tesserewhon: (Default)
tesserewhon ([personal profile] tesserewhon) wrote2009-07-19 12:07 am

Racebending

So, occasionally, I feel the need to state my opinions on a matter on the intarwebs. There really wasn't anything I could say on Racefail that wasn't said better and with more better English by everyone else. But I've been a quiet supporter of [livejournal.com profile] aang_aint_white and [livejournal.com profile] racebending 'til the cast photos from the Airbender movie came out several days ago. Now I'm a wordy supporter spewing my wordiness all over the Internet. Don't worry. The Internet can take it.

So here's my wordiness in a shell full of nuts, posted on the Last Airbender fans forum. It's mostly for storage purposes but it's also for whoever pops over here from the racebending community and/or the world wide web.


Quoting CancerianFireLordess: I think either way you're going to have people offended or not happy or simple angry at the way things are. There is always something to be "angry" at. If people just saw the positives of this film rather than the negatives, things would be a lot easier, no?

As an Avatar: The Last Airbender fan, I find myself torn between squeeing with glee and shaking my head. But I agree with Carcerian Fire Lordess on that point. We can't just look at the problematic issues with race. It's not all bad news. James Newton Howard is one of my favorite composers, and M. Night has had me as an avid fan ever since I experienced the wonder that is Unbreakable.

Of course things would be a lot easier if we just swept all this talk about race under the rug. But just because it would be easier and less contentious is not a good enough reason to stop discussing it. Please believe me when I say that I don't believe I'm overreacting, and I don't believe Carcerian Fire Lordess is attempting to condescend to all of the people who do feel concern over this issue. But it is surprising that a moderator for such an awesome fandom would appear to be dismissing the concerns of a group of race-conscious people as "simply angry." I'm not particularly angry or mad or simply "not happy" with the movie. My problem is not with the cast members, who are surely doing the best they can, or the crew , who are also working towards a creative product that we can't necessarily envision yet. My problem is with the production company that was responsible for the casting and constraints, and what is very obviously a movie that has divorced itself from the source material to the point where it is not necessarily recognizable.*

I speak as an Airbender fan when I say that I have great hopes for this movie but I started out with even greater hopes. I don't think it's unreasonable of me to have some fears when I look at the casting for the main cast, and realize that yes, there has been a whitewashing of Sokka, Katara, and Aang and yes, there has been inappropriate co-opting of Asian culture in order to place white heroes and a white heroine at the forefront.

And I can't say that voicing my fears and concerns are any less valid or reasonable than when Cancerian Fire Lordess states that
"What's racist is when Shakespeare's Othello is played by a white man in black face paint."
I'm glad that I can completely agree with Cancerian Fire Lordess that it is racist. But bear with me when I say that only 70 years ago, an actor showing up in black face would have been perfectly valid entertainment, and that even into the 1960's it was still occurring. Actually, that brings to mind one of the definitive cases of black face controversy, which was the 1964 ban of the use of black face in the Mummer's Parade in Philadelphia. The ban wasn't instantaneous nor was it comprehensive. Magistrate Myers, director of the parades, banned the use of black face makeup, but when met with opposition compromised with the ruling that "black face make up would be permitted, . . . if it was to be used to create a character and not to ridicule any ethnic group."** Now, since Cancerian Fire Lordess already stated that a white actor using black face paint to portray a black character is racist, I'm sure s/he can see that it was the practice of black face paint by white entertainers that was problematic, no matter the intent behind it.

After that ruling, the NAACP then asked the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia to ban black face makeup in the parades. But again, there was opposition to the banning of what many saw as harmless fun, not an embarrassing display of racism. There was even African-American opposition to the ban, stating " As a Negro, I see no reason for feeling insulted or offended because a few illiterate idiots in the community wish to smear their faces with grease to cavort, clown, and dance up Broad Street. Intelligent people are fully aware of the fact that the antics of this uncouth element of our society does not by any standards depict the true images of Negroes."*** Which seems like the perfectly composed response to the black face issue until you realize that while it might have served to keep the peace, it would have done nothing to further the ban on black face use, which Cancerian Fire Lordess deemed racist. Eventually, there was enough protest and tension that the city of Philadelphia enforced its ban of black face makeup.

Now, you might be saying that the controversy over black face doesn't really have anything to do with a bunch of Avatar fans overreacting to the whitewashing of Katara, Aang, and Sokka. But I'd like to respectfully disagree. What seems like a trivial detail of Caucasian actors taking over Asian/Inuit/ethnic minority parts in Hollywood has a long history as well, deemed yellow face. While yellow face makeup refers primarily to those actors who don actual prosthetics and makeup to portray Asian characters, the ideology behind the act, that white people can play Asian just as well or better than Asians can or that it doesn't matter if it's an Asian or white actor as long as the character is entertaining, is the same.

When Cancerian Fire Lordess states
"Ugh, I just think there are more important things to focus on rather than the continuation of what the movie could be. They've made their choice. A bunch of angry sensitive fans isn't going to change their decision."
I'm going to have to disagree. A bunch of angry, sensitive fans is exactly what is going to change the atmosphere in Hollywood so that one day producers, directors, actors even, will acknowledge that yellow face, whitewashing, and cultural appropriation are racist and problematic with the same sense of surety that Cancerian Fire Lordess deemed black face make up on white actors as racist.


* Along those lines, it bothers me as well that the consultant for martial arts from the series, Sifu Kisu (who's also a friend and martial arts teacher to Bryan Konietzko) is not working as a consultant on the movie and has explicitly stated:

"Well when I first saw the trailer I got excited because the special effects looked great (barring the ((less than polished)) martial arts staff sequence which I overlooked with sympathy 'cause I told them "how" to make it right and apparently the martial art is not priority...)"
Lokhopkuen on the Avatarspirit.net Forums, [url]http://forums.avatarspirit.net/index.php?topic=17315.125[/url]

and

"I did a couple of consultations for preproduction and had a meeting with the director (who i liked) I outlined a strategy for the film. I explained there are no short cuts in training Gung Fu so I insisted on 6 months to a year to train the actors and drill them in some basic skill sets until they would at least be able to appear to manifest the proper geometry's, initially they agreed:

But then!

The "stunt coordinator" suddenly became a Martial Art Master"

- Lokhopkuen on the Kung Fu Magazine Forums, [url]http://www.kungfumagazine.com/forum/showthread.php?t=46683&page=19[/url]

It's troubling because it's just another aspect of how such a necessary and enjoyable aspect of Avatar (the elemental bending) was modified to create a less compelling product. Again, you could say that I'm overreacting (being too sensitive), and that Noah Ringer looked great in that trailer, so why nitpick. But I point out this detail for two reasons. The first is that this situation with Sifu Kisu points to the production company's lack of respect for or interest in the source material, and as an Avatar fan, I'm insulted that they did not see fit to invest the time and care into this movie that they could have. I want the film to be the best that it can be, and this is just one example of the production letting us down. Second, it ties into the whole issue of race, where martial arts are historically and presently a predominantly Asian cultural tradition. When I say tradition, I use the dictionary.com definition of "1. the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice." Therefore, the lack of respect for the practice of martial arts, which is essential to the Avatar world through bending, is another concern.

** Charles E. Welch, Jr. "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers": The Philadelphia Mummers Parade. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 79, No. 314 (Oct. - Dec., 1966), pp. 523-536

*** The Inquirer (Philadelphia), December 31, 1963, p. 19.









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