‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’: A critique of colonialism

June 16, 2020, 8:58 a.m.

Recently made available in its entirety on Netflix, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has quickly become one of the streaming platform’s most popular shows. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the series’ rabid fanbase and the show’s indisputable quality — it boasts a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is frequently considered one of the greatest shows of all time. What is surprising, however, is how masterfully the show grapples with dark, real-world-inspired subject matter in a way that is digestible for kids. 

While an animated children’s program originally airing on Nickelodeon in the mid-aughts may not seem like the obvious place to explore the moral complexities of colonialism and war, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” does exactly that. Over its three-season run, “Avatar” acts as an in-depth case study on the micro-level impact of war and how the expansionist attempts of one aggressive nation can shatter individuals’ lives and communities. Using violence and trauma as its conduits, “Avatar” conveys a starkly anti-colonial message that forewarns the dangers of imperialism.

In the world of “Avatar,” there are four nations that are each characterized by a different element: Water, Earth, Fire and Air. Select individuals within each nation are capable of manipulating or “bending” their nation’s respective element, but only one person can bend all four and bring balance to the world: the titular Avatar.    

The show tells the story of the newly found Avatar, Aang, a 12-year-old boy who has been frozen in an iceberg for the past 100 years. Upon awakening, Aang discovers that the world has descended into chaos, as the tyrannical Fire Nation has taken advantage of the Avatar’s long absence to expand its powers across the globe. Set against the backdrop of a violent, decades-long war, “Avatar” follows Aang’s journey to master all four elements and stop the Fire Nation from taking over the world. 

From the onset, the Fire Nation is portrayed as a totalitarian regime with imperialist ambitions. This is made clear in the show’s opening credits: “Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.” Immediately, the Fire Nation is characterized as an unjust aggressor and the primary cause of discord between the four nations. By establishing the Fire Nation as the primary antagonist of the show, the writers are clearly condemning colonialism and the horrific legacies it leaves behind. 

This denunciation of colonialism is expanded in depth throughout the series, primarily on a micro-level. Most of the show’s episodes track Aang and his friends travelling from village to village, where they interact with the local populace. This allows the audience to see up close how the war and the Fire Nation’s expansionist endeavors have traumatized various individuals and displaced countless communities. There are a myriad of scenes where we witness mass refugee migration, extractive industrialization, intellectual suppression and inequitable taxation. We also see a whole host of other repressive tactics, like the exploitation of labor through prisons and work camps and the widespread proliferation of propaganda through educational systems. In the majority of these episodes, Aang and his friends meet victims of one of these injustices and go about liberating them, either by defeating the oppressor in battle or by inspiring the persecuted to fight back and stand up for themselves. This consequently frames the oppressive colonialist policies enacted by the Fire Nation as morally wrong and thus worth fighting against. 

The traumas induced by colonialism are also explored through the experiences of our main characters. While Aang, a member of the Air Nation, is frozen in the iceberg, the Fire Nation enacts a mass genocide on the Air Nation people and erradicates them completely. This marks the start of the Fire Nation’s foreign conquest and ultimately makes Aang not only the Avatar but also the last airbender, as the title declares. Being the last person of his kind, Aang frequently grapples with the sobering fact that the rest of the world has moved on and no longer values the Air Nation’s customs and heritage like he does. Only Aang seems to mourn the loss of centuries worth of shared knowledge. This burdensome existence demonstrates how colonialism can lead to extreme feelings of isolation. A large byproduct of colonialism is the loss of culture and history, which in turn marginalizes those who adhere to forgotten traditions. 

The genocide of the Air Nation also illustrates the inherent brutality associated with colonialism, and how it often leads to violent crimes executed at a macro-level. This degree of brutality unquestionably leads to trauma, which in turn forces children to grow up faster than they should. Seeing as the show is told through the perspective of kids, “Avatar” demonstrates how children are influenced by the world around them —  a world full of war, conflict and pain. For example, Aang’s closest companions, siblings Sokka and Katara, lose their mother at a young age from a Fire Nation raid. In addition, their father has taken off with the other men in their village to fight in the war, leaving Sokka and Katara, a 15-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl, respectively, to essentially look after the entire community. As such, both Sokka and Katara are forced to take on a great deal of responsibility from an early age. In order to survive, they must come to terms quickly with the true horrors of the real world. This consequently shows how trauma induced by colonialism has a generational effect — future generations inherit the scars of the past. As a result, decision-making is informed by prior transgressions. For example, when Sokka and Katara first meet Aang, a doe-eyed kid more interested in penguin sledding than war, Sokka immediately distrusts him and thinks he’s a Fire Nation spy. From the protagonists’ initial encounter, we see how trauma perpetuates a society that is more cynical and less trusting, simply because of the legacies colonialism leaves behind.        

Of course, we cannot discuss colonialism and “Avatar” without referencing the historical cultures that helped inspire it. Each of the four nations was based upon a real-world Asian culture: the Air Nation was based on Tibetan Buddhist monks; the Water Nation was inspired by Arctic Inuit tribes; the Earth Nation was primarily based on the federal monarchy of China; and the Fire Nation drew heavily from Imperial Japan. Like their real-world counterparts, the Air, Water and Earth Nations are all subject to colonial conquest. Similarly, the Fire Nation, like Imperial Japan, acts as the aggressor and invades more vulnerable neighboring states. By using this real-world parallel, the writers are clearly critiquing colonialism, as Imperial Japan’s history is riddled with countless atrocities and extreme depravity.

Furthermore, by drawing upon Imperial Japan’s history, the writers of “Avatar” are denouncing the most commonly used justification for colonialism: that it helps export the prosperity of a rich nation to a poorer one. Indeed, Imperial Japan attempted to rationalize its conquest of much of Asia by arguing that Japan’s expansion would lead to greater material wealth for the conquered territories, as Japan would channel its larger economy and superior technology into developing them. This seemingly altruistic motivation, however, was a false pretense. Imperial Japan extracted labor and resources to further its own economy and to maintain its dominant status in the region. This is similarly seen in “Avatar.” Throughout the show, we see that the Fire Nation is much more technologically advanced than the other three nations. They have weapons and machinery and are developing heavy industry, while the other nations are still mostly agrarian. Nevertheless, the Fire Nation still uses labor and resources from the other nations to fuel its own growth, thus widening the gap between them and the other nations. As a result, “Avatar” deconstructs this false belief that colonialism is a viable path to helping better other societies when in reality it only benefits the conquerors, not the conquered.                                                     

Ultimately, the Fire Nation in “Avatar” acts as a stand-in for any imperialist power in history. By framing them as the show’s primary antagonists, the writers are overtly criticizing colonialism in all its forms. Through the perspective of Aang and the other protagonists, the audience gets to emotionally witness the adverse impacts brought on by colonialism, and how those personally affected suffer significantly from the ingrained violence and trauma. Boldly allegorical in its themes, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” truly deserves its cultural resurgence.   

Contact Paolo Vera at jpvera ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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