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Generational Trauma, Oppression and Avatar: The Last Airbender

‘Water, earth, fire, air…’ an intro so iconic it still sends chills down my spine today. Avatar: The Last Airbender was a Nickelodeon animated series that ran from 2005-2008. The series follows the Avatar, Aang (a 12-year-old who had been frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years), and his friends, Katara, Sokka, Toph and, in the last series, Aang’s former nemesis, Zuko, on a quest to defeat the villainous Fire Nation in order to restore balance to this world.


The Avatar world was divided into distinct nations, based on the four classical elements: the Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Nomads. Many of those born into these diverse nations had the ability to ‘bend’ (read: telekinetically manipulate) the designated element each nation was assigned. The Avatar, however, held a special position as they were able to bend all four elements. This ability to manipulate the elements was a concept lifted from traditional Chinese martial arts. This world was also very clearly inspired by various East Asian, Inuit, and Yup’ik cultures. The creators of the show, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, properly researched the diverse cultures they were inspired by, which resulted in a series that felt authentic rather than a parody. The creators were also successful at using their own originality to world-build with great success.


This show significantly impacted me as a child in ways I truly did not expect it to. This is a feeling experienced by many of those in my generation that watched the series when it initially aired. To say I was obsessed with the show would be an understatement. If I was truly being honest with you all, I am still such a big fan of it as a 25-year-old man. The character development, the story lines, the animation, the wacky animals, and the way it touched on hard hitting themes in a child-friendly manner spoke to me in multifarious ways.


There was a particular relatability I felt with Aang while I was growing up. As a child born in a heteronormative world, who I was organically as a person, regarding my interests, passions, and my personality was not always very well received. I was more ‘feminine’ than most boys my age and this meant I did not adhere to the gender roles thrusted upon children in their youth. This resulted in societal disapproval and consistent bullying. However, when I watched Aang also victimised in a similar way, being regarded as ‘weak’ or overly emotional, I found a relatability I hadn’t with characters in other series.


Most series when I was growing up depicted heroes with traditionally hypermasculine - often problematic - traits. Aang was set apart from this narrative. He was strong, yes, but he had empathy, logical thinking, he was compassionate and applied a loving approach to life and seeking justice. He became an important source of inspiration in how I was able to deal with the world around me and how I strived to be a better person.

For a kid’s show, the themes it explores are focused on areas of history that are deeply difficult to cover in a child-friendly way. The series deals with genocide, ethnic cleansing, labour camps, systematic oppression, and colonisation, amongst others. And while I did acknowledge all of what was occurring in the show, I was so desperately invested in seeing Aang defeat the Fire Lord and seek justice for what had occurred to his people. As a grown up, I started analysing why I felt such a deep connection to this series that instilled within me such a yearning to seek justice. I saw how it fluidly meshed into my own intergenerational experience as a child of Kosovar-Albanian refugees.


I stem from a family that has historically experienced genocide, displacement, and ethnic cleansing throughout several generations. Furthermore, rewatching the series during the initial Covid lockdowns of 2020 with the understanding of what the show tackles spoke to me in even more profound ways. I was now able to relate in a way that was intentional and I could apply a critical analysis at the story lines being presented in the show.


There were particular scenes that spoke to me in such prominent ways. In the first part of season one, Aang visits the Air Temple where he was born and raised. He desperately looks around for his loved ones but finds that the massive temple space is seemingly empty. Katara and Sokka both know what happened here, for Aang was the Last Airbender, but find it too difficult to inform an excited Aang.


Aang then eventually finds what’s left of his great mentor and friend, Monk Gyatso’s - a skeleton. Realising what happened to his people – genocide - Aang is absorbed into a great wave of rage that forces him into the spiritual Avatar state. When I rewatched the series, my response as an adult was overwhelmingly emotional.


I could relate to the feeling of hope Aang experienced and how this came crashing down the moment he realises what had occurred to his people. I recalled the positive stories my mother would tell me about my family as a child and the way they became more traumatic the older I got. My parents understandably withheld certain familial narratives from me in my youth. But upon reaching a proper age, I became informed that I had descended from a family line that had trauma engrained at the very core of it.

I then went on a discovery to learn more about my family and country’s history. I had to face the fact that my people were placed under a variety of colonial systems dedicated to thwarting their freedoms. During these years of research (which is ongoing) my mind would often be drawn to the childhood show I loved so much. How much like the systems of oppression I researched about, the Fire Nation had the audacity and entitlement to believe they had a right to take land that was not theirs. To invade and subjugate other people, reaffirmed by the idiotic ideology that they were somehow better than others.


These themes also clearly referred to other authoritarian and fascistic systems through history that targeted people because of their cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, sexual or gender. But a positive I found in the series is that it combatted these hard-hitting themes by embedding the concepts of hope and perseverance. These ideas served as overarching narratives within this show - it was engrained in the very fabric of it.


A group of teens take on an entire violent system and end up saving the world from a mass genocide. Now, I know that is somewhat unrealistic - it is an animated series after all. But it serves to reinstate a very positive message that, regardless of your circumstances and position, you can always do something good or act in a way that serves to the betterment of others.


This is why, if I have children one day (in the very far future) I will be sure to recommend Avatar to them. It will probably be outdated regarding its animation style, but the core messages of the show introduce and educate children on experiences that deserve to be touched on. Ingraining a mentality that seeks to fight the problematic powers that be and makes sure that everyone has the rights they are entitled to.


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Arbër Gashi is a writer, visual artist and ethnographer born and raised in London to Kosovar-Albanian parents. He has a BA in History and MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture. His academic research has focused on documenting the experiences of Islamic ethnic minority communities in London. He has also extensively researched the long-term effects of Yugoslav colonization practices in Kosovo during the interwar period.

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