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[personal profile] ravenbell
I wanted to follow up on the casting controversy over the "Last Airbender" movie which I discussed about a year ago here. The full theatrical trailer has been released online, and another round of debate and discussion is picking up momentum, inching ever-so-slowly into the eye of the mainstream public. I've been watching and participating in a lot of these debates, and there are a couple of things I've observed that I believe are worth pointing out:




1) We're Not Going to Reach Everybody

The internet audience is simultaneously massive and tiny, and while quite a few of us have been hashing out the same arguments dozens and dozens of times over the past few months, there will always be someone just joining the conversation who had no idea the controvery existed. In fact, I think the majority of the film's potential audience is still uninformed - not everyone pays attention to ONTD and IMDB and the film sites where most of the Racebending discussions are taking place. And not everyone pays attention to the mainstream media, which is still largely ignoring the issue for the moment. This means that every discussion and argument has to start at square one for the foreseeable future, even after the marketing blitz, and even after the movie is finally released to theaters. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'll run across people after the "Last Airbender 3" hits Blu-Ray, who will react with surprise to the fact that there was any controversy about the casting.

2) They really don't see race. No, they *really* don't see race!

Probably the most frustrating, but also enlightening part of these Racebending discussions has been the arguments over what ethnicities the "Airbender" heroes are meant to be. For a long time I thought that the naysayers were being facetious when they claimed that they had always thought Aang and the rest of the characters were Caucasian. And it was probably my biggest bombshell moment to realize that they honestly, genuinely couldn't tell the characters were meant to be Asian/Inuit from the contextual clues. The cultural elements I thought were such obvious indicators of ethnicity never registered for a huge portion of the audience. Or if they did, apparently they weren't considered to have any bearing on actual ethnicity. Because the "Airbender" fanbase had never really talked about race, people assumed that everyone had the same views they did, and it never came to light that we weren't all on the same page in our perceptions of the characters. I think that schism more than anything else has been the major source of strife splitting the fanbase and fueling the controversy.

On the Racebending side, the question becomes, can we fix this? Certainly not quickly or easily. A lot of these racial misperceptions are so deeply ingrained, people get frustrated when their long-held assumptions are challenged or threatened. In a lot of cases, people simply don't have enough background knowledge of Asian/Inuit culture to connect the cartoon characters to real-world peoples.

3) Being equal doesn't mean being the same

One of the most constant excuses I've heard to justify the casting process has been the claim that race shouldn't matter. It's a nice sentiment in theory, and one that has been parroted by every post-Civil Rights-era American grade school child who ever took a Social Studies class. The trouble is that the phrase is taken out of context very easily, and "race shouldn't matter" becomes "race shouldn't be acknowledged." The current racial paradigm is no longer that Caucasians are better than every other ethnicity, but that every other ethnicity can be just as good as Caucasians. Diversity is devalued, homogeneity is promoted, and the default approach to ethnic differences is to ignore rather than to embrace. And that's a dead end approach, because ethnic differences can never be erased and they shouldn't be. They should be recognized and appreciated - that's how you get everyone on equal footing.

This attitude explains the common problem of neutral or ambiguous fictional characters always being defaulted to Caucasian ethnicity. Unless there are clear, consistent ethnic markers presented, ethnicity isn't given a second thought. Everyone is the same and everyone is Caucasian until proven otherwise. Simply thinking about race is viewed as irksome, annoying, and a deviation from a comfortable norm.

It's just another quiet, internal, insidious form of racial discrimination that in no way amounts to equality.

4) Can There Really Be Asian Americans?

Over the last ten years portrayals of minorities in American media haven't progressed very much. I don't deny things have gotten better in some venues, especially television, but we've got a long way to go. Too few minority actors rise to any real prominence, and they tend to hit a glass ceiling when it comes to lead roles and hero roles. Racebending skeptics generally acknowledge the dearth of non-Caucasian performers, but are ready to embrace a slew of excuses and justifications that reveal severely problematic racial attitudes and the persistence of common stereotypes. The one that strikes closest to heart in this situation is the suggestion that an Asian child wasn't cast as Aang because there weren't any suitable ones available "who spoke English well." This wasn't just one instance, but a common referring refrain in a multitude of different discussions. It's all too apparent that "Asian" and "American" are still considered mutually exclusive categories by many. Among other things, this means that I don't exist.

And it makes we think about all the portrayals of Asians in Western media as martial artists and wacky foreigners, so often sporting that awful over-the-top accent. Thanks to Sandra Oh and Harold and Kumar and others, real Asian-Americans are slowly getting some of the spotlight at long last. But at the same time, they're still fighting the chop-socky ching-chong image every step of the way - and it's a powerful and lasting one. I don't know how many times I've had to explain that just because Aang isn't the stereotypically slanty-eyed caricature and speaks unaccented American English doesn't mean he's not Asian.

5) The Controversy is a Good Thing

Even though it pains me that such a wonderful piece of media like "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is being caught in the middle of this fracas, I'm not sorry that this happened. The controversy is getting people to talk, to have frank, revealing discussions about racial topics. Even if it's on Internet message boards, and even if it's being done anonymously, discourse is happening. We have an opportunity here to start repairing some damage, or at the very least shine some light on the problem.

And it is a problem. As much as the naysayers want to dismiss or trivialize the controversy, this is an issue that matters. Racebending has a real impact on media and on the people who consume it. Especially the kids - some recent articles/blog posts about families' reactions to the "Airbending" casting mess are here and here. Probably the best thing to come out of the controversy has been the galvanizing effect on those of us who always knew it was wrong, but who ignored it or made excuses or rationalized it away. I was taught never to rock any boats, but "Airbender" was the last straw and I'm sick of being quiet.

As the release date approaches, I think the controversy is only going to get louder and nastier. I'm ready for it.

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ravenbell

January 2011

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