Tuesday, June 30, 2009

You and Your Racist Friend

(The title of this post comes from a They Might Be Giants song, before I get any questions about it. I'm bad at titles.)

Okay, so I'm still working on other entries, but they're requiring more research on my part, so they're slower going. And I really felt the need to post something about this, since it's such a prevalent part of discussing pop culture, and particularly films.

Several years ago, Nickelodeon had a show on called Avatar: The Last Airbender that I enjoyed, but rarely saw just because I was usually too busy and was never entirely sure when it was on anyway. But it was a pretty progressive show for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the break from the typical European/Anglo-centric setting/characters, but also because it had a linear plotline that progressed throughout the series, and some other things that others who know the show better than I have talked about at length. But it was very deliberately set in a Pacific-Asia-based world, with certain countries and regions based on Chinese, Tibetan, Inuit, Mongolian, and South-East Asian cultures, respectively, and heavily used philosophy, religion, clothing, writing and other such elements from the same regions as well. It was a very well-thought out world and the characters always seemed to me like they had a bit more depth than your typical afternoon cartoon show as well, and it developed a pretty big following, not just amongst children, but teens and even adults as well. It had a complex storyline that dealt with issues like war, xenophobia, ethnic cleansing, and the like, and it seemed to handle them well without getting too disturbing for younger viewers.

Well, because it was so popular, of course Hollywood, which seems to have run out of ideas of its own these days, came calling about a live-action adaptation. And of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, got its grubby paws all over it and whitewashed the cast. The three main lead characters, two Inuit-based and one Tibetan-based, are being played by white actors in the film. The fourth lead, the villain, was originally cast to be white as well, but due to massive fan outcry, the studio recast Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame in the role, thus making him, and the Fire Nation from which he comes, the only leading character of Asian ethnicity. So yeah, not only are there three white kids saving the world, but the main antagonist nation is basically India. Yeah, that's not just slightly distasteful or anything.

I could go on at length about how much I find wrong with how the studio has handled this film, but it'd probably be pretty hypocritical of me, since I've only seen the show a handful of times. However, there is a lot of dialogue about it from plenty of people who have, and I recently came across this post from someone who is not only a fan of the show, but a professional in the animation industry as well (edit: sorry, she's not actually a pro, she just knows enough that I thought she was. Whoops!), and she put her concerns so much better than I could have, so I'll just link you: On the Avatar Racefail.

Now, having said all that, at the end of the day, I can't honestly say I'm surprised that this happened. What does surprise me is the number of people who seem to think it doesn't matter. Sorry, guys, as much as some people like to say so, we don't live in a post-racist society. Of course I don't believe that race should matter as much as it does, but regardless of how we know things should be, we also can't let it obscure our view of how things really are. And as diverse a place as the US is, you wouldn't really know it to look at most of our TV and film output. Despite living in the twenty-first century, most of our film-based pop culture is very white, middle-class because that's what producers and studios think the "default" is. When they're selling a product (and believe me, that's what most pop culture media is-- "art" very rarely enters the equation), their main concern is making it as accessible to the widest audience possible. Sure, they'll toss some "tokens" in to keep the "P.C. Police" at bay, but you will almost never see a minority character in a leading part unless they've become too popular to afford to leave out. See, the dangerous thing about this form of racism is that it's not so much a "keep the minorities in their place" thing, it's a "well we need to reach the biggest demographic and more people relate to white guys" thing. The assumption is that having "ethnic" leads will alienate the mainstream American viewing audience, which is so beyond assenine, I can't even begin to articulate all the reasons why.

This is the same mentality that Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding has recently written about dealing with when trying to pitch her new movie idea-- "Women Don't Go to Movies"-- huh?. This isn't some antiquated old school of thought from back in the Hays Code days of Hollywood, it's still very much alive now, it's just less overt. To the people who say, 'it's not that big of a deal', or, 'why do you people have to make a race/gender issue out of everything?', I say it does matter because there's a huge percentage of the population in the U.S. alone who feel marginalized, or even outright vilified by the culture they live in, even if they're fifth-generation U.S.-born. And people make a big deal out of this stuff because if no one said anything, nothing would change. The studios in Hollywood don't give a rat's ass about anything but their bottom line, and the only way they change anything is if the viewing public fail to give them money for their product. If people who know better don't make a stink and raise these problems (that do tend to get brushed under the carpet, probably because they're such an intrinsic part of our culture and people just don't notice it), the problems will not go away on their own.

I've actually been kicking around the idea of asking people to try something the next time they go to a rental store, or are browsing Netflix, or looking at the movies playing at their local theater, to take a second and look at the movies and take note of what the race and gender of the star. And then change them. And then think about how they feel about the movie then, or even how they might feel if those really were their viewing options. I'm not trying to be snotty (although I'm sure I'm coming across that way), I'm honestly, genuinely curious to find out how people feel about it.

11 comments:

  1. I for one wish there were more ethnicities in movies, I was watching a crappy indie horror called "Albino Farm" the other day and was shocked that there was an Indian kid in the flick. I was like: "WTF! An Indian guy? And one with an actual accent, too? And he's a good guy?!"

    - Zac

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  2. Yeah Zac, but here's the big question: did he live to then end of the film? If he died, was he the first one to go?

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  3. The, not then. I think I'm having a stroke.

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  4. Nope, he survived right till the end with the 'final girl'...

    ...and then died (heroically, no less).

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  5. Ever heard of BET? Now that's racist, not mainstream media. I refuse to feel guilty for being white and for enjoying movies that star other blazing white crackers such as myself. :)

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  6. I've never watched BET but I don't see how it's any more racist than channels like Lifetime or Oxygen are sexist. Having a channel devoted to catering to a specific demographic of people is absolutely nothing new, as the myriad of sports channels, comedy channels, children's channels, news channels, cooking channels, and so on will attest to.

    No one's saying you have to feel guilty for enjoying a show or a movie with white people as the star, hell, people have been doing that for about a hundred years now. That's not the purpose of this post. What I was trying to get people to see was the lack of any real variety in regards to race in mainstream media culture. It's not saying "get rid of all the white actors", it's saying "hey, white people aren't the only ones with interesting stories".

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  7. I watch BET all the time, it's a good channel!

    I wish there was just a wider range of people in movies in general. Not all final girls need to be anorexic, white bitches with pretty faces - not all male characters need to be either white jock-y douchebags or skinny Asian nerds.

    - Zac

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  8. I see what you're saying Bevin. Still think BET is racist though. I mean seriously, like all hell wouldn't break loose if someone tried to start a WET channel. ;)
    Honestly I don't have a stake in this either way. The only TV I am subjected to these days comes in the form of SpongeBob, Dora the explorer, and Handy Manni. Two of the three are mexican, spanish-teaching do gooders, the other is a waterlogged cleaning supply. I guess that's just enough ethnic variety for me.

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  9. Well, I guess where I'm coming from with BET is that no one would need to make a channel targeted mostly at whites because most of them already are. ;)

    And I almost never watch TV anymore either, but I am studying pop culture and mass media in school, so I'm noticing patterns in terms of who's getting most of the attention. And, well, I'm nothing if not a busybody who loves talking about what she's learning in school, especially if I think it's important. ;)

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  10. Almost forgot to say! It's my understanding that Jesse McCartney, the original actor cast for Zuko, actually had to drop out, which is why Dev Patel was cast (this happened, like, RIGHT after Slumdog won the Oscar, so hello, cashing in), not because anybody was actually listening to the fan outcry, to which they've pretty universally been turning a deaf ear. Racebending has pretty good documentation that the outcry hasn't just been from fans, either.

    And yeah... 98% of TV already is WET. A marginalized minority saying, "Hey, if the big guys won't acknowledge our existence, let's carve out our own niche" is hardly what I'd call racism. Is Logo also part of some gay supremicist agenda?

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