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Lake Charles, Louisiana, United States
Hello, and welcome to my blog! I like to write about children's literature, fandom studies, video games, feminism, and pop culture in general. I've recently earned my Ph.D. in children's literature ( Fall 2012) at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I also teach English (composition, British literature, and women's literature) at Sowela Technical Community College. Oh, and I like cats! [Banner image artwork by Yuki Midorikawa]

Monday, August 23, 2010

Racebending ... No, I won't let it go


Okay, it's time to clear the air. Ahem. (Sorry.)

So M. Night Shyamalan's film adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender utterly tanked. Am I happy about this? Um, yes. Does this make me a bad person? Of course not!

By now I'm sure just about everyone has heard of Racebending, a website that was originally started to protest Shyamalan's casting choices but now covers all aspects of race and casting in the filmmaking business. I confess to being an active supporter of racebending.com's efforts. I joined the Facebook page (always a sure sign of dedicated activism). I watched the youtube videos. I wished fervently I could attend the actual protests.

Racebending.com did something that I have to admire: they went after the source. At first, the protest was more general; images portraying the white actors beside their clearly Asian animated counterparts circulated the web like wildfire. Eventually, however, protesters began to center their attack on M. Night Shyamalan himself. Bonus points were earned over the fact that Shyamalan was also Asian (Indian, to be exact). (Shyamalan attempted to use this fact as his own personal "Get out of jail free" card, but to little effect: "Racist ... Or Just Drawn That Way?") The hasty recasting of Zuko was greeted with derision, albeit slightly misdirected derision. Shyamalan was now accused of making the villain of the film a person of color, whereas the heroes remained white. Of course, as all fans of the show know (and as Shyamalan himself attempts to point out in the above linked article), Zuko actually has a fairly interesting character arc, and the series culminates with him becoming one of the good guys. (Shyamalan is overstretching when he attempts to assert that Zuko is the main character. He isn't. Aang is.)

This to many hinted at a film that was potentially in trouble. The blurb on rottentomatoes.com says it all: "
Despite flashy special effects, The Last Airbender squanders the potential of its popular source material on an incomprehensible plot, laughable dialogue, and a joyless sense of detachment."

Ouch.

No, casting Asian actors wouldn't necessarily have made the film "better," per se. But at least our disappointment wouldn't have been twofold.

One important point should be made. (And the Gary Susman article tries to somewhat make it, but Susman is probably not so knowledgeable on the subject.) The original Nickelodeon television series is drawn deliberately to resemble anime. The animators capitalize on an American fascination with all things Japanese. If you dig deep enough, you'll discover that a great number of the fans are not children. They're teenagers and adults who are self-professed anime fans. Now, Avatar: The Last Airbender would not have become such a successful show if it weren't as well-written as it is drawn, but it certainly benefited from the hordes of anime-loving fans already waiting on the sidelines, ready to love it.

The question is, are the creators of the original show racist for capitalizing on this American fetish for Japanese animation? Or does this instead "save them" from their somewhat stereotypical presentations of kung-fu fighting characters like Aang? (Ironically, most of the characters seem to be Chinese in origin; Sokka and Katara are clearly Innuit or Innuit-derived.)

We could certainly point out that many Japanese mangaka (whose works are frequently the basis for much of the anime produced in Japan) base their stories on traditional ideas and storylines. They deliver the whole package: beautiful geisha, noble ronin, corrupt emperors, and stealthy ninja. But is this still okay when (presumably) non-Asian animators reproduce this kind of storytelling in the West?

As usual, I have no answers. I am an Avatar: The Last Airbender fan, however. And I like my share of anime and manga. I think, more than anything, I like a good story, too. And that's something M. Night Shyamalan, at least according to the critics, can't really argue his way out of.

Next post: Jet/Zuko? Sokka/Aang?? That's right. I'll be discussing ... slash.

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