Jen S. emailed us about the controversy surrounding casting for the movie version of Nickelodeon’s cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Jen describes the cartoon:
[It’s] set in a fantasy Asian world that also incorporated the philosophies, cultures, martial arts, and writing of a pan-Asian world. Multiple groups were brought in like the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and a master of Chinese calligraphy to bring an authentic Asian feel to the world and this was the main thing that made the cartoon an award winner. It was non European based and wasn’t afraid to use characters of Asian and Inuit cultures as the lead characters.
Fans of the series protested when it became clear that the cast for the movie was overwhelmingly Caucasian. The “bad” character, Zuko, was originally played by Jesse McCartney, a White actor/musician, but when he pulled out of the movie the role went to Dev Patel:
Jen says that in the cartoon, the “evil” characters were lighter-skinned than the heroes, but the casting has reversed that, and apparently several of the Asian-inspired elements from the cartoon have been removed for the movie because “they wanted to make the world ‘more diverse’ than the show and apparently that means an all white lead cast.”
Commenting in an article, Jackson Rathbone, the actor who plays Sokka, said,
I think it’s one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan…
It’s unclear to me if he was saying he needs to do those things to look Asian enough to play the role, or was arguing that Sokka isn’t specifically Asian so Rathbone can play him, and either way it misses the point, but I suppose an actor isn’t likely to make an argument that someone else should have gotten their role instead of them.
The animatic editor of the cartoon series expressed disappointment that none of the main “good” protagonists will be played by Asian characters.
This reminded me of the debate about the Pixar movie “Up” that came out earlier this summer. One of the two main characters, and the only child, is Asian-American:
The character was apparently partially based on Pixar animator Pete Sohn:
Before the movie came out, I read an article in a magazine in which industry insiders expressed doubt about whether non-Asian kids would identify with an Asian-American character. The gist of the comments was that the movie might fail because kids might not like watching an Asian-American lead. Of course, the movie went on to gross over $287 million in the U.S. and $367 million worldwide by early August.
In another example, when faced with criticism of casting Whites as the main characters in “21,” a movie based on a book about actual Asian-American college students, the movie’s producer said,
Believe me, I would have loved to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian American actors that we wanted…If I had known how upset the Asian American community would be about this, I would have picked a different story to film.
There were no bankable Asian American actors…that they “wanted.” None of the men on this page, for instance, are bankable. And the solution to concerns raised by Asian Americans about the lack of roles for Asian American actors isn’t to provide them more leads, or at least seriously engage in a discussion about the issue…it’s to pack up your toys and go film something else.
There are many other examples of movies in which characters that were Asian or Asian American in the source material (book, TV series, etc.) are played by Whites in the movie adaptation; the links above describe many of them. There still seems to be an assumption that male Asian American actors won’t appeal to a general audience, that they aren’t “bankable,” and that it’s therefore preferable to cast relatively unknown White actors over Asian American actors who may be more recognizable. It’ll be interesting to see if the Korean-American actor who plays one of the non-vampire characters in “Twilight” will now get as many opportunities as Jackson Rathbone, who also stars in the movie (but, from what I understand, actually has a less prominent role and smaller speaking part).
In a comment, reader Julian says,
And I have to wonder why no one has pointed out that in the original (animation), though all the characters are non-Caucasian, the only one with “slanted” or upturned eyes is the Bad Guy. Though lighter skinned, he looks like the one least likely to be able to “pass” as white to me. This strikes me as odd, and even weirder that no one has mentioned it, especially among all this talk of erasing/demonizing PoC.
Matt K. adds,
…I do recall that in anime, one shorthand for identifying good vs. evil characters is eyes. Good characters have huge eyes, round faces, and so forth. Evil characters have pointy chins and narrow eyes. Of course, of interest in a lot of anime is how so many of the characters look white…but that’s probably another story.
And Adam says,
I don’t think Up is a good counter-example given that it is narratively structured around colonialism in Latin America. I mean, was there even ONE single Latin American person in the film or even any refrence to the people who must have lived on the land they were tredding across and the sacred species whom they had been hunting/rescuing. No. Not to mention the dogs were racialized via popular physiognomy.
Also see our post on gender in Pixar films.
L — August 16, 2009
I love this site. Bankable Asian actors? There are many non Asian actors who make movie after movie that make no money. But they are still working?! Nothing has really changed since the making of West Side Story. Casting Natalie Wood as the lead. She couldn't sing either.
Deaf Brown Trash — August 16, 2009
Bankable Asian American actors? Oh um geez... what about Aaron Yoo? He's proved himself to be popular with young people and he's starred in some pretty good films... or how about Brenda Song? She's a big Disney star and the one Disney TV movie she starred in, was a huge hit.
there are also hugely popular Asian stars overseas who have a large fan base all over the world, they could have easily casted a big Asian star.
Get a grip, Hollywood.
Rosemary — August 16, 2009
I've actually wondered about this since the main character of something I'm writing is a woman from a fantasy equivalent of an Asian country, and there are a few others from the same area of the world of both genders. The piece is nowhere close to being ready for public viewing, but I have wondered how people might react to it.
Nia — August 16, 2009
Something that strikes me in all these controversies is Hollywood's assumption that for a film or series to be good, audiences (1) must be able to identify with the protagonist, and (2) that identification is much easier if the protagonist is male, white, able-bodied, insert-privileged-group-here.
Ian Aleksander Adams — August 16, 2009
Wow, Up is currently pretty much my favorite animated film ever, and I didn't think once about ethnicity while watching it. I'm not sure I even noticed he was asian-american.
julian — August 16, 2009
I've seen a lot of posts about the whitewashing of Avatar, but this is the first time I've seen images of the characters posted like this...
And I have to wonder why no one has pointed out that in the original (animation), though all the characters are non-Caucasian, the only one with "slanted" or upturned eyes is the Bad Guy. Though lighter skinned, he looks like the one least likely to be able to "pass" as white to me. This strikes me as odd, and even weirder that no one has mentioned it, especially among all this talk of erasing/demonizing PoC.
a different julian — August 16, 2009
I've also read quite a few posts and articles about the avatar whitewash, but I'd never seen an image of the antagonist, Zuko, from the original cartoon before. And while out of context I might not have read some the other animated characters (Sokka and Katara) as Asian, the "enemy" looks like an amalgamation of various American Indians. His hair and the paint on his face (or that he has paint on his face) made me think of "Dances with Wolves", and a graphic novel that I read last week called "Journey into Mohawk Country". The narrow eyes, high cheekbones, oval face, long nose, and skin that is sort of goldish looking are all consistent with the way American Indians-particularly those from the plains or the northeast-are typically portrayed in cartoons.
after scrolling up to look at the image for a third or 4th time, I realized that the features I just mentioned, as well as the way they translated those to Dev Patel, is also consistent with the way Arabs are often portrayed in cartoon (Jaffar in Aladin, etc).
Emily — August 16, 2009
Regarding anime characters 'looking white', here's an interesting essay I read a while ago when I first started reading about the casting situation in The Last Airbender:
Meep — August 16, 2009
Aang looks okay, but Katara and Sokka? Oh my God, I can't even believe how bad the casting choices were. I'm not a fan of the show, it's a little too kiddy for me, but I won't be seeing the movie any time this lifetime.
Anyone in Hollywood who thinks that white audiences can't connect with Asian or Asian-American characters clearly has not heard of this newfangled "anime" thing or the huge industry there is in importing it. (I know a lot of anime characters don't look stereotypically Asian, or don't even look like anything (show me someone who's hair naturally grows the same color of Sha Gojyo's, for example (if you're not familiar, his hair is magenta)), but a lot of them do and there are still a lot of white fans of those shows.) Let's not even touch Korean and Japanese dramas, both of which do a decent business, at least in the anime fandom within the United States. I know my friends can identify with/lust after Lee Jun Ki and Gackt just as well as Johnny Depp.
adam — August 16, 2009
I don't think Up is a good counter-example given that it is narratively structured around colonialism in Latin America. I mean, was there even ONE single Latin American person in the film or even any refrence to the people who must have lived on the land they were tredding across and the sacred species whom they had been hunting/rescuing. No. Not to mention the dogs were racialized via popular physiognomy.
It's just like Disney's animated Tarzan in which the producers thought it would be too controversial to deal with the issue of genocide and colonialism in Africa so they just pretended as if no actual Africans lived in the forest. In each of these films Disney makes people of color absent. This happens in WALL-E too, in a way. While there may be a variety of people of races in the film, the lead characters (as usual for a Pixar film) are middle-class white people--and they all seem to be American. There was a post @ illdoctrine that makes this point and jokes that hyper-consumptive Americans killed everyone else with robots? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saFJ4xSfrb8&feature=player_embedded
Emily — August 16, 2009
They couldn't get Miranda Cosgrove from Nickelodeon's "Drake & Josh" and "iCarly" to play one of the characters in the Avatar movie? Avatar is a Nickelodeon show! It would be the least they can do, since they've stripped her ethnicity. She's half Filipino in real life, but she's White for the Nick shows. Unless they come up with a new TV movie "i'M Adopted."
Tintin LaChance — August 17, 2009
I find it fascinating that the problematic character in Up would've been the Asian-American child, by those people's marks. Surely the fact that the main character (at least, as portrayed by the advertisements--I never get to see Pixar movies in-theatre these days and thus haven't seen it) is a crotchety old man might be slightly more far-fetched for a child to care about than someone who's presumably around their age.
I wish Hollywood would pick up on the fact that what a lot of people--even small ones!--want is a good story with interesting characters who're allowed to be exactly who they are.
LGreenberg — August 17, 2009
I've pointed this out before, but in addition to disappearing local people of color in Tarzan and Up, Disney managed to make an entire movie (The Lion King) set in Africa, without depicting a single human being.
Also, I just noticed the brownish Dwayne Johnson is voicing a character in Planet 51 who looks a lot like Dwayne Johnson...except for being totally white. WTF?
cat — August 17, 2009
I always saw Toph Bei Fong as Asian. And certain parts of the Earth Kingdom (notably the capitol, Ba Sing Se) have what struck me as very Asian cultures. I don't know if Toph's in this new movie and I certainly haven't seen a casting picture.
Liz — August 17, 2009
The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time movie adaptation also has a really really white cast.
Eneya — August 17, 2009
I think that the cast is awlful.
They have no life in them and the Avatar himself looks a lot like a grupmy child. I can't see nothing of the cheerfullness from the series.
No, definitely not a good cast.
The racism into Hollywood is frightening.
I stopped watching their movies a while ago (I stick to european cinema) and I thnk that I made the right choice.
P.P. And I was a huge fen of the series (despite the childness or maybe because of it. Even it was really childlike the characters were well developed and strong which is rare.) it is kind of sad that they ruined it.
tom — August 17, 2009
I had made my peace with the good guys being all white, Hollywood and all, but to cast a generic crooked nose sand neeeaaa-i-can't-say-it as the bad guy? COME ON!
I never thought I'd miss the good ol' days of the Yellow Threat. RIP Fu Man Chu...
Consuela — August 18, 2009
I love how this article takes the time to include two comments about how the characters "look white" but doesn't bother to include the explanations of *why* - to some people - they look white (i.e. big eyes = child/childish innocence, or simply linking: "The Face of the Other" http://www.matt-thorn.com/mangagaku/faceoftheother.html).
Elizabeth — August 19, 2009
For those that need visual reference of why anime characters aren't necessarily white, there's a good youtube video that explains: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKTvFhRbBt8&feature=channel_page
I went to a high school that was around 30% asian. The person with the smallest, squintiest eyes relative to face size I know? My older brother, of english/german/slovak ancestry.
Race and Gender in “The Princess and the Frog” » Sociological Images — August 27, 2009
[...] also this post that includes a discussion of concerns that the movie “Up” wouldn’t be popular [...]
Melissa Cavanaugh — August 31, 2009
Honestly, I had the impression they were looking for people who match the facial characteristics of the characters as they appear in the cartoon. Depending on the angle and pic, the first three are actually a really good match. For facial structure, Aaron Carter was actually an amazing match for Zuko's facial structure. The picture used here isn't Zuko looking Asian. It's Zuko looking angry. :p
While most of the influence of the show was Asian, I would really love for someone to tell me what Asian culture uses the phrase "What can I do you for?" among other forms of American slang used in the show.
I think people are a little *too* concerned about race here. Are there lots of great Asian actors and actresses? Of course there are. Do they physically look like the characters as they appear in the show? Not really. *shrug*
Lucia — November 11, 2009
The truth is that the character in Up and the characters in Avatar don't look Asian. I was upset when I found out the characters for Avatar would be mostly white, but I wasn't surprised. Hollywood has pulled this one more than once. Dragonball was utterly mutilated.
Margo — November 27, 2009
I would like to make a note to those who insist that the heroes of the cartoon look more "Caucasian" due to the rounded faces and wide eyes. I would argue the exact opposite; most of the villains have a facial structure that is remarkably more caucasian.
This video illustrates a lot of counter-arguments to the general assumption that anime styled characters look more white than asian.
Casting White Actors In Asian Roles: 1957 to Today » Sociological Images — November 29, 2009
[...] film version of The Last Airbender, a show filled with Asian characters, and the producers’ sketchy decision to re-cast one evil character as Asian in response to the protests, inspired Claire at Hyphen to put together a trajectory of the [...]
Guest Post: Can Ming the Merciless Be Redeemed? » Sociological Images — November 29, 2009
[...] scandals about the casting for “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (see here and a follow up here), we thought you’d enjoy this thoughtful discussion of the Flash Gordon character, Ming the [...]
Unblogged Bits for Monday, 30 November 2009 | ***Dave Does the Blog — November 30, 2009
[...] Hollywood Discomfort with Asian Lead Characters » Sociological Images – sigh [...]
Ike — December 8, 2009
The kid who voiced the boy from Up would make a great Aang. He's just about the right age and can pull off the silly boyishness mixed with a bit of seriousness.
Sam — March 20, 2010
There is not a lot of selections of Asians Actors in Hollywood because they are not given the opportunity to get work like every other race and so when the need to call for an Asian role, the directors use the excuse they couldn't find anyone. Um, you can hold an open audition and lets just see how many people will show up? Plus there are sooooo many roles out there that an asian can play, it does not have to be an Asian role! Geez we live in the present time and people still are racist?!
jim anderson — May 8, 2012
I love Korean television, and there are few white american's in these television programs. If they do exist they are very stereotyped. In my opinion Hollywood despite it's failings does a better job of representing diversity than Asian media.
“The Next Big Thing” Meme | Epiphany 2.0 — December 4, 2012
[...] get a lot of love in Hollywood. Nahadoth as a man is “effeminate”; Sieh is intolerably Asian-looking; Oree is extremely dark-skinned. Hollywood’s methods of dealing with these [...]
Martial Discoveries: 47 Gutsy Martial Artists – The First Dragon Rider — January 24, 2013
[...] this movie until today. So Keanu Reeves is the lead actor? No disrespect to the great Neo, but another white lead in an Asian themed movie. Could Hollywood just get over its Darwinist views and let a brutha take the lead. On a second [...]
Joyce Wu — March 29, 2013
We can try and change things with independent films. I'm an Asian American filmmaker trying to get my first feature film "The Real Mikado" off the ground. It's a comedy about an out of work Asian American actress in New York who moves back in with her parents and directs a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's opera "The Mikado" to try and save the community theater.
Please check out the campaign and consider supporting it a film with an Asian American protagonist who isn't just a kung fu fighter, prostitute or ethnic side kick. http://www.seedandspark.com/studio/real-mikado
sp724 — March 30, 2013
I love Korean television, and there are few white american's in these television programs.
Jack Montana — April 21, 2013
Hi All ---- I'm Asian and I hear the sentiment of my co-Asians about this issue.
It's all about money and power so we as a group need to prove our economic and political impact. We should start demanding. Afterall, we have the most economic impact among ethnic groups, don't you agree?
I don't know if there is already one that exists but we need several demands and petitions for Asian lead roles. We work hard for our money and we want to spend it on things we like (such as watching shows with Asian leads) and use it to support our people in the entertainment industry.
In addition to the above, we should pursue backing from large and profitable Asian companies to achieve what we want, especially those that are already in the industry and are functioning globally, such as Sony and SM Entertainment.
If possible, can Asian countries put a temporary ban or tighter regulations on entries of western films in Asia? This may be a bit harsh and difficult but it can be done.
What do you think, folks?
Jack Montana — April 21, 2013
And by the way..........
Some of our Asian actors should STOP, and I mean STOP looking nerdy and sexless if they want to be able to play romantic lead roles. They are the ones adding to the burden. Lose those prescription eyeglasses!!!!!! Please!!!!!
icecream — September 9, 2013
thats true. there are hardly any Asian stars. In Singapore, we don't even have one in Hollywood which is pretty sad. But i say some people here have the potential to be Hollywood rank only we don't get a chance at all.
Bleh — October 16, 2013
This is really late, but about the comments regarding the original anime using slanted eyes to characterise the enemy - nonononono. If anyone has actually watched the anime here, they'd know that Zuko IS NOT THE ENEMY. He's an ambiguous character for the first season and a half, in that he wants to capture Aang, but he's the type of character everyone empathises with because he's so obviously a good guy who's just trying to impress his dad. Second season onwards, Zuko is the most badass good guy there is. Also, the round eyes example is wrong because there are lots of 'bad' characters in the show who have big, round eyes and could pass off as caucasians. Also, there are no real bad characters on the show and that's why it's so great.
Shinoki Wen — January 15, 2014
Asian people = normal everyone basically, including octopus aliens
White people = Blondies with awesome blue eyes.
That's typically it. Well, Germans are more of the silver-haired type I guess.
And French + English + American are depicted as the blonds.
Ann Doria — February 18, 2015
Here's a great video about why it's important for Asian Americans to become actors, writers, and producers. http://youtu.be/qOwBGPkY0ZU
Lloyd — February 21, 2015
Diverse my ass. I'm asian and actually planing
Lloyd — February 21, 2015
Diverse my butt. I'm asian, and actually planning of becoming a theatre and film actor. Now this concerns me because i don't planning of becoming a big star, i just want to do my role, have fun and enjoy my moment as an actor, and when i read few articles about Writers or Directors that they want Asian- American but CAN'T find any, is complete and utter bull. There are Asians that i know who are successful and great at acting and you said you CAN'T?! Now this better change the way America films they they have been producing. We don't see a lot of very talented asians and they're just going to fade or die of their talents that they've worked hard on, otherwise they'll just kept thinking to themselves that they are not good enough to be part in any white american movies. This has to change, not because soon in the future i want to be part of the big screen, but writers and directors need to know the potential of how good Asian characters can do either as Second lead or main lead. If you want a DIVERSE movie or production or anything, then work your way, solving this problem first.
Hollywood Does Asians Wrong? By Jacob Fajardo | asianpersuasionalliance — September 25, 2015
[…] http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/08/16/hollywood-discomfort-with-asian-lead-characters/ […]
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[…] for many people. Perhaps, Hollywood is not comfortable putting Asian people in the forefront (Sharp, 2009). The controversy is not about Henry Goldings “Not ASIAN Enough”, because he is […]