Avatar the Last Airbender: For Yesterday & Today

Article by: Anne Lizette Sta. Maria/ Graphic by: Nadie Monaghan

The Netflix debut of Avatar: The Last Airbender could not have happened at a more interesting time. 2020 has been the year of the global coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns and quarantines, and for Americans, a critical presidential election. When the decade-old animated series first hit the streaming site in May, it immediately topped the charts, bringing a sense of nostalgia and comfort for viewers who felt stuck at home. Avatar is both timeless and timely. It still resonates with its loyal fanbase while staying relevant to present grim realities. 

“The sobering difference between watching Avatar in its time versus seeing it now is that life in America looks and feels a lot like life in the Fire Nation as Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and eventually Zuko experience it.” wrote co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino in June. “It is a place addicted to its increasingly hollow sense of greatness and even superiority, steered by a leader more concerned with his own glory than caring for his people.” 

We see such parallels in the episode “The Headband,” when Aang disguises himself as a student named Kuzon to attend school in the Fire Nation. The class routine is rigid, starting off with a recitation of the national oath that is comparable to the United States pledge of allegiance. Aang gets scolded for not knowing the oath, going against the textbooks to answer the pop quiz, and for expressing himself freely through dance. These school children are conditioned to subscribe to one mentality only—to uphold Fire Nation superiority. This is easy to see from a viewer’s perspective, especially since the show doesn’t delve too deeply into the nuances, but it’s interesting to take a step back and realize that American schools practice similar routines. 

In “Day of the Black Sun,” Prince Zuko confronts his father, Firelord Ozai. “Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history,” he recounts. “And somehow the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation! They don’t see our greatness; they hate us. And we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world. And if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness.” 

Character Media author Mary Grace Costa deems Avatar to be an American story at its core— “one of upsetting tradition, carving new paths and turning sticky situations into opportunities to innovate.” But are those exclusively American traits? 

Although we see parallels between our country and the Avatar Universe, the Fire Nation itself draws influences from imperial Japan. We see other Asian and Indigenous influences throughout the different groups in the show. Maya Philips of The New York Times writes, “The story doesn’t always have to be of the same white America. There’s a whole world of narratives and traditions that resonate because of, not despite, the alternative view they present.”

In August, the creators of the animated show stepped out of the production for the live-action, leaving fans in fear of another case of “race-bending” like what had occurred with the badly-reviewed 2010 film adaptation. The Last Airbender put white actors in the place of non-white characters, not allowing room for ethnic representation—especially for the roles of Sokka and Katara as Inuits, who are barely represented in media as it is. Avatar seems to be analogous, not allegorical to America. No matter what, its lessons are applicable to us. At Black Lives Matter protests, there have been signs of Avatar Kiyoshi with the words “Only justice will bring peace.” In the following series, The Legend of Korra, police chief Lin Beifong felt that she had to step out of the police force to do what was right by her—recognizing that institutions are not inherently right. These are lessons to keep in mind as we approach the future.

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