Measuring a drop in a bucket

It’s International Blog Against Racism Week again, and boy do we have things to choose from — at levels of fame ranging all the way from Sonia Sotomayor and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. down to things like the U.S. cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. (And quieter things than that, no doubt, from one corner of the world to the other, in every city and town.)

Riffling through my brain to see what I might have something to say about, I landed on, of all things, movies. Specifically, the live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Most of my Avatar news has come via anima_mecanique, who has been posting off and on about the head-desk moves of the filmmakers in whitewashing their source. Avatar, if you don’t know, is an animated series set in a fantasy world that I tend to think of as western Pacific Rim in inspiration: the various elementally-themed societies are mostly different varieties of Asian in basis, with the Water Tribes blurring over into northern Pacific natives/Inuit. In other words, not Eurofantasy. But along come the filmmakers with their live-action movie, and suddenly not only is the whole cast white, they’re committing cultural blunders right left and center, like telling people to show up for casting calls in their “traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you’re Korean, wear a kimono.” <headsplode> Well, they backpedaled a little to cast some brown people, like that nice boy from Slumdog Millionaire since everybody likes him, right . . . only last I heard, that nice boy and all the other non-white actors are playing members of the Fire Nation. Who are, y’know, the enemy.

Oh yeah. That fixes everything.

The problem is, I’m not sure what I can do to protest this problem other than make a blog post. Boycotting the movie? Not effective. My one lost ticket sale won’t make anybody take notice, and if a lot of people boycotted it, enough that they did notice, Hollywood wouldn’t say “oh, I guess we should cast Asian actors next time.” They’d say, “oh, I guess we should go back to Eurofantasy.” I can buy the animated series, and I’m going to (I’ve seen the first season and loved it), but after that, it seems like all I can do is talk.

Which isn’t totally ineffective. After all, it was fan outcry that got them to cast Dev Patel (even though he would be way better as Sokka than Zuko). And now that I look on the IMDb, it seems they’ve got a Korean actor for one of the Earthbenders, so hey, there’s one who isn’t on the wrong side of the war. At least some of that has happened because people talked about the problem.

I just wish I knew how to do more. I’ll probably end up going to see the movie, because I suspect that I’ll achieve more by supporting baby steps toward non-Eurofantasy than holding out for perfection, but it’ll annoy me. Especially since it’s pretty obvious that the filmmakers don’t even really get where they went wrong.

0 Responses to “Measuring a drop in a bucket”

  1. mastergode

    I feel the need to point out that Avatar is a movie being directed by James Cameron about interplanetary colonialism, whereas The Last Airbender is the movie about the animated series called Avatar: The Last Airbender.

  2. Marie Brennan

    I meant to bring that to your attention ages ago, then thought that maybe it would be better not to aggravate the Yoon.

    “Clueless” really sums a lot of it up. Unfortunately.

  3. scribble_myname

    It’s strange to me that they didn’t just get the voice actor of Zuko to play Zuko. Dante Basco does live action. And he’s Filipino and technically Asian to boot.

    But that’s the mildest of my huffs with their casting. I’m not boycotting so they’ll pay attention. I’m staying away ’cause I think I’d be miserable going.

  4. unusualmusic

    You can go to on LJ for practical things to do to speak out on the batshittery.

  5. dkwrkm

    I don’t understand why you would still go see this movie after claiming that their casting hijinks offends you. Hollywood already supports non-Euro fantasy (what else was The Forbidden Kingdom in which audiences were drawn in by the idea of Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same movie only to find a honky in the lead role?) and repeatedly show the fact that they’re bankrupt for ideas. They’ll keep reaching into that non-Euro pot, don’t worry.

    No, the real problem here isn’t about Euro or non-Euro fantasy. It is about the opportunities available to Asian and Asian-American actors who are already under-represented in Hollywood as it is. And here comes this children’s movie, acting like it’s the 1930s, basically telling Asian people that they are not even allowed to play actual Asian characters. What is left to Asian actors if they can’t even play Asians?

    And you are aware they’re trying to make sequels, right? That’s where your money is going: it’s going to prove Paramount right that yes, only white actors are marketable, that yes, we should make more movies with non-Euro dressing but still with white actors in the middle of it all.

    There’s almost an entire year before The Last Airbender movie comes out. Maybe it’s because I’m in too deep with but I think the group has a real fighting chance. I’m certainly going to stick with the boycott, keep telling the millions of people who don’t know anything about this to avoid it, keep working to get the media to listen to us, etc. We’ll see what happens next year.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t share your optimism that The Forbidden Kingdom means Hollywood’s embraced Asian fantasy. I think they know they can sell movies with a very small number of marketable names (pretty much Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, and maybe Chow Yun-Fat), but even then they’re almost entirely martial arts flicks. The question for me is how to handle the fact that I support some aspects of this project (yay for a different kind of Asian fantasy!) but don’t support others (boo hiss for casting white actors in the Asian fantasy). I hadn’t heard about before today; rest assured I’ll be looking through its archives to see what’s been going on over there, and what else I can do besides this blog post.

      But I’m honestly worried that boycotting the movie, even if the reason is well-publicized, may still have counterproductive effects. I’d like to think the studios would see it as a choice between making Asian fantasy with white actors and making Asian fantasy with Asian actors, but I’m afraid they’re more likely to read it as a choice between making Asian fantasy at all and making more generic Eurofantasy. Much easier to just import more films from Hong Kong, and in the meantime not worry that their special-effects-laden high-budget project will tank because there aren’t any white heroes in it.

      None of that is to say I won’t support and participate in efforts to make them stop ramming their heads up their own asses every time the issues of culture and race come up. I will absolutely do that. And as you say, there’s a year to go; maybe things will improve by then, and maybe they won’t. How it goes will determine what decision I make a year from now.

      • dkwrkm

        Well, it’s certainly not just The Forbidden Kingdom. It’s The Prince of Persia, Dragonball Evolution, Japanese horror movie remakes, manga ripoffs, et. al. Manga is very popular right now, and the Japanese horror movie remakes were working until Hollywood got lazy/good Japanese horror movies ran out– Hollywood will keep trying to dress their stuff up in non-Euro whatever if it keeps the same story fresh (flavor of the week, eh? This week it’ll be China, next week India) until the public says stop! No more.

        As much as I want more Asian fantasy, I want Hollywood to do it right and that means figuring out where the Asians should be in a story that draws so much from their own cultures. Otherwise, yeah, if the lesson Hollywood wants to learn from all this is “we shouldn’t do Asian fantasies anymore” instead of “we should stop sticking white actors in Asian fantasies, we should use Asian actors instead,” I think I’m going to be ok with that. Because if they can’t do it right, if they can’t figure out that cultural appropriation at this level is wrong, then they shouldn’t be doing it.

        As you mentioned, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea, India, etc. etc… they have been producing Asian fantasy and will continue producing Asian fantasy. Perhaps we should look there instead of in Hollywood for Asian fantasy.

        • jedifreac

          Just wanted to chime in by saying, simply, that if you pay to go see this movie, you will be financially rewarding them for discriminating. Hopefully that is motivation enough. Your single ticket may not have the power to change everything, but enough ticekts added up can make a difference. Even if that is not a sizable difference, at least you aren’t rewarding them for discriminating.

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