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DEMAREST: TV shows like 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' promote multiculturalism

Column: Kickin' it Back with Kenji

The popular children's TV show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" incorporated elements of Asian culture, inspiring American children to think about cultures other than their own.  – Photo by Nickelodeon

As young people grow into adults, we all look back fondly on the shows and movies we watched, the games we played and the books we read as children. With the recent introduction of many of Generation Z's childhood favorites onto Netflix, many of us have taken some time — especially in the recent months — to reminisce on the media of our formative years.

From the time we were plopped in front of the TV as babies to watch "Dora the Explorer" to our young teenage years craving the action and romance of "The Hunger Games," the popular fantasies of the time shape not only our individual perception of the world, but also that of our generation as a whole.

We were introduced to love, magic, action, horror, friendship and so much more through the lens of the previous generations' most creative minds. Perhaps more so than previous generations, we have been exposed to cultures other than our own.

As opposed to the mostly Eurocentric and America-centric media which has dominated this country's collective consciousness forever, the last few decades have seen an influx of foreign, particularly Asian, media targeted towards children.

This influx is so massive that Americans have taken significant foreign influences in their own creative works. Perhaps the most pertinent example of this in children's media is the TV series "Avatar: The Last Airbender." It is about a world in which there are four elements: fire, water, earth and air. People in this universe have a special ability to "bend" one of these elements, or manipulate them at will.

The universe's cultures are based around these elements, and a person known as the Avatar is able to bend all four elements and is tasked with maintaining the balance between them, so that no one element ends up destroying the others. The show runners, two American men named Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, intentionally based the characters and the world on Asian and Indigenous cultures.

The massively popular show has given America's children, who are now young adults, a greater understanding, appreciation and respect for cultures with which they otherwise would not have been acquainted with.

It is natural for people to be somewhat ignorant of nations and cultures besides their own —especially in a nation like America where we have cultivated a very self-contained and insular culture. This is based in no small part on our nation's history. In some cases, it has served us well, protecting our people from wars and plagues which have devastated others. In other cases, it has proved fatal for us, breeding damnable ignorance and cruelty in its wake.

From its inception, America has been an obsessively industrious nation of people who are constantly building and expanding, extolling the virtues of American and Western civilization as they go.

The doctrine of Manifest Destiny as well as the proselytizing nature of the Christian faith has fueled the early inhabitants of this nation to cut down every forest, mine every mountain and use the timber and coal from such ventures to plop a home and a farm down on every square inch of land they could get their hands on, kicking out the original inhabitants and leaving them only crumbs.

The aftermath of World War II saw the U.S. and the Soviet Union as the only truly viable world economic powers, as most of the other economic centers of the world had been crushed under the brutal hand of war.

The U.S., with its geographic isolation, fared better than almost any nation involved in the war, remaining relatively untouched — even our main competitor, the Soviet Union, had to contend with the carnage of a Nazi invasion in their country.

The desire to revel in victory only reinforced American values of patriotism and a sense of cultural superiority, closely related to military might. To whatever degree this attitude had existed before, it would only continue to endure. This is not a new mindset in the grand scheme of human history.

The first tribe of humans to designate themselves as noble, enlightened and victorious against their primitive and savage neighbors have the land of the free beat, not to mention the hundreds of kingdoms and empires which have risen and fallen since them.

As America dove headfirst into post-war economic prosperity and dominance over the world economy, its people did not see a need to pay much mind to the rest of the world — at least for cultural purposes.

The European powers from whom we had once imported centuries of culture were now relying on us to recover from their wartime destruction. The Cold War bred an attitude of mistrust and fear of certain foreign cultures in the hearts of the American people. Patriotism and unity seemed more important than ever.

Just as the age of colonialism and manifest destiny is now obscured by the fog of time, World War II and the Cold War are fading from the collective consciousness. Decades of peace, prosperity and economic development in many parts of the world have reduced massive conflicts. We have not quite stamped out war yet, but we are a bit closer to world peace than much of human history.

You may be wondering how the grand tales of American history and war is related to a children's cartoon. A cartoon's influence may seem trivial, but in reality, it is anything but trivial.

A piece of media broadcasted in front of millions of young, impressionable eyeballs is bound to have a large impact on them at that time. A tale so well crafted as to capture the hearts and minds of children who will one day grow up to run the world will surely influence their ways of thinking.

Future presidents, lawyers, doctors, judges, CEOs and many others will carry memories of the tales of their childhoods. We may not base our behavior on them, of course. I would not want a future doctor trying to water-bend his or her patients! But our judgment may just be a bit sharper with extra knowledge and creativity on our side.

For many of us, it was one of our first introductions into a fictional world based on Asian culture — lots of other stories we saw were based on European or American designs. J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote "The Lord of the Rings" series, based his tales on Northern European mythology. This has been the standard of fantasy for nearly a century. Fantastic media, such as George R. R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones" has come from this tradition.

Yet, as imaginative as Tolkien's legacy may be, Avatar has painted an entirely different picture for us. The show presents character and set designs based on Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Inuit and Indian cultures, among others. For people who have neither visited those nations nor seen aspects of their cultures with their own eyes, this is the difference between a far-off stereotype and a group of people who do things just a bit differently than you.

We are finally approaching a time where we think about the rest of the world, where the people who live outside of our borders are more than just afterthoughts; where their stories are told, their hardships are felt, their victories are celebrated — where we have a sense of curiosity and awe in place of hubris and self-righteous superiority.

We ought to be grateful that many of us have had the opportunity to share in this brilliantly designed world. Kenji Demarest is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history and political science and minoring in South Asian studies. His column, "Kickin' it Back with Kenji," typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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

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