|No no NO. Not this one.|
I first discovered Avatar: the Last Airbender through the method that is probably any pre-2010 fan’s worst nightmare: I saw the movie. It was a transatlantic plane ride in August, I was tired, bored and a little despondent (rather like the Bright Eyes song except without the life-affirming aquatic crash sequence) and for some reason, M. Night Shyamalan’s version of “magical warrior monks save the world” was the best thing on the in-flight entertainment. So I sat through 3 hours of muddy, sanctimonious, racist rubbish, saved only by the deadpan use of the word “bender”, and at the end of it came out thinking “there might be something in this.”
I went home and, as I still had a month of holiday left before starting my incredibly important finals year, spent the time wisely downloading and watching all three seasons of the cartoon, as well as learning exactly how racist the film was. Seriously, don’t watch the film. What began as a harmless resolution to watch a couple of episodes a day quickly turned into a several-day marathon. I returned to college with an A:TLA obsession and a 30” Appa plush toy, determined to share the Avatar world with as many people as possible.
I quickly converted two of my besties/Doctor Who watching buddies, but we didn’t get too far through the series due to the pressures of the term. We then went on a college ski trip with some other friends and took the series along, hoping to watch a couple of episodes in between trips on the pistes. Two of our roommates subsequently became so obsessed with watching the series that they blew off one of our evenings out to sit and watch this cartoon instead. We returned several hours later to discover them sat in exactly the same positions, surrounded by takeaway, midway through Season 2.
|Never too old for toys!|
Luckily, it’s a pretty satisfying obsession to indulge. The action unfolds in a neat three seasons with barely a poor episode among them (even the widely-hated ”the Great Divide” isn’t that bad… and you can learn the Chinese words for “clean” and “dirty” while you watch!) When so much TV is so clearly compromised through scheduling and casting and being dragged out endlessly for profit, it’s refreshing to sit down and watch something that’s almost entirely unaffected by those problems when watched in boxset form. The tone is also amazing, especially for a children’s show: the humour gets quite lowbrow and silly (with a few “how the hell did they get that in there?” moments), but the overall plot and its implications are pretty deep and definitely interesting no matter what your age.
But let’s talk feminism for a while. This series is amazing, but is it good to watch as a woman? Well, it is the journey of a boy. It’s a sad fact that even now (and I’ll get onto A:TLA’s sequel in a minute), it would be impossible to pitch an adventure like this as a story fronted by a girl. But as boy protagonists go, our hero Aang is pretty refreshing to watch. He is (spoiler!) the Avatar, the only person in the world who can control the four elements of air, fire, earth and water. People in the A:TLA world are born into nations which each correspond to one of these elements, and Aang is from the Air Nomads, meaning that his original element is air. He’s also a pacifist vegetarian who doesn’t really want the status thrust upon him and has to learn how to cope with his destiny whilst remaining true to his own values, which is a good portrayal of non-standard masculinity in my book.
What is his destiny? Ask anybody who has watched the series and they can probably narrate it to you word for word:
The world is out of balance! Aang has been trapped in an iceberg for a hundred years and in that time the Fire Nation have ruined everything with their fiery ways. They kill all of the air nomads except Aang, hence why he's the last Airbender. Luckily, Aang has met two plucky kids from the Southern Water Tribe (waterbenders live at the north and south poles, although the north is significantly more developed for Reasons) to help him on his way.
This is where it gets good. Aang’s main two allies through the entire series are a brother and sister called Sokka and Katara. Sokka is a brilliant character in his own right (who has a feminist awakening in episode 4, no less!) so it pains me to gloss over him, but oh my goodness his sister. Katara is a waterbender, which means that she can control water in all its forms (ALL of them… *ominous foreshadowing*). Her desire for training is a plot motivation in the first season and by the end of it, she’s overcome sexism and worries about her inadequacy to become one of the most powerful waterbending masters in the world, all in record time. She then continues to be consistently one of the best fighters right up to – and including – the finale. On top of this awesome fighting the series also gives a lot of time to her feminine traits, particularly her maternal attitude towards her brother and friends. Rather than suggesting this is her natural place, the series actually explores the positives and negatives of this trait and allows her and other characters to react and grow because of it.
The second season introduces several more exciting women (and… no exciting men, ha ha). The “Gaang” is expanded with the introduction of an earthbending master for Aang, who is a twelve-year-old blind girl whose character development process was literally “we are going to think of a hilariously stereotypical disgusting, brash twelve-year-old boy and then make him blind and female”, and whose crowning glory in the series is inventing a form of earthbending that had been thought literally impossible since the dawn of time. Meanwhile, the antagonist stakes get upped from “angry but traumatised teenage boy” (I’m so sorry that’s all you’re getting here about Prince Zuko) to “sad, deep teenage boy’s psychotic sister and her two powerful friends.” Said sister, Azula, is probably the most powerful firebender on the series, meaning that aside from Aang himself all three of the consistently strongest fighters on the show are girls. That’s quite exciting!
So, Aang and his friends kick arse all the way across the four nations, meeting freedom fighters, mad kings, sexists, deadpan hunter ladies with crazy giant starmole mounts, brainwashed clones, fortune tellers, painted warrior women, schoolchildren, a spirit panda and a recurring cabbage salesman. As you can probably tell from the fact that this is a finite, ended series aimed at children, in the end the day is saved by both male and female characters, romance blossoms and balance is restored to the world again. And when it’s finished, you can read the comics! Then you might finally get your life back.
|Did I mention the completely accurate Chinese characters and distinct martial arts styles? Those are pretty great too.|
Despite having great quality female representation, and avoiding the tokenistic approach to quantity that so many stories seem to fall into, A:TLA isn’t the perfect feminist fable. Whilst there’s brilliant parity and subtle emphasis on female strength among the younger cohort, the older characters – those in authority who shape the world – are almost exclusively male. The final antagonist is the Fire Lord, who is attacking the Earth King’s realm while his usurped older brother acts as mentor to the angry but traumatised prince. The brother is also a member of an all-male transnational secret society of old people who play a big role in the finale, and Katara and Sokka’s father also plays a significant fighting role. Meanwhile, Aang is guided through his journey by the spirit of the male avatar before him. Although there are one-shot older women who are important and awesome, and some consistently relevant mother figures, representation of women in the non-teenage cast is depressingly closer to the default crowd scene ratio where having 17% women seems like equal representation. This gets worse in Avatar’s sequel, The Legend of Korra, where the ensemble focus and updated setting makes it screamingly obvious that everyone with authority and agency in the world are old men. It’s depressing that the only strong older woman in that series is also the only older character to fall prey to the season’s Big Bag (whose M.O I won’t ruin because you should still go watch it even with its flaws). As Legend of Korra is about the woman avatar who comes after Aang, it’s sort of sad that they seem to have created a female lead and then decided that to even things out, everyone who influences her life will be male. Even more depressingly, Korra’s interactions with her iteration of the “Gaang” are completely overwhelmed by a very rushed romance plot, meaning that she barely has any interactions with the other young woman character as it would apparently ruin the “rivalry”.
|Also everybody got really upset about Korra's biceps, because women trained daily in several martial arts form the age of 4 should still look feminine goddamnit.|
Avatar: The Last Airbender doesn’t turn cartoon gender representation on its head, and to be honest you wouldn’t expect it from a mainstream Nickelodeon cartoon. What it does provide is a brilliant, well-told story that’s worth watching even if you’re not a habitual cartoon watcher. The show is beautiful, it has a clear ending, the story is good and the women are incredible, even if as ever there aren’t quite enough. Go watch Avatar! You won’t regret it.