‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’: A new Aang-le for modern television

The ‘kids’ show that embodies Asian culture and tackles societal issues

Mina Jung/Talon

Just finished “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and feel empty? Yeah, us too.

This hollow feeling you’re experiencing is most likely because ATLA is the best TV show of all time. 

“Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the fire nation attacked.” 

The iconic intro describes a world where citizens have the special ability to ‘bend’ elements — fire, air, water, earth — and are divided into four nations based on these abilities. The Avatar is responsible for maintaining peace and balance in this world with his ability to bend all four elements and connect with the spirit world, but things go wrong when Aang, the twelve-year-old Avatar, mysteriously vanishes in the midst of the fire nation’s conquest of the other nations.

We know that you will become way too emotionally attached to the characters and captivated by a never-boring storyline. ATLA features an overarching plot, in which Aang must defeat the Fire Lord, as well as mini plots per episode that make the viewer laugh, cry, or both (and also feature unforgettable songs such as “Secret Tunnel”).

Now, you may think that this is merely a kids’ show, but we urge you to reconsider. Appearances are often misleading. Besides the amazing character development, thrilling plot and beautiful visuals, ATLA conveys a more serious tone about Asian history and cultural tolerance. 

When you pass the first layer of fun animation and jokes, we can see the four nations each represent a specific aspect of Asian culture: the Fire Nation represents imperial Japan, the Earth Kingdom represents Communist China, the Northern and Southern Water Tribes represent indigenous people, and the Air Nomads represent the Buddhist monks and those of Tibetan heritage. Clearly, the Fire Nation invading the other states is a nod to Japan invading multiple Asian countries during the early 1900s, including China, Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam. 

But the historical references don’t stop there. In the second season of ATLA, Aang and his ‘gaang’ take a visit to the esteemed city of Ba Sing Se, often called the “Impenetrable Kingdom,” most likely referring to Beijing, China. Here, Aang finds out the ugly truth of the glimmering city — all those who oppose the king and the Dai Li’s orders get thrown into re-education camps and brainwashed into submission. 

The reason we think the creators of ATLA decided to put such a heavy topic in a made-for-kids television show is the famous phrase “history tends to repeat itself.” By putting these historical events in a negative light, it teaches children from a young age that governments who use fear as a tool of oppression are capable of becoming corrupt and dangerous. 

Another great aspect of ATLA is the Asian representation in American media. For decades, people have complained about the lack of diversity in American entertainment. The series breaks this paradigm, being an American-produced show released all the way back in 2005, when there was no unified movement for racial equality, and therefore little to no representation of Eastern culture.

Growing up as an Asian American kid in a primarily white country isn’t always easy. There’s the blatant stereotypes of eating “stinky” food, speaking broken English, being good at math and the all “Asians are Chinese” stigma; plus, there’s always kids who pull the corners of their eyes to look ‘Asian’ or yell “ching chong” at every Asian they see.

That’s why having a show with Asian representation aimed toward a young audience (although we would argue all ages can be witness to this masterpiece) is so impactful: kids can look up to these characters who look like them and learn to value and be proud of their own cultures. Sure, there’s Mulan, no shade to her. But one East Asian main character out of multiple successful animation studios seems a little unqualified to represent the diversity of the Asian population in the United States.

Female empowerment is yet another critical theme in ATLA. Yes, the Avatar is male, but alongside him are strong female characters that not only fight with him but often become his guidance and savior. Katara, one of Aang’s closest friends, plays a motherly role in the group, but when face-to-face with danger will quite literally kick butt. She’s a healer and a blood bender, a girl who preaches about hope and a girl who glares down injustice. She’s an example that shows that having feminine features does not make you weak. 

The Blind Bandit, aka Toph, is another of Aang’s friends who shows children the strength of women and that having a disability does not make you less capable. In fact, Toph becomes arguably the one of the strongest characters in the series when she develops a new type of earth bending called metal bending. She is a prime example of a strong female that uses her strengths to her advantage and does not take excuses from anyone.

If you can’t watch the show because you don’t have Netflix (since your parents took it away so you would do your homework) or you finished binge watching the three seasons and feel empty inside thanks to our article, here are the words of Prince Zuko to comfort you:

“That’s rough, buddy.”