With everything going on in this past year, many of us have craved getting lost in another universe. So, what better escape than into a TV show? The national lockdown in mid-March also coincided with the arrival of Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) on Netflix. I’d caught a lot of it on TV when I was a kid but I’d never finished it, so I decided lockdown would be a great time to do so. My Instagram discovery page had already filled with ATLA memes, so it seemed like the perfect choice. One of my flatmates also loved it, thus our Avatar marathon began.
The series follows Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), the current Avatar and last Airbender, in his quest to end the Fire Nation’s war, accompanied by his new friends. It’s only while I was watching it back with all the knowledge that my degree had given me that I realised the show managed to tackle such complex issues, whilst also maintaining its light-hearted nature. While I had enjoyed the show as a kid, I found I appreciated it even more as an adult.
One of these issues was its introduction to colonialism. The show centres around Aang’s journey to defeat the Fire Nation. The show makes it clear that the Fire Nation are intent on destroying and subjecting the other nations. They are also responsible for the genocide of the Airbenders (another topic that the show handles with sensitivity). Sokka (Jack DeSena) and Katara’s (Mae Whitman) southern Water Tribe is terrified of the Fire Nation – their population depleted and all the benders that posed a threat to the Fire Nation have been killed. This shows that the Fire Nation, like real world colonisers and imperialists, dominate through violence and destruction of other cultures.
However, this picture of the Fire Nation is not the only picture we are presented with. It would have been easy for the creators to pose every member of the Fire Nation as a villain, but that’s not what happens. We are shown that in Fire Nation schools, children are taught an altered history, taught to believe that what they are doing is right. This shows that miseducation is a powerful tool of colonialism, even used on their own population. It also demonstrates that members of the Fire Nation are not born bad, but their attitude is a product of state propaganda – it’s hard not to believe it when no one challenges it. Even the main Fire Nation characters are not painted as wholly bad and are instead multidimensional beyond their harmful actions.
Uncle Iroh (Makoto Iwamatsu) is one of the most beloved characters of the whole series despite being a Fire Nation General. His story arc is just one of many that demonstrates the duality of people. Uncle Iroh was a respected General, a war hero, until his son died at the battle of Ba Sing Sae. His character on the show is seen as a fatherly figure to the misguided and vengeful Zuko (Dante Basco), whose redemption arc is one of the best on the show, demonstrating that not all Fire Nation characters always have bad intentions. The most iconic redemption arc, however, is Zuko’s. We learn that his relentless quest to capture the Avatar is part of his quest to gain acceptance from his father. As an audience we are made to feel sympathy for a character that would usually be a two-dimensional villain. For children it teaches the lesson that people who do bad things often have multi-layer reasons for doing them. It doesn’t excuse him however: he is forced to prove his change to the other characters and to the audience.
Zuko is not the only well-crafted character (I’d say all of them are), but special mention should be given to the strong female characters and the characters with disabilities. Katara and Toph (Jessi Flower) are two of the members of the gang who are positive role models and well-crafted female characters. Katara is often painted as a motherly character and Toph as the stoic one, two categorisations that are often seen in TV with no overlap and often posed against each other. In ATLA that is not the case. Katara is proven to be a strong, formidable bender: at only fourteen she is a Waterbending master. Her fight in the northern Water Tribe against the sexist Pakku, who believes female benders should only practice healing, establishes her as strongly principled and willing to fight, allowing her movement outside of the ‘motherly woman’ trope. The creators never show her motherly traits as bad either; they never make them a weakness which emphasises that strength can come from a number of places.
Toph, on the other hand, is introduced as a tough character, an expert bender. Usually, it would be expected that Toph shows no vulnerabilities, yet the creators expertly show that even she needs reassurance from her friends, after her family’s lack of support. Whilst the show originally demonstrates the often-seen conflict between these two female characters, they soon become a formidable team and friends who bring out the best in each other. Furthermore, Toph is a blind bender and it is because of this, not in spite of it, that she is the perfect person to teach Aang Earthbending. From her introduction, it is made clear that she is strong, a bender to be feared. Her bending is her aid and hence Toph is a perfect example of how well people with disabilities who require aids can excel when given the proper tools.
This is only Katara and Toph, but Suki (Jennie Kwan) is another example of a strong female character, and Teo (Daniel Samonas) is another example of an expertly crafted character with a disability. These are better examples of representation than many of the ones seen in popular culture today. These are only the surface of a couple of the issues that Avatar the Last Airbender touches upon. Each viewing I’ve had has given more insight and led to more discussion. Avatar the Last Airbender has demonstrated in an easy, digestible manner a number of different social and cultural issues. It has also been incredibly inclusive and for those reasons, it remains a timeless children’s show.
by Gurjinder Khambay
Gurjinder Khambay (she/her) is a third year British-Indian student studying International Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She has specialised in the Middle East. When she’s not studying, she either reading or finding her next TV obsession. Her favourite movies include Mogul Mowgli, Queen & Slim and Before Sunrise. Gurjinder can be found on her Instagram.