White-Washing Avatar: The Last Airbender?

Entertainment Weekly recently announced the casting decisions by M. Night Shyamalan for his latest project, Avatar: The Last Airbender, a live-action version of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon.

With names like Jesse McCartney, Twilight’s Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz, it’s clear to most fans that Shyamalan has missed the biggest point (and possibly, the biggest draw) about the show and its Asian influence.

Let me be upfront with you guys: I didn’t watch Avatar. My friend (a grown, 26 year old man at the time) tried to convince me to watch it on Nickelodeon but that just made me mock him for his TV choices. However, as a fan of animation, I was excited to see how far anime’s popularity had come. With the previous influx of Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and InuYasha, it was no surprise that kids now would be watching an anime-inspired cartoon created, written and designed by Americans.

The story is undeniably Asian-influenced: characters have names like Aang, Toph Bei Fong and Iroh, they all use martial arts, Chinese characters are featured throughout the show and the music on the show’s website makes me feel like I should be ordering some General Tsao’s chicken.

Then why would Shyamalan and Paramount decide to go forward with such a white cast? Was it really that hard to find Asian and Inuit actors to cast for the main roles? Did Shyamalan watch a completely different series than the rest of us?  Fans have deemed their choices as outrageous and racist, and they’ve even started a letter-writing campaign against the studio — all understandably so. You’ve got this Emmy-award winning series that celebrates pan-Asian culture, yet they’re completely white-washing the story for the big screen. I’m sure there’s the perfect excuse/reason: a full Asian cast wouldn’t draw a big enough audience across America. Yeah, I’ve heard and seen that one before (Breakfast At Tiffany’s or Sayonara, anyone?).

Or maybe this is just another one of Shyamalan’s crazy omg plot twists? You know, dun dun dun… they’re WHITE! And they can see dead people. Oh, and it’s the trees. Gasp.

But here’s where I’m torn on the issue: I could be wrong, but Avatar was co-created by two Caucasian males, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, both of whom are fans of typical Asian cultural icons like Buddhism, Shaolin Kung Fu, Chinese art and Japanese cinema. I’m sure they love sushi and mochi icecream, too. They’ve reinterpreted their passions into an Asian-inspired story that takes place in a separate universe.  So while fans are demanding Shyamalan’s cast represent the cultural influence, how “authentic” and Asian is Avatar? Can you even demand an Asian cast when the creators themselves aren’t necessarily representatives of Asian culture?

I don’t consider them to be and in fact, I would probably have more issues with two white guys reappropriating my culture to create a personal universe, unlike Dragonball Evolution, which placed a Caucasian male in a Japanese story.

So there. If you disagree, keep writing your letters cause there’s nothing like a little Hollywood activism during the holidays. I do hope they change their minds, and if not, the movie flops.

(Hat tip: Min)

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About Moye

I am a Japanese-American girl who was born, raised and is most probably stuck in traffic right this second in Los Angeles. I'm currently one of the co-editors of 8Asians and like to distract myself with good food, reading long books, playing video games, catching up on celebrity news, choosing my new new haircut and then writing all about it on Hello Moye and sometimes here on Twitter if I can get it in under 140 words or less. You can reach me at moye[at]8asians.com.
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