Barnes & Nobel was caught in a controversy about a week ago. To try and honor Black History Month, the company commissioned artists to redesign classic novel covers, like The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, The Secret Garden, Peter Pan etc. The company was quick to dole out apologies but the damage was done. They canceled the release of the covers and we are left with the mountains of tweets of people and authors of color trying make sense of what they did. Authors like Roxane Gay, Angie Thomas, David Bowles added to the conversation.
Image via The New York Times
All of this brings up ideas of diversity. How to do it successfully and how not to. An even bigger example than the Barnes & Nobel’s catastrophe is M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. I know what you are thinking, this movie, based on the very popular show and graphic novel series, literally came out ten years ago, why does it matter? One, because it deals with the subject of diversity and is a prime example of how not to do it but also because I want to gush about the original series because it was just that good. Good? Good.
So the adaptation of the Nickelodeon series was highly anticipated but it was helmed by Shyamalan, who has always had an interesting career and let’s leave it at that. Most fans and non-fans alike can agree that the movie was horrible for many many reasons. But I will be focusing on the story elements and characters, not the film making itself.
If you don’t know the original series, Avatar: The Last Airbender was about a young kid named Aang who is the Avatar, an individual who can wield all four elements. He’s the last air nomad because of a huge war the Fire Nation who started to wipe out all of the other benders and take over the world. Aang travels with Katara and Saka, a brother and sister duo from the southern water tribe. As Katara and Saka are brown skinned and the people from both the southern and northern water tribes are vaguely what we would consider native american today. They are brown, remember that for later. See below for reference.
Image via Variety
Throughout the show, the three travel to different parts of the world so that Aang can master the other elements, water, earth, and fire. Opposing Aang are the fire nation. Leading the expedition for his capture are Zuko, the prince of the fire nation, his uncle, and eventually his sister Azula. The show is very diverse but it is clearly shown that the fire nation characters look Japanese. See below for reference (Zuko and his father, the Fire Lord).
Image via Avatar Wiki-Fandom
I don’t know who was behind the casting of the movie but that was one of my biggest problems with it. Aang was fine, he looked vaguely asian in the show and they cast a light skinned actor to play him. But they cast white actors to play Katara and Sokka and Indian and dark skinned actors for Zuko, Iroh, and basically the entire fire nation. Do you see what I am getting at?
The villains of the show, that were light skinned, were turned dark while the heroes lost all of their color. They switched the races of the characters just like Barnes and Noble did. Changing the skin color of a character isn’t adding diversity. You are just making them diverse to be palatable to people of color.
The movie doubles down on the stereotype of making the brown or black characters evil while the light skinned folks are the heroes that stopped the terrible villains. The Fire Nation and it’s leader Fire Lord Ozai, did horrible things to the rest of the world. They wiped out every air bender, except for Aang, and tried to do the same to the water benders, putting earth benders into slavery. All of a sudden the dark skinned Indian people are doing all of this? It’s reaffirming the notion that people of color are to be feared and the light skinned characters get to run in and save the day.
The water tribes were a peaceful, seafaring people who left everyone alone because they were literally on opposite ends of the earth. They did nothing to the fire tribe except exist, yet the fire tribe attacked, which not-so-subtly refers to how Europeans traveled over the world and conquered folks of color.
While watching the movie, I was stunned. I first asked “Did no one watch the show?” Because watching the movie it seemed like someone had just given the director and the writers spark notes and they were good to go. My second question was “How does Shyamalan, as a person of color, feel about this?” There were, of course, many interviews during the press tour for the movie but one of the most famous was one in which he essentially stated that American audiences don’t get him and how he and his films have a European aspect.
Out of all the articles and his defense of the film, he doesn’t go into this side of things. How he doesn’t see the implications of the race switching confuses me. Wouldn’t he want to see dark skinned folks being the heroes in a huge fantasy setting? Or maybe he just saw an opportunity to make money and called it a day. Obviously, I don’t know that for sure, but the movie felt hallow, like they gave it to whoever wanted it.
When an artist, or musician or film maker is passionate about their project you can feel it. It’s hard to ignore when someone spends so much time on a project and they pour their heart and soul into it, it’s infectious. You feel it and even if it turns out bad you know that they put the work in and that they didn’t just take some company’s money and make a thing. It’s honestly baffling.
Image Via The Brag
Barnes & Nobles gate shows they had some good intentions and Shyamalan wasn’t trying to be offensive but where were the other people of color on their teams? Did Barnes & Nobles even have any? Big decisions for a company are overseen by at least a couple of teams of people like design, marketing, research, someone must have thought this wasn’t the right move. Instead of promoting black authors or other POCs for Black History month you just re-brand old classics and not change anything about them? What does making Dorothy black do? What does making the monster from Frankenstein black do? What does making Peter Pan black do?
Image via The Guardian
Image via The Guardian
Image via Business Insider
It’s an empty attempt at diversity and I’m glad they canceled the launch of the redesigns. A lot of these older books are notably racist as well and making the main character a person of color devalues the privilege they originally had to successfully end with an happily ever after. I hope they try this again because it’s a good idea. But they should do redesigns of classic works by black authors and asian authors etc. If they truly believe in diversity and champion for literature from everywhere and from everyone, they should try again, maybe in a couple of years though.
Image via Built In
So, in honor of these mistakes our fabulous graphic team have redesigned a couple of covers for you to enjoy. They are people of color representing what the true meaning of the book is.
Images via Bookstr
Images via Bookstr
Image via Bookstr
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