Between 2005 and 2008, American-based television network Nickelodeon aired what would become one of the most lauded and commercially successful children’s shows of its time, Avatar: The Last Airbender. At its best, Avatar presents stirring storylines that grapple with the complexities of human relationships in meaningful ways, offering the audience narratives that confront racism (“Book 1-3”), misogyny (“The Warriors of Kyoshi,” “The Waterbending Master,” “The Painted Lady”), classism (“The Swamp”), and ableism (“The Blind Bandit”), while foregrounding redemption (“The Western Air Temple”), forgiveness (“The Southern Raiders”), and the importance of social support systems (“Sozin’s Comet: Part1-4”). Grounding its moral message primarily in the tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism, Avatar encourages children to become peaceful adults who work together to avoid perpetuating erasure or violence against other cultures.
Yet the American television show’s homage to and reliance on eastern and indigenous culture—in everything from its visual aesthetics to the cultural makeup of its invented nations—threatens to push the series into the realm of cultural appropriation. The fraught relationship between North American and Asian culture embedded in the makeup of the show is further complicated when considering the ramifications of M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation, The Last Airbender, in which the three protagonists are effectively whitewashed. This probe considers a number of nuances between cultural appropriation and appreciation in an attempt to underscore the fluidity between these categories and interrogate whether culture can be owned—and, if so, by whom.
Book 1: Appropriation
Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a fictional Asian-inspired world divided into four nations based on the elements of the dominant natural-philosophical theory in Chinese Buddhist literature: the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. Populating this world are people who can manipulate the elements of the nation they are born into through a process called “bending,” which is visually stylized after the martial arts T’ai Chi, Hung Gar, Northern Shaolin, and Ba Gua in each respective nation. The story follows a twelve year old boy named Aang—the last surviving airbender after the Fire Nation committed mass genocide against the Air Nomads—who also happens to be the Avatar, a being of heightened spiritual ability whose role is to master all four elements and bring balance to the world. Accompanying him on his adventure are siblings Katara and Sokka, whose dress, hunting practices, and villages in the South Pole borrow heavily from Polynesian and Native American cultures.
Avatar’s visual style is heavily indebted to Japanese anime and the work of artists and studios such as Miyazaki, Gainax, and Shinichiro Watanabe, setting it apart from other cartoons airing on Nickelodeon. The show’s broader eastern aesthetic is equally deliberate. In an interview on Nickelodeon, creators Michael Danter DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko describe the process of creating Avatar as the following:
[W]e wanted to create a mythology that was based on Eastern culture, rather than Western culture. […] we were inspired by Asian mythology, as well as Kung Fu, Yoga, and Eastern Philosophy. […] We read a lot about Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese history. We also have several consultants who work for the show—a cultural consultant that reviews all the scripts; a Kung Fu consultant who helps choreograph all the bending moves so that they are accurate to the style on which they are based; and a Chinese calligrapher who does all the signs and posters in the show.
DiMartino and Konietzko vacillate between appreciation and appropriation of Asian culture and, at times, even seem suspicious of their own positionality relative to their creation. On the one hand, they engage with the people whose cultures they borrow from in order to build trust and ensure their work is as authentic as possible. As Marcus Boon argues in In Praise of Copying, “copying […] is connected to love” (234), and the creators of Avatar claim they are “just trying to pay homage.” On the other hand, DiMartino and Konietzko do more than pay homage when they appropriate spiritually significant terms: “We chose the word ‘Avatar’ because it is an ancient Hindu word meaning ‘a temporary manifestation of a continuing entity.’” Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, and Shinto spiritual influences converge and become the religious doctrine of the Avatar world, ignoring the fact that these religions have historically served as a source of social and political divisions between groups.
In “From Appropriation to Subversion,” Peter Kulchyski argues that “[a]ppropriation involves the practice on the part of dominant social groups of deploying cultural texts produced by dominated social groups for their own (elite) interests” (614). Following that definition, Avatar can be considered appropriation par excellence, a franchise that engages both in cultural voyeurism and cultural appropriation in order to create a show that appeals to the exoticization and fetishization of dominated social groups.
“Since ‘culture’ can be characterized as one of the most useful intellectual tools of the twentieth century—slowly coming to replace the nineteenth century concept of ‘race’ as a way of differentiating peoples—it has come to be taken for granted and, to an extraordinary extent, vacated of focus or precision.” (Kulchyski 605)
It is this lack of focus that facilitates appropriation in the name of homage; two American creators cherry pick from various Asian and Indigenous cultures to create a melting pot that blends aspects of real-world nations and erects distinct—if not wholly artificial—boundaries within the cartoon environment. As a result, Avatar presents an ancient world comprised of elements an American is likely to associate with Asia or Indigenous groups—martial arts, Buddhist and Hindu spirituality, food preparation and consumption practices, Chinese calligraphy, etc.—decontextualized from any explicit, specific history or culture. Avatar’s world, no matter how well researched, becomes flattened into a generic representation of Asian-ness, and it is this very flattening that eludes appropriation. With the boundaries so blurred, what can we even argue has been appropriated from individual cultures?
Book 2: Adaptation
When Paramount announced a live action film trilogy adaptation of the much beloved series, fans’ excitement was short lived after it became clear that the movie would whitewash the series. The Last Airbender’s four starring roles were initially all to go to white actors, but, when pop singer Jesse McCartney backed out of the role of villain Zuko due to scheduling conflicts and was replaced by Dev Patel, a whole new issue of representation came to light. In casting a South Asian actor as the villain, The Last Airbender problematically connects darker skin to the corruption of the Fire Nation. Although Avatar is by no means a perfect representation of Asian cultures, The Last Airbender strips the series of its detailed research and replaces complex race relations between the four nations with a world in which the villains are marginalized bodies in opposition to homogenous white heroes.
In an interview with TIME Magazine, Shyamalan takes full ownership of the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, saying, “I could have cast anybody I wanted to. You’re talking to one of the only Asian filmmakers in the world who has complete control.” Shyamalan’s case is that, given his status as Indian-American, casting exclusively white actors to play the heroes of his film cannot possibly be racist because he himself is of South-Asian descent. This defence raises important questions of appropriation: namely, can one appropriate when one comes from an often-appropriated community themselves?
Evolving out of a letter writing campaign on LiveJournal called “Aang Ain’t White,” which protested the movie’s casting decisions came Racebending.com. Informed by the theories articulated in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, racebending also makes a clever pun on the abilities of inhabitants of the Avatar world to bend the elements. Whereas Butler’s theory of gender bending refers to the celebratory practice of performing gender against biological sex and cultural expectations, racebending replaces marginalized bodies with white bodies, restricting rather than broadening possibilities. As well, “‘racebending’ can be seen as more than simply changing the race of a character: it is changing the race of characters of color to white for reasons of marketability” (Lopez, qtd. in Gilliland 2.4). Not merely a symptom of neglect or cultural naivety, racebending is a deliberate, strategic erasure of people of color in order to increase capital.
But how can one claim the erasure of identity when, to a great extent, the characters in The Last Airbender have always been white? While they are visually depicted as Inuit and East-Asian and drawn in an anime style, Aang, Katara, and Sokka were created by two white men and voiced by white people. Indeed the villain-turned-antihero Zuko is the only one of the four to have been voiced by an Asian-American in the original series. The fact that boycotters of The Last Airbender were a) by and large not Asian or of Asian descent and b) seldom considered the fact that the majority of the original voice actors were also Caucasian suggests that perhaps fans are more attached to the idea of Indigenous- and Asian-ness the American creators present in Avatar than with the individual cultures themselves. After all, the show attempts to provide a model for doing Eastern cultural appropriation right. Fan outcry that The Last Airbender is “ruining” Avatar directs the gaze instead towards the endemic problem in Hollywood where Asian actors, writers, and directors are replaced with white actors, writers, and directors who presume to tell their stories. In my previous probe on appropriation of Coast-Salish cultural objects, I briefly addressed the ways in which dominant culture insists on enforcing their own understanding of what aspects of a given marginalized culture is authentic. In this case, Avatar and the resulting resistance to the casting of The Last Airbender use authenticity as a way to legitimize the cultural appropriation inherent in the original television series.
Book 3: Appreciation
Avatar and The Last Airbender do not exist solely on a screen, but are part of a larger system of cultural production. As Frederic Jameson notes, “What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally” (qtd in Kulchyski 610). Between Avatar and its spiritual successor, The Legend of Korra, the franchise has built an immense commodity culture, consisting of comic books, video games, Lego, jewelry, clothing, and cosplay, raising questions about appropriation grounded in fans’ reactionary behaviors. For instance, is wearing orange robes appropriative if it is accompanied by blue arrow tattoos as a direct homage to an American cartoon at a comic book convention? Is it appropriative to write fanfic grounded in Asian history and mythology in order to engage in world-building in the Avatar universe?
To conclude this probe, I want to address Marcus Boon’s comment that, although today’s prevalent appropriation does not obey the laws of cultural exchange, “this doesn’t mean it’s used solely by the privileged or powerful on the marginalized and powerless, since it’s also employed by the marginalized and powerless” (231). Two weeks ago, Nigerian illustrator and comic book artist Marcus Williams released images from his Avatar fan-fiction, Avatar: The Legend of Abioye. Set one hundred years after Korra, the adaptation reimagines the characters as Nigerian, and encourages us to think about the effects of yet another type of racebending: is it appropriative for one dominated culture to depict themselves in the space of another? Or is Williams reclaiming Avatar for the marginalized after Hollywood’s instatement of white hegemony? By setting his story a century later, Williams refrains from appropriating and erasing the characters who are clearly stylized as Asian and Indigenous and tactfully allows his new Yoruba benders Iya, Ikenna, and Ballogun to (co)exist in the Avatar universe. As fanfiction, Avatar: The Legend of Abioye arguably presents a true attempt at appreciation without appropriation.
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Written by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, directed by Lauren MacMullan, Nickelodeon Animation, 2005-2008.
Boon, Marcus. “Copying as Appropriation.” In Praise of Copying. Harvard University Press, 2010, pp. 204-37.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.
“Everything you ever wanted to know about Avatar: The Last Airbender answered by the creators, Mike & Bryan!” Nicksplat.com Nickelodeon, 12 Oct. 2005.http://web.archive.org/web/20071217111256/http:/www.nicksplat.com/Whatsup/200510/12000135.html. Accessed 4 Nov 2016.
Gilliland, Elizabeth. “Racebending Fandoms and Digital Futurism.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol 22, 2016, http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/702/651. Accessed 4 Nov 2016.
Konietzko, Bryan, & Michael Danter DiMartino. Avatar, the Last Airbender: The art of the animated series. Dark Horse Comics, 2010.
Kulchyski, Peter. “From Appropriation to Subversion: Aboriginal Cultural Production in the Age of Postmodernism.” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4, 1997, pp. 605-620. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1185715. Accessed 10 Oct 2016.
The Last Airbender. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, performances by Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, and Dev Patel, Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Pictures, 2010.
Shyamalan, M. Night. “10 Questions for M. Night Shayamalan.” TIME Magazine, 12 July 2010. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2001008,00.html. Accessed 4 Nov 2016.