'Avatar: The Last Airbender' is more than a children's cartoon

Though the animated show is light-hearted and charming, it also tackles serious issues with depth and nuance

Tathira Baatul
Published : 17 May 2023, 01:55 PM
Updated : 17 May 2023, 01:55 PM

Sure, I may have an undying crush on Zuko and think his character development is unparalleled, but those aren't the only reasons I love Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Despite being a cartoon aimed at a younger audience, Avatar tells a charming but robust story about war, conflict, and destiny without becoming too grim or severe. It manages a deft balance that keeps the tone light but flexible enough to delve into more serious issues, like sexism, ableism, family dysfunction, animal abuse, and death, with depth and nuance.

Early in the show, Sokka, one of our main characters, keeps putting down his sister Katara with many lightly misogynistic comments. Sokka aims to become a warrior for his tribe but is condescending about his sister's ability to manipulate the element of water. In the pilot, he even says, 'leave it to the girl to screw things up'. But, as the show goes on, Sokka sees the error of his ways. At one point, he even has to confront his sexism head-on when he pleads with a young woman named Suki to teach him how to fight so he can better protect his friends. Avatar confronts this issue directly by seeding a flaw in one of its main characters while showing how we can grow past our prejudices to become better people.

The topic of ableism comes up in the characters of Teo and Toph. Unlike many of the show's main characters, Teo can't bend the elements. He also uses a wheelchair. Despite these apparent limitations, he is brilliant and resourceful, even making a flying mechanical glider. When our protagonist Aang comes across Teo, he isn't the most welcoming. Aang is an airbender, and his people, known for using gliders for transport, were slaughtered before the show began. At first, he's angry that Teo would make a glider that functions through mechanical tricks, but he soon comes to realise that Teo's inventions are his way of helping others.

Toph, another member of our core cast, is blind but can sense the world around her through her earthbending powers. Though coddled by her parents because of her disability, Toph is not interested in living an easy life. Instead, she challenges herself to further her abilities. While she occasionally struggles with her lack of sight, it isn't treated as an obstacle that must be overcome. Instead, it is part of who she is and one of the reasons she becomes the most powerful earthbender.

The show's later seasons introduce Zuko's sister Azula, the crown princess of the Fire Nation, as a villain. But unlike the antagonists of many other children's shows, she isn't one-dimensional. The show takes time to show her troubled childhood, where she was constantly pitted against her brother in a fight for power and dominance. Without the caring mentorship of Uncle Iroh, her youth was shaped by the imperialist worldview of her father. Though she remains a villain, the show gives her moments of vulnerability and inner turmoil, adding complexity to her character and showing how evil is not innate, but can be a product of circumstance and experience.

The devastating 'Appa's Lost Days' shows the brutal impact of animal abuse as our titular sky bison is captured by raiders and sold to a circus which uses cruelty to force him to perform. Shifting away from the perspective of the human characters, Avatar takes a moment to show us things from Appa's point of view. As the audience sees this abuse's toll on Appa's physical and emotional well-being, they learn the importance of treating animals with kindness and respect.

But perhaps the best example of the show's ability to craft stories with complexity and care is in one of its most famous episodes, 'Tales of Ba Sing Se'. Set in the Earth Kingdom's capital, the episode follows several different story threads that offer us insights into our main cast's daily lives and interests without a more significant overarching threat. The highlight, however, is the section featuring the beloved Uncle Iroh. A general for the evil Fire Nation who has turned away from its authoritarian mindset, the segment shows Iroh strolling through a city from an enemy nation but stopping to help the people with his wisdom. He eventually rests on a hill with a large tree, where he sets up a memorial for the birthday of his son, who was killed during the Fire Nation's extended siege on Ba Sing Se. The quiet moment when he sings the haunting melody and heart-wrenching lyrics' Leaves from the Vine' give voice to the horrors of war and the importance of family and connection.

During its 61 episodes, Avatar: The Last Airbender never becomes a show unsuitable for children. Instead, it skilfully balances complex social issues with a highly entertaining adventure story that allows kids to learn more about the world through more complex themes. Through its story, characters, and ideas, the series exposes its audience to different perspectives and cultures, encouraging empathy and understanding. Though it has been 15 years since the show ended, Avatar remains an engaging and thought-provoking watch for viewers of all ages.

This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.