Usually, this blog is devoted quite adamantly to book-based fandom because media-based fandom has more than its share of outlets for news and discussion. However, this is an issue that I have been following for some weeks now about the upcoming movie Avatar: The Last Airbender. The movie is based on the popular Nickelodeon animated program Avatar. The initial fandom buzz about this movie infuriated me, but I didn’t jump into the fray because it wasn’t *my* fandom. I’ve since reevaluated this stance as, at best, ignorant and, at worst, an attitude that allows bullshit like this to perpetuate in the first place.
To sum up: Avatar is a popular animated television show on Nickelodeon. The program is fantasy, but the imagined cultures are rooted strongly in East Asian and Inuit culture, and the characters–in keeping with this–all appear as East Asians and Inuits as well.
As they do with just about anything that has achieved success, Hollywood decided to make a movie based on Avatar. Only, when the major casting decisions were announced, all of the actors chosen were white. Never mind that the source was inspired and based on a culture and people completely unlike these kids, in the words of one of the stars, “I think it’s one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan.” Wow.
To add insult to injury, a second casting call was put out for extras. The first call, for the lead actors, asked for “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” (
I am quoting from memory as I seem to have lost the post where I originally saw this. I will add it if I find it. ETA: I got the quote right, and the original post can be found on Alas, a Blog.) This time, people of “ethnic background” were sought. Part of the casting call reads, “You’re asked to dress casually or in the traditional costume of your family’s ethnic background.”
So, when they’re looking for the leads, for the faces that will represent this project to the world, they explicitly favor white faces? But, when they need a little local color to fill in the background, please, by all means, show up in your “traditional costume”! (Even the word costume makes me cringe. When I put on a feathery leotard for a skating performance or dress up like an Elf for a Ren Faire, those are costumes. Clothing that has real-life, actual significance to real-life, actual cultures of people are not costumes, with all the implication of playing dress-up or putting on a performance.)
I would highly encourage my fellow fans to join me in communicating how wrong this whole situation is.
First, I would encourage everyone to read some of the posts being made about this by fans of color. Even if you’re not sure that you agree with me (or you’re adamant that you don’t, and there’s no problem with the casting for Airbender), I’d suggest reading some of these posts before you choose to do nothing. I am white. I cannot communicate what it is like for people of color to constantly see their faces and cultures disregarded and appropriated to make way for the white “norm.” I cannot communicate the pain and frustration of knowing from a young age that certain avenues were closed off to me because of my skin color or the breadth of my nose or the shape of my eyes and that people like me had no place in the important stories being told in mainstream culture. Their words and anger and hurt are what matters, not mine.
Here are a few suggested places to start. The posts are rather long, but both are well worth the time spent on them. These posts link to other posts, so it should not be hard to read more beyond this list. I also encourage those of you who have been following this mess or who discover posts that you feel are worth sharing to link them in the comments. I will add them to the list here when you do.
Seeking Avalon: A Conversation I WANT to Have
Ciderpress: What We Talk about When We Talk about
Shewhohashope: In the collective unconcious: cultural impositions, internalised racism & the colonised mind
Second, please pass on the word about this. I haven’t heard about it anywhere in the ivory towers of book-based fandom, and it’s important. It’s worth getting the word out. You may link here, though I’d prefer if you’d link to one of the posts by people of color who are telling their stories. For ideas about taking action, here is a post on the Angry Asian Man blog that gives specific details. If you’re so inspired, write your own blog/journal posts. Let’s get the word out.
Third, don’t see the movie. One of the arguments that is constantly trotted out in debates about casting whites in the roles of non-whites is that white people don’t want to watch movies about characters of color. White allies against racism should take this as the insult that it is. And we should all put out money where our mouths are by demanding a fair and diverse representation of the world’s many, many non-white cultures in mass media. Personally, I want to see human culture and beauty in its many colors and shapes. And I’m tired of being told that I don’t want to.
Fourth, tell the studios that you aren’t seeing the movie and why. Movies flop all of the time, and it’s anyone’s best guess why they do. We need to make clear, if this one follows many of its predecessors into the abyss, that the racist casting decisions were a big reason–if not the reason–why people chose not to see this movie.
Mr Mark Bakshi
President Features Production
5555 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038-3197
Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall
619 Arizona Avenue, Fl. 2
Santa Monica, California 90401
It was the last post on the Seeking Avalon blog, along with following the unfolding debate about race on Metafandom that finally pushed me to comment on this. Before that, it was easy to dismiss my silence because it wasn’t *my* fandom and I have no interest in anime and I probably wouldn’t have seen the movie in the first place.
Last week was one of those *omgwtf* atrocities in terms of school- and work-load, so I missed most of the posts about the latest racist idiocy on Metafandom. However, I did skim the excerpts to at least make a mental note about which ones I might like to return to in the future, and one particular line jumped out at me from the excerpt of Shewhohashope’s post In the collective unconcious: cultural impositions, internalised racism & the colonised mind:
Not seeing things in terms of race is an aspect of privilege, as I’ve said before. I can’t not see things in terms of race, because people will always see me in terms of mine.
And something somewhere, in conjunction with the Avatar atrocity, just clicked, and I realized that my ability to brush off something that I felt passionately about was a reflection of my own privilege as a white person, at always getting to see “my” culture represented as the standard and the norm, at always getting to see faces like mine represent both heroes and villains and people from all walks of life, at getting to be part of the “important” stories being told in mainstream culture.
I mean, I’m in the damned Tolkien fandom. It’s a mythology constructed by a white guy for perceived white audiences in an attempt to give a richer mythological history to a white, imperialist nation. Often, when I meet people from fandom or when they see my picture online, they gasp and say, “Dawn, you look just like an Elf!” because I have skin that refuses to tan, my blond hair reaches my butt, and my eyes are bright blue-gray. The mythology Tolkien wrote represents … me. And, to a degree, my heritage. On my mom’s side, I am descended from the Stuart clan in Scotland. Had my distant, distant relative gotten her way, she would have been queen instead of Elizabeth I. I am connected, in every way, to the stories that I have chosen to study and reinterpret as part of my own fiction. And, looking at me, no one ever doubts it. And I never have to worry that some dominant group will try to steal the connections that I feel to these stories from me and replace me with someone better and more acceptable to the normative culture.
How lucky I am, to not only have found stories that I’m passionate about studying and never to have to worry about those stories being taken from me and given to someone else! Even as a woman–with my own uphill battle against male privilege and ignored and maligned, as a gender, in my favorite books–I did not have to worry that Peter Jackson would decide that Galadriel was too wise and powerful for anyone to believe that she was really a woman, and to switch the roles of Galadriel and Celeborn so that she was in the background and he became the hero. Or turn Éowyn into a guy. Or for Christopher Tolkien to make Lúthien an obedient, submissive bootlicker to her idiotic father and fiance, or to make Morwen a whiny hand-wringer instead of one of the strongest and most courageous characters in the story.
I am so lucky not to have these fears part of my daily life. This, I think, makes it all the more necessary that I speak up when I see it happening to others.