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Belén ([personal profile] belengar) wrote2010-04-26 02:00 pm

The Last Racebender

Image by Loraine Sammy

The last racebender?

Trabajo realizado para la asignatura "Los Media en la Sociedad de la Información" de la Universitat Oberta de CatalunyaCreative Commons License
Esta obra está bajo una
licencia de Creative Commons.


When the casting of a movie based on a cartoon of Asian influence, turned out composed mainly of white actors, the fans started a letter campaign to protest about it. Loraine Sammy and  Marissa Minna Lee, fans of the cartoon, co-founded and lead the Racebending movement. They started to make a stand on December 2008, and barely three months before the movie premiers, they have gathered enough support that the director and producers of the movie are starting to justify their actions.

Keywords: the last airbender, racism, influence of media, fans, activism

Content Index

  1. Introduction
  2. The controversy
  3. The influence of media
  4. Power dynamics
    1. Media and Society
    2. Society (fans) and Media
    3. Fans and society
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. Bibliography


The Last Airbender is a fantasy film based on the first season of the animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original series, heavily influenced by Asian art, mythology and various martial arts fighting styles, was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and was adapted by M. Night Shyamalan, who directed and produced the film along with Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, Sam Mercer and Scott Aversano. Filming began in mid-March 2009 and the movie is scheduled to be released on July 2, 2010.

The controversy

The problem began when the actors were cast. Despite the Asian & Inuit influences, white actors were chosen for the main roles (except the villains). The casting company specifically asked for "Caucasian and other ethnicities1" for the main characters while the extras should be "NEAR EASTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN, FAR EASTERN, ASIAN, MEDITERRANEAN & LATINO ETHNIC GROUPS". After several claims about the casting aim being only to get the best actors, in April 2010, Frank Marshall stated that he "agree[s] that this casting notice was poorly worded and offensive. However, it was not written nor distributed by the production, or the studio, but by a local extra casting entity that did not consult with either".2 
When the fans of the TV series realised what had happened, they organised themselves under the slogan "Aang Ain't White" (Aang is the main character), and started using a LiveJournal account to explain their argument, offer resources for joining the effort, and track their own visibility in the news.
The initial strategy of "Aang Ain't White" was a letter-writing campaign, alerting Paramount Pictures about fans' disappointment in the casting process, and asking for the film to be re-cast. Later they created the organization and a Facebook group to protest the casting. Loraine Sammy (Jenkins, 2010) became one of the movement's primary leaders as it grew and drew in more supporters.

The influence of media

The role of mass-media representations of issues involving race, ethnicity and culture has been a particular focus of several studies. Beeman (2007) concludes that there is a difference in the ways that African American and interracial couples are portrayed in movies in comparison to white couples, and claims that emotional segregation is a new and subtler way of racism.

Liu and Mills (2006) concluded that minorities are no longer criticized explicitly for being minorities; instead racist criticism will focus on the ways in which minorities violate the traditional values of the mainstream. In this way, discrimination can be articulated via a premise that the minority has done something to warrant it.

The development of the media greatly increases the capacity to transmit potential ideological messages across extended stretches of space and time, in short, it creates the conditions for the mediated intrusion of ideological messages into everyday life (Thompson, 1998, 276:277). The fans, used to deal with media language and its meaning, understood the danger of a message that has been sent for a long time by the media3.

The fans realised that these messages are incorporated into the lives of their recipients and become part of their self-formation and, what was the message of a movie that did not want people of colour (PoC) as main characters (only in the background) even though that in its source those characters were PoC?

These fans perceived that message being sent by the media was that Asians (and PoC) were not good enough (as actors, main characters or simply that people would not want to see them on screen).

Power dynamics

Media and Society

To what degree can the audience members resist the messages that bombard us daily? Media messages hold remarkable power to normalise certain behaviour, to render other as deviant or abnormal and to lead us toward or away from certain beliefs and frames of mind with their narrative (Anderson, 2008, 33:37) but sometimes they are not as effective as one could think and the media messages are discussed and scrutinised as in this case.

It should be noted that Loraine4 uses a very similar language to Anderson about the influence of media:

(...) media intends to conform society by dictating what is supposedly normal and default.  These are dangerous messages.

Society (fans) and Media

The active audience can (and does) speak back to media creators, that means that the media are not the only ones with a symbolic power able to influence society. Fans have the technological knowledge and are organised enough to be able to be listened.
Even though at first5, fans did not received any answers to the protest letters they sent, Loraine explains that "under the organization, we have received responses via letters from the president of Paramount Pictures. We're currently in dialogue with him to figure out how next to proceed."
These fans know that the best way to influence the producers is through money (economic power), and criticism can be a heavy blow for a producer: with a big enough campaign, the critics would reach non-fans. The general public (fans and non-fans) hold economic power. As the LA Times warns: "As the movie nears release, this is definitely not an issue that will fade away or be overlooked, and is a longstanding problem that, to many, needs not only more discussion amongst filmmakers, but also a studio-level intervention."
Loraine Sammy thinks the producers are doing damage control6: "A year ago, producer Frank Marshall stated publically (via Twitter) that his company did not discriminate against anyone; and he was done talking about it. Now, he is claiming - after all this time, after a year of our protesting - to be completely ignorant of the casting practices as they were handled by an outside agency, and his intention was not to discriminate."
What started as a group of fans joining efforts, developed to a joint effort with MANNA (Media Action Network for Asian Americans)7and their Facebook page8 has more than 6,000 members.

Still, this doesn't mean that all the Avatar: The Last Airbender fans support Racebending, and Loraine is aware of that: "the Facebook group for fans of 'The Last Airbender' movie has ten times more people than the racebending protest Facebook group.  We are fully aware that we are in the minority among fans; however, being in the minority does not mean we are wrong."

Fans and society

Being told by the media that caucasians are supposed to be the main characters and PoC are all right just as sidekicks, villians and extras, influences people's lives, but being a part of the audience fighting actively to fight back discriminatory media messages can change lives too.
As Loraine Sammy says, she's became more aware of of media policies in television, advertisements, books, movies, etc. The initial awareness about the messages she might be getting has developed into a change of the media she consumes:

I no longer want typical stories with a default hero (aka: white, straight and male). I realize that there are other people with their own fascinating stories

Stephen Duncombe (Jenkins, 2010) states in his interview that an action such as Racebending is a way for people to intervene in politics. With her stance, Loraine has not only changed herself, but those around her liker her friends and family with whom she has conversations about this.

This is a presentation about the different actors and powerplay in Racebending:

Power and Media


I'd like to thank Loraine Sammy for the fast way she dealt with my questions, her enthusiasm about this paper and her time.


ANDERSEN, Robin; GRAY, Jonathan. Battleground: The Media, Vol 1. , Ed. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

BEEMAN, Angie K. "Emotional segregation: A content analysis of institutional racism in US films, 1980-2001", Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30:5, 687 - 712. 2007.

JENKINS, Henry. "The Last Airbender or The Last Straw?, or How Loraine Became a Fan Activist". Confessions of an Aca/Fan. 2010. [ 17 April 2010]

LIU, J.H.; MILLS, D. "Modern Racism and Neo-liberal Globalization: The Discourses of Plausible Deniability and Their Multiple Functions", Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 16: 83–99. 2006.

THOMPSON, John B. Los medios y la modernidad. Una teoría social de los medios de comunicación. Paidós Comunicación 101. 2ª edición.1998.


1 In this page the wording of a casting for Heroes, and The Last Airbender  can be compared:


3 Yellowface a story in pictures:

4 Unless something else is stated, Loraine's quotes are taken from: "Interview with Loraine Sammy about The Last Airbender movie and". Blog online. 2010. [ 23 April 2010]

5 As the "Aang ain't white" group

6 "The Last Airbender" premiers on the 2nd July 2010 in the US according to imdb

7 Currently, they are officially supported by S18 Mighty Mountain Warriors,, Angry Asian Man, Anson Jew, Asian American Comic Con, Asian American International Film Festival, Asian Male Revolutions, Derek Kirk Kim, East West Players, Gene Luen Yang,, Kollaboration, Media Action Network for Asian Americans, Organization for Transformative Works, Penny Arcade, RemodelMinority, San Francisco's KPFA, Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology and The Razor Kid.

8 That was deleted and reinstituted without any comment from Facebook.