Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra Are Not Just Children’s TV Shows


Kaytaki P. , Arts and Entertainment editor

*This article contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra*

Since the 1950s, TV shows have been popular in society. They’re fun, often inconsequential, and a great way to rally unenthusiastic family members. However, in the past few decades, TV has taken to capturing social issues in ways that are fully digestible by viewers. One TV show that has not shied away from discussing social issues is Avatar: The Last Airbender, along with its sequel show, The Legend of Korra. This series pair has effectively shed light on issues like sexism, genocide, and corruption in ways that can be understood by all age groups.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an iconic Nickelodeon show from 2005. This animated show follows the main character, Aang, and his friends, Katara, Sokka, and Toph. Through each of the seasons, the quartet travels around the world, teaching Aang to bend the different elements: air, water, earth, and fire, while trying various times to best the Firelord and save the world. Although the show seems lighthearted at first, it does dive into topics such as sexism and worldwide genocide.

A prime example of sexism in Avatar: The Last Airbender occurs in the Northern Water Tribe, the larger and more traditional of the two Water Tribe groups. In the Northern Water Tribe, waterbending is an activity that is only done by males, while healing is a task designated to the females of the tribe. Katara, a female waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe travels with Avatar Aang to the North in the hopes that they can learn waterbending together. When they arrive, however, Katara is told by waterbending instructor Master Pakku that female waterbending is against the Northern Water Tribe’s customs and traditions. Master Pakku dismisses Katara to the healing tent. Although Katara shows the potential to be, and eventually becomes, a master waterbender, she is originally shut down by Pakku and is forced to comply with the age-old restrictions of the Northern Water Tribe. Initially, Katara does give into the sexist customs of the Northern Tribe because she understands that by holding onto her anger towards Pakku she greatly reduces Aang’s opportunity to learn waterbending. Nevertheless, she eventually proves to Pakku that she is a powerful bender, giving her the opportunity to be taught waterbending by a master. The sexist beliefs of the Northern Water Tribe have been felt by generations of women in Avatar. Kanna, Katara’s grandmother was also subject to sexism by way of an arranged marriage. This involuntary marriage caused Kanna to leave the Northern Water Tribe and migrate towards the tribe in the South, illustrating the sexism that has been present in the Water Tribe for many decades.

Genocide is also prevalent in Avatar: The Last Airbender, as thousands of Air Nomads are victimized around the world. The airbenders were killed by Firelord Sozin who wanted to eliminate them as well as the Avatar (destined to be the last airbender). Avatar Aang – the airbending Avatar- who had fled from the Southern Tribe before the genocide, was left unharmed by Sozin. Although he was not found for a long time, Avatar Aang resurfaced 100 years after he fled. Upon his return, Aang learned that he was the last airbender, prompting him to feel immeasurable grief. By showing how heartbroken Aang is from the death of the airbenders, Avatar: The Last Airbender creatively teaches children the repercussions of genocide and the sadness it causes, effectively establishing the idea that genocide is wrong. The grief that viewers feel through Aang solidifies the idea that genocide is amoral and can only bring harm. The show conjures real emotions in viewers that leave a lasting impression. Additionally, by making the Fire Nation the perpetrator of the genocide, the show makes it clear that just because there are people that are different from you, you do not have the right to eliminate their communities. 

Social issues like corruption also make an appearance in Avatar: The Last Airbender’s sequel series, The Legend of Korra. Korra takes place after the passing of Aang, and follows a new Avatar, Korra. Korra is a young waterbender from the Southern Tribe. In the first season of the show, she travels to Republic City to complete her bending training and goes on to fight many enemies with her companions. One of the most formidable enemies that Korra faces is Kuvira, a security team member-turned-dictator. Kuvira makes her most powerful appearance in Season 4. Here, she emerges as the leader of the Earth Empire, the group that took control after Korra left. Unfortunately, while Kuvira was reorganizing the Earth Kingdom, she became corrupted, causing her to seek control over her old residence, Zaofu. And while the initial actions Kuvira took to unite the Earth Kingdom may be justifiable, the execution of her plan was unwarranted as it caused the spread of lies and forced people to work for a deceptively malevolent cause. Kuvira’s rule is reminiscent of a fascist government, with similarities to World War II and the dictatorships that arose then. Kuvira’s story provides a brief lesson on fascism and its effect on the world, which sets children up to recognize the challenges and disastrous results of fascist governments. So although young Korra viewers may not know what fascism is, they are led to realize that Kuvira’s governing tactics were harmful, preparing them for a lifetime of fighting corruption.

Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are not just TV shows designed for children; they are learning tools to spread unity and diversity while keeping children engaged. Since the shows’ creation, they have captured the adoration of thousands of viewers who love the beautiful animation and relatable characters.  Still, their storylines and plots run much deeper than that. While the episodes do depict young people sharing time with friends and family, they also illustrate the harder truths of life, such as corruption and sexism. Through these hard truths, Avatar and Korra empower women and girls and prove that good will always triumph over evil, even if it requires lots of hard work.