Ask any teenager today and nearly all will recall fond memories watching Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel, The Legend of Korra, when they were younger. The animated Nickelodeon shows were a staple of childhood and now hold an adventurous and carefree feeling unique to being a kid. These shows regained popularity last summer when they were released onto Netflix, reminding everyone of the joy that watching them brought. I was one of the many flocking to revisit each series. Although, when I rewatched them, I noticed a subtle narrative not seen before. While the shows both maintained their lighthearted tones and focused on values like friendship, this time around I didn’t have to look hard to notice how they also highlighted political and historical narratives. From imperialist nations to overbearing monarchies and war, these shows contain more than just life lessons for kids.
To provide background, the Avatar series is set in an ancient world divided into four interconnected nations based on the elements—the Fire Nation, the northern and southern Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, and the nearly extinct Air Nomads. Some people, benders, possess the ability to manipulate one of the four elements, while others don’t. There is only one person, the Avatar, who can control all four. Because of this, they are historically the mediator between the four nations. They can travel to and from different reality planes, including the spirit world with which they must make peace. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, 12-year-old Avatar Aang must restore the world to balance after the fire nation has executed an era of conquering. With water bender Katara, her brother Sokka, earth bender friend Toph, and eventually fire prince Zuko, they travel the world and help to bring peace. The Legend of Korra follows a similar idea. It is set after Aang’s death and the world has become much more modernized. Yet the new 17-year-old Avatar, Korra, faces conflict after conflict and carries the fragile world on her back. She handles these issues with friends Asami, Bolin, and Mako. Her struggle is much more complex, and she faces difficulties ranging from cults to abusive governments to world domination (a second time). While indirect, many elements of both Aang and Korra’s stories can be applied to the real world in historical and political contexts.
Aang’s struggle with the fire nation directly relates to imperialist rule and control visible throughout history. While the show makes the nation out to be the classic “world domination” villain, the true ideals run much deeper and reflect the real world. This type of conflict can be seen even as far back as ancient history with the original conquestors, the Mongols. This group took much of what is today’s east Asia by force. Much like the fire nation, the Mongols stationed troops all over villages and cities, and seized control of local economies. They ruled through fear and their goal was to unite under their rule and their rule alone. European colonization in North America is another applicable example. Land was forcefully taken from Natives who had lived there peacefully for decades, and made into whitewashed towns with warped histories. Perhaps the closest relation to the fire nation’s rule, however, is likely the Japanese colonization of Korea in the early 1900s. Each of the nations in the show are loosely based on certain global groups—the Earth Kingdom represents China, the Air Nomads represent monks and Tibetan culture, the Water Tribes represent indigenous peoples, and the Fire Nation represents Japan. Even the minor recurring characters, such as the swamp people, are based on Vietnamese culture. This suggests that the creators of the show actually intended to highlight Imperial Japanese rule. During this time, Japan wiped out enormous parts of Korean culture. Burning important Korean texts, enforcing that only Japanese be spoken, and seizure of land are just a few things that happened among a list a mile long. The show handles these comparisons with care, never making them explicit but rather heavily implied for audiences old enough to understand it.
The Legend of Korra tackles political and historical comparisons much more boldly than its predecessor. Where Avatar: The Last Airbender delicately suggests similarities between its fire nation and the real world, The Legend of Korra faces these comparisons head on. Additionally, there is a wider range of conflicts which are covered. Republic City is one of the first things Korra experienced, and when she arrived her expectations were almost immediately shattered. The city was riddled with conflict, specifically considering the triple threat triad and the followers of Amon. The triple threat triad, a group which has forceful control over many of the city’s local businesses, could only represent the mafia. Much like how powerful mobsters in Chicago threatened businesses, the triad used its strength to gain control and become wealthier. We can see this when Korra senselessly tries to defeat them after noticing their intimidation of a local business owner. The triad had an absurd amount of control over the city, as did many mafia operations in New York and Chicago. The second major issue which pertains to Republic City is the season 1 existence of the Amon cult. This group of people was dedicated to eliminating and ignoring the existence of elemental benders. Naturally, their main enemy was the Avatar. This is, quite simply, a nod to racism in America. The Amon cult is a reimagining of white supremacist groups such as the KKK, and their hatred towards benders is the same as the hatred towards minorities. Fortunately in the show this issue quickly becomes resolved, with the destruction of the cult and exposure of its members. While there is still a long way to go for racism in America to be extinguished as it should always have been, it’s relevance in the show is obvious.
Another pinnacle moment in The Legend of Korra is when she visited the Earth Kingdom capital, Ba Sing Se. Since Aang’s death, the kind and peaceful King had been replaced by a new vicious and bitter Queen Hou-Ting. While visiting the city, home of her royal highness, Korra and her friends notice a blatant difference between the upper and lower rings. This can be directly connected to the wealth gap towards the final years of the French monarchy. In Ba Sing Se’s enormous lower circle, everyone was poor. Thousands were living in poverty and poorly regulated conditions. The minority of people in the city lived in the upper ring—beautiful, well kept, and most importantly: rich. Like the French monarchy, the circulation of wealth and division of people in Ba Sing Se ensured that the poor stayed poor and the rich got richer. This is what ultimately led to the downfall of France’s monarchy, as is visible in the show. Korra notices these issues immediately and realizes the unstable state of the kingdom. She sets this issue aside initially but eventually comes back around to replace the queen and ensure welfare for the people. However, this issue is not the only one in the show which connects both the Earth Kingdom and the fall of the French monarchy. Two seasons later a metalbending soldier, Kuvira, appointed herself leader of the Earth Kingdom. As she saw it, another link to the monarchy would only hurt the land. She set out to unite and conquer, enforcing her self-proclaimed rule. Few others in history attempted such a feat, the most prominent and nearly successful being Napoleon Bonaparte. He deemed himself emperor of France in 1804, and after a series of bad decisions, he was exiled. He then snuck out of his exile and went back to France to be again celebrated as emperor in an unsuccessful attempt. Much like Kuvira, his confidence and determination became his downfall. The show’s Earth Kingdom bears strong relation to 18th and 19th century France, reminding viewers of conflict during the time.
Perhaps Korra’s most important struggle throughout the show is her relationship with the spirit world. After releasing the spirit of evil, kept in balance for hundreds of years, she had to find a way to defeat it and restore the world to peace. In doing this, she also needed to find the line between balance and chaos between the spirits and humans. Facing intense pressure from the world and the people around her, she became caught up in an extremely delicate and tangled web. This experience is directly connected to the core values of war. Behind the violence and harsh outside, war is a basic struggle to determine a middle ground, between what’s wrong and right. Korra faced this without the bloodshed and was eventually able to restore peace. However the journey was long, both mentally and socially, and finding her way through proved to be one of her most difficult endeavors. War is the same—it’s never easy to resolve and it takes a toll on the world. It always works out but never without an intense struggle. The conflicts Korra faces throughout the show take a bolder approach to reflecting the world than Aang’s which came before. Though the show is still intended for kids, it’s recognition of historical events only helps deepen the plot and appear to a wider variety of audiences.
Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra each utilize a variety of mature concepts, which they conceal through storylines aimed at children. In highlighting the histories of certain nations and applying broad concepts such as war, the shows appeal to a wide variety of people. They seek to educate and develop an understanding of political contexts by using simple comparisons and building off of preexisting knowledge. Thus these shows are able to draw in anyone and appeal to all. For a light plot with interesting references, these shows are the best for the job.