Friday night I was talking to a friend, and the conversation turned to a link I had posted about the racial casting controversy in the new Thor movie; briefly summarized, one of the Norse gods in the upcoming movie is played by Idris Elba, a black actor, and there are some very racist people getting very humorously upset about it. My friend agreed that these people were obviously morons, but then he raised a profoundly fascinating question: isn’t this casting issue with Thor more or less the same as last year’s casting issue with The Last Airbender? In both cases, a character who originated as one race was being portrayed by an actor of a different race, and yet in one instance we’re all cool with it and in another instance it sparks a worldwide argument. Why the difference? At the risk of making everyone on the Internet hate me, I’m going to take a look at that question today. So: why is it okay to wish Aang was asian, and not okay to wish Heimdal was white?
1. Spokesperson Association
Let’s get the obvious point out of the way first: the principles behind an issue can get very confused, or downright glossed over, when the people presenting that issue are obviously idiots. This is the same problem Wikileaks is facing right now: it’s hard to focus on the “freedom of the press” issue when the man spearheading the whole thing is under arrest for rape. Julian Assange’s rape charges have nothing to do with whether or not Wikileaks is good or bad, but the two topics get inevitably tangled, and the conversation becomes hard to continue. In the same way, the fact that the people protesting the Thor casting are a recognized hate group makes their actual message incredibly easy to mock. Boiled down to its roots, though, the message is more or less the same as the one from The Last Airbender: “we disagree with your decision to cast this character with an actor of a different race.” If the complaints are essentially the same, does that imply that the complaint itself is not inherently racist, even if one of the complaining groups is? I believe that there are many other issues at play here, but this is our necessary starting point, and we need to keep it in mind.
2. The Best Actor for the Job
Both movie studios have defended their casting by saying that the actor(s) chosen were the best people for the job, regardless of race; if we can’t separate the role from the race then WE are the racist ones, and we need to get over it and embrace the multicultural future. Now obviously we can’t judge Idris Elba’s performance as Heimdal until the movie comes out next summer, but it’s easy (by which I mean excruciatingly painful) to look back at The Last Airbender and see that the white actors in asian roles were obviously not the best people for the job: their performances were flat, lifeless, and almost universally derided as the worst part of one of the year’s worst movies. The question is, does terrible acting prove the complainers’ point? The casting decisions were clearly wrong, but being wrong because of talent doesn’t necessarily mean they were wrong because of race. If we say that a bad performance proves that they should have hired asian actors, we’re also saying–by the same logic–that a good performance would have meant they were right to hire white actors, and somehow I don’t think the people complaining about the casting would agree with that point. Put the best non-asian actor ever born in the role of Aang, and it wouldn’t change the fact that Aang was not played by an asian; very few, if any, of the arguments against the casting were based on talent, as evidenced by the fact that the arguments started long before anyone had ever seen the performances. By the same token, if Idris Elba turns out to be the best Heimdal ever, the group opposing him is not going to smile sheepishly and say “well okay then, you got us, he was great and we take it all back.” I think we have to say, for the purposes of our discussion here, that talent is beside the point: this is about race and nothing else.
3. Cultural Context
The article I linked to earlier, mocking the anti-Thor group, bases much of its mockery on the idea that since Thor never actually existed (a bold claim to make about a religious deity, by the way, but that’s a topic for another day), complaining about his race is ridiculous from the start. Okay, we can grant you that point if you want, but it applies just as strongly to The Last Airbender. Here’s the first paragraph of that essay, word for word, with only the races and character information replaced:
Did you know that the totally made-up-by-cartoonists characters of The Last Airbender were all asian? Literally none of them were white. We didn’t know that, but thanks to the prodigious efforts of the [people complaining about it], the truth has been revealed: Aang, the last airbender, was asian and Zach Tyler, the American actor hired to portray Aang in The Last Airbender, is white! WHITE! More on this scandalous development after the jump!
Somehow it’s funny when they’re talking about the anti-Thor guys, but put the same arguments into this context and they kind of come off as jerks. Why is that? It reminds me of 30 Rock, when Jack was dating a Puerto Rican and they couldn’t figure out how to refer to her race; she kept saying “just call me Puerto Rican,” but the white characters couldn’t do it because they felt racist just saying the words. We’ve become incredibly sensitive in American culture to any kind of discussion of race–so sensitive that Barack Obama had to hold a special conference during the last election just to say “it’s okay, I’m black, you can talk about it.” Race is such a huge issue, and so ripe for misinterpretation and offense, that we almost don’t dare to touch it. The most insightful voice in the modern racism discussion was Dave Chappelle, who skewered every side of the issue on his TV show, and even he gave up after two seasons because he reached a point where he felt people were laughing at him, not with him.
Part of the problem with discussions of race is that white people in America still outnumber every other group by a huge margin, which colors (if you’ll excuse the term) every other aspect of the conversation. A group complaining that an asian acting job went to a white actor is seen as a scrappy little minority standing up for their rights, but a group complaining that a white acting job went to a black actor is seen as an oppressive majority trying to reduce the rights of others. Is this disparity in the races the thing that makes us accept the Last Airbender complaints and laugh at the Thor complaints?
4. Role Models
Most mainstream heroes, either in cartoons or movies or comicbooks or whatever, are white, which means that asian kids (for example) can’t look at most of them and see themselves reflected. One of Chris Rock’s stand-up acts included a sequence where he joked that he wanted Obama to become the president just so he could stop telling his children “you can do anything you want.” White parents, he said, never have to say that to their kids because it’s obvious–white kids grow up knowing that they can do anything they want, but black kids always have to be reminded. Having a black president changes that because it gives black kids an obvious role model; it foundationally changes the way they perceive the world and their own role in it. Aang, in many ways, served a similar purpose for Asian-American kids–it allowed them to see, often for the very first time, a version of themselves that was not a sidekick or a villain but the hero. I believe very strongly that this is a important, and that casting Aang as a white kid took something vital away from every asian kid who loved the show; I honestly don’t think most white people can understand just how important that is, because we have never not been the heroes of our own mythology. Following this logic, is it okay to change Heimdal’s race to something non-white because white kids don’t need him as a role model? Following that logic further, are we obligated to multiculturalize our movies to help create new role models? Donald Glover has been running an ongoing campaign to get himself an audition as Spider-man for the upcoming reboot movies, despite the fact that he is black and Spider-man has always been white. I love Glover; I think he’s one of the funniest actors on TV, and I think he’d be fantastic as Spider-man, and I know many people agree. What does that say about our discussion here? Are we more accepting of non-white actors in traditionally white roles because white culture is simply so dominant that we don’t feel threatened by the change? A white Aang is a big loss for the asian community, but a black Spider-man is a new twist on an old idea; it’s the same thing happening in both cases, but we perceive it in two different ways because of the overall racial context. On the other hand, is this just a form of affirmative action? On the other other hand, does that make it good or bad? It may be that the people complaining about the Heimdal casting are the ones who DO feel threatened by change, but whether they’re threatened by the loss of a white role model or the rise of a black one is not for me to say.
5. The End Game
What is our goal, racially, as a society? Do you long for the world of TV commercials, where demographically identical people of many different races all hang out together, seemingly blind to color? Do you want a world where all the races have mixed so thoroughly we can’t tell them apart? Do you want a world where the races keep themselves to themselves, living in the same country but never really interacting–separate but equal? Do you want the world hypothesized in the anti-Thor boycott campaign, where even black people complain about Idris Elba as Heimdal because the races should never, ever mix under any circumstances? There are some people who want the races to be separated not just culturally but geographically, making racial identity synonymous with national identity (and, in many cases, religious identity), but I like to imagine that most of us aren’t nearly that extreme. I honestly don’t think most Americans really know what they want in the long term, and I worry that many of the things we do want are impossible. We want the races to intermingle, free and friendly without any barriers, but at the same time we want to preserve our cultural identities–I don’t know if those are both possible at the same time. We want our children to play with all the other kids at recess, innocently blind to color, but very few of us, statistically, are prepared for that color-blindness to extend into dating and marriage. We talk boldly of equality, and yet the election of a black president has divided our country more thoroughly than anything in decades.
Why is it okay to wish Aang was asian, and not okay to wish Heimdal was white? I have no idea, but I wish I did. It’s a question at the heart of what it means to be an American.