Over the years, “Avatar the Last Airbender” has earned a place in pop culture history, and in my heart. I can’t exactly call myself an OG fan of “Avatar,” but I think I come pretty damn close. The show and its many comics and reiterations landmark my life.
Where do I start? How about this: I’m six years old and buzzing with excitement because it’s Friday, the only weeknight a specific Nickelodeon show airs a new episode. Then, I’m seven years old, lying in bed terrified at the episode “The Puppetmaster” (note: I still have never re-watched that episode). I’m eleven years old, introducing a friend to my oldest, most steadfast favorite thing and finding out that “Avatar” is “mainstream,” a thing that exists and enchants beyond my family’s TV.
Millions of other kids watched “Avatar.”
I had known this fact only vaguely, like a half-formed wisp of a consideration. But did my friend get excited on Friday too? Did these “millions of others”’ also cry watching animated oppression and broken, polluted towns? Is there a thread that connects us as watchers and peers, if only as thin as a shared childhood cry removed by space and time?
Most recently, at 19, I self-isolated with six-year-old me’s favorite thing. Cautious of COVID-19, I took refuge with one of the tenuous threads that connect me to the public. I spent five days tirelessly pressing “play,” both alone and with my family, bolted indoors. Years after airing, “Avatar” looks blocky on the screen, but, to my relief, undiminished in heart. I rewatched the main series, read all the sequel graphic novels (Zuko’s mom) where the creators continued the story in place of a season 4, and then embarked on watching the spin-off TV series. That hazy week, I also did a bit of school work.
For most people, “Avatar the Last Airbender” is a memorable show. There are a lot of articles out in the interwebs that herald “Avatar the Last Airbender” as the flagship show for the humble Asian-American. No doubt, there is a draw for me about “Avatar the Last Airbender” being based in a fantastical, Asian-inspired world. As a child, it made me proud to be connected to a rich culture, and made me more interested in history, East Asian pottery and art.
But “Avatar” is also a show that documents the overturning of an imperialist, unjust government. Serious topics like cultural trauma, evironmental tipping-points and genocide underpin the series. The show imagines resistance and recognizable conflicts, packaging it neatly for public consumption. In “Avatar,” seemingly insurmountable challenges become feasible: opposing corporate greed, ameliorating historical trauma and bad blood upending corrupt governments.
“Avatar” repeatedly begs the question of how to fix a fundamentally broken world and in doing so, hints at a better world. Not a world less frightening or traumatic than our current one, but one that still manages to be preferable. “Avatar” shows a world and people willing to acknowledge wrongs, distributing war reparations and smoothing cultural divides. “Avatar” supposes a “Good End” for society; it imagines society as an ongoing process of peacemaking and acceptance. That optimism is refreshing and engaging.
In the current climate, the state-making optimism of “Avatar” feels escapist, appropriate and vital. Racism and violence toward Asian people is becoming more blatant and more common across the globe. Spring 2020 is fraught with pseudo-medical terminology and racist “bat”-eating Chinese jokes. An Australian woman spat on and kicked a fellow Aussie.
Watching “Avatar” again is an adventure and an emotional process. It is trying to grab hold of the slippery thing we call nostalgia and optimism and wrestle it back into our arms and hearts when the future feels disquieting.
“Avatar” is a reprieve from thinking about the world we will meet when we finally exit our front doors.
If this is 2020, what will 2021 look like?