Take a couple if you wish. They’re on the dish… Reassessing Avatar: The Legends of Aang/Korra

Avatar: The Last Airbender (season 2)
Avatar: The Last Airbender (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My brothers ordinarily have terrible taste in things, but their repeated recommendations of Avatar: The Legend of Aang (The Last Airbender) were soon echoed by friends who have more sober tastes.  The show — and its sequel, Avatar: The Legend of Korra — is clever, beautiful, and fun.  It smashes the norm that children’s animations are incapable of complexity.

A lot of the complexity is introduced through the almost invisible, but all pervasive, religion of the world within Avatar.  This religious aspect is so thoroughly ingrained in society that characters who openly challenge it are not only misunderstood, but are incapable of being understood.

The Avatar lives in a world where a select portion of society — known as ‘benders’ — are able to control the movement of one of four elements.  This fractures the world into four societies.  There is an empire of fire-benders, a kingdom of earth-benders, two tribes (northern and southern) of water-benders, and a few monasteries of air-benders.  What is perhaps surprising is that there are non-benders within each of those groups, with the (possible) exception of the air-benders.1

One person, the Avatar, is able to ‘master’ all four elements.

Before exploring the question of the Avatar, there’s a bigger question at play in this world: what causes those people who are non-benders to remain socio-culturally linked with the benders in their society?  Benders dominate the institutions of government within all four societies.  The Fire Kingdom is ruled by the Fire Lord — a powerful fire-bender.  The Earth Kingdom is ruled by the Earth King — an earth-bender — and his earth-bending secret police.  The water tribes are governed by water-benders.  And the air nomads have nobody but air-benders within their society.

The Legend of Korra explores this tension extremely well.  When the four societies merge in order to become a united republic, non-benders come to understand themselves as an oppressed, excluded class, disadvantaged due to their lack of privilege.  The non-benders look for physiological and technological ways of fighting back against their oppressors.

Prior to this rebellion, the usual response by non-benders towards this oppression was to adopt the customs and guise of the powerful people around them, distancing themselves from the immediacy of their own desires, wants, and needs.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the example of the Kyoshi Warriors.

Long before the events of The Legend of Aang, a female Avatar from the Earth Kingdom — Avatar Kyoshi — ended up in conflict with the Earth King.  Inspiring a lot of extremely terrifying cosplay, Kyoshi had a highly stylised appearance:


As a result of her fierce display of power and authority, the local non-benders develop a ritual of dressing young women in Kyoshi’s style and forming them a non-bending militia, the Kyoshi Warriors:


The non-benders of their society subordinate themselves even to the point of non-identity.  The only identity worthy of demonstration is the identity of the most powerful.  This is the internalisation of the dominant power structure and the rejection of the self.

And thus we return to the question of the Avatar.  Why is the Avatar the Avatar?

The internal logic of the show says that each Avatar is, in a sense, the same Avatar, reincarnated again and again to each of the four nations in turn.  This reading could be false in two ways.  The first is that each Avatar is not actually the same Avatar reincarnated again and again.  Instead, there is one Avatar composed of different persons of the Avatar — in the sense of the trinitarian God of Christianity who is one God in the three persons of the Godhead.  The second is that there is no Avatar in actuality but, instead, the Avatar is merely socialised into believing that they are the Avatar.

These two readings are more alike than they seem.  They both deny that there is an individuality and uniqueness to the Avatar.  The first reading suggests that the Avatar is both one-and-many simultaneously in the event of each incarnation of the Avatar, but this is not so different to the second reading which suggests that the Avatar is socialised into believing that they are the one, despite being the many.  The only real difference is that the first says that there is an Avatar which distinguishes them from other benders; the second says the whole thing is fictionalised (within the fictional world).

The second reading is the one that I think is on the money, and the clue comes in the form of a particularly difficult character at the end of The Legend of Aang: the Lion-Turtle.

Aang discovers that he cannot reconcile himself with his duty to kill the Fire Lord who is threatening to conquer the world with his armies.  Aang is a pacifist — in the loose sense — and desires a non-lethal solution to his problem.  Fortunately, the Lion-Turtle appears at the last moment to teach Aang energy-bending which gives him the ability to transform the Fire Lord into a non-bender (thus subordinating him to the rule of benders).

The Lion-Turtle — an ancient, mystical creature from an ancient era — drops some wisdom on Aang about the time before the existence of the Avatar:

In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements but the energy within ourselves.

Something fractured this state of bending pure energy, resulting in the current state of affairs where people feel that they are only able to master one element unless they happen to be the particularly special Avatar.  Only socialisation can warp a person’s nature so much that they are no longer able to access their ordinary state.  The internalisation of language makes us incapable of even thinking thoughts that would perhaps be ordinary to us if our language were different.  In the world of the Avatar, there is no real difference between the different benders, it is just that they are socialised to consider themselves to be different that they cannot escape their socialised limitations.

But because the language used by the people within the world of the Avatar excludes this kind of idea, characters who seem to express the idea — the Lion-Turtle, the old Hermit, even Iroh — are dismissed as crazy or impractically esoteric.

In this sense, the Avatar is not only oppressive, but does so completely unknowingly.  The ideology is so ingrained that nobody is even aware of the ideology.  In Marx’ words, ‘sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es’ (‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’).  The perfect ideology is the one in which the beneficiaries do not even realise that there is an ideology which privileges them.

Following Aang’s inability to grasp that he is merely socialised into being the Avatar, Korra actively fulfills the function of oppressor when the non-benders resort to violent revolt.  Even when the non-benders claim that she is their Avatar as well, she still uses her heightened abilities to protect the status quo which disadvantages them.

So there you have it.  Avatar: The Legends of Aang/Korra is not a meditation on the nature of social, spiritual, and natural balance but, instead, an exploration of our voluntary impotence when our language diminishes our understanding of our own capacity.  Why is Aang the only person who communes with the Spirit World?  Because everybody else has convinced themselves that only the Avatar can do so and only one person is socialised into believing that they are the Avatar.  Why is each Avatar found in the next nation in the cycle?  Because the people assigned the task of finding the next Avatar never look for gifted children in the other nations, thus making is a self fulfilling prophecy.  Why don’t fire-benders throw rocks?  Because they’re all taught that they’re incapable of doing so because they’re fire-benders.

Brilliant show.  Highly recommended.


1. I have a theory that not everybody born in the air nomads’ monasteries are air-benders; those who are unable to air-bend end up dashed upon the rocks of the cliff.  Thus, the society ends up being completely dominated by air-benders because non-benders don’t survive infancy.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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