#teamavatar: aang ain’t white!

When Avatar: The Last Airbender aired, it felt like the first time I had seen a predominately non-white cast outside of Japanese animation. Much of Avatar is inspired by Asia (mostly Korea, Japan and China) and the Inuits, and also exemplifies different styles of Chinese martial arts for each of the four elements. As an American animation, it was exciting to see so many characters of colors.

As Teah Abdullah states, “Not only did the cartoon have representation I could identify with, but it is also a great series where the characters are not based on stereotypes” – and I agree for the most part. The representation was what drew me to the series as well.  However, Abdullah then compares herself with Aang and his lack of Asian stereotypes (glasses and small eyes). However, Aang’s larger eyes is partly due to his age. Younger characters have rounder faces and larger eyes. In addition, stereotypes are what helps an audience recognize what demographic the character is similar to.

Glancing at the character designs for the cast of Avatar, it’s clear that a majority of the cast have a darker skin tone and hair color due to an Asian-influenced character design. This is where M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation, The Last Airbender (2010), misses the ball.

In an interview with io9, Shyamalan mentioned that the greatest thing about anime is its ambiguity – that the characters are an intentional mix of all features.  Which is where my agreement with Shyamalan ends. While the ambiguity is great, once again, stereotypes help develop character designs that then point towards specific ethnicities. Additionally, there are elements within the Avatar universe that help express its ethnic background.

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For example, Katara and Sokka (both live action casts are white). The siblings live in the Southern Water Tribe at the South Pole – which resembles Earth’s artic regions. As a result, the Water Tribes largely resemble Inuit culture especially in the clothing and the igloos. So when Shyamalan uses ambiguity as a reason to cast any ethnicity for each of the tribes, I can’t help but wonder if he chose to ignore the cultural signs within the animation series.

But how does that explain the whitewashing and how the Fire Nation is Indian? According to Maryann Erigha’s peer-reviewed journal, the lack of diversity in media producers often results in underrepresentation of diversity on-screen. That is, there is a link between behind-the-scenes racial and cultural diversity and on-screen action. Often times, the “employment of women and racial/ethnic minorities behind-the-scenes positively impacted their quality of on-screen images”.

From Shyamalan’s casting we can see the behind-the-scenes affecting on-screen images (ie. the Fire Nation as Indian and background characters in the Water Tribe appearing to be Inuit) to a fault. The clear diversity and ethnic origins of each tribe is clearly ignored despite many signs within the character and set designs. As a result, it’s no wonder the film was a complete flop. The highlight of the animation series was its diverse cast, and the lack of was largely responsible for the negativity towards the film (amongst other things).

– Alison Chiu


Prime Time for a Female Superhero

What do The Hunger Games, Divergent and Game of Thrones have in common? Strong female leads. That’s right. Katniss Everdeen, Beatrice Prior and Danerys Targaryen are all girls who kick ass… and they all happen to be incredibly popular as well. Which is why I’m confused when Marvel is apparently “too busy” for a Black Widow film, and I’m excited for the releases of Supergirl (coming Fall 2015) and Wonder Woman (2017). As Geoff Johns puts it, “We’re so overdue for a female-centric superhero show that’s really good” – which makes the productions of Supergirl and Wonder Woman even more significant.

Supergirl follows the story of Kara Zor-El, Clark Kent’s cousin, and how she becomes a superhero. One of the aspects of the trailer that I enjoy is the fact that Kara is someone trying to understand herself. While she possesses knowledge of her superpowers (which are the same as Superman’s), she struggles with actually being comfortable with herself.

According to the trailer, Kara has tried to live a ‘normal’ life and is now finally being able to embrace her heritage. Like Katniss, Beatrice and Danerys, they were able to become who they are through experience and seeing these struggles on screen is incredibly powerful. Each of their stories makes them relatable and enable them to become strong female characters girls can look up to.

That said, the conversation between Kara and her boss, Cat Grant about the use of ‘girl’ in ‘Supergirl’ has me curious. Although I agree with Caitlin Kelly in her opinion article that it’s refreshing to see ‘girl’ not used to undermine or infantilize a woman, some of Grant’s word choice in her speech are odd.

Kara Danvers: “Shouldn’t she be called Super… woman?”

Cat Grant: “What do you think is so bad about ‘girl’? I’m a girl. And your boss, and powerful, and rich, and hot, and smart. So if you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?”

While there isn’t anything wrong with ‘girl’, the usage of ‘hot’ is strange since I would usually use ‘girl’ to describe a younger age group (like someone in elementary or middle school). At the same time, the questions Cat Grant presents are interesting. I don’t think there’s anything bad about being a ‘girl’, and I believe there is some power to calling Kara’s secret identity ‘Supergirl’.

Either way, with women as leads in entertainment being a minority, it’s great to finally see a female superhero take center stage on prime time television. Hopefully the show will survive its first season because I believe Supergirl is someone for (especially) young girls to look up to. Although she possesses superpowers, Kara still faces normal problems like personal acceptance and becoming comfortable with herself.

–  Alison Chiu

Let’s Get Down to Business: The Casting for Disney’s Live Action of Mulan

With Disney’s live actions of Cinderella (2015) and Beauty and the Beast (2017), it was exciting to hear when the studio announced its intention to release a live action version of Mulan as well. Mulan was one of my favorite Disney animations growing up and while the release date hasn’t been revealed yet, there has been much discussion about its potential cast members including BuzzFeed.

But why is it so important that Mulan have an Asian or Asian-American cast (furthermore, of Chinese or Mongolian descent)? The original story comes from the Chinese tale the Ballad of Mulan and though Mulan was real, the story has been retold to epic proportions. Although there are differences between the original ballad and Disney’s version – such as Mulan being a skilled warrior and was actually in the army for at least 12 years – I think it’s pretty safe to say it would only be right that the live-action film highlight an Asian or Asian-American cast.

Except multiple times, Disney has been accused of “whitewashing” (white actors cast instead of relatively unknown actors of color) – including Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger and Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan. As a result, I believe the (unfortunately) recent history of “whitewashing” has made it understandable that fans would want to petition against a whitewashed Mulan before the cast has even been announced.

This is even more important when considering an Independent article that revealed only 12 percent of the top 100 films in 2014 had women as the main characters and only 4 percent of all female characters were Asian or Latina. So is there reason to worry that Mulan might be cast with a white actress? With the current track record of the lack of representation, definitely. But that isn’t to say an entirely Asian cast would be impossible – ie. ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

So what are some cast ideas? Many are vetting for Ming-Na Wen (the original voice actress for Mulan), but BuzzFeed also has several great ideas of its own. Constance Wu (from Fresh Off the Boat) seems like a great alternative to Ming-Na Wen, and I am a huge fan BuzzFeed’s cast of Jackie Chan as Mushu. Though the original voice actor was Eddie Murphy, I loved growing up with Jackie Chan Adventures. Another possible actor (of my own suggestion) might be Chow Yun-Fat who was played Captain Sao Feng in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Yet regardless of how the cast is ultimately made up, I believe the most important factor in deciding the actress for Mulan is keeping true to her heritage. As a Chinese hero, wouldn’t it make the most sense that the actress is Chinese as well in order to accurately represent the legend’s ethnic origin?

Breaking the Mold: A New Generation of Superheroes

Superheroes are often symbols of American ideology – defining what America considers good and what good should look like. At the time of their conception, each superhero embodies the current cultural and social values and become characters children can pretend to be in mock battles, rescue missions, and etc. In valuing these characters, it then becomes important to consider how much society has or hasn’t changed.

Consider this small anecdote by Djimon Hounsou who played a minor role in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: “One day [my son] looks at me and says, ‘Dad, I want to be light-skinned so I could be Spider-Man. Spider-Man has light skin.’ That was sort of a shock.”  As shocking as this is, it really makes me consider how important it is to have a greater diversity of superheroes for children to connect with and relate to.

Some of the most iconic superheroes are: Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Captain America. While many characters have been left out, the general stereotypes still follow: white and male. As a result, white and male superheroes embody American ideology and sense of ‘good’ — which is why it is important to prove that you don’t have to be white and/or male in order to become a superhero especially when these characters are capable of becoming positive role models for children.  This is why characters like Cindy Moon (Silk), Sam Wilson (Falcon), John Stewart and Simon Baz (Green Lanterns) are significant.  However, embracing this new diversity is still a work in progress.

Take Simon Baz, for example.  Simon Baz is a Muslim-American and DC’s latest human to join the Green Lantern Corp. Initially he is introduced as a car thief who picks up a van filled with explosives during a job. In an attempt to save lives, he ditches the car at an abandoned construction site. Unfortunately, he is labeled a terrorist and is captured and interrogated by the FBI. As Shoshana Kessock points out in her article: “Introducing Simon Baz, the First Muslim-American Green Lantern”, Simon Baz’s introduction is far from perfect.  Kessock raises questions concerning Geoff John’s method of introducing Simon Baz and choice of giving him a criminal background. Furthermore, she felt that Baz’s backstory of intolerance and discrimination was stereotypical and failed to battle the negative stereotypes towards Muslims despite Simon Baz ultimately becoming a superhero.

Although I agree with Kessock’s questions, I find Simon Baz’s introduction to be refreshing. It is great to see a new wave of superheroes that are joining other main cast superheroes. Though Baz’s introduction did seem to use already existing stereotypes about Muslims, allowing Simon Baz as a superhero is already a step forward. It shows that anyone can become a superhero, enables children to find a character they can better relate to, and will hopefully improve public opinions towards minority groups as well.

After all, isn’t it only right that superheroes of color also embody American ideology and sense of ‘good’ too and for superheroes to become a better reflection of modern day society?