bending boundaries

“You will find that if you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.” – Iroh, The Legend of Korra

As Bryan Konietzko, one of the co-creators of Avatar: the Last Airbender, sat in the lounge of Watermyn Co-op and talked about the common lore of our generation, the air was tinged with excitement and a mute sense of being starstruck. Jammed onto chairs, couches, the floor, students sat rapt as he scrolled through the questions that students of the Spring 2015 GISP “Avatar in Academia” had sent in. I was no exception, craning to get a better look at him as his golden lab took an exceptional and vigorous interest in licking my arms to the elbows.

“Avatar means a lot of different things to different people all over the world, of all ages,” Konietzko wrote in January on Tumblr, in response to a project started by one of the students in the GISP. “…it is humbling and bemusing to look around all these years later and see the shock waves of its effects on people’s lives.”

Watching the faces of everyone around me, it was easy to see how these shock waves had bound us all. The GISP, the brainchild of three students, is taught by Professor Naoko Shibusawa, who brings her daughter–also a big fan–to class. Justine Maher ’15, one of the founding students of the course, says that the class has brought students from diverse disciplines–from sociology and development studies to pre-med–together. Whether discussing the prominence of Buddhist philosophy that dominates Avatar, the distinct Daoist approach to Korra, or the complex presentation of morality within the show, the world of Avatar has provided a space for connection and discussion that can allow for richer nuance than even Harry Potter. “Avatar gives us a fantastical slice of life,” she said. “We were the same age as Aang when Avatar first came out, and the same age as Korra when that show came out… it brings me back to those years. There’s always been something different about Avatar that’s difficult to pinpoint… its complexity shows that not everything is black and white. That’s shaped my perspective in my own life. It lets you develop yourself through the show.”

A week after Konietzko’s talk, some post-grad friends and I took a reunion shot from a set of cups one of them had painted to represent the Avatar nations. We had a long debate about who should drink each element, a conversation which is not uncommon to find in any dorm on campus. My sister and I used to “waterbend” at each other by using ocean waves for dramatic effect; “firebending” was the delicate task of passing our fingers through candle flames without getting burned.

Premiering ten years ago this Saturday, Avatar – and its sequel, The Legend of Korra – has a way of bringing people together. Set in a world of four nations torn apart by war, the show chronicles the journey of Aang, a young spiritual leader called the Avatar, as he and his companions seek to establish peace.  Drawing from East and South Asian influences to depict a rich set of cultures, peoples, and beliefs, Avatar shows the possibilities of intercultural dialogue and communication. Along the way, it’s been continually lauded for its humor, sincerity, and meditations on topics such as loss, recovery, forgiveness, cultural erosion, genocide, friendship, and forging a better future. Along the way, it gave us characters that still resonate today.

Those themes and characters still tie together many Brunonians on campus.  Everyone likes to claim that the pop culture mélange surrounding their childhood was undoubtedly the best–I nearly disowned my sister after coming back from freshman year to find her avidly watching Chop Socky Chooks–but when it comes to Avatar, there’s really no contest: It is one of the greatest shows ever produced. To label it as just any cartoon diminishes its significance as art, inspiration, and an unlikely site for revolutionary representation of activist groups. Everyone who has watched the show has their own Avatar story–often one that has continued far past the show, into their lives today.  Avatar and Korra are the only shows I have ever seen marketed to children–and, to be honest, in most of television’s arena–that throw tired stereotypes to the wind. They feature exclusively characters of color struggling to overcome cultural boundaries and fight back against a colonial power, female characters who are not merely “strong” in the flattened, pacifying sense of the trope, but who breathe and grow and lead and are people in every sense of the word, disability treated as a part of someone’s larger identity, not a prop to make a character interesting, and queer relationships in a positive, if understated, light. The Korra finale drew a lot of controversy–and more importantly, praise–for its ending, which depicted an indisputably romantic ending between Korra and Asami, its two female lead characters. And media representation does matter: studies show that distorted media depictions of marginalized groups have extremely adverse effects on those groups, with increased public aggression towards them, lack of sympathy or empathy for the struggles they face, and reduced attention to structural factors in their lives. One 2012 study even found that for US kids exposed to children’s programming, television exposure “predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in the self-esteem among white boys” due to the portrayals of these racial and gender categories found in most children’s shows. But the characters and storylines in Avatar may actively work against this–as Justine points out, the series-long redemption arc of the exiled prince and initial villain Zuko, as well as the full circle of Korra’s spiritual adversary Zaheer and the sympathetic psychological unravelling of Zuko’s sister Azula, reveals the show’s dedication to humanizing all of its characters and showing that people can remake themselves and change for the better.

The presence of dynamic and diverse characters in the show, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that Konietzko and his co-creater, Mike DiMartino, are actively pushing a social agenda. In interviews about the series, they have walked a fine line between fiction and social issues reflected in the real world. Konietzko has stated before in interviews that while the series is committed to balance and diversity in pursuit of an organic story–he told Slate last year that he was “proud to add Korra to the pantheon of TV characters, which is perpetually sorely lacking in multifaceted female characters who aren’t sidekicks, subordinates or mere trophies for male characters”–he and DiMartino are above all telling a story. “We stay away from recreating specific events or telling an allegorical tale about a real nation or culture,” he told the Comics Alliance in 2012. “After all, this is a fantasy series and not political commentary.”

This mentality was reflected in his conversation with the GISP, where he answered questions about the social justice leanings of the show by highlighting the newness and novelty of what it brought to the story, rather than its real-world implications. Given the lack of activism in television as a whole, Konietzko and DiMartino’s act of creation without a specifically applied activist lens was almost disheartening. Even though I was fortunate enough to have the support of my friends and family when I came out as bisexual, watching the end of Korra was an emotional sucker-punch of disbelief and joy, and watching the complex struggles of characters of color play out on screen has been intensely rewarding. Perhaps it came from the inescapable trap of valorizing things you love–Avatar and Korra have broken so many barriers that it seems unfair to ask more of them–but surely the voices that had been given to so many marginalized groups through the shows were more than just an attempt at telling a new kind of story?

However, Tomás Quinoez-Riegos ‘15, a member of the GISP and founder of the transnational Avatar project that helped bring Konietzko to speak to the class, saw the statements in a far more positive light. “We communicate in multiple languages,” he said when I brought up my own dissonance. “I see his art as a language, and I think that the way that he spoke through it was certainly activist…the fact that he assumes as normal the strength and complexity of strong characters of color and the strength of powerful queer women is a testament to that.”

While Justine was also surprised, she said that it was exciting to know that the show was a product of “people with open minds, whose heart just thought, ‘this is the way it should be.’ Activism is incredibly important, and people can use the show to explain things that need to be fought for… we need more people like that to get into television. It can make a huge change. It can make a huge impact on a generation.” The fact that it was never a specific decision to force those issues, she says, helped the show seem seamless and authentic, even though the creators struggled with the potential reaction to a queer relationship in Korra. “It’s refreshing to see people make a story that way just because that’s what should be done.”

It’s certainly true that Death of the Author can come into play here–or even the fact that telling new, unheard stories featuring characters normally sidelined in media can be a form of activism in and of itself. Avatar has acted as a force going directly against this grain–it depicts a transnational world, where diverse characters flow in and out of cultural and geographic boundaries in an attempt to join them in solidarity. For Tomás, this has spoken to our generation so strongly because of our own links to an increasingly globalized–and diverse–world. “Those who were exposed to the show during a formative period were the ones who connected the most,” he said. “We started watching this when we were still understanding ourselves and our identities, and to see characters in which you can see yourself really going on these adventures… it doesn’t take much of a stretch to say, ‘well, if they can do it, and I’m similar to them, I can do it too.’”

Fan activism is nothing new. The Harry Potter Alliance, a fan-driven initiative, just helped win a four-year fight to make Warner Brothers swear off child labor and contract Fair Trade certified chocolate, showing that the socially-conscious telling of a story can invite its fans to take action in the world. But the focused optimism that Avatar inspires can be seen throughout the students taking the GISP–the show is particularly notable for its representation of those who have been largely ignored or maligned by the media, its true strength lies in its ability to propel its viewers to positive action.

Take Tomás, who has been working over the past few months on an Avatar-inspired project that will take him around the world. Aiming to journey to four different locations around the world to study the “elements”–different styles of meditation and spiritual learning–from different disciplines, he and his sister founded a campaign called “The Lost Scrolls of the White Lotus.” Promising to create a book from their experiences that captures the teachings, exercises, and experiences they have along the way, they’re interesting in continuing the journey of Avatar. Remarkably, the project got the explicit support of Konietzko and DiMartino after Tomás contacted Nickelodeon executives to let them know about the project, and plans are well underway. Tomás will travel to a Zen temple in Takahashi, Japan this summer to study “Air,” a yoga ashram in Vrindavan, India to study “Fire,” and a shaolin temple in Qufu, China to study “Earth.” Not only does the show itself draw from these disciplines to form its core spiritual philosophy, the international nature of the trip will allow him to help continue the cultural dialogue that Avatar helped introduce him to.

While the academics of Avatar has been a rewarding experience for Tomás, he says that he knows the limits of a classroom education, and is ready to continue his education the way that Aang did–through travel. Having already studied Zen Buddhism in Japan, he’s eager to learn from other disciplines and both the elements and one of the central tenets that he took away from the show: the art of listening. As he plans to work and improve lives in the intellectually-disabled community in the future, this is a key skill for being a responsive and responsible ally. Though he and his sister didn’t get to their funding goal–they raised a little over $4,000 out of an originally planned $37,000 that was to cover several more people going on the trip–it’s enough to start them on their journey. “We’ve come so far,” he said, “that the two of us are going to go no matter how hard we have to work.” Their project has also inspired the kindness of strangers, as the campaign received an anonymous $1,000 donation from a fan in the Midwest a few weeks ago.

“I grew up in a community where we’re not encouraged to dream, because no one does things like this,” Tomás told me. “For me, it’s been really powerful, every step of the way, to be very intentional about not forgetting where I come from.” He says that his cousins have embraced the project, and have begun to wonder if they could do something similar as well. “I’m really grateful and excited to see what this is able to do in my own community, and work within and for my community to push the boundaries of what people from my background think is possible. Because fuck it–if me and my sister can travel the world, what else can they do? How can I help that?” He smiled. “All the time we hear, ‘You can do anything! Follow your dreams!’ But we have so many people telling us to do that, and so few people showing us what that means. I don’t know what will happen on this trip–but it’s worth a shot.”

That’s the true power of a story. Happy tenth anniversary, Avatar–and thank you.