The Maykazine

Overthinking so you don't have to.

Whitewashing Avatar – Yes, it’s possible.

It takes merely a glance at the title to notice some degree of Asian influence in the hit cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show, which has won over diverse audiences since its airtime on Nickelodeon, is a surprisingly epic martial arts story that crossed cultural boundaries by appealing to mainstream audiences with good story, quality animation, and Appa.

Avatar only lasted three seasons, and it was intended to do so. Some argue that this is what allowed Avatar to succeed so well: it was focused. With a definite story arc and a finite ending, the standards were able to be kept high.

Like almost any successful piece of kid targeted work these days, Avatar has gone down the movie franchise route with the production of a live-action film. M. Night Shyamalan’s on it! Fans are excited!

But they, and every person with a minutely cultured brain in her or his head, is probably more offended by Paramount’s decision to cast every main character with a White actor.

Umm, what? I know the voices are mainly Caucasian actors, but even Dante Basco has a role in the actual animated series. Rufio won’t actualize his role as Prince Zuko. Instead, Jesse McCartney will.

Prince Zuko

Prince Zuko

Dante Basco

Dante Basco

Jesse McCartney

Jesse McCartney

Do I even need to say anything about that last one? Anything at all? Really?

Angry Asian Man quickly summed up the series in words that aren’t specifically persuasive of Avatar’s Asian influence, but rather they form a simple synopsis of what naturally, inherently, displays Asian values:

The show is set in an Asian-influenced world of martial arts and elemental manipulation, following the adventures of the hero Aang and his friends, who must save the world by defeating the Fire Lord and ending the destructive war with the Fire Nation.

I think the closest you could come to Caucasian “elemental manipulation” would be to track the history of witchcraft. Maybe X-Men – and even Storm was Black.

This has popular bloggers from interdisciplinary subjects buzzing, including the reliable animation industry read, Cartoon Brew:

To rub salt in the wound, this is what actor Jackson Rathbone told an interviewer about how he needs to prepare to play a role in Avatar: “I definitely need a tan.” Unbelievable.

I’m having a very hard time not filling this post with repeating lines of “WHAT THE FUCK.” If you know me, you know I’m staunchly against the casual usage of the word “retarded” to describe things that aren’t actually mentally challenged. Situations like this, though, make me want to slap someone across the table and ask “How fucktarded can you be??”

When a role is ethnically ambiguous, I’m all for spicing up the diversity on screen with characters that don’t fit stereotypes. But when you come up with a cultural story like this, one whose very inception was inspired by Asian martial arts, it is your well-funded storyteller’s duty to be respectful of that which you are portraying. By not casting Asians in Asian roles, you are perpetuating the notion that Asians can’t act, that they don’t have a place in American arts, that they are not worthy of American media, that they have no voice in how their cultures (however artistically interpreted) are exhibited. It is a complete violation of simple cultural respect to take this project from the lands where its inspiration came from and give it an assimilated yellow face. Or worse, to not even bother at all.

The creators of Avatar, are not “all Asian” and nor are they “all White.” In the interviews I’ve seen of the two, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are all respectful of the source of their story and never fail to mention Avatar’s Asian influence. They’ve probably been advised by lawyers and execs to speak nothing of the issue. Their stomachs are probably doing flips right now as they consider the cash that’s about to come into their pockets. They’re probably fully aware that right now they appear about as trustworthy as, well, our last President.

I urge you to protest this film if you are in the Philadelphia area. I’m boycotting it if it comes out with the same cast that has been announced.

One thing I will say, damn, Shyamalan, you actually surprised me on this one. Way to represent, fucktard.

And just because this is really just sick in a twisted way, here’s info on that extras casting session in Philly:

“Casting folks are looking for extras to play soldiers, martial artists, dancers, gymnasts, athletes and families — specifically physically fit people from 18 to 65 years old. The open call will be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Bullies restaurant at the Wachovia Spectrum. You’re asked to dress casually or in the traditional costume of your family’s ethnic background. Info: lastairbendercasting@gmail.com or 215-574-7878.”

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24 comments on “Whitewashing Avatar – Yes, it’s possible.

  1. Bongo
    23 January 2009

    Very well said! I am so angry about this. Have they learned nothing from the fan reaction to Dragonball Z? (http://dbthemovie.com/) Ugh.

  2. Girl Crack
    23 January 2009

    WOW just … WOW. That extras casting really put it over the edge. I mean really Jesse McCartney? Is there a female role for Miley Cyrus in there? Hollywood never ceases to amaze me.

  3. themaykazine
    23 January 2009

    It’s an abomination! I hope Obama cracks down on this Elite YT shit.

  4. Meredith
    24 January 2009

    It gets worse. That casting call for extras asked for people to come dressed in their traditional garb.

    “We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you’re Korean, wear a kimono. If you’re from Belgium, wear lederhosen.”

    1) I was unaware that Korean = Japanese and that Belgians are the same as Bavarians. Idiots.

    2) Call me crazy, but I don’t recall any lederhosen in the cartoon. No kilts or kente cloth either. I saw plenty of cheonsam, hanbok, kimono, ao dai and saffron robes though.

    This whole casting makes me want to cry in frustration and anger. And it’s not even my culture that’s being disrespected and co-opted.

  5. themaykazine
    25 January 2009

    UGH, I read that, too. Absolutely inexcusable.

  6. Pingback: Justin Leach » More Anger about Avatar

  7. Evad
    26 January 2009

    Just saw you got linked to on Cartoon Brew. Congrats!!

    I would hope that with all of the pissed off people the casting is likely to change. If it doesn’t change, this movie will be the shit-stain on the comfortable underpants that is my love for the show (pardon my language).

  8. themaykazine
    26 January 2009

    Everyone knows a happy Evad is a comfortably underpantsed Evad.

    One blogger posited that this is some viral marketing scheme. Which makes me kind of sick and hopeful at the same time.

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  10. AngelofWrath
    27 January 2009

    Why not just cast Dante, he still looks young as, could be passed as a late teens age with the right lighting…

  11. themaykazine
    27 January 2009

    Seriously, he is pretty much your quintessential Lost Boy and could still play a convincingly young Rufio.

  12. Michael
    29 January 2009

    Uh, themaykazine, just how is Obama going to crack down on this “Elite YT shit”?! Haha! You RACIST! Just in case you forgot, Avatar was created by “YT” people. Bigot!

    What moron thinks that Obama is going to “crack down” on the casting of Avatar? HAHA! Yeah, right. Obama is going to ride in on his black horse and “crack down” on the casting of Avatar! What a moron.

    Just because a person wears certain clothing and respects Asian culture, that person MUST be Asian? What next, themaykazine, if I eat a taco I’m a Mexican?! Good god, what a bigot you are!

    The creators of Avatar are Caucasian, but I guess because they respect Asian culture and make a cartoon that has Asian elements, they must be Asian, right?

    Why can’t Aang be Caucasian?! Why?! Because he wears a gi? Because he knows Kung Fu? Wow, I guess if a person wears a béret, he’s French, right? If a person eats rice, he’s Chinese?! Wow, the level of bigotry here is amazing.

  13. themaykazine
    29 January 2009

    Whoa, Michael. I do not know what to say about you taking that Obama comment seriously. No, I don’t equate Obama with any Hollywood clout.

    Moving on, I am fully aware that Avatar’s creators are “White,” but as I stated here, they have proven to be fully respectful of the cultures they were inspired by. Once casting took place, their creation was taken out of their hands and has severely marred what they had envisioned.

    I think you’re missing the point that this is a modern take on yellow face, a practice from a time when Asians were legally banned from the screen and never warranted professional acknowledgment in the acting league. It’s a golden opportunity to give back to the original community where Avatar’s lore came from, and the casting director Douglas Aibel completely missed the mark.

    You can call me a bigot, but I know you are misinformed. When Aibel casted actors with zero potential to fully comprehend and adequately represent Avatar, he made a huge mistake, and it’s as simple as that.

    I encourage you to read the Jesse McCartney interview here: http://glockgal.livejournal.com/387284.html

  14. Marcus
    29 January 2009

    Not cool.

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  16. lsammy
    29 January 2009

    Michael – if it’s not Asian, then what is it? White? Why does it have to be white? Why CAN’T it be Asian, if everything in the show is visually Asian? Why is white the immediate default for you? And why should white actors be the immediate default for Hollywood?

    If you care in any way to understand why people – of ALL races – are angry, please read some more on the subject:

    http://www.geneyang.com/blog/index.php

    http://theangryblackwoman.com/2008/12/10/m-night-say-it-isnt-so/

    http://agualimon.wordpress.com/2008/12/12/avatar-white-cast-of-doom/

  17. Cream Cheese Alchemy
    30 January 2009

    White is the default only because franchise movies get executives nervous about overseas markets (particularly Asia) not responding to non-Caucasians and US moviegoers not relating to Asian stars. This mentality is on its way out, but we’re still getting a white Speed Racer, Goku, Bulma, etc. with Asians in supporting parts instead of as leads.

    The problem with Avatar is that this particular casting affects at least who can be cast as members of these characters’ families, if not their nation/tribe. In this scenario, Toph could be the most prominent Asian role in the film series since Ozai, Azula and Iroh have to resemble Zuko. And after that? Ty Lee and Mai? Bumi? Suki? It’s going to look like that Jackie Chan movie from last year.

  18. Jonathan
    5 February 2009

    Michael’s comments were so stupid, I just had to respond.

    Peter Parker has an American name. He goes to an American hi-school, finds American sounding friends (Mary Jane, Flash Thompson, etc) who LOOK very white, lives in a very suburbian American environment. According to your logic, he could just as well be a Nigerian/Japanese/Russian (insert your default here) living in America. Genius.

    If ALL THAT doesn’t prove a character’s origin, I’m not sure what will. Should we revert back to “Gollywog” style markings to CLEARLY INDICATE to ignorant people like you what a character’s origins are? Clearly culture, hairstyle, dress sense and lifestyle mean nothing to you.

  19. TerrawindX2
    7 February 2009

    I don’t have a problem with a caucasian man playing Goku in DB Evolution, because I can see the logic in which he is an Alien, and therefore not necessarily Asian. However, cartoons like Avatar are very obvious in terms of their character ethnicity.

    The Chun Li movie should get equal amount of attention regarding its main character as well.

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This entry was posted on 23 January 2009 by in culture, movies and tagged , , , , , .
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