'Avatar: The Last Airbender's' themes, characters leave lasting impact

'Its themes of love, friendship and redemption are even more relatable than before'

When "Avatar: The Last Airbender" became available to stream on Netflix last month, it was like being presented with a portal back in time to my childhood.

As I and many others rewatch the 15-year-old Nickelodeon cartoon again as adults, its themes of love, friendship and redemption are even more relatable than before, and have provided a world we can escape to.

I still remember what it was like watching the show on TV with my younger brother as a kid. As a 5-year-old, it offered me many role models through its characters.

Starting with Katara, the powerful waterbender who fought bravely to protect those that she loved. As well as Toph, the earthbender who, despite her blindness, invented an entirely new type of bending: metalbending. And finally Zuko, the boy who learned to overcome his anger toward his father through learning about friendship and forgiveness, leading him to become a fair and just ruler of the Fire Nation.

All of these characters showed how you can fight for loved ones, make meaningful change and learn how to forgive, and do all of those things at a young age.

Joycelyn Cabrera, a junior studying journalism, said the show is one of her favorites, but remembered viewing it when she was a kid as "just a fun cartoon with all of the bending and cool powers.”  

But she said as she has grown and matured, she has been able to look back at the show's themes, such as those "about war, and about imperialism and the relationships you have with other people" and understand them more deeply compared to when she previously viewed it.

When she was a child, Cabrera said the show's characters made her feel seen and empowered. Katara, who was drawn on the show as a brown-skinned young woman with long, dark hair, gave a young Cabrera more confidence in herself, despite acknowledging her realization that the character was drawn to resemble the Inuit, a different heritage and culture than her own. 

“When I was little, I didn't really have a lot of cartoons where the characters look like me in any way,” Cabrera said. "But being small and just seeing, like, another brown character who’s a main character talking about how much she loves her family and going on amazing adventures and becoming a really powerful bender. Being little I was like, 'Oh my gosh.'”

Lexi Mosley, a sophomore majoring in ceramics, has also been rewatching the show recently. To her, the most emotionally impactful aspect of the show is the deep friendships between the characters.

"The way that they connected was very inspiring, in that even though the main plot of the story was to defeat a nation that was dominating their world, through all of that this group of kids was still able to love and support each other even though their situation was dire," Mosley said. "Not only that, but even as an adult, the amount of pressure that was put on Aang to do all this really resonated with me."

Mosley said that the show’s Netflix debut could not have come at a better time. 

“It's nice to be able to take a breather from everything,” Mosley said. “Because it's hard to go on my phone without being reminded of all the things that are going on in the world. It's nice to escape into something that means a lot to me and makes me happy in a way, just something light-hearted.”

There are many things that kept me and others drawn into the show. Perhaps it is the elaborate world building, or the beautifully executed character arcs, or maybe the show's ability to relate to its viewers through both its characters and its story.

Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that "Avatar: The Last Airbender" has, and will continue to, withstand the test of time and continue to impact the generations that view it. 


Reach the reporter at erfontan@asu.edu or follow @EndiaRain on Twitter.

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