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Thinking Critically with Cartoons

Avatar-The-Legend-of-Korra-avatar-the-last-airbender-15790739-1440-1080 (Marie Lambert)– Whenever I end up telling people in college that Avatar: The Legend of Korra is one of my favorite shows, I can usually count on one of two reactions: confusion/barely concealed judgment, or wildly enthusiastic agreement. Because of the vast extremity between the types of responses, it can be a high-risk/high-reward game raising the subject. If someone falls into the first category, I can almost feel them trying to salvage any bit of respect they once had for me as they halfheartedly say oh yeah, my twelve-year-old brother watches that, or is that the one with the blue people? On the off chance someone both knows what I’m talking about and feels the same way as I, the sheer relief will lead to almost instant friendship. This happens more often than you would think, especially at Amherst, and it fills me with hope—not just for my personal social acceptance, but that interest in programs like The Legend of Korra is reflective of a greater generational shift in what types of media we enjoy.

While there are certainly animated shows today that seem to be written just for the college-aged, it’s harder to find a widely available American program with an engaging narrative, sophisticated animation, and thoughtful discussion of a wide variety of real issues facing society today. Despite, or perhaps because of its fantastical elements, Avatar manages to accomplish all three goals while maintaining popularity with both children and adults. The series takes place in a world where certain people are able to “bend,” or manipulate the elements; universal balance is preserved by the Avatar, who serves as a personified bridge between the spirit and physical worlds.

Like many who grew up watching “Americanized” anime—Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z—I was initially drawn to the first Avatar series (Avatar: The Last Airbender) by its beautiful visuals and compelling plot. When I began the show in the spring of my freshman year at Amherst, I wasn’t looking for anything intellectually stimulating; I thought it would be a fairly insubstantial affair, just something light to distract me from my work now and then. However, I was surprised to find that not only was the writing intelligent and the world building thorough, but woven within the plot were insightful discussions of race, philosophy, imperialism—discussions I was having myself at Amherst.

When I moved onto the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, themes of class and gender became even more apparent. Conversations on identity privilege are fully integrated into the plot as the working class “non-benders” begin a movement towards “Equalism” in the face of discrimination and outright oppression on behalf of the upper class “benders.” Set in a time period roughly equivalent to the 1920-30s, LOK has a particularly strong historical feel, and the struggles of the people of Republic City seem to echo revolutionary sentiments of that era. Particularly exciting about the new series is to see a multi-faceted woman of color in the title role. Unfortunately, this is a decidedly rare occurrence in the media, particularly in animated television. Korra’s relative racial ambiguity (as I far as I know there isn’t a Southern Water Tribe on this planet) broadens the audience that may find her relatable and makes her difficult to stereotype.

Of course, the show isn’t perfect. Problematic components—including excessive focus on romantic relationships and less than progressive gender dynamics—have been pointed out by critics and fans alike, and I cannot discount them. It is disheartening to see these elements in a show with so much potential, but I do hold onto hope that some of these negative themes are on a downward trend. The fact that a show that features a non-white female in a position of power—not to mention thoughtful portrayal of a clearly non-Western and indigenous inspired culture—can be so widely popular is encouraging to see. I can only hope that for the children watching the show today, such standards in television and the media become the norm in the future, and we will no longer tolerate lazy writing that erases or marginalizes any cultures or identities.

About Marie Lambert

Amherst's own Hazel Weatherfield, girl detective.

9 comments on “Thinking Critically with Cartoons

  1. Lolade (Lola) Fadulu
    October 21, 2013

    Great article! I am really inspired by people who share their interests even if the interests aren’t necessarily the norm or widely-accepted. I’m not sure if you know it, but there are plenty of people in Williston that quite enjoy LOK. I even think there’s a viewing “party” each week – you should definitely come check it out!

  2. sharline1234
    October 21, 2013

    Great article! :-)

  3. Elaine Vilorio
    October 21, 2013


    My words cannot convey how excited I was as I read this post, so I really need to work on my writing. Regardless, here goes:

    IT’S SO GREAT THAT YOU WATCH LOK. SERIOUSLY. I LOVED AVATAR AND I’M ENJOYING THE EXPLORATION OF LOK (Note: No love, at least not yet; I definitely agree with some of the down-falls of the show you mention). Avatar was so intelligent, and the whole play of benders and non-benders as a reflection of recial tensions in LOK Season 1 was also well-done.

    #Lolade’s right about the weekly Williston viewing party, except with the new time, I don’t know how we’re going to continue it. As you might know, the new show time is 8:30 p.m., which conflicts with a lot of Friday night activities, including Coffehause. But, Nick puts the episodes on its website the next day, so it’s not too big of a deal. I’d love to watch it with you! I warn you though; when I’m super excited, I watch it like your stereotypical American male watches football.

    • Marie Lambert
      October 21, 2013

      Hi Elaine!

      I love how your reaction is exactly what I described in the first paragraph. :) And it’s so wonderful what you guys are doing in Williston; I would love to crash some Friday if we can ever find a time that doesn’t conflict with some event.

      Also, based on how you’ve described yourself, I NEED to experience you watching LOK in person.

  4. Tess
    October 21, 2013

    Thanks for the article! I’ve been really on the fence about this season, but I think it’s really interesting that you started watching Avatar in college. I was watching it as a kid, so when the finale aired I was just a stressed out fourteen year old about to start high school, and it had a huge impact on me. The last episode was sort of a big deal, not only because of how well it was executed, but because of the way they put the finishing touches on a massive mythos eight years in the works.

    I’d be interested to read a perspective on two white men creating an extremely successful and sensitive insight into a culture that they in no way belong to. It’s sort of counterintuitive, especially given the evidence saying white guys are terrible at that sort of thing. There must be complaints about the way in which they’ve handled that, but I’ve never read any.

    • Marie Lambert
      October 21, 2013

      Thanks for reading and commenting! It would be a really interesting comparison to see how viewers’ perspectives on the show differ based on their age when they began watching. I can only imagine how formative it would have been if I had been a fan when I was younger.

      And I think the fact that the two writers are white men adds an interesting component as well. I’ve found it fairly easy to find criticism of their writing online, but I also think (and hope) that despite certain problematic elements, this is a sign that it IS possible for those with privilege/in the majority to engage with other identity groups in a positive and non-appropriative manner.

  5. Anonymous
    October 21, 2013

    Y’know, I was pretty surprised when I got here and realized everybody wasn’t into Avatar or Korra. I’ve noticed people of all kinds in my year and below me watched the original obsessively and carried on with it.

  6. Jayson
    October 22, 2013

    This is a really great show, and an especially good season, actually just got caught up. Season 2 is really returning to a lot of the principles that made the original successful and that were lacking in Season 1. :) Great perspective.

  7. Trash Boat
    October 28, 2013

    Thanks for the article! I recently started watching Legend of Korra, and it’s taken precedence over all other responsibilities in my life. Incredible!

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This entry was posted on October 21, 2013 by in Gender, Media, Race and tagged , , , , .

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