Male Role Models in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Noah Brand explains how there is no gender war in Ba Sing Se.

The 2000s were, many critics and fans agree, the Decade When TV Got Good. Some mark the transition from the 1999 premiere of The Sopranos, but whenever you mark it, the decade of The Wire, Arrested Development, Firefly, Deadwood, and the first three seasons of House really does mark a profound shift in sheer quality on television. (Yes, I am almost definitely leaving out several of your favorites; just assume I meant those too.)

For all the brilliance and innovation of those series, though, the 2000s TV show I return to most often, the one I can watch over and over and always enjoy, is a kids’ show that aired on Nickelodeon, and that I didn’t discover until years after it went off the air. I am referring, of course, to Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Some of you may only be familiar with the franchise from the live-action M. Night Shyamalan movie. Please, as you value your sanity, disregard that. The movie was godawful, but the show, even truncated at a mere three seasons, was the most brilliant children’s show in at least a generation. The action, imagination, visual design, humor, and engrossing worldbuilding of the show are all top-notch, but the quality of the writing is what sets Avatar apart. It deals with serious issues in a way that kids can understand but adults can appreciate, a difficult line for anyone to walk. The characterization, though, passes beyond skillful and into extraordinary.

Avatar has been much-praised for its excellent female characters, who span a variety of heroes and villains, all of them complex and three-dimensional, none of them a simple stereotype or cliché. When too many shows, especially kids’ shows, have a character who can be accurately described as The Girl, that’s a rare and special quality in television.

What I loved most about the show, though, was the wonderful range of male characters. Not just the usual Generic Leader, Cool Snarky Guy, and Dumb Guy, they are also well-realized and complex characters, and three of them stand out, for me, as role models for three stages of a man’s life.

SPOILERS from here on in. If you haven’t seen this show, go now and watch it. You’re in for a treat.

 

Sokka

Sokka is a great example of how to be a young man. A teenager throughout the run of the show, he has a young man’s vices and a young man’s virtues. He’s often overconfident, thinks he’s immortal, and has an immature and sometimes inappropriate sense of humor. As the “normal guy” surrounded by fellow heroes who wield immense superhuman powers that he doesn’t share, it would be easy for him to just be the doofy comic relief. Instead, he’s presented as smart and capable, using his own abilities to their utmost, coming up with the plans the group depends on.

Most of all, Sokka knows that he’s young and plans accordingly. He occasionally falls into the adolescent trap of thinking he knows everything, but he’s always willing to learn from his mistakes and admit when he’s wrong. He never seeks to dodge responsibility for his errors, but does his best not to make the same ones twice. In the third season, he gains a coveted position studying with the world’s greatest sword master by humbly admitting that he knows very little, and he has a lot to learn. When I look back on what a godawful little smartass I was as a teenager, I wish I’d had a role model like Sokka to follow.

 

Iroh


Iroh, aka Uncle Iroh, aka General Iroh, aka The Dragon of the West, is a magnificent example of how to be a middle-aged man. He first appears as one of the bad-guy team hunting down the heroes, but turns out to be perhaps the most decent, human, and purely good character on the show. He’s a funny, chubby, seemingly harmless goof with a well-developed taste for rich food, fascinating women, and most of all good tea. He flirts shamelessly, but is never rude. He treats everyone with respect and kindness, even when he doesn’t have to. He is a matchless warrior who has turned his back on war, but is willing to fight for principles that he discovered too late in life.

What makes Iroh a great middle-aged man is that he has a past. He has made mistakes. He has fought hard for what he now knows to be the wrong side. He has done terrible wrongs, but he does not let his past define him. For Iroh, every day is a new day, full of good food, good tea, good women, and another chance to do the right thing, after too many years doing the wrong one. He learns from his mistakes, and tries with all his considerable might to prevent the next generation from repeating them. He forgives others their bad actions because he knows that he has plenty of his own to be forgiven. He is a testament to the idea that one can always choose to become a good man, no matter what kind of man one has been in the past.

 

Bumi


Then, of course, there’s King Bumi. If my reprobate lifestyle allows me to become an old man, I hope that one day I might be an old man like Bumi. He’s rude, absentminded, confusing to talk to, and his clothes are sixty years out of style. He’s also still brilliant, still active, and a lot trickier than those darn young folks assume. He’s willing to use the dotty-old-man routine to seem harmless as a way of covering his own agenda, or just as a way of messing with the heads of the teenage heroes. When I’m old, I hope I’m half that good at messing with teenagers.

Bumi’s virtues are those of age: experience and patience. Without the rushed do-it-now urgency of youth, he can wait peacefully for the right moment to act. He’s willing to look like a fool because he’s too old to be hung up on his image. And he’s free to screw around with people’s assumptions and expectations because at his age, he’s well past giving a fractional fuck what people think of him. He knows who he is, and is going to get some laughs out of his twilight years with or without anyone else’s permission. At my age, I still have too many bridges left unburnt to enjoy that kind of freedom, but there is a part of me that looks forward to being old enough to get away with becoming childish again.

Next month, Nickelodeon will premiere the spin-off series The Legend of Korra, and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve heard some grumbling among fans (you know how fans are) that the lead character being a young woman will just lead to the same old dynamic with a cliché early-90s Action Girl and the parade of dumb male characters who are just there to act as foils for an ill-considered and even patronizing “grrl power” image. Me, I’m not worried. Given the creators’ track record, I have faith that Korra will be a complex, human, well-realized protagonist, and that the male cast will once again feature men so well-written, so fallible and yet admirable, that I’ll watch the show and think “See, that’s the kind of man I want to be.”

Who’s your favorite male role model in fiction? Discuss it on the Good Men blog!

All images in this article are from Nickelodeon.

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About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, and possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.

Comments

  1. David in SLC says:

    I too had the luxury of watching the show in one sitting right before the series finale came out. Good thing too because when I finally did sit down to watch this show, I was amazed at the quality of the writing and the voice acting and craved more with each episode. This is without a doubt the best animated TV show ever next to the all-time champ, Batman: The Animated Series.

    Avatar is funny, grand, heart-breaking, scary, insightful, warm – it runs the gambit of human experience and I’m a better person for having watched it. I mean that. Relating to Iroh was one of a few tools I used at that time to work through some ages-old pain I had been holding on to.

    This is great show to watch with your kids – heck, any kid really. You’ll be amazed that they get the subtlety and they’ll be amazed that you aren’t some stodge ol’ grown up.

  2. Excellent article!

    There WERE a couple bits and pieces in the show that I thought were iffy. For instance, Katara is all over Aang in several points, then when he loses the battle at the fire palace, Katara is no longer all that interested. Suddenly, he saves the day in the end, and Katara is finally like “okay, NOW, I like this guy”. But that’s up for interpretation. It WAS however, widely discussed and debated.

    In this article, it would have been nice to see a bit about Zuko as well. His development is essentially a materialized manifestation of many adolescent/young adult male’s lives. It’s basically like Iroh’s story. The world judges him not as a person, but by his skills as a firebender. As such, he becomes consumed by his need to restore his image and prove himself , even when it means sacrificing his own values, simply because people don’t give him respect until he proves himself (in contrast to his sister, to seems to get it intrinsically). This relates well to the male ego, where men are judged not on their intentions and values, but their abilities or mistakes alone.

    Later he’s face to confront this past when joining the gang. Now that he KNOWS who he is and has learned from his mistakes, he still has to deal with owning the mistakes he has learned from.

    And even before then, when traveling the earth kingdom, he takes an apologetic hiding stance for the intrinsic hate directed towards him because of the mere fact that he’s a firebender. He later proclaims his identity, leaving any judgments to that village, and them alone. Which they then of course forget all the help he gave in precedence to their prejudices towards him as a firebender.

    I so so easily relate this to my own apologetic stance as a man being raised in a school that only really taught feminism. I felt being male was something to be ashamed of, and that people had a right to distrust me. Now, is how I see it, I am a man and I have my desires, beliefs, and drives. If people don’t want to trust me because I’m a member of the “oppressive gender”, that’s their prejudice, not my disrespect.

    Overall excellent article, though, and FABULOUS show!

    • I second that. A bit about Zuko would’ve been right up this article’s alley, particularly as he represents the problematic side of men attempting to live up to stereotypes, and the expectations of others in order to be deemed worthwhile.

      But that aside, I loved the show and will definitely watch the next one. Seriously, before I used to pity children’s television programming, but now I’m confident there’s at least one decent show for them (and me) to look back on.

      • Mark Neil says:

        “particularly as he represents the problematic side of men attempting to live up to stereotypes, and the expectations of others in order to be deemed worthwhile.”

        Agreed, and I think that applies as much to ang as it does to zuko. Ang was continuously being pressured to fulfil the prophecy in the ways others had interpreted it, and had those pressures and expectations on his shoulders throughout the series. in the end, he needed to find his own way.

    • Noah Brand says:

      I love Zuko as a character, but I was mainly focusing on the three-age role models (Shades of the maiden/mother/crone archetypes, really) and I have a hard time seeing Zuko as a role model. I can’t imagine watching the show with a kid and saying “See Zuko there? That’s who you should be like.” I mean, if I’m just going to start talking about characters on the show who are awesome and brilliantly written and engaging, this article would be tediously long.

      • “I can’t imagine watching the show with a kid and saying ‘See Zuko there? That’s who you should be like.’”

        Excellent point. I guess I wasn’t thinking so much “role model” as “relatable character”. still, I needed to find SOME excuse to talk about Zuko! haha

      • I could see pointing to Zuko in a positive way as a role model around Season 3. He really does become a hero in his own right, and his transformation from villain to good guy is probably something a lot of boys could relate to in their experiences with the demonization of masculinity.

        But that’s just me =P

        • Agreed. I can understand Noah going for the young/middle aged/old setup but from what I’ve seen of Zuko (I’ve never seen the entire series) I would say that his transformation from villain to hero at such a young age makes him a notable character.

    • ascendingPig says:

      I think Katara’s disinterest in him after the battle at the fire palace makes sense when you consider that *he* didn’t lose the battle, *they* did. She’s upset, she’s questioning her priorities, and of course she’s not interested in romance after such a huge failure on both their parts.

  3. Badi Morris says:

    I would have loved to have a mention of Iroh’s son, that episode where he has a picnic on his son’s birthday and sings that song makes me tear up every time. Such a good show.

    • David in SLC says:

      “Tales of Ba Sing Se”

      It is also the first episode to be aired where Mako does not perform Iroh’s voice. He had died during the recording process and was replaced by his protege for the remainder of the series.

      FYI – Nickelodeon has put up TWO episodes of The Legends of Korra on the Korranation.com website. They are set to debut tmrw (3/24/12). The show itself doesn’t debut until mid-April.

  4. CajunMick says:

    Loved this show. It was great to watch with my son. It gave us opportunities to discuss themes brought up in the episode.

  5. Jaime Herazo says:

    Those who enjoy cartoons with the given characteristics (excellent writing, great non-stereotypical characters, fantastic animation, top-tier voice acting and so on) and can look past gender stereotypes, must do themselves a favor and check out the latest My Little Pony series. Little to no males in that one though.

    • I’ve heard the same thing! A friend of mine who is, like, super masculine (Totally opposite the gay stereotype), was telling me about how much he loves that show. I’m thinking “Dude…My Little Pony? Like the annoying toy commercial that always came on between episodes of avatar that made me lose whatever hope I gained for nickelodeon?” But I’ve heard this from several people as well. Fascinating. It’s one of those shows I may just have to check out.

    • Mark Neil says:

      Those ponies are dangerous:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCP9Jn2Q0cQ

      That said, I haven’t actually seen the show, but I do watch out for all sorts (I’m a 3D animator. I love watching cartoons so much I made a career of it :D)

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