On race and animation

Happy New Year!

I’m taking a break from working on grad school applications (the first two are due Monday, the rest in February) to post; with any luck I can manage a website update sometime in late February or early in the spring (yikes…). I guess I didn’t have a chance to post again before 2008 ended, but that’s all right. I hope this year brings good things for all of you, and I just want to state again how grateful I am for your continued support and encouragement of this site and of me.

Anyway, moving on–there was some news (not PoDW-related, but animation-related) within the last couple of months that I wanted to bring up here. It’s a bit old now, and I didn’t really think a whole lot about it at the time, but I’ve been reading a bit about it today, and the more I think about it, the more upset it makes me.

M. Night Shyamalan is creating a trilogy of films based on Avatar: The Last Airbender. (This isn’t the problem, FYI.) I don’t know about you all, but I think this is one of the most finely crafted animated series to make it big in many years. A big part of its appeal to me was the attention to detail the creators have paid to ensuring that the Avatar universe is heavily Asian-inspired and completely faithful to the cultures it draws from. The characters’ ethnicities and clothing, the architecture, the food and drink, and the overall philosophy is rooted very heavily in Asian, Inuit, and South American traditions and styles with a twist of steampunk thrown in (the Fire Nation’s naval technology). Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were very heavily inspired by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and they spent years on world-building, working with people from the cultures they were trying to convey to ensure authenticity, and employed a multi-ethnic cast and crew to make this refreshingly diverse universe as solid and true as possible.

And it was fantastic: the characters are obviously internationally inspired, and they don’t play into stereotypes, the way Asian or minority characters tend to in so many TV shows and films. The characters in Avatar are normal human beings, and have attracted the attention of fans all over the world because of what a breath of fresh air it is to see the diversity that exists in our world portrayed so warmly and respectfully. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the show and trying to identify all the different world cultures they incorporated into each new episode, and they treated every single one with the utmost respect. As a 1.5-generation Indian myself (I was born in India and grew up in the US), I became really nervous when they introduced Guru Pathik, but I really had nothing to worry about–his character was solid and wonderful, and not at all an Apu-like caricature, which is how Indians have almost always been portrayed for many years in the media.

This does have a PoDW tie, actually, because the cast of PoDW is completely multi-ethnic, not just in skin color but in facial structure, accents, clothing, and more. And while the world is quite fantasy-heavy and plays with pirate legends and references, there are some undeniable ties to various countries and cultures in the designs of the characters and locales. Many of the people I’ve talked to through this site, and many of the comments I’ve seen on other sites, have pointed this out as something very positive and refreshing.

Anyway, about a month ago, the casting for Shyamalan’s Avatar films was announced–and the main characters are all white.

There is something very wrong with this. I really thought that Shyamalan, being South Asian himself, wouldn’t give into the orientalism and subtle racism of Hollywood (casting the leads of the new Dragonball Z film as white with a few Asian side characters; casting Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead in Prince of Persia; casting Leonardo DiCaprio as Kaneda, the lead character from the Japanese anime film Akira; casting Zhang Ziyi, a Chinese woman, to play Sayuri, a Japanese girl, in Memoirs of a Geisha…the list goes on and on) and would use his fame and success as a way to make a statement about race in Hollywood, especially since a big part of why he got into the show was because his daughters loved it and really related to Katara, the main female character whose background is influenced heavily by Inuit culture.

Kids from all backgrounds really responded to the show. They really related to these characters that were very obviously not Caucasian but normal and just like them. Young kids are a lot more perceptive than people give them credit for, too–they do notice these things! There’s some serious irony in the fact that these two Caucasian creators could go to such great pains to create such an amazingly diverse and fantastic world (and not just do it because “Asian stuff is cool,” but make it all truly work), only to have a big Hollywood figure who’s a minority himself “whitewash” the whole thing and completely ignore the significance of this show in his casting decisions. There are tons of young minority actors out there that would have been far more appropriate choices! And I’m not saying that they should pick kids with the same skin colors as the characters and ignore acting ability–they should pick the actors who are the best choices for these roles. But…I mean…Jesse McCartney as Zuko? Give me a break.

Someone wrote something that really struck a chord with me: Katara is one of the darkest characters on the show, in terms of skin color. And she is considered throughout the show to be beautiful–not exotified, but beautiful just the way she is. At least in American media, this is a very rare thing. (I’m out of touch with modern animation, but the only other example I can think of, besides Tula in PoDW, is Elisa Maza, the biracial (half black, half native American) main character on Gargoyles. That’s even rarer!) The overwhelming racial bias of the media really makes it tough for minority kids to feel normal and accepted when they never see themselves portrayed in a normal way that they can understand and relate to on TV or in movies. Avatar changed that. Though Katara might not have been my favorite character, I truly enjoyed watching her evolution throughout the show, and watching her grow and mature and become a very strong, confident young lady as she mastered waterbending and grew up during her travels around the world.

(I don’t mean to say that there’s no ethnic diversity in the media. It’s changing now and there are a lot of major minority characters in many TV shows, but in many cases, they do still tend to play to stereotypes and the like. How many Indians do you see on TV who aren’t convenience store owners or doctors/engineers? Even though being a doctor is a good and respectable thing, it’s still a stereotype…the whole “model minority” thing is a rant for another time and place, though.)

And you know, why I responded strongly to Katara is a big part of why I responded so strongly to Tula in PoDW, as her strength of will and character, as well as her obviously Middle-Eastern/South-Asian-inspired appearance, really struck a chord with middle-school-aged me. I really can’t think of any other characters from cartoons or TV I watched growing up in the 80s and early 90s that seemed to “speak for me.” And on that note, could you imagine how horrible it would be to have an all-white cast portray Ren, Ioz, and Tula if someone did make a live-action version? (One guy on DeviantArt had the right idea and put together an interesting and totally diverse roundup of actors and actresses to portray the good and bad characters…regardless of whether or not you agree, it’s food for thought.)

Ever since returning from Japan in August ’07, I have become more aware of the racial dynamics of whatever situation I’m in. I’ve become especially sensitive to being “othered,” which happens a lot more than you’d think. I went to have a flu shot in November, and as my nurse finished up with me, the nurse at the neighboring station immediately started peppering me with questions about my nationality (are you vegetarian? Are you Hindu? Do you know much about Buddhism? Are you having an arranged marriage? Do you still live at home with your parents? (The answers are: yes, sort of, a little, no, and no)). I do understand that the best way to dispel stereotypes is to face these sorts of discussions head-on and to show people that I really am just like them and not some strange and exotic (yet another word I intensely dislike) creature because I look different…but at the same time…dude, I just went down there for a freaking flu shot, not for an interrogation session. I’m happy to discuss my culture with people who ask politely about it, but I really don’t like being automatically branded as different just because of my appearance.

Anyway, I shared that anecdote because I think it’s very relevant to this issue. American media paints some very strong images and delves into stereotypes a lot, often times without caring enough to understand the real deal and portray it accurately, which is very unfortunate, because a lot of people just buy into whatever the media dictates without having a chance to learn the truth for themselves, and they therefore internalize these exaggerations as being fact. Avatar really changed that and really gave people of all ages and backgrounds something to relate to. For Shyamalan (and anyone else associated with this casting decision) to just toss that to the wind is a huge slap in the face.

Some related links:

ciderpress: an essay on race, written by a woman of Asian descent – long, but absolutely worth it. A key quote:

“During our early Christmas dinner this weekend, the oldest of the nephews, who is 13, brought up the subject of the incredibly white child actors that had been picked for the film version. The three of them were confused and disappointed but unable to articulate exactly why. Then the youngest, all of 7 years old, asked me whether this meant that he couldn’t be Aang when he played Avatar with his friends from now on.”

grassroots letter-writing campaign to Paramount – this has been passed around a fair amount. Now that I’ve found out about it, I’ll be sending in a letter myself. (They’ve compiled a visual essay of screenshots from the show to demonstrate their argument, and I think it’s pretty compelling.)

io9.com’s article, including a roundup of blog posts summing this up far more eloquently than I have.

Note: I do intend this site to focus mainly on PoDW and secondarily on animation, but I can’t help but let it get a bit personal sometimes. If you don’t agree with my views, then be constructive, but keep in mind that I am a brown chick myself, and speaking from my experiences and observations as a minority in the US. I manually approve all comments anyway, so blatant flaming comments will be deleted before they can appear here…meaning, don’t even bother.

6 Responses to “On race and animation

  • ciderpress’ post is great. Too bad it had to be written.
    I’m very disappointed in the casting. MNS became a fan of the series because his daughter identified with Katara. Sad. I hope he had nothing to with the casting and that he will quit the project for her, if not his principles.
    …on a side note…
    Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor, on the US version of The Office is neither a convenience store employee/owner nor a doctor. What are your thoughts on her character?

  • Expect this to be more rambly than concise.

    For a white person, I think I understand where you’re coming from. I think this is a matter of, “Well, skin color shouldn’t matter, but it does matter.” (Also keep in mind I don’t see someone and try to figure out what they are ethnically, so that tells you a little about me).

    I’ll say off the bat I didn’t find characters like Tula and Elisa Maza cool because they were darker skinned than say, She-ra – I liked the shows they were in. I liked that they were female (and until they wussified Tula) and didn’t end up captured (Okay, She-ra’s debateable but her show is meant for a much younger demographic) every 2.57 seconds. In that same breath, as a young girl I really liked Tula compared to say Ioz or Ren why? Probably because she was a girl – and when you read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy and you realize how rare someone’s not just there for eye candy, I think you latch on (as well as ultimately no one could be cast good enough for said character). In that regard, I remember being young and being really disappointed in most cartoons that the blonde girl in a group would always be captured, whereas her nerdy brunette counterpart would typically help the guys out in the fight.

    I think that’s one of the reasons you have a valid point – I haven’t watched Avatar past like an episode (everyone says I’ll like it; I say I’ll watch it in a few years when I’m not so busy) but I can tell by the artwork there’s some heavily inspired non-european themes. Keeping in mind with what you said about a live PODW movie (other than I think the races of Mer were intentionally blurred so that you could have characters make mistakes/develop without running into said problems – I find a do this a lot in my own fiction) I found myself wondering if I’d have the same reaction if some of the actors were Asian/Aboriginal and had more contemporary caucasian features (bare with me, I have a hard time telling Francophones from Anglos so) or, conversely, you took a stereotypical white role and cast an Asian in it (someone said something about ‘now that we have a black president, there’s no reason we can’t have a black James Bond’ and that rubbed me the wrong way because Obama’s skin color has nothing to do with his eligibility for presidency, much less cultural acceptance) because I’m not one of those people who think, “Well, we need biodiversity on this cast!” I’d argue the opposite in many cases – cast as to what makes sense given the demographic – if that means 90% of the cast is Metis, so be it.

    As for examples you gave, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of Dragonball Z/brother in law is stoked about it, and I rolled my eyes when I found out Rossum was playing Bulma, but that wasn’t so much a racial thing so much as her previous choice of roles.

  • you’re not the only person who’s fuming about this decision.

    I have to wonder just what the f* happened? It’s all too clear the main characters are in no way Caucasian, and YES, as you said, they were in no way fit in a mere stereotype, and yet Shyamalan and that casting agency involved just.. pushed in (forgive the expression, don’t wanna step on toes) a COLOR-BLIND cast?

    It really doesn’t make any bloody sense.

    But then, neither does that idea of Jesse McCartney as Zukko. I mean, seriously??

    Couldn’t they have looked deeper? Searched for potential actors who would fit the role with alot less seams?

  • Thank you for the thoughtful responses, and sorry for the delay in approving them!


    seven31–unfortunately, I don’t think that’ll happen. :/ Racism (that word has a lot of strength to it, but it can be quite subtle as well) isn’t just limited to any one group. I like to assume that minority groups will stick up for other minority figures, but that isn’t always the case.

    And I actually haven’t really watched the Office. I shouldn’t have painted all US TV shows with one broad brush…the more I think about it, the more I realize there are a number of South Asian ladies (and guys, too) on TV in various capacities, like news anchors, and then there’s Padma Lakshmi on Bravo’s Top Chef. It’s just that the ones that came to mind immediately, on primetime TV, happened to be science/doctor-types. (Kal Penn on House, Parminder Nagra on ER, the dude on The Big Bang Theory, Sendhil Ramamurthy on Heroes…)


    Leia–I adored She-Ra when I was younger, too. But I think that because I was a little older when both PoDW and Gargoyles came out, I became aware of the fact that the female leads in both had brown skin. The way you perceive things like that is a little different when you have darker skin yourself…it’s not something I expect any of my Caucasian friends to empathize with me on, and I really don’t mean to sound like I’m saying, “you’re white so you wouldn’t understand.” And it’s not like I’m hung up on the fact that I’m brown-skinned, but being a minority does filter your perception of some things in some ways.

    The Obama/black Bond thing is sort of silly, but Obama rising to take the highest position in the United States has given many people hope. He truly has shattered a barrier and many societal stereotypes by winning this election. He’s not automatically fantastic by virtue of having won–he still has to prove himself in office–but he more or less has nowhere to go than up, considering the mess GWB is passing on to him.


    Ravn–I totally agree. I don’t understand why they didn’t search more intensively, either…granted, nearly all the main actors had worked on other Nick productions recently, but race isn’t as important for most of them (except for elderly characters–that little vocal nuance really helped with older characters who look more “traditional,” like Iroh). Outward appearance is far more important in live action than in voice acting on the whole.

  • Setting aside the points of the post for a moment, you have my accolades for quite an impressive fansite. I’m currently trying to run a Dark Water based D&D campaign and I’ve found quite a few little tidbits to help me flesh out the world.

    As for Avatar, the mere existence of that level of writing in a cartoon (much less on Nick) is frankly unbelievable to me. Very few cartoon characters have any three dimensional characters, much less a whole cast of them. Not to say the animation was anything less then amazing, but I stay with shows for the plot and the characters and Avatar delivered right up until the end. It’s refreshing how much ground American animation productions have made on the Japanese now that we’ve loosened up a little. I mean, could you even imagine a cartoon hero and the main female love interest actually kissing on screen in an American cartoon when you were little?
    Even in the 90s it would have been at best a peck on the cheek.

    However, one thing I’ve learned is not to expect too much out of Hollywood. It’s a repeating theme that anything original and smart mutates into a retarded mongoloid when it comes into contact with that place. It’s especially disheartening when the series creators are given some degree of creative control and then don’t stand their ground. Wendy Pini has been battling what Hollywood would do to her creation for decades and while it’s sad that THAT movie is still in pre-production hell at least we didn’t get something we’d all hate. It’s all too easy for a studio to write off a property as unappealing to the masses when their horribly botched, overly focus tested take on it bombs. After all, it’s never the fault of pushy studio execs when something fails, right?

    Anyway, yeah. Great job, agree with you on all points, best of luck with your endeavors.


  • How much would it take to git the last shows of the pirate of darkwater done or how could some one up tan the right or way to get the show done so every would be happy.If so I got a very creative mind that I already know all the show ends.please reply to me if you can thank you

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