Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon from 2005–2008, chronicling the adventures of Aang, a 12-year-old boy who is the most recent incarnation of the Avatar — the person who can bend Water, Earth, Fire and Air — and his companions Katara, Sokka, Toph, and eventually Prince Zuko. Aang and his cohort (calling themselves "Team Avatar") must put an end to the war with the Fire Nation, led by Fire Lord Ozai.
Featuring complex characters, mature storylines, great animation, a celebration of Asian cultures and a successful balance of humor, tragedy and Eastern philosophy, many consider ATLA one of the best cartoons of all time, a show that adults and children can enjoy. ATLA treated its audience with respect and addressed adult themes and concepts despite being a children's program.
In particular, ATLA tackles the concept of nationalism, an ideology involving national identity formation and acting in the name of protecting and promoting this identity, through its portrayal of the Fire Nation. Rather than simply a generic term to signify difference from the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes and Air Nomads, the Fire Nation embodies the development of national identity and horrifying results of hypernationalism. The Fire Nation represents the epitome of national identity formation, an "imagined community" defining "self" as opposed to "the other" and the ultimate extension of this logic.
In 1983, political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism to theorize how people tied identity formation to the idea of a nation, leading to nationalist ideology and political agitation to form a nation state. Rather than being a primordial identity, national identity formation only occurred through "imagining a community" fostered through modern printing (what he calls print capitalism) and a decline in the belief in "rule by divine right," both of which occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
An "imagined community" links a diverse group of people under a single identity. For example, a person in Oregon and a person in South Carolina are both "American" despite separation by thousands of miles and likely never meeting face to face. The conceptualization of the nation explicitly delineates a physical space for the "imagined community" with borders separating "self" from "the other."
While Waterbenders constitute northern and southern tribes, Airbenders populate specific temples, and Earthbenders live in the Earth Kingdom, Firebenders define their region as the "Fire Nation," a space for an imagined community of Firebenders to live and operate. Unlike the other benders, the Firebenders consider themselves a nation, a continent for the "self" as opposed to the "other." Nationalism can certainly be benign, a tool to unite a diverse population or a method to refute colonial rule, but Fire Lord Sozin and Fire Lord Ozai represent heightened nationalism that serves as a threat to "the others" in the world of ATLA.
In the Season 3 episode "The Avatar and the Fire Lord," Fire Lord Sozin shares his idea for a better world with Avatar Roku, Aang's predecessor.
"Our nation is enjoying an unprecedented time of peace and wealth. Our people are happy, and we're so fortunate in so many ways. [...] we should share this prosperity with the rest of the world. In our hands is the most successful empire in history. It's time we expanded it."
The Fire Nation, an industrial power utilizing coal-powered tanks and warships, represents the pinnacle of civility and modernity according to Sozin (modern industrialization being a prerequisite to nation formation per Anderson). He asks Roku — his best friend and fellow Fire Nation citizen — to extend his nationalist project, looking to form colonies in the Earth Kingdom and spread Fire Nation culture throughout the world. Being the Avatar, Roku recognizes the important of balance between the four elements and their landholdings, leading him to reject Sozin's proposal. Later in the episode, when Roku chastises Fire Lord Sozin for setting up Fire Nation colonies despite his warning, Sozin replies:
"How dare you, a citizen of the Fire Nation, address your Fire Lord this way. Your loyalty is to our nation first. Anything less makes you a traitor."
Sozin declares that Roku has betrayed his nation, the imagined community of the Fire Nation. Roku remained the biggest obstacle to Fire Lord Sozin's ambition, but with the Avatar's death, Sozin advances his project, extending the ideology of "self" and "other" to its most extreme.
After the death of Avatar Roku, Fire Lord Sozin recognizes that the next Avatar in the cycle will be an Airbender, leading him to conduct the genocide of the Air Nomads, leaving Aang to discover that, after being frozen for 100 years, he is the eponymous "last Airbender."
In the series finale, Fire Lord Ozai attempts a similar genocidal campaign, harnessing the power of Sozin's comet and adopting the title of Phoenix King, aiming to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom and establish himself as the ruler of the world. Though violent and horrifying, the actions of Sozin and Ozai represent the ultimate extension of national identity formation, where the "self" removes or eliminates the "other" to maintain the homogeneity of the nation.
Rather than being separate from or a corruption of nationalism, ethnic cleansing and genocide have served as processes of national identity formation throughout history. Totalitarian regimes use violence to quell threats to the ruling power, while the Armenian Genocide and the Nazi Holocaust represent the worst of human atrocities conducted in the name of Turkish nationalism and fascist ideology, respectively, "protecting the self" from "threats to the nation." Thus, the Fire Nation is the epitome of national identity formation, an imagined community defining "self" and "other" while using violence as an extension of nationalist rhetoric.
Rather than shy away from mature themes or adult concepts such as nationalism or mass violence, ATLA embraces big ideas and presents them to a young audience while balancing them with fast-paced action, humor and heart. Though nationalism does not automatically result in violence and is not inherently evil, the Fire Nation demonstrates the harm in hypernationalism, a rigid definition of "self" that precludes others.
Not only do show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko illustrate the dangers of rampant nationalism, but they also present a solution: multiculturalism. Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Suki and their allies hail from all across the globe. The embrace and celebration of differences helps the protagonists resist the attempt by the Fire Nation to eliminate difference, a worthy lesson coming from a smart, well-written and forward-thinking television program for children.
What do you think of the themes of nationalism in Avatar: the Last Airbender?