Thinking Critically with Cartoons

Whenever I end up telling people in college that Avatar: The Legend of Korra is one of my favorite shows, I can usually count on one of two reactions: confusion/barely concealed judgment, or wildly enthusiastic agreement. Because of the vast extremity between the types of responses, it can be a high-risk/high-reward game raising the subject. If someone falls into the first category, I can almost feel them trying to salvage any bit of respect they once had for me as they halfheartedly say oh yeah, my twelve-year-old brother watches that, or is that the one with the blue people? On the off chance someone both knows what I’m talking about and feels the same way as I, the sheer relief will lead to almost instant friendship. This happens more often than you would think, especially at Amherst, and it fills me with hope—not just for my personal social acceptance, but that interest in programs like The Legend of Korra is reflective of a greater generational shift in what types of media we enjoy.

While there are certainly animated shows today that seem to be written just for the college-aged, it’s harder to find a widely available American program with an engaging narrative, sophisticated animation, and thoughtful discussion of a wide variety of real issues facing society today. Despite, or perhaps because of its fantastical elements, Avatar manages to accomplish all three goals while maintaining popularity with both children and adults. The series takes place in a world where certain people are able to “bend,” or manipulate the elements; universal balance is preserved by the Avatar, who serves as a personified bridge between the spirit and physical worlds.

Like many who grew up watching “Americanized” anime—Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z—I was initially drawn to the first Avatar series (Avatar: The Last Airbender) by its beautiful visuals and compelling plot. When I began the show in the spring of my freshman year at Amherst, I wasn’t looking for anything intellectually stimulating; I thought it would be a fairly insubstantial affair, just something light to distract me from my work now and then. However, I was surprised to find that not only was the writing intelligent and the world building thorough, but woven within the plot were insightful discussions of race, philosophy, imperialism—discussions I was having myself at Amherst.

When I moved onto the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, themes of class and gender became even more apparent. Conversations on identity privilege are fully integrated into the plot as the working class “non-benders” begin a movement towards “Equalism” in the face of discrimination and outright oppression on behalf of the upper class “benders.” Set in a time period roughly equivalent to the 1920-30s, LOK has a particularly strong historical feel, and the struggles of the people of Republic City seem to echo revolutionary sentiments of that era. Particularly exciting about the new series is to see a multi-faceted woman of color in the title role. Unfortunately, this is a decidedly rare occurrence in the media, particularly in animated television. Korra’s relative racial ambiguity (as I far as I know there isn’t a Southern Water Tribe on this planet) broadens the audience that may find her relatable and makes her difficult to stereotype.

Of course, the show isn’t perfect. Problematic components—including excessive focus on romantic relationships and less than progressive gender dynamics—have been pointed out by critics and fans alike, and I cannot discount them. It is disheartening to see these elements in a show with so much potential, but I do hold onto hope that some of these negative themes are on a downward trend. The fact that a show that features a non-white female in a position of power—not to mention thoughtful portrayal of a clearly non-Western and indigenous inspired culture—can be so widely popular is encouraging to see. I can only hope that for the children watching the show today, such standards in television and the media become the norm in the future, and we will no longer tolerate lazy writing that erases or marginalizes any cultures or identities.