Gene Luen Yang: Why I Won’t Be Watching The Last Airbender Movie

I had to share this comic strip from Graphic Novelist Gene Luen Yang.  Believe it or not, I’ve never seen an episode of the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated series, but I hear from friends that it’s absolutely fantastic.  I will definitely be watching it soon.  In the meantime, I cannot support the film, even though I’m a fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s work.  Casting white actors to play heroes of color – characters who are Asian and Inuit – is really unfair and offensive to people of color in general.   Check out the brilliant comic below and be sure to visit Yang’s blog!

Here’s a hi-res pdf version of the comic.

Prince of Persia: The Brother is Brown

As Disney’s “Prince of Persia” is set for release later this week, I’m noticing more people talking about the casting controversy. As I have expressed in my previous posts (here and here), choosing Jake Gyllenhaal to play a brown character is another example of Hollywood’s Orientalist white-washing and ethnocentrism, as well as denying people of color the opportunity to represent themselves. The most common counter-argument I’m hearing is: “Well, ancient Persians were light skinned.” Producer Jerry Bruckheimer even said this, while adding, “The Turks changed all of that.” Ah yes, those bloody Turks and their dark skin! And how convenient for Hollywood, right? I suppose with those “facts,” they can justify the casting of a White actor to play an ancient Persian hero. But wait a minute, why were the ancient Persians in “300” dark skinned? Hmm.

I would like to present examples from the “Prince of Persia” video games to show how the character’s skin color changed over time.

1. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003)

I could write a paper or hold a long discussion about how problematic the cover image above is. The Orientalist fantasy element is quite obvious – note the blue eyes, the Arabic script on his sword (this is supposed to be pre-Islamic Persia), and the Islamic crescents on the minarets. There needs to be an important discussion about masculinity as well (note the bare chest, battle scars), which I will be writing more about in future posts (though perhaps not specifically about “Prince of Persia”). Regardless of these problematic elements, the point is that anyone who played this game knows the character was brown and Middle-Eastern.  The game also features an Indian female character named Farah.  She does not seem to appear in the film and, as of yet, it isn’t certain that any of the South Asian characters will be featured.

2. Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (2004)

If there was any doubt about the Prince being brown in the first game, just take a look at how he is depicted in the sequel. In fact, he is darker in this game; brown and Hrithik Roshan-esque, minus the blue eyes. “Warrior Within” also did a better job staying consistent with Zoroastrian/pre-Islamic Persian mythology. I’m guessing someone informed them about it after all of the Arabic in the first game. And of course, the hyper-masculinity and Orientalism needs to be challenged immensely, but my point here is simply about skin color.

3. Prince of Persia: Two Thrones (2005)

Yep. Brown.

4. Prince of Persia (2008)

Whoa. What happened here?

I found this representation to be quite offensive. What’s important to be informed about is that this character is not the same Prince from the previous three games (did I mention they don’t have names?). The creators of the game wanted to explore “another Prince” (who you don’t really learn much about because he has amnesia). The Prince in this game is light-skinned, as you can see. If anything, he looks like he has a summer tan. Though the gameplay is enjoyable and the female character, Elika (who accompanies you the entire game), is dark-skinned, it was a huge disappointment that the Prince looked very White and Euro-American. Arguments that use this game to justify the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal are inaccurate since the film is based on the first game, “The Sands of Time.” Though it does raise an important question as to why this Prince’s skin is lighter than the previous Prince.

Even if there are disputes about the Prince’s skin color, I still do not understand the argument about ancient Persians being light skinned. It simply sounds like an excuse to cover up the fact that a non-Persian was chosen for the role. It is still racebending, white-washing, and Orientalism. And it must be challenged.

UPDATE: Read this hilarious and brilliant article by Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah:  The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!!

UPDATE 2: Sara Haghdoosti, an Iranian blogger at “The Punch,” has written an excellent piece, Jake Gyllenhaal stole my identity and my video game. Be sure to check it out!

Clarification about skin color: I’m getting some comments about Persians being light-skinned.  I am not disputing this.  I am fully aware that Persians, like many other ethnic groups, range from light skin to dark skin.  This particular post is simply a brief content analysis on the character’s skin color in the video games. I am not saying all Persians are brown; I am saying that the Prince is depicted as brown (see pictures above).  A light-skinned Persian could have been chosen for the role and that would have been fine  I am also not speaking for the Iranian community; I am an advocate for equal and fair opportunity and casting for people of color in general.  I write mostly about the media’s representation of Muslims, South Asians, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.  It is inaccurate to assume or interpret that I am speaking for a community that is not my own.

This Prince is Not Persian

It makes sense that I am seeing “Prince of Persia” posters at bus stops and malls. The movie is set for release later this month. It does not make sense, however, that I am expected to believe Jake Gyllenhaal is Persian. He is not. In fact, I will not even address his character as “The Prince” in this article (or anywhere else for that matter). I will just call him Jake.

“Hey, look, ‘Prince of Persia,’” my brother said, pointing at the movie poster.

“You aren’t going to see that, are you?” I asked.

“Pfft, yeah right, I’m not going to watch that racist s&#%!!”

Jake and Disney, the studio responsible for this racebending/whitewashed atrocity (surprise, surprise), seem to have their fair share of fans and supporters. On internet forums and threads, I see fans writing things like, “Ooh Jake is so hot,” or “I Love Jake Gyllenhaal,” or “I’m so glad they chose him to play the prince!” I saw one comment where someone called the casting racist and the response was, “Get over it! He’s hot!”

As I wrote in last year’s post about the film, the level of ignorance is disturbing. It reminds me when the film “300” – a White supremacist’s wet dream – was released and many viewers spoke about the “hotness” of Gerard Butler as a way of covering up the film’s disgusting racism. In that film, which I have written extensively about, you may recall that the Persians were not only portrayed by people of color, but also horribly demonized without apology. Now, when the Persians are the “good guys,” they are played by lovely White people.

The first insult is that people of color, in this case Persians and South Asians, are not attractive people. They cannot be “hot.” I know I am not the only person who has heard White people say, directly or indirectly, that dark skin is not attractive as light skin. The second insult is that heroic Persian and South Asian characters cannot be played by real Persians and South Asians. They don’t know what it means to be “heroic.” Only White people do.

This is blatant Orientalism. Jake is the Orientalist, he is not the Persian. He embodies the West’s history of domination in the East, where the “Oriental,” the “other,” must be spoken for, must be represented by the West, by the White man, and must be feared or even hated. The “Oriental” is obliterated into non-existence and not granted the freedom or access to represent him/herself. This is an example of what the late Edward Said called “positional superiority,” i.e. the White Westerner can exploit the East in such a manner simply because it can.

But, as some fans complain, Hollywood needs to sell tickets. It needs to make money. Poor Hollywood. Oh, then I guess that makes everything “ok.” So what if there was a missed opportunity to break rising stereotypes and misconceptions about Middle-Easterners and South Asians. I’m sure brown people and real Persians understand that Jake and Disney need the money, right?

No. While some fans and viewers drool over Jake’s fake prince, I propose that protesters join forces with Racebending.com, which has been raising awareness about the whitewashing in “The Last Airbender, “ and boycott this film. We shouldn’t give money to a greedy industry that does not even allow minorities to represent themselves.

Be sure to read the post I wrote about the film last year.

UPDATE: Read this hilarious and brilliant article by Arab-American comedian, Dean Obeidallah:  The Prince of Persia was a White Dude?!!

UPDATE 2: Sara Haghdoosti, an Iranian blogger at “The Punch,” has written an excellent piece, Jake Gyllenhaal stole my identity and my video game. Be sure to check it out!

Clarification about skin color: I’m getting some comments about Persians being light-skinned.  I am not disputing this.  I am fully aware that Persians, like many other ethnic groups, range from light skin to dark skin.  The only reason I say “brown” is because the character is depicted as brown in the first three video games. My argument, like Dean Obeidallah’s, is that talented Persian and South Asian actors (the female lead from the video game is Indian) should be allowed to play protagonists in box office hits (Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian, plays the role of a villain, similar to how Dev Patel, another Indian actor, is playing the villain in “The Last Airbender.”)  A light-skinned Persian could have been chosen for the role and that would have been fine.  I am also not speaking for the Iranian community; I am an advocate for equal and fair opportunity and casting for people of color in general.  I write mostly about the media’s representation of Muslims, South Asians, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups.  It is inaccurate to assume or interpret that I am speaking for a community that is not my own.