Avatar: the perfect metaphor for Trump’s America and the fate of a culturally relevant remake

Emily Macaulay, Staff Writer

In 2005, Nickelodeon aired the first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which would go on to be praised as one of the most critically acclaimed, mature, and influential shows ever created. Meghan O’Keefe, writer for the movie and television news outlet Decider, calls Avatar “the rare TV show that hits every mark possible for the art form.” With great positive reception and a recent release on Netflix, Avatar is still being discussed over 15 years since the show’s debut, and it’s easy to see why fans are so passionate about the animated series.

Avatar takes place in a South Asian, East Asian, and Inuit-inspired fantasy world of four nations, each with their own distinct culture and arts. This makes for an exclusively Inuit and Asian cast of characters, who are not only groundbreaking for this aspect, but for playing deeply layered and intrinsically human roles. In many instances throughout the series, many characters endure hardships such as abuse, depression, grief, and even genocide — heavy content for a “children’s show.”

Despite being primarily consumed by children, the important themes that Avatar teaches are still able to be enjoyed and analyzed by adults. “[Avatar] teaches about poverty, immigrants, the price of war, the importance of learning how to overcome great emotional and physical obstacles, and so much more,” says sophomore Mina Koffron. “Throughout the show, the Fire Nation seeks to gain total control of the other nations, which doesn’t always work, because resistance is strong, showing the importance of standing up to injustice. But for the most part, the Fire Nation has succeeded.” It’s rather ironic how Avatar, a staple of entertainment for the quarantine era, can serve as a parallel to the current status quo in many ways.

“There’s this awful occurrence in Ba Sing Sei where the people are brainwashed into believing that there is no war and that everything is safe, even though many people in the city are refugees. This is similar to the America we’re living in because people have constant visible evidence of what’s wrong with the world and how things aren’t as great as their leader tells them to be. But even with that evidence, American citizens are brainwashed into believing everything is fake news if it doesn’t align with Trump’s lies,” Mina says.

Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the sequel series The Legend of Korra reflected back on their two shows not long ago. “The shifts in the world right now haven’t changed how I see both series, but I have been surprised just how troublingly relevant some of the political themes are,” DiMartino told Matt Patches in a Polygon interview published on August 31st. Though some of Avatar’s thematic connotations were unintentional – but fitting nonetheless – above all else, DiMartino and Koneitzko felt compelled to tell a tale representative of the people and cultures it borrowed from.

Recent social justice movements have brought to light an underlying lack of racial representation in film, and with a live-action adaptation of Avatar currently in production by Netflix, fans were hopeful that the remake would conserve the Asian ties to the original series. However, to the dismay of many, the creators officially announced their departure from the project due to “creative differences” on August 12th. “”It’s worrying to see the creators leave the project,” says Mina. “Netflix is known for its teen material where characters exhibit behavior far more intense than what is healthy for normal teens. With that, it’s worrisome that Netflix, in order to align with popular shows like Riverdale, will go against the fundamental lessons taught in Avatar and focus on developing steamy scenes between the characters.” According to The Verge, DiMartino claims that the live action adaption of the show he co-created “will not be what [him and Konietzko] had envisioned or intended to make.”

Considering the 2010 movie The Last Airbender (with a 5% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, one of the lowest ratings for any movie ever created) cast many white actors to play non-white roles, Mina and other fans of Avatar fear that the Netflix adaption will not be able to make up for that absolute failure of a remake. “Not a single person [in Avatar] is white, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Netflix overlooked that important piece of the show,” she says. Many advocates for racial justice and representation remain hopeful that DiMartino and Konietzko made the right choice leaving the fate of their project in the hands of Netflix, but it seems the matter is very much a shot in the dark.

“For the brilliant creators to leave, the whole integrity of the show could be lost,” Mina concludes.