Like many people, I was thrilled when Avatar the Last Airbender came back to Netflix. When I started re-watching Avatar, I remembered why this show had been my favorite as a kid. With the loveable characters, the range of unique settings, the beautifully-animated bending, the rich story, the funny scenes and meaningful moments, Avatar the Last Airbender captures the full wonderful potential of animated TV series. After Avatar, I naturally moved on to the Legend of Korra, and by then I found myself craving more animated shows, and so I began a frenzied search to find other exceptional cartoons. I watched bits of different shows, but the ones that really stuck with me were The Dragon Prince (2018-), She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020), and Star vs. the Forces of Evil (2015-2019). I still can’t articulate exactly why I have gotten so interested in animated TV recently. Maybe animation provides me with a sense of familiarity or, if not that, then a fun, magical escape from a global pandemic, but it isn’t just that; the diversity, complex themes, and memorable stories touched me and inspired me in a profound way. Without getting too much into plot to avoid any spoilers, I would like to discuss why I think these five shows are so important for people of all ages.
When comparing my favorite cartoons, I realized they all have a cast of great characters, each with their own personality and distinct identity. She-Ra and The Dragon Prince in particular celebrate many forms of racial, body type, gender and sexual identities. I also love how these shows treated these differences as very normal. For instance, in She-Ra we learn Bow has two dads and Double Trouble uses they/them pronouns and those things are not a problem for anyone. These examples of representation are important for everyone, but I am especially glad kids get to see this type of inclusion.
Personally, I am also thrilled to see more presentations of traditionally ‘feminine’ values such as empathy, gentleness, and love in characters of all genders. Rather than just replacing men with female characters or treating women as props, I believe these shows actually seek to actively tell the stories of their female characters. Simply creating female characters, even female lead characters, who act like the archetypal male hero, tough and deadly in battle, can unfortunately still cast femininity as weak, invalid, and out of place by suggesting the women are valued for conforming to the patriarchy’s heroic (male) ideal. For me, She-Ra and Star vs. the Forces of Evil emphasize the power of feminine strength, something all people have, and reject a glorification of needless violence. I love that these shows challenge superficial gender norms saying you don’t have to like things like clothes, cute animals, and hanging out with friends to be a feminine person, but you don’t have to hate them either to be a great hero. In my mind, Avatar is a great example of this anti-patriarchal type of cartoon. Though the show does have ‘strong female characters’ like Katara and Toph, I think the male lead, Aang, is a much more ground-breaking character because he legitimizes the expression of traditionally feminine qualities of gentleness, empathy, and love in young men. In an industry seemingly reliant on flashy fights as a manifestation of conflicts between good and evil, Aang recognizes the value of peace and the gravity of taking the lives of even his greatest opponents. Though the whole premise of the show is that Aang is a powerful bender, he does not affirm toxic masculinity by exploiting his power or finding satisfaction in violence. I think this makes Aang such a valuable role model for people of all genders.
These shows also address other difficult societal issues such as racism with the conflict between the monsters and mewmans in Star vs. the Forces of Evil, imperialism with the First Ones mining Etheria’s magic and the the Horde trying to bring other planets ‘into the light’ of Horde Prime in She-Ra, and the implications of inherited conflicts and power struggles in The Dragon Prince. Building on the Fire Nation’s long war in Avatar, The Legend of Korra also explores the complicated politics in multicultural Republic City. The Legend of Korra is not afraid to address the problem of political corruption or ask deep philosophical questions on the purpose of governments. Thinking back on these shows, I see they often use the guise of fictional lands to make some pretty bold comments on very real issues. Though you might not expect TV-Y7 content to address these challenging topics with such clarity, I can say these shows have definitely pushed me to think more deeply about my own views and place in the world and its history.
Aside from all the social and political impacts of the programs, the character-driven stories are another large reason why these shows are my favorites. By acknowledging their doubts and failures along with their victories, the characters show the audience they don’t have to always be happy and on top of the world to be a hero. I think it’s also great how all five of these shows explore the psychology of their villains from Prince Zuko’s epic redemption in Avatar to Catra’s tragic childhood trauma in She-Ra, and even the ambiguity of Eclipsa’s morality in Star vs. the Forces of Evil. The focus on context and characters’ emotional responses shows people are not simply born evil for no reason; the world is more complex than that and we need to work to understand ‘the bad guy’s’ motives so we can offer them a chance to make things right.
While I’m sure there are many other meaningful TV shows out there that I haven’t mentioned, I think these five shows are particularly important for the animation industry and its fans. There are a lot of fun things to love about these shows like their beautiful animation styles, funny jokes, and catchy theme songs, but they also address very valuable lessons and comments on our current society. Of course, there is still room to grow, but I think we should acknowledge how far kids’ cartoons have come in just the past ten years. Watching these shows, I feel happy knowing young people today get to grow up with them! If you need a bit of magic in your life or a fresh perspective on real-world challenges, I encourage you to give this list of cartoons a try, no matter your age. And the best part is, once you finish these shows, you get to start anticipating the next great cartoon still to come!