Tuesday, June 29, 2010

racebenders vs. Shyamalan

I'm one of those people who experienced that moment of sharp disappointment when they learned that the movie AVATAR had nothing to do with the Last Airbender.

Now the movie that we really wanted is coming out and it looks fabulous. It's directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

And right on time the racebenders show up. (I'm absolutely stealing that term from one of the commentators on that post. )

In the world of the Last Airbender there are nations divided by what element certain people in them can manipulate. The Fire Nation uses fire. Benders in the Earth Nation can throw gigantic boulders and make pillars of rock rise from the ground. Water benders can throw water around. The airbenders, of whom only a single individual remains, can make whirlwinds to use as weapons.

Racebenders use race and racism and accusations of racism as weapons. They can manipulate and use and abuse race and are more than willing to do so.

It's a brilliant term.


Blogger Zeborah said...

I think you've misunderstood what the racebenders are talking about.

They too love the Last Airbender. Partly for the story, but partly also because it's so rare, and thus so wonderful, to see Asian characters as heroes in Asian settings on Western screens. Just as women need female rolemodels in fiction, so people of colour need PoC rolemodels, and the Last Airbender was part of giving them that.

So seeing Shyamalan cast white actors for these Asian roles is like... well, when white actors were cast in the movie of LeGuin's Earthsea. Which again, when it was so rare for PoC to be able to read sf about PoC, and thus so wonderful... for that wonderfulness to just be wiped away is just terrible.

Now, obviously Shyamalan didn't intend to be racist. But he's failed to understand what made the Last Airbender so appealing for so many people, and he's failed to listen to/understand what people have been trying to tell him. And the effects of these failures are felt disproportionately by PoC, and are aligned with the general passively-racist culture of Hollywood. So, regardless of his intentions, the effects of his actions are racist.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Synova said...

If Shyamalan can be racist without intending to be, how is the motivation of his detractors relevant?

I think that what made Avatar so popular was, frankly, that it was written by a couple of American guys (who happened quite by accident to be white) who took the Asian signifiers, quite a lot of Anime style artwork, and certain elements of storytelling and made it accessible to American audiences in a way that authentic Japanese Anime is not.

And one of the Anime storytelling elements, a very important one, is that there are not, in the end, clear "sides". It is not necessary to remain at war until the enemy is destroyed and the person presently against you is not automatically evil.

The complaint that all of the antagonists are brown, no matter how sincerely someone's feelings are hurt, is objectively wrong. It is also entirely buying into the notion of "sides" which should be rejected as the rejection of sides is one of Avatar's greatest strengths.

And you know, frankly, the "passively-racist culture" of Hollywood presents a whole lot of stupid problems, but the actively racist and bigoted productions elsewhere don't even warrant mention... unless it's someone saying about how "refreshing" it is.

And one of the very top rated movies and most profitable in the US right now stars a whole bunch of Asians and a black kid, so I really don't see how anyone is avoiding casting Asians because they don't do well on Western screens.

It's a bit like saying that Will Smith's success in Hollywood doesn't count because he's taking leading man roles away from white actors so often instead of starring in proper "black" movies... and I've heard that sincerely said.

And also that Cleopatra should not be played by a white actress because she was... Greek?

Sometimes people are pretty stupid. No reason to have to pretend they aren't.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Synova said...

I do agree about Earthsea. LeGuin wrote the races in that series deliberately. Changing them is like making Ender in Ender's Game into a teenager.

10:19 PM  

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