September 7, 2020
With most people being stuck at home for an extended period of time during the first few months of quarantine, streaming services took advantage of that and released a plethora of shows for the bored person at home to binge. Avatar: The Last Airbender led the pack with the series holding a spot in the top 10 of most watched shows on Netflix for sixty days, breaking the previous record by three days. The animated series that originally aired back in 2005, caught major traction and reignited its loyal fanbase. More than 10 years later, this show intended for children is more relevant than ever as the original audience has grown up into more socially aware individuals. I can rave on and on about how good the show is with its world building, complex characters, and incredible soundtrack, but what stands out the most to me in this show is the presentation of social commentary.
During my re-watch of the series, I picked up on the dark subject matters that the show tackled, and how brilliantly it presented such topics to a younger audience. The fact that Avatar, an animated show that aired weekly on Nickelodeon, was able to present social issues like authoritarianism, genocide, and sexism in a refined and productive way is so impressive to me.
If you’re reading this I’m assuming you have watched the show in its entirety and know the story of how the Fire Nation came to power. The Last Airbender subtly depicts the form of government called authoritarianism and how the Fire Nation empire has taken ahold of all 4 nations – disrupting the balance of the world. This is shown through stories of the oppression of the average citizen, as well as the perspective of Fire Nation children being brainwashed in their schools by the instilling of nationalism. It is easy to see the critiques of concepts like colonialism and imperialism by how the show presents the damage done to society and how power can be the deadliest weapon of all.
One of the most overlooked grim aspect of this show is the genocide of the Air Nomads. In Aang’s absence, Fire Lord Sozin completely wiped out every air nomad in an attempt to kill the Avatar before he/she could end his reign. Aang returns to his old home to find out that the place where he spent his entire life was destroyed and his closest friends murdered by the Fire Nation. The show even went so far to expose the audience to the skeleton of Monk Gyatso, Aang’s best friend and mentor. When I was younger, I did not truly realized the gravity of a nation decimating another one just because of paranoia.
Lastly, and personally my favorite social issue that was addressed by Avatar, is their critique of sexism and gender equality. This is mainly portrayed through the cast of strong female characters that break the misogynistic mold of women not being able to be capable warriors and leaders. Seeing the character progression of Katara and Toph becoming two of the strongest benders in all 4 nations served as a breath of fresh air from the typical narrative depicted by many forms of media when it comes to women. Also, seeing the growth of Sokka was encouraging. He was first introduced as a young man with misogynistic tendencies and a complex of toxic masculinity, but grew into a man that honors and empowers women. Sokka ends up falling in love with Suki, who epitomizes the leadership capabilities and warrior spirit of women.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a beautiful example of how a TV show can tastefully and effectively implement social commentary into the story they want to tell. I accredit many of the life lessons I’ve learned to this series and it honestly has grown me in ways I didn’t think a cartoon could. If only Avatar could teach me how to waterbend…now that, would make it the greatest show of all time.
Written by: Alex Quan
Alex is a Senior Business Communications Major and enjoys writing for the blog because of the opportunity to express his thoughts and interests through the medium of a blog! It’s a healthy way to share his opinions with others and hopefully start a dialogue with them.