Race and Avatar

Because I have been talking about my love of Avatar quite a bit lately people have been asking me if I’m excited about the forthcoming live action version.

I am not.

One of the many things I adore about Avatar is how incredibly rich and complex the world of Avatar is. This is largely because it was based on various Asian cultures. None of the characters in Avatar are white.

Here’s what the show’s creators have to say about it in an interview from 2005:

1. How did you come up with the Avatar?

We came up for the concept for “Avatar” 3 years ago. Nickelodeon wanted to make a “legends & lore” type of show with a kid hero. That’s a genre we are very interested in, but we wanted to create a mythology that was based on Eastern culture, rather than Western culture. Although “Avatar” isn’t based on a specific Asian myth, we were inspired by Asian mythology, as well as Kung Fu, Yoga, and Eastern Philosophy. We were also inspired by Anime in general. We wanted to create a story that inspired people’s imaginations and that had elements of comedy, drama, and action.

2. You guys are not Asian so how did you come up with such an Asian cartoon?

We read a lot about Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese history. We also have several consultants who work for the show—a cultural consultant that reviews all the scripts; a Kung Fu consultant who helps choreograph all the bending moves so that they are accurate to the style on which they are based; and a Chinese calligrapher who does all the signs and posters in the show. We don’t use any written English words in the show.

Avatar has been hugely popular among kids of all races. There was no backlash against an all-Asian show. Much as those who watch anime don’t freak out at the paucity of white characters. Yet, somehow the Hollywood producers think the live action version has to be white washed. Except for the villians, of course, it’s okay for them to be brown. I think they’re wrong.

I’m not the only one who’s upset at the absurd casting choices of the movie version. There are several communities that have been protesting it.

Sadly, though there seem to be just as many fans who don’t care that the movie version has white actors playing Aang, Katara and Sokka. Glockgal offers a possible explanation:

For people who’ve never learned/seen/been exposed to anything Asian beyond fortune cookies and sweet-and-sour chicken balls, I suddenly understand that when they watched the cartoon, all they see is ‘fantasy’. All the architecture, clothing, food, writing, names, movements—EVERYTHING that is so plainly and clearly Asian to us? Is just to them . . . a fantasy. It’s all made-up. They don’t know that so much of the world is based on real cultures, they don’t get how much attention to detail and research the creators put into the cartoon, because they’ve NEVER SEEN THESE CULTURES, IN REAL LIFE.

I will not be going to see the movie version. I’m sick of white washing. I’m sick of Hollywood taking the things I love and transforming them into generic pap. I want them to make more films that reflect the diversity of the world I live in. I don’t understand why that’s such a huge ask.


  1. StarSpangled/Holly-wa on #

    It really annoys me at how ignorant Hollywood is.
    And yayz, 1st comment.
    Was my address-sending too late?

  2. Anabelle on #

    Wow, I totally agree!

    One reason why I fell in love with Avatar was that although Mike and Bryan are white, they still put so much time into making the show authentically Asian. I’m white too, but I’m learning Japanese and I’ve just spent two years learning about Buddhism, Shinto, Daoism, and the like. Naturally, the white-washing of the movie version really gets to me …I’m not seeing the movie, either. 🙁

    Thanks for writing this blog! It’s important for people to understand how disrespectful the directors of the movie are. It’s honestly not difficult to hire Asian actors, you know?

    P.S The fact the Prince Zuko was originally going to be played by Jesse McCartney (sp?) makes me sick. ^-^

  3. stacy on #

    I’m with you, Justine. I’ve been watching and loving Avatar for years, and it just kills me that they’re doing this. And directed by M. Night Shymalan, himself an Asian American–of the Indian, not Chinese, variety, but still, you think he of all the directors in Hollywood would have been sensitive to this.

  4. StarSpangled/Holly-wa on #

    “I’m white too, but I’m learning Japanese and I’ve just spent two years learning about Buddhism, Shinto, Daoism, and the like. Naturally, the white-washing of the movie version really gets to me …I’m not seeing the movie, either. :(” Me too! Exactly!
    In fact, I have a really good friend who is Japanese, and when I was younger I went to the Japanese Culture classes that her mum used to run. It kinda gave me a lot of respect for different cultures, and I am constantly amazed/annoyed when my friends are ignorantly (racist? Not the word) disrespectful.
    I just wish I was better at Japanese…. :3

  5. Justine on #

    The thinking (such that there is) seems to be that white people are the biggest moviegoers and that white people only want to see films about white people. I’m not convinced of either of these propositions.

  6. Q on #

    I don’t think I’m going to see the movie because it cannot possibly be as good as the show, for that reason and others.

  7. Sam on #

    Agree 100% with your point, JL. The live-action version infuriates me, and as Annabelle pointed out, the fact that whiter-than-white Jesse McCartney was originally supposed to play the definitely-not-white Zuko is absolute rubbish (and I say that as someone who is himself whiter-than-white) and says volumes about the film’s intentions.

    The world Avatar the anime has so created is so rich, absorbing and ASIAN (like previous commenters, the show has encouraged me to bone up on Eastern philosophies since I watched the whole series in a one-week stint a few months ago) and it’s disturbing that that’s just being ignored in the movie, or at least appears to be. I’d never considered that some kids would just see all that as belonging to some far-off, fictional fantasy world.

    I SUPPOSE you could argue that Aang is white in the anime, or at least racially neutral, if you wanted to defend the movie. But even if he is, the culture he comes from is so distinctly, firmly Asian that it’s irrelevant.

    Will not be paying money to see this film.

  8. Joe Iriarte on #

    I sympathize. I’m Cuban-American, and I’ve gotten sick and tired of how many movies set in my hometown of Miami feature no Latinos–until the bad guy, usually a drug dealer, appears on the screen.

  9. Benjamin Solah on #

    Excellent post. I’m really agreeing with you. I think I might’ve seen this (or maybe another anime show) advertised with on public transport with white characters.

    The fact that the baddies are still Asian really points to the underlying racism.

  10. Zahra Alley on #

    I agree 100%. What’s a film without some rich diversity and culture where it’s meant? It’s bogus! The world in Avatar is just so different from the one we live in, they’re going to warp the film by shifting it into Hollywood’s eyes.

    That explanation makes me wonder: if people haven’t a clue about new cultures and such, why not introduce it to them? Why keep them in the dark? Asian culture is not a fantasy! It IS out there.
    I’m not going to use 10 bucks to see a film that completely ignores the original sparkle of the cartoon.

  11. Kathleen on #

    I am an Avatar fan as well – I love the characters and the stories. Hell, for a Nickelodeon cartoon, some of those episodes made me tear up.

    But I just find the casting of this film offensive and there’s no way I will support it. Whitewashing is not just Hollywood. It’s everywhere and we need to fight it.

    An actor friend of mine is Australian with a European background. She’s tall & skinny with olive skin and she’s gorgeous. But she doesn’t get roles unless they specifically ask for an ethnicity.

    In a lot of cases, if the part doesn’t state an ethnicity – then it means they want someone white. Yep, that even includes the local Uni student films.

  12. Liset on #

    ah man!
    i didn’t even know they were making a movie!
    i was excited here for 2.5 seconds
    i can’t imagine a little bald white boy being Aang
    but a little bald asain boy…!
    He would be so cute!!!

    Didn’t they do a similar thing to that dragon ball movie?
    i don’t think it did very well either.

  13. Liset on #

    a little IMDB trivia:
    apparently Jesse McCartney was first casted to play Zuko!!!!
    I totally would have paid for that!
    mmmm Jesse…..

    seriously though…
    what are they thinking???

  14. Kevin S. on #

    The first warning sign for this movie was that it was going to be directed by M. Night Shyamalan. He’s a very hit and miss director, and Avatar is something way out of his comfort zone. Even if he had cast the movie correctly I’m not sure that it would be any good. I know that taste is subjective, but I haven’t come across a single person that has liked “The Village”, “Lady in the Water” or “The Happening.”

    The race issue is the icing on the cake for me. An all-white cast (except for the villain!) in Avatar to me would be like going to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon acted out by the cast of the Harry Potter movies. It just seems inconsistent with the setting of the movie, like how Alexander was about Greek people with Irish accents.

  15. Kayli on #

    I’m pretty upset about the casting, as well. Considering how well the original show was researched to give it an Asian feel, I do wish casting would have been a little more faithful to the show. Honestly, I was a bit apprehensive concerning the movie from the start- I’m not a huge fan of Shyamalan. Still hoping some good can come from it, though!

  16. Paige on #

    Aang should not be played by a white guy. It goes against nature.

  17. Rose on #

    I feel just the same–even though I love the series, I wouldn’t touch the movie with a ten-foot pole. What really gets me (aside from the racist elements) is that the plot of the series is *explicitly* multi-cultural; four distinct peoples learning to live in harmony (balance). When all the actors are white it’s just like: Did you even watch the show at all?

    I understand the studio’s reasoning (about movie-going demos) a little: I’m sure it seems compelling to them (those idiots). But if your movie is less diverse than the cast of “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” I think you have a problem.

  18. Lauren McLaughlin on #

    “The thinking (such that there is) seems to be that white people are the biggest moviegoers and that white people only want to see films about white people.”

    I’m not sure it’s that so much as the assumption that white is neutral. If you make a movie with non-whites, you’re making a “race” movie. Just as if you make a movie with a lot of women in it, you’re making a “chick flick.” This obsession with male/white neutrality does not, in my opinion, reflect the movie-going audience so much as the movie-makers themselves. It is a boys’ club and its colors are white on white.

  19. Tryx on #

    Thanks so much for adding your two cents on this subject. A lot of people with a high profile such as yourself are mostly afraid to for fear that they may lose some of their fans. But this is really important. What pisses me off the most is that Paramount is trying to use diversity (ie) looky! we’ve got lots of minorities in the movie!) to hide their racism (ie) but whoops none of them are main characters. Except the baddies).

    In the book, movie etc industry we barely see People of Colour in narratives – especially not in MAIN roles. They missed a big chance with Avatar. I just hope that the movie fails. If it does it’ll send a message to Hollywood -we’re not taking this anymore. Hopefully one day they’ll be able to reboot the series and make it the way it’s supposed to be.

  20. Kevin S. on #

    @ Tryx:

    Yeah, I’m kind of hoping for a reboot already, too. It will probably only happen if The Last Airbender becomes hugely successful as-is, though. Nobody reboots series that people don’t love. Even Battlestar Galactica had a pretty big following before it was rebooted. If The Last Airbender wallows in obscurity, chances are grim that it’ll ever see the light of day again.

  21. Blake Stacey on #

    An Avatar movie would have to work hard to justify itself, even without cast and director issues. If you’re adapting a written work to the silver screen, you have new opportunities to explore, new techniques to employ. In some cases, you can cut away the fat from a good story and make a more thoroughly enjoyable experience out of it (for example, the stuff left out of Jurassic Park-the-book to make Jurassic Park-the-movie deserved to be abandoned, in my view). Adapting a television show into a movie is a move from one visual medium to another, making it more difficult to do something new and good with the material. Even worse is adapting an arc-based show like Avatar, which involves squishing a story told over twenty-six episodes into a movie two hours long. Yes, that’s just what Avatar needs: less time exploring a detailed and captivating fictional world. Less time unfolding complexities and nuances of character.

    Yeah, right.

    And then you have the one non-white member of the main cast playing a villain who looks like an extra from the Temple of Doom. . . .


  22. Stephanie on #

    Ms. Larbalestier, I fully agree with you on the casting. But I feel like I have to point something out… Glockgal has a valid point, but I myself am white. I had never been exposed to Asian culture before Avatar. In fact, it was Avatar that sparked an interest in Oriental culture and history for me. Now, I plan to study Japanese in college and have begun reading and researching Asian myths and legends. Avatar opened my eyes to this entire world that had always been kept out of my reach by the mainstream media. This movie is a dire offense to a race of people that have endured just as much trial and tribulation as African-Americans, though their fight has often gone unnoticed.

  23. asdas on #

    Why did you quote that bitch Glockgal! Stop giving her so much credit. That quote was originally by me and she stole it.

  24. Justine on #

    asdas: Could you give me a link to your original quote so I can correct it?

  25. bossymarmalade on #

    Justine, I’m fairly certain you won’t get a truthful response from asdas — considering how much work Glockgal has put into racebending.com and the Avatar protest and for how long, it’s not likely that she’d need to steal her opinions from anybody. *g*

    At any rate, thank you for making this post; it’s enormously helpful for well-known people like you to speak out against the whitewashing of our cultural media. It makes it harder for naysayers to claim that it’s just “a bunch of entitled fans” who are upset by the casting.

    Also, a small note re: Stephanie’s post — it reads a bit like Oppression Olympics. The point is not that Asians have suffered “as much as” Africans and nobly gone unnoticed; the point is that people of colour on the whole are underrepresented, even when it comes to *our own stories*.

    Thank you!

  26. Stephanie on #

    @Bossymarmalade: Thanks for pointing that out to me. I really feel like I have something important to say, but it seems like I can’t put my feelings into words without messing something up or offending someone. XD
    I’ll try to fix that if this point ever comes up again in another conversation. I’m not going to pretend I understand what it’s like to be prejudiced against, but I also don’t want to seem insensitive.

  27. PF Anderson on #

    I just read snippets of this to my son. He is 15, and we are both HUGE Avatar fans, with all the DVDs available and regular marathon weekend viewings. His response to this was, “That’s just *sick*.” There was a pause, then he continued, “and racist!” Another pause, and then he went off full steam into a lot of details, which included asking me to list evil persons in every culture he could name, with the goal being to illustrate that there are good people and bad people in ALL cultures and groups of people. I’m not strong enough in world history to be able to confidently list names of “evil” people in all cultures, but the really easy one was white. Hitler. We are doing some heavy thinking over here.

  28. Gwen on #

    When I first saw the Avatar teaser trailer, I was surprised by the choice of Noah Ringer as Aang, but now I have seen the pictures of the other cast members, I’m really worried they are going to destroy the things that made Avatar good. Katara and Sokka look like they should be in Narnia, while they *should* look like they’re actually from the Arctic Circle. They’re just way too white!

    I grew up with an international school in the same building as my primary school, and learned English as a Second Language from a British lady of African descent, in a small class with mainly Asian kids. I sometimes jokingly say I grew up next to kids eating rice with Hello Kitty chopsticks. Brining tea and warm food with you to school is the most non-Dutch thing you can possibly do, but I grew used to it and have such fond memories of those classes.

    After turning eleven, I went on to a very white secondary school and quickly lost touch with all my friends from primary school. I only realised how white my school was after visiting the campus where I’ll be moving to in a few months, in the West of the Netherlands. (I live in the South, bordering Germany and Belgium, which is one of the most racially undiverse places you can possibly live.)

    My point is, it is so easy for white kids to get used to seeing only white people that I think an all-white cast for Avatar might make everyone forget how the original, cartoon charaters looked. And that’s a shame, because for me that was part of the appeal of the series. It was Nickelodeon, yet there was no ‘all-American’ Timmy (Fairly Odd Parents) or Jimmy (Neutron) in sight.

    And any movie where there is no representation of diversity whatsoever, except for the bad guys, is a movie that could’ve been much better anyway.

  29. Ali on #


    My concern is that, should this movie fail, Hollywood is going to react quite the opposite – That they’ve given Asian movies a chance (albiet, not really at all), and (if it does, that is) the movie crashed and burned, which means that they won’t be taking further risks in the future.

  30. Carl on #

    taken from the Interview with “Avatar” Program Creators:

    Are there any particular Asian mythologies that you sourced for the backbone of the program? Or is it entirely original?

    -Mike: Yeah, and the idea of the “avatar,” is kind of based in Hinduism, so, the television series certainly has a basis in all of that [theology]. But you’re right, we didn’t even at the time know all of that [theological] stuff… we knew what “avatar” meant, and we knew different kinds of it, but only after we created the show did we really see how important it was to these other cultures.

    So the producers and director has no reason to say that it doesn’t have any basis on Asian/Eastern influences because it actually came from the creators themselves that they based the entire series on Eastern influences. Just contributing. 🙂

  31. Summer on #

    One of my favorite author’s protesting the ‘racebending’ in the movie? Yeeeeeessss!

Comments are closed.