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What is Avatar: The Last Airbender Really Based On?

by Tyler Barry about a year ago in tv
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It is a well-known series, with well-known characters, and has been in the hearts of many kids for a very long time. But I find that not a lot of people know the true influences and cultures that Avatar is directly based off on. Do you want to find out how much diversity is truly in this little cartoon?

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The Difference in Identity and Geography in the Avatar Universe

Growing up, in an American household within an American neighborhood (one that was also overwhelmingly white), I wasn’t really exposed to the intricacies and specifications of identity and race within media. It wasn’t something I often thought about, but it also meant that going into everything I watched, I would imagine them as if they were white. It wasn’t like an eight-year-old to go into too much depth with the shows he watched anyways, so it meant there wasn’t a lot of researching going on to dupe what I had begun to think. It also meant that no one else I had known as an eight-year-old really thought much about it either. We all kept our relation and view on the show quiet in all matters except enjoying it as it was. It was an unbiased view, but it still faltered on its own; as I wasn’t as educated enough as I am now to understand that not everyone I see in animated media is a white person.

Glad to say I have grown both physically and mentally from being 8, but it has allowed me to learn a lot about the show that I had loved so dearly as a child. Recently, the tv show that often aired when I was a child, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was put onto Netflix and it was a revelation that brought a lot of people a feeling of nostalgia. And though it did exactly the same for me, it also gave me the chance to actually thoroughly research into the show that I had not really known too much detail about when younger. The characters, the events, the moments that were easy to take in-- of course I understood those. But everything like foreshadowing, little plot details, background details, and even more? Those were things that my now grown mind could actually have a capacity for.

It allowed me to learn a lot more about the exact identities of characters and areas that they had gone to. Which also wasn’t what I had thought after thinking back on it-- which was that most of them were of Asian descent. It was really interesting to actually get to look into the specific places and people that they had based each nation (Earth, Fire, Air, Water) off of.

First, to go directly into the specifics of the world culture and where it comes into play in different parts of the Avatar world itself (which kindly looks just like Pangea as it was initially pulling apart). In most initial Eastern religions and ideologies, there are five or four different elements. Listed are Water, Earth, Fire, Air, and Space, or Nothing, as listed in Miyamoto Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings”. It is also mentioned within both Hinduism and Buddhism, which have their own homages within the series itself. The entire world in itself has a major cultural influence from Chinese teachings, architecture, and all-around happenings. For instance, things that they take part in that are dated back to be important parts of Chinese culture are the large influence of tea, chopsticks, traditional Chinese scripture and writing, many Daoist philosophies, yin and yang, the use of Chinese currency (the yuan), the use of Chinese-influenced music, as well as Chinese-influenced clothing styles and architecture styles. Due to the show taking part in mainly the Earth Kingdom, it is safe to say that the Earth Kingdom is heavily influenced by and designed off of Chinese customs, culture, and history.

Second, the entire Water Tribe was based heavily on the Native communities and tribes of the Inuit and Yupik. Though, there are a lot of borrowed Chinese and Mongolian customs that they take part in as well. For instance, some designs and items. The Northern Water Tribe also has a lot of architecture influenced by Chinese ideas. The Southern Water Tribe is known to mainly live within igloos, which is a known form of dwelling within the Inuit tribe. Their clothing is also mainly made from animal furs and coats, which are based directly on anoraks and mukluks. Another cool thing is that one of the main characters, Katara, is said to have ‘hair loopies’ (a term coined by her aloof brother Sokka), which is a hairstyle that is directly from the Inuit tribe. The Southern Water Tribe is known to directly rely on things like fishing and hunting amongst their community, which is also something practiced by the Inuit. Associated mainly with Native Americans and the Inuit is their use of face paint, and different facial and body designs that multiple characters are seen with. Most Water Tribe characters are also mainly of darker skin-- a skin tone that is much darker than the rest of the animated cast.

Thirdly, the Air Nomads are based on a round of different Eastern countries, though they are mainly influenced by the Tibetan monks. They also share some cultural influences from Nepal, the Shaolin Monks, Hinduism, and Sri Lankan Buddhism. For instance, one of the more obvious things to me where this would come into play was the fact that Aang (the main character, the Avatar, as well as a former Air Nomad) was an avid vegetarian and would make sure that there wasn’t any clear possibility that he could break his vegetarianism. Most of the mentors and leaders of the Air Nomads were also recalled with ‘Monk’ at the beginning of their names. For instance, Aang’s actual mentor was referred to as ‘Monk Gyatso’ instead of just his name. A lot of their clothing is directly from Shaolin Monk culture, resembling actual items of clothing and building design. The most interesting thing to me was the way that they used a specific set of items and moments to try and find who the next Avatar would be, which is very similar to the practices done to try and find the next Dalai Lama in Tibetan Culture.

Finally, the Fire Nation. Known to be the enemies of the series despite the inclusion of Zuko (our main Fire Nation character) into the Gaang (the group of main characters). It has a broad range of influences, from South, East, and Southeast Asia. The Fire Nation architecture is mainly Chinese and Egyptian, the Capital of the Fire Nation is based on the Han Dynasty, there is a lot of clothing based on Chinese wear as well. There are some influences of Korean fashions as well (pictured in flashbacks of Avatar Roku’s wedding). The Agni Kai, a duel of honor, is based on South Asian and Indian duels that were notable in their actual history. A lot of the Fire Nation’s direct conflict and political imagery is very based on imperialist societies. Though, it was mainly because the Fire Nation was seen to be the overpowered and overwhelming powerhouse of the series that was trying to overtake the rest of the Nations. It was similar to how the Axis powers acted during the Second World War.

The Avatar franchise is very interesting. It has many different forms of culture within its influences and roots, which gives it a very diverse feeling. It includes not a bit of actual Western culture, which is definitely refreshing. The show is referred to as an anime despite not being made in Japan (it was created with Western writers and producers). This actually simply makes it a cartoon, which is definitely aiding to the terminology of being directly refreshing. It’s good to see that there wasn’t a single bit of Western influence because we do need a lot more of that in Western media (due to how many faces get to see these things). It is good to educate and learn about cultures that are not our own, and Avatar helped me a lot with that. Now, and in my youth.


About the author

Tyler Barry

I am an avid writer and have been in the writing game since I was very young... I hope to be able to share my expertise with more people.

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