Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on February 21, 2005 through July 19, 2008 on Nickelodeon, gaining millions of fans during its run. Many of us in Gen Z can remember watching live episodes or reruns on the TV as young kids. However, to the surprise of many, ATLA experienced a brand new surge of popularity and a whole new wave of Gen Z fans when it premiered on Netflix on May 15th, 2020. It even set an all-time Netflix record by making 61 straight appearances on the Daily Top 10, blowing all the other shows out of the water (Forbes). Especially because of the pandemic, Gen Z came together in a time of boredom to watch the show, either for the first time or the fifth, and fell in love again with the classic, and as many claim “the best animated show of all time.”
Avatar: The Last Airbender follows the four nations of Air, Water, Earth and Fire, which lived in harmony until the Fire Nation declared war. A century later, the war still rages on, until an Avatar named Aang discovers that he has the power to control the four elements. He joins forces with Katara, a waterbender, and her brother, Sokka, in order to restore balance and harmony to their world (Forbes). Along the way, the three of them have countless wild and crazy adventures, and make many new surprising and unexpected friends.
With the rise of social media during quarantine, ATLA gained a wave of popularity on trendy apps such as TikTok and Instagram especially. New and old fans alike began making Avatar content, reviving the old show, and spreading its influence throughout the app, driving more and more people to watch the show. But why is one show created over 15 years ago, this popular, in this day and age?
One aspect of Avatar that many fans appreciate is the diversity and cultural connections the show was built on, creating something special for POC in Gen Z. The show was created in 2005, a time where most mainstream TV shows hired only white actors, animated only white characters, and POC had very little representation. Avatar went a step beyond, breaking this diversity barrier, by including a variety of Asian and Indigenous representation. In fact, there’s not a single white characterperson on the show.
The four nations in Avatar are each based on a different culture. The Fire, Water, Earth, and Air nations are based off of Japanese, Inuit, Chinese, and Tibetan cultures respectively.
The Air Nation in Avatar is a nation of nomads, which parallel to Tibetan nomads in the real world. Tibetan nomads live in harmony with nature and the world, moving from place to place, just as the Air nomads moved from temple to temple. The airbenders themselves used practices similar to those of Buddhist Tibetan monks. The airbenders shaved their heads, wore saffron robes based off of those of Shaolin monks, and used meditation practices that Tibetan monks use today (Nguyen & Pham). Aang (the avatar and an air nomad) practiced vegetarianism, just as many Buddhists and Hindus do.
The Water Tribes were influenced by Inuit culture. Main characters like Katara and Sokka, wore animal skin and fur clothing, very similar to the Inuit’s “anoraks and mukluks,” in order to shield themselves from the cold (Nguyen & Pham). The Southern Water Tribe is composed of a community of igloos, which was widely used by the Inuit. Sokka’s prized weapon is a boomerang, which originates from the Australian Aboriginals’. The boats the water tribe uses are also similar to Polynesian catamarans.
Much of the Earth Kingdom directly resembles China and other East Asian countries. The palace in the capital Ba Sing Se, resembles the Fforbidden Ccity in Beijing. Much of the cuisine, such as roast duck, is Chinese cuisine, and the clothes worn by Earth Kingdom are drawn from ChineseKorean culture. The architecture as a whole is influenced by Chinese buildings and monuments (Nguyen & Pham). Warriors from Kyoshi Island, including beloved characters like Suki, can be seen wearing similar makeup, clothes, and weapons as the Japanese. Concepts like Yin and Yang are demonstrated several times throughout the show as well. According to barronnews.com, “The government also draws a parallel with the authoritarian Ming Dynasty” as the Earth Kingdom in the show similarly demonstrated war propaganda and operated as a police state (Nguyen & Pham).
The Fire Nation was majorly shown to mirror imperial Japan, as many diehard fans know. Imperial Japan invaded many countries, just as the Fire Nation caused genocides and colonized the other nations in Avatar. Both nations also used propaganda to brainwash its citizens and blind them from the atrocities committed by the nation. Clothing wise, “Crown Prince Zuko can be seen wearing a shenyi, a historical Chinese clothing” (Nguyen & Pham). The Agni Kai, a duel we’ve seen multiple times between firebenders in the show, has been used in many South Asian warrior societies. In general, tea is a very popular drink and theme in the show, just as tea is an important part of Asian culture.
The show’s main idea, the concept of an Avatar, comes straight from the religion of Hinduism. The word avatar is derived from the Sanskrit word “avatāra”, which means a reincarnation of a deity. In the show, the avatar reincarnates into a different nation after every lifetime. For example, Avatar Roku, who preceded Avatar Aang, was born into the Fire nation, and after he passed, he was reincarnated as Aang, who is an air nomad. The idea of reincarnation itself is a major part of Hinduism, as Hindus believe that the soul belongs to the spiritual realm, and that the soul completes the “avatar cycle” several times, learning new things in each life. The avatar cycle is widely mentioned in the show, and there are many episodes where Aang travels to the spiritual realm.
The show itself uses animation and artistic styles inspired by Japanese anime. The element bending moves in the show were also inspired by martial arts in Asian cinema.
Although the cultural connections are very important to the essence of the show, the best part about Avatar: The Last AirBender is how timeless the show is and will always be. Although it aired 15 years ago, the show has remained popular since, and is still gaining new audiences today. The characters are phenomenal, and they remind Gen Z of our childhood and what it was like to be a carefree, young child. Aang’s innocence, Sokka’s humor, Katara’s heart, Toph’s strength, and Zuko’s passion make the characters all unique in their own way, but tie together the show in the best way possible. Watching the characters grow throughout three seasons, especially Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, makes the viewers feel as if they’ve personally taken this journey with the characters. The world building is flawless, and creates a universe full of magic and joy. And of course, character’s like Uncle Iroh’s and his wisdom, help fans learn a little something about life from the show.
As a fan of the show myself, it was a nice break from reality rewatching the episodes of my childhood over quarantine in May. 15 years after it began, Avatar still holds a place in Gen Z’s hearts, and it always will. It was an marvelous feeling watching the show again on Netflix and being able to truly appreciate the diversity and all the elements from magnificent cultures around the world. Avatar: The Last Airbender is timeless, humorous, emotional, impactful, life-changing, and hands down one of the best shows ever created
Anika is a sixteen year old junior at Novi High School with a strong interest in business. Some of her hobbies include traveling, playing the piano, and reading. She is an active member of her school, and is apart of clubs such as Student Council and DECA. She’s passionate about racial equality and feminism especially, and hopes to work towards ending racism in America.