"AVATAR - THE LAST AIRBENDER" B-ROLL: Opening shots of Avatar TV series. S01 Water: Episodes 1-4, 6, 11, 16, 18-20 S02 Earth: Episodes 3, 6, 7, 12, 13, 15-17 S03 Fire: Episodes 2, 4, 6, 12, 13, 16 We see the opening titles for S01:E01 SEAN Since I started this series, I've wanted to talk about Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko's exceptional animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. MOTION GRAPHIC: Cycle through Out of Frame thumbnails. SEAN It's taken me 22 episodes to get to it because I haven't been able to figure out what to say. S02:E15 In Tales of Ba Sing Se, "The Tale of Iroh", we see Iroh weep for his son. Then, on "too many great ideas", we shift to... S02:E17 Aang and friends battle secret police at Lake Laogai SEAN There are so many incredible character moments and there's just too many great ideas and themes to talk about that I had no idea where to begin... FADE TO BLACK A NEWS HEADLINE slowly appears through the blackness. Possibly with a pixellated, low-opacity news report about the attack. SEAN Until a terrorist monster killed 50 people in attacks on two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. We'll come back to that later, but I promise you there's a connection. FADE TO BLACK Titles. SEAN In the meantime, welcome to Out of Frame. Fast forward through Avatar episodes or perhaps fast forward through this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkX9vpsCi3I Credit: Cas van de Pol, 2018 SEAN For those who haven't seen Avatar, well... Go watch all 61 episodes and come back to this? Alright, admittedly, that's a little impractical, so I'll just summarize the premise as quickly as I can. S01:E01-02 Most of the set-up I discuss will be shown in the first two episodes. SEAN Set in an ancient world of elemental magic, where some people can "bend" earth, fire, air, or water, there is a reincarnated being known as the Avatar who can harness all four elements and act as the bridge between humanity and the spirit world. Unfortunately, 100 years ago, the young air bender named Aang who was to become the new Avatar mysteriously disappeared. S02:E13 Fire Benders attack Ba Sing Se with a giant drill and other military forces. SEAN Without the Avatar to keep the peace between the different tribes of benders, the Fire Nation launches an imperialist attack against the Earth Kingdom and murders all of the remaining Air Nomads. S01:E08 Avatar Roku explains Sozin's Comet to Aang. SEAN As we enter the story, Fire Lord Ozai hasn't yet taken over the entire world, but in a few months, Sozin's Comet will pass overhead and amplify the firebenders' powers. S03:E19 Enhanced, super-powered Iroh does incredible feats with Fire-bending, and then Fire Benders shoot massive plumes of flame down to earth from airships. SEAN Once that happens, Ozai believes he will be able to conquer the Earth Kingdom with brute force and win the war once and for all. S01:E01 Katara breaks Aang free from the ice. SEAN While the whole world is falling to pieces, a couple of kids from the Southern Water Tribe, Katara and her brother Sokka, discover the missing Avatar Aang encased in an iceberg and accidentally wake him from his century-long hibernation. S01:E03 We see Aang's realization of the genocide of the Air Nomads. S01:E12 Aang recounts his story of running away to Katara. SEAN As Aang discovers the incredible damage done in his absence, he feels an extraordinary sense of guilt, revealing that he chose to run away from his responsibilities instead of facing them head on and preventing the war when he had the chance. S01:09 | S01:18 | S02:E09 | S01:E13 | S03:E13 Aang studies waterbending with Katara, then with Master Pakku. He studies earthbending with Toph. And firebending with Master Jeong Jeong, and then Zuko/Dragons. Now, Aang has less than a year to master the other elements and truly become the Avatar so that he can stop Fire Lord Ozai's attack and save the world. S01:E05 Aang and King Bumi ride earth through the sleuces in Omashu, having a ton of fun. SEAN This quest takes Aang, Katara, and Sokka on an epic adventure. CLIP: S01:E05 (con't) Bumi and Aang destroy the cabbage merchant's cart. CABBAGE MAN "My cabbages!" B-ROLL: S01:E20 Aang enters the Avatar State and destroys the Fire Nation Navy in a display of raw and awesome power. SEAN There's no way I can do the series justice, but believe me when I say that it is an absolute masterpiece of animation and storytelling. Please try to find active/iconic moments for each of these characters. Even if they're only seen for a half a second, I'd like to squeeze as many exciting moments out of the series as we can. SEAN Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Appa and Momo, Iroh, Zuko, and all the other characters they meet along their journey grapple with failure and fight their way through difficult challenges. And in the process, they all grow and become better versions of themselves - both in terms of their physical skills and, more importantly, in terms of their beliefs, values, and moral character. S02:E15 Tales of Ba Sing Se, "The Tale of Zuko". Zuko, disguised as an earth kingdom citizen, goes on a date. On the word "individual", Zuko lights the lanterns for the girl he's with. SEAN Almost every aspect of the series is worth a deep discussion, but the more I think about what Avatar: The Last Airbender is really about, the more I have come to see it as fundamentally the story of people overcoming collectivism and prejudice, and learning to see everyone as an individual. CLIP: S02:E08 Iroh and Toph share tea and a moment of conversation in the forest. IROH "Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life's true delights!" B-ROLL: S03:E02 Aang teaches a bunch of Fire Nation students how to dance in a cave. SEAN In the end, this is a story that is very much about the importance of judging people by their actions and character, not based on their group identity or tribal affiliation. For this next bit, let's shift away from Avatar clips to some more "real world" examples. Perhaps the shift can begin with Fire Nation soldiers and Earth Kingdom secret police, then introduce categories of real people as per the discussion. Photos are ok. I think the main thing is to have clearly identifiable "groups" - nerd, jock, progressive, conservative, etc. We'll also want to make a little motion graphic overlay for the definition of Collectivism. SEAN At this point, let's stop and really take a second to understand what collectivism is, because it's not a word you hear every day. Its most basic definition is a philosophy that places primary emphasis and value on the group, or the "collective", above the individual. This could mean categorizing people by their race, gender, or their ethnicity. It could mean grouping people by religion or nationality. It could even mean segmenting them into social categories like "goth", "jock", or "nerd"; or into political tribes like "progressive" and "conservative". No matter what specific form it takes, the important thing to understand is that collectivist ideologies always see people first and foremost as defined by their group. And as long as we don't take it too seriously, some forms of collectivism are fairly harmless. Footage of fans attending a game at Fenway Park. SEAN Red Sox fans don't usually try to murder Yankees fans, even though their teams have been rivals for a century. Attractive, Norman Rockwell-esque shots of a 4th of July parade, mixed-ethnicity people grilling/tailgating, and joking with each other, etc. SEAN Even some cultural collectivism can be relatively benign, resulting in civic pride and good humored observations about the differences between groups of people while maintaining respect for everyone's rights. Brief shots of multiple observational comedians, such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Richard Russell Peters, Ali Wong, etc. SEAN If you think about it, tons of great comedy is built on making broad observations about different groups of people, but when comedians do that right there's usually an undercurrent of appreciation, love, and a sense of pluralism. Shots of mixed-ethnicity audiences enjoying themselves at these same comedy shows. SEAN Plus, when members of different groups can laugh together in the same audience, they can all become closer and more connected to each other. Shared experiences help bridge people's more superficial differences. Montage of clips and headlines depicting collectivist violence, starting with headlines of sports fans rioting and hurting each other over baseball games, gradually shifting towards scarier forms of collectivism like race riots, moving eventually towards Nazi & Soviet footage/imagery - more soldiers goosetepping on the necks of other people. SEAN But when people do start taking their collectivism seriously, we end up with real problems. People who abandon individualism eventually find themselves segregated by dangerous forms of racism, sexism, and the kinds of malignant nationalism that can drive fanatics to acts of violence. Free societies allow people of different cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, races, and genders to interact with each other and blur the boundaries of their groups, forming their own unique identity. Collectivist societies can't allow that. Instead, they exert authoritarian control over their cultures and their economies, separating different groups of people in the name of preserving the fantasy of "purity". DIP TO BLACK We see a MAP of the world of Avatar. SEAN This describes most of the world in Avatar. S02:E14 | S02:E17 Earth King, class divisions in Ba Sing Se, and prisoners at Lake Laogai. SEAN The division between benders and non-benders creates a class-system. S01:E19-20 Fire Nation ships attack the Northern Water Tribe. SEAN The division between the types of benders creates whole nations at war with each other. S03:E20 Fire Nation Airships during Sozin's Comet, blasting the earth with fire. SEAN The more attention these divisions get, the more severe the animosity between the warring tribes becomes, S02:E19 or E20 (can't remember) We see the long line of Avatar reincarnations, broken with Aang. SEAN and without the Avatar to show everyone how they are all connected, people can only see each other as members of their collective groups. SEAN The whole trajectory of the series is ultimately about discarding that idea and learning to see people as more than just their tribal identity. S03:E19 Sokka battles on the top of an airship. SEAN I think it's especially easy to see this by looking at the way Sokka's character grows and develops over time. S01:E01 SEAN In the first episode, Sokka is introduced as overly-confident and goofy, a bit sexist, and most importantly: completely secure in his knowledge that everyone in the Water Tribe is good and everyone in the Fire Nation is bad. CLIP: S01:E01 Sokka Rallies the "troops". SOKKA "Now men, it's important that you show no fear when you face a firebender. We're the water tribe. We fight to the last man standing! For without courage, how can we call ourselves men?" We see a group of small children. B-ROLL: S01:E03 Sokka gets snow dumped on his head. SEAN But over the course of the series, Sokka learns that almost all of his preconceptions about other people are wrong. S01:E02 Sokka is angry with Aang and tries to banish him from the village. SEAN At first he sees Aang as a threat, simply because he's an outsider. S01:E04 Sokka encounters Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors SEAN He sees women as inferior and weak, but ends up first being beaten by, and then training with, the all-female Kyoshi Warriors. S01:E06 or E09 SEAN He assumes that Toph is incapable of taking care of herself because she's blind, but, uh... CLIP: S02:E19 Toph learns how to metal bend, and kicks some ass. Then she says, TOPH "I'm the greatest earthbender in the world! Don't you two dunderheads forget it." Then she locks her captors in a metal cage, jumps into the earth and skates away. B-ROLL: S03:E12 Sokka lobbies against Zuko when he tries to befriend the group, shifting to S03:E15 when he and Zuko work together and become friends. SEAN Sokka also believes that all firebenders are inherently evil. Prince Zuko, most of all. But in the end, he learns that even the most hardened enemy can change. MATCH CUT S01:E01 Zuko throws a tantrum on the ship. SEAN Zuko's journey is very much the same, only... less funny and more angry. S03:E18 Fire Lord Ozai declares himself the Phoenix King and gives Azula the position of Fire Lord in front of an army of Fire Nation soldiers. Cut to S03:E20 at the words "deranged sister", showing Azula blasting lightning and looking fully insane. SEAN It's not totally his fault. The belief that firebenders are superior to everyone else is a significant part of his culture and most people he's ever known feel this way. Especially his father, Fire Lord Ozai, and his deranged sister, Princess Azula. S01:E19 Zuko captures Aang. SEAN Zuko has been told since birth that the Avatar stands in the way of his people's permanent dominance, and that the only way to gain his father's approval is to capture or kill Aang so that the Fire Nation can finally rule the world. S03:E12 Zuko tries to befriend the Avatar and friends. But when Zuko begins to see Aang, Katara, Toph, and Sokka as individuals with their own value and unique identities, he becomes a better person. His labels no longer mean what they used to. S03:E18-21 Lots of good Zuko/group moments in the last few episodes. SEAN For Zuko, "waterbender" becomes Katara and Sokka, "earthbender" becomes Toph, and "Avatar" becomes Aang. Meanwhile, for them, "Enemy" becomes friend. FADE TO BLACK SEAN And that, sadly, brings us back to New Zealand. Fade in news article on NZ Shooting. SEAN By now, you've all heard that an Australian man describing himself as an "ethno-nationalist eco-fascist" murdered 50 people at two different Mosques in Christchurch, on March 15th, 2019. Show cover and selected pages from the shooter's Manifesto. SEAN Minutes before his attack, he posted a 74-page manifesto, detailing his reasons for the attack. They are disturbing and bizarre, ranging from the white-supremacist belief in the superiority of his European ethnic and racial identity, to the idea that "globalized, capitalist markets" are the cause of overpopulation, that overpopulation is the cause of global warming and other environmental problems throughout the world, and thus that the world is in desperate need of population-control. Thanos OOF SEAN We have talked about this idea before on Out of Frame. It's still awful. More news footage/articles. SEAN The terrorist states that he specifically targeted Muslims because of their "high fertility" and "will to conquer" other societies. Again and again throughout the manifesto, he makes it clear that he believes people are defined entirely by their collective identity. Photos/video of people segmented into the listed groups. Really show the separation. SEAN European, Arab, African, Christian, Muslim, Foreign, Native... No one is an individual. No one has value apart from their identity group. This is collectivism at its most severe and most dangerous. It's hard for me to overstate this, so I'm going to be super blunt: Collectivism is bad. Unfortunately, it's also far more pervasive in our society than most people realize, and this is not limited to lunatics who shoot up Mosques. Slate article "The Christchurch Shootings Should Implicate All White Australians". SEAN A few days after the shooting, Slate published an article attempting to assign collective guilt for the terrorist's actions to all white people in Australia. Shooter Manifesto, Page 10 quote blaming Muslims: "They were an obvious,visible and large group of invaders, from a culture with higher fertility rates, higher social trust and strong, robust traditions that seek to occupy my peoples lands and ethnically replace my own people." SEAN The concept of collective guilt is literally what started this in the first place. But ask yourself: Headlines, video clips, images, etc. that correspond to the questions asked below. They must be presented from both right and left perspectives. SEAN How many times have you seen someone determine another person's status, values, ideas, guilt or innocence based solely on their presumed collective identity? How many times have you heard someone say that people have inherently - even irreconcilably - different perspectives and beliefs based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation? How many people do you know who promote the idea that cultural traditions can be collectively "owned" and shouldn't be appropriated, mixed, or diluted by people who weren't raised with that culture? All of these ideas are built on the same faulty logic that the New Zealand shooter used to justify his horrific actions, and we need to be aware of that. Collectivism doesn't magically become a good idea just because you think you have good intentions. B-ROLL: Transition clips/articles from the real world back to Avatar. This isn't a left vs. right issue, a white vs. black issue, or a male vs. female issue. In fact, the more we think of these things in those terms, the more we are participating in the very collectivist tribalism that divides our societies and creates more distance between people across cultural, racial, and gendered lines. And so often, that distance gets filled up with hatred, violence, and death. S03:E21 Aang exits the Avatar State and spares Fire Lord Ozai's life. For me at least, the most important lesson we can take from Avatar is that the only thing that can bring about a more peaceful world is a conscious rejection of collectivism. S03:E19 Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and Zuko engage in a group hug. SEAN Most people are so much more than the broad labels we place on them, and just because we can categorize a person as part of a group doesn't mean that that category defines who they are. S03:E21 We see Zuko & Aang address all the tribes of people together. Also recap some of the most emotional moments throughout the series here. Everything we can do to highlight the humanity and connection between disparate people. SEAN It's long past time to abandon the idea that people should be judged based on their race, gender, or ethnic background. We must all learn to stop seeing other people as simply interchangeable cogs bound to their collective identities and start judging people by the content of their character. Only then will we have a chance at moving beyond our tribal divisions and learning to appreciate the shared experiences that make us all human. Thanks for watching. CLIP: S02:E19 Iroh and Aang walk through the dark, each searching for their loved ones. IROH You can't always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you keep moving, you will come to a better place. DISSOLVE TO S03:E21 Aang looks out over a peaceful city. Katara joins him. Aang and Katara hug. They are together, at peace. FADE TO BLACK TEXT: "In memory of [NAMES OF ALL THE NZ VICTIMS], and all the other victims of collectivist violence around the world." FEE End Bumper

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

April 4, 2019

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a masterpiece of animation. It's an incredible story with amazing characters and worthwhile themes that might just be more relevant today than ever before.

As more and more people around the world seem to support the idea that group identities like race, gender, religion, or ethnicity matter more than any individual's values, character, or ideas; and as collectivist ideologues around the world engage in horrific violence like the recent terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, now could be the time for all of us to take a lesson from Avatar and learn to overcome collectivism once and for all.


Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone