April 29, 2020

NGUYEN | ‘The Last Airbender’: A Case Study on Tokenism

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Last Thursday, I found love in a hopeless place.

Or, I guess …  more accurately, I reignited an old flame in the era of COVID-19. No, this is not a Sex on Thursday column. But yes, my relationship with Avatar: The Last Airbender is part of the greatest love story ever told.

Each morning back home in California, I’m stirred awake by the glare of sunshine through my window — a stark contrast to the months of snow and gloom tethered to Ithaca winters. But still, the past few weeks have been bleak: This pandemic has felt like a brutal rainstorm, a constant downpour of heartbreaking headlines and statistics. As we hole ourselves up in quarantine and ready our webcams for Zoom University lectures, it’s evident to all of us that everything changed when Coronavirus struck.

But, graciously and charitably, when the world needed it most, a glimmer of hope peeked through. Last Thursday, a miracle arrived in the form of a Netflix tweet (as they often do): “Water. Earth. Fire. Air. All three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender are coming to Netflix in the US on May 15th.”

To say I was overjoyed would be an understatement. The show’s entrance onto Netflix would mean easy access for binge-watching — much more convenient than the illegal pop-up-filled websites I would watch it on before.

I loudly, and obnoxiously, identify as an ATLA fanatic. (Anyone that’s ever had more than a five-minute conversation with me can attest.) The animated series wrapped up its final season on Nickelodeon over a decade ago. Yet, at the terrifyingly old age of 19, I still find myself discussing, watching video essays on and listening to podcasts about Avatar: The Last Airbender. I could spend hours dissecting the genius artistry behind the show — its masterful worldbuilding, thoughtful character development, compelling theme exploration, powerful soundtrack, stunning animation … I could go on forever.

But of all its strengths, the most poignant elements of ATLA that resonated with a wide-eyed 7-year-old Niko was its embrace of East Asian culture and its representations of strong, layered Asian characters. He hadn’t seen anything like that before.

Then, a few years later, the ATLA fanbase starts to get excited. The year is 2010. Life is good: Taylor Swift’s still singing country songs, my wrists are buried in a sleeve of Silly Bandz … and The Last Airbender, a live-action adaptation of my favorite show, is coming to the box office. I remember rushing to my bathroom mirror when I first heard the news, holding my hands against my hairline to see how I’d look with a shaved head — just like Aang, the show’s protagonist. I was excited to finally see a young Asian boy on the big screen.

But then I didn’t.

Nor did I see any of the characters that I knew and loved accurately depicted in the adaptation. Aang was portrayed by a white martial arts prodigy with some Native American descent. Caucasian actors replaced the two other protagonists — characters who originally reflected Inuit-Yupik and Chinese culture. The entire Fire Nation, a nation inspired by Japan and China, was swapped for Indian and Middle Eastern actors. Out of the main cast, there is not a single East Asian actor.

The compelling thing about the original Avatar: The Last Airbender series is the consideration and intention behind the worldbuilding. In delicately crafting this fantasy world, the show’s creators drew on East Asian influences to develop characters, settings, plot devices and themes. The series didn’t feature East Asian faces for the mere sake of adding “diversity.” It was purposeful. And that’s why it had value.

But, the film adaptation is puzzling to me. Erasing the cultural roots of a show by whitewashing its characters is wrong. That much we know. But, the film also replaced an East Asian-inspired culture with Indian and Middle Eastern representation. Swapping out one historically underrepresented minority for another? The answer isn’t as clearcut.

There’s a fine line between tokenism and representation. A quick Sparknotes on the distinction: Tokenism involves casting or including individuals from underrepresented groups in a symbolic (but ultimately meaningless) attempt to highlight diversity. Representation, on the other hand, seeks to include diverse voices while also regarding underrepresented individuals as more than their skin color or gender or ability — but as valued human beings.

While I appreciate that more underrepresented groups were given a platform in The Last Airbender, I find it troubling that the movie treated these cultures as exchangeable and transferrable with an East Asian culture. The movie, now universally regarded as one of the worst films ever made, presents these actors as tokens of color. The representation swap didn’t seem to serve a greater purpose — it seemed like a thoughtless move to paint the cast as more “diverse.”

But then again, this isn’t a singular issue confined to The Last Airbender. A coming-of-age film isn’t diverse because it pairs a white protagonist with a black best friend. Including the stereotype of a “gay best friend” doesn’t automatically equate to LGBTQ+ representation. Strategically placing a person of color onto a promotional pamphlet isn’t diversity if there aren’t institutional changes that tend to all students.

With Netflix gearing to release another live-action adaptation of the iconic Avatar: The Last Airbender series, I’m rooting for a redemption arc. Cast the characters appropriately, put consideration and intention behind the choices. Don’t fall into the same traps of whitewashing and tokenism that The Last Airbender film succumbed to. And the same goes for the rest of Hollywood, workplaces and universities — including Cornell. When you seek to highlight diversity, how much of it is superficial?


Niko Nguyen is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Unfiltered runs every other Wednesday this semester.