Does Racebending Count: a New Series

Does Racebending Count: a New Series

In conjunction with my Diverse or Nah series – that only has two posts but it’s really not set in stone to be very consistent so please don’t confront me about that because I’m still working on it – I wanted to talk about the idea of Racebending characters in different novels or other forms of entertainment, for the sake of claiming diversity.

Why?

I’ve seen so many different cases where people will want to change the skin color and the ethnicity of an already established character (and nothing’s wrong with that, I’d love to see that honestly) but make everything else about them the same. Is that okay? I don’t really know. Is that an okay option to include diversity in entertainment? Or is it just a cop out for not allowing #ownvoices creators to actually create their own stories and use others like them to portray their characters?

It’s like I’m still debating on whether or not it should be a whole series, or just part of my Diverse or Nah series, but I feel like taking different stories and just racebending them can be an interesting thing to discuss. So I’m gonna do just that.

Since this is the first one, I’m not going to pick a story and racebend them, but I can at least give you a heads up on what this series is going to be about, and also a definition on racebending if you haven’t already heard of the term.

So if you google the term “Racebending” you’ll see a few definitions. Wikipedia – yes, I know… – defines it as:

“A neologism that describes the changing of a character’s perceived race or ethnicity during the adaptation of a work from one medium to another.”

In layman’s terms: changing an already established character’s race or ethnicity to another one when adapting the original source. One of the examples where racebending was done – in my opinion – terribly was in the case of The Last Airbender movie.

This movie really does not exist to me but I’ll bring it up because it’s a good example.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, started off as a cartoon series from Nickelodeon, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko that aired from 2005-2008. It was a total of three seasons, and it was a literal masterpiece. It’s easily one of my all time favorite series in the entire world, and I love everything about it. Four of the characters are shown on the top row.

M. Night Shyamalan decided to adapt the cartoon into a live action movie, called The Last Airbender, that came out in 2010 and was supposed to be a summary of the first season. Look at the people that he cast for our main characters. Do you see a difference?

Do you see how not only did Shyamalan whitewashed the Water Tribes (Katara and Sokka), but also made the Fire Nation a group of color, and the enemy? If you look at Zuko and the rest of the Fire Nation, if anything, they could be modeled after the Japanese culture. In Shyamalan’s remake, they are Middle Eastern. So not only did he racebend unnecessarily – the original show was already diverse – but he made the minority race the enemy. What kind of message does that show?

Uncle Iroh and Zuko from the original series
Uncle and Zuko in the live action

The movie could have been great if he actually stuck to the source material, but that is a whole different conversation that I’m not even going to get into because this movie just absolutely sucked. I’m sorry. Don’t get me started.

Katara and Sokka in the original. Probably modeled after Eskimo Tribes?
Sokka and Katara in the live action. If you look in the back, the extras look like they could be legit, but the two main? Not a chance.

So back to my original question: does Shyamalan’s action of racebending count for trying to make something diverse? I don’t think so.

Here was a good article that I found on Medium that talks about the difference between Racebending and Whitewashing, and it also mentioned this catastrophe of a movie, so that may give you another idea of why I want to go further into this subject.

And of course, WordPress won’t let me embed the article so I have the link up above.

This was just one prime example of how racebending was done wrong, but there are other times where racebending can actually be done in a great way. But the question still stands: is that sufficient enough to create more diversity into the entertainment business?

What do you guys think?

16 thoughts on “Does Racebending Count: a New Series

  1. Great post Leelynn! Race bending certainly isn’t enough, it’s merely a starting point to I guess normalise diversity. It’s awful to think that diversity is something that needs to be normalised isn’t it. Like it should just be the standard. I had never heard of The Last Airbender but wow those screen shots you showed really tell their own story don’t they. So problematic I can’t.

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    1. Thanks so much Emer! It was a hard post to write and honestly I was worried about it, and I’ve been avoiding having to respond to comments because I don’t want to sound inarticulate but I’m going for it!

      I agree that it should be more of a starting point. I think it’s better to actually have #ownvoices stories, rather than just taking a normally white story and changing the ethnicity. I don’t feel like it does POC much justice on what they have to tell. I appreciate you so much for reading this and letting me know what you think. I like being able to foster good discussions like this, even if I’m not the one always responding right away.

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      1. Oh I 100% agree with you that it should be own voices. It’s entirely ridiculous to think that race bending is at all required just so it can slowly make privileged white bigots feel more accepting. Honestly I’m so tired of white people not checking their own freaking privilege.

        I feel you so much on this Leelyn. I was nervous when I wrote about illness rep so I know exactly the emotions you’re going through. All the love my friend. This is an amazing post and I’m 100% here backing you <333

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  2. I haven’t watched this series but I know it’s on many peoples’ favorites, but wow, what they did with the movie is absolutely awful. Like you pointed out, there’s a lot of diversity in the original series, so why do they change it? It doesn’t make sense, and if I had followed this series and saw what they did to this movie, I would be so angry! To me it comes off as if they think there’s too much diversity (as if that’s a thing right) and so they’re trying to throw in caucasian characters to make it more relatable? I don’t know. But I find this silly because I don’t see a point lol

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  3. I never watched The Avatar movie after seeing the casting choices it was a big no for me!
    I love positive racebending especially the take on Hermione both in the fandom and the representation in the play.
    I know Rowling never mentioned race in the books but that was such a big thing for me.
    Also, I’m excited about the new Little Mermaid casting and how it proceeds.

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  4. It depends. It all depends. So here’s one the other way around. Where an actor was cast because he is a phenomenal actor and already famous (and therefore a box office draw which is something we can’t ignore in the conversation). I mean how many broadway actors were passed over for the same part in the movie because of name recognition or even how they look for close ups on a big screen. It’s a different medium. Off topic. Anyhoo, the movie I am thinking of was based on a short story where the two main characters were written as white. In the movie version a black actor was cast. The Shawshank Redemption. I cannot imagine anyone in that part but Morgan Freeman. The movie wasn’t about race. Probably Red being black (though no one mentioned it) unconsciously enhanced how this friendship was perceived. These men would never have been friends on the outside, because they never would have met. However, if a great white actor had been cast and dis a great job, and everything else stayed the same, the story and film would have still been great. Agter the fact it’s hard to imagine though. So it all depends. Also, there is a difference between representation and reflection. When representation and diversity attempts ring untrue, they distract from the story. In fantasy and sci-fi maybe there is more leeway because writers are actually building worlds but in realistic contemporary or period pieces the setting and cast and characters have to be accurate and believable and reflect how it was or is. Adding some color is good for normalizing but sometimes that’s all it does. Absence of color in some circumstances and places is a reflection of society, as well as absence of whiteness. There isn’t always diversity on a micro level. So it all depends. Though the world is increasing diverse, your kitchen table, or wedding party, church, Temple, or Mosk or BBQ might not be and — though I dislike this phrase — It is what it is. I actually think it’s cool to acknowledge it. Look at A League of Their Own — a story about when women played professional baseball when the men were at war. There is the one scene where a black woman spectator catches an errant ball and rifles it back to a white player, so hard it hurt her hand. Then the black woman nods, like “How do you like that?” And the white player shows some respect. And that’s it. Here, the audience is reminded that the war opened the door only for white women to play ball, black women, no matter how good they might have been, were not invited to play. That is a fact. Historical fact. It explains why the teams (and women cast in the roles) in the movie are all white and reminds the viewer what time period we’re in. And that was that. Now carry on with the story about baseball, sisters, friendships, come backs, etc. I think it was beautifully done and didn’t have to be there at all, but it added so much. Just a few seconds. And then we can enjoy the rest of the story about these particular women. It acknowledges that this story isn’t about all women and other women do exist. Now if the director randomly added a black female baseball player that would have been wrong. That would subtly teach the audience that there was no racism, that there was equal opportunity for all women in 1940s America, that some women were not systematically and legally excluded. That would be rewriting history to make people comfortable and erase the fact that legal race based exclusion was a thing. Okay I’ve gone on for too long hahaha

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  5. Leelynn,
    I love this expansion on your discussions about diversity! I think racebending can be both negative and positive, depending on different conditions. For example, the new live action The Little Mermaid. I am SO excited to see Halle Berry play Ariel! I think that Ariel’s story is dependent on her race, so in that way, racebending was a good way to give POC actors/actresses the opportunity to get the role and it even diversifies the movie. However, I think we MOST often see negative racebending. In my opinion, shows like The Last Airbender have so much diversity because that’s a part of the whole thing! So many authors or script writers make a character a person of color for a specific reason, so to completely bypass that decision and cast someone who is a different race in that part takes away from what the author/writer was trying to do in the first place. For instance, if you’ve read The Hate U Give, then you know there is a side character named Maya who is friends with Starr. She’s an Asian character and their other friend ends up making a racist remark to her (I can’t remember exactly what she said). Thankfully, the movie cast a Chinese-American actress, but if they hadn’t, they would’ve been negatively racebending just to take out some of diversity (as if there is such a thing as TOO much diversity). Another example that would’ve been an absolute disgrace had they racebended ANY of the characters was the film adaption of Crazy Rich Asians. This was a really great post, Leelynn! I’m so glad I read it because even though I’ve noticed racebending before, I didn’t know the actual word for it before. I feel like this is an important topic and I’m so happy you started the discussion!

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  6. Ooooh, I love this post so much! It’s such an important question, and I totally thought of Avatar: The Live Action Disaster when I started reading this, so I was sort of excited when that was your example!

    I think this can be a great way of modernizing older work, where diversity wasn’t exactly a “thing” if it’s being remade, but I agree that there’s a way it’s done and a way it’s not. I’m not even going to talk about whitewashing because ugh. That’s a whole other discussion. But racebending can be great, in my opinion, when done well! But, of course, that’s the caveat, isn’t it?

    One recent example I think of is Good Omens, where I was surprised to find that one of the main four kids (the little girl who hung out with Adam) was cast as a black girl, even though she was clearly white in the book. This was fine. It didn’t change the dynamic (which was really that they were all friends and accidentally saved the world), but it did add diversity to a book that didn’t have any. Famine was also cast as a black actor, and Pollution was an Asian female, despite being a male child in the book (okay, that one I didn’t quite understand, but I also didn’t have a problem with it so much, other than just the fact that it wasn’t a child was kind of annoying, because it misses the point in the book that Pollution is younger than all the others and much newer). Anyway, my point is that even though I hadn’t pictured anyone in this book as anything but white, the diversity worked fine for me and didn’t change the story at all, nor do I think it would have, because what these characters looked like were really incidental, and the important things were their personalities.

    My opinion is this: racebending is fine when the race of a character isn’t incidental to the story. For example, everyone complained about how important it was that the Founding Fathers’ stories be told with white actors only, but Hamilton pretty much proved that the message transcended race, yeah? Especially since, if we’re honest, most people don’t pay attention to what the Founding Fathers looked like anyway except old white guys. xD Now, Hamilton was cast that way to prove a point: that POC DO have a place in traditionally white narratives and can pull off playing characters that have always been white. I will say, though, that for the most part, I consider it important that if a story is about someone’s life, their race be accurate. It would be very different if a story about Harriet Tubman were told with a white actress. If fiction is attempting to mirror real life, I feel like it should and not paint it up for the sake of diversity to make it prettier than it was.

    If I’m honest, this is a big problem I had with Fantastic Beasts, because yay diversity, but too unrealistic for me. I know the book isn’t about social problems in the 1920s, but social problems existed in the 1920s and it annoys me that it’s glossed over so that diversity can be a thing, because it erases the real struggles of the time. This is me really just being nitpicky, but the 1920s weren’t a great time for a lot of people (and no, not just the black Americans, but so many minority groups and Irish, as well, etc.).

    And this is getting waaaay long, so I’ll just say one more point that I loved: racebending can actually be used to make movies more accurate, too. I know there’s still controversy around the casting in the live action Aladdin, but I was really pleasantly surprised to see it much more diverse than the actual Disney movie (which, really, no surprise there), and the costuming and setting felt so much more authentic, like they really tried to bring to life a blending of Middle Eastern/Indian culture.

    Sooo … yeah. Thanks for coming to my TED talk. *hands out cookies* Love this post, and would be interested to see how you make it a series. :3

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  7. So many of the other comments have made this point more eloquently than I am currently capable of (catch me later after the caffeine kicks in) but I wanted to thank you for writing this post. It’s a great thing for us to think about, and we need to think about it from all sides.

    I agree that Racebending can be good. It can also be bad. I think what matters is not *if* we do it so much as *how* we do it.

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  8. Off the top of my head I can think of only two examples of Racebending – casting Halle Bailey as the little Mermaid, and the Pride and Prejudice adaptation Pride. The first I know a lot of people have an issue with it. Personally I don’t have a problem with it, but I am curious to know if the original Little Mermaid story mentions her race at all? The second, I absolutely loved. Though I don’t know if it really counts as racebending? Since it is a re-telling not an adaptation, and they changed the setting and a bunch of other stuff? Racebending would be a super cool series! I would love to learn more about this 😀

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