Rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender as a Teenager


As quarantine continues, I have slowly retrograded into my elementary school self, one who snips hair with plastic scissors and always wants to go outside. This also includes rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender. Now that the show and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, are back on Netflix, many Harriton students, former 2000’s kids, are bingeing this childhood favorite.

The story follows a young monk named Aang who, after sleeping for a century, awakes in an era defined by a brutal world war. Aang is the Avatar, an eternally incarnated individual with the power to master the four classical elements: water, earth, fire, and air. His path is clear; his duty is to restore global peace. Accompanied by Katara, a compassionate girl from a small water tribe, and her gawky brother, Sokka, Aang sets forth on his flying bison. 

With a storyline that admittedly sounds bizarre, the series recounts a sophisticated epic about kids who are forced to reckon with the mistakes of the past, ones that were often made by adults. Airbender dives into the typically endearing lessons of friendship and family but also commits to gritty themes about corruption, genocide, and forgiveness. No character has been left unmarked by the intergenerational traumas of war. Luckily, these serious moments are filtered through cheeky humor, so they aren’t too overwhelming.

The series is not authentic to one singular culture but constructs a detailed world that is a mosaic of East Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The Air Nomads are reminiscent of Tibetan Buddhists, while the Water Tribes are based on the Inuit and Yupik tribes. The Earth Kingdom is comparable to Qing Dynasty China, and the Fire Nation best resembles Imperial Japan. 

Through a modern lens, this Asian inspiration is controversial as it appears that the Asian continent is lumped into one culture, a stereotype that people still have. However, Airbender does not bank on the exoticism of the Orient to keep the audience’s interest. Instead, the show treats its setting as a mundane feature because the story is brilliant on its own.

Unlike our Western world, folks in this land eat with chopsticks and visit tea houses. Characters “bend” the four elements with motions resembling tai chi and kung fu. A less obvious connection is the Eastern idea that each character’s destiny is tied to another’s. A story playing in tandem with Aang’s adventure is one about Zuko, an exiled prince who seeks redemption from his father and hopes to return to his homeland with honor. 

Airbender demanded that the audience accept its universe as it is, and that matters more to me than imperfect representation. Mulan, another character I admired growing up, was clearly watered down for white viewers. Nevertheless, the Avatar series remains a fond memory for me and a lighthearted show that is perfect to watch during these “unprecedented times.”