This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.
My second time through Avatar: The Last Airbender has been much more reflective than my first. The characters are still funny, the fights still exhilarating, and I still cling to a desperate hope that Appa (the protagonist’s flying bison) could be a real animal and my friend, but this time, I am paying more attention to the show’s deeper, more subversive themes.
Cultural and social differences between countries are in the spotlight with the coverage of the Olympics in Sochi and, in particular, the connection between the bungling of the Olympic village’s infrastructure and the backward and downright mean ways Russian society treats minority groups.
When I look at the simplistic but meaningful cultural archetypes presented in Avatar, I can’t help but wonder which of the four fictional nations fits Russia’s behavior. Whimsical Air Nomads? Passionate Firebenders? Sensible Earth?
Toward the end of season one, the Northern Water Tribe enforces its rigid cultural norms: Katara, the protagonist party’s waterbender, is not permitted to study under the water master because she is a girl. The general repression of feeling and emotion had, in fact, driven Katara’s grandmother to abandon the tribe years ago. In the end, Katara’s persistence and strength of character bend social rules, confirming our modern expectations that dumb norms are a cultural flaw.
It’s unlikely that the show’s creators implied any kind of criticism of Russia with this plotline, but the veiled criticism of another world power could not be anything but intentional.
For those who haven’t seen the show, the Fire Nation disrupted the peace of the fictional world with its imperialist aggression. Its leaders justify the destruction of entire peoples with the assumption that their power proves their way of life is better than any other. Might makes right, borne out in all its cartoon glory.
Of course, every nation has all kinds of people. But nations as a whole act with personality; looking at history and recent events, the geopolitical postures and behaviors, we see the trends and interpret what some dumb show’s writers might think about us.
While I would love to pretend that we Americans are the peace-loving Water Tribe, or the salt-of-the-earth types of the aptly named Earth Kingdom or the elusive Air Nomads, our history, both distant and recent, suggests otherwise. What fits us?
We are the Fire Nation. Because of our strength and prosperity, we decide our way of life is worth imposing on others. We take affront to anyone who dares besmirch our honor, retaliating far beyond what other countries would consider appropriate.
We imprison people without trial. We spy on ourselves. We kill innocents. We promote power structures that let the bad guys win and innocents suffer, starve and die.
We justify all we do with talk of protecting ourselves and our interests, maintaining peace and promoting democracy and freedom. Some of that talk is backed up by our actions, but much of it is just talk. We protect our citizens because we can, and Afghans die because their government doesn’t have the firepower to stop us. If the roles were reversed, we would die at the hands of Afghan drones, and because of our poverty and their strength, we wouldn’t do anything but play along.
It is easy for me to sit here and cast simplistic good and evil judgements from a children’s show on world events and feel good about moral grandstanding. It is much harder to actually change things. We can’t wait for Aang and Sokka and Katara to save everyone; this isn’t that world. We need to learn the lessons Zuko learns: work hard, keep our dignity and figure out how we can use our tremendous power to help, rather than hurt, on a global scale. Good luck, Team Avatar.