Television Tuesday :: 5 lessons most television can learn from Avatar: The Last Airbender

8 Sep

Another piece from my drift partner, as I’m feeling not quite up to analytical thought this evening.

I will go to my grave insisting Avatar: The Last Airbender is the most perfect show, because honestly, it did so many things right – while being a cartoon aimed at children, and constantly screwed over by its network – that it’s unbelievable. In short, the show is set in a world where certain people, called benders, are born with the ability to control one of the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air). Their four nations (the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads) coexisted in harmony, with the Avatar (who could control all four elements and was reincarnated into a new nation when they died) acting as the benevolent overseer of the world. But one hundred years before the show began, the Fire Nation attacked the Air Nomads and attempted to kill the young Avatar Aang. He managed to escape and was frozen in an iceberg Captain America-style, only to be discovered in the pilot by two Water Tribe children. Aang awakens to find the world in disarray, his people eliminated, and the Fire Nation waging a war for world domination, and he must learn to master the other three elements and stop the Fire Lord before it’s too late.

Sounds a Chosen One narrative? Sure, it is on the surface. But it’s one of the most well-written, intelligent, progressive shows that I’ve ever seen. Here are five things that Avatar did well that more shows could learn from.

5. Calling out sexism and allowing characters to learn to be better.
In the pilot, we are first introduced to Katara and her brother Sokka, the Water Tribe kids who find Aang in the ice. Sokka is brash, overconfident, and puts on a hypermasculine act, as he is the oldest remaining Water Tribe boy after the men left to fight in the war. “Leave it to a girl to screw things up,” he scoffs after he and Katara end up marooned on an iceberg without a canoe. Katara is having none of this, and replies “You are the most sexist, immature, nut-brained…I’m embarrassed to be related to you!” (It’s during this chastising that she accidentally cracks Aang’s iceberg open, kicking off the plot.) In the next few episodes, when Aang and the siblings begin their journey to the Northern Water Tribe, Sokka continues to be slightly sexist, but he begins to change in 1×04 when the trio finds themselves on an island protected by a group of all-female soldiers called the Kyoshi Warriors. The Warriors quickly incapacitate Aang and his friends, much to Sokka’s embarrassment, and he bemoans being beaten by “a bunch of girls.” But as the episode continues, he gets to know the Warriors, and he does apologize for underestimating them and asks to learn some of their techniques. After this episode, we begin to see a humbler, more egalitarian version of Sokka. His change of heart may also be due to his sudden removal from his home Tribe, where he felt hypermasculinity was necessary as the oldest male child left behind. By the end of the series, Sokka is completely respectful of women and girls and even feels more comfortable displaying a more traditionally “feminine” side.

Another example of a sexist character is Master Pakku, of the Northern Water Tribe. Aang wishes to learn waterbending from him, as does Katara, but they are dismayed to find out that the Northerners only allow male students to learn combat forms and that female students are relegated to healing lessons. Frustrated, Katara challenges Pakku to a one-on-one duel, and though he is a highly accomplished waterbender, she manages to hold her own for a long time. He almost wins the duel, but stops when it is revealed that Katara’s grandmother Kanna was his long-lost betrothed who left the Northern Tribe because of their patriarchal customs. Dismayed, he reconsiders his views and agrees to train Katara. He apologizes for his bigotry and soon finds that Katara is his quickest-learning student. Later, we find out that he and Kanna have found each other again, reconciled, and married. Some people might call this subplot a bit heavy-handed, but I think it’s important for television, especially children’s television, to allow characters who express sexist views to be shown how damaging their beliefs are and move past them.

4. Showing that just because a country’s ruler is bad, doesn’t mean that its citizens are bad.
Our introduction to the Fire Nation is as antagonists, including the cruel General Zhao and the single-minded Prince Zuko. In season two, we meet Fire Lord Ozai, the ruler in charge of the Fire Nation’s quest for total world domination, and as nasty and evil as you can be in a children’s cartoon. (He burned and banished his own son for losing a firebending tournament, and that’s not even the worst thing he did!) Our heroes, especially Katara and Sokka, fear and loathe firebenders as agents of destruction. So naturally, we, the audience, are meant to fear them too…except that there’s also Iroh, Zuko’s kindly uncle, who is soft-spoken and loves tea and playing board games. There’s Song, an herbalist who helps Iroh and Zuko after their travels lead them into trouble with poisonous plants. There’s Piandao, the reclusive master who helps Sokka learn the art of swords and sword-making. And there’s an entire episode where Aang goes to school in the Fire Nation to gain intel on its people and finds out that, well, Fire Nation kids are pretty normal, if a little awkward and uptight due to their repressed culture. He convinces his friends that holding a dance party for his new classmates is a great idea, and when Fire Nation soldiers are alerted to the presence of the Avatar, the other kids cover for him while Aang and his group flee. That episode alone is a beautiful lesson for kids: the people your group is fighting are just as human as you are, and a country’s military does not necessarily represent its citizens.

3. Sensitive representation of other cultures.
Avatar’s world is heavily Asian-influenced, and while the show was created by two white men, Brian Konietzko and Mike DiMartino, they were very careful to pay the various cultures (Inuit, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Korean, and so forth) the proper respect. They hired a martial arts expert to choreograph the bending moves, using a different style for each nation; used Asian architecture, clothing, food, religious and spiritual beliefs, and so on to inspire every element of the world; and even got an expert in kanji to supervise every piece of onscreen writing seen in the series. (You can, apparently, read it all and it’s grammatically correct.) The result is a show that is more culturally inclusive and sensitive than any other TV show I’ve seen. It doesn’t feel like cultural appropriation in the least; it feels like a celebration.

To go along with this, every single character in the series is a character of color. Every. Single. One. They tend to look a bit different depending on their nation of origin (Air Nomads are inspired by Tibetan monks, Earth Kingdom by Korean culture, Fire Nation by Japanese and Chinese culture, and Water Tribes by Inuit culture), and there is a variety of skintones represented, but every single character is non-white. I literally can’t think of another series in any media that has accomplished that. (Empire, maybe? Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat? I’m having to dig deep here, is the point.) Then the live-action adaptation, of course, missed the point entirely and cast white kids as Aang, Sokka, and Katara and an Indian kid (Dev Patel, unfortunately) as Zuko – after first casting Jesse McCartney. It was just as bad as it sounds. But the show itself is terrific in its representation.

2. Redemptive arcs of antagonists, and sympathetic, nuanced portrayals of villains.
Children’s media tends toward black-and-white morality. Why is the bad guy bad? Because of reasons. Can he be redeemed? Maybe, if we hug him enough and he says he’s sorry. Avatar has no time for these silly simplistic ideas and presents us with the banished Prince Zuko and his maniacal sister Princess Azula.

Zuko is an antagonist at the beginning, focused on capturing the Avatar to restore his honor in his father’s eyes. Ozai banished him at the age of twelve, as mentioned previously, after Zuko attempted to defy him in a firebending match and lost. Zuko wears the other half of his punishment, a gruesome burn, on his face, marking him as a disappointment. More than anything, Zuko wants his father to approve of him. But as he quests after the Avatar, he begins to realize that he can be more than the disgraced Prince – he can forge a new destiny. Somewhere around mid-season 2, Zuko’s focus shifts from trying to capture Aang to trying to find peace for himself, which later develops into joining Aang in the fight to defeat Ozai. Zuko’s emotional journey is probably one of the most well-done character arcs that I’ve ever seen: it’s gradual, realistic, and nuanced. The viewer goes from disliking Zuko to finding him sympathetic and endearing.

On the other hand, Azula is a true villain. Ozai recruits her to take out Aang after he assumes that his son has failed in his quest, and as Ozai has basically groomed his daughter to be a weapon, she comes much closer to killing Aang than Zuko ever did. Azula is honestly really scary. She’s ruthless, cruel, manipulative, likes toying with people, and is a highly skilled firebender. But even she is not unsympathetic – we find out that she felt her mother “thought [she] was a monster,” that her friends only stay with her out of fear, and that she is, at her core, an angry, pained person who doesn’t know how to relate to others. None of this excuses her, of course, but it certainly humanizes her. And ultimately, we feel for her.

1. Varied, well-written female characters.
Avatar has a great cast of characters overall, but where it really shines is its female characters. In the first season, the only main girl is Katara, but even so she manages to be more complex and interesting than a lot of token girls. She is protective, confident, sarcastic, empathetic, courageous, romantic, and resentful, among other traits. She wants more than anything to take care of everyone, but she also puts up with no shit. She loves her family and she hates injustice and those who hurt others. She is probably the character everyone wants when they say they want a Strong Female Character.

But if, somehow, that doesn’t appeal to you, there are more! Toph comes in at the beginning of season 2, and she’s a fan favorite for a reason. She’s been blind since birth, but she can use the vibrations she feels in her feet to “see” and she is a master earthbender. Toph is loud, brash, argumentative, funny, (almost) fearless, and loyal. She is, in essence, the perfect Gryffindor. Suki, leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, doesn’t fully join the group until halfway through season 3, but she pops up periodically prior to that. She has one of my favorite lines in the series: “I am a warrior…but I’m a girl too.” Suki is unafraid to display both elements of her identity, oh, and she also scaled a wall using only her hands and feet. Yue, the Northern Water Tribe princess, is only in a few episodes and never raises a hand against another person or gets in a fight, but she ultimately is just as courageous as any of the characters who do fight. (To say more would be to spoil, but trust me when I say she’s great.)

Azula, as mentioned, is probably one of the scariest villains in all of children’s media and yet layered and sympathetic. There’s an adorable scene where she badgers a friend into helping her learn to flirt, and then tries her skills out on a boy, and is the biggest failboat. Her friends, Ty Lee and Mai, are as different as night and day. The acrobat Ty Lee comes from a neglectful family and has latched onto Azula in an attempt to distinguish herself from her identical sisters. She’s a huge flirt and she loves reading auras, but she also knows what pressure points temporarily disable bending. Mai, my personal favorite, went along with Azula because she was bored with her entire life, and is basically April Ludgate but if April Ludgate threw knives. Mai is the first to break away from Azula’s thrall, explaining “I guess you just don’t know people as well as you think you do. You miscalculated; I love Zuko more than I fear you.” By the end of the series, the group has a 3-4 ratio of boys to girls, and it’s wonderful (to say nothing of the plethora of secondary and tertiary female characters who are also awesome). Avatar took a premise that could’ve easily been a boys’ club and included a wide variety of female characters that are interesting and complicated. In my opinion, it stands as one of the best examples of female representation.

Of course, there are at least a dozen other things that Avatar did well, but far be it from me to spoil all of them. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor.

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