Restoring Honor to the Avatar: an Appreciation of Representation in Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
By Haley Daarstad
Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated children’s show that has totaled three seasons and a sequel series, and defined a whole generation of animation for children. Produced by the studio Nickelodeon and running between the years 2005 to 2008, Avatar: The Last Airbender won a total of five awards for its soundtrack, humor, themes, art direction, characters, and cultural references. These awards include a Primetime Emmy Award, Kids Choice Award, Annie Awards, a Genesis Award, and a Peabody Award (Wikipedia). To this day, critics and audiences still consider it one of the best-animated television shows of all time. The show was a masterpiece with representation of Asian culture, strong female characters, and people with disabilities. Through the devastations of war, the story of Avatar: The Last Airbenderprovided representation in ways still felt in 2020 with its addition to Netflix. Built upon the themes of love, duty, redemption, and honor, Avatar: The Last Airbender revolutionized what children’s television could be, and few shows have been able to capture what it was able to do.
The series takes place in a fictional world with four nations that are defined by the four elements: The Water tribes, The Earth Kingdom, The Fire Nation, and The Air Nomads. In this world, certain people hold the ability to control the elements and are called “benders”. One person holds the ability to control all four, the Avatar. There can only be one Avatar and are the connection between the real world and the spirit world “reincarnated” into a cycle between the nations. The cycle follows the seasons of which the first avatar learned to master the elements: fire, air, water, and earth. A hundred years before the series begins, the leader of the Fire Nation, Fire Lord Sozin, begins a war to conquer the three other nations and rebuild the world in the vision of the Fire Nation. However, during the beginning of the war, the avatar at the time, Roku, disappears. After his disappearance, the Fire Nations hoping to break the Avatar cycle, committee genocide against the air nomads. A 100 years later, Katara, a Southern Water Tribe waterbender, and her older brother, Sokka, discover Aang the new avatar dormant within an iceberg at the South pole with his air Bison, Appa. From there the three of them begin their journey to help Aang master all four elements, stop the fire lord and bring peace, while being tracked down by the exiled son of the current fire lord, Zuko, to return his honor and reclaim the throne. Avatar: The Last Airbenderwas a children’s animation show that dealt with deep and traumatizing themes, like genocide, but the most lasting impact is its representation of Asian cultures, people with disabilities, and feminist ideals.
Book 1: Asian American Representation
The genre of Animation has been a central tool in redefining Asian images in film and television in terms of representation (Keramitas, 50). Avatar: The Last Airbender is based in a fictional world influenced by Asian cultures and the creators put the work in to make sure it was done correctly. What made the series so compelling was the care taken to develop the characters and the world around them. The series is considered to be a series that will be solidified in Asian American history for its blending of the Eastern and Western cultures. The author of the comic series of Avatar, Gene Luen Yang, stated that the creators must have done their research because it is rare to have a show so nuanced and well-constructed represent Asian culture as well as it did (Costa). Representation on television matters because it affects what is known as cultural citizenship, according to Lori Kido Lopez. Cultural Citizenship is the feeling of how much a group belongs to the common understanding of ‘American’ and if their own cultural identities and practices are respected by those within this larger society (DuCros). Within contemporary film and Television, Asian American actors tend to only be cast within supporting or stereotypical roles with a pressure to conform to American ideals.
A current pressing issue is the use of white voice actors playing non-white characters. It is important to note that the series creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender,Michael Dante DiMartino, and Bryan Konietzko, are white and that 14 out of the 17 voice actors were white as well, even though the show was based upon Asian cultures and characters (Costa). Avatar: The Last Airbender was not perfect, as seen by issues such as above, however, to make sure that the show didn’t disrespect any Asian culture and treated everything in a sensitive matter they hired Edwin Zane who was the then VP of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans to consult on the show (Watson). DiMartino and Konietzko, the creators, did their research on the world, clothing, food, architecture, and customs to successfully achieve what Avatar: The Last Airbender did.
Avatar: The Last Airbender’s nuanced blend of Eastern Asian cultures into the show, is seen through its visual and literary design, such as the design of the four nations. The Northern and Southern water tribes are similar to that of the Inuit-Yupik culture scene in the design of clothing and food and have some aspects of Chinese culture within their architecture (Avatar Wiki). The Earth Kingdom’s architecture is also very similar to that found within the Ming and Qing dynasties of China, within the buildings such as Ba Sing Se looking like that of the Forbidden City in China. Even the king of the earth kingdom wore clothing similar to that of the last Chinese Emperor in the Qing Dynasty (Avatar Wiki).
The Air Nomads are heavily based upon Tibet and Hindu culture, which is seen through the design of clothing and spiritual culture (Avatar Wiki). The Fire Nation holds a lot of similarities to that of Japan, seen through its emphasis on family honor and shame as well as the symbolism of the sun: firebenders obtain their bending from the sun, and the idea of honor (Avatar [Avatar Wiki]). The whole world of Avatar: The Last Airbenderis the blend of Asian cultures to create this fictional world that allows audiences to construct a diegetic world which is an apparition of East Asian culture. In the end, Avatar: The Last Airbender was a show that created a world all on its own, but also was a show built to show cultural appreciation to that of Asian culture.
Book 2: The Power of Toph
Avatar didn’t just provide a representation of Asian American culture, but a representation of those who have (dis)abilities and illustrated the power of people who have disabilities. Within prime time television in 2018-2019 only 2.1 percent of characters have a disability even though according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 and 4 adults have a disability (Ruiz-Grossman). People with disabilities, especially visible disabilities are shown in a positive and powerful light, such as Toph. Toph Beifong has been blind since birth and was born within a wealthy family. She is also an earthbender, who learned earthbending from the first earthbenders, badgermoles (who are blind), and uses her ability of earth bending to see with her feet. Toph is one of the toughest, most powerful, and strongest characters on the show, however, she was constantly treated differently because of being blind by her parents. She was thought that she was fragile and had to be dependent on others because of this disability. Although, as she began to learn earthbending, she learned more about herself and she began to realize that she was strong and could be independent.
Toph is a dynamic character, who goes from her parents’ views of fragile to a powerful earthbending master. While she is blind she doesn’t let her blindness define her or let her be treated as weaker. The word disability, with ‘dis’ attached to ‘ability’ creates an “immediate hierarchy constructed by this line of thinking — some people are ‘above normal’ while others are ‘below,’ terms that tend to suggest class standing” (Benshoff and Griffin). For Toph, she doesn’t let people believe that people are above her just because she is blind. She fights and is strong. The flashbacks of Toph and her learning to earthbend with the badger moles to her entering into underground earthbending tournaments illustrates her strength and her lack of fragility that has been placed upon her by her parents. She entered under the name the Blind Bandit and was a champion multiple times of those tournaments. Toph became the first earthbender to discover the subset of earthbending, metalbending, as well. The show didn’t write Toph as an innocent and fragile character, they wrote her as a strong independent female character who didn’t let her blindness define her.
Book 3: Strong Female Warriors against Discrimination
Along with its Asian influence and depiction of people who have disabilities, Avatar: The Last Airbender’s female cast was full of strong independent warriors who fought to show their ability as fighters and leaders in the war. This is important because around 90% of women in the world believe that having a strong female role model within the film and/or television is important in a study done by the J. Walter Thompson’s Female Tribes project (Female Characters in Film). Media images affect people’s perceptions, of the people, survey in that study 61% stated that a female role model within the film and/or television had an influence on their life, and another 58% said that it helped them become more assertive and ambitious (Female Characters in Film). Avatar: The Last Airbender provided a variety of strong female characters, from past Avatars to a band of non-bending female warriors that protect a whole island. Within the main protagonists, there are two main female characters, Toph and Katara. Katara is considered the last water bender of the southern water tribe, so she had no mentor to teach her. It’s her goal to travel with Aang to the Northern Water Tribe to learn water bending. However, when they get there she is met with scrutiny and sexism by the water benders of the Northern Tribe, females are only taught healing not to fight. After trying to secretly learn through Aang and the master waterbender finding out and refusing to teach Aang further, she decides to challenge him in a fight after refusing to apologize for her actions. Katara standing up and fighting against the elder male in this episode goes against the patriarchal ideals seen in early film and television and illustrates a strong female character speaking up against an oppressive tradition.
Early film and television tended to illustrate women as submission and beautiful people, that are not warriors and needed men to protect them. By showing the scene of Katara standing up to the elder challenging these traditional roles, symbolized this strong female character that fights for her rights. The camera shot of Katara standing there in front of the Northern Water Tribe Leaders, stating that if she wins, the master has to teach her waterbending. While she doesn’t win in the end, he still agrees to teach her after realizing how the costumes of the Northern Water Tribe have been detrimental. Katara’s strength and tenacity to challenge the status quo resulted in her being able to become a master waterbender, and later in the series learning the second subset of water bending besides healing, bloodbending. The series depicts her as a strong female character that fights for respect and her spot as a leader. Female characters on the show continually have to fight and prove their worth as warriors in the war. However, each fight results in another person changing in their views of females within that world. The depiction of female characters who never stop fighting for their rights is needed in a world that has shown to make sexist and misogynistic comments about women. Avatar: The Last Airbender showed strong female characters fighting against discrimination within their world, which studies have shown shaped people’s perspectives and provided strong female role models for children.
Revolutionizing Children’s Television
The world of Avatar captivated audiences and continues to captivate audiences today as it tells the story of a young boy trying to save the world. The creators of Avatar developed a show that respectfully appreciated east Asian cultures by blending eastern Asian influences into the fictional world. Its blend of Asian cultures was substantial because it became a show known for its Asian American representation. Furthermore, it showed people with disabilities as people who are strong, independent, and capable people. The strong female cast who also fought against discrimination throughout the series spoke up and fought for their ability and leadership. The representation of these things is essential, and providing them for children is significant. Representation on television is vital because it impacts how much people feel connected within the larger culture, their perception so people, and provides them with role models to look up to. As a children’s television show, this has a significant impact because it shows children that are young that they are represented and are powerful, strong, and capable no matter what stands in their path. DiMartino and Nonietzko’s work on Avatar: The Last Airbender provided them with five awards and continues to influence new generations, and few shows have been able to replicate the vision, themes, and characters that this show provided.
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