Cinematic Chat: offscreen diversity in “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

by Elsa Ying (’23) | March 21, 2022

Art by Caitlin Chan (’22)

The rising demand for racial and ethnic representation in film, television and all forms of media has recently sparked conversations about representation offscreen. While television shows and movies have portrayed people of color on screen from the beginning of the industry, more often than not, they were written, casted, produced, and even portrayed by white screenwriters, directors, editors, actors, and staff. However, with more people of color working behind the scenes, there has been an increasing opportunity for marginalized people to tell their own stories, as well as more consumer interest in diversity behind the scenes.

One controversial example is the beloved fantasy kid’s show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aired from February 2005 to July 2008 on Nickelodeon, this show is set in a mainly Asiatic-inspired world, with four major nations and a few other groups each based on a real group of people. Examples include the Earth Kingdom, which drew aspects from ancient Chinese dynasties; the Fire Nation, inspired by Imperial Japan; the Air Nomads, heavily based on South and East Asian Buddhists; and the Water Tribes that borrowed from Inuit and Yupik cultures. However, as the show grew in popularity, people began to point out its problematic stereotypes, such as the use of Vietnamese influences solely for comedic characters and the borrowing from Hindu beliefs through a caricature of a South Asian guru.

Furthermore, one hotly-debated aspect of the show was its haphazard mixing of details from various cultures to create its nations, like incorporating Chinese mythology into the culture of the indigenous-inspired Water Tribes, or using ambiguously Mayan and Aztec traditions for one group of firebenders. While some believed it was natural to draw influences from various cultures, others took offense because of the Western world’s long history of conflating Asian cultures with each other, perpetuating the idea of a monolithic Asian culture.

The impact of the misuse of these cultural elements is exacerbated, considering that the show’s main producers, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and Aaron Ehasz, are all white men. Still, the show developed a cult-like following, with fans praising DiMartino, Konietzko, and Ehasz for the Asian representation at a time when not many Asian-centered shows were being aired on mainstream TV. Notably, fans often failed to mention the lack of diversity of those working beyond the screen, as well as the systemic barriers that historically prevent creators of color from providing representation on television.

When a new live action television remake was announced in 2018, fans were elated at the promise of an accurate non-whitewashed cast and celebrated the return of DiMartino and Konietzko as showrunners. After DiMartino and Konietzko left the show in 2020 due to creative differences, fans were upset, with many immediately writing off the show despite the reveal of the new, majority Asian creative team. DiMartino and Konietzko were also announced as co-creative officers of Nickelodeon’s new Avatar Studios in 2021 to the joy of many fans, who viewed it as an appropriate replacement for Netflix’s live action remake.

The avid support for DiMartino and Konietzko for a show, centered on cultures that are not their own, further emphasizes the racial disparity in Hollywood creators. Writers of color are passed over or given significantly smaller budgets compared to their white counterparts, and are thus heavily underrepresented in most aspects of the industry. DiMartino and Konietzko have huge success in the industry and continue to profit off of an Asiatic-inspired show, while Asian and indigenous writers still struggle to even get an opportunity to tell their stories.

Although Hollywood has shown change during recent years, the fact that the live action remake of Avatar—with its mainly minority cast and crew—is being written off so quickly because of the departure of two white men demonstrates how past prejudice and systemic barriers continue to affect representation today. DiMartino and Konietzko may have had genuine intentions of cultural appreciation, but it doesn’t erase the fact that their success continues to overshadow creators of color even today.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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