Before I continue, I need to make something clear: I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time last month, and I wholeheartedly consider myself a fan of the show. I’d been recommended Avatar many, many times throughout my youth and adolescence, told it was a genuinely good show regardless of its target age range. I chalked most of that up, though—as I did with so many of the culturally iconic things I missed out on when I was younger—to the nostalgia of the recommenders. As a kid, I wasn’t really allowed to watch TV, so I missed the window to see Avatar when I was younger than or the same age as the characters, and assumed that that would deplete it of the magic it seemed to hold for so many others. Those who told me to watch it were very emphatic about their love for the show, but I’ve also spent the past 10 years of my life hearing people gasp in horror when it comes up in conversation that I’ve never seen a single episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, so excuse me for being a little discerning.
Childhood baggage aside, I decided to finally take a stab at Avatar after classes ended for the summer, now that it was on Netflix and I wouldn’t have to deal with the extra obstacle of a low-quality stream on a janky anime site. And, yeah, I kind of fell in love with it, as much as a judgmental eighteen-year-old can fall in love with a children’s cartoon that she’s seeing for the first time. I could wax poetic about why, exactly, I’ve converted to an Avatar admirer—about the world-building and how the character arcs foil against one another, about how Azula is a perfect villain who reignited my fear of 8th-grade-girl-bullies despite the fact that I thought I’d laid that to rest upon my entrance to high school. But I’d rather tell you to watch (or re-watch) it and realize how well it holds up on your own. Praises of Avatar are cheaper than a dime a dozen, and I won’t waste your attention on an ode to Prince Zuko.
Critiques of the show and its worldbuilding primarily based on Asian cultures, however, are too often overlooked. The chief creative team behind the show—creators Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and Aaron Ehasz—are all white Americans, and so is the vast majority of the voice cast. Avatar is usually lauded for its representation of Asian and indigenous cultures, which are often excluded from the American children’s media landscape. The New York Times even recently noted the exceptionality of the show’s total exclusion of whiteness. However, the background of its creators means that the cultural traditions from which the show draws and the allegories about imperialism and colonialism in its storylines are necessarily viewed through a white lens. In order to deal with this, the creators hired an Asian-American media consultant and avoided explicit depicting real-world Asian nations and cultures. Though the Fire Nation is kind of Japanese, and the Earth Kingdom kind of Chinese, and so on and so forth, all of the cultural groups defined in the show draw from multiple traditions.
This, for the most part, is effective; the characters are very Asian (or, in the case of the Water Tribe, indigenous, specifically Inuit), and there’s no shying away from that fact. Still, while watching it, I couldn’t help but feel a little weird about the way that different traditions are glossed over and absorbed into a kind of generically Asian vibe. The characters do see the world in a distinctly Eastern way, as opposed to a Western or American one, but it remains defined by its distance from a white perspective rather than existing unto itself. One gets the sense that each of the Four Nations has its depth as a fully developed society within the Avatar world, but the Asianness of them seems like an aesthetic choice at times. This is compounded upon by the fact that many of the character designs are subtly whitewashed to make this aesthetic more palatable for a Western audience: names like “Aang” and “Yue” are mispronounced, and there is nary a dark brown eye to be seen. It’s hard to tell whether the creators used Asian and indigenous cultures as a noble way to decenter whiteness for Avatar’s audience or whether they did so to make their world seem more… exotic.
Because of the fact that every national entity depicted in the show is an Asian or indigenous one, the conflicts do inherently disprove, however, the prejudiced misconception many ignorant Americans hold of Asia as a monolith. Asian nations and Asian people have been fighting between themselves since the dawn of time, and although most of us suffered from the effects of Western colonization, we have also been colonized by one another. The Fire Nation’s imperialist, colonialist project in the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes and its genocide of the Air Nomads reflects the dynamic and resentment between Asian countries in a way that’s not only serious and nuanced but also comprehensible for American children. Because of the previously mentioned genericism, though, I’m not sure that the politics of Avatar actually captures much of the reality of colonialism and its cultural and political ramifications from both Asian and white oppressors. Of course, it is a 60-odd episode show that aired on Nickelodeon fifteen years ago, so it doesn’t have to do this political work in order to be good, or good representation.
However, there are some moments where Avatar drops the ball with regards to representation in a way that has the potential to be truly harmful in its propagation and reinforcement of stereotypes that hurt real-life marginalized peoples. I think first of possibly the most criticized depiction on the show, Guru Pathik, who serves as a “spiritual guide” to Aang, the titular Avatar, and who is pretty clearly a stereotype of an Indian/South Asian person. There are no other characters in Avatar who seem to be South Asian, and it’s completely unexplained where he might have come from or where he lives (other than in some abandoned ruins). He’s played mostly as a kooky joke, rambling on about chakras and forcing Aang to eat a disgusting smoothie. Though most of the Eastern philosophies on the show are painted sensitively and taken seriously, Guru Pathik isn’t afforded the same respect. This issue becomes especially glaring upon consideration that so much of the mythology of Avatar is based on South Asian religion and philosophy. Those chakras and the spiritual energy they control—concepts derived from Hinduism—play a crucial part in the plot of the show, and even the name “avatar” is a Sanskrit word that refers to a specifically Hindu concept of incarnation. Guru Pathik’s shallow and reductive characterization, then, sticks out in a show that otherwise largely avoids basing humor on its characters’ diverse identities. Worse yet, it reinforces the concept of a “hierarchy” among Asian ethnicities which places East Asians above South and Southeast Asians: an idea that is racist, colorist, and that has strong and dangerous implications in the lives of real brown people.
On this subject, it’s also worth noting how the diversity within the Earth Kingdom is portrayed. The kingdom is most closely analogous to China, but there are episodes where our protagonists encounter minority ethnic groups within the nation: there are “sandbenders,” who are vaguely Mongolian or possibly Arabic, and there are “swampbenders” who bend water, rather than earth, and seem culturally Floridian (?) yet have Vietnamese names. The corruption of the Earth Kingdom as a monarchic government with a disorganized army is dealt with extensively throughout the series, but the treatment of these minority groups ends up falling flat, just as Guru Pathik did. Unpacking the “sandbenders” would be better done by someone belonging to or more knowledgeable about one of the cultures that they stereotype, but even quick examination reveals flaws in this portrayal. Though they might be read as Mongolian, given their association with the China-like Earth Kingdom, the sandbenders’ relatively dark skin tone, their desert home, and the head-wraps they wear indicate that part of their real-world inspiration was Arabic culture. Thus, the fact that they are portrayed fairly unequivocally as villains is problematic or even dangerous when taken alongside the original mid-aughts airdate of Avatar. Their main purpose within the narrative is to kidnap a beloved animal member of the team, giving an ethnic minority a bad name in a show where most villains have a depth uncommon for a children’s cartoon.
The “swampbenders,” on the other hand, are shown to be unsophisticated and almost backwards—what actual Vietnamese people might call “nhà quê.” The swampbenders are allies to Team Avatar, rather than villains, but come off largely as a joke, and the show seems to view them through a patronizing lens. Although the journey of most of the Water Tribe characters reflects the after-effects of colonization with great nuance and care, the deliberate association of these uncultured swamp people with the Vietnamese, who were colonized by other Asian nations and by Western powers before being decimated by the Vietnam War, is harmful. It again reinforces a hierarchy that places East Asian culture over Southeast Asian culture in the American mindset, differentiating for Avatar’s audience between the Asians whose culture is cool, aesthetically pleasing, and worth admiring, and the Asians who are barely a step above “savages.”
There are also points to be made about the series’ treatment of colonialism on a grand scale. The consequences of it ring throughout the series and are shown in a detailed and complex manner, but the show’s “happy ending” is a perpetuation of the same monarchic and imperialist system that got the Avatar world into their mess in the first place, only with “good” people in charge of the nations as opposed to “bad.” This very typically American conclusion is predictable if a bit cheapening, given that the show’s arc is not structured to include an unpacking of decolonization. What the finale does do well, however, is illuminate the true strengths of Avatar: the characters and their relationship dynamics. While the series’ politics might be shaky from a real-world perspective, it’s nigh-impossible to get to the end of season three and not cheer along with the satisfying final beats of each individual arc, and I was no exception.
What I found perhaps most interesting about my Avatar-watching experience, though, was not that it was excellent but flawed. Rather, it was that it was so personally excellent to me because of its flaws. I’m a mixed-race Asian-American of Vietnamese, Indian, and white descent, so, needless to say, I’ve never been represented in terms of my ethnicity onscreen or really anywhere. I’ve struggled throughout my life to find a sense of community and to connect with my heritage: it’s not just that my family is originally from another country and I was raised in America, or just that my parents don’t share a common heritage, but that I feel a profound sense of isolation that compounds on and combines those felt by many Asian-Americans and many mixed-race people. I appreciate media that features Asian characters, and I can often connect to portrayals of Vietnamese-American and Indian-American characters, because I do have some handle in each of their cultures. But despite the positives of this representation, these narratives also remind me of just how much I don’t know and how I’ll never fully belong in either community.
With this in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I connected with Avatar precisely because of how generic the representation of Asian culture was. Somehow, their technique of drawing from a myriad of different national and ethnic traditions in service of a vibe more than anything else really resonated with me as someone who feels excluded from every specific Asian culture I’ve encountered but nevertheless is, at my core, Asian-American. In a certain way, I’ve only ever been able to see Eastern or Asian ways of life from a Western, American perspective, and so this bad and politically incorrect representation inadvertently became a reflection of my own views. I felt deeply entertained, perhaps even gleeful, watching episodes like The Beach, wherein a gang made up entirely of Asian teens spend the entire runtime biting each other’s heads off because they’ve all grown up too repressed by Fire Nation society to communicate any other way. That was legitimately what my friend groups were like in high school, in the very best possible way—we were able to figure out our identities and lives together specifically because we were all raised with a weird blend of Asian and American values. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt so seen, at least in this dimension of my life, by any other piece of media. No other American show or movie would dare portray a core group that was entirely composed of Asians, and no Asian media has ever been accessible to me because of how necessarily grounded it is in one specific culture. Somehow, some way, the white imperfections of Avatar took it above and beyond for very Asian-American me.
So yes, although I’ve watched Avatar: The Last Airbender with the critical eye of an adult, and seen exactly how its representation, while amazing on the surface, can be lacking in depth, I am a loyal and loving fan. In the end, Avatar gives me hope and empowers me to demand for all the nuance that children like me deserve when they turn on the TV. Maybe, in whatever show comes next, they can even learn how to properly pronounce a simple name like “Mai.” It’s really not that hard—just ask an Asian person! I promise that we have a lot to say.