As I wipe my tears, the credits roll on the series finale of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (often referred to lovingly as “ATLA” or simply “Avatar”). The familiar theme song closes out what I consider to be the most significant chapter in my TV-watching adolescence. I had such an intense feeling of love and devotion to that show, and it all came flooding back when Netflix added the series to their rotation.
It’d been a good decade since I’d watched the show, since I sold my DVD collection to buy a camera in high school. I embraced it like an old friend patiently watching the plot and characters I knew all too well grow and unfold.
As the rest of the world watched, Avatar memes started to flood my social feeds, and I realized they were mostly coming from queer accounts.
“I didn’t realize that ‘ATLA; was so revered by the LGBTQ+ community until it came out on Netflix and all of its fans came out of the woodwork. And surprise — a lot are queer,” a classmate of mine, Grace, tells me.
I did some quick math and realized that nearly all my friends who were/are obsessed with the show are queer.
Without including any directly queer representation, this show promoted the queer identity like no other tween programming at the time. “Avatar” broke down gender roles, diverged from familial values to pursue one’s own, and promoted the ideology of breaking rules for the empowerment of subjugated communities. Sometimes adhering to queer themes can be just as important as representing actual queer characters in television.
To truly comprehend the impact of “Avatar,” I think of its neighboring tween programming. “iCarly” and “Hannah Montana,” the then top-rated shows on Nickelodeon and Disney respectively, failed to represent the queer plight due to their reliance on privilege as a selling point. <
“Other shows airing when ‘Avatar’ did deal with silly slapstick humor, whereas ‘Avatar’ delves into darker themes like colonization, oppression, war, and identity,” says Flor.
While the avatar had to save the entire world from destruction and death, Hannah Montana” rode on the stakes of Miley being outed as a rich, talented pop star. Meanwhile, the literal logline of “iCarly” is that a teen must “cope with success.” The real-world application of either show is minimal when the main takeaway is “stars are just like us.”
“Out of the three shows, I’ve only cried multiple times while watching Avatar. My affinity derives from the struggle each character experiences,” says Amelia.
Speaking as someone who watched and enjoyed both shows, I never understood why they were turning little annoyances into life struggles. It plays as escapist and heteronormative, which, even as an unrealized ten-year-old queer, I could comprehend were small bothers compared to the bigger issues out there.
And what is one of those problems queers know all too well? Gender identity. Whether you are cis, trans, or non-binary, nearly all queers must grapple with the notion of gender performance.
“Avatar” was one of the first instances where I saw gender deconstruction. For example, Katara and Suki, who are portrayed as the most attractive, aren’t dressing to conform to a beauty standard, and Aang and Zuko, who are portrayed as the strongest, are never seen displaying their muscles. I’d go further to say that the distinctions between male and female appearance in the show are so minimal — androgynous tunic-style clothing, long hair, and makeup sported by every gender — that they create an overall gender-neutral tone.
The strongest point in favor of this is the distribution of bending power. In the “Avatar” world, bending equates to authority and privilege. Since there is no gender disparity, it puts women alongside men as warriors and leaders, and the show depicts those who condemn the gender of a bender as foolish when they witness their capabilities. Take Katara’s search for a master in the North Pole. Initially, the water bending master refuses to teach her because she is a girl, but Katara insists on proving him wrong through a powerful display of her bending and succeeds in convincing him of his backward ways.
The second queer theme I recognized was the ditching of performative values to pursue one’s own truth. Zuko portrayed this experience perfectly. And, as it turns out, most of the queers I spoke with related heavily to Zuko’s journey.
“The struggle Zuko has with his father reminds me of the desire closeted/rejected LGBTQ+ people feel when they are worried/know their family won’t accept them,” Allison tells GO. “Wanting so much to have a place in one’s own family is something I struggled with after I coming out to homophobic relatives.”
Zuko begins the show discontent with his life, but fueled by a single desire: to earn his place in his family. Nail, meet tead. As the show progresses, we see Zuko’s internal struggle unfold as he leaves behind his performative roots of destruction and elitism to embrace the life that comes most natural to him: restoring balance and equality.
Like so many queers, he spent years battling his true nature to grasp at the straws of familial love and approval, but once he gave in to his repressed desires, he realized therein lied his path to happiness, self-love, and a new family.
“With the core characters all being torn from or emotionally distant from their biological families, ‘ATLA’ really highlights how you can CHOOSE your family, especially if yours doesn’t choose you,” says Grace.
By far the strongest queer theme present in the entire series is the ideology of breaking rules in order to free subjugated peoples. The fight for freedom against rigidity and oppression is what the entire show is about, and it is quickly established that rule-breaking is necessary when the oppression doesn’t have a conscience. If a system is broken, its rules should hold no influence. In less than a year, Aang and his friends orchestrated several prison breaks; manipulated a town’s reliance on fortune-telling; rewrote an entire town’s history; lied to powerful spirits; pretended to be spirits; made friends with their enemies; and learned how to bend metal, blood, plants, and to take away one’s bending.
Queer and marginalized people can speak to the power of rejecting the status quo when enacting change. Secret queer weddings, underground queer bars, big city marches, the Stonewall Uprising, intersectional feminism, AIDS activism, the The Black Cat, any display of queer affection, reclaiming slurs and just plain identifying as LGBTQ+ are just a few of ways our community has taken the power back.
For those of us who grew up in socially conservative households, shows like “Avatar” were sometimes the only places we could find heroes.
“As a queer kid watching this, you can see all these divergent people helping each other fight against the system and feel proud,” says Flor.
Looking back, there were definitely weeks where “Avatar” reruns were the only thing that could lift my spirits. Watching Aang defeat the Firelord, as trivial as it sounds, symbolized the battles I fought every day against my religion and social norms — or, as I now know it, heteronormativity.
I want to honor this show in the name of queer kids, teens, and adults everywhere. Thank you for taking care of us and showing us that we can be our own lights in the face of darkness.