Bending air, race and gender

What colour is an Airbender? If this question is not at the top of your mind, it's because you haven't been following the controversy surrounding the casting of the film The Last Airbender, set to premiere in early July. The question of ethnicity in the film's casting casts a valuable light on many of Hollywood's decisions when it comes to race and gender – and the attitudes and assumptions that underlie them.


Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon which originally aired on Nickelodeon, was a show with an unusual degree of ethnic diversity for both animation and American television in general. Not only were all of the main characters people of colour but the setting, drew primarily on non-Western culture, inspired by East Asian and Inuit cultures. (The producers' dedication to cultural accuracy extended to the point of having an official calligraphy consultant to make sure the Chinese writing seen onscreen was always correct.) With its anime-inspired look, deep mythology and epic storyline, the show was tremendously successful, to the point where it was adapted into a live-action film. Live-action being the key word, because when the casting was originally announced it was quickly noticed that all of the lead actors were white. (A later change in casting replaced one of the leads with Dev Patel, the star of Slumdog Millionaire; the studio denies that this change was in response to fan protests.) Interestingly, the cultural origins of the settings seem to have been retained, with Inuit extras hired to play members of the “Water Nation” even though the lead characters from that setting are portrayed by white actors.

Why make this change? Unlike the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role of Prince of Persia, it's certainly not because any of the actors are expected to be box-office draws; aside from Patel, all are about equally unknown. What seems more likely is that the producers and the director, M. Night Shyamalan, subscribe to the standard Hollywood view that white males will not pay to see movies in which they do not see themselves reflected. This applies to gender as well as race; screenwriter Jennifer Kesler has said that when she was in film school at UCLA a number of her instructors – most of them working screenwriters – told her that audiences, and by extension producers would not accept a film with significant female characters unless they served to further the male protagonist's story. This notion can be found to a greater or lesser degree in almost every part of the entertainment industry; in children's books, for example, white males are by far the most common protagonists (even animal protagonists are almost always male) and in video games – even those of the first-person shooter variety, where the protagonist is typically unseen – most protagonists are definitively identified as white men. Where women or people of colour appear, they are almost always supporting characters – a phenomenon sometimes described as “the Smurfette Principle,” referring to the presence of a single token female in the otherwise all-male Smurf village. (A 2008 study of children's television in several countries found 68% of shows had male leads.)

Given how widely held this attitude is, it's reasonable to ask whether there is any evidence to support it. Unfortunately, that's an almost impossible question to answer simply because there are so few movies released with protagonists that are either women or people of colour. What's more, when such films are made a form of confirmation bias sets in where if these protagonists are failures they are seen as evidence to support negative attitudes, and even if they are successful, they are seen as flukes or otherwise explained away. In fact, this attitudes persists even in the face of quantitative data, such as the number of highly successful recent films with female leads and the fact that Will Smith is the most bankable star in Hollywood (with Angelina Jolie being tied for #2). For instance, the relatively poor showing of a Wonder Woman animated film led to a moratorium on films with female leads from Warner Brothers' animation studio, while an even worse performance by the Green Lantern animated film has not led to any similar ban on male leads.

Despite many protests by fans of the original animated series (most notably organized by the Racebending Web site), The Last Airbender is slated to open on July 2nd with its mostly-white cast. It's too bad that this film won't be the one that proves that a movie with non-white leads can be successful, but fortunately we already have such an example. The Karate Kid, whose two leads are African-American and Chinese respectively, is on track to be one of the most successful movies of the summer. Meanwhile, the upcoming movie Salt features Angelina Jolie in an action lead originally written for Tom Cruise. Of course, a few adjustments had to be made to the script – such as cutting a scene in which the hero rescues his/her spouse from assailants, on the grounds that this would “castrate his [the spouse's] character a little.” And, of course, if the movie flops you already know the reason why…


Check out MediaSmarts Media Issues sections on Media Portrayals of Ethnic and Visible Minorities and Media Portrayals of Girls and Women for more details on this topic.

For teachers: check out the following lessons that deal with stereotypes and media: