I just finished up watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, by which I mean the animated series, not the movie. (I saw the movie first and it was so bad, it screamed “I murdered quality source material.”) The first season is solid kid’s show with gestures towards being something interesting, and then the second season takes off, largely because Azula is made of awesome. Why weren’t there role models like her when I was a kid? I think the series’s biggest mistake was its failure to notice that Azula, not the Fire Lord, was the real antagonist of the series, which borked their finale a bit.
It’s got good characters, fantastic world building, a really solid plot and handles its cheery cuddly themes fairly well for a kid’s show. There is, of course, a giant “but” there, and it’s in the way it handles those cuddly themes.
(Vague-ish spoilers for the finale below, though nothing you wouldn’t know from watching the show well before getting there)
As we crashing toward the finale, Aang starts freaking out over the conflict between the morals and ethics he was raised with and the actions he allegedly has to take in order to save the world from fire and destruction thanks to the bad guys. There’s one, brief, moment when I thought the show had utterly transcended its status a kid’s cartoon, and it was when Aang gets told, “You’re the Avatar. Doing your job matters more than your personal spiritual purity. Get to it.”
“Wow,” said I to my viewing buddy. “What a practical, and fantastically realistic moral to teach kids. That’s awesome.”
My viewing buddy doesn’t talk much, but his eyebrows were clearly shouting, “You’re insane. Also, speaking too soon.”
I’m not all that upset with what they wound up doing, i.e. finding a third option that solved the problem without the moral complications, particularly since while they hadn’t directly alluded to the world building detail that enabled it, I’d sorta deduced it as a mechanism anyway. And teaching kids to find creative solutions to problems and not just accept the either-or presented to them is important, because the world is chock full of badly framed problems. So this isn’t even a full-throated gripe about the show. They didn’t wince or cop out, they just stepped aside from something that could have been fantastic.
But, I’m really, really tired of feeding kids a steady diet of platitudes and idealism and calling it virtuous. Love doesn’t conquer all. Words do hurt. Friendship frequently doesn’t last forever. Good doesn’t always triumph. They can’t be whatever they want when they grow up, if only they try hard enough. There’s a thinking feeling human buried under everybody, but they aren’t always good, whatever you mean by good. Teaching kids anything else just gives them unreasonable expectations, making it that much harder when reality slaps them.
I’m not saying we should start a campaign to bring doom and gloom and misery and woe to all the little kiddies. I’m not even saying it’s wrong to give them media with those messages – being a kid sucks hard enough that they need to be lied to if they’re going to tough it out to adulthood. It’s the all-saccharine, all the time diet I’m objecting to. It’s the lack of moments where somebody looks their past life in the eye and gets told, “You’ve got a job to do. Now get your hands dirty and go do it.” Thank you, Avatar, for giving me at least that much.
Also, you want a pure leader willing to walk their own path and actively shape their own destiny? AZULA’S RIGHT THERE. /gripe