When the World Needed it Most, Avatar: The Last Airbender was There

On February 1, 2005, Nickelodeon released one of the most influential and powerful shows on their network. Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was released on Netflix earlier in May, has found itself at the top of everyone’s watch list and is once again entertaining fans despite the uncertain circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some might argue that Avatar is an glorified kids cartoon, but if one takes a closer look, they will find a show full of important messages that many of us need to be reminded of today. This show has a large representation of cultures and ethnicities that is rare to find in a show that first aired 15 years ago. I would argue that Netflix’s release of Avatar: The Last Airbender could not be more perfectly timed. More and more people have begun looking towards television for escapism, and not only does Avatar provide escapism, it also can provide some advice on how we can cope with life during a global pandemic.

The Avatar fandom is definitely large and relatively active, especially since the release of Legend of Korra, the spin-off series of The Last Airbender. However, the fan base has had limited influence, thanks to the show being off-air and unavailable to stream for so long. Unsurprisingly, a significant increase in fan base activity occurred within a week or so of its Netflix release. Avatar rocketed to the #1 spot on Netflix of most watched shows in the US. While Avatar is definitely deserving of the title, many found it shocking to see a 15-year old cartoon holding such a prominent spot on a competitive chart (during the past weeks, the #1 slot had been filled by new shows like Outer Banks and Hollywood). But one can only thank the Avatar fanbase for ramping the show up in the first place, and new fans for discovering and sharing everything Avatar has to offer in its three seasons.

I do not believe Avatar could have made its comeback into mainstream culture at a better time. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented time of confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty for all of us. It’s no secret that almost all of us have never experienced a global health crisis, and the topic of mental health and mental stability has been a popular subject as many are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness as they quarantine away from friends and family. While most of us have been quarantined at home, we have turned to television to help cope with the stressful realities of our days. What gives Avatar the ability to impact people today so strongly is its main storyline – a group of kids working to stop the 100-year war going on between their nations and bring peace and balance back to the world. Maybe it is not a global pandemic, but a global invasion sounds pretty unfavorable as well and many of the feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear that we are experiencing now are reflected in the show.

The way Avatar navigates and discusses pain, loss, fear, anxiety, and all those other confusing feelings many of us are experiencing daily allows audiences to take in lessons and points of view that can be applied to life in general, which is part of what makes it so great! All the characters on the show are impeccably developed through the seasons and all work through complex emotional battles, both from their past and current experiences (Prince Zuko, I’m looking at you!). As we watch these characters grow and work through ethical struggles, loss, good, and evil audiences are absorbing the philosophies that help our favorite characters work through particularly difficult storylines. These philosophies are often based on maintaining the balance of peace and goodness in the world, which is the primary goal of the main characters in the show, but also delve into topics of unconditional love, hope, forgiveness, loss and anger, family, friendship, and personal morality. Seeing love and forgiveness prevail in a world that has been torn up by war feels particularly comforting in a time when many of us and our loved ones are threatened by COVID-19. While this basic description of the show may seem preachy or campy, it is also full to the brim with action-packed scenes, hilarious characters, and beautiful animation. All of which definitely makes the show worth the hype!

While many shows that came out before 2010 show their age due to various slurs that were still “acceptable” or from the portrayal of stereotyped characters, Avatar does not seem to have aged a day. Stylistically, the show is deeply based on different forms of Japanese anime, but culturally (where many shows tend to mess up or stereotype) the show is respectfully influenced by Chinese culture, as well as other East Asian cultures. Indian, South Asian, and indigenous cultures from around the world. It’s clear to see where the influences show up in the show, for example, the Earth Kingdom is heavily inspired by China, its capital city is a heavily walled city, similar to the Great Wall of China and has many references from the Qing Dynasty. The Fire Nation is inspired by East, South, and Southeast Asia and uses those influences to justify the mostly red-hued clothing the Fire Nation characters wear (Red for the Fire Nation? Revolutionary). The Air Nomads are most influenced by Tibetan culture, the Shaolin Monks, and Sri Lankan Buddhism, which is evident in the design of the Air Nation temples and depiction of Air Nation monks. Finally, the Water Tribe is heavily inspired by the Inuit and Yupik, as both bases for the Tribe are located on the North and South Poles. All the characters that reside in the Water Tribes are depicted as Native peoples. Their architectural style is heavily reminiscent of the igloos and other ice structures utilized by these groups. While it is cool to see these real-life traces of such rich cultures featured in a mainstream show, it does not mean much if the world is not accompanied by strong characters.

Luckily, Avatar features a wide cast of characters, and instead of white washing them all (as many shows tend to do), Avatar highlights characters of different ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and features main characters with disabilities. Although representation has gotten significantly better in the past years, I still find it pretty amazing when shows have a particularly well thought out cast of unique and diverse characters. For example, the main female lead, Katara, is a water-bender from the Water Tribe and is depicted, along with her brother, as typical indigenous kids. Additionally, characters like Toph, who is a blind but extremely powerful earth bender, and Teo, who is a paraplegic teen who designs flying contraptions for his wheelchair, contribute more to the show than token diversity. The two, among other characters, dramatically affect the course of the show and maintain influence rather than only being featured for a couple episodes. The creators of Avatar definitely wanted to create a cast that looked more like the many faces watching the show.

While many shows come and go, Avatar: The Last Airbender deserves to be revisited and celebrated as an excellent show that still makes an impact on audiences today. With all that’s going on in the world, it’s important to promote shows that make positive impacts on the individuals watching and celebrate the thought that went into the creation of such a wonderful show.