Blog Post 1: The New Dawn of Yellowface: Racebending

December 12, 2010 at 7:41 pm 1 comment


You would think that each of the items showcased in the video is, without a doubt, strongly tied to the Asian cultures they came from. They would not, under any normal circumstances, be seen as representations of a white, Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon society. But much of the audience of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (as well as for Shyamalan himself), sees them as such. The main characters of Shyamalan’s live action film adaptation of the popular and critically acclaimed animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender are played by white actors and actresses. This would generally not be an issue, if not for the blatant disregard of the Asian culture and representations of Asian culture that the film makes in regards to the original series. Each of the aforementioned items is seen throughout the Avatar: The Last Airbender television series. And while those elements show up in the film, it is only as symbols of white cultures that they do. Including the elements under the guise of a completely non-Asian culture is essentially cultural appropriation of the Asian cultures the elements came from, and arguably much worse than completely ridding the film of those elements. The Last Airbender is only the latest in a slew of films produced by Paramount that degrade Asian Americans, whether implicitly through lack of representation, or explicitly, through stereotypical and false representation. This series of blog posts will analyze how The Last Airbender is essentially the nail in the coffin in a reversion to the “yellow peril” representation of Asian Americans in the early days of film, and a regression from the former model minority mainstream media view of Asian Americans.

The casting of non-Asians in roles that are Asian in the original series was not 1) an act of chance, 2) a casting based on acting ability, or 3) a bid to increase revenue with a household name actor or actress:

1): An act of chance:
The casting call for the movie specifically called for people who are “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” to audition. Caucasian actors were clearly preferred over people of color, as when filmmakers truly want people of all ethnicities to audition, the casting calls generally read just “any ethnicity.”

2): Skill level in acting:
None of the three main protagonists are award-winning performers. Noah Ringer, a 14-year-old with no previous acting experience, plays Aang, the movie’s primary protagonist. Nicola Peltz, who plays Aang’s companion Katara, has had small parts in three widely critically panned movies. And the major claim to fame of Sokka actor Jackson Rathbone is his portrayal of an angst-ridden vampire in the Twilight movie series. In fact, the only main character with any acting accolades is the sole Asian of the four, Dev Patel, who plays villan Zuko. Patel was a part of the critically acclaimed British TV series, Skins, and won numerous awards for his role as Slumdog Millionaire protagonist Jamal Malik.

3): To increase publicity/revenue with a big name star:
While there are many things wrong with the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as the Persian protagonist of the videogame-based movie Prince of Persia, that casting has one defense that the Avatar castings do not: household name status of the actor. Jake Gyllenhaal has been acting since the age of 10, has appeared in over 20 feature films, and has been garnered with an ever increasing number of awards that have the words “sexy,” “attractive,” “hot,” and/or “beautiful.” Casting him in the main role guarantees the movie a certain portion of the audience that will go see the movie just because Gyllenhaal is in it, as well as increased publicity from having a household name star. The Last Airbender, on the other hand, gained nothing in the casting of its white actresses and actors.

This only reinforces the “glass ceiling” that Asian American actors and actresses battle against every day in Hollywood, a glass ceiling that prevents young Asian Americans from having role models of their own in mainstream media.

Additionally, there are currently not many roles for Asian Americans in Hollywood, and the casting of The Last Airbender takes away just another chance for young Asian American (aspiring) actors and actresses to be part of something that already inspired a generation of Asian American youth. For example, John Cho, who plays the part of Hikaru Sulu in the 2009 Star Trek “Reboot” movie, often states in interviews how inspiring it was to see George Takei (who played Sulu in the original series and movies) on screen, as a fellow Asian American. In an interview with Teen Hollywood, Cho says, “Although I wasn’t a Trekkie, my primary connection to the show was just being excited about George Takei being on television. I remember just yelling across the house, ‘There’s an Asian guy on TV! There’s an Asian guy on TV, come quick, come quick, he may disappear, he may disappear, hurry up. Come now.’ (2)”

However, the premise behind the “whitifying” of the movie’s cultures is not the only racially flawed aspect of the film. The people involved with the film were just as much a part of the issue. The production staff of The Last Airbender demonstrated its “stunning lack of cultural incompetency (3)” when one casting director released the following statements in regards to open casting calls for extras: “We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you’re Korean, wear a kimono,” (kimonos are Japanese, not Korean) and ‘“it doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage if you didn’t come in a big African thing,” [and another] casting director is also quoted as describing the background extras being cast as “authentic Asians.”’(4) This cultural insensitivity extends even into the cast, where Jason Rathbone, who plays one of the main protagonists, announced that he thinks “It’s one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan. It’s one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit, (5)” in response to concerns that he, as a Caucasian, was slated to play a character of Inuit/Asian Pacific descent. While his two costar protagonists are still young, Jason Rathbone is 25. It is not beyond reason to expect him to not make culturally insensitive, implicitly derogatory statements.

From top to bottom: Aang, played by Noah Ringer; Zuko, played by Dev Patel; Katara, played by Nicola Peltz; Sokka, played by Jackson Rathbone. (6)

M. Night Shyamalan has repeatedly noted the presence of many Asians (extras) in the film to combat accusations of racism. I read this great analogy by “PV” at

“For M. Knight to call this movie racially diverse and driven is a spit in the eye. To give an analogy of what he really did to make this film racially diverse:
M. Knight sees a child fiercely struggling to swim to shore to avoid drowning. The Paramount Beach owners see this, and ask if anyone is willing to save the child. M. Knight stands up and tells how once upon a past Halloween, he and his daughter played out her favorite drowning scene and he came to her rescue. He feels he can do the real thing. So M. Knight runs into the water…but he stops after getting in waist deep. He grabs the closest children, who are not in any danger of drowning, and pulls them to shore. M. Knight turns to the onlooker, who asks why he didn’t save the child further out, still struggling to make it to shore alone. With that, M. Knight puffs out his chest and says, ‘I did save the children! Didn’t you see? I saved many children from drowning!’

The on lookers then say, ‘But there is still one more, struggling further out!’

M. Knight looks back to the struggling child and looks back at the people. He shakes his head indignantly, then responds with, ‘Why are you all so mad? I saved the children!’”

As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam write in Unthinking Eurocentrism, “Even ‘affirmative action’ casting can swerve racist purposes, as when the role of the White judge in the novel Bonfire of the Vanities was given to Morgan Freeman in the film, but only as a defense mechanism to ward off accusations of racism (Shohat and Stam 190).” Shyamalan’s movie reeks of this backtracking and “appeasing” in the casting of Asian extras.

Shyamalan has also often used an excuse along the lines of that of “course he isn’t racist, he’s Asian American himself!” that Shohat and Stam address. “The usual sequence in media accusations of racism is that the racist statement is made, offense is expressed, punishment is called for: all of which provokes a series of counter-statements – that the person in question is not racist, that some of the person’s best friends belong to the race in questions (or in this case, the person belongs to the race in questions), and so forth. The process has the apparently positive result of placing certain statements beyond the pale of civil speech; blatant racism is stigmatized and punished. But the more subtle, deeper forms of discursively and institutionally structured racism remain unrecognized…racism is reduced to an individiual, attitudinal problem, distracting attention from racism as a systematic self reproducing discursive apparatus that itself shapes racist attitudes.” (Shohat and Stam 201)

And oh yeah. It should probably be mentioned that there is one East Asian female in the entire film. Her role? She massages a Fire Nation character’s feet.

(1) Video link/credit:
(2) John Cho interview at
(3) Casting director quote from
(4) Casting director quotes:
(5) Rathbone quote:
(6) Photo credit to

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London ; New York: Routledge, 1994. 178-215. Print.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Tie A Yellow Ribbon – AAMP Screening Blog Post 2: The Last Airbender and Early Hollywood: Yellow Peril to Model Minority

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. asianamericansinmedia  |  December 30, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    I am happy to see that you have responded to the feedback from your draft, and have strengthened your thesis in this version of the introduction. Also, your use of Unthinking Eurocentrism as a secondary source works well to support your main argument. I have spotted a few typos in your text, so please proofread again and correct them.

    Quick observation about the casting issue – since this is after Slumdog Millionaire won all its awards, do you think the casting of Dev Patel could be the big name draw here? In a similar way, Sesseue Hayakawa was one of the biggest male stars during the silent film era (and a sex symbol to boot!), yet his appeal is in playing villains, not the hero.

    Posted by Ming-Yuen S. Ma


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