real or fiction. It provides us an opportunity to see how someone else handles their problems given their respective traditions and backgrounds. So, why change this? If I can love superman and batman w/o changing their race, why not Aang?

    We will not go and see this movie. As a fan, I am really sad about it because it should have been SO GOOD! As a mom, I am proud since I have to live by example.

  • http://www.emacartoon.com Emma Lysyk

    This is where I’m conflicted. I absolutely adore the original cartoon series, I love what it stands for, and I also appreciate the beauty of the Asian cultures (all of them). I’m more upset that they deviated away from Katara and Sokka being Inuit and Zuko being Mongolian(or otherwise pretty “white-looking”) than I am that they picked a white kid (with Asian undertones) for Aang. (Side note: Why is a vampire playing a whiny Inuit?)

    The distinction is that I’m upset that they deviated not that they “picked white guys to be the good guys and dark guys to be the bad guys.” I don’t think that’s what they did, consciously or subconsciously, even. For me, he chose different areas of origin for these peoples than I did. India and the Middle East have a very fiery and angry history, Norwegians and Vikings also lived in the super cold areas in tribes. Perhaps this is just what the director associated with, especially since it’s closer to his experiences. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen very many Indian people in movies lately, so I’m kind of glad that there are some depicted, even if it is a large army of them.

    Boycotting because of lack of race diversity is also kind of racist. I believe that there is only one race and that’s human. We all have different rich cultural backgrounds, and that’s the important part of the movie. If they lose *that*, then I will watch it once and never again. I know they make more money off the DVD sales, any ways, so I won’t contribute to that. But I’m still seeing the movie, if only for the CG.

  • Ali Kanatara

    I think there is over-reacting going on right now. Perhaps the actors are mostly white because most actors in the US (and this is an American movie) are indeed white. If the the person who cast the movie (the caster?) chose to fill the roles not based on race whatsoever, then based solely on the percentage of young Asian-American actors versus young white actors, it makes sense that the actors would be mostly white.

  • Ali Kanatara

    Also, perhaps the cartoon is racist as well. The only cartooned “enemy” is the only character who has squinty stereotypically Asian eyes. The good guys have Caucasion eyes.

  • http://theclubhousema.com Aaron Lathrop

    I’m gonna second the notion that boycotting for lack of racial diversity is also a form of racism. For one i dont think they intentionally made sure they had cast “white” actors for good guys and “dark” actors for bad guys. as someone said this is an american movie and the casting director (i assume) had to find the best person for the roles based on the pool of actors presented to them. and that “pool” was most likely 90% white american actors. so long as the kept the general theme and values of the story i will appreciate the movie. the moral is good bad indiferent exist among all “nations” (races) stop teaching your kids that its so important for asians to play asian roles and blacks to play black roles and whites to play white roles and start teaching them that !

  • http://joryuu.tumblr.com Sarah Jeanne Lombardo

    So if you don’t intend to step on someone’s foot or hit someone with your car, does that make it a non-offense? Of course not–you hurt the person. You apologize. You do your best not to do it again. You don’t conflate intention with result and call out some kind of reverse discrimination.

    So let’s go with the idea that the director EXPLICITLY ASKED for Caucasian actors to fill the lead protagonist roles and darker-skinned actors to fill antagonist roles (which they did*, and which poo-poos the theory that it was “just the pool from which they had to draw”) without the explicit intention of reifying that old Hollywood standard that white people are good and wholesome, and non-white people are scary and bad, very very very bad. Let’s go with it.

    We live in a culture where people of color are frequently invisible in the media–where a huge disparity exists between the actual representation of people of color in our population and the number and breadth of people of color we see on TV. And when we do see them on TV )or movies or in music) the image that is shown to us is by and large villainous or dangerous. Now, reasons people participate in images that do a disservice to their community are legion, but frequently people simply do what they can with the resources they have. And right now, it’s beside the point.

    So what is the point? That it’s pretty hard to be a movie director in a culture where “Black” or “Latino” or “Arab” or “dark” or “shadows” or “night” are shorthand for “bad” without picking up on that symbolism and injecting it into hir movies, consciously or not. If you stick a kid in a room where a circle is always next to a sad face and a knife and a square is next to happy face that spits out candy, the kid is probably going to start associating some deeply entrenched, messed up things about circles. And you’ll find that in the kid’s drawings, in the kid’s writings, in the kid’s life all the way up to adulthood. And if that kid becomes president of a company that tells us what kind of stories and morals and messages and *messengers* we should value, you can bet that kid will start somehow disseminating the belief that circles are serious crap.

    Start teaching YOUR children to recognize that our culture is built on racial stereotypes and that they need to have the critical thinking skills and language to speak up against it, and THAT will make the world a happy shiny place–NOT condemning people of color for asking for wider representation.

    * “The published cast calls for the main roles, Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko, requested applicants who were “caucasian or any other ethnicity.” This is a matter of public record, and Paramount admits to the language used.

    “The initial four actors chosen were all white, until the actor playing the antagonist was replaced by Dev Patel. From then on, cast calls for all villainous Fire Nation extras were asked to be Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean, and Latino.” – from Racebending.com

  • George

    Wow this is so sad…but we all need to understand that hollywood has never been into diversity…It is the unwritten (or written) history of hollywood to use white actors in cultural roles. We can go beyond the Amos and Andy days all the way back to silent films and you can see whites playing any other race and in a most dis respectful way…this is just the legacy of hollywood. The youth are and will have to be the ones to change this. I would hope over the next 50 yrs this will not be an issue. I see hollywood having to compete with bollywood, china and the canadian film industries. I too have not seen this movie and never will rent it. Once I saw the previews…I was like…forget it. And it bombed. Now they should have let John Woo direct that movie…it would have been amazing!

  • C

    There are different types of arts and different artists, in this case: directors. The artists show their own interpretation of the story. There are different interpretations of all kinds of stories, especially many religious texts and ancient epics.

    The Earth Nation turned out to be Asian. The Water tribe, Caucasion. The Fire nation were Persians? or some kind of Indian, I don’t know I don’t plan on getting too deep on research

    It is what the DIRECTOR saw in his mind.

    I do believe they used different races to distinguish the different nations in Avatar. To show how DIVERSE each nation is.

    It is the director’s work. Maybe you are expecting everything to be made the way you want it to be made, but it is the director’s art. All films and shows are art, not just “stuff to watch on tv”

    Not everyone’s perspective will appeal to you

  • AJ

    People, hey…hello? Why are you getting so excited about a movie?
    It was made for entertainment.
    It either entertains you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t please your standards of what entertains you, or if the actors aren’t to your standards, then too bad…get over it.
    No one said it had to be exactly like the anime series or whatever.
    Please people, get a life….No, seriously, get a life and stop complaining a movie.

  • brandi

    You’re obviously not in the group to say get over it.