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.
ETA: my letter to the producers