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*Spoiler Warning: Marvel’s Hawkeye & Season 3 of Avatar: The Last Airbender*

After a long, arduous journey, heroes return to normalcy – if only for a moment – and find their story has become a pop culture fairytale, mixed with glitter and preserved in a rose-colored bubble, where death and struggle and survival carry inspiration instead of pain. Such is the phenomenon of the story within a story. It’s a rare treat to find these things, these Matryoshka dolls of stories with little telescoping parts inside of them. But they add a sense of realism to the narrative, a sense of reflection as both the characters and the viewers look back at how the story began.

Notable examples from popular culture include the episode “The Ember Island Players” from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and more recently, “Rogers: The Musical” from Marvel’s Hawkeye. (For anyone familiar with Bollywood, “Dastaan-E-Om Shanti Om” from Om Shanti Om is an abridged but well-done version of this as well.)

In Avatar, the protagonists go to see a play about themselves while hiding out in the Fire Nation, as they’ve gained some notoriety for traveling the world opposing the Fire Lord’s forces. The play traces the gang’s beginnings and utterly butchers each of their personalities, to the comedic horror of the protagonists themselves. It also recounts the events of earlier seasons from the Fire Nation’s perspective, painting the main characters as antagonists. The play even creates a false narrative of the future, and Aang and Zuko are forced to see the Fire Nation’s opinion of them as the locals cheer when their characters die at the hands of Fire Lord Ozai and Azula’s actors.

In Hawkeye, Clint Barton is dragged to a romanticized version of the very first Avengers movie, known in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the Battle of New York, a musical in which actors representing his original teammates sing and dance around the stage defeating Chitauri aliens. Clint remembers these events distinctly, but more realistically – he recalls the days when Natasha Romanoff was still alive, how Tony Stark was ready to sacrifice himself to direct a missile away from New York City, the fear and adrenaline of battle. For others watching, however, the musical is their only window into the experiences of the Avengers. It’s a peripheral tale of heroism, even if some of them were in the city during the Battle of New York. They don’t quite empathize with the difficulty of the situation from the protagonist’s perspective and the resulting trauma, like to Hawkeye’s other main character, Kate Bishop, who maintains a similarly nonchalant attitude until she has to confront the harsh realities of a hero’s life.

In both cases, we as the outside viewers of these parody-plays can appreciate their content, but we’ve also been spectators to the actual events with the heroes themselves. We’ve seen the trials and tribulations of the Avatar gang and Clint Barton, and to us, there’s a clear disconnect between these forms of media within the shows and how the events are framed from the actual character’s point of view.

The interesting thing is, we can see this disconnect in real life, too. As consumers of media, we’re exposed to thousands of true stories in many formats – movies, books, news articles, spoken word, and more. But do we really understand the perspectives presented to us? How do we as people view the struggles portrayed in these media? Whether it’s the effects of climate change, sexual assault, poverty, racism – do we really take the time to understand, to empathize and reflect? Or do we read it as a grittier form of entertainment and move on? How seriously do we take what is presented to us? How much do we analyze it and to what extent do we act on it?

The unfortunate truth is that many people end up as reflections of the Fire Nation locals in Avatar, or as the clueless New Yorkers in Hawkeye. They – we – take content at face value, label it as ISSUE in their mind and move on with the knowledge that it is, in fact, a thing that happens. To empathize with the message, to read the story and look beyond facts to see the person, the struggle, and/or the pain is much more difficult. But it’s necessary.

Conversely, we also have to consider how these stories are presented to us. In Avatar, the Ember Island Players’ parody is framed as both political propaganda on behalf of the Fire Nation and as the misguided attempt at an interesting play by the troupe. In Hawkeye, it can probably be assumed that similar to our world’s Hamilton or Come From Away, the writer saw a story from the past worth telling, and adapted it into palatable form for a common audience. The protagonists recognize this, as their experiences differed significantly from what they see in their parodied lives, but the viewers don’t. And ultimately, it’s not up to the protagonists to rehash their experiences to every person on the planet to make them understand this difference. Likewise, contemplating the purposeful way that each piece of media is presented to us as media consumers and how each one is constructed would be a further step towards unraveling the story to reveal the events and the experience at the center of it.

By taking the time and space to see past the foolish antics of the Ember Island Players and the questionably upbeat tune of the Avengers musical, to understand the perspective and the experiences informing media, maybe it’ll be easier to make a difference.

Siri is a sophomore at Michigan State University and a writer for HerCampus. When she's not studying or looking for fun science facts online, she can be found reading a book at lightspeed or lost in some eclectic music.
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