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Boycott ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

I have decided to boycott ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender,’ a live-action movie based on a Nickelodeon animated series set to be released this July, because I believe the choice to cast white actors in Asian roles is racist.

Being a huge fan of the cartoon series, I do feel like I’m missing out, but not seeing the film is the least I can do to honor the show I came to love and relate to. I’ve started to feel constrained by my attachments to the franchise that, although precious to me, reeks of blatant discrimination.

The Racebending booklet comparing the 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' cartoon characters with their live action counterparts. (Melodie Miu)

It took me a few months before I decided to boycott, because, initially, I was making up excuses to justify watching the movie.

“Okay, so Aang (the hero ‘Avatar’) may look different in the trailer (the actor is white) and so does Katara…and Sokka (secondary characters, also white). And Zuko and his uncle (the villains, both South Asians) sort of look like their original counterparts. But come on, the movie looks awesome!” I would rationalize. “Besides, why am I ruffling feathers over a kids’ show?”

Yes, why should anyone push the issue when it’s just going to create tension, become awkward and potentially lead to an argument?

For me, it’s often easier to ignore the problem by pushing the nagging inner voice to the back of my mind. Countless times, I have done this in the interest of convenience, both inside and outside of the theater. But the issue of racism still remains. It’s not enough to “forgive and forget” when injustice affects so much of our lives, including the very basic, mundane aspects. 

To be clear, the show wasn’t just made for children. Everyone of all ages and backgrounds could fall in love with ‘The Last Airbender.’

When I first watched the cartoon series, I was so moved by the gorgeous, detailed art with attention-grabbing colors; the lovable, multifaceted characters, both the good and bad guys; and the countless references towards Asian and Inuit culture that were so well-researched and of great influence to the show. ‘The Last Airbender’ was a mix of Japanese anime, Eastern philosophies, yoga and martial arts so kick ass even Bruce Lee would be hiya!-ing in approval.

I felt like I was transported into its wonderful world of element benders, spirits and flying bison, just as I have been pulled into the fantastical legends and lore of ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Star Wars’ and even James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ (to which ‘The Last Airbender’ is not related). It was art in its truest form.

Before I decided to boycott, I excused the decisions of Hollywood and the director M. Night Shyamalan, who chose to cast white leads. I’m sure he did a good job in capturing the magical qualities of the cartoon, but along the way, he lost track of the original intent of the series.

The real beauty of the show was it didn’t rely on stereotypes in order to tell a great story and have great characters. It showcased not only people of color but also women who were powerful, saving the world and kicking some serious butt along the way. The cartoon was something I, a young Chinese woman, really enjoyed because hey, those characters are awesome and look like me.

Unfortunately, the cartoon version of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is a rare gem in an industry still run by prejudice. Although Shyamalan is Indian, it doesn’t excuse the fact that he unfairly cast the heroes with white actors and the villains as Asian ones who have dark skin.

I don’t agree with his weak rebuttal to the race controversy in an interview with science blog iO9, in which he explained he chose actors based on “ambiguity” when he really meant white, the default race for any protagonist. He especially didn’t support his argument when his casting call asked for “Caucasians and other ethnicities” rather than “All ethnicities.” See the difference?

Shyamalan could have tried harder, but he didn’t. I feel very grateful about the fact that the original creators of the show were not involved in the film’s casting because I don’t know if I could feel any sadder. It’s yellowface, plain and simple.

Promotional international poster for 'Avatar: The Last Airbender.' (Paramount Pictures)

I was at Wondercon on Sat, April 3 when I passed by the booth for Racebending, a grassroots media watchdog organization “advocating just and equal opportunity in film and television” and the primary protest group of ‘The Last Airbender,’ using the main character Aang’s face with his distinct Asian features as its symbol. One of their missions is to directly contact studios that ‘racebend,’ or discriminate, against actors of color, and protest/boycott those industries.

The people at the booth handed out free Racebending wristbands, pins, fliers and photographed various Wondercon patrons who are also disappointed in Hollywood’s poor decisions. Crowds held signs with such phrases as: “Aang can be Asian and still save the world,” “‘The Last Airbender:’ More sparkle Less color” and “Support fair casting.”

On their table was a booklet filled with pictorials comparing the faces of the original television characters with their live action counterparts. When I was confronted with the dark-haired, brown-skinned face of cartoon Katara – my favorite character – with her fair-skinned Caucasian actress Nicola Peltz, it became clear to me it was yet another example of racism.

After that, I picked up a pin and wristband and made my choice to protest as well. I wish I had decided to earlier.

What do you readers think about the race controversy surrounding ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender?’ Do you also plan to boycott the movie? Share your opinions and comments below.

For more information, visit Racebending’s official website or become a fan of their Facebook page.