Saturday, July 10, 2010

The one where Kushibo sees
Avatar: The Last Airbender

So I go see Avatar: The Last Airbender with some wee ones the other day. And I mean wee, as in preschool and kindergarten, but they have been watching the cartoon series and they're up to speed on what's what, so they enjoyed themselves. So did my mother, who I had thought would think, "What the heck did I spend $9 on that for?"

It was an enjoyable enough film for me, someone who has only occasionally seen some snippets of the series here and there, just enough to know that it's centered around a kid who has the Target generic goods logo on his head. But it was made even more enjoyable because it produced what I hope will be a durable inside joke: As I headed for the restroom after the film was over, I told the adults in my group, "I'm going to do a little waterbending myself."

There were no protestors at the showing, even though we were in Los Angeles. Apparently some Asian-American actors and activists are upset because of unfair casting. In short, they're angry that the blue-eyed character from the TV series was played by an actual blue-eyed actress. (Also, the flying buffalo in the background was played by a horse in a fat suit.)

Okay, okay. I'm belittling the argument a bit, but I'll try to present it as objectively as possible. In a nutshell, this animated series with obvious Asian elements and Asian settings and Asian architecture and characters with Asian-sounding names (Sokka? Aang? Not actual names, but they do sound Asian) should have been transformed into a live-action movie only with Asian actors. Not people like Nicola Peltz, the aforementioned blue-eyed monster. There are precious few acting roles for Asian-Americans (or Asian-Canadians) and so M. Night Shyamalan really screwed the lemur on this one by casting so many non-Asian people.

Oh, that devilish M. Night Shyamalan. Perhaps they don't realize he himself was born in Asia (Pondicherry, India, to be precise) and they're of the mistaken belief he's just a guido from Jersey who spent way too much time at the tanning salon. What else could be the source of all this rage? It's only July. You can't be bored already?

But I have news for you... take a look at the characters in the cartoon. Do any of them have a compellingly East Asian look to them? They're standing on the Great Wall of, apparently, China, but anyone can do that. It doesn't make them East Asian. That's an external clue, the kind that makes people think they can tell ethnicity — like distinguishing Japanese from Korean — when what they're doing is not using facial structure but hairstyle, makeup, or clothing to make their decision.

In fact, I'd say they look more Hispanic or South Asian, which may be the reason the fire bender actors look so heavily, well, South Asian (though the actor playing the Lord Fire Bender, Cliff Curtis, is actually Maori, the Polynesians from New Zealand).

Look, these Last Airbender actors are not White people with tape over their eyelids starring as Chinese peasants. Or Mr Mikiruni as Mr Yunioshi. Rather, they are an ethnically diverse set of actors playing ethnically vague characters from a fictitious land. (You show me Firebendia on the frickin' map and maybe I'll change my tune.)

Did I mention that Kushibo has the ability to travel to alternate universes to see how things might have panned out? Because that's what I did. I managed to get into a parallel reality where Mako was made director of this film and he nepotistically cast all his relatives. And the fine agitator folks at instead called their site and bemoaned something else entirely:
Oh, my God! Do we have to witness another film where Asian actors are cast into stereotypical roles where they're all mystical and do martial arts poses and live in temple-like settings?

Why is mainstream America afraid of putting Asian-American actors into normal roles playing everyday people that would demystify their existence as Americans, instead confining them to yin-yang spouting philosophers with lines like they work in a Chinese fortune cookie factory cribbing pages from the Dialects of Confucius?

But what else can we expect from an ostensibly Asian animated story created by two White guys?
By the way, it's Analects of Confucius, you doofuses (doofi?), but in that parallel universe, Kushibo doesn't give a rat's ass about saving people from making themselves look stupid.

Oh, did I mention that Airbender is the creation not of a Japanese animation studio, a Korean cinema company, or any other Asian entity? It's two White guys. Who created round-eyed characters. There is no ethnicity to them. In fact, put an arrow on Michael Dante DiMartino's head and he could be Aang.

All together now: There is no ethnicity to them.

Now put down your pickets and go watch Toy Story.

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  1. You are completely missing the point. The characters did have an Asian or at least mixed Asian look to them. Don't be such a smartass.

  2. Mocking the point is not the same as missing the point. I am a smartass sometimes, and I sometimes direct my bitter pen toward things I believe in or am sympathetic to.

    I do get the point. I'm sympathetic to the point. But I think this was enough of a gray area, and in a world where we must choose our battles, there are enough far more egregious things at work in Hollywood in terms of depictions.

    I'm disturbed that Koreans-and-Vietnamese-in-spas-and-nail-salons-are-really-hookers is a meme that has taken off, no small thanks to shows that depict massage girls as Korean or Vietnamese who are secretly selling sex. "Two and a Half Men," for example, prominently featured (and thus spread) this meme.

    Or "21," the Kevin Spacey film about MIT students who game the casinos and make loads of money: the Asians were stripped from the movie and replaced by Whites.

    More precisely, the four Asians and one White in real life were played by four Whites and one Asian, a woman. The ringleader was a nice-looking young man who had to be played by a Caucasian.

    That, more than a cartoon with vague and non-specified ethnic characters, is an example of Hollywood's insidiousness.

  3. I forgot to mention a conversation I had with the City Manager of a heavily kyopo Orange County community where some of my relatives live. In an apparent brain fart on his part, he told us of his concern that various upscale day spas that had popped up were fronts for prostitution. I asked him on what basis and his answer was essentially, well, they're run by Koreans.

    Really, seriously, WTF?! As calmly as I could, I pointed out that in Korean they say "여성전용" (female only) and then suggested that his own Italian-Irish roots should make me believe he, as a government official, must therefore be corrupt as all hell. I smiled, hoping my subtle little lesson in why (a) we shouldn't stereotype and (b) we really should be careful who we're spewing these stereotypes to, sunk in.

    The thing is, this was all in response to my suggestion that a mostly Korean shopping center that had lost a national chain store would make a good location, being in the center of an upscale kyopo/KoKo community, for a movie theater themed on Asian cinema. I was telling him of KNTO and other government and media connections I had from back in Seoul that might eagerly bankroll such a project as a way of pushing Hallyu (the Korean Wave) in Southern California.

    But his response was Koreans=prostitutes. Really, wtf?! I'd rather fight that stereotype than moan about Avatar.

  4. I agree with your take on the examples cited. However, that still does not justify the casting of Avatar. I am very well read on the issue, have seen side-by-side comparison of actors to cartoon characters, and the characters definitely have an Asian/Asianesque look to them.

  5. Specifically which rolls do you have the problem with? The blue-eyed Katara was played by a blue-eyed Caucasian, but one with much lighter skin. Ditto with Sokka.

    Zuko was played by an Asian Indian (wrong eye color, by the way). But Aang was played by someone who is (to a significant degree) Native American and well versed in taekwondo. Me, I don't have such a problem with that, particularly since Asian actors occasionally play indigenous people in America without much controversy.

    I think I'd be more upset that the White guys who wrote this stuff felt compelled to give their heroes blue eyes in the first place.

    Boy, I wish you'd discovered this post shortly after I'd written it.

  6. I had a problem with Aang and the other main characters who at least looked half-Asian. The problem with the movie was that that you can't just implant whites into traditional Asian settings and claim that they are natives. That's cultural appropriation. I felt like the blue eyes in the cartoon were artistic license as these were fantasy characters BASED in reality, but if you looked at the rest of their face, they looked Asian to me, skin color, facial structure, etc.

    Boy, I wish you'd discovered this post shortly after I'd written it.

    But I don't think it would change anything.

  7. I had a problem with Aang and the other main characters who at least looked half-Asian. The problem with the movie was that that you can't just implant whites into traditional Asian settings and claim that they are natives.

    This post popped up in the "You might also like" list, and I realized I'd forgotten to respond to your last point.

    Noah Ringer was chosen in part because of the taekwondo skills he already had. But more toward the issue of ethnicity, he is Native American (at least in part), a group of people descendant from Asian nomads.

    Indeed, his look to me is convincingly "part Asian," in part because he looks eerily similar to a close friend's son, who is half Vietnamese (and half mixture of White, Black, and Native American).

    I also have trouble completely buying the "cultural appropriation" argument, largely because this is not really a culture that makes them seem Asian as much as an appearance, which is made vague by the blue eyes and other artistic license.

    If anyone was doing "cultural appropriation" regarding Asian groups, it is the two White creators of "Avatar" in the first place.

    And the reason I wished you'd seen this earlier is that others who visit my blog might have been more inclined to get involved with a discussion if they saw there were other comments. Right now, the only ones who see these comments are you and I (because we're subscribed to the comment thread) or someone who specifically ventures to this two-year-old post. (And muckrakers, should I ever run for public office.)

  8. Actually, the two creators said that the characters were Asian, but it was the producers who cast whites for the film.The creators said that they took a lot of inspiration from Asian culture in terms of costumes, settings, etc.

  9. Do you have a link to that? I'd like to dissect what their actual words were, especially if they said anything related to the casting.


    You're gonna have to search for the article, but I am sure it was there. Since then, the site has expanded to activism against all racebending in films. Interesting how things can turn out that way even when they didn't win on Airbender.


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