If I hear the word ‘Avatar’ I don’t think of blue people in a jungle.
I think of my siblings and I crammed into a two square-meter study space while the most defining TV show of my childhood — and now, my adulthood — captured our attention.
Since Avatar: The Last Airbender debuted on Netflix in May, it has gone on to break Netflix records in longevity and popularity. This might have been surprising to those who have never heard of the three-season children’s show. But to me, and to those who are well-acquainted with the (self-professed) greatest TV show ever, Avatar is merely receiving the praise it deserves.
My love affair with Avatar is enduring. I loved it when I was eight because it was familiar. The world of Avatar is unmistakably, authentically Asiatic. It is easy for Western entertainment to import Asian aesthetics and none of the depth — but Avatar, an American work, takes careful steps to avoid appropriating Asian culture.
In the world of Avatar, people have the ability to bend one of the four elements: water, earth, fire or air. Each bending style is inspired by a different martial art and each of the Four Nations by a different Asian culture. The arctic Water Tribes are inspired by Inuit tribes, the staunch Earth Kingdom by dynastic China, the spiritual Air Nomads by Buddhist monks and the ambitious Fire Nation by Meiji-era Japan.
In short, Avatar boasts exquisite world-building. It’s a world that was familiar to me in culture and aesthetic. Avatar doesn’t exoticise Asian culture because Asian culture is not ‘other’ in the show — it is ‘all’ and it is ‘only.’ It’s a world free of whiteness — a world that is expansive and compelling, that has all the allure of a mythology.
When I was a teenager, rewatching with the first pale waves of nostalgia, I loved Avatar because it wove social justice issues into its storylines. Over its three seasons, a group of young benders (plus Sokka) travel the world trying to prepare Aang (the Avatar, who is the one person alive that can bend all four elements) for his final stand against the Fire Lord, the leader of the imperialising, nationalistic Fire Nation.
Only three episodes in, we are introduced to genocide. We learn of how the Fire Nation exploits the lands and people they conquer. Later we learn of how they frame it as sharing their prosperity with the world. Later we learn that their standard of fire-bending was taken and distorted from the teachings of the indigenous Sun Warriors — the first human firebenders. Later we learn that they teach their schoolchildren a glorified history of their imperialism.
Avatar portrays the effects of environmental degradation. The ways people damage the environment have direct consequences on their communities. Sometimes these consequences are supernatural, like a grieving forest spirit exacting revenge on a town, or soberingly realistic, like a polluted river making a fishing village gravely sick.
Through Sokka, Avatar explores internalised misogyny and the ability to unlearn it. Through Zuko and Azula, Avatar explores abuse and its effect on children. Through Toph and Teo, Avatar explores the various ways differently-abled people navigate the world. Through Appa, Avatar explores animal cruelty — their depiction of which won a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States.
Avatar says to anyone claiming that these discussions are too dark or complicated to have with children, no, it’s not.
As an adult, no longer only aware of these challenges in a TV show, I love Avatar for a new reason. Through diverse and satisfying character arcs, the show presents us with many different outlooks on life. A survivor of genocide, refugees, or someone complicit. People who make mistakes, people who try to right their wrongs.
The silver lining of every heavy subject that the show broaches is a comforting reminder of the other, lighter truths of the world. The right people will stand by you. Forgiveness is always available to be earned. It’s okay to ask people for help. It’s okay to walk away from the people you love that hurt you. There is always a way through adversity.
Watch Avatar when you have good times. Watch Avatar when you have bad times. It has something for eight year olds. It has something for activists. It has something for the marginalised.
It has something for everyone, and I love it endlessly.Support Villainesse