The first season of Legend of Korra, the follow-up to the ground-breaking animated show Avatar: the Last Airbender (2005-2008), ended just last month. Episodes were aired on TV in the U.S. and webcast on the Nickelodeon website for U.S. viewers, but you could also not be one and still get to keep up if you had a reasonably fast internet connection.
Not a new situation for someone like me. I’d become interested in the original series pretty late in the day, in early 2009, and watched a few episodes out of order. While I wasn’t immediately gripped by the show itself– looking back it’s a little hard to believe– I was compelled to file it away for future reference. As an an Indian (South Asian, non-diasporic) student of English Literature who was (and is) often engaged with online, predominantly Anglophone media fandoms, and with interest in East Asian popular cultures, I was able to appreciate to some extent how singular Avatar was: an English-language anime-inspired American cartoon that didn’t have any white people at all, but was, in fact, populated by characters based clearly in Asian and Amerindian/Inuit cultures. While the spoken
language of the show was English, the dialogue written for the characters often employing linguistic humour, especially puns, all diegetic writing were in Chinese. Fannish acquaintances of different ethnicities blogged about Avatar, and back in the days when people actually used Livejournal it was possible to find recommendations to fanfiction about ‘the Fire sibs’ sandwiched between commentary on the latest Marvel comics and, of course, slashy fanart of white male characters.
Regarding the latter– if I said “They kind of all look the same to me”, would that be more ironic or just a diss on the happy amateur artists in question?
As an Indian dabbling in Anglophone media fandoms, I was also aware of how predominantly white Ameri-centric these spaces were, but it was a rather passive awareness. I’m going to credit the fannish outcry over the whitewashing in M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation of Avatar‘s first season (The Last Airbender, Paramount Pictures, released 2010) for my progression from suburban passivity to thinking in a much more active, politicised way about my identity as a ‘fan of colour’.
A great deal has been written on the ‘Racebending’ project, which began as a protest against Paramount’s early casting calls for the movie specifying Caucasian actors and has now expanded its scope to act as an organisation that calls out racism in Hollywood casting and demands more diverse representation in media. This post by Derek Kirk Kim, and this comic by Gene Luen Yang, both Asian-American artists, underline the importance of Avatar to Asian-Americans audiences.
I want to focus a little bit on this quote from an interview with Shyamalan where he was asked about the casting decisions and the accusations of racism he faced from fans.
You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth Kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!
This was nakedly disingenuous on all levels– the implication that as an ‘Asian filmmaker’ he is immune from all race-based criticism of his work; the assertion that he was doing something radical by featuring any minor characters of colour at all in, I may have said this before, a film where all four major protagonists are whitewashed. However, it was only when I sat down to watch the entire series from start to finish, that I understood how dangerous that ‘everyone is represented’ was.
Shyamalan’s declaration of a politically correct-sounding multiculturalist agenda doesn’t really ring true at any pitch. There is of course that little problem with the whitewashing of all four major protagonists. There’s also the motley bunch of brown actors as members of the genocidal power-hungry Fire Nation– this includes Cliff Curtis, whose casting in many different films provides a perfect example of messed-up race politics in an industry where white actors can play people of any ethnicity but brown actors are interchangeable for other brown actors of other ethnicities. As it stands, in a comprehensively terrible movie, Dev Patel and Shaun Toub’s interactions as Zuko and Iroh were two of the few positives.
It didn’t escape my notice that ‘Avatar’ itself is a Sanskrit word, that ‘Agni’ is a Hindu god of fire, that Earth King Bumi’s name means ‘earth’. But was there anything else to it?
One of the plethora of facts I hadn’t managed to pick up from my digital shoulder-rubbing with longterm fans of Avatar was that the show was actually more heterogenous in its worldbuilding than would appear from the intro, which posited a world of ‘Four Nations’, distinct and separate, modelled on identifiable Asian cultures, each bearing a spiritual association with one of four elements. Prominently shown during the opening title sequence is a flattened map of this world. So you see that the Air Nomads, Avatar‘s AU fantasy adaptation of Tibetans, live on four mountainous archipelagos more or less evenly distributed around the world, that the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, inspired by Inuit/Amerind peoples, occupy the polar landmasses (and waters!), that the Fire Nation people, much like the citizens of our world’s Japan, have their geologically volatile islands. I listed this off not simply because of the indefatigable fannish pleasure of doing so– you may have noticed I left the Earth Kingdom out of it.
That’s because Book 2 of Avatar shows you that there isn’t one monolithic ‘Earth People’. Certainly the Earth Kingdom is centrally governed and seemingly predominantly populated by the Han Chinese. But this isn’t exactly equivalent to the China we know of– and even so, there are over 50 ethnic groups in the China we do know of. One of my favourite episodes, “The Swamp”, problematises the ‘Four Nations’ premise: the Avatar team find themselves in the territory of an Earth Kingdom people. None of them bend earth, though. There are waterbenders, and the waterbenders bend in a completely different style from the Northern and Southern Tribes… and have Vietnamese names. (The Sandbenders and the clearly Korean-coded family Zuko steals an ostrich-horse from are two other major examples of cultural diversity *within* the Earth Kingdom.)
And just as I was wondering if, oh, some South Asian-coded characters or culture might pop up, Guru Pathik appeared in the sixteenth episode. This character serves briefly as a mentor for Aang, handling a good portion of exposition on how to work towards accessing the Avatar State. He’s mysterious, to say the least. We learn that he was a close friend of Gyatso, the monk who was something of a father figure to Aang before he ran away from the Air Temple. He’s old, he’s survived the Hundred Years’ War, he’s travelled the world. In the next season he’s a six-armed cloud-seated veena-playing part of Aang’s sleep-deprived hallucinations. Okay.
I can’t have been the only viewer thinking, “Okay. But where does he come from?”
Guru Pathik is the closest we get to a cultural stereotype in a show that otherwise does a fantastically consistent job of battling them. It’s not a ‘real’ detractor, it doesn’t even make me feel terrible that my own culture isn’t represented– as an Indian living in India I do not feel a lack of representation (in broad terms at least, not counting aspects of my identity that aren’t described by ‘brown college-educated Indian woman’) and I do not face the kinds of oppression or marginalisation any young Asian-American who tuned into the Nickelodeon show might have. I also respect the different histories of the group of the people ‘Asian-American’ usually describe, from my own, and from those of South Asian migrants, and obviously no one needs to belong to either group to support projects
like Racebending or Avatar. Here we have a complex of contested, variously-defined markers of identity, none of which I wish to claim to speak for. It may be an issue for longer analysis from someone else’s perspective.
“In the United States,” writes Nazli Kibria in her essay “The Racial Gap: South Asian American Racial Identity and the Asian American Movement”, “the established racial categories that are popularly used today in everyday social encounters to classify nonwhites include Asian (“Oriental”), Black, Native American (“Indian”), and Hispanic. Although South Asians do not fit well into any of these categories, they, like everyone else, encounter a social dynamic that insists on pigeonholing people into a “race.” As a result, South Asian Americans are, in a certain sense, racially marginalized. This position of racial marginality is not unique to South Asian Americans, but is shared by growing numbers of “biracial” and “multiracial” persons, as well as groups such as Arab Americans. The very conception of race as consisting of a neat set of categories is one that inevitably marginalizes some groups and persons.”[‘A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America’, eds. Lavina Dhingra Shankar and Rajini Srikanth. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1998]
This is worth remembering, and, I’d like to suggest, potentially interesting to consider when we think of some of the tensions hinted at in ‘Korra’. Upon her arrival to Republic City from the South Pole, a waterbender refers to Korra as “fresh off the boat”. The waterbender in question we must assume to belong to an older generation of migrant, as the city was founded on the site of a former Fire Nation colony in the Earth Kingdom. It’s all in the details.
I welcomed Konietzko and DiMartino’s decision to open up the Avatar world even further, and now beyond the initial simplicity of ‘Four Nations’, with a former colony-turned-new political entity meant provide safe haven to bender and non-bender populations from all over the world. The action is confined to its capital, Republic City, which reminds one of Hong Kong and San Francisco. Two of the main characters, Bolin and Mako, are biological brothers who earthbend and firebend respectively– a mixed-ness we did not see in Avatar: the Last Airbender. The overarching political plot in Korra was handled poorly, but did broach issues of race, power and responsibility in ways still not incredibly common to the medium (this show, too, is nominally aimed at young children).
I’m thinking again of Shyamalan’s peculiar apparent lateral racism. Of being twice-removed from the ‘target audience’. Trying to make sense of why Avatar feels so important to me as an Indian-living-in-India. I watch a fair amount of anime and Western animation, although I remain prejudiced against the 3D animation typical of Pixar features these days, but the home-grown stuff hasn’t been doing much for me. I’m afraid I agree with Rishtee Kumar Batra, in this interview: ‘Such religion-based content may seem appropriate because there is a large Hindu audience in India, but the key assumption here, she argues, is that actual consumers, the children, want to see this type of content. “These mythological cartoons are so focused on passing on values or telling a moral tale that they forget that the core of any narrative is about arousing basic human emotions.”‘
In some sense, even more so than when I first discovered Japanese animation, Avatar as a stand-alone text, encompassing different audiences, inspirations and genre traditions, present a vision for an alternative I didn’t know I was looking for. With its nuanced depictions of politics, spirituality, diversity and solidarity, its rich characterisations and inspiration from ‘Eastern’ (a generalisation, a relative term, I know) cultures, strikes me as an especially apt possible model for animation in my own country.