Culture and Diversity in Avatar the Last Airbender

GOOD MORNING EARTHBENDING STUDENTS!

Toph_teaches_Aang

I’ve debated on whether or not to make this particular post a series, touching on each element separately and then it occurred to me that I can’t talk about diversity in the whole of the show if I split everyone up! Silly me!

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

The Water Tribe:

The legends say the moon was the first waterbender. Our ancestors saw how it pushed and pulled the tides, and learned how to do it themselves.

I could spend one whole post talking about the Water Tribe, dividing and comparing both the Southern and Northern tribes, but for the sake of everyone reading this post, I’ll be good.

To begin, I’ll start with dress and hairstyle. As far as dress, the Water Tribe follows a lot of similarities as Native Alaskan tribes such as the Inupiat. Outerwear is edged with fur and textiles make up much of the middle. As far as hair, it is traditional –as seen among both the Southern and the Northern Water Tribes– for women to have those “hair loopies,” as Sokka once puts them. What we see from men –as far as hairstyle goes– is the “warrior’s wolf tail.” This half-up/half-down hairstyle sported by many men. Whether or not they have the sides of their heads shaved differs, as we see with Sokka. Something else I’d like to mention, because of Sokka, is the warrior’s face paint. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what it’s called, however, because of baby Sokka ready to go off to battle with his father, we see another cultural detail with the face paint. Lastly, as far as appearance goes, people of the Water Tribe often have blue eyes.

Something we see specifically in the Water Tribe is sexism. As Katara points out from episode one, season one, all the way to, “Master Poop Head,” at the end of season one. And Katara –woman after my own heart– challenges this.

Finally, with the Water Tribe we have their names. Almost every person from the Water Tribe has a K in their name. I don’t know why, but they do. Allow me to name a few: Sokka, Katara, Hakoda, Kana, and Kya. There are more, but we gotta move on!

 

The Earth Kingdom:

An ancient legend states that a man named Shu and a woman named Oma, each from one of two warring towns, met atop a mountain that divided their peoples and fell deeply in love. Although their relationship was forbidden and it was dangerous for them to continue meeting, the couple found a way to continue seeing each other in secrecy. By observing the badgermoles, the couple became the first earthbenders.

In the Earth Kingdom we see a lot of similarities in dress as with civilians in Imperial China. This includes both upper and lower-class dress, and hair. Hair is commonly worn up, if not halfway then all the way. For women, hair is an opportunity to show off as we see with Toph and Katara’s in the Ba Sing Se (distopia) episode. Lastly, majority of people from the Earth Kingdom have green eyes.

Going from the Southern and Northern Water Tribes to the Earth Kingdom, we experience a bit of a social culture shock. Where the Water Tribes were mostly removed from the war, the Earth Kingdoms were constantly fending off the Fire Nation. This difference shows in military strategy (manipulating Aang into the Avatar State) and the use of secret police. This also contributes to the amount of paranoia felt by both civilians and military. The leader of the Dai Lee wants to overthrow the Earth King, certain generals aren’t confident in their military skills, and majority of military personnel are earthbenders (versus benders and non-benders in the first season battle finale).

I literally wanna just talk about Toph but she isn’t all of the Earth Kingdom! Moving on!

 

The Fire Nation:

The first human firebenders lived in a city atop a lionturtle during the era of Raava.

Ok, the Fire Nation. Woah buddy take a seat. The Fire Nation are the equivalent of… dude so many examples come to mind. Like North Korea for instance. Or the USSR. Or, you know anyone else who secludes its people and/or tells them that their government/way of life is so great they should share it with others. That was, like, almost everybody at some point in time. *cough* Europe *cough* Anywhooooooo, the Fire Nation is the equivalent of a military state. And a distopia. Everything looks all great on the outside but on the inside your Firelord is abusive to his son and his daughter is a whackjob. Not to mention he banished his own wife, but I mean #firelordgoals. OH OH OH! IT’S LIKE THE TOWN IN FOOTLOOSE! You know, because of that one dance party all the little sparks have in the cave. (Get it? Sparks? Because they’re children firebenders.) With Aang and Katara’s fight-dancing. *whistles* Yeah. Footloose. Military state style. AKA Nazi Germany. School uniforms and even casual dress resemble military uniforms, and hair is pinned up with the Fire Nation emblem. Majority of people in the Fire Nation have orange/brown eyes.

Because the Fire Nation is a distopic…communist…monarchy, its citizens are subject to uniform behavior. They don’t dance, or play music outside of national anthems. History is manipulated to make the Fire Nation look good *coughs* and military officials patrol public spaces.

Lastly, it seems those in the royal family have Zs in their name! Ozai, Azula, Zuko, Sozin, and Azulon.

 

The Air Nomads:

The first airbenders learned their art from the flying bison.

Follow the teachings and practices of many buddhist monks. While their fighting style may be based off of Bagua Kung Fu, the concept of fighting for self-defence (in the form of bending) resembles the teachings of Shaolin monks. What is most interesting in terms of fighting styles between the Shaolin monks and the Air Nomads is that while philosophies are similar (if not the same) the Shaolin style of Kung Fu is reserved for the Fire Nation! Ironic, isn’t it? However, firebending comes from the breath (as Iroh says) and Shaolin Kung Fu focuses primarily on this, while the Bagua fighting style moves in circular motions and focuses on staying behind your opponent’s back. I’m sure you’re wondering why it is I’ve brought up fighting styles now. I bring it up simply to stress the similarities the Air Nomads share with Shaolin monks, until it comes to their fighting styles. The reason I haven’t talked about the elements varying types of Kung Fu is because this is something often talked about when it comes to different bending, so I wanted to focus on other differences the show’s creators have given us. The share similar dress as Shaolin monks, however, their colors differ from the monks and break the color similarities of the other nations. While waterbenders commonly wear blue, earthbenders, green; and firebenders red, airbenders share the same color scheme as buddhist monks, and shave their heads.

It is known from Aang speaking out in the Fire Nation classroom that the monks didn’t have a military (as one would guess). Rather, they detached themselves from earthly possessions and sought spiritual enlightenment, this fact being shown in their varying, hard-to-reach temples. Similar to the Earth Kingdom’s peoples, Air Nomads didn’t share a specific letter in their names, however, we know from Aang and other Air Nomads that they did sport gray eyes. Or sometimes brown as the fandom has pointed out in Aang’s various episodes, haha.

There is so much more to say about this show and what it has taught and provided and made in terms of life lessons, differences in culture and belief, love, and war. There is so much! I couldn’t even begin to bring in Legend of Korra to all this.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed dipping your toes into Avatar the Last Airbender. If you haven’t seen the show and managed to make it to the end of this post, I’m proud of you. It wasn’t until I finished writing it that I realized I didn’t do an overview. I trust your Googling abilities!

Thank you for reading,

-M

 

Want to know more about the messages in children’s stories? Click the Follow button on the upper-righthand side of the page to get notifications each time I post. That’s twice a month!

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