‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ – 6 Essential Lessons Adults Can Learn From The Series
Objectively the best news American audiences have gotten all quarantine, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is coming to Netflix. This is great news for fans, especially fans like me who’ve been carrying around their DVD set with them all these years, but it’s even better news for people who haven’t seen it before. They get to experience the mind-bending (get it?) show for the first time!
Avatar: The Last Airbender follows Aang—a twelve-year-old who can control earth, water, air, and fire—and his friends as they try to stop a war that’s been going on for over a hundred years. Since the show is a Nickelodeon cartoon that has fantastical elements, the show is often brushed off as for kids. While it is not at all inappropriate, it does have mature themes that convey mature lessons.
So what are these lessons? What makes Avatar so important?
*Warning light spoilers ahead*
Right off the bat, the show illustrates different Asian cultures. It takes place in a fictional world; however with the Chinese written language, ethnic characteristics the characters are drawn with, and clear Asian cultures, it can best be understood to take place in Asia. The show draws from Asian cultures like martial arts, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, dynasties, and much more. There’s also some drawn from the cultures of the Native American Inuit and Kwakiutl tribes.
Asian culture as it’s taught today sometimes neglects to identify cultural migration. The Water tribes are depicted as being in another continent but it makes sense to include this into the narrative. But it’s important to consider geography and the fact that some Native American ancestors came to the Americas from Asia through the Bering Strait. Depicting the wide variety of cultures through these specific cultures is important, but it’s crucial for kids so they can grow up to be adults aware and accepting of cultures that differ from their own. It also encourages them to learn about the cultural influences in the show and how they relate.
The Fire Nation started the war with the awful genocide of the airbenders. They don’t go into the gritty and inhumane details because it is a kid’s show, but they also don’t brush it under a rug either. With this in mind, it’s easy to dismiss all members of the Fire Nation as bad guys.
The writing puts this generalization to a halt, though. You see good guys from the Fire Nation and bad guys from the other nations. While ancestry is a relevant part of each tribes nation, none of the characters’ morality or virtue are predetermined by what nation they’re from. The thoughtful writing destroys this black and white narrative that leads to discrimination by not only showing good and bad people on both sides, but also showing how ignorant and harmful the discrimination is.
Every single female character in this show is strong and independent, even the evil ones. Beyond that, they express their womanhood in different ways. Some are really girly, like Ty Lee, and some gag at the notion of wearing a dress, like Toph. Regardless of their femininity, they’re all women who can kick butt. Each of them also deal with their own agency in varying ways. There is a variety and nuance with the women depicted in the show. Most importantly, these characters are treated with the same care and attention to details as the male characters. Their stories have value.
Like all airbenders, Aang is a pacifist. It seems unlikely for anybody to stop a century-long war without provoking a fight, but Aang still tries. For a show that’s so action-packed, it doesn’t glorify violence. When characters act with the intent to hurt, the damage is shown. There’s no blood, but we are shown how detrimental violence is to both the victim and the aggressor. On a grander scale, it shows how war damages society and human interaction for generations.
Most of the characters are preteens and teenagers, and like most people their age, they struggle with self-confidence. On top of this, these kids are asked to do the unthinkable: save the world. Needless to say, this is scary. Not everybody in this world can bend (like Sokka), so when you add this power dynamic to the insecurity and anxiety they already have, the fear is tripled. Over the course of the show, the characters hone in on what makes them unique and important to turn that fear into courage. It is also important to see Sokka, who is disadvantaged by his lack of bending ability, still stand up to powers much greater than him. Courage is courage.
As is with many Asian cultures, the show has a constant theme of spirituality in one way or another. The characters can’t succeed if they’re afraid, doubtful, hateful, angry, or filled with any other negativity. Regardless of religion or what they want to call it—qi, vibe, or just energy—many people believe that positivity and inner peace is the way to go. In the world of Avatar, they call it qi (chi), and it dominates just about everything. Not all of the characters are spiritual in this way, but they still understand and respect the notion of positive qi.
Many shows geared towards children offer important themes and lessons. Unfortunately, even some adults don’t have an inkling. It’s not a cartoon’s job to teach them how to be decent people, but it is nice to have children’s programming that is exciting and fantastical, but also nuanced and educational.
Avatar: The Last Airbender certainly has more to teach, celebrate, and embrace, but these are what stuck out to me. What lessons did you take away from it? Let me know in the comments down below!
Nothing but love.