Analyzing The Last Airbender’s Casting Controversy

Summer is in full swing, which means that Hollywood has come out with the usual set of summer blockbusters. This year’s summer movies – from Inception to Despicable Me – have generally been good quality, well-done things. Indeed, the film Inception may become one of the great classics of movie fame.

Then there was The Last Airbender, by M. Night Shyamalan – a movie which may earn the title as the worst movie this year. From its inception (pardon the pun) to its sorry release, Airbender has been dogged in the wake of controversial casting decisions.

Shyamalan has also been criticized for yellowface – casting white actors to play Asian main characters, although the TV series Avatar, upon which the movie was based off of, puts itself in an East Asian setting. The evidence for the latter claim is fairly strong. Take, for instance, the following six battles: the Siege of Ba Sing Se, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Han Tui, the Hu Xin Provinces Campaign, the Battle of Jinyang, and the Battle of Kapyong. Some are from Avatar and some constitute real-life events in Asian history.

It’s fairly difficult to tell which is which. As it turns out, the first, third, and fourth events are from Avatar; the rest are actual historical battles (congratulations if you recognized the second name, and even more congratulations if you recognized the last name).

The puzzle, then, is why Hollywood does things like this – why it, for instance, continues the practice of yellow-face more than half-a-century after blackface was rightfully ended.

Simple old-fashioned racism does not fully answer the question. Shyamalan himself is Indian, yet cast an Indian actor as the villain. Most people in entertainment are not racists in disguise, although their pool of friends may lack diversity (in this they are not much different from most people). The vast majority probably voted for President Barack Obama, for instance. Most probably view segregation or Japanese internment as tremendous wrongs in American history. Some even go all the way and marry interracially (often, ironically enough, with an Asian-American women), before casting a white actor to play an Asian lead.

The answer, rather, seems to involve economics and the faceless forces of the market. Take supply and demand. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the vast majority of Hollywood’s available labor pool is white. Becoming a Hollywood superstar is something that appeals to a very specific demographic, and that demographic is probably paler than America itself. There are, moreover, not many Asian-Americans in entertainment. Choosing the white actor to play a non-white role may simply be the easier path.

Hollywood’s writers and producers also have families to feed and ambitions to make it big, ambitions to which some principles can be sacrificed. Shyamalan and others of his industry want to make productions that sell; that constitutes the purpose of their job. And they think that a show without a white male lead would be less popular – which is often true. So they set white male leads because they think only those types of shows will sell. They make what they think the audience will accept.

Ironically, this probably causes the audience to become even less accepting of non-white, non-male leads since they’re so used to the traditional version. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Yet for all this, practices like yellow-face do not seem entirely justified from a purely financial perspective. Shaylaman’s movie, after all, turned out into a disaster despite his best efforts to appeal to white America. Americans have proved willing to watch movies with black male leads, despite early fears. Movies such as Despicable Me and District 9 have cast main characters who speak in accented English; those movies also did well.

Finally there is the international market to factor in. Rich Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan constitute an increasingly important audience. Then there is the growing market in China. China allows only twenty Hollywood movies a year; because of Shyalaman’s controversial casting, The Last Airbender will almost certainly not make the cut.

If Hollywood and the American entertainment industry wake up to these facts, they might realize that a change in practices such as yellow-face would probably gain them sales – and besides, it’d also be the right thing to do.



Bobby Jindal’s Strange 2003 Coalition, Part 2

This is the second part of two posts analyzing Louisiana’s 2003 gubernatorial election, in which Republican candidate Bobby Jindal narrowly lost to lieutenant governor Kathleen Blanco. It will focus on racial dynamics in the 2003 election. The previous part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

Race and Bobby Jindal’s 2003 Run

In my previous post, I began analyzing the electoral coalition that voted for Mr. Jindal. As a map of the election below indicates, he drew support heavily from the New Orleans suburbs, while doing extremely poorly in the rural north:

Map of Louisiana, 2003 Gubernatorial Election

Discomfort with Mr. Jindal’s race probably accounted for most his underperformance in the rural north. Take La Salle Parish, for instance. Located in the northern stretches of Louisiana, the parish constitutes a typical example of the rural conservatism that backs much of the Republican Party. The district is very thinly populated; in 2003 less than 5,000 people voted in total. It is also quite poor; 2000 census figures indicate that per capita income was only two-thirds of the American average. And it is 86% white.

Like many of its rural peers, La Salle Parish usually votes Republican. It gave Senator John McCain 85.5% of the vote – which probably means that every single white person voted for Mr. McCain, and that every single black person voted for Mr. Obama. Mr. Jindal, however, received less than 40% of the vote in this staunch Republican district.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Jindal also did unremarkably with black voters. Exit polls indicated that he drew about 9% of the black vote in 2003. This was better than most Louisiana Republicans, but not exactly an impressive performance (reaching more than 20%, or even 15%, of black support is considered an extremely strong performance for a Republican politician – especially in the Deep South). African-Americans, it appeared, did not seem to view Mr. Jindal much differently from a typical white Republican in Louisiana.

White voters in rural Louisiana apparently did. A look at white supremacist David Duke’s 1991 run for governor provides a revealing context:

Map of Louisiana, 1991 Gubernatorial Election

Of the 19 deeply conservative, mostly rural parishes that voted for Mr. Duke, only four could bring themselves to vote for a deeply conservative but non-white Republican. Mr. Duke won two-thirds of the vote in La Salle Parish.

On the other hand, Mr. Duke lost almost all of Louisiana’s conservative southeast; he only managed to win one of the suburban New Orleans parishes Mr. Jindal dominated. These parishes vote equally Republican, if not more so, as places like La Salle Parish.

The disparate supporters of Mr. Jindal and Mr. Duke point to an interesting division in the Republican coalition of Louisiana. Usually this division is not noticed, since Republicans generally hold it together well; only rarely does one leg of the coalition bolt altogether, as in the gubernatorial elections of 1991 and 2003.

Nevertheless, there are indeed two parts of Louisiana’s Republican base. One part, represented by northern Louisiana, is largely rural and poor; in bygone days it formed the core of both Huey Long’s support and the Solid South. The other, located largely in the suburbs surrounding New Orleans, is mostly suburban and relatively wealthy; it will vote for a Bobby Jindal but not a David Duke.

Indeed, these two strands of Republicanism are present not just in Louisiana but throughout the nation. Which strand the Republican Party decides to model itself after in the future will play a great deal in shaping the future of the party, as well as that of the nation.

Post-mortem: Following his 2003 defeat, Mr. Jindal campaigned heavily in the rural regions that had voted against him. In 2007, the Republican was elected governor with 54.3% of the vote; his next closest opponent won 17.6%. Mr. Jindal won almost every parish in the state, including many of the rural, conservative parishes that had voted against him in 2003 – proving that racism is not an impossible obstacle to surmount.




Bobby Jindal’s Strange 2003 Coalition, Part 1

This is the first part of two posts analyzing Louisiana’s 2003 gubernatorial election, in which Republican candidate Bobby Jindal narrowly lost to lieutenant governor Kathleen Blanco. The second part can be found here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

Bobby Jindal’s Strange Coalition

In 2003, an ambitious Bobby Jindal ran for Louisiana governor against Democratic candidate Kathleen Blanco. Despite holding a narrow polling lead throughout most of the campaign, Mr. Jindal ended up losing by a three-point margin.

The story of the coalition that voted for Mr. Jindal, however, constitutes quite the interesting tale. It is much different from the Republican base as commonly envisioned in the Deep South.

To begin, let’s take a look at a map of the election – which is also substantially different from most modern electoral maps. Here it is:

Map of Louisiana, 2003 Gubernatorial Election

The first thing that strikes the eye is the sheer number of parishes Mr. Jindal lost. He was absolutely crushed in rural Louisiana.

This is a remarkable thing. In the United States of today, it is usually an accomplishment for a Democrat to win a state’s rural counties, even in a landslide. Democrats almost never win the rural vote when the election is close.

Mr. Jindal, of course, got 48% of the vote somewhere. As it turns out, these votes came mainly from the state’s most populous parishes. The state’s most populous parish – Jefferson Parish – voted for Mr. Jindal by more than a 3-to-2 margin. In New Orleans, with the endorsement of Mayor Ray Nagin, Mr. Jindal did as well as possible for a Republican, winning almost one-third of the vote.

In other words, Mr. Jindal used strong margins from metropolitan, suburban Louisiana to counter Ms. Blanco’s rural strength and New Orleans – a strategy more familiar to Democrats than Republicans.

Here is a more “normal” election in Louisiana:

Map of Louisiana, 2002 Senatorial Election

Although it does not look like it, Republican candidate Suzanne Terrell did only one point better than Mr. Jindal.

There are substantial differences in their coalitions, however. Ms. Terrell did worse in the populous southeast, although the map does not show it well. She lost Baton Rouge (which Mr. Jindal won) and took only one-fifth of the vote in New Orleans, compared to the one-third Mr. Jindall racked up.

On the other hand, Ms. Terrell performed far better in rural, northern Louisiana – winning a number of thinly populated, poor parishes that Mr. Jindal lost. It was Mr. Jindal’s performance that constituted the aberration; deeply conservative, these parishes are a core part of the Republican base.

The next section will focus on the racial dynamics that caused this effect.




Post-racial America? Jo Co, Mo Dems receive racist bumper stickers in the mail.

The chair of the Johnson County, Missouri Democratic Central Committee went to the Warrensburg post office to check the committee's post office box for mail today.

In the mail was a a plain envelope with the address of the committee and no return address. There was a 37 cent Ronald Reagan stamp and a 10 cent stamp for postage.

Contained in the envelope were two bumper stickers:

There's more...

Idaho Republicans hate the word “fiesta,” demand repeal of the 17th Amendment, and require loyalty oath

Even when ID-01 is in Democratic hands, Repubs still know how to steal the show. Two inane stories the past couple weeks. First, at their state convention, the party voted to enshrine repealing the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators) into their party platform, as well as demand that all Repub candidates sign a party loyalty oath. Second, the Bonner County Republican Party is outraged, OUTRAGED! that their county’s fair has chosen “Fiesta” as this year’s theme. This is America and we speak American, gulldarnit!

Let’s think about that party platform for a second: signing a loyalty oath to support repeal of the 17th Amendment. That means that if you’re pro-life, think Obama is a socialist, want to get rid of social security and the income tax, and can’t wait to drill baby drill but also think that people should have their right to elect their own representatives, then you are not right-wing enough for the Idaho Repub Party. By the way, that 17th Amendment? It was originally co-sponsored and introduced by an Idaho Republican in 1911, Senator William Borah.

From the Idaho Democratic Party:

It is now clear that the "new" Idaho Republican Party is interested not in governing but in ruling our state and its people...

Some of these extremist proposals included disbanding all Idaho public schools, creating a state militia, forbidding closure of poorly run publicly-funded charter schools that are drowning in red ink, and rejecting school-based vaccination clinics (vaccinations were called "unnecessary drugging of our children").

"The Idaho Democratic Party welcomes all well-intentioned voters to join us in finding solutions to the problems this state now faces. We embrace a wide range of views and voters. At the same time, the Idaho Republican Party is quickly moving to the extreme right, far away from its traditional, moderate center," stated [Democratic Chairman Keith] Roark.

To Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)’s credit, he refuses to sign the loyalty oath.

But that’s not even half as crazy as one of the county parties. Just north of my home in Kootenai County, Repubs are furious that a Spanish word - "fiesta" - was chosen (way back in January) as the theme for this year’s Bonner County Fair. In protest, they have declared that the theme of their booth will be "celebrate," and they have written to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to ask if she has any Arizona license plates she could spare for them to decorate their booth.

The Twin Falls Times-News titled their responding editorial, “A bigot is a bigot, in any language” and said that Repubs should “avoid insulting 10 percent of your political constituency.” But my favorite line from this whole affair comes from Fair Board Chairman Tim Cary, who asked of the food court, "Are we supposed to change the name of a burrito to something in English?"

Small wonder that CQ just upgraded ID-01, once the national Repubs’ top target, from "toss-up" to 'leans Dem."

Update 3:49 EDT: Per Boise Weekly, the Bonner County Democrats have responded to the fiesta flap. Chairwoman Laura Bry says they will have donkey piñatas at their booth.

I should also point out that Sarah Palin was born in Bonner County.


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