POP CULTURE ESSAY
Water. Earth. Fire. Air.
My friends used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace before they experienced this show and thought they knew everything they needed to know about children’s programming. But that all changed when Avatar: The Last Airbender first aired on Nickelodeon. Fifteen years had passed and I finally gave the show a shot on a streaming site named Netflix. And although my viewing skills are great, I had a lot of episodes to go through before I was ready to write this review. But I believe this review can showcase my opinions of the show.
Avatar Aang vs the World
The world of ATLA is bold and fresh, even today in 2021. Its amalgamation of Asian mystical culture with general epic fantasy stands well on its own, story or not. Though it is obvious this world is viewed through an American lens, with its story more focused on individualism instead of community, there is still respect to anime and the culture surrounding it in this show by including diverse civilizations. At the center of it all is Aang, our hero destined to save the world.
What makes this world of Avatar even better is how the central conflict of the show is Aang versus the world itself. You see, Aang does not have a character arc, nor does he need one. Aang is like Superman, who already has the ideals of a true hero. In turn, he is in constant conflict with the world that needs to learn these ideals to become a better place to live.
Zuko, the prince of the Fire Nation and the fanbase’s favorite character, has the strongest arc of the show due to him being the personification of the world itself. He is someone who was wronged by the world’s values and learns that the ways of the Fire Nation is not the right way to live in his iconic speech with his father (which also reflects American nationalism).
It is through his encounters with Aang and his friends that Zuko learns that a world ruled by strength and anger creates a unlivable environment, like fire spreading through the land. However, with empathy and balance, the traits Aang himself holds emotionally and physically, only then can communities be formed to support one another and create a better life for those in the future.
Women Supporting Women
Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered on Nickelodeon in early 2005. Media had been shifting since the 1980’s, when the technology to produce and broadcast was becoming more attainable for various networks and the political climate of television itself was slowly loosening its restrictions of maintaining conservative content (check out USA media history!).
During this time, the USA was governed by a republican president, so a lot of media was still leaning towards those ideals of content and censorship. In other words, boy shows were for boys and girl shows were for girls and both had a very clear line of which was which. One could argue that Danny Phantom, which premiered in 2004, opened the doors at Nickelodeon to blur the lines a bit with its portrayal of treating women as equals, one can’t deny Avatar bursts through that door with confidence, even if it stumbles a bit.
There are six women extremely prevalent in the main cast: Katara, Toph, Azula, Mae, Ty Lee, and Suki. This is not to mention prominent women such as Avatar Kyoshi and the warriors of Kyoshi (of which Suki is from). Each of these women are given their time to shine, including entire episodes dedicated to them and their personal journeys. Katara is finding her role in the water tribe as a female waterbender, Toph is learning to let her stronger emotions show while also subverting gender norms, and Azula is… well, in the words of her mother, “There’s something wrong with that child.”
On top of episodes dedicated to each of these characters, there are also scenes and story threads of women supporting each other against the problems they come across: Katara comforts Toph when they come across a group of other women who make fun of their makeovers and Mai and Ty Lee support Azula in her own emotional turmoils until they realize they need to cut themselves off of her (but hey, they cut themselves off of her together).
We should still note the gender politics are still weak in areas and haven’t aged entirely well. For a lot of her screen time, Katara is usually just there not doing much of anything other than giving Aang emotional repercussions when he accidentally puts her in harm’s way. On top of this, I’m still rather uncomfortable with the romance between those two, where she wasn’t really reciprocating his feelings but the advice Aang received was to keep trying and never give up. (It’s 2021, guys. Just accept the “no” and move on.) In the end, Katara never had a transition to having romantic feelings for Aang, making the kiss at the end feel unearned since Katara explicitly stated she wasn’t interested the last time they spoke about their feelings.
But hey, it’s a kid show produced during a republican democracy that wanted to appeal to both boys and girls and succeeded far more than the political climate would have allowed even five years sooner. That’s still a win in my book.
“You know, Dude, I dabbled in pacifism once. Not in ‘Nam, of course.”
An interesting topic I want to write about is the use of action in the show and how it thematically takes a stand against violence despite all the action presented. You see, whenever a fight breaks out between the good guys and the bad guys, the bad guys always throw the first punch. The good guys, especially in Aang’s case, rarely perform a direct attack, whether or not it’d be in the name of self-defense.
As a kid show, Avatar is morally (and probably contractually) obligated to be anti-violence. The way Avatar has their characters resolve the fights without really fighting and having a kid’s role model choose violence is by having the heroes fight a way to destroy the enemy’s weapon (Cobra Kai season 3, anyone?). When faced with a firebender in one of the earlier episodes, Aang verbally taunts the firebender and dodges every attack, but strategically doing so to where the firebender was destroying his own boats, which were his only source of transportation. Once the boats had been obliterated, Aang and his friends manage to fly away without ever being on the offensive.
This holds true (outside of Katara fighting a sexist teacher) to the end of the series when Aang comes face to face with the Fire Lord. Just before this fight, Aang learns energybending from some old turtle spirit (a deus ex machina, but I’ll let it slide). During Aang’s fight with the Fire Lord, he’s actively trying to avoid the conflict and the decision he may be forced to make: He may have to take a life. Eventually, though, he manages to trap the Fire Lord and, with his newfound energybending, is able to eradicate the Fire Lord’s ability to firebend without ever going on the offensive.
Now, I have issues with the world giving Aang, a twelve year old, the ability to be the judge of who is allowed to have beinding and who isn’t. Afterall, he’s essentially becoming God when he’s only halfway done developing his prefrontal cortex. But it’s a kid show, so what are you going to do?
I really dug Avatar and I could only imagine how cool it must have been to watch it at the age of the target demographic. Watching it now at 24, there were some aspects that worked and some that I felt could have used more time in the oven. Obviously, Zuko’s transformation is fantastic and Sokka is a really well-developed character. However, though the show does have all the necessary story beats and incorporates many great character moments, the overall texture of the writing is very dry and almost bare bones compared to its inspirations. I do think it could benefit with a remake, live-action or better animated, to really flesh out the writing and give it the visual potential it deserves. The original creators would have to be involved, of course, since they are the geniuses behind the world they created, so my hopes on the live-action Netflix show aren’t very high.
I may not rewatch this on my own, but would happily watch it with a friend. It’s a bit too kiddy for me, personally, but I understand the appeal and nostalgia this property can bring. It’s characters are memorable, its stories sincere, and actually has overarching themes and ideas, boldly paving the way for more serialized shows for children. It never dumbed down for them, but instead rewarded them for watching with a truly epic finale. For a children’s show in 2005, that had to have meant the world to kids.