“Avatar: The Last Airbender”, “Legend of Korra”, and the Carceral State

“Avatar” is not a show about peace, it’s about policing. Its sequel remedied that.

I am 12 years old eating pizza in our home in the bowl of the Phoenix valley, watching a new Nickelodeon TV show. I am unaware that years down the line it will help shape my ethics against imperialism and national exceptionalism as a teenager in post-9/11 America. At this time, I am a kid of a divorced household happy to have something epic and fantastical to get lost in. When I am 19 and sitting in a bite-sized dorm room in college, this show’s sequel will offer me a way to look at equitability in society and the cycles governments reinvent themselves in. Now I am 27, watching those same shows again from the pocket of my girlfriend’s apartment in West Philadelphia where we hide from a pandemic. The eyes watching this show now have also watched Black lives destroyed by white knees and hands and guns and watched police permanently blind and injure the protestors trying to hold them accountable. I am immediately aware that nothing in life is stagnant, nothing is allowed to exist without a context, least of all childhood joys.

and are shows about the importance of a worldly, multicultural perspective, about imperialism, power, control and the dangers of national exceptionalism, about self-actualization and inner harmony with your growing body and mind. In short, it seems to be everything the United State’s current far-right government would rather its children do without. And the collective brain of our culture, forced to live online in a way we never have before, has taken notice, if only in the safest and most repeated takes. But it is the inadvertent teachings of these shows, a truth that is hard to face, that I find myself grappling with 15 years later.

The quick exposition is this: the world in which these shows exist is defined by a connection to the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. The world is divided into four nations based on these elements and within each nation there are groups of people born with a natural connection to their native element and the ability to bend, or manipulate it, through spiritual and martial arts training. In each generation a single individual is born with the ability, despite their country of origin, to bend all four elements. This being is the Avatar, the human embodiment of the spirit of light and peace. And they are tasked with keeping the world in a state of balance and harmony. deals with a child Avatar and pacifist, Aang, grappling with his destiny in the middle of an ongoing world war. The follow-up, , follows a young adult Avatar, Korra, facing an existential crisis of her own relevance in the burgeoning of a new country and new government systems.

Elaine Scarry, Harvard professor and exceptional essayist, has done extensive work on the study of the human body as it relates to the emotions and wills of the human mind through her work . She explores aspects of violence and war on the inner world of each individual human and on the outer extensions of our identity. Danielle Sered, lawyer and founder of Common Justice, likewise put out an important body of work on the American obsession with punishment and violence in Until We Reckon. It’s through these careful critiques of the elements of war, violence, and state-sponsored punishment that we can start to see just how much our culture, and even shows about peace and nonviolence like , is ingrained with primal focuses on physical subjugation and punishment, despite how it may be at war with our morals.

This is highly important for engaging with the below argument: it is both unhelpful and impossible forintellectual engagement to not acknowledge the context from which the shows were brought to life.

Let’s start with the axis on which this show revolves: bending. At their core, the bending disciplines of the show are about violence and physical subjugation. While different bending disciplines have various uses that are not inherently combative and can be utilized for medical purposes, infrastructure, and utility work, the show focuses on the militaristic and martial arts applications. It is virtually impossible to divorce bending from its violent implications and uses, especially when the most readily visible use of bending in this world is as soldiers in local militaries. In this lens, the Avatar is the ultimate body, endowed with all the natural forms of violence available to this world. The world in which as a show was burgeoned, white supremacist America in a post 9/11 world, cannot be ignored. As Sered notes in the introduction of her book:

Acknowledging this is necessary to combat the “American habit to try to solve problems apart from their context.” And where violence is concerned, Scarry notes that war is, at its most basic definition, a contest to see who can injure more human bodies:

So bending, as a tool of war both on large international scales and micro, interpersonal conflicts, is a method of physical subjugation by way of out-injuring one another. Following this logic, the Avatar is the ultimate weapon, that is the vehicle through which the ultimate injury can be inflicted. That is why the Avatar is respected and revered as a world leader, they are a threat by merely existing in space and thus the only being with the ability to truly police the various nations.

One argument against this might be that in the finale of the original show, Aang, who spent much of his journey at odds with the implications of his role as the Avatar and how it related to his nonviolence upbringing as an Air Nomad, managed to avoid this particular asterisk in the Avatar’s role and identity. Despite his allies calling for him to execute Fire Lord Ozai — that is, injure his body until he is physically destroyed — Aang refuses to do this, he was not raised to be the ultimate spear tip in war even if his body was designed to be so. Aang’s friends echo a highly Americanized sentiment outlined by Sered: “America has long had a love affair with punishment.” We actually have a term for this now in criminal justice discussions, we call it American penal exceptionalism and it has infected every aspect of our justice system from security guards in the mall to judges. Aang seems to oppose this mentality. He to oppose it.

As a result of these internal struggles and scruples with fatal violence, he finds a compromise by using another physical ability unique to the Avatar, energybending, to remove Ozai’s bending and thus render him inert. It seems like avoiding the inclination for penality and violence. However, Elaine Scarry has accounted for this seemingly nonviolent form of combat, discussing heavily that the goal of war in an abstract sense is disarming the enemy, which can be done in a variety of ways, especially when physical weapons (guns, artillery, etc.) are physical extensions of one’s own body and identity in the theater of war. Ozai’s case is a perfect example of this, as the weapon is more closely and literally an extension of his identity and body. This is still a form of violence, it’s permanently altered Ozai’s body and caused detrimental mental impact. Aang has forced his physical will over the world of Ozai’s body and facilities, and he has done it in the name of punishment.

The key components of punishment as noted by Sered are deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and retribution.

  • Deterrence is achieved by removing Ozai’s natural powers, a warning to the remaining Fire Nation nationalists. Even though the imperialistic tactics and psychology of the Fire Nation are far more than the physical abilities of one man, even if he is a national leader, the show uses Ozai’s physical capabilities and his ability to inflict violence as the metric for which we measure the success of Aang’s endeavor. He’s deterred others by punishing Ozai.
  • Incapacitation is plain enough to see, Ozai is rendered incapable of causing further harm, which was the entire point of Aang using this ability rather than killing him.
  • Retribution is defined as a society’s collective desire for revenge. It relies on disregarding the humanity of the offender in the face of the damage they caused, thus justifying punishment in the first place. Aang’s allies, many of which were harmed in some physical or emotional way either directly or indirectly by Ozai, champion Aang as punisher and vengeance seeker. They’ve determined Ozai’s actions dehumanize him to the point that this punishment is necessary and just. While Aang carries out a different form of punishment, it is still a form of punishment he has deemed fit. He even says during his battle with Ozai just before deciding not to kill him “You and your forefathers have devastated the balance of this world and now you must pay the ultimate price.”

You’ll notice rehabilitation is missing. That’s because at no point does Aang, despite being aware of Ozai’s humanity in a way his friends are not, attempt to rehabilitate the Fire Lord. Instead, he throws him in jail. The lack of physical gore and obvious pain makes this form of punishment palatable for Aang, who has become a world police officer.

The Avatar is the physical subjugator of bodies for the goal of peace and order. They are the defender of the status quo, which is exactly how the police officers began to see themselves during what James J. Chriss’s calls in his book the era of “professionalization”. Aang simply had popular morality and optics on his side, something police today rely on to keep their violent actions viewed as a necessary tool towards communal safety as they shifted away from status quo enforcers of the 60s into community leaders through the PR move popularly called “community policing”. Throughout his life, Aang will employ the use of this ability to strip other dangerous bodies of their natural weapons to lasting generational consequences we see in the follow-up .

Korra, Aang’s direct successor is actively violent, physical, and far more commanding in her role as an enforcer. She is unafraid to start fights, eager to use her physical abilities to assert dominance over others and resistant to inactive and passive forms of diplomacy. All of which makes it incredibly surprising that, by the end of the series, she is succeeding where Aang and previous Avatars failed in resisting the mantle of judge, jury, and executioner.

Where employed the epic narrative thread of imperialism, is more bifurcated in its thematic elements, with many noting each season seemed to cover a different governmental ideology: communism, theocracy, anarchy, and fascism. Perhaps the show’s creators understood the implications of their creation’s framework and sought to tackle it head-on, or perhaps the audience, which was by that point college-aged, understood they could see even the most basic of stories as metaphors for larger modus of control and policing of a general population. Korra faces ideologies throughout the show that challenge her identity and role: the Avatar as a hurdle towards equality, that the Avatar failed as a spiritual leader, that the Avatar is an extension of world governments, or that the military must take over where the Avatar failed.

By the time of the show’s finale, Korra ends up avoiding the bodily destruction of her political enemy, talking her into a diplomatic surrender instead by expressing an empathic connection with Kuvira, a fascist dictator. The importance of empathy is stressed heavily by Sered who notes punishment only works when we remove empathy from the situation. One must see the person receiving punishment as completely inhuman and different from the one doing the punishing. It’s what makes Aang’s ability to punish Ozai so easy, but Korra is unable to divorce Kuvira’s humanity from her person and cannot ignore the similarities between the two of them.

That’s not to say the show is perfect on the way to this profound climax. The show prominently features police as heroic main characters and features political prisoners held in captivity by an unofficial military force (the Avatar’s personal militia, the White Lotus). And there are no final answers to the questions as a show poses through its open critiques of the Avatar as an entity and open acknowledgment of the ways in which the Avatar is an oppressive force for whatever person, institutions, or ideology it serves. But that’s where today’s abolitionist thinkers and enactors come in: thoughtful folks with visions for the future.

What we’re facing right now in America is a physical crisis of police violence on one side and the moral crisis complicity on the other. The Avatar is another word for a police officer, a sheriff, an authority. Even when governmental entities disagree with the Avatar, the physical gifts towards bodily violence the Avatar possesses are on their side — not unlike Philadelphia’s police officers justifying themselves in both physically attacking nonviolent protestors and allowing white, pro-police vigilantes to enter the fray despite the city’s official stance. The Avatar and the police will, ultimately, do what they want because governments let them. Aang’s story is unaware of this and ultimately finds a solution that seems more on par with the concept of police reform — a way to work within the system that feels the closest to correct without ever quite getting there. Korra’s story engages with the existential questions surrounding the Avatar and finds ways of constantly reinventing the Avatar’s role in a method that is closer to the abolitionist plans of many protesters.

Aang, embodying the role of reformer, works within his own system to create a solution that is seemingly nonviolent and agreeable to many. Police reform predicates itself on a few assumptions and seeks solutions that enforce those assumptions in favor of the police force. Those assumptions include that the goal of police is to keep communities safe, that most police officers are inherently good and moral people, that communities see their police forces as necessary protectors, that “breaking of social contracts” that result in police violence are the exceptions rather than the rule, that all police only lack is the right amount of training in nonviolence and de-escalation. Initiatives like body cameras to hold police accountable, more training, and more refined community policing all work to offer more funding, equipment, and personnel to the police force while stripping away those resources from other entities focused on community intervention, nonviolence, social services, and educational initiatives. Aang’s ability to energybend, revealed at the very end of the show as a solution to his moral panic, did nothing to rehabilitate Ozai or tackle the systems in which he was raised and educated in nationalism, exceptionalism, and supremacy. It did not provide Aang with the tools to engage empathetically with Ozai. It was a weapon he used. But sure, it made Aang and his allies feel better about the actions taken.

On the other side, police abolition calls for a complete undoing of what the police are, an obliteration of their far-reaching hand in community matters, and a reimagining of how communities create public safety. It acknowledges the origin of police as physical enforcers of the will of slaveholders, the military, and business owners and tracks the constant reinvention of the police identity to fit the shifting landscape (as Chriss’s above text points out police went from union busters to self-appointed crime fighters to defenders of the status quo to self-appointed community leaders). Korra strips herself of the role as sole liaison between the spirits and humans by allowing both groups freedom of movement and interaction, she sacrifices her body for the perpetuation of an endangered minority (the Air Nomads) recognizing the Avatar is an unnecessary tool towards the natural balance of the nations, and she ultimately refuses to utilize her destructive power against her final enemy Kuvira, something Aang was unable to do with Ozai. She is taking steps toward abolition and completely redefines what the Avatar is in the context of the world. And, like abolitionists, does not necessarily have the answer to every single question but knows the acknowledgment of nonanswers is better than the current enforced solutions and where she must head.

The issues in our real world are obviously much more complex than how they are presented in and . The shows are not an answer but they are a reflection of the world in which they were born. We have more stratified issues within policing, in regards to their role as minority enforcers, racial sentinels, and tools of the carceral state, that neither show can ever truly broach. But as many of its viewers found a way to identify with and examine their own place in an imperialistic country careening towards nationalism through these stories and characters, today we can look at a story of policing and physical subjugation as a metaphor, or perhaps, avatar, for our own reckoning with policing and understand, at a high level, what we should aim for rather than what we should settle for.

A Philly-based copywriter and published author of a novel, one forthcoming novel (August 2021), multiple short stories, and articles and essays.

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