When Avatar: The Last Airbender first came out, I was 11 or 12 years old, roughly the same as the show’s protagonist, Aang. Aang was a boy who was afraid of facing the responsibility of bringing peace to the four nations of his world—so afraid, in fact, that he had disappeared from the world for a hundred years, hidden frozen in a giant iceberg (think Captain America). At the same time, Aang was a boy who was afraid of letting anybody down, having awakened from his icy slumber to a divided, war-torn world, begging for a hero to restore balance. And when TLA first aired, I was a boy on the cusp of adolescence, totally unready to face the perils of high school, and puberty, and feelings, and what my destiny was in the grand scheme of things.
When Avatar: The Legend of Korra aired later on, I was 18, roughly the same age as Korra, a brash and plucky Avatar from the Water Tribe, more than ready to face the world and take down its villains. Korra, in spite of her potential and power, found herself failing in the face of her antagonists and various social ills so much bigger than her. I was 18 and in college, learning about writing and opening myself up to how society and people worked, questioning how the world hungered and if I even had the power to serve where I was needed, and be someone people could rely on or look up to.
“Avatar is something I can’t say goodbye to, having impressed in my heart the wisdom that has equipped me to face this world—one without elemental benders, but filled nonetheless with people of tremendous strength who can change the world, and maybe even save it.”
Despite the past few years being a great year of cartoons, having observed the increasing popularity of shows such as Adventure Time, Phineas & Ferb, Gravity Falls, and Over the Garden Wall, among many others, the cartoon as a form of entertainment is still somewhat stigmatized (although less than before) as a childish art form, the kind of thing that should be enjoyed by kids and not young adults learning how to do grown-up things. But it’s Avatar which stands as a shining example that the animated series is not just something whose enjoyment and beauty isn’t restricted to specific age demographics, but the beautiful truth that a show, its created world, its universe, and its characters can move in step with society, that it can grow with its audience, and that its audience can grow with it. Imagine how many people who, as children, related to kids like Aang and the rest of his crew, possessing their own inner strength and premonitions, who later saw themselves in Korra, a young adult coming to terms with whether or not she was truly needed in a rapidly modernizing world. Bender or non-bender, we all saw ourselves in this show and in its heroes.
This essay was supposed to be a show of gratitude to the show’s creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, for LoK’s series finale and the doors they’ve opened up for shows aimed at children by representing the LGBT community, revealing their heroine and a character fan favorite as bisexual. Shortly after the airing of the final episode, both Mike and Bryan (or Bryke, the tag-team moniker they’re affectionately known as), expressed their authorial intent on their respective tumblr blogs, confirming that both Korra and Asami had romantic feelings for each other, and didn’t just spend the last minute of the series holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes… platonically. For Bryke to have made their intentions known with the final episode was not mere clarification, but a statement, one that I am confident will resonate in the industry of children’s programs forever.
In his blog post about the season finale, Michael Dante DiMartino wrote: “The main themes of the Avatar universe have always revolved around equality, justice, acceptance, tolerance, and balancing differing worldviews.” We learned it from the secret society of The White Lotus, whose members didn’t believe in the separation of the four nations. We learned it from Zuko, who through the guidance of his uncle Iroh found that his honor was not determined by the expectations of others but finding his own destiny. We learned it from Korra, who despite being maligned by the world she was sworn to protect still served as its vigilant Avatar.
This piece was also supposed to be a goodbye essay of sorts, a loving send-off to the Avatar universe I got to see grow and develop as I came of age. But Avatar was more than just the last note of its series finale, and certainly something I can’t say goodbye to, having impressed in my heart the wisdom that has equipped me to face this world—one without elemental benders, but filled nonetheless with people of tremendous strength who can change the world, and maybe even save it.
So thank you, Aang and Korra. Thank you Bryke. Thank you for the world you created, and may we also step into the light of a brighter world.