Orientalism is the theory of how Western cultures perceive Asian cultures, thus give their own definition of ‘the East’. These characteristics are often stereotypes of the culture and people. It is the fascination of the West with the East where “issue of ‘otherness, of outsider-culture and of the threat of ‘alien belief systems ” (Turner, 1989), lead to a divide between the two cultures. Many believe orientalism is a form of racism as this ‘division’ is a form of white supremacy, where the limitations placed on the representation of the East, allows Western cultures to remain in control and ultimately superior.
“Orientalism refers not just to the cultural appropriation, but to the impact this appropriation has on our perception of Asia and Asian-ness. Orientalism is more fundamentally the positioning of Asian people as the proverbial “Other”, always serving as a counter-point to the normative West, forever an orbiting satellite, never able to define itself for itself within the Western cannon.” (Jenn, 2010)
These Asian stereotypes are so imprinted in our culture that they often go unrecognised as an issue. In the video below Mike Bow looks at the fact that as an Asian American child who was told he had to dress as an Asian character for Halloween his choices made it clear how the West see’s the East.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a beloved animation television series. Combining styles of Anime and American cartoons it explores an Asiatic-like world where the characters have the ability to control the elements through supernatural abilities and variations of Chinese martial arts. The images are based off a variety of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Inuit cultures, whilst incorporating a fantasy and new world element. The show is widely acclaimed and praised for its unique storylines, racial representation and accuracy, and creative scripts. In 2010, the series was adapted into a live-action film. Fans couldn’t be more excited with the prospect of bringing their favourite story to life. This is until they found out who would be portraying the main characters. The roles of Aang, Katara and Sokka were all given to white actors. These are characters that are portrayed as Asian in the television series so the fans weren’t disappointed…they were angry. Not only were the three main characters were white, but so were the majority of the “good guys”. Coincidence? I think not. Why was it so easy for the filmmakers to cast ethnically appropriate actors to portray the bad guys?
White actors representing those of colour is not uncommon or a new concept to Hollywood. Whilst the idea to physically appropriate Asian-ness in films is becoming infrequent, Asian actors are rather excluded altogether from “main-stream media through the less overt practice of whitewashing” (Lopez, 2012). This practice is threatening as it reiterates the idea that whiteness can replace ethnicities, that whiteness is “invisible and dominant” (Lopez, 2012).
“While we may not know the reasons behind Paramount’s casting decisions in The Last Airbender, it is nonetheless clear that the film participates in maintaining the cultural hegemony of whiteness – perhaps even to the extent that film studios assume that minority audiences prefer to watch white actors rather than actors who share their own racial background. The impact of conveying primary narratives through the bodies of white actors while engaging with only extraneous people of colour and their culture cannot be underestimated” (Lopez, 2012).
Like many others Mike Bow couldn’t wait to watch The Last Airbender. Mike and his brother made a review of the film highlighting the good and the bad, oh wait…I mean the bad and the even worse parts of the film in the hilariously accurate video below.
Airbender 2010, WordPress, viewed 7 April 2015, <https://abagond.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/airbender.jpg>.
Crouchley, M 2010, Why The Last Airbender Fails, Tiny Heroes, weblog post, 4 July, viewed 7 April 2015, <http://tinyheroes.net/2010/07/04/why-the-last-airbender-fails/>.
Jenn 2014, What is Orientalism, and how is it also racism?, Reappropriate, weblog post, 17 April, viewed 7 April 2015, <http://reappropriate.co/2014/04/hey-air-france-your-orientalism-is-in-the-air/air-france-beijing/>.
Lopez, L. K. 2012, ‘Fan activists and the politics of race in The Last Airbender’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 431-445.
Turner, B. S. 1989, ‘From Orientalism to Global Sociology’, Sociology, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 629-638.
2014, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Wikipedia, viewed 7 April 2015, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar:_The_Last_Airbender#cite_note-NickMagInterview1-2>.