Words || Neha Babu
As of late, many people obsess over finding the deeper and darker meanings hidden beneath their favourite television shows. Whether these trends reflect the neurosis of conspiracy theorists or the genius of the television producers hardly seems relevant. What matters is that truth can be extracted, the meanings will be found, and sometimes our minds expanded. Avatar: The Last Airbender is no exception to this reality.
Most people are acquainted with the phrases history repeats itself and you are your own worst enemy. Since the dawn of time, we’ve mastered the art of exploitation, corruption, and the selected distribution of freedom. Totalitarian governments have stood tall as shining symbols within nations, and it seems as though we’ve followed in the footsteps of Davy Jones, hunting for individuals to enslave onto our ships of ethical shallowness.
Despite these disgraces, the magnificent accomplishments achieved during our time on Earth cannot be denied. Our successes, however, are often disappointingly overshadowed by our misdeeds. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that artistic compositions regularly depict the complex nature of oppression, freedom, injustice and compassion, which all interlink together to define what it means to be human.
Creators Bryan Koneitzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have snuck some poignant social commentaries into their animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender. For the unaware, many of these reflections will be lost in the whirlwind of entertainment. But they are there, just under the skin, ready for the enlightened.
The Last Airbender is set in an alternate universe dominated by imperialism and fascist values, where humans have the ability to telekinetically manipulate or ‘bend’ the elements water, earth, fire and air. A unique individual, known as the Avatar, can control all the elements and is thus appointed to maintain peace in the world. Aang, the current Avatar, travels the world to dethrone the tyrannical leader of the Fire Nation in order to end a century yearlong war. The cartoon aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008 and blasted fireworks into the air with its eccentric characters, witty ramblings and intricate archetypes.
The acclaimed series created a cult phenomenon with its aesthetic designs and slapstick humour. From the Avatar cults across the road to the Avatar napkins lining the shop aisles, there’s no crevice of society that hasn’t been touched by the Avatar craze. While it’s entertaining to watch Aang flapping around like a demented chicken in an attempt to learn earth bending, the cartoon also presents darker subtexts.
The socio-political undertones of Avatar: The Last Airbender focus particularly on the repercussions when individuals or communities are denied justice. This idea is first viewed through the band of rebels known as the ‘Freedom Fighters’. These revolutionaries act as contemporary forms of Robin Hood, spouting ideals of liberty while dissenting against the draconian rule of the Fire Nation.
The more sinister side of the Freedom Fighters is revealed as their leader claims ‘sacrifices’ are needed to eliminate the Fire Nation and endangers the lives of innocent villagers. Now, this duality portrays the moral uncertainty of utilitarianism. For example, our world leaders have made callous decisions for the ‘greater good’, and in the pursuit of this elusive utopia, dictatorships thrive, and horrific events occur. The belief that some evils are acceptable for the betterment of society seems to be preying upon us more and more.
How then do we define the greater good? Do politicians have secret weighing scales with magical properties that enable them to determine its value? Did the leader of the Freedom Fighters succumb to the philosophy because he made a pro/con list and the pros outweighed the cons?
Or is it simply arbitrary – decided through something like a weekly lottery system? With the momentary happiness attained through this approach, it is difficult to remember there isn’t much to be gained through the suffering of others. The irony is that a misguided attempt at forming a utopia has time and time again created a climate of dystopia.
The series also satirises the efficiency of the judiciary. When Aang is placed on trial, Mayor Tong styles his own brand of justice called ‘just us’, in which no third party can be involved, no formal investigation is carried out and he acts the sole judge. Irrespective of the pure absurdity of ‘just us’, the villagers don’t utter a word in protest. Disillusioned with the supremacy and complexity of courts, we, along with the villagers, turn a blind eye to the faults of legal systems and unknowingly believe that might is right.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is not the first production to weave human fallacies into its structures, nor will it be the last; but it does reveal a mirror where we can see every pimple, blackhead, and injustice humanity has committed.