Lessons I’ve Learned from Avatar: The Last Airbender – #1

As I’ve blogged on more than one occasion, the film version of The Last Airbender was the most traumatic thing to happen to me in the summer of 2010 (which I suppose says something good about my life at that point). This horrific affront to one of the television shows that’s most dear to my heart spurred me and J. to watch the whole original series again, starting from the beginning. Pretty much every episode has some astonishing gem of ย wisdom or aesthetic grace, and as they move me I’ll be blogging them.

Episode 18, Season 1: The Waterbending Master.

There’s a lot to love about this episode – all the lovely waterbending, the look and feel of the Northern Water Tribe stronghold, Sokka’s nascent love for Yue, Iroh singing, Iroh being sneaky, Zhao seeing Zuko’s broadswords and realizing he’s the Blue Spirit… but the most exciting thing about it for me was the gender politics.

In the Northern Water Tribe, women can’t learn water-bending. Master Pakku won’t teach Katara, and when Aang tries to pass his training on to her, Pakku flips out.

But it’s deeper than just bending. This is clearly a deeply patriarchal tribe, where women have no choice in matters of marriage – if they don’t want to marry the man their father picks out, they have to leave town altogether. Which is what Katara’s grandmother did.

At the end of the episode, Katara shames Master Pakku into fighting her. It’s a great fight, with both of them looking very beautiful and kick-ass all at the same time.

Now, the easy, simplified, crowd-pleaser resolution to this episode would be for Katara to dazzle Pakku with her incredible skills, and THAT would be enough to get him to change his mind. Mainstream Hollywood logic is funny that way – all it takes to change someone’s mind is to show them evidence that they’re wrong. But life doesn’t work like that. Anyone who’s ever argued with someone on a political issue (for example, global warming) knows that no matter how much evidence and information you provide, they’re not going to change their mind.

People change their mind when they see how an issue affects them. People let go of prejudices when they realize that their prejudices have harmed them – have ruined relationships, have caused them to make terrible mistakes, have crippled their ability to understand the world around them.

Master Pakku is impressed with Katara’s bending abilities, but that’s not what changes his mind about teaching women. But he finds Katara’s necklace, which was the betrothal necklace he had given to her grandmother so many years ago, and remembers how shocked he was that she refused to marry him, and left.

Katara connects the dots. “Your tribe’s stupid customs” are what made her grandmother flee. It’s why he’s spent his life alone. The discrimination that he accepted as normal, as positive – because it benefited him – has actually hurt him. Because it distorted his relationships with people. His whole life has been one of crankiness and anger, as a response to the pain of being abandoned by Kanna.

Buddha said “You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished BY your anger.” That’s the hard challenging truth that Western civilization, with its centuries-long domination by Christianity – and then by Hollywood – has distorted. You shouldn’t be good to other people because it’ll get you into heaven. You should be good to other people because it’s the only way to live a truly happy life and to really truly be celebrated by other people. Because at the end of the day, that’s all you have.

This is the kind of brilliance that makes this show move me so profoundly, which might be easy to miss while we’re wowed by the great fight scenes, elegant animation, humor, etc.

Posted on: November 11, 2010, by : Sam J. M.
File under: Blog