Some Thoughts on Avatar: The Last Airbender

- Aang is not white. Nothing about him codes as white. Maybe he has peachy skin which looks white to some folks, but that doesn't mean anything, since a lot of us Asians have somewhat peachy skin too. Nonetheless, I can see how some people can code him as white, because of his bald head. Yes, I said it: his bald head makes it easy to code him as white. A kid can easily imagine him with blond or light brown or red hair then. 

I do not know any reason to code Aang as white unless you're that kind of kid who wants to pretend he's the hero, and you're white. Which is completely understandable.

- King Bumi and many other Earth Kingdom characters really strongly code as South-East Asian to me. Haru, for example, I first took for a Malay boy. He could also be Filipino, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, but to me, I coded him as Malay. It also helps that the Earth Kingdom colour is green. Green is the color of Islam, you know. Not only that, but the hats they wear look like songkoks. I'm sure there are other cultures which have hats like those. Nonetheless, to be able to see people I grew up among is pretty incredible. 

That, and Bumi is derived from Sanskrit, and Bumi means "earth" in Sanskrit AND Malay (and possibly a few other languages in the region). 

- How the FUCK can Dev Patel play Zuko? How does this even work?

- At this point, I should also probably mention how pleased I was to not see a single white person in this series at all. Since Aang doesn't count as white, no, not a lick of whiteness. Yes, the American dialogue shows through, very very strongly, but then, plenty of Asian-Americans speak that way. 

- And how awesome was Iroh, eh? I found the clearly Asian accent punctuating the Americanisms to work together wonderfully well. It adds a layer of self-reflexivity to the whole thing, plus, the accent made everything sound funnier. There's a special cadence to the Asian accent that makes it slow and measured. ATLA's MTV humour is fast-paced and quick. Combine the two   

- Mike Perschon and Lavie Tidhar, you should probably take note of this: steampunk elements within an entirely Asian setting, combining technology with the magic system. It gives another angle to the idea of "magical technology"!

- Pleasant: lack of sexism. Not so pleasant: most random background characters tend to default to male. 

- I know Toph is awesome, and Teo's wheelchair was also pretty neat, but despite that, I still think Toph belongs in SuperCrip territory. Her blindness is realistically depicted (she never looks at people when talking to them, she's at a complete disadvantage when not standing on her feet, and when Zuko accidentally burns her feet, she has trouble getting around, and she also periodically reminds the others that she can't see), but other than her, there isn't a realistic depiction of a regular blind person. Teo is a much more realistic PWD, but we don't see much of him to see how well he deals with places that don't work well with his wheelchair. 

- I am deeply impressed by the amount of research and work that has gone into the setting, modeling martial arts styles, and employing a calligrapher for the background setting. It's very impressive to see actual Chinese characters, and of different types, too. I don't think I've ever seen this much research go into a setting in an American cartoon before, and it's even more impressive when you consider that this was made for the 6-11 age group. Not only does this show great respect for the inspiration cultures, it also shows great respect for the children who are the audience. Too often, writers and producers assume that children won't care about such details, nor about continuity, and while this is true, what is produced is often subpar and slapdash. But when you put a lot of effort, love and respect into your work, it shows, and this is communicated to the audience, who will respond positively. 

Anyway, Ay-Leen and I may have a larger article coming out on the steampunk elements of the series at some point, or some cracktastic discussion. 


  1. incidentally Avatar: The Last Airbender has been on my mind these recent days. cosign with everything in this post. it is totally ridiculous, the blatant white-washing that is present in the movie. what i found interesting was that some people online were claiming not to see the Asian and Inuit influences in the cartoon. that is still mind-blowing to me.

  2. And this is why Avatar rocks.

    The Dreadfuls have long wanted to do a group cosplay of some of the warrior outfits. ^_^ And to make the Professor's white car into Appa. :D

    I VERY much look forward to your and Ay-Leen's longer article on this!


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