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Elementals April 13, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews, television.
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If I were a different kind of person, I’d spend the first paragraph of this post justifying its existence. I’d say that I felt a little bit guilty for writing one thousand words about a Nickelodeon animated kids’ TV show, and that I clearly was a 10-year-old at heart, and that, hey, look, I’d written about things that were clearly not highbrow before.

Except I don’t feel guilty, I’m not a 10-year-old at heart and I don’t feel the need to justify writing about Avatar: The Last Airbender at all. I’m of the opinion that if something exercises my mind, it’s worthy of discussion. That being said, you’ve been warned. I’m writing about an animated kids’ TV series. Deal with it.

Spoilers ahead.

I first heard about Avatar via snarking communities on Livejournal and places like Fandom Secrets and Fandom Wank, and what I heard – mainly about vicious shipping wars – encouraged me to steer clear, and I forgot about the whole thing. But recently, a lot of people have been getting justifiably upset about the whitewashing of the cast in the upcoming live action movie supposedly based on the series. And when Hal Duncan talks, I prick up my ears and listen. I began to wonder what all the fuss was about, and in particular, if the TV series itself was the beacon of equality and diversity that everyone was depicting it as.

So I started watching. And was pleasantly surprised. In particular, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

Avatar is a series that draws heavily on various Asian and Pacific Rim indigenous cultures and religions, and is set in a fantasy world where the different peoples have the ability to manipulate (‘bend’) each of the four elements. The different cultures in the world – the Water Tribes, Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom and Air Nomads – have developed different bending styles that bear strong resemblance to different real-world martial arts. Within this world, the Avatar, a person with the power to control all four elements, is constantly reincarnated in order to maintain balance. However, 100 years before the series’ story begins, the Avatar goes missing and the Fire Nation begins a quest for world domination, wiping out the Air Nomads and progressively advancing on the other regions. 100 years later, two young Water Tribe children – wannabe warrior Sokka and his waterbender sister Katara, stumble upon the Avatar, who has been sealed up in a block of ice. He breaks free and is revealed to be a young airbender called Aang (the ‘last airbender’ of the title). The rest of the series deals with Aang’s journey to learn the other types of bending and restore balance to the world by defeating the Fire Lord. As the series progresses, the core trio of Sokka, Katara and Aang expands to accommodate a rag-tag, multi-ethnic group of resistance fighters, none of whom (wise mentors aside) appear to be over the age of 16.

The Gaang's all here.


(Image by SteamBoat-Ghost on DeviantArt.)

I’m not really able to do enough justice to the complexity of the series plot in the above summary, but what I want to convey is that the series can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its heart, it’s your basic coming-of-age adventure quest, all about idealistic young people with great responsibility and the power to save the world. At the same time, it explores notions of family and history and the importance of taking responsibility for that history. (Pretty much every main male character has daddy issues, to put it simply.) And the writers manage to throw in a nice little exploration of the ethics of power and the difficulties in maintaining moral clarity in an immoral world. It’s politically correct without ever being overtly preachy, and is remarkable as a children’s program that trusts in its audience’s intelligence by showing, not telling us its characters’ traits and development.

Just that would be enough, but it’s also visually beautiful. The detail and research that went into the landscapes and architecture for each culture is incredible. (I leave you with links to the Southern Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom wiki pages at the Avatar wiki, but if you don’t want to be spoiled, it’s probably best to just look at the pictures.)

But what really drew me into the series was the characters, and in particular that favourite trope of mine: you find and make your own family. It’s one of the reasons why Joss Whedon’s work resonates so strongly with me; it, like Avatar, is all about groups of misfits who stumble upon one another during times of great crisis and who, because of said crises, change one another’s lives for the better. I was watching the show with half my mind trying to determine what it would’ve been like to do so as a child, and I realised that I would have found it really empowering. The main characters in this series are all children or young teenagers, and they do incredibly courageous things. They’re always outnumbered, always outgunned and always thrown into situations of incredible danger – and there’s the added pressure of the survival of the whole world being dependent on their victory. As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Wow, that was seriously brave’. And it was the bravery of one character in particular that convinced me that this show was something special.

This surprised me somewhat. I went into the show expecting to be most interested in the Zuko (morally grey, disgraced son of the Fire Lord on a quest to regain his honour by capturing the Avatar) storyline (because I’m normally a fan of angsty morally ambiguous characters on a quest for redemption) and found myself a full-blown Sokka fangirl. But when I thought about it for a bit, I realised why.

I’ve never been able to decide which is my favourite Buffyverse character, but Xander is pretty high on the list. And Sokka is the Xander of the group. He’s the only one without special abilities. He’s got no bending power, he’s had no military or martial arts training, he’s frequently terrified. And yet he leaps into the fray behind Avatar Aang, earthbender Toph, his martial arts whiz girlfriend Suki and his waterbending sister Katara (among others) wielding nothing more than a boomerang and a club without a moment’s hesitation. Because he can’t rely on his strength or agility of body, he relies on his strength and agility of mind, coming up with most of the group’s plans and adapting quickly to any changes (while complaining sarcastically the whole way). Apart from one episode, not once does he express resentment that he doesn’t have the powers his friends have, and he lives in his ordinariness with the grace that Xander does in Buffy. I haven’t been in the best of moods recently, and I found Sokka’s brand of stoic, pessimistic bravery really inspiring.

Sokka working on a design for a hot air balloon.

What Avatar has shown me is that despite my own beliefs, I don’t always need dark, gritty stories about the morally ambiguous side of human nature. Sometimes, it’s enough to follow the adventures of a group of plucky, resourceful and courageous children and watch them save the world.

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