The Power of Storytelling in Children’s Media
Prince Zuko: looking better than you in a ponytail and serving up some life lessons since 2005.
I remember waking up early on Saturday morning to watch cartoons — Sonic X, to be specific — and eagerly anticipating every fight scene. It didn’t matter what episode played, the heroes, or the plot, I was enamored. This continued into my Disney Channel days, tuning in and tuning out, looking to be entertained, without a thought spared of the show after the episode was over. Everything was formulated to entertain children, not to grow them. That is, until Avatar: The Last Airbender came along. (Avatar spoilers ahead: read with caution!)
When I started watching Avatar, it was the first show I had watched where the episodic sequence became important. It was the first time my thought process was deemed mature enough to follow a story longer than 20 minutes. Unfortunately, I began watching in the third season, so I didn’t get to live all the hype as it happened. However, this made me go to the library and check out the first season of Avatar, beginning a life-changing journey.
Characters Can Change, Often For The Better
While this may not appear incredibly important, this was the first time I had gone to ponder media outside of its consumption. While other shows merely served an entertainment purpose, Avatar wanted to teach. To teach kindness, patience, perseverance.
Aang is a child with many flaws, but he learns and he grows throughout the series. He matures and he holds true to his ideals of all life is sacred. There is not truly one “right way” and that you don’t have to bend to others’ will in doing the right thing.
In the opposite vein, Zuko was the object of my attention (as any 12-year-old girl). In all the stories I had read, the bad guy had always been the bad guy. You didn’t see how he fell, or his good intentions. Zuko’s character is understandable — any child abused by his father and sister would be the product of nature vs. nurture. But for once, Zuko did not have to stay attached to that role. He learns that he, like Aang, does not have to be what other people say he must be. He goes on a quest for redemption to better himself and to receive the forgiveness of his Uncle.
This is incredibly important to showcase to a child because if they see themselves as the bad guy, they know they can change. If they see a friend as the bad guy and the friend apologizes, they know change can be made. Stereotypes presented to children teach them that is how the world works because they see no other option. Adults often forget the impact of media on children, especially those that seem to be unassuming.
Grief and Loss Explored
Avatar pioneered the front of children's’ media when it came to touchy topics as well as character development, specifically in regards to death. Any other shows I had watched before this had never really touched on it. Death is a natural part of life, and kids that are not taught about the life cycle, grief, and how to process can feel at a loss if they have not witnessed it in some sort.
For instance, in the third episode of Avatar, Aang, Katara, and Sokka visit Aang’s old Air Temple, where they find evidence of the complete genocide of his people. This isn’t something you can touch on lightly. Aang has a strong visceral reaction, understandably, to his friends and family’s murders. It shows the true evils of the Fire Nation and the vile nature that ran underneath it, not placed as the villain in the series simply because they break into places and steal things like many other shows. Katara comforts Aang during his breakdown, reassuring him that they are with him now. She doesn’t diminish his grief, or take away from his pain, but lets him know that she is there and will not leave him. This is a great example to comfort friends with anything from anxiety to their own experiences with loss.
Katara and Sokka deal with similar grief in losing their mother to the fire nation at such a young age. Katara even gets to face her mother’s murderer in 3.16, The Southern Raiders. She and Zuko hunt down the man who came to their village to take the only waterbender. Katara’s mom lies to save Katara and is never seen again. Katara clearly feels a pang of deep-seated guilt for her mother’s death that she had never been able to understand or deal with completely. By going to face him, she takes the next step.
Forgiveness isn’t immediate, and not all problems are solved in a 20-minute episode. By refusing to kill her mother’s murderer, she begins to understand the moral complexity of taking a life. While not forgiving him, it does bring her to forgive Zuko. While not what your Sunday School might teach, Katara provides a realistic approach to a hard situation that a lot of people can relate to. Not everyone can be Aang, and that’s okay. Everyone is different and deals with grief differently.
Nature vs. Nurture
Another important theme in this series is relationships. This one specifically relates to Zuko and his mess of a family. Just because they’re your family, does not mean they’re kind to you and does not mean you owe them anything. Zuko’s father and sister were certifiably crazy and treated Zuko terribly. This isn’t okay. The whole nation — the whole world — suffers because of them. He isn’t required to stay with them or think they know best. Zuko grows up thinking he will receive love and honor by capturing the Avatar. His worth is dependent on what he can do. That isn’t pushing your child for the best, that’s abuse, plain and simple. That being said, while familial affection can’t be bought, this is what makes Zuko’s found family so incredibly important to him.
On a side note, it’s worth comparing Zuko’s experience to Katara and Sokka’s. Though losing their mother, they have nothing but good memories from her and their father. They respect him and he loves and cares for them, trusting them with decisions and supporting them in their endeavors and journeys. They had many positive influences growing up, also including their grandmother and other tribe members.
Uncle Iroh was one of the only positive influences in Zuko’s early life other than his mother, who mysteriously disappeared when he was young. Uncle Iroh does not demand anything of Zuko. He does not have to prove himself to Iroh as he would to his father. Iroh loves and cares for Zuko unconditionally, regardless of his flaws. Iroh and Ozai are set up as foils — one, the righteous heir, the kind father, the one who learns from his mistakes, the other a usurper, abuser, and outright cold individual. Iroh knows the loss of a son is irreparable, and you can see the care he takes with Zuko. Iroh is the fatherly example that’s important to note — Zuko does not owe him anything. However, Zuko loves him and respects him. He begins to understand the relationship more in the third season, accepting his mistakes and vowing to make up for them.
When Zuko finally returns to Iroh to apologize for his wrongdoings, their exchange goes like this:
Zuko: How can you forgive me so easily?! I thought you would be furious with me!
Iroh: I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you’d lost your way.
Zuko: I did lose my way.
Iroh: But you found it again! And you did it by yourself! And I’m so happy you found your way here.
Zuko learns and grows as any teenager would. Iroh giving him the space to grow is what Zuko has always needed, and a great example to children with how parent-child relationships should work. Iroh’s main concern regarding Zuko is his well-being, and verbally assures Zuko of his honor. For once in his life, Zuko felt like he did not have to earn his place or affection. He did it by existing because he is well-loved and will continue to be well-loved with his found family.
Avatar paved the way for children’s media by teaching us that children deserve the attention that adult media gets. They deserve good storytelling, character arcs, and hard topics. Just because they’re children doesn’t mean they can’t learn and grow from their experiences. Children and social benefit as a result of it! Avatar was a godsend and opened the doors for Netflix and other animation studios to begin funding children’s TV that helps children learn. Whether this is She-Ra, and teaching kids inclusivity and more about your found family, or The Dragon Prince and learning to do what’s right vs. what others tell you is right, all of it is incredibly welcome. Challenge your kids to watch shows to learn as well as enjoy. These kinds of shows are great because adults often like to watch them too! Build that bond and involve the kids. Teach them that they too can make choices that save the world. They’ll be the adults one day, and they will be all the better for what they learned when they were young.