Sunday, December 30, 2012

The other Avatar is racist too

My sister and I used to avidly follow the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender. She was 9 and I was 19 but it worked out. When the movie for the series was announced, it was supposed to be titled Avatar and I was so excited I literally counted down the days - so excited that I watched the trailer for Avatar and saw suspicious looking blue people and a lot of helicopters but assumed that they decided to take the ethnic kungfu thing really seriously and very far out. I still thought that I was watching Avatar: The Last Airbender in the theater 15 minutes into the suspicious 3d movie full of tall blue people.

Er.. turns out that Avatar: The Last Airbender decided to change names to The Last Airbender because Avatar was such a big hit. No matter. I counted down the days again and this time no one wanted to go see the movie with me because no one my age was a fan of the Nickelodeon series. So I went to the theater alone, 20 minutes early, bought a popcorn and coke for myself and watched the movie, and walked out sad, disappointed, and alone in a sea of chattering children a couple hours later.

So my sister and I were rummaging around Netflix around 1am and found The Last Airbender and I decided to give it another shot - the last time I watched it was two and a half years ago, maybe I'll like it more this time around.


The only good part about the movie was the ramen we inhaled while watching it. After we finished the movie, we watched the first episode of the original Nickelodeon series, and it was so good.

The core problem with the movie was that they swapped out all the non-white actors into white actors who made Kristen Stewart look like she deserves an Oscar.

Aang is clearly an Asian monk hero:

The real Aang should have looked something like the left drawing below, complete with the playful, childlike expression. In the movie, he is as shown in the next picture, complete with an all-too-serious face for a 12-year-old and very distinctly Caucasian features.

Now these kind of jokes don't even make sense:

In addition to changing the race of the hero of the story, they swapped out all the Inuit tribespeople too! Aang's closest friend Katara is unmistakably brown in the original series, while in the movie, she is decidedly white.


Even when they did cast Asian people, they casted the wrong type of Asians! Prince Zuko is clearly of Chinese descent in the original series. The people in the Fire Kingdom even have Chinese names, such as General Zhao. But they decided that Fire Kingdom citizens should be Indian. Except for Prince Zuko's uncle, who is Caucasian for some incomprehensible reason.

I've been a fan of Dev Patel long before he hit it big with Slumdog Millionaire, but it does not change the fact that he's not the right type of Asian for Avatar.

Apparently draining heros of color has been happening in Hollywood for a long time. I just found out that the movie 21 was actually based on a book that has an Asian American protagonist that defies stereotypes, but the director decided to cast a white person instead, killing all the second-generation Asian immigrant aspect of the storyline.

I felt like the following talk captured the essence of the problem:

It's so weird. At Stanford, I never feel stereotyped or marginalized as an Asian. And then I see some ridiculous things happening like The Last Airbender and 21 that people are oblivious to, and I suddenly feel unwelcome here. But I guess Stanford just spoils you like that. It doesn't hurt that there's this trend for shiny new Asian-named buildings on campus either.

If Hollywood ever goes through with making Snow Crash into a movie and turns Hero Protagonist - the half-Black, half-Korean hero of the novel who practices Japanese-style sword-fighting - into a white male that is "easy on the eyes," it will be a very, very sad day.

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