One of Life’s True Delights
“Avatar: the Last Airbender” and the importance of morals in children’s entertainment.
I’ve always thought it unfair to pass off reasonable criticisms of children’s TV and movies simply on the basis of “it’s a kid’s show … it’s not that deep.” Fair enough, but then again that’s far from rationality.
Children’s entertainment, if anything, should haul the heaviest duty of ensuring its content is decent and intentional. The impressionable minds of a young audience is never to be discredited. This is the very reason we have the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB); to ensure no young and easily imprinted mind stumbles across a copy of Caligula or Grand Theft Auto.
Such responsibility also brings forth a deeply significant honor: to primp and groom the beliefs and values of an upcoming generation. Of course, this is not always the case because some children’s entertainment is completely void of anything substantive. For every Fred Rogers, there’s a PeeWee Herman, and for every Peppa Pig, there is also a Ren and Stimpy. But, sometimes that isn’t the case, and when a work of children’s entertainment succeeds at transcending that fabric, works like such are often extremely memorable to even most adults; the best example being the sacred Mr. Rogers.
I could wax on about the posterchilds like Pixar or Hayao Miyazaki, but I’ve been rewatching a classic choice of mine from my youth that was recently released on Netflix. After much introspection, it would be hard to convince me that Avatar: the Last Airbender is not a serious candidate for recognition as the best American-made, animated children’s show ever created. It is a stunning feat of achievement for its beautiful animation, thoughtful writing and gripping action.
But, chief among all its strengths is the multitude of depths its morals puncture. Not many pieces of entertainment tailored for children come close to touching on so many deep and sometimes daunting themes, nor do they pull it off with the grace Avatar always does. Because of this, Avatar may very well be the most profoundly humanist tool available to children. From it they can learn about the ways we deal with one another and ourselves as we each walk down our own winding, often dimly-lit paths of life.
Many diehard fans may scoff at the notion that Avatar is purely a children’s show and I don’t think that’s particularly wrong in any way. But, there is no room for denying that the show was both marketed and constructed to be appealing to a younger audience. If that were not the case, then where was the gore and profanity that a show ripe with stimulating and weighted action sequences sorely lacked?
Firstly, the show aired for a complete three seasons on the Nickelodeon Network. The show also aired every Friday night at 8 p.m. EST … a primetime slot for Nickelodeon shows. And while the show is palatable to both a matured viewer as well as an adolescent one, Nickelodeon’s target demographic ranges from 2–15 years old, with Nick Jr. being targeted at ages of 2–6. This means the theoretical target audience that would be able to both enjoy and understand the artistic value and themes of Avatar is roughly around 7–15.
The moment it all really clicked for me was in season two episode 12, “The Serpent’s Pass”. There’s a moment in the episode where Avatar Aang (the story’s main character) is escorting a pregnant woman and she suddenly goes into labor. The show didn’t shy away from depicting childbirth in an albeit harmless and decent way. Not many animated children’s shows would take that risk; the simple notion of childbirth could be regarded by some parents as indecent material. But, this is only the tip of Avatar’s thematic iceberg.
The series often goes to places that most other children’s cartoons would only dare venture. The human condition is a very present overarching theme to be found all throughout the series because of its bravery to never shy away from harsh realities of human life.
Death, for instance, is a concept often avoided in children’s cartoons, as is the idea of consequence. If Wiley Coyote was killed the first time Roadrunner mortally duped him, we wouldn’t have much to work with for a recurring TV program. Nor would we have a funny and easily digestible cartoon for children, and that is the lynchpin of this whole issue regarding the validity of children’s entertainment: the fickle balance between genius and simplicity. This is also what makes children’s entertainment so universal to all ages; it allows messages to be clear and present without the implication of pretentious, tricky, and esoteric explanations … unlike this review.
The show even tackles the concept of patriarchy in season one when Katara must prove herself with seemingly insurmountable willpower to hold her own in an unfair battle. After risking her life and sanity from flying half way across the earth to learn at the feet of a Waterbending master, Katara refuses to be told “no” simply because of her sex. And despite her clear handicap against her soon-to-be mentor, Katara proves to be a tenacious opponent.
Throughout the series, there is an overarching love struggle between Katara and Aang. However, never does this detract from Katara’s character by forcing her into traditional gender roles like so many shows in the past have done. She does often expound intense empathy and various other motherly traits, but I believe this only further highlights the thought and care put towards Katara’s character arc. After losing her mother and father to the war, Katara willingly took on these motherly traits to serve both her brother Sokka and the whole tribe. But, when faced with an unconvntional patriarchal society, she is never hindered by this, further proving herself as a strong, significant and self reflective individual in this show’s macho-man fantasy land.
This also goes for many of the show’s other female leads, with the most prominant figures being Fire Nation Princess Azula and the twelve year old Earthbending master Toph Beifong. The latter explodes with dynamism at almost every turn of the script. Despite being blind, Toph is able to use the vibrations of the earth to see in a sort of echolocation type fashion. Although this ability allows her to whoop some serious ass, it is also what really brings forth her own struggle: a difficulty with connecting to those she loves because she feels an intense need to always come off as strong and independent.
Toph spent many years pretending to be someone she was not to set her parents at ease. All the while, Toph was beating fully-grown men at their own games in an Earthbending, gladiator-like arena, disproving the image her parents had of being helpless due to her blindness. This highlights a noble dichotomy within Toph, as she so clearly can fend for herself. But, this dynamic is contrasted by her harsh and often erratic temper. As the series goes on however, Toph starts to learn that even those of us with intense strength and fortuity sometimes need a little help. The reason being that great strength and fortuity will often and consequently shut out the way others may feel. In the wise words of General Iroh, a good friend of hers, “there is nothing wrong with letting people who love you help you.”
Princess Azula, the series’ central antagonist, is cut from an only slightly different cloth than Toph. Though frankly a stereotypical femme-fatale trope, Azula also shares a deep common interest with Toph in the form of intense self-reliance. She won’t let anybody know it, but Azula is truly pained by her mother’s past disapproval of her brash personality. Still, Azula is in denial of this fact, which is what causes the strain between Azula and her brother, Prince Zuko. Azula envies the love and appreciation their mother gave towards Zuko’s individuality — a pleasure that Azula was never accustomed to.
Azula’s conflict raises a troublingly critical question for both children and their parents to meditate on: is condemnation of bad behavior always the best course of action? I would argue — at least in Azula’s case — that her mother’s own sense of shame towards seeming to fail at raising a well-rounded child was passed on to Azula, who now carries that same sense of shame. Human nature compels each of us to seek attention when we feel deprived of it, and that emotion burns even more intensely within the hearts of young children. But, when we strike down such behavior with constant and sharp denunciation, we may only be poisoning soil that could have sprouted a beautiful flower.
And, then there’s Sokka. Though overflowing with toxic masculinity, Sokka’s poor traits are starkly casted against his noble ones, of which there are plenty. In the second episode of the entire series we get a major glimpse into this reality when Aang willingly gives himself up to the Fire Nation. Aang realizes it is his fault for bringing the Fire Nation to the Southern Water Tribe. Never deterred, Sokka immediately takes it upon himself to rescue Aang even though it is obvious he still has reservations about the kid.
Sokka is motivated by a capricious balance of loyalty and morality. Even though this frequently comes back to bite him, never does he question his moral compass because he knows it is his own. For this reason, I believe Sokka may actually be the most mature and self-aware dynamic character in the entire series; he sticks to his guns, but cleans them regularly so they don’t misfire. And, while he is imperfect in his behavior — frequently losing his temper or sight on equality — Sokka never outright rejects the notion that he is imperfect. Instead, Sokka uses it to his utmost advantage, whether it be in combat, in a crisis or simply being there to support his friends.
But, the best and maybe most fleeting evidence of how deeply constructed the show’s morals are would be the debate over who the show’s true protagonist is: Aang or Zuko.
In the third episode of the whole series, “The Southern Air Temple”, Aang discovers his people have been massacred by the Fire Nation. This causes Aang to sink into a catastrophic emotional meltdown, of which he can only escape from with the help of his “new family”, Katara and Sokka. Season one episode three magnificently eclipses the idea of great loss and subsequent suffering, but it takes time for the show to apply Aang’s pain to the idea of consequence. Later in the series, it is revealed that Aang ran away from his home at the Southern Air Temple in a fit of Peter Pan-like rage. In doing so, Aang narrowly escaped from the Fire Nation’s onslaught, but ultimately changed the tide of the war by surviving. The lack of death in most cartoons does not allow children to perhaps absorb the knowledge early on that every last decision we make as humans will have ramifications. And yet, Avatar dove right into that dark cave early in its run on cable TV; smouldering skeletons of Aang’s former loved ones and all.
Zuko, a scorned prince in exile, is meanwhile beset on a constantly divergent path to redemption in the eyes of his father. That honor will only return if Zuko captures Aang. One could argue that because Zuko undergoes an even greater and more personally challenging transformation throughout the series than Aang, he is the story’s true protagonist. Both Aang and Zuko’s inner conflicts evoke a moral disposition central to the story’s main themes: what from our pasts must we never forget and what from our pasts must we always move on from. The answer is both subjective and absolute because it is only for you to decide.
Both Aang and Zuko eventually come to terms with this reality, but that would be impossible for Zuko and maybe even Aang without the insight of General Iroh, Zuko’s uncle … one of television’s finest “wise old man” archetypes. More importantly though, Iroh is a near perfect symbol of the show’s emphasis on the struggle between honor and identity. Iroh’s tragic but ultimately redemptive character arch can make even the most hardened of hearts fracture a bit. The deep remorse he feels for his late and only son, Lu Tang, reveals a side of Iroh that evokes many questions, but two in particular: whether or not he was always good hearted and if even the most sinister of minds can sometimes be penetrated with humanity.
Iroh is a master of conjuring up both intense Firebending and brief, germane profundity, both of which repeatedly catch many characters off guard. Iroh’s plot line is paralleled with Zuko’s, which is what typically brings these secret weapons of Iroh’s to the forefront. And what makes Iroh such a masterful Firebender is not his destructive capabilities, but his poise in knowing when to destroy what threatens and when to mend what’s broken; a concept that is lost on almost all other Firebenders. This self composure is found equally in his ability to dish out wisdom, and indeed often derives from scraping elbows with Zuko.
Zuko’s own inner pain always inflicts sorrow and loving pity upon Iroh, leading the pair to many moments of deep soul searching in the form of devastating back-and-forths. But, the zenith of all these conversations is in season two episode 17, “Lake Laogai”, when Zuko locates Aang’s lost flying bison, Appa. It is quite possibly the most intense and irate Iroh in all sixty episodes, pleading with Zuko to finally stop fixating on his scars from the past and begin living a life more for himself. More importantly, it captures the overall essence of what the series seeks to teach children.
“Is it your own destiny, or is it a destiny someone has tried to force on you? I’m begging you Prince Zuko! It’s time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions: who are you and what do you want?”
There are limitless lessons to be learned from this whole series, but overall, I believe the biggest takeaway is to always stop, look and listen to the world around you. We are all flawed creatures; every last one of us … yes, even you. Many of us try to surmount these toils that twist our insides around by ignoring, or altering, or destroying the truth. But, this is a fool’s errand. The only way one can truly learn about themself and create a change is if they place their trust in both the world around them and their own identity. Because we cannot improve the world if we do not first improve ourselves, and we also cannot improve ourselves unless we improve our surroundings. That may sound like a paradox, but it is a fundamental truth about society; you can’t set a pace for changing the world and human nature.
Whether that means we must save the world from a deadly war or save ourselves from the war that wages inside, we cannot ever do it entirely alone. That is why we have each other; to come together as strangers from strange lands and learn what we can from one another, all in the hopes of learning how to appreciate the world around us a bit better. Just as the four elements — Water, Earth, Fire, and Air — are all intertwined, so are we as a species; we all must be adaptable, strong and thoughtful if we want to be free.
And, when we allow ourselves to stop, look and listen, we almost always walk away having learned something. As Iroh once said, “Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights.”
[Author’s note: I am currently working on a feature article about the ongoing BLM movement, but it will take some time before being ready to publish. As a way to show support right now, I vow to donate 100% of the revenue generated from this article to the RVA Bail Fund. Black lives matter … silence is complicity … end police brutality.]