Racebending: Fan Activists Fight Racist Casting
Lori Kido Lopez
In December 2008, producers of the film adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender set off a firestorm of criticism when they announced their casting decisions. Despite the fact that the television show had a distinctly Asian aesthetic and borrowed many elements from East Asian and Inuit cultures, four white actors had been cast in the lead roles. Many fans became irate, demanding that the roles be given to Asian American actors because they had always imagined that the characters were racially Asian. When one of the lead actors dropped out of the project he was replaced with Dev Patel, who is South Indian (as is the film’s director, M. Night Shyamalan). But fans insisted that the nation his character belonged to were the villains of the series, so now the problem was that three white stars were heroes and the South Asian actor and his people were villains. The backlash continued in heated online debates and has culminated in a number of protest activities, ranging from letter-writing campaigns and the spread of counter-media to a planned boycott of the upcoming film. The fan activists who mobilized over the casting decisions for The Last Airbender (TLA) continue to work on issues related to the film, but have also shifted their focus toward discrimination in casting more generally. In many ways they successfully model a mode of activism that is necessarily multilingual, moving between the languages of fandom, activism, and racial politics as it becomes strategically advantageous. This case study examines their transition between these roles and some of the difficulties that they face in doing so.
When the news broke that white actors would be playing the starring roles of Aang, Katara, Sokka and Zuko—characters who each represented an entire tribe of people on the show—one of the first responses was from staff members who had worked on the show. Under the handle “Aang Ain’t White,” they anonymously created a LiveJournal website and initiated a letter-writing campaign called “Saving the World with Postage.” The artists encouraged people who were outraged about the casting to write letters to Paramount Pictures, M. Night Shyamalan’s studio, and the producers’ studio. Although hundreds of fans and non-fans learned about the issue through the site and mailed letters, most were returned to sender unopened. Soon thereafter, casting for the film was completed and production began with no changes to the cast.
One result of this situation, however, was that like-minded fans had a chance to meet each other in this virtual arena and establish a basis for future conversations. Two such individuals, known on the site as glockgal and jedifreac, decided to start their own forum that allowed people to do more than write letters. They created a site called Racebending.com, as well as a Racebending community on LiveJournal. The name was a playful riff on the notion of “bending” that was an important part of the universe of The Last Airbender. But the term racebending also articulated their frustration at all of the roles that had been taken from Asian Americans and replaced with White actors, as if race didn’t matter. They argued that race did matter, given the systemic subjugation and invisibility of Asian Americans and people of color in mainstream media. The filmmakers seemed to be saying that audiences would only go see movies starring white actors, and as dedicated fans of a fantastical world populated by multiracial, multicultural peoples, they knew that this was not the case. In this sense, their definition of “racebending” can be seen as more than simply changing the race of a character, but necessarily changing the race of characters of color to white for reasons of marketability.
By the spring of 2009, the Racebending website had grown to include six main contributors, including three based in Los Angeles, one in British Columbia, one in New York, and one in Washington. Although the website has gone through a few different incarnations, it generallybecoming involved, and be updated on the latest news. The main contributors to the site, sometimes called Racebenders—despite the fact that they are actually “against racebending”—have initiated dozens of small campaigns and protest activities since the site’s inception. Some of these have included attending Comic-Con in San Diego armed with pins and flyers to advertise the site and educate individuals about the movement, conducting interviews with academics on the topics of race and media to strengthen their arguments, and coordinating with established Asian American organizations such as the theater group East West Players and the media advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans, as well as the NAACP.
The group has thus far focused on two main goals: the first was to affect casting, which failed, and the second is to affect ticket sales after the summer 2010 release and derail plans for a second and third movie. However, beyond these goals that are directly connected to The Last Airbender, they have also begun to promote the casting of Asian Americans and other minorities more generally. The Racebending website lists as their mission: “We are a coalition and community dedicated to encouraging fair casting practices. As a far-reaching movement of consumers, students, parents, and professionals, we promote just and equal opportunities in the entertainment industry.” This statement clearly moves beyond TLA itself to advocate for a change in casting practices more broadly.
However, moving the group beyond the immediate goal of casting TLA was somewhat difficult at first. For instance, when the Philippines were struck with Typhoon Ketsana, one of the main contributors posted on the Livejournal community encouraging individuals to send donations. While this move was supported by another of the Racebending contributors, others criticized the post. One person commented, “Good cause, though clearly off topic. I know you're enthusiastic and trying to help, but please don't make a habit of this.” This first attempt to move from the original cause to other activist causes was clearly not received well, and the original writer promised that he would stay on topic, away from all that “activism and aid stuff.”
Members of the Racebending community have also been difficult to call into action with regard to real life protest activities, such as attending rallies or collecting pen-and-paper signed petitions. A Racebending leader in New York tried to organize a protest at the TLA casting call for background actors in Philadelphia, but only two people showed up. Together they held signs and tried to gain visibility, but with the lack of bodies their impact was minimal. Similarly, the Los Angeles “Street Team” tried to organize a group of Racebenders at Comic-Con in San Diego, but the two leaders ended up doing most of the work by themselves, “full-on yelling into the crowd, handing out flyers and buttons, getting signatures” (darnivorous) with little support from their fellow Racebenders. Another missed opportunity for on-the-ground activism came when the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) organized a protest at Paramount Studios against an offensive scene in their recent film The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. MANAA approached Racebending to see if they wanted to use the protest to promote their cause, since Paramount was also the studio producing TLA, but only one member of the Los Angeles Street Team showed up to the protest. Although enthusiasm for the cause is seemingly boundless in online forums, it has been difficult to get even the most vocal members of the group to put a name to their face and show up for a local event.
Despite this rocky transition to both more politicized issues and on-the-ground activism, the community has nevertheless slowly shifted their orientation. The group is now much more focused on general casting and racial representation issues. This could be related to the fact that it is clear that they have lost the battle to change the casting of TLA, so it makes sense to move forward onto current topics. In addition, the second issue brought to the group may have been easier to accept because it was much more closely related to the casting issue in TLA—a comic book called “The Weapon,” starring an Asian American hero named Tommy Zhou, was being remade into a film, and a white actor had been cast to play him. The group was immediately very supportive of efforts to protest this casting, and one of the coordinators wrote a letter condemning the decision in the name of Racebending.
Since then, the community has shifted to the majority of new posts being about issues outside the world of TLA, with only infrequent updates on the progress of the film’s promotion or the occasional tidbit of new information from the main contributors. Current postings on the community include a diverse set of topics, such as reactions to The Princess and the Frog—Disney’s latest feature-length cartoon, starring the first African American “princess”—annoyance at a Chanel show featuring models in yellowface, and frustration at an article about how Hollywood thinks women do not see movies. These issues are all loosely related to the topic of discrimination in Hollywood, with the group remaining most dedicated to the question of who is allowed to play what role. For instance, there is one post about whether or not the American actors in Invictus have the right to play South Africans and another about whether or not Johnny Depp is the right actor to play Mexican hero Pancho Villa. Reactions are mixed, with participants expressing opinions on both sides of the issue. Despite the diversity of responses and topics covered, Racebending communities continue to provide a way for these important and complicated questions to be asked, and if a resolution is reached, for the community to take action in some form.