Shyamalan’s weak defense of “Airbender” racism

The director spins his whitewashed film as a triumph of cultural diversity. Here's why he's wrong

Topics: The Last Airbender, Race, Film Salon, Movies,

Shyamalan's weak defense of "Airbender" racismNoah Ringer in "The Last Airbender."

Poor M. Night Shyamalan. Apparently he’s been caught off guard by the protests over white actors playing many of the lead roles in his movie “The Last Airbender.” It’s ironic, he told UGO movie blog writer Jordan Hoffman:

[I]t is the most culturally diverse tent-pole movie ever made. And I’m proud of it. It’s part of what drew me to the material, to see the faces of our whole world in this new world. And only time will assuage everyone and give them peace. Maybe [the protestors] didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected. We’re in the tent and it looks like the U.N. in there.

Last week, Shyamalan sat down for a breakfast interview with several film bloggers, journalists, and what Hoffman calls “three stoked webmasters from Airbender fan sites” in a love fest for the movie and its auteur. The live-action film, based on a Nickelodeon cartoon series, opens July 2.

There’s plenty of room in the public forum for a sophisticated analysis of race and culture. Many writers have noted that race is a social construction, not a biological absolute, and to reduce all debates about difference to skin color is to miss everything else that influences the way others perceive us.

The problem comes when invocations of “culture” or “cultural diversity” — the new watchwords — end up erasing racial and cultural inequality. In this case, the casting practics of Hollywood, that maker of dreams, are on display.

It is ironic. There’s no better illustration of the global melting pot than the anime-inspired Airbender franchise. The original series was created by two white Americans (Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko), who cite Asian martial arts and Hayao Miyazaki as influences. Most of the cartooning was done in Korea. Now an Indian American is at the movie helm.

But as an update of “We Are the World,” Shyamalan’s vision begs the question of why white actors are playing three key roles. This includes Aang, the main character for which the movie is named.



Shyamalan’s critics are not interested in the usual Hollywood multicultural mix—all those extras and bad guys who could be pulled from Los Angeles jury pools. Blogs like Racialicious are full of responses to him “spouting a load of BS,” in the words of one commenter:

I don’t see how anyone who has ever taken the time to step outside of their own cultural box can look at [the Airbender cartoons] and see ‘white’. The series is filled with cultural markers that are blatantly Asian in depiction, so when people go on about Aang being white (or even Sokka and Katara, who are obviously browner than everyone else…), I really have to question whether they’ve ever stepped outside or are they just so used to white appropriation that they see everyone as white…

We haven’t reached post-racial nirvana yet. We may have a biracial president who identifies as African American, but a casual perusal of tea party websites should convince anyone that racism is not dead.

While Shyamalan says anime is racially “ambiguous” — it is indeed a cartoon realm in which characters often have big blue “power” eyes and pale skin — many fans would argue right back that these characters are culturally Asian (and, more specifically, East Asian). Back in 2005, the “Airbender” creators said in Animation Insider that they “wanted to base [their mythos] in Asian rather than European background.”

I’ve written before about my own disappointment over “Airbender” heroes like Katara and Sokka getting white makeovers. My young son, a Vietnamese adoptee, deeply identifies with these cartoon characters.

What makes this all so complicated is that cultural affiliation is many-layered, even if you aren’t an international adoptee. For example, there’s Vietnamese culture (and the subcultures and dialects of Vietnam). There’s mainstream American culture. And there’s pan-Asian-American culture, which is marked by physical appearance more than a set of beliefs. That’s just for starters.

Regardless, I know my son wants to be the hero in his favorite stories. Of course those fictional heroes don’t always have to be Asian, though these days, they often are. He didn’t like being stuck in the role of Yoda, as he was when playing “Star Wars” with white friends in kindergarten.

This should not be a big leap for Shyamalan. Women professionals from Laura Bush to Sonia Sotomayor have cited the importance of Nancy Drew as a role model. In fact, the “Airbender” cartoons are popular with many progressive moms because of the strong female characters.

So imagine you’re an Asian American boy (your background may be Vietnamese or Chinese or Korean or Japanese, but the American part matters, too). On TV, you see a slang-talking teenage hero named Sokka with a black top-knot of hair and brown skin. Sokka throws a boomerang in battle, tells bad jokes, and gets to kiss the moon goddess. You see yourself.

In the movie, Sokka is played by Jackson Rathbone in an Eskimo parka.

I’m trying to give Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt. His “Last Airbender” does include at least one Indian actor in a lead role: Dev Patel as Prince Zuko (although this casting change came after the protests started). In some of the other online pieces spun from his breakfast interview, the director reflects at length about decisions he made in creating the various nations in this fantasy world. Shyamalan seems to have thought hard about why racial mixing, for example, might make sense in a culture of nomads like the Air Nation.

But his explanation, quoted by Hoffman of UGO, of why he’s changed the pronunciation of character names from that of the original cartoons comes off as a defensive slap against his critics:

Now this is, for me, because, at the end of the day a South Indian guy directed the movie. It’s a personal thing. So ‘Aang’ is not [like Tang] but ‘Aang’ [like Tong.] It’s ‘Ang Lee.’ See, my first name is Manoj [as Man-oh-j] and everyone mispronounced it in school and butchered it as ‘Man-ahhj.’ So, this is coming from a specific place, from a multicultural appreciation.

He’s the auteur, all right. He doesn’t want to be roped into a boring paint-by-numbers franchise in which he’s beholden to fans. I can see the pickle he’s in, and his “multicultural appreciation” may pay off. But changing the pronunciation of names from a long-running TV show seems benighted. It’s like focusing on your own little tree in a huge forest.

Fans have a culture, too. So why isn’t there room for them in M. Night’s “tent-pole movie,” especially when their protests say a lot about our own changing but very real world?

Martha Nichols is the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine Talking Writing.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>