Everything Changed When The Fire Nation Attacked: An Examination of ‘Exceptionalism’ Using Avatar: The Last Airbender

Our quarterly contributors theme is “Art in Conversation: Artists, Art Collectives, and Creatives in Africa and the Diaspora” so I want to take a look at the art of media. Media is a language we’ve developed to communicate on a wide scale. From hieroglyphics to books to television to this sentence you’re reading right now, it’s all a process based on combining our linguistic resources -patterns of movement, symbols, and sounds- to connect to each other. Sometimes this communication is direct, like a live viewing or a VoIP (voice-over internet protocol – think Facetime) conversation. Sometimes it’s passive, like reading an ancient text, swimming in the knowledge of our ancestors. We’re going to use this understanding of media as a language to explore how its misuse can maintain ideological divisions. We’re gonna get down with messaging techniques using the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It gave me life. Maybe I can give it back.

Racism exists as an ideological system of power in Western society. We classify individuals and their communities based on impressions of a global minority – in our reality, it’s various groups of Europeans insisting on an imperial legacy based on their claim to the fabricated concept of “whiteness.” If this system is negative, then it must have a counter, a positive system in which these individuals are exempt from these racial classifications. Unfortunately, no such system exists. If you don’t fit the social perception ascribed to your visual appearance, you’re considered an anomaly. Many of us have lived this, and it doesn’t feel good. This ‘racism, or lack thereof’ approach that we in creative media embrace is a result of exceptionalism (also called Chauvinism for hilarious French reasons). Exceptionalism is the social agreement that the ideology of the dominant group is exceptional, and therefore anything that does not coincide with this ideology is an unwelcome departure.  The first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender uses exceptionalism in a reverse binary as a code to both enable and challenge the dominant social ideology. Flameo, hotman!

Avatar is a show that is constructed around the problems exceptionalism in a national and racial context creates. Using comparative circumstance, the narrative is able to isolate group identifications and establish positions of negativity, positivity, and neutrality. Being that it is a children’s show, it takes these representations and attributes a tangible and identifiable value to each, with the dominant, ‘racist’ or ‘radical’ ideology represented by the Fire Nation, the ‘oppressed’ or ‘liberal’ ideology represented by Air Nomads,Water Tribe, and Earth Kingdom (to an extent), with the position of passive neutrality or ‘conservative’ ideology also occupied by the Earth Kingdom. These positions, through Avatar’s first season, are presented in a polarity of exceptionalism. The Fire Nation is seen as the dominant social ideology, and the protagonists’ struggle is against that. Because the viewer is only subject to the perspective of the protagonist (at least in the first season), the Fire Nation is subject to a “set of unquestioned assumptions. These (assumptions) enable racist statements to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the racist predicates on which the statements are grounded”[1]. The viewer is only granted information that leads them to understand the Fire Nation as evil, as negative, and any participant in the Fire Nation that does not ascribe to those features is seen as an anomaly. (Note: In the first season, there are only two featured characters from the Fire Nation that are exempt from these qualities – Uncle Iroh and Ty Lee). In this instance, the protagonists (one an Air Nomad, and the other two, Water Tribespeople) are considered exceptional.

The issue here is in part with how the Fire Nation in particular is portrayed, but overall it is with the media mindset overall that exceptionalism is necessary for a television narrative. It is possible for a program to “critique various forms of oppression” without “reproducing certain forms of racism, sexism, and biases”[2]. The dominant society, when confronted by media liberalism, is often assigned negative stereotypes similar to those that same dominant society is accused of creating. The perspective of the Fire Nation, or rather, the perspectives of the individual citizens of the Fire Nation are not wholly presented through the first season of Avatar. The show speculates that the viewer can assume their perspective even though it is largely unstated. The Fire Nation is an allegorical representation of imperial empire throughout world history, so the show supposes that these perspectives are understood by its audience. This compounds the issue liberalism attempts to challenge. Avatar incorporates this “unconscious racism because it is predicated on the unstated and unrecognized assumption that (the Fire Nation) is the source of the problem” when, in actuality, the Fire Nation is not given equal agency because the show is “predicated on (these same) racist premises” the show attributes to the Fire Nation[1]. Avatar, in attempting to provide a storytelling authority to the victim, removes it from the victor. This is a statement of truth, not value.

The victims in Avatar (the Air Nomad and the two Water Tribespeople) are shown as identifiable characters, They have suffered oppression from the Fire Nation, and they embark on a quest to defeat that evil and redeem their own people. The main difference between these entities as shown in the program is that the victim are characterized, have faces, names, a presence on screen, and the victor is most often portrayed as an entire group of people. The characters that are members of the Fire Nation compound the victim’s reality of oppression, with the two aforementioned exceptions. This single-minded approach does not challenge exceptionalism in any manner; it changes the polarity of it. Stuart Hall’s argument in The Whites of Their Eyes applied to Avatar insinuates that the victim perspective applied to the victor suffers from a reverse “primitivism”, which means the assumption that the victor lacks the education and the tolerance to engage in an equal discourse. In episode twenty of season one ‘The Deserter’, the main character asks his friends why they can’t just talk to the Fire Nation and ask them for peace. His friends tell him that they won’t listen, and upon his persistence, they admit that that is the way that they have always understood it to be with the Fire Nation. This disconnect is described by Douglas Kellner as “well defined between many different cultures” and legitimate attempts to reform these misunderstandings have been neglected[2]. Avatar, in its first season, does nothing to diminish this neglect. By reversing the polarity of exceptionalism in the narrative, it enables the same racist obstructions it accuses the oppressing Fire Nation of. Kellner submits that “resistance (…) cannot be valorized, per se,  as a progressive element of cultural texts, but difficult discriminations must be made as to whether the resistance or the oppositional reading is progressive or reactionary, emancipatory or destructive”[2]. Avatar, by utilizing the perspective of the oppressed, diminishes the oppositional reading.

In reality, it is extremely difficult to expand a narrative to include multiple cultural perspectives over the course of one episode, season, or even show. Avatar: The Last Airbender didn’t even attempt to accomplish this in its first season, though it considers the oppositional perspective in later seasons and previously established stereotypes are broken. Reversing the polarity of exceptionalism does nothing in terms of revolutionary effect. I’m not dictating your personal reality, just discussing the reflection of pain that occurs in oppressive narratives. Perspective should not exist in a binary. The counter to the traditional iconography should be explored. Creators must strive to break this overly basic understanding of cultural existence. Shows like The Wire and Game of Thrones provide good examples of how creative media can transcend this exceptionalist binary and create a narrative where good and evil are defined by the viewer and not the perspective of the conventional protagonist. Perpetuating the belief that any one viewpoint is exceptional only limits the audience to a single level of clarity. It’s holding back this language we’re tasked to expand. If creators can continually develop character over mindset, then exceptionalism in narrative television will become obsolete.

Sources:

  1. Hall, Stuart. “The Whites of Their Eyes.” A Cultural Studies Approach, 1990 pg. 91 (https://blog.richmond.edu/watchingthewire/files/2015/08/The-Whites-of-Their-Eyes.pdf)

2. Kellner, Douglas. “Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics between the Modern and the Post-Modern” London, Routledge, 1995 pg. 11, 12, 17 (https://books.google.com/books/about/Media_Culture.html?id=9XJUL2h00PsC)

Kimani Okearah
Kimani is digital griote in the African diaspora. A visual storyteller and African authenticity advocate, he strives to represent an appreciation for the depth of diversity in Global Black identity in his art and writing.
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