Bringing the Optimism of Cartoons into Adulthood
Do you remember the days in your youth when you used to sit down on the couch and lose yourself in worlds of romping adventures and broken physics? Spectacularly colorful worlds that gleamed with hidden promises and hopeful futures, where anyone could become a superhero and where any bad situation could work out if you just believed hard enough.
I do, too. Whenever I was sick, I would turn to the gleeful enthusiasm of Avatar: The Last Airbender to escape my snotty situation. Whenever I went to my nana’s house, the TV got turned on and set to the Disney channel, so I could witness whatever new hijinks the crew on Phineas and Ferb were up to. I loved to see kids do wacky things and beat up bad guys. The more serious messages of bigotry, propaganda, and loss in Avatar: The Last Airbender were lost on me for many years, as all I was concerned about was whether the episode would end happily or not. I, like many children, was obsessed with the happy ending, the lovely little wrap-up, the bow on top of the present.
I wanted it all to be perfect, and for a long time, it was.
With age, however, the relentless hope and love shown in cartoons turned sour. I still adored the classics, but life doesn’t feel like a cartoon. As the years passed, I have grown more and more hopeless and pessimistic in the face of all the world’s struggles. Every day, everywhere, people are dying in horrifying and unjustifiable ways, and many others are suffering because of the treacherous greed of governments and businesses that consider them “expendable.” In light of everything that has gotten us to this point, I started to feel like the animated stories of my childhood were nothing but frivolous mockeries of the world we live in, seeing our struggles and pretending like they can be fixed with a wand wave rather than the hard work of change. Nothing is perfect in the real world, and I saw cartoons as refusing to acknowledge that.
Then, May came, and I hopped onto the bandwagon and re-watched Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time in quite a few years. Finally, I saw all the darker depths of the cartoon, from the episode where prisoners of the Fire Nation are made to work in a labor camp to the episode where the Fire Nation kids are taught to dance, never having expressed themselves in that way before. The arc set in the Earth Kingdom’s capital city of Ba Sing Se was particularly shocking to re-watch. Deaths in cartoons are few and far between, with some cartoons refusing to show them at all, but that was hardly the most heart-wrenching part. To see the ideal of perfection confronted in such a visceral way was awe-inducing. The propaganda we are fed from cartoons and from society at large that “nothing is wrong, everything will work out just fine” was challenged in a way that both dismissed my view of the cartoon as naively ignorant and confronted the oft-repeated political rhetoric of this year in an accidentally timely manner.
All in all, my re-watch of Avatar: The Last Airbender reminded me that what had appeared in my child eyes as perfection had really been nothing but a reflection of our reality. An altered one, for sure, and one where things worked out much better than they might have in the real world, definitely. But one that wasn’t afraid to address the grim bits of humanity’s existence, as well.
When I first watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, I was blind to the darkness in the real world, which made it impossible for me to see it in the fiction I consumed. I couldn’t see the injustices happening around me, so I didn’t recognize Ba Sing Se or the Fire Nation as the terrifying institutions of manipulation and conquest they were. All I could see was the perfect little world that dwelled on the surface, rose-tinted and beautiful. I was as enthralled as a citizen of Ba Sing Se, barely aware there were larger things at stake than the friendships within the Aang Gang.
With age comes experience, and with experience comes all manner of depressing knowledge. My glasses are darker now, and I view the world through crimson tones that are far too red for what is really there. I don’t give humans the benefit of the doubt nine times out of ten — whether that is defensible or not, it’s still telling. When we are looking for despair and despots, that’s all we can see.
Avatar: The Last Airbender gives us both sets of glasses, rose and crimson. It gives us a twining, beautifully imperfect vision of what the world could be and what it is. None of the characters’ adventures end without some consequence, and failure is frequent for our motley crew. Yet, the characters use these failures to learn and grow. Katara inspires the prisoners to rise up against their oppressors. Aang teaches the Fire Nation children to dance, and some of them even seem to get why that’s so important. Ba Sing Se may have fallen, but one day, it will be free… Perhaps for the first time.
Almost every story in the A:TLA universe has a deep-rooted message for adults, about the monstrous people that exist in any world, and a more simplistic but inspiring message for children, about how they can be overcome. What both of these messages have in common is one hardened, glorious truth: Hope is difficult to keep but powerful to hold.
Maybe it’s time we give the innocent, rambunctious worlds of our childhood a second chance. Maybe, even now, they have something more to teach us about the nature of hope and optimism, friendship and love.
Maybe they can make our tinged glasses just a shade lighter, after all this time.