Breaking out of the iceberg: a tale of inspiration for gen z

Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - 8:08pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” was an animated children’s show released on Nickelodeon during the 2000s. The story surrounds the culmination of a 100-year long war between the hegemonic Fire Nation and all other nations and tribes of the world. It is based on several people who have the ability to control one of the four elements around them — air, water, earth and fire — while one person, the Avatar, can control all four and is tasked with keeping the world in balance. 

ATLA is a great symbol of cultural unity. It fuses several influences: the stories of Hinduism; the cultures of the Arctic, Inuit and other indigenous groups; Chinese culture with slight influences of Japanese culture and many more. The concept of the Avatar itself is derived from Hinduism. In Hindu scriptures, the god Vishnu has inherited an avatar, or an earthly form, the ten times he has thought the world needs it most. He takes on a brand new life and assimilates into normal society, living as a voice of reason and good. This is what the main character of this show is based on — the concept of the avatar who works to keep balance in the world and ensure peace is kept. In ATLA, the avatar is the reincarnated spirit of Rava, the spirit of good, and is meant to master the elements of the world and maintain balance.

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

The different tribes are based on different beautiful cultures around the world. The two water tribes are respectfully based on the Inuit and Yupik people. Their weapons, style of clothing and manner of gathering food all match up with these cultures. In every tribe or nation, there are influences of Chinese culture. In the water tribes, it comes in the forms of the betrothal necklaces. In the Earth Kingdom, the most blatant show of relation to the Chinese is the Great Walls of Ba Sing Se, similar to the Great Wall of China which was built to consolidate the Chinese states and protect them from invaders. Their clothing — especially their military clothing and of their leaders — are all based on ancient Chinese garb. The Fire Nation’s culture is derived from several different sources, including the Aztecs and Incas. This influence can be seen in the Sun Warriors, who teach those around them to harness the power of the sun and appreciate its cycles, using their sunstone. Another strong influence in the Fire Nation is of the Chinese and Japanese, as with the other groups. The top knots worn by Fire National royalty — such as Fire Lord Ozai, Prince Zuko and General Iroh — represent their positions of power. Finally, the Air Nomads are based on Tibetan philosophies. In line with their universal philosophies, the Air Nomads spend their lives meditating and searching for enlightenment. They search to be detached from the world and free their spirit.

Each character in this show brings something unique to the table — whether it’s their personal experiences or family history. However, the most important part about them is the things they have learned from their different cultures and the history of their people. Katara and Sokka learn about the strength of the Water Tribe from their grandmother and Katara’s teacher and draw inspiration from them. Katara also learns about the nuances of the moon spirit, a long standing symbol and guardian of her people, and learns to draw strength from her. Aang learns about the universal philosophies of his people from his teacher, Monk Gyatso. He learns from their teachings to be impartial, kind and compassionate. Toph uses the knowledge of her culture to be strong and unrelenting. She takes the strength of her predecessors and teachers, and learns to turn potential weaknesses into unique assets. Despite how different their cultural and ethnic backgrounds are, they learn to respect each other in a way that makes them the best team. This is important because we have grown up in one of the most diverse generations, and we are picking up the history of a largely divided country. The story of these kids is important to us in so many ways: in learning to be mindful and respectful of the culture’s of our peers and in being brave in effecting to bring change to our communities change in our communities. 

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is important to modern society in so many different ways. In addition to sending a message about cultural unity, it also provides a new perspective on different events in global history and in our current day. The Fire Nation’s tenets for war closely resemble those of the Nazi Party in World War II. Fire Lord Sozin, the patriarchal leader who began the Fire Nation’s attack on the world, believed he was part of a superior group of people. This war was their way of sharing their greatness with the world and cleansing it of impurities. Their surprise attack on the Southern Air temple can be compared to the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. However, in this situation the Fire Nation conducts a genocide of the Air Nation not because of its sense of superiority, but because they are afraid of its threat to their power. Aside from specific allegories, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” shows how ruthlessly a hegemonic power can attack a body of people when they feel threatened by it. An example of this today can be seen in our perception of how the American government and local law enforcement officers have been treating the protesters of the Black Liberation movement. The protests and protesters represent something that I believe members of our government are afraid of: change. The Black Liberation Movement is directly targeting white supremacy. Their system is built on the feeling of superiority and power — the Stanford Prison Experiment showed that when people are placed into positions of power and notorious superiority, they are extremely likely to exercise that power over others. Certain members of our government have grown comfortable with this position of superiority, and therefore feel threatened by our passion to push for a change, similar to how Fire Lord Sozin felt threatened by the existence of the Avatar, someone who can become much stronger than him. While our current situation cannot be considered a level comparison with the 100-year war, there are similarities in concept that make ATLA a symbolic story for our time. 

In ATLA, Fire Lord Sozin grows up during a time of prosperity for the Fire Nation. He takes this to mean superiority and as justification to “spread” their justice through violence. The goal is to take over the other nations, and even annihilate the Air Nations to get rid of their only major threat. Additionally, all the children in the Fire Nation are taught the rest of the world is crude and less than, and Fire Lord Sozin did a favor to the world by beginning his conquest. In America today, we are facing a powerful system which believes they are protecting us and themselves through violence and oppression. They work to silence our freedom of speech and to limit our rights all under the guise of protection. The Trump administration tells us to “Keep America Great,” but we have yet to bring it back to that status. In school, we were always taught of the greatness of America and the failures of the rest of the world. Even in college, it is undeniable our textbooks blatantly paint America as the world’s strongest and purest power. While we must acknowledge the good of our history, we must also acknowledge that there is so much wrong that has been hidden for too long — like the massacre of Black Wall Street, the internment of Japanese-Americans or the current internment of immigrant children by ICE. ATLA teaches us to work to reform our society, no matter how young or how small we feel. It teaches us to learn from our past to create a better future. 

The conclusion from all of these philosophies is that ATLA is a beautiful blend of cultures in a respectful way. One of the biggest issues that we’re facing right now is the United States is supposed to be a melting pot of different backgrounds and cultures, but instead it is more like a charcuterie board — there are a variety of sets, but all of them stand in stark contrast with each other, causing severe dissonance. This show is a childhood favorite for much of our generation for more than just the loveable characters and tropes — it is one of the most mature and inclusive children’s shows of our time. This show touches on concepts such as children of war, genocide, PTSD and oppression from a hegemonic power. In addition to this, each of the nations and tribes is directly and respectfully based on eastern and indigenous cultures. In a time like today, where our world is experiencing one of the biggest humanitarian crises in Yemen, the fight against white supremacy and the fight for a balanced system, this show has come to develop a deeper meaning. It empowers us with natural courage, inherent diversity and a display of the strength of families found in friendship. “Avatar: The Last Airbender’s” reappearance on Netflix in May was a symbol of nostalgia and hope for our generation, and its appreciation for individual cultures is something we should aspire to achieve. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a symbol of harmonic convergence, hope and strength for us to build off of. While our generation has had many outstanding moments in our history, this is perhaps one of the most defining moments. 

Prisha Grover can be contacted at prishag@umich.edu