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Avatar: The Last Airbender and Representation In Media

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated children’s show created by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, which aired on Nickolodeon from 2005-2008. The show stands out for having a large fanbase, due to airing on a mainstream children’s network, and for being one of the first American cartoons to accurately represent the Asian cultures it drew from to create its world.

The world of Avatar draws on various real-life cultures to create a world of its own. For example, the Airbenders are based off of Tibetan and Nepalese cultures, whereas the Earth Kingdom is based off of the Qing Dynasty of China. The creators themselves are both white men, but they incorporated these culutral elements without mocking them or using them incorrectly. As this show was airing, Memoirs of a Geisha (2006), a film based off a book written by a white man, won three Oscars, even though it had Chinese actors portraying Japanese ones.

Avatar is, by definition, a children’s show, longtime fans will tell you that it is not afraid of heavy topics, such as abuse, trauma, mental health, politics, war, violence, and death. Incoming fans will never forget the old Bloodbending woman, who herself was a prisoner of war and saves herself from the cruelty of the Fire Nation using this awful power. Characters are complex, but above all, are human. Each one of them feels very real, from the King of the Fire Nation, to the Cabbage Man. The show endears itself to you through the lovable main characters, and by watching them travel through their world, the show’s audience is able to examine their own. 

The writing of the show itself was particularly notable for a children’s animated show. Gravity Falls’ story operates similarly for comparison; the story is split up by linear plot arcs. For example, the characters arrive in Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom, and they spend several episodes there, attempting to reveal a government conspiracy to hide the war from its citizens, while Zuko and Iroh lay low and run a tea shop, avoiding firebending. 

In 2018, a live-action version of the show was announced to be in the works at Netflix, but in 2020, the creators of the original series left, citing creative differences. After this, worries about the live-action show repeating the mistakes of Shyamalan’s infamous disaster of a movie began to spread. Although the cast is not whitewashed and POC are not the only villains in this version, early reports spread the fear that it will not remain a children’s show. Many believe the company is just trying to capitalize off of the show’s recent resurgence. However, DiMartino and Konietzko announced in February that Nickolodeon had created “Avatar Studios”, and that they would be collaborating again to make new content for the Avatar universe. The fanbase guarantees Nickolodeon’s investment will pay off, but it could doom the Netflix production. 

The continuation of the series, regardless of where it comes from, will keep fans dedicated and excited for the future of the show.

Carissa Soukup

Coastal Carolina '23

Carissa Soukup is an English major with a minor in Communications. Her hobbies are reading, listening to music, and brushing her cat. Her goal is to work in the publishing industry. She dreams of eventually living in a log cabin with several more cats after traveling the world.
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