The majority of us have watched the Nickelodeon TV show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’m talking about the cartoon version not the horrible movie that made everyone from fans to non-fans cringe with disgust and horror.
Like the ‘Overthinker’ says, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the world is based around the four classical elements: Air, water, earth, and fire. Select individuals are capable of manipulating or ‘bending’ one of these four elements, but the only person who can bend all four is the individual known as the Avatar. The show is vague with regards to the nature of the Avatar’s existence, but we do know that his power comes from some sort of higher spiritual authority, and that it is his duty to use this power to uphold balance in the world.
The question is: What right does he have to this power?
Let’s look at the show’s perspective on power, both physical and political. The two clearest perspectives we get come in the Season Two episode ‘The Crossroads of Destiny’. Here, we hear the opinions of Azula, one of the show’s primary villains, as well as from Iroh, a wise man who acts as a mentor to several of the show’s heroes. While the former claims that “true power–the divine right to rule–is something you’re born with,” the latter, talking to Aang about his powers as the Avatar, insists that: “Perfection and power are overrated. I think you are very wise to choose happiness and love.” But in choosing the Avatar as their hero, the writers of the show seem to be implicitly condoning the idea, supported by Azula that true power does not come from the people, but from a divine mandate. The Avatar’s power, though he has to work to hone it, is something he’s born with.
Ultimately, the problem with the Avatar system is that the people of the Four Nations never entered into any form of social contract with the Avatar, and there is no compelling reason why he should have authority over them; he is simply able to maintain this authority because he has more brute power than anyone else. The Avatar’s rule is most akin not to the presumed democracy or constitutional monarchy of the Water Tribes or even to the federal monarchy of the Earth Kingdom, but to the fascist regime of the Fire Nation and yet the show simultaneously glorifies the Avatar and vilifies the totalitarian Fire-lord.
The show’s writers attempt to resolve this friction in an interesting way: they make it not only a meta-conflict applying to the writers’ choices, but especially in Season Three, a central internal conflict for Aang, as exemplified by the show’s title and subtitle. Aang must choose between the role of Avatar and the role of Airbender and as he progresses in his journey he increasingly finds these two roles to be mutually exclusive.
“Sure, you think you’re any different from me? Or your friend? Or this tree? If you listen hard enough, you can hear every living thing breathing together, you can feel everything growing. We’re all living together, even if most folks don’t act like it. We all have the same roots and we are all branches of the same tree.”
– Hue, The Swamp –