Skip to content
Opinions

RIZVI: ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ explores important sociopolitical issues

Author headshot for Rania Rizvi
While aimed at children, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" can teach us more about our society than most shows designed for more mature audiences.  – Photo by Flickr

Since the arrival of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (ATLA) to Netflix on May 15, the animated series has found its way into the hearts of millions. It instantly claimed the number one spot on Netflix and remained at the top of the charts in the United States. For weeks, the Nickelodeon smash hit is taking the world by storm, yet again, approximately a decade later. 

But why?

On the surface, ATLA looks like a cute children’s show about a friend group with superpowers, and it is undeniable that ATLA’s animation style, humor and adorable protagonist, Avatar Aang, have viewers obsessed.

But while the series seems benign and almost childish, underneath the cool bending tricks and youthful humor are a lot darker, more serious commentaries about our sociopolitical climate.

From elitism, xenophobia and classism, ATLA has not only rekindled the inner child within many but also serves as a meaningful commentary on very real problems that are present in our society today. 

Background

The three-season-long series follows the story of Aang, a 12-year-old boy who was trapped inside of an ice glacier for 100 years, until two siblings, Katara and Sokka, find him and rescue him.

Upon his rescue, Aang discovers that the world (in this case, the four elemental nations of the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, the Water Tribe and the Air Nomads) is currently in the middle of a 100-year war.

As revealed in the infamous opening sequence of the show: “The four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.” 

The attack from the Fire Nation began the nation’s 100-year, imperialist conquest to overtake the nations and instill an empire of Fire Nation culture and ideals. It began genocides, war and serious socio-political upheaval.

Now Aang, the last airbender left from the genocide of his people, must rise to the occasion and find that he has been destined to become the next Avatar, an all-powerful master of all four elements, to bring harmony and save the world.

At the start of the series, Aang is shown to be an optimistic, happy-go-lucky child that is ignorant of the responsibility and gravitas of being the Avatar. 

What started as a series of adventures with Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka to learn how to bend the elements and explore the world, quickly turns into a heartbreaking reality check for Aang. Slowly, his optimistic spirit and idealism are challenged by the harsh realities of war and death. 

Prior to being frozen in the iceberg, Aang grew up in a time of peace and harmony. But as he continues his travels to seek elemental masters, Aang witnesses the oppressive power of the Fire Nation over the other nations, war, death and the Fire Nation’s weaponization of economic privilege for societal control.

It becomes abundantly clear to Aang that becoming the Avatar goes beyond just learning the elements but serving as a leader who can heal society’s deepest plagues.

The show draws many parallels between its fictional society and real-world issues. Here are a few:

Imperialism

The fictional Fire Nation itself is actually a representation of a real, imperialist regime. Just as the imperial British Raj used violence and control to conquer Hindustan and reap the land of its resources and people, the Fire Nation uses war and power to not only benefit financially but to also eliminate non-firebenders who may threaten their regime.

Just like Aang, Katara is the last bender in her tribe, as a result of these strategic genocides to weaken the people.

The Fire Nation also shows how governments abuse their powers to keep minorities under their control.

Just as the other nations suffer economically from the expenses of war — and socially — under the sociopolitical oppression of the Fire Nation, minorities in this country must fight against the metaphorical “Fire Nation” systems in our democracy that aim to silence the “nations” of people of color, the disabled and the economically disadvantaged. 

Xenophobia 

Another notable parallel is the theme of xenophobia. In the show, the Fire Nation exemplifies unjust brutality against the other nations, annihilating almost everyone for the sake of gaining totalitarian control.  

Similarly, we witness the cold-blooded hate crimes against innocent immigrants, due to the nations they came from.

Whether it be police brutality against Black Americans, like George Floyd, or the implementation of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to systematically remove Mexican immigrant minorities from the United States, we, too, are in the midst of fighting an insidious Fire Nation force that aims to silence those who they deem to be inferior. 

Elitism

Another idea expressed in ATLA is the idea of elitism: Depending on which nation you are from or your bending abilities, people are given or denied certain privileges.

As stated before, those who are non-firebenders are regarded as lower class than those who are from the Fire Nation, but more importantly, the millions of non-benders in the Avatar society are held in much lower regard among all other benders.

This is primarily exhibited through Sokka’s character, Katara’s non-bending brother, who is repeatedly underestimated by benders, even his own bending friends, in his abilities to be just as tactful, powerful and intelligent. 

Similarly, in our own society, minorities in America must face countless, dehumanizing stereotypes that determine their access to opportunities and may have to work harder to reach them. This mentality becomes so deeply ingrained that it not only segregates society in the show but also in our own world.

It allows negative stereotypes to turn into “biological fact(s)” that allow oppressive forces, like racism and classism, to subsist in both the Avatar world and our own.

Evidently, the system not only aims to deepen divides between our own metaphorical nations based on race, background and ability but also allows the oppressor to use these free divides to remain in control.

Simply put, just as the Fire Nation is able to wreak havoc on society in ATLA due to its access to resources and power, the diabolical social structure in our world remains intact in a similar fashion.

And while many might argue that the system is broken, ultimately, our own inherited stereotypical beliefs about who gets what in society continues to allow it to work that way

Though it may just be an animated series, on a deeper level, the messages of this Nickelodeon cartoon are actually what we need to listen to the most.

Beyond being a timeless, beloved series with lovable characters, a fantastic soundtrack, engaging animations and a thoughtful storyline, ATLA’s profound commentaries about society, power and control are not only powerful but also have become more relevant than ever as we continue to fight the metaphorical “Fire Nation systems” in our own world. 

Rania Rizvi is a Rutgers Business School and School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in supply chain management and journalism and media studies. Her column, "Reali-Tea with Rania," runs on alternate Wednesdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

YOUR VOICE | The Daily Targum welcomes submissions from all readers. Due to space limitations in our print newspaper, letters to the editor must not exceed 900 words. Guest columns and commentaries must be between 700 and 900 words. All authors must include their name, phone number, class year and college affiliation or department to be considered for publication. Please submit via email to [email protected] by 4 p.m. to be considered for the following day’s publication. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.


Join our newsletterSubscribe