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To Bend or not to Bend…

by Andy Gibbons

The school playground can be a cruel arena. It’s often full of scratches and scrapes, both physical and mental as youngsters learn their way in the world. Every generation has their own favourite putdowns or cusses that are thrown around and, when I was 11 or 12, the insult du jour was ‘bender’. At that age we had no idea of the wider connotation of the word and it wasn’t even considered particularly malicious – trust me we had much worse names we could use when needed. So why now, all these years later, did I giggle my way through M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender like a naughty school boy?

And it wasn’t just me – the screening I was in was full of middle aged film critics who audibly sniggered every time the word ‘bender’ was used. For context I should point out that the ‘bending’ in this fantasy adventure is the ability to control and manipulate the elements so you have Airbenders, Earthbenders, Waterbenders and Firebenders – but these throw up all sorts of opportunities for a script of staggering one liners. ‘Highlights’ include:

‘I knew from the first time we discovered you were a bender…’

‘She’s a bender’

‘Suppress all other bending’

‘There are really powerful benders in the Northern Water Tribe’

‘We must minimise their bender sources’

In the US the word bender is used to describe drinking binges but given that the movie features Harrow’s finest Dev Patel, a guy who made his name in a TV series about teenagers, did Dev not point out to Shyamalan that his script would have a whole different meaning on this side of the pond? And let’s not forget that this film is aimed squarely at children aged 10 – 14, the exact age I was at when the ‘b’ word was so prevalent in playground politics.

But before we condemn Shyamalan, it’s worth explaining that he’s working with someone else’s material. The movie is based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, a highly successful cartoon show on Nickelodeon in the US and it’s not as if Night could have used the Avatar name. Also there are very few countries in the world where ‘bender’ is or has been used as a derogatory term – can we really expect a filmmaker to make significant changes to appease our fragile sensibilities?

Things have changed considerably since I was at school – I doubt I would understand half the insults bandied around these days, let alone feel affected by them – so I think that if anyone comes out of The Last Airbender with a guilty smirk on their faces, it’s more likely to be the parents than the kids.

The Last Airbender is in cinemas from August 13th.


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