The Ambitious Equality of Avatar: The Last Airbender

For a kid’s show that premiered in 2005, it was very ambitious and progressive.

Children’s shows are so easy to write off as just that, children’s shows. They are meant for kids and feature good morals to be learned, but without any real deeper, lasting meaning. But, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender proved to be the exception to that stigma. Throughout its three year run, it was nearly universally praised by audiences and critics alike, and even won a Peabody Award. So how does a kid’s show about a group of preteens trying to stop the evil Firelord’s war and bring peace to their world garner this much acclaim? What made Avatar different from the rest? How ahead of its time and revolutionary it was. It taught children about gender equality before they even knew what it was, had one of the most diverse casts seen on television, and brought its characters to a depth that even some shows geared towards adults cannot reach.

Suki, a Kyoshi warrior, showing Sokka who’s boss

One of the greatest qualities of this show is how it approaches the treatment of its male and female characters. Soldiers in armies are male and female, the Avatar is not restricted to one gender, and princesses and highborn ladies are not damsels in distress. Regardless of gender, each character is given equal attention to develop organically and realistically. Moments of sexism from the characters are quickly crushed by female characters kicking ass and taking names. At many points, the female characters are shown to be more powerful, in terms of bending skill and even in physical strength, than some of the men. A previous female Avatar named Kyoshi inspired an all-female, non-bender martial arts group. Toph, who is blind, is, arguably, the most powerful earthbender in their world and does not let her disability stop her. In fact, it actually helps her hone in her skill of sensing vibrations in the earth. She even creates a new facet of earthbending, called metalbending, by sensing impurities with iron. Katara is a perfect example of how a traditionally feminine woman does not equal weakness. She feels, loves, and fights passionately. She will stand up for what she believes is right while also attacking with masterful skill.

Fire Nation princess Azula fighting Aang

The princess of the Fire Nation, Azula, is one of the most complex and terrifying antagonists to ever be on television. She is a firebending prodigy and military strategy genius and was chosen by her dictator-esque father, the evil Firelord, to be the heir to the thone. She is also frequently accompanied by her two non-bending female friends, Mai and Ty-Lee. Mai’s skills as a warrior lie in knife-throwing with deadly aim, while Ty-Lee’s are in acrobatics and temporarily disabling her opponents through chi-blocking. The show never veers into stereotypic portrayals with each woman’s personal story arc. As they grow older and the show progresses, they develop naturally, as any person would.

When the show began in 2005, viewers were introduced to the unique world this show takes place in. Unusual for an American television show, the entire cast of characters is made up of people hailing from fantastical versions of Asian and Inuit cultures. So much of this show draws from Asian religions, philosophies, and customs. Each bending style is based on a different style of ancient martial arts. Characters are frequently seen meditating and using tea therapy. The creators of the show cited the Japanese anime films of Hayao Miyazaki as a main influencer for the animation style. The show also featured numerous characters with disabilities in a positive and realistic way. The aforementioned character of Toph often pokes fun at herself and is so capable that even her travelling companions sometimes forget about her disability. There is also the character of Teo, a young paralyzed boy, who uses a wheelchair. Teo’s father built a glider, reminiscent of that of an airbender’s, onto his wheelchair so that he could experience life just as normally as everyone else. Both Toph’s and Teo’s characters taught viewers valuable lessons about judging people based on what they are able to do.

Teo flying through the air in his wheelchair glider

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a brilliant action/adventure epic on par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While it does sometimes stray into “silly children’s show” territory, the fact remains that the animation is beautiful, the story is powerful and compelling, and the characters are incredibly realistic. Most importantly, the show features some of the most well-written and multi-dimensional female characters seen on television. Each woman has her own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities and continually break down gender barriers set on them. Television shows nowadays should take note and follow Avatar’s example.

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