Viacom uses copyright to censor racism protest

Madeline sez, "To protest the casting of white actors in Asian and Inuit roles for the live-action production of 'The Last Airbender,' (based on the animated series 'Avatar: The Last Airbender,' which features primarily Asian iconography, calligraphy, and fight choreography), fan Glockgal began making t-shirts that read 'This is not a tan' and "Aang can stay Asian and still save the world.' Viacom, one of the companies which owns a license for the series, has ordered to take down her storefront. Glockgal has since re-released the designs with the words 'CENSORED BY VIACOM' in large, friendly letters across them."



  1. Reminds me of the release of Dragon Ball here in Japan. The only way they could bill the film was, “You haven’t seen Dragon Ball like this yet.”

    Everyone here laughed more than they groaned and the film was a subsequent flop.

    Hollywood proved a long time ago that they only aim to appease the furriest uni-brow in the audience.

  2. Ugh. Isn’t this kind of passe?
    When I see the older movies and some Hollywood actor with his Asian “slanty” it just seems so corny and uninteresting.

    Do audiences really want to see non-Asians cast as Asians?

    Of course, Hollywood can always go it’s other route and have a “chosen one” just happen to be caucasian, in the midst of Asian characters in Asia…

  3. Back at my university (in South Africa, i.e. a highly multi-racial setting), the drama department made an active effort not to cast actors by race. The actors were simply all given equal opportunities at playing any given role.

    That said, Hollywood, and film in general, is quite a different story.

    And anyway, the point here is Viacom abusing the DMCA to suppress legal protest.

  4. In the real world, John Wayne played Genghis Khan. When Margaret Cho plays George Washington in a studio film, then we can talk about moving to casting neutrality.

  5. The casting of The Last Airbender has made me really sad. I don’t much care to see the movie, as I am not exactly the target demographic, but my young cousins (Asian and part-Asian) have all loved the cartoon, and I just can’t stand the thought that they will want to go see this movie, and it *won’t* be what it should be, and that they aren’t even allowed to have one movie with heroes who look like them.

    Viacom sucks, Frank Marshall sucks, and M. Night Shyamalan sucks for letting this happen.

  6. Just posted to her LJ community “Racebending” Poll.

    Delivered alongside the blatant disregard for the subject matter itself and the stinging insult to a half-continent worth of communities is an undeniable indication that this film will simply be bad.

  7. Seems fully appropriate to me (casting Caucasians), seeing as how the series was American, pretending to be Japanese.

  8. It’s a shame we couldn’t combine the two. An Asian-American, if you will.

  9. This story didn’t even take place on the planet earth. So any group of people living on any planet’s poles automatically become inuit?

    Why didn’t these people throw fits when the voice actors were cast for the original show? Other than Mako I think pretty much everyone was not asian.

  10. Kieran @#3 hit it right on the button. I don’t care if they put Forest Whitaker in the role, as long as he does a good job of convincing me that he is the fictitious character that I came to see.

    The point is that the creator of the merchandise was ripped off by a company that obviously doe not understand copyright law.

    And Darren @ #7 ~ Technically it was American pretending to be Sino-Tibetan.

  11. Thanks for reporting about this! Some people have misconceptions about why this protest is going on (ie, ‘some voice actors are white, why not the live-action actors?’ and ‘this is a fantasy world [therefore the heroes should be white]’), and yeah, we’ve heard ALL of these ‘arugments’ before. In fact, we even have an FAQ on to answer it :

    One small correction – I put some products back up that say ‘Censored by V1acom’…I know it’s one small change, but I’m curious to see how long it’ll take for Viacom to see that as ‘copyright infringement of intellectual property’.

    Thanks again,

  12. Classis censorship fail.

    They try to get rid of complaints by legal maneuvering, and all they end up doing is getting the movement BoingBoinged.

  13. A lot of Americans not hip to anime/manga idiom will look at the young protagonists’ large, round eyes and view them as Westerners, and wonder what the fuss is about. Clearly the movie’s producers are just as clueless.

    Given that the story, the costuming, the sets, the choreography are all steeped in Asiatic cultures, it’s going to be weird seeing a bunch of white Orange County kids playing the roles.

    This is a sad coda to what has been the greatest animated feature ever produced for American television.

  14. The decision to make a main character who is Asian in some way, not Asian in the live action movie suggests to me that the movie was made by committee and is really going to suck.

    “What? The main character is Asian? Sorry, our pollsters said that the Asian leads are 2% less likely to sell dvds then Caucasian in certain markets. Can’t have it.”

    “Sorry, spiritual actualization does not sell tickets. He gets his power from a radioactive spider bite. That’s what the kids love today.”

    “Him and the chick, they do it right?”

    I’m making all that up, but from what I’ve seen from some adaptations to the screen I’ve watched, I don’t think I’m too far from the mark.

  15. Seems like laziness to me. No desire to go to the effort of finding asian/ inuit (or at least inuit looking) kids for the roles. And if there’s an industry where racism is still rampant and obvious (It was highly significant that neither Harold nor Kumar was white or black- and acted just like all american born kids) it’s hollywood. Of course it’s also sexist. Practically every woman plays a prostitute at some point…

  16. octopussoup: the clothing, culture, and the plot of the season one finale are all Inuit-based. Just like Fire is china-based, Air Tibetan, and earth a mix of several including Korean and Japanese.

    MadFist: the problem with that argument is that they specifically put out a casting call for Caucasian leads.

  17. Thank you for making a post about this! There have been a few misconceptions about why people are protesting this (ie – ‘some of the voice actors were white, so why not the live-action actors’; and ‘it’s a fantasy world [and therefore white?]’). These and many more ‘arguments’ have already been answered in the FAQ. We have heard ’em all. :D

    One correction on the article: in an effort to be circumspect – and because recently Viacom has yet AGAIN shut down one of the newer products in the racebending Zazzle store – I use ‘V1acom’ rather than ‘Viacom’ in the products. It’s a small difference, but Viacom certainly can’t claim this Fair Use protest as a ‘copyright infringement’.

    Thanks again,

  18. On the same subject, I’ve thought for a long time that it would be soooo cool if a summer blockbuster movie was made where everyone was Southern. All Southern actors, all Southern accents, and no mention made of it ever in the movie. Think ‘The Matrix,’ but in the South. Watching Americans heads explode when there weren’t any ‘Southern’ stereotypes in the film would be pretty hilarious.

  19. #13 Glockgal “These and many more ‘arguments’ have already been answered in the FAQ. We have heard ’em all. :D”

    Just looked at your FAQ. I like how you put “arguments” in quotes like that, as if people with differing opinion are ignorant and misled and you are correcting them. But what in fact I see in the FAQ is that you take one subjective opinion and then answer it (snarkily) with another subjective opinion that you seem to frame as objective fact. Let’s get some perspective here– almost nobody will watch this movie in the US if it has an Asian cast. Almost nobody will watch this movie in the US if it has a white cast. It is a live-action movie based on an obscure cartoon that, while made by Americans, intentionally attempted to copy the style and content of Japanese cartoons, which themselves have only a niche audience in the US. (I, for one, never actually watched Airbender even though I watch anime because the idea of intentionally trying to copy the style came off as cynical marketing move and not real creativity.)

    This movie will probably go direct to DVD and sell only to the hardcore niche market of fans of the (not anime) cartoon no matter what the race of the cast.

  20. #15 Darren Garrison – My apologies if the use of quotations over ‘arguments’ has made you so hostile. That was not my intent. Really, it’s been a pretty amazing back-and-forth between people who legitimately use some of these arguments and think they’re valid. I disagree, because I have perspective and research on the subject.

    If you read through the FAQ, it’ll answer your argument that no one in the US will see an ‘Asian cast’.

    Finally, if this movie does go directly to DVD, that may be a blessing in disguise! While I was originally looking forward to seeing Avatar as a movie, now I feel a direct-to-DVD will prevent millions of children from seeing yet another movie with white, lead heroes in an Asian-based world. Given how spectacularly Dragonball failed at the box office, perhaps it’ll give Paramount Pictures some food for thought that overly-produced, overly-marketed, white-washed films are not what discerning American parents want to feed their kids!

  21. Not surprisingly, Viacom also did a terrific job of bringing sexism to their choice of Avatar action figures to put on the market. My then-kindergartener was dismayed to not be able to get a Katara or Toph action figure, when much more obscure male characters were widely available. We wrote letters to Viacom and Nick, but never did receive a response.

  22. @15

    Let’s get some perspective here– almost nobody will watch this movie in the US if it has an Asian cast. Almost nobody will watch this movie in the US if it has a white cast.

    So the objective opinion you offer resumes to “I don’t care, nobody will care and you shouldn’t care either”?

    And how exactly is an Emmy award-winning show with millions of viewers an “obscure cartoon”??

  23. Jay Carrol Nash was a character actor who played numerous nationalities. He was actually Irish. I once saw him play the Japanese bad guy in a Batman and Robin serial made during WWII. About 1964 a theater in San Francisco ran all the chapters back to back but they didn’t edit out the titles and the reprise of the cliff hanger from the chapter before, and the introduction of the characters. The result was that it lasted longer than Gone With The Wind. It was a determined and rather fatigued bunch of filmheads who hung on until the last chapter. About 11:15 they saw B&R finally meet the Nash character on a spiral ramp. Batman spits out the line, “It’s a Jap!” what happened after that I can’t say. We screamed with laughter and blocked the dialog.

  24. “I like how you put ‘arguments’ in quotes like that, as if people with differing opinion are ignorant and misled…”

    “I, for one, never actually watched Airbender…”

  25. Darren: well, you’ve just proudly admitted you are ignorant on this subject, so how exactly have you countered that?

    FWIW, the actual animation was Korean, just like most anime. The respectful relationship they had with the studio directly led to the high quality of the resulting animation.

  26. #20- I fail to see any relationship (or contradiction) whatsoever in the two lines that you have quoted. I have made no claims as to the quality of the material– simply stating opinions on what a box office flop this will likely be, as are almost all movies based on “B” and “C” level (in terms of popularity and public recognition, not quality) are total flops. Look at what happened with the Speed Racer movie, for instance. I’m just saying, glockgal is getting way worked up tilting at a very small windmill. And that is not “hostility” on my part (if you’ll note, the majority of my posts here have been about or in defense of Japanese media and cultural items, so I’m far from anti-Asian.)

  27. @Darren Garrison:

    Regarding your point about cultural appropriation of anime, I think it’s valid — Nickelodeon has made statements to the effect of wanting an anime-like title when they purchased the series. The creators of the series have confessed their anime fandom and their desire to create something in that vein. They have acknowledged their influences: Miyazaki and Watanabe, primarily. They paid certified professionals as classical Chinese calligraphy and martial arts/choreography consultants. They went on research trips to China to document classical architecture so that background artists could reproduce it. They did their homework. They played it smart. Until now.

    Like you, I was inclined to dismiss the title as a cynical cash-grab, but then I actually took the time to watch it. I found it deeply engaging, intelligent, and thoughtfully-made. It may also have been a cynical cash-grab. But if so, it was at least a well-researched cynical cash-grab with compelling characters, a tight plot, and better action sequences than most summer blockbusters.

    Speaking of summer blockbusters, I think that’s what Paramount and the Kennedy/Marshall company have in mind for this adaptation. As Sekino pointed out, this is an Emmy award-winning series. It is not obscure. Somebody saw a potential for profit, somewhere. What’s sad is that someone in the development chain agreed with your assertion that Americans only want to watch white people on screen. Aside from being false, this assertion only promotes the popularity of white-only or white-majority casting. Things will not change until we change them, and persistent belief in the intractability of Hollywood, in its presumed inability to alter its practises, is part of what blocks that very change from occurring. If we want more, we must first expect more.

    The story here is not solely about casting, but about the fact that audiences are actually a lot more broad-minded than most give them credit for, and willing to fight for a similarly broad-minded vision of the world as it pertains to media representation. That’s part of why I submitted the link. I thought this kind of thing was part of being a happy mutant.

  28. Correction: J.Carrol Naish

    The only accent he never did was … Irish!

    They showed this Batman mess at “Movies At Midnight” in Hollywood about the same time. It was even worse than when I first saw it weekly when I was 12 years old. Watching all the chapters at one setting was too high a price to pay for the trendy pleasures of Camp. I walked after Chapter 3.

  29. And all this time I just assumed Asian people didn’t like acting. What other possible explanation could there be for casting Mickey Rooney as a Chinese man in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”

  30. @David Garrison

    one subjective opinion and then answer it (snarkily) with another subjective opinion that you seem to frame as objective fact

    Please tell me how I should appropriately react as an Asian person. At first I thought I was justified in being angry about how there was a purposeful exclusion of Asians in lead roles who are very obviously Asian, but since you’ve given such fascinating insight into your expertise on what it’s like to be Asian, I realize now that I need to defer to white people before I form an opinion.

    After all, my subjective viewpoint on being Asian holds absolutely no water because I’m biased by being Asian in the first place. Your opinion should be just as important, if not more.

  31. I’m going to pull back from this argument. All I was intending to do was make a (admittedly pedantic) point about that list being called a “FAQ”– which is supposed to be a factual list of answers to questions– when in fact this is a OOTFSOOOAOBTATOOTSO– Opposing Opinions To Frequently Stated Opinions Of Others, Authoritative Only Because They Are The Opinions Of The Site Owner. If the list was called an OOTFSOOOAOBTATOOTSO instead of a FAQ, I would have nothing to complain about.

  32. #26- “What’s sad is that someone in the development chain agreed with your assertion that Americans only want to watch white people on screen.”

    I want to address this one more point because you are the second person to make it. If you look at what I said, I stated that nobody will watch this with an Asian cast, and that nobody will watch this with a White cast. I expect it to have the same stunning success of Speed Racer and Dragon Ball.

    As for being well known, I just don’t believe that. Well respected within the audience that watches premium cable animate programming, maybe. But by “well known”, I mean well known by the general public, who’s interest will be need to be captured to make a movie (especially a high-budget effects driven movie) financially successful. Stop a hundred random people on the street. Ask them if they have ever heard of “Airbender: The Last Avitar.” What percentage of positives do you figure you would get? I’m guessing Pretty Darn Low. Compare that to the answers you would get to people having heard of (not necessarily liked– just heard of) The Simpsons, Beevis and Butthead, King of the Hill, Family Guy, Spongebob Squarepants, etc. By that metric, I still think that ATLA is not well known.

  33. #30 @David Garrison

    Oh! I thought ‘FAQ’ stood for ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ by which I figured that meant questions/challenges that were asked frequently to regarding the information (a tiny bit of it actually factual!) provided on the website.

    So ‘FAQ’ really means ‘Factual Answers to Questions’. Appreciate the clarification, I’ll look into changing it to OOTFSOOOAOBTATOOTSO. If that’s all I needed to do in order to fix all of this, I’m sorry I didn’t realize earlier!

  34. #30: So ‘FAQ’ really means ‘Factual Answers to Questions’.

    The key point here is “answers to questions”– not “statements of opinion”– which is what you are posting. Let’s come up with an example question. Let’s say you make a FAQ “question” that says

    Q: There aren’t enough Asian actors in Hollywood to fill all of the roles needed, so they have to go with white actors.

    A: Actually, there are X number of Asian actors in Hollywood, only Y number of which are getting roles. Only Z percentage of characters in current films are filled by Asian actors.

    See how much more effective that would be in making your “FAQ” look scholarly, legitimate, and respectable for anyone reading it? Of course, doing that would require actually doing the research to finding the numbers for Z, Y, and Z, but if you actually had some facts in your FAQ and not what is the equivalent of a couple of kinds yelling “is not!” “are too!” back and forth to each other, your site might actually be taken seriously by a wider audience. Isn’t that what you want from your campaign? As is, you are preaching to your choir.

    1. Unsolicited moderatorial opinion:

      If, after three attempts, you’ve failed to make your point, it isn’t going to happen. Further attempts will only make people think of you as that angry guy, poisoning all your future attempts at discourse.

  35. umm, darren, your “question” in the above post, well, it isn’t really a question now, is it? see the question mark at the end of that last sentence ( as well as this one)? that is what denotes a “question”. as usual, i see you are making friends and creating warm fuzzies with your kind and thoughtful posting. keep up the great work!

  36. @ Darren Garrison

    Casting sheets: fact (all of them)
    Multiple quotes from production/crew: fact
    Visuals to contrast the actors to the characters: fact
    MANAA and EWP’s letters to Paramount Pictures: fact
    Asian Americans existing: fact

    I understand what you’re saying about ‘preaching to the choir’, but I strongly disagree with your perception that the FAQ does not provide facts. To insinuate that we are not researched, respectable or legitimate (to the general public who naturally will not agree with us), your argument is partially sounding like another version of ‘Well if you were more polite about your anti-racism, then maybe people would listen.’ and ‘You’re not being rational, therefore your argument is moot’.

    However, adding percentages to more fully explore the answers to the handful of questions that it may help – yes I think that’s a good idea. Goodness knows I can’t expect people to do research themselves; it’s my duty to prove to them that we should see Asian actors in an Asian-based movie. Maybe all the other facts are negligible, but perhaps a few statistics will change their mind?

  37. #35 umm, darren, your “question” in the above post, well, it isn’t really a question now, is it?

    Which is precisely why I put the word “question” in quotation marks in my post– to “signal strange usage” as listed in the Wikipedia entry on quotation marks. If I had not meant for the word “question” to be highlighted as different, I would not have used quotation marks around the word. The meaning of those quotation marks was, I assumed obvious from something called “context”. Perhaps I was setting that bar too high, though.

  38. yeth darwin. we is are jus too sthtupid to possibly gwasp yo deeeeeeep meeningth! oh, what wuz ah thankin? tanx zo muchly for settin ignant me stwate!

  39. #37 Glockgal

    I understand what you’re saying about ‘preaching to the choir’, but I strongly disagree with your perception that the FAQ does not provide facts.

    Whether you believe me or not, I say this in an attempt to be constructive, not just insulting– that FAQ comes off to me, as a non-involved 3rd party, as snarky, condescending, and adolescent. My point is, if you want your campaign to be taken seriously– as I have to assume you do– you have to treat it seriously. And for heck’s sake, don’t come off sounding like nit-picking fanboys (not saying that you do.) A FAQ like that is going to play well to the people who already agree with you– but it is going to do nothing to gain converts and new supporters. Saying why your opponent is incorrect is going to bring you the audience you want. Saying why your opponent is a poopy-headed jerk is going to bring you a shallow audience that reasons and argues that way. Which audience do you want?

  40. Darren, you’re not doing a very good job of pulling back from the argument.

  41. No, I’m never good at that. Although, in my defense (albeit weakly) the argument I was pulling back on was the one on the box-office prospects of the movie… which I still did a poor job of pulling back on.

  42. Related topic: who thinks that the tagline “Putting the Cauc back in Asian” was intentionally worded to sound like a porn reference?

    1. You’re the guy who’s always giggling in the sealant aisle at Home Depot, aren’t you?

  43. @Brainspore (#44)

    That’s the first thing that occure in my mind upon seeing the pic.

  44. I dunno Aang never really looked Asian to me. And you can’t just attribute it to “anime style” many other characters on the show (like everyone from the Fire nation) look way more Asian.

  45. I’ve never really heard of the show, so I watched some clips online and read a little about it. But I have to agree with #48. I would never have though Aang was meant to be Asian if I hadn’t read about this debate first. Unless they’ve specifically said somewhere that Aang is supposed to be asian, or it comes up in the show, I would say it’s kind of a non-issue.

  46. The most frustrating thing about issues of race and racism in internet threads is that you realize how many people are hopelessly racist but completely unaware of their racism. Even here on Boing Boing, , when these issues come up, the manifestations of white privilege and it’s masking of racism is simply galling.

    And then you argue and argue and realize just how completely helpless you are to show people that their opinions and arguments are wrought on a foundation of racist societal mores.

  47. @25 – It’s not Korean animation. Rough Draft Studios is an American company that moved to using Korean animators.

    That’s like saying the BMW X-5 is an American car.

  48. Honestly, I don’t think Aang *has* to be white. He looks most like Charlie Brown to me. But what bugs me, what really bugs me, is the only non-white actors Shyamalan decided to cast were actors of his *own* race. Wow, M. Night. How creative!

    (nothing against Dev Petel, I think he would have been the perfect Sokka…)

  49. I’ve always been a bit weirded out by how anglicized the main characters of Avatar were, despite being in such an obviously Asian world. It’s a bit like Aladdin. But, uh, it’s a general pitfall of anime.

    I’m not saying it’s any excuse- kids eat up Avatar so quick you could have blue-skinned horses playing all the characters and it’d make serious cash. Having some cute Asian-American kids playing the roles wouldn’t lose anybody any money.

  50. Aang was raised by monks in Buddhist Robes and not effing Steven Seagal.

    But the point of the article is Viacom and how they’re trying to stifle debate using copyright as an excuse. Much like white people who argue that this casting thing isn’t a big deal and expect Asians to think the same.

  51. Zazzle and Viacom are hiding behind the vague generalization
    “intellectual property”. By using that term they are avoiding even
    telling you what law they claim your products violate. There is no
    law forbidding “using VIACOM content”. There are specific laws which
    prohibit specific things. The term “intellectual property” is
    designed to hide these laws with a confused blur.

    I suggest you demand that they tell you concretely what objection they
    have to each of your products. Which law do they think it violates,
    and why? “Intellectual property” is not an answer; it is a way not to

    See for more explanation
    about why we should reject this confusing propaganda term.

    Richard Stallman

  52. You know, the Asian Community should sue for copyright infringement on using their culture in return for this kind of stuff. The simple truth is, they wouldn’t have a story without Asian Martial Arts, or Asian Culture. I don’t seem to remember any Nordic Martial Arts of note. Somehow I think the story would be less than stellar if Earthbenders used Greco-Roman Wrestling. I think about the only European Martial Art of note is Savate. Where would the story be without the culture and fighting arts of Asia?

  53. M.Night Uses Reverse Psychology

    The actual genders and races of what the elements represent are in Rodney St.Michael’s book, Sync My World: Thief’s Honor GA SK. (

    Air = Yellow “race” = Males = Scholars.

    Water = Small Browns = Females = Shamans.

    Earth = Blacks = Lesbian = Social Ubuntu Business Class.

    Fire = Whites = Gays = Military, Militant Business Class.

    Ether or Metal = Big Browns = Bisexuals = Working Class, Bi-military
    (females & bis go together like Katara & Sokka or brown females and males).

    Therefore Aang should be Chinese.

    Katara should be a Malay like a Filipina.

    The Earth Kingdom should be African.

    Zuko should be White like Hitler, Alexander the Gay or Gen. Arthur McArthur.

    The Fire Nation’s army should be like the fiery Sacred Band of Thebes (an ancient elite gay army that Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell troops would be envious of) or the Sturmabteilung, the much-feared homosexual stormtroopers of Hitler.

    And the Slumdog Millionaire (casted as Zuko) should be Sokka.

    This film is just as messed up as the movie Angels and Demons. The branding of the priests were incorrect.

    But anyway, from the guy who gave you the Sixth Sense, which did not portray childhood schizophrenia accurately or anywhere near the real world, what do you expect?

    Bisexuals love horror and terror. They also scam people, just like the Wizard of Oz. The old Oz film which is also about the Elements is understandably all-white because they were ignorant back then. People have higher standards now, and realism is a must.

    But M.Night, the Wizard of South Asia also has lessons for everyone after conning them:

    1) Clearly, when people don’t play roles that fit them, everything is messed up. (e.g. “male” clergy in what should be a female realm, forbidding gays in the military which is their territory)

    2) Whites are not fit to play the leading roles of Air and Water in the world scene. Leave that to the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, Korea and South East Asia).

    3) Arabs are not necessarily the greatest evil in the world. Occasionally, they float like Ether to the ranks of Water. It is fiery whites that fit the role of Lucifer or Satan.

    4) By acquiring objective reviews from leading critics, they have agreed themselves that these are all factual objective realities.

    Thus, the Wizard, even if he is a con man, is also an accidental pseudo teacher. Partly, it’s called sunyata or “emptiness.”

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