Representation in Avatar: The Last Airbender
While the Avatar series is not without its social inconsistencies, one of the things it does better is representation. While Aang mostly struggled against fire benders in his adventure, there were still a wide variety of archetypes displayed in each of the four races. Good and bad, smart and dumb, serious and silly personalities could all be found at one point or another in each of the nations in the series, and it is plain to see the creators of this show took special care to make sure no one group of people could be easily generalized.
The imperialistic and callused Fire Lord may have been the greater villain of the story, and while it might have been easy to craft all other fire benders in his image, there were many heroic and empathetic fire benders to even out the spectrum.
Things get more interesting once Korra’s era rolls around. Each season of her adventure has a different villain from a different nation. Amon, the water bending equalist and his power hungry brother, Zaheer, the air bender on a holy cause to create a world without divided nations and the avatar, and Kuvira, the earth bending general who would conquer the four nations under the Earth Kingdom banner. Each came from different backgrounds and ethnicities, and each had a complex motivation for trying to oppose the avatar, making it difficult to label any one of them as simply evil.
Other more subtle representations in the story can be seen in the lives of background characters. The citizens of Republic City are a diverse crowd, and people of all types can be found from each race. Gangs are sometimes seen to be composed of homogenous groups of benders who favor their own kind, but some other gangs are made up of all kinds of races and bending abilities. Police forces are also seen to be made up of a mix, however powerful earth benders with the ability to metal bend make up the most elite squad.
Mixed raced individuals are also prevalent in the series, as many of the main characters in Korra’s circle have parents from different nations. While only the avatar can bend more than one element, Aangs children with Katara show a range of skin coloration and bending abilities. The same can be said of Korra’s best friends Mako and Bolin, who’s parents were Fire and Earth nation. In all, the series makes a point to establish that all kinds of people come from all races, and the intermingling between can create new culture but the personalities remain just as diverse.
In the end, Korra is even revealed to have romantic feelings for one of her best friends Asami, proving that even the Avatar can be a member of the LGBT community.
If there is one problem with the representation of the races in this series, it would relate back to my article on color blindness and the surprising economic equality between races in Republic City. The inequalities created by the Fire Nation conquest would have created an economic stratification between Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Water Tribe that wouldn’t have been undone so easily. Im sure there would be many struggles that would have to be examined in society at Korra’s time, however it seems that the tensions between races has largely been swept under the rug. It would perhaps be more realistic to illustrate how Earth Kingdom citizens deal with poverty and the systematic privilege of Fire Nation families, but I guess the creators didn’t want to overwhelm the kids that this show is oriented towards.