Analyzing The Last Airbender’s Casting Controversy

Summer is in full swing, which means that Hollywood has come out with the usual set of summer blockbusters. This year’s summer movies – from Inception to Despicable Me – have generally been good quality, well-done things. Indeed, the film Inception may become one of the great classics of movie fame.

Then there was The Last Airbender, by M. Night Shyamalan – a movie which may earn the title as the worst movie this year. From its inception (pardon the pun) to its sorry release, Airbender has been dogged in the wake of controversial casting decisions. The graphic below neatly summarizes the controversy:

Shyamalan has also been criticized for yellowface – casting white actors to play Asian main characters, although the TV series Avatar, upon which the movie was based off of, puts itself in an East Asian setting. The evidence for the latter claim is fairly strong. Take, for instance, the following six battles: the Siege of Ba Sing Se, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Han Tui, the Hu Xin Provinces Campaign, the Battle of Jinyang, and the Battle of Kapyong. Some are from Avatar and some constitute real-life events in Asian history.

It’s fairly difficult to tell which is which. As it turns out, the first, third, and fourth events are from Avatar; the rest are actual historical battles (congratulations if you recognized the second name, and even more congratulations if you recognized the last name).

The puzzle, then, is why Hollywood does things like this – why it, for instance, continues the practice of yellow-face more than half-a-century after blackface was rightfully ended.

Simple old-fashioned racism does not fully answer the question. Shyamalan himself is Indian, yet cast an Indian actor as the villain. Most people in entertainment are not racists in disguise, although their pool of friends may lack diversity (in this they are not much different from most people). The vast majority probably voted for President Barack Obama, for instance. Most probably view segregation or Japanese internment as tremendous wrongs in American history. Some even go all the way and marry interracially (often, ironically enough, with an Asian-American women), before casting a white actor to play an Asian lead.

The answer, rather, seems to involve economics and the faceless forces of the market. Take supply and demand. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the vast majority of Hollywood’s available labor pool is white. Becoming a Hollywood superstar is something that appeals to a very specific demographic, and that demographic is probably paler than America itself. There are, moreover, not many Asian-Americans in entertainment. Choosing the white actor to play a non-white role may simply be the easier path.

Hollywood’s writers and producers also have families to feed and ambitions to make it big, ambitions to which some principles can be sacrificed. Shyamalan and others of his industry want to make productions that sell; that constitutes the purpose of their job. And they think that a show without a white male lead would be less popular – which is often true. So they set white male leads because they think only those types of shows will sell. They make what they think the audience will accept.

Ironically, this probably causes the audience to become even less accepting of non-white, non-male leads since they’re so used to the traditional version. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Yet for all this, practices like yellow-face do not seem entirely justified from a purely financial perspective. Shaylaman’s movie, after all, turned out into a disaster despite his best efforts to appeal to white America. Americans have proved willing to watch movies with black male leads, despite early fears. Movies such as Despicable Me and District 9 have cast main characters who speak in accented English; those movies also did well.

Finally there is the international market to factor in. Rich Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan constitute an increasingly important audience. Then there is the growing market in China. China allows only twenty Hollywood movies a year; because of Shyalaman’s controversial casting, The Last Airbender will almost certainly not make the cut.

If Hollywood and the American entertainment industry wake up to these facts, they might realize that a change in practices such as yellow-face would probably gain them sales – and besides, it’d also be the right thing to do.

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5 Responses to Analyzing The Last Airbender’s Casting Controversy

  1. Student says:

    Also, now that Prop 19 is becoming a bit of a big issue, do you intend to write about that or the war on drugs? I’m interested in what you have to say about that.

  2. Student says:

    Hmmm… I think you’re kind of missing the point. Sure, I’m willing to bet that Shyamalan probably didn’t have much malicious intent, but the force of racism is pretty clearly at work.

    You say that “simple old-fashioned racism does not fully answer the question.” The kind of racism you had in mind is probably on an individual level. The racism of the KKK, Neo-Nazis, the old white southerner with a confederate flag stereotype, or with blatant segregation laws. Where someone in power would say “I don’t like this person of color, so I won’t hire him/her.” This personal level racism is the most obvious manifestation of racism, and most people tend to call it out and condemn it, but that’s not the full extent of what racism is. What most people tend to ignore is the institutional and cultural side of racism.

    You have to consider that most of the casting decisions in the entertainment industry are very strongly influenced by a very small group of people. The vast majority of producers are white males with a very limited perception of what the public wants. Even if an individual director has a fair amount of freedom to choose actors, the pool of talent available is already severely lacking diversity. Perhaps the people making the decisions vote democrat and don’t actively dislike an actor of color, but it’s undeniable that they have a clear preference for white male actors. Of course Hollywood is starting to overcome that attitude, but the change is glacially slow. It’s in part thanks to grass roots initiatives like Racebending that this sort of change is occurring.

    You say that “choosing the white actor to play a non-white role may simply be the easier path.” That’s exactly what racism is. This is the problem with the so called “colorblind” casting decisions that Shyamalan claimed he made. Asian American actors are not actively barred from Hollywood, but right now it’s a pretty hostile environment for them.

    Anyway, my point here is that racism is more complicated and more institutionally entrenched that most people think. To simply write these things off as economically motivated, while not untrue, fails to address the underlying issues.

    Once again, thank you for your writing. Your posts tend to make me think harder about things and push me to justify my views.

    • inoljt says:

      Thanks for writing and posting; I appreciate the commentary and the discussion.

      To be honest, I think we’re not really disagreeing here. What you’re describing constitutes the same thing I’m describing – we’re just giving it different names. You call it institutional racism (which it is, although I wasn’t thinking about that word when writing this); I place more emphasis on the forces of the market. But whatever you name it, it’s the same thing.

      As for Proposition 19, my opinions are still quite unsettled on that initiative. There’s something in me which cringes at the thought of legalizing marijuana. Then again one might make the same argument for Prohibition, which failed; in many ways marijuana is a less potent drug than alcohol.

      Then there’s the gateway theory, which I tend to believe. But there’s also the fact that marijuana arrests disproportionately affect the poor and minorities, even though it’s a rich person’s drug. I read an interesting argument that instead of legalizing marijuana to “dodge” the problem, we oughta fix the institutional racism in the system itself. But that’s not exactly an easy thing to do.

      So I’m still very ambivalent about both sides. What’s your opinion on Prop. 19?

      • Student says:

        I actually used to be quite opposed to legalization of marijuana. I too felt that gut feeling that it was somehow wrong.

        But after some research it becomes quite clear that the war on drugs is doing far more harm than good. As you said, drug enforcement (and even legislation) does tend to disproportionately affect the poor and minorities. Not only that, but there’s the compelling argument that it turns relatively minor drug offenders into harder criminals. And any sort of evaluation of the effectiveness of drug enforcement policies shows that it’s an abject and costly failure. Drug use is hardly going down.

        I’ve been looking at the arguments of the opposition, and I haven’t found anything very convincing. Much of the opposition seems to be coming from those who are either morally opposed to marijuana use (yet are somehow okay with the damage being done by drug legislation and enforcement) or have a vested economic interest in seeing that marijuana stays illegal.

        As for the gateway drug theory, I don’t think that marijuana is any more of a gateway drug than alcohol is. Users of “harder” substances are more likely to have smoked marijuana, but the same can be said about alcohol. There’s a significant body of research regarding the gateway drug theory, and it’s pretty clear that it’s basically a myth. The vast majority of marijuana users don’t go on to use other substances. The whole argument makes prey of cognitive biases. Instead of claiming that marijuana leads to heroin or whatever, it makes more sense (and is better supported by the evidence) to claim that users of harder substances are more likely to have used marijuana.

      • Student says:

        Plus many of the arguments against Prop 19 rest on emotionally compelling images, which is a technique I can’t help but be skeptical of. The “what if the schoolbus driver shows up to work high?” kind of fear. It’s absurd, and is typical of the criticism of Prop 19 that tends to focus on relatively minor and unlikely implications of the wording, which I have no doubt legislators would willingly iron out if Prop 19 were to pass.

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