By Guest Contributor Michael Le, cross-posted from Racebending.com
I’d like the chance to explain what Racebending.com is about. Why are we boycotting Paramount’s The Last Airbender? Why are we angry about the production’s casting practices?
I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding here and my hope is that if you have the time to read my piece, you’ll find that we’re reasonable folks with valid concerns. We’re not just whistle-blowing PC police or crazy “reverse racists.”
Even if I don’t convince you to go out and buy a Racebending shirt, I hope that by the end, you respect our position more, and can understand where we’re coming from even if you don’t agree.
If you’re pressed for time and the length of this piece annoys you, we have a five-minute video series explaining our position, though it won’t address everything in this piece: http://www.racebending.com/v3/featured/the-last-airbender-film-how-to-talk-about-it-video-series/”>Why Are People Upset About Airbender?
WHY THIS ISSUE MATTERS
Sometimes it’s hard to see why something as trivial as a film matters. Why video games are important or how comic books can shape our lives.
In a given week, the average American child spends less than forty minutes in meaningful conversation with their parents. In the same week, he or she will also spend sixteen hundred and eighty minutes watching television.
In a given year, an American child will spend 900 hours in school – and 1500 hours watching television.
(source: http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html by Norman Herr, PhD Professor of Science and Education)
Clearly, children spend a great deal of time consuming media. It helps shape how they view the world and themselves. In the states, we find it very easy to fight the gender stereotypes they may be exposed to. We tell our daughters that they can grow up to be doctors or lawyers or presidents, and that they are just as capable as any boy.
But in America, we’re very skittish about the subject of race. We like to stick to vague statements like “Everybody is equal” – a lofty and admirable statement, to be sure, but abstract and tough for a child to grasp.
When we don’t talk to our children about race, they draw their own conclusions, and one of their main sources of information about the world is media.
The kind of concepts children internalize about themselves is demonstrated in a study known as the doll test, initially conducted to help end segregation in the states, and performed again in more recent years:
AREN’T WE ALL EQUAL NOW?
About once a month, someone asks me some variant of this question: “Where are you from?”
“San Diego,” I’ll say.
“No,” comes the response. “Where are you REALLY from?”
There are more folks of Asian descent living in the United States than there are people in the entire country of Holland. My English is flawless (insofar as I’m a Californian with zealous overuse of the word “like”). Many of the folks who ask me this question I consider friends. And I’m not saying “Oh, look how racist everyone is.”
What I am saying is that Asian Americans aren’t really thought of as American. One of my close friends has a straight-up Brooklyn accent. He was telling a coworker that he used to serve in the army.
“Oh, cool. The Chinese army?”
It’s easy to draw comparisons between the Airbender casting and an English actor playing an Irish one, or a Spanish actor playing an Italian actor. But it’s not really the same, and the reason is that Hollywood and media don’t consider whether an actor is Irish or Spanish or English. They think of that actor as “white.” The same is not true of actors who are Asian or Latino, who have to fight over the few roles specifically written for those ethnicities. And a lot of times, even when a role is steeped in Asian culture, even when a role is based on real-life individuals of Asian descent, those roles still go to white actors.
Does it happen the other way, where a “white” role is given to a person of color? Sometimes. But I think this is a case where the exceptions prove the rule:
Over the last ten years, 86% of Paramount’s lead actors have been white. In fact, of the 54 films released or announced for 2010 and on, 83% of Paramount’s leads are white males. From 2000 to 2009, Paramount didn’t produce a single movie starring a Latino, Asian American, or Native American actor. There’s a phrase for numbers like these: glass ceiling.
Pretty messed up… but Hollywood’s a business, after all. They want to appeal to their main demographic: white males. Right?
Hollywood is a business and we don’t dispute that. What we dispute is the idea that somehow, people of color are not as marketable as Caucasian actors. Will Smith, for example, is the number one box office draw in America, and has been for the better part of a decade.
The Last Airbender is a great example, because the most well-known actor of the top four roles is Dev Patel – an actor of Indian descent. In contrast, the lead roles of Aang and Katara went to unknown Caucasian actors. Noah Ringer was, in fact, chosen for his martial arts ability – not his acting ability. He was sent to an “acting bootcamp” before filming started.
When a casting call is released that says “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” wanted – as Airbender’s casting call read – it biases the entire process.
Imagine you are a casting agent and you see a casting call that reads “AFRICAN or any other ethnicity” wanted. You have a vast pool of actors to choose from to send to this audition. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time and you want to give the production what they’re seeking. How likely are you to send this call sheet to your black actors? To your Asian actors? To your white actors?
So Americans of Asian descent don’t have a chance to prove themselves, even when the role in question is steeped in Asian culture and context. Asian actors have proven successful in countless other martial arts films, both in America and abroad.
Hollywood is a business, but it is still run by people who have certain worldviews. Most Hollywood films are marketed toward men. But the American movie-going audience is 55% female. Only 45% of people buying tickets are men, but Hollywood is clinging to a marketing mindset from the 1930s, and they’re losing out on a lot of business.
If 55% of movie tickets are being bought by women now, even when films are hardly marketed to them, how much money could Hollywood make if they started focusing more on this demographic?
And just as Hollywood holds onto this bias toward male movie-goers, so too are they stuck on this notion that actors of color can’t carry film. The television industry is catching up: look at the big-hitters recently. You have successful programs like Lost, Glee, and Community with very diverse casts. You have children’s programming like Ni Hao Kai Lan and Dora the Explorer.
And when audiences have a choice of who they want to watch? You only have to look at the success of Asian American performers in reality television like America’s Best Dance Crew. On YouTube, the single most successful star is Japanese American. When audiences have a choice and a vote and a say in what they want to watch – they’re just as happy to choose Asian American as white American.
So the message to Hollywood is: we know that you’ve always used Caucasian actors for almost every big role. You’re used to it. But the Western world is changing. We have a biracial African American president and a Muslim Miss USA.
To production companies out there: tap into the audiences that your competitors are ignoring! Americans care about seeing media that reflects the world we truly live in. Half of Racebending.com supporters are Caucasian – because audiences can relate to transforming robots, giant blue aliens, kung fu pandas. And yes, even to Asian faces.
I hope you were at least able to skim it for the big points. And I hope you have a better understanding of where we’re coming from.
Either way, thanks a lot for reading.