Feb 19, 2021 | OPINION | By Emma Logan | Illustration by Xixi Qin
This article includes spoilers.
In an age of cancel culture and a political scene defined by violence and intolerance, it’s time to turn to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (ATLA) for lessons in growth and forgiveness.
If you grew up during the 2000s, you are most likely aware of the perfection that is “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. I have been a fan ofATLA as long as I can remember. I was merely three years old when it began to air in 2005 and actually cannot remember the first time I watched any of the episodes.
As a young child, I focused mostly on the awe-inspiring animation and humor. It was not until I grew older, and watched it all the way through, for perhaps the fourth time, when I realized how much was really going on and, frankly, how scary it is.
For a show whose target audience is advertised as 9-14-year-olds, it is a bit shocking how eloquently ATLA explores themes of colonization, genocide, poverty, racial oppression, gender roles, ability, war and the ill-defined distinction between good and evil while never spiraling into the misleading simplification many children’s shows tend to portray. In acknowledgement of how in depth the exploration of these themes are, it is not surprising such a realistically developed world replicates our own.
When I joined the millions of American teenagers who revisited the series over the summer after it was released on Netflix, I realized how the themes of this show speak directly to the tension in America today.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of ATLA (first of all, stop reading this article and go watch it right now), it takes place in a world consisting of four nations: the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nomads, and the Water Tribe.
Each nation has their own culture, style, history, political system, and most importantly — type of bending. Some citizens of each nation are born with the natural ability to control their respective element. There is only one person in the whole world who can bend all four elements: the Avatar, a reincarnated spiritual leader who is born into different nations each generation and facilitates peace across the world.
The show is centered around Avatar Aang, a 12-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of the Air Nomads, in his quest alongside friends to end the 100-year war between the Fire Nation and the rest of the world. If you’re still a bit confused, just watch the opening credits. Like I said, it goes in depth.
Although it is easy to generalize the Fire Nation as evil during the early episodes of the show, as the seasons continue, we are quickly exposed to the various problematic nuances of labeling any perspective as evil. This is a lesson we need to transfer straight to politics today. Both sides of the aisle need to quickly internalize the call for collaboration if we hope to address partisanship in America. This humanization of the other side is seen most explicitly in — what I believe to be — the greatest redemption arc in pop culture history: that of Prince Zuko.
His journey mirrors that of anyone renegotiating the beliefs and history they have been exposed to their entire life and showcases the immense personal and emotional difficulty in doing so.
Prince Zuko starts his arc perpetuating a nationwide custom of hate. As Zuko attempts to understand the broader world and becomes exposed to those outside his own culture (see the episode, “Zuko Alone”), he quickly displays a level of character development and compassion not previously thought possible, earning him the title of crowd favorite amongst many viewers.
The triumphs and failures of Zuko are explicitly shown on screen as he hunts down the Avatar, goes on to anonymously save him, lives as an outcast within his own nation’s impoverished colonies, is betrayed by his family, commits betrayals of his own, addresses the tension within his own ancestry and ultimately realizes that he must join his previously sworn enemy to defeat his home nation and bring balance back to the world. This turbulent prince, swinging from villain to hero, may provide a sense of representation for anyone grappling with their community’s fundamental beliefs.
If partisanship and cancel culture in this country continue to overpower the human instinct for forgiveness, there will be no room for those like Zuko — those who have the strength to admit they are wrong, change their mind, and now seek out collaboration. If we do not extend a hand and at least facilitate that conversation, we resort to relying solely on those that have agreed with us from birth, a tactic not far off from that of the Fire Nation itself.
And so, next time you encounter the opportunity to work alongside those that you once worked against, I encourage you to remember the words of Avatar Aang:
“It’s easy to do nothing, it’s hard to forgive.”