Racebending

I've talked about gender issues here before, but really, all elements of social justice are important to me. Gender, gender identity, sexuality, and of course good old-fashioned race exist in a dazzling variety of combinations, and they all deserve respectful representation in media. This is something I learned how to do at the knee of Naomi Alderman, and I hope to continue it as long as I work (which will probably be as long as there is breath in my body). Perplex City was a place where men and women existed in equal numbers in authority roles; where gay relationships -- and, yes, marriages -- were celebrated as much as hetero; where skins and faces and hair came in all colors, textures, and configurations, and not much was made of it. Not bad for a quietly but profoundly xenophobic city-state, don't you think?


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Around my house, we're all big fans of the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. (Bear with me, I'll tie it all together in a minute.) We watched every episode, bought the video games, evangelized to our friends, and in general were the kind of consumers that any IP property longs to have. When we found out there was going to be a live-action film, we were cautious but excited; when we found out M. Night Shyamalan was on board to direct, we were frankly a bit skeptical, but still willing to give it a shot out of sheer loyalty to the franchise.  

Why did we love this show so much? It's hard to say. The writing was tight, surprisingly deep and sophisticated for a children's cartoon. Avatar actually examines the themes of good and evil at some length, and there is a whole season establishing that the people living in a nation with aggressive leadership are still just regular (and sympathetic) people. We loved the research that went into it -- four distinct styles of martial arts for the four types of 'bending.' We loved the original and heavily Asian-inspired world and aesthetic. I particularly loved that there are girls in active roles, both as heroes and villains. The show was like a breath of fresh air, even/especially to withered cynics like me who despair of getting my girls out of the pink ghetto of consumerism and incredibly strict gender roles. Last year, my daughter chose karate over ballet, and I'm sure Avatar influenced her decision.

But the news out of The Last Airbender film is bad, and it keeps getting worse. The problem? Casting.

See, in Avatar-the-cartoon, there simply isn't a white face on the show. It's all shades of brown and yellow. You see thinly-veiled renderings of Inuit and Chinese cultures, very specifically, with the people from them colored to match. I loved this to pieces (I was shocked to find this show was made in America, and not an import). The world is a big place, my friends, and I'd like my children to grow up knowing that not everybody looks like them, and that's OK. More important, I'd like all of those children in the world who are brown and yellow (and black and red, too) to get to see people on the screen like themselves, who are good people doing great things. And then the film announced who it had cast for the leading roles. And by now you see where this is going: They were white, every one of 'em. Nary even a suntan in the bunch. That's standard-op Hollywood racism right there; it happened with Earthsea, too.

Now, this was pretty awful, and people were justifiably upset about it, so the powers that be behind the film decided on a change of course and recast a role to a minority actor -- one. You know who he plays? Zuko, the bad guy. So suddenly a show that was all about the strength and beauty of Asian cultures and the interplay between them has turned into a movie where three white folks are battling a brown menace. I'm sure I don't need to draw you a diagram to explain why I find this problematic. This is just as awful as if they had kept the all-white casting -- and arguably it's a lot worse.

Fortunately, there are actions you can take to try to get the studio's head on straight. For a more thorough explanation of the problem here, including some historical information on screen shots, please see Racebending. They have a fantastic list of resources on things you can do to protest, from signing a petition and joining a Facebook group to writing to Paramount Pictures to contacting local media. 

Let's make some noise over this, people, and see if we can get it fixed. I'd really hate to have to skip the movie over this, but if nothing changes, me and a lot of other people will be staying home when it comes out.


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