Airbent and Decolonizing

Maya Phillips, New York Times arts critic, joins a chorus of renewed plaudits: “‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Imagines a World Free of Whiteness.” Phillips’ smart piece said much of what I’d been rolling up my sleeves to say– though much more thoughtfully than I’d muster.

What Phillips extols about the 2005-2008 TV series, revived in popularity now that it’s landed on Netflix amid COVID-19 sheltering and antiracism movements, is its existence and quality as a piece of American pop culture not centered in cultural whiteness. Showrunners Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, two white creators, conscientiously mixed cross-Asian influences in everything from animation style to animistic spiritualism, from architectures to social structures. And they pulled off a fun, character-rich, morally and philosophically interesting, and ultimately satisfying epic.

What I’d add to Phillips’ strong case for the show is that, beyond positing an alternative to white- and western-centered cultures, the show also presents a family-friendly but devastating critique of colonizing ideologies that implicates white supremacy, the US, and lots of imperial Asian nation-states too.

I’ve been re-watching the series, which I’d binged on DVDs a while back. I’ve also since been following the ongoing stories in the exceptional graphic novels from Dark Horse, which deftly bridges characters and cultures from Avatar’s end to their continuation in the even more complex industrial modernism of The Legend of Korra, the successor series to ATLA.

What’s different this time… I’m watching the show with my daughter and my wife! And so, for us, this TV binge is a perfect meeting point of a few current circumstances:

  • It’s summer. And for the first time in forever, we’re not working. We’re not just looking for a light distraction, but an immersive world.
  • We’ve been sheltered-in-place for a good while. That means we’ve read many book series, caught up on all the shows, and stood hungrily in search of the right all-ages story morsel that can compel conversations and even grappling about big questions.
  • Specifically, it’s a good time for stories contemplating power and peaceable resistance. While we didn’t go out to march because of our health concerns, we’ve been working in our own modest ways to respond to the movement for Black Lives and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others, the cries of Black pain and the resilient struggle against white supremacy and unjust policing.

Which is a fitting moment for a show about a world where a particular people’s imbalanced power has warred against one kingdom, subjugated and decimated another set of tribes, and genocidally snuffed out a peaceful other group. (I nearly cry every time the show revisits the remains of the Air Nomads.)

And so, if you’ll allow for some non-malignant spoilers, around the first third of the third and final season, we begin to learn that the Fire Nation has been consumed by a belief in their own rightness, so convinced that the whole world would benefit from their order and rule that they justify death-dealing conquest under a colonizing rationality. A pax incendium, if you will.

The moral, spiritual, political, and social consequences of this arrogance is not only counter to balance and harmony among the world’s four elements and its peoples. It’s counter to the origins and ethics of the Fire Nation itself, as represented by General Iroh (my favorite character, hands down), Prince Zuko’s uncle and purveyor of tea and humble sagacity.

It’s a reminder of the self-destructive nature of white supremacy, how amok power not only ruthlessly takes precious lives, but corrupts the people and institutes who succumb to its falsehoods.

Avatar not only de-centers whiteness. It indicts white supremacy.