Monday, February 8, 2010

Asian Adoptees, Anime Heroes, and the Racebending Controversy

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

I began writing about the anime-inspired Avatar/Last Airbender cartoons in order to rave about how much everyone in my small family loves them. But I soon discovered that the live-action movie, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, has been cast with mostly white actors in the lead roles.

The controversy has been brewing for awhile, but I'd like to alert other adoptive parents to this "racebending," as it's been called by Asian American critics, especially after a glitzy ad for the movie ran during the Super Bowl. Please take a look at for information about the movie protest.

Who would have thought I’d develop a midlife crush on anime?

It’s true that at a recent showing of the New England Anime Society I felt a hundred years older than the mostly male geek audience. I had to leave within five minutes, unable to sit through the dialogue.

An approximation: “Look at his underpants!” “Ooh, he’s wearing underpants with a heart on them!” (Snigger, snigger.) “Careful, that girl on a bicycle has breasts.”

I won’t claim cartoons like this grip me. I've never been a big animation fan. But The Last Airbender, the epic Nickelodeon series, exists on a different plane altogether.

Whether it's My Neighbor Totoro, the kind of Japanese shorts I saw at the anime festival, or the American-flavored Nickelodeon series, these cartoons are undeniably Asian-themed.

As in Japanese anime, some of the characters have white skin or those big manga eyes. As in Kung Fu Panda, the Airbender cartoons employed mostly white voice actors; sometimes the young heroes sound like they've walked off an iCarly set.

But anyone who's watched the animated Airbender series knows that everything in it, from the character names to the music, is steeped in Asian cultural references. What my son sees in the cartoons are Asian heroes taking charge of the action—heroes who look like him.

That's why I'm frankly appalled that white actors will be playing many of the young heroes in the upcoming movie of The Last Airbender. In a good play on words, critics have called this racial reworking of the movie yet another example of "racebending."

Because my son has just turned eight, I want to celebrate what he so obviously loves about the Airbender series—the martial arts sequences, complete with lightning and ice arrows; the Asian imagery; the teenage heroes—and its particular meaning for us as an adoptive family.

I know I’m on suspect cultural ground here. Yet my son, an Asian adoptee, is growing up in a white American household. The Airbender cartoons are an anime hybrid created by two white American guys with the help of Korean animators—a fitting metaphor for us.

Now here comes a special-effects extravaganza of a movie, one my son will surely beg to see, which is another kind of metaphor. It will symbolize why Asian adoptees often feel like honorary white people.

I do worry about how my boy will put himself together as an Asian American man; I've come to see his fascination with anime and manga cartoons as a way for him to grapple with his heritage on his own terms. But with the Airbender movie, he'll get no help. Directed by the high-profile M. Night Shyamalan, it's in the works for this summer and may soon become a juggernaut. 

Shame on you, M. Night Shyamalan.

My husband and I can never claim we have a personal understanding of racism. We could be accused of ripping off Asian culture in adopting a child from Vietnam. Our family can't be reduced to that, but if I'm mercilessly honest, I have to admit that Asian culture is as appealing to me as it is to other white Americans who dabble in martial arts and yoga, attend anime festivals, and go to Chinese New Year's parades.

That makes it even more important for parents like me to challenge racism, unconscious and otherwise, and to name it for what it is.

When I mentioned to my son that white actors will be playing many of his favorite characters in the movie—including Aang, the last airbender and center of the story—he said, "What? That's weird. That doesn't make sense."

No kidding. Here's a fun YouTube montage from the animated original:

Aang is a bald 12-year-old monk with a blue arrow tattooed on his forehead. He's also a reincarnated spiritual leader known as the “Avatar.” He's the Dalai Lama, not Gandalf. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired on Nickelodeon in 2005. Because we watched all three “Books” on DVD long after it was broadcast, we could see as many episodes as we wanted in a sitting. Every time we’d say a collective "No!" at the end of one—my son always adding, "What a cliffhanger!"—we’d look at each other and hit play for the next. (In case you’re wondering, the Avatar cartoons have nothing to do with the James Cameron movie.)

When the series opens, the Fire Nation is ruled by an evil lord who wants to take over the world. In The Last Airbender universe, benders have magical powers based on the four elements—air, water, earth, and fire. The Avatar is the one person who can bend them all. Aang is very young to become the Avatar. But the Fire Lord is on the march again, and Aang, with the help of his loyal companions, has to learn fast how to bend the other elements.

For those who don't love fantasy, there's no way to avoid the inflated portentousness this gloss implies. It’s manga-meets-The Lord of the Rings-meets Buddhism.

Yet it works. At least the animated version does. Thank God we've watched the cartoons before Shyamalan's epic rolls out. Here's the trailer that ran during the Super Bowl last night:

Impressive as it looks, it seems too bombastic and literal. As for the racebending casting choices, cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Yang have written eloquent posts about why this is a problem. Take these excerpts from Kim's post, written a year ago "on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration":
"[I]magine if someone had made a 'fantasy' movie in which the entire world was built around African culture. Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape...

...but everyone is white.

How offensive, insulting, and disrespectful would that be toward Africans and African Americans? How much more offensive would it be if only the heroes were white and all the villains and background characters were African American? (I wince in fear thinking about The Last Airbender suffering from the latter dynamic—which it probably will....)

But curiously, when similar offenses are committed at the expense of Asian Americans, and Asian American men in particular, this sort of behavior goes mostly ignored by the press and the people involved." 
It's true that outcries of racism by the model minority are generally shrugged off by mainstream America. This trailer from an upcoming documentary called Yellow Face emphasizes why protesting the racial reworking of a kid's TV show is not just "silly" or a waste of effort.

The Shyamalan movie, the first of a planned trilogy, will likely get a big promotional push, especially after the success of Cameron's Avatar. That Shyamalan, an Indian American, went with such casting choices indicates how unconscious racism can be. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire will play the crucial role of Prince Zuko, but only after replacing the original white actor cast for the role.

Just to be clear: Japanese and Korean creators of anime characters, be they super-ninjas or ghetto-talking African Americans, aren't off the hook for perpetuating racist stereotypes.

These days, there's an endless parade of martial-arts superhero franchises (and action figures and trading cards to buy), but most of this drek never rises above the ridiculously rote. There still aren't many positive, complex images of Asian characters in popular media—people who aren't karate-chopping villains on speeding trains or running nasty industrial cartels.

Which is why it's such a shame that many of the Airbender heroes won't be Asian in the movie.

In the Airbender cartoons we get Katara, a waterbender with healing powers, and her brother Sokka, resident goof and complainer. We get Toph, a blind earthbender who can bowl over bad guys four times her size and sees the world through her feet. We get Appa, Aang's flying bison, whom the loyal buddies ride through the air. 

There are kick-ass evil girls as well as good ones; soldiers who ride bird-horses; a haiku rap contest; even an old and cold soul in the spirit world who steals people's faces.

There are romantic entanglements, far more than in the buddy-plot of The Lord of the Rings. Aang’s cheeks often turn pink—in best anime style—in the vicinity of Katara.

Most important, there's character development and moral ambiguity, especially in the person of Prince Zuko, the banished teenage son of the Fire Lord. Zuko starts off trying to capture the Avatar in order to regain his father's approval. By Book Two of the series, Zuko is in a major tug-a-war of conscience over which side he's on. 

Adults will get more of the satirical references in The Last Airbender cartoons, but I think my son really understands and wonders about the same conflicts I do. To "bend" this story racially in order to appeal to a more mainstream audience is to do a real disservice to the complex questions about history and family the cartoons raise. 

In an early episode called “The Library,” Aang and his companions, along with a professor of anthropology, find a legendary library of all the world's knowledge almost completely buried by sand in the middle of a desert.

Once they enter the library through an upper window, they meet an Owl-like spirit who runs it. The Owl is not warm and fuzzy. This amoral spirit looks like a kabuki-painted demon in a black shawl.

Still, the Owl agrees to let them stay as long as they don't take away knowledge in order to hurt other humans. Sokka, in particular, doesn't keep that promise, and the Owl flies into a frenzy. They flee for their lives, just escaping before the library collapses forever into the sand.

On the way out, however, the professor can't make himself leave. He stays behind and disappears with the rest of the library. 

"Why didn't he leave?” my son asked. “Didn't he die?"

“Some people will do anything for knowledge,” I said.

He didn’t look convinced.

“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “Some adults just get obsessed.”

"Why?" His voice quivered. “Did he die?” 

I wanted to comfort my boy then, as if he were a baby, murmuring it will be fine, it’s all right, you will never lose anybody you love. Ssshh, real adults don’t act that way. 

I reached for him, but he slapped my hands away.

“No!” he sobbed.

I stayed with my son as he cried and raged—internally kicking myself. Stupid professor. Except I understood the man’s love of books and his obliviousness, just as my son knows some adults really do disappear.

More recently, he and I have talked about which Airbender episodes are the most disturbing. He doesn’t want to watch something like “The Library” again, and I’ve since wondered if I should have spared him the disturbing parts. But on balance, I'd say no.

Birthdays have their own emotional weight for adoptees. My son has just celebrated another one with us—happily, I think. Yet birthdays inevitably evoke missing parents, too, and in his case, a missing race and culture. At eight, my son is full of joy. He may also be excited by the prospect of traveling beyond his white American existence, a desire that churns up guilt and grief.

The point is, his journey will be complex. Shyamalan's movie may ask big questions, too, but he's got a hard act to follow.

Late in the animated series, Prince Zuko visits his family’s summer house on a remote island, discovering photos of his mother and father when he was a small child. In the pictures, they're laughing; they seem happy. Teenage Zuko, estranged from his father, his mother gone, becomes more furious and sullen.

As we watched Zuko burn the photos, my son snuggled closer to me.

“It’s sad,” he said.

I nodded my head against his glossy black hair. “It’s very sad.”

Oh, my dear boy. Happy Birthday.

This post appeared on Open Salon in a slightly different form as "How I Became an Anime Fan—Not a Racebender."  Some of the comments there indicate why racism keeps sneaking in under the wire.

All drawings by my son and used with his permission.

1 comment:

Ken H. said...

Hi Martha--wonderful and thoughtful post.

I can relate to your angst; these types of movies can become huge cultural phenomena for kids and inevitably influence their views on the world and their place in it.

I'm kind of out of the loop on pop culture, but it sounds like this Airbenders film will be big. Not to sound cynical, but Shamyalan probably got the nod as a pure business decision. It's big dollars, and in the past he has been able to deliver a certain return on investment. Even though (and it pains me to say this because my family was really rooting for an Indian-American director)..his movies are, for the most part, well...pretty awful. (In my humble opinion) We did enjoy Sixth Sense (fluke?). We saw "Signs" which was unintentionally hilarious in parts, and I don't mean that in a good way--my wife and I thought the movie was profoundly dumb. But, it makes MONEY, so I guess H.L. Mencken was right when he said that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

It would be great if a high profile, big-time Hollywood director who happens to be of South Asian descent made nuanced, complex films with the cinematic mastery of a Hitchcock while gracefully transcending the cultural and racial land mines in our society. Alas, it seems the opposite is true in this case, and maybe the best we can do as adoptive parents is to try and provide a kind of critical counterpoint to these influences.

I do feel your pain though--what could they be thinking, casting all white actors?!?!? Ugh...

On another note, the way you wrapped up your piece really stuck with me, those last few paragraphs describing the hero discovering photos from his childhood and your son's reaction. And your last sentance--says so much with just those few words--it got to me.

Ken H.