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From Paramount Pictures, let freedom ring... - A Sorta Fairytale
October 2013
 
 
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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Mon, Jan. 19th, 2009 10:57 pm
From Paramount Pictures, let freedom ring...

If there's a day to think about social justice and racial fairness, this is it. This year, not only are we celebrating the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., but we are also anticipating tomorrow's inauguration of the first African-American president in United States history. It's good to bask in the glow of progress, to consider how much has changed for the better since the days of the Montgomery bus boycott. But it's also important to consider what still needs to be done to ensure that freedom rings from every mountainside, and from every corner of life—even one as trivial as our entertainment media.

So I think it appropriate to bring up a topic today that has been brewing in my mind the past month or so. Although this injustice pales in comparison to the injustices that King struggled against in his time—and pales in comparison to many injustices that take place today—I still think it's worth speaking out against.

Early last month there came some distressing news in the avatar_fans community, and the playground we know as "fandom" was dealt a harsh blow by "real life". The blog for Entertainment Weekly broke the news that four teens were either already signed or in negotiations for the starring roles in The Last Airbender, a live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon's hit animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even though the fantasy settings of the animated show are clearly based on East Asian cultures (or in one case on Inuit culture), the four teens named in the EW report are all white.

Fans and non-fans alike were outraged at the news, and hundreds have so far taken part in a letter-writing campaign to let the producers know their disappointment. I count myself as one of those who is outraged. The decision to cast white actors in these roles is not only unjust, it is also foolish. It fails on three levels: aesthetically, commercially, and ethically. It simply does not make sense.

First, whitewashed casting is a poor aesthetic choice. To fully appreciate this point, it helps to have some familiarity with the show. If you haven't yet seen Avatar—or if your memory needs refreshing—please take a few moments to scroll through this beautiful collection of screencaps compiled by aang_aint_white. This "essay in images" eloquently explains how deeply rooted the show is in Asian and Inuit cultures. If you add to that the numerous interviews and DVD commentaries from the creators, writers, storyboard artists, animators, music and sound designers, and other creative people behind the original series, it becomes even more clear that the creative team was meticulous in bringing to life a fantasy world with a distinctly Asian flavor. That alone should be enough to explain why this world, when translated to live-action film, ought to be populated by actors who physically match the setting.

Yet, some have suggested that due to the fantasy nature of the series, the race of the actors doesn't matter. In other words, since the story takes place in fictional settings like the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation rather than in real places like China and Japan, the actors could be of any race, including white. If you agree with that, let me ask you to consider for a moment how you would have reacted if the cast for The Lord of the Rings had been comprised of black or Asian actors. Would a black Aragorn or a Chinese Legolas have seemed a little strange to you? LOTR was based heavily on Anglo-Saxon folklore; hence, it made the most sense to cast actors who fit that image. While it's true that franchise films like these sometimes get a little "race lift" to allow for more ethnic diversity—for example, Lucy Liu in the 2000 film version of Charlie's Angels—casting white actors in roles that ought to have defaulted to minority actors can hardly be seen as an improvement. If the four actors had been announced, and there were among them teens of several different races including white, that would have been more forgivable. The fact that all four are white makes it clear that, contrary to what the source material implies, white actors were preferred in the casting process.

Some people who support the casting have argued that, despite using chopsticks to eat or wearing traditional Tibetan clothing, the characters in Avatar "look white". I, personally, have always felt that most of the Avatar characters don't look white, but I admit that this is somewhat open to interpretation. What it boils down to is that characters in animated shows are always a bit oversimplified. Because animation is usually not made up of detailed, realistic drawings, what the characters would look like when translated to live actors is bound to be a bit subjective. However, when you take into consideration all the details from the setting and the characters' clothing and hairstyles, the balance tips in favor of interpreting the characters as Asian and Inuit rather than white. For more on this topic, check out this essay: The Face of the Other. It does a good job of debunking the age-old fallacy that anime characters "look white".

Second, whitewashed casting is a poor commercial choice. As a film adaptation of a popular fantasy series, The Last Airbender should be treated as a high-budget fantasy blockbuster, along the lines of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and His Dark Materials. Obviously, these films have varying levels of success, but the studio's aim with this type of property—one that requires a high budget but also provides an established fanbase—should always be to more than make a profit. By doing better than just making it into the green, films like this allow their studios to make up for niche films that aren't likely to turn any profit.

The success of this type of film depends on balancing two factors: creating mainstream appeal and pleasing the fanbase. You cannot have a successful fantasy franchise blockbuster if you don't do both of those things. The HP and LOTR films enjoyed such great box office success because they managed to strike the right balance. While there were nitpicks, such as cutting Tom Bombadil or changing Ron's lines to Hermione's, the fanbase was largely pleased with the film adaptations. Moreover, mainstream audiences were drawn in because the films were marketed well and because the filmmakers mostly made the right kinds of changes to the source material.

Pleasing the fanbase is important to the success of a franchise film for several reasons. First, it creates opening-night excitement. This, in turn, generates a good box office opening and therefore more media attention. Second, established fans are more likely to indulge in repeat viewings than mainstream audiences. Most of all, the fanbase energizes word-of-mouth marketing. Pleasing the fanbase is a more essential component then ever in the Information Age, due to the power of the internet and the increased importance of word-of-mouth marketing.

Yet, whitewashed casting largely alienates the fanbase of Avatar. While not all fans have joined the group threatening to boycott, even those who are willing to take the casting of white actors in stride seem less exited about the film than they might otherwise have been. They may be less likely to pay for repeat viewings or to draw friends and family into the phenomenon.

More than that, whitewashed casting will not help increase mainstream appeal for the film. The producers seem to be unaware that their target audience—namely, children and teens—is less likely than ever to reject a film because it has minority actors in the starring roles. Upcoming generations are increasingly colorblind. Even among older generations, there are probably very few potential moviegoers who would be more likely to take an interest in this film because it has a white cast. A nominal Twilight star and pop star Jesse McCartney may bring in a few new fans with their star power, but probably not enough to counter the loss of the fanbase's support, as well as the bad publicity that is already being generated by the fan backlash. Many potential mainstream movie-goers who are conscientious about racial discrimination will be turned off by the bad press. Moreover, international audiences, which have been a crucial component of box office success since Titanic (if not before), will probably be alienated by the whitewashed casting as well.

Finally, whitewashed casting is a poor ethical choice. Some have suggested that the race of the actors in these roles doesn't matter, as long as they are good actors. Some go so far as to say that we are racist for rejecting the current cast based on their race. We should be "colorblind", they say, and give the white kids who have been tapped for these roles a fair chance.

I want to emphasize that I have nothing against any of the individual actors and that whether or not a pop star like Jesse McCartney can act is entirely beside the point. Personally, from what little I've seen, I think McCartney's acting skills probably are adequate. That still doesn’t mean he's the right person to portray Prince Zuko.

The problem is, "colorblind" casting is bound to come across as racist if it translates to "give white people a chance". The fact is, white actors have far more chances than minority actors do. Hollywood has a long history of whitewashed casting of Asian roles. A list of examples both classic and recent can be found in this Wikipedia article on "Yellowface". In addition to this, there has been a strong tendency to default fantasy characters to white, even when it goes against the source material. For example, the SciFi chanel's adaptation of A Wizard of Earthsea cast white actors for characters who were described in the books as dark-skinned. While "race lifts" like this do sometimes go the other way, as mentioned above with the example of Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angel's, the handing of minority roles to white actors is far more common.

The live-action adaptation of Avatar would have been a golden opportunity to not only give minority actors a chance to shine, but also to give the many children who love Avatar, or who might come to love it due to the film, the chance to enjoy and learn from seeing minority actors in what may be their rarest form: as the heroes of an epic fantasy story. The failure of Paramount Pictures to take hold of that opportunity is shameful.

While there is little chance that the producers will change their minds in time to change the casting of The Last Airbender (though I confess I'm still holding out hope they'll hire an Asian actor to play Zuko instead of Jesse McCartney), protesting the casting is not a waste of time. The more attention we draw to this issue, the better chance there is that other studios will take notice and that future productions will be handled more sensibly. Whether or not you are a fan of the original series, I hope that you will join me in protesting this racist casting. Please visit aang_aint_white for more information on how you can help.

Joie

ETA: my letter to the producers

Tags: ,
Current Mood: energetic passionate

13CommentReply

connielane
connielane
Black Mamba
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 04:52 am (UTC)

Even though I'm not involved with Avatar at all, I'm shocked that this has happened. I mean, I know sometimes movies fudge casting when an actor of one race could easily be believed as being from another race. But Caucasian actors in non-Caucasian roles is something that hasn't happened in a lot of years. I heard someone once call it the Miss Saigon Syndrome - in reference to the very white Jonathan Pryce playing the French-Vietnamese Engineer. That's the most recent example I can think of, but it used to be an alarming trend in Hollywood.


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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 05:26 am (UTC)

There have been other recent examples as well--Earthsea was in 2004, and just last year there was 21, in which characters based on Asian people in real life were played by white actors.

I was shocked, too. At first, I thought it was a joke or maybe some crazy viral marketing campaign, but it's clear now that it's the real deal.


ReplyThread Parent
meahtsingan
meahtsingan
meahtsingan
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 05:47 am (UTC)

You've certainly hit the key issues with this disturbing situation. The characters are so clearly Asian that I've been having a hard time wrapping my brain around the studio's apparent casting decisions since I first heard the rumors. I think anybody who says the characters look white is demonstrating a very stereotyped image, conscious or otherwise, of what "Asian" looks like.

And there's still so few good roles out there for minority actors that it seems almost criminal to cast white actors. There must be a wonderful pool of untapped talent out there just waiting for a project like Avatar.


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markbrannan
markbrannan
Mark Aaron Brannan
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 01:27 pm (UTC)
"uh no, no I'm an asian"


When I hear about things like this I just feel so sad for poor Tommy Butterfly Rainbow Peace Patel, because it's such an injustice!

(Oh, and the avatar thing pisses me off too but not in a funny way)


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ginny_t
ginny_t
Too cute for evil
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 01:39 pm (UTC)

Disclaimer: I skimmed this aggressively. That said, I agree with you.

I do want to point out that Lucy Liu was allowed to be in Charlie's Angels because she was a Hawt Asian Chick kicking ass. Because she was wankable (excuse my crudeness), it was an acceptable change.

The claim that a fantasy world is exempt from racism in light of its made-up-ness is just bunk. It comes from the mind of someone in the context of the world we live in. The author can claim to have separated this world from that, but that author is just delusional.


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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC)

I do want to point out that Lucy Liu was allowed to be in Charlie's Angels because she was a Hawt Asian Chick kicking ass. Because she was wankable (excuse my crudeness), it was an acceptable change.

Yes, yes, I didn't even get into the "acceptable roles for Asians" part of the issue, but that's a good point. I recently snarked in the maizuko comm that the only Asian actor in the series will probably be Mai, Zuko's girlfriend, because she can be seen as fitting the "sexy dragon lady" type. *rolls eyes*

Edited at 2009-01-20 10:14 pm (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent
orcapotter
orcapotter
Orca キンバリー
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 06:54 pm (UTC)

I always hesitate to get into debates like this, because especially in the world of fandom, I tend to play devil's advocate. Personally, the bottom line for me, is that no movie adaptation is 100% faithful to the original canon, whether it's literature or any other media. The Harry Potter films proved to me that it's really useless to put any sort of expectation on the results because you're bound to be disappointed. Also, having taken screenwriting and other literature-to-film courses, I've learned a lot about the challenges screenwriters and producers are faced with.

That all of course is a different issue from the point you're making and a lot of other fans. I guess what I'm saying that I no longer particularly care about authenticity, but rather on whether or not the people chosen/choices made reflect the best performance, rather than if they look the part. I do admit that I'm that camp you mentioned who believes that Avatar is a fantasy world and it's all up to interpretation. To me, some characters look more like a particular ethnicity than others. I do have a big problem with choosing popular celebrities just to bring in ratings, so I'm of mixed feelings with the choice for Zuko.

Bottom line, is it racist? Perhaps. Should we be surprised? No. It's Corporate America. Fans know that companies care next to nothing for us, why else do cult favorites get canceled? All that matters is the final paycheck, and they want whoever and whatever it takes that makes the most money displayed. All pop-culture kiddy icons these days are primarily white, media-created "stars" who generally don't have a lick of substantial talent. Aside from McCartney, I think I'd be more upset if the entire cast were existing "big stars". So on a personal level, I'm inclined to give everyone a chance to prove their merit before I damn the project. But for any adaptation, these days I don't spare any real energy for since the HP films have had me so disappointed.

That's not to say people should stop protesting. You're point is right - that perhaps it may open a few eyes and for future projects it's possible they may actually consider being faithful to the canon and not always think of the paycheck.


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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Tue, Jan. 20th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)

All that matters is the final paycheck, and they want whoever and whatever it takes that makes the most money displayed.

Okay, but the main point I was trying to make is that, even if that is what is motivating this atrocity, they still screwed up. This isn't the best to squeeze the most commercial success out of Avatar. I'm sure that's what's motivating them, but I think they have completely misread their target audience. That's what's so frustrating--they just have NO clue.

But for any adaptation, these days I don't spare any real energy for since the HP films have had me so disappointed.

Honestly, I've never really been much of a purist, and with HP and other adaptations, I've been willing to make huge allowances and therefore enjoy both the original medium and the adaptation for what they are. This issue is just so, so beyond faithfulness of the adaptation that...honestly, the two things are barely connected in my mind. The ethical problems and the sheer stupidity of it from a commercial perspective are much more what has me outraged than the fact that I don't think it's very faithful to the source material, either.


ReplyThread Parent
markbrannan
markbrannan
Mark Aaron Brannan
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 03:00 am (UTC)
business myopia

Oh, it's true. They f-ed up commercially too.

--but really now, the whole movie industry has f-ed up and continues to do so on other levels.

The fact that they do not understand how their market is changing and how they will need to change and adapt in order to compete among:
* new media (like games)
* new distribution channels (like youchube)
* new cost structures (piracy = free)
proves that they're already 'on the wrong track'. The movie industry is today what the rail companies were a century or more ago: clueless and declining, blind to where their business is going. Myopic!


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jediboadicea
jediboadicea
Jedi Boadicea
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 06:17 am (UTC)

I could not agree with you more. Really, I would like to be more eloquent, but it's late, and I'm frazzled, and in the end I think you said it perfectly. This decision has frustrated me very deeply, since I am just so very tired of this crap. Because it isn't like this decision stands alone - it's one of decades upon decades of similar decisions, and every time you find yourself hoping that people are getting past this crap, they disappoint you. And, like you said, it's even more frustrating when these people prove how locked into their world view they are by trying to market something like this to kids who don't share that world view anymore. It's the past trying to reach out and strangle the present. I'm just so weary. I was so, so pleased with Avatar as a show for not succumbing to this and putting no Caucasian characters into the show at all. After that, this casting choice seems like twice the insult.

And I realize this was nothing but an incoherent mini rant, and I apologize for not being more measured and intelligent. But yeah. You said it. :)

Also, I am now going to have to go listen to some Tori and catch up on some manga. You were certainly right about the shared interests. :) I think it's perfectly clear... hmmm hmmm...

P.S. I love the link to the The Face Of The Other article! I've often had that exact argument with people, and now I think I'll just direct them to that article instead. Thank you!


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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Wed, Jan. 21st, 2009 10:43 pm (UTC)

And, like you said, it's even more frustrating when these people prove how locked into their world view they are by trying to market something like this to kids who don't share that world view anymore. It's the past trying to reach out and strangle the present.

YES. I love the way you put that. ("Not more measured and intelligent", whut?)

P.S. I love the link to the The Face Of The Other article! I've often had that exact argument with people, and now I think I'll just direct them to that article instead. Thank you!

Yeah, it's a good one. Before this whole thing started, I admit I was one of those who thought that anime characters "looked white"--and was disturbed by the notion that Japanese artists seemed to idolize white people. Um, yeah. I was both humbled and relieved when I read that article. (I never thought the Avatar characters "looked white", though.)


ReplyThread Parent
coastal_spirit
coastal_spirit
Gale
Wed, Jan. 28th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC)

Joie, I saw your recent comment in Ysabet's journal, and was reminded, once again, that after all this time in the Furuba fandom, I have neglected to friend you. Do you mind if I do so?

As far as The Last Airbender is concerned, both my daughter and I wrote letters protesting the casting of all-white actors, even though, (or perhaps because) we are not (yet) involved in the fandom. We both have seen only a few episodes, and have read many well-written articles such as yours on the subject and heartily agree. We both feel very strongly on the subject, and she suggested that it might be a good idea to let Paramount know that it was not just those people in the fanbase that stood in protest of this situation.

~Gale


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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Wed, Jan. 28th, 2009 10:23 pm (UTC)

Hi! Thanks for the comment and for joining the letter-writing campaign, even though you're new to the show. I've been following the comments at aang_aint_white pretty closely, and it's nice to see quite a few non-fans (or not-yet-fans) are writing letters as well.

*friends back*


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