Avatar and Second Chances
Spanning from 2005 to 2008 with 61 episodes total, Avatar: The Last Airbender rocked the realm of children's entertainment for every stretch of its journey, constantly attracting millions of viewers to its specials and even its routine episode releases. The show has been praised for its sophisticated plots, a rarity in children's television during its era, and for its ability to expose children to concepts like death and war while actively teaching them how to be good people. Essentially, Avatar: The Last Airbender was a show with adult-level content and writing that managed to premiere on Nickelodeon, giving it the opportunity to influence the personalities for children and their senses of heroism for the rest of their lives. In 2012, Nickelodeon premiered a sequel to the series entitled The Legend of Korra, which I will also explore.
In the spirit of quick summation for those who are unfamiliar with the series but still want to learn about body image within it, I'll shoot. The Avatar franchise takes place in a world in which human civilization (and a plethora of hybrid animals) are split into four different nations: Water, Earth, Fire and Air. Select members of each of these nations are benders, having the ability to manipulate their respective element through extreme telekinetic focus and martial arts. Only one person, the Avatar, is able to bend all four elements, and they are required to master them for the sake of protecting the world. In this series, Aang is the Avatar and he is learning to master the elements in order to stop a war that has been going on for a hundred years while he was frozen in ice, leaving the world without an Avatar to restore peace.
The Last Airbender series does a great job of portraying female characters with well-written personalities and depth, as seen through Katara, Toph Beifong and even antagonist Azula. All three of these characters have slender builds, Katara and Azula being standard height (and shorter than most men) and Toph being short. Additionally, even though these characters are meant to be physically strong due to their training and bending abilities, none of them are animated as muscular, though several male benders of the same age are. Thus, within the main cast, there are no tall, strong or chunky female characters.
In terms of background or single-appearance characters, most of them accord to the stereotypes I've uncovered about bigger women in children's entertainment. If they are plus-size, they are of middle-age or older. They are never taller than male characters, unless for the sake of making the woman masculine. We see this in characters like the Zhang leader (pictured below), who is characterized as slobby and rough. She is taller and wider than the clean and pompus man she is the foil of, but she is definitely not a protagonist, she's only in one episode, she's rather obnoxious and she's of middle-age or older, giving her the cartoon pass to be bigger and still leaving young TSC girls without a character to which they can relate.
For another example of a bigger woman whose appearance becomes a joke or a tool to affect her negatively, we have the ticket women who Iroh (an older male character) flirted with in order to trick. She's characterized as bossy and unattractive, which is why she so easily falls for the charms of a man. However, the most obvious flaw in The Last Airbender when it comes to TSC women is not that they are often portrayed through stereotypes but that they are not portrayed at all.
The Last Airbender series came and went in three seasons, leaving many fans still wanting to know what the world of the four elements would look like after the credits ran and their favorite characters continued to live, but now in peace. Four years after the finale, they got this through The Legend of Korra, the story of the next Avatar which takes place 70 years after the series finale of The Last Airbender.
This series already breaks a lot of barriers that I pointed out in cartoons because it has a female lead. Even today, most cartoons on any given children's channel revolve around a male lead, with a potential female sidekick. The Legend of Korra not only gives us a female lead, but a strong one at that, given that she's the new Avatar. (Fun Fact: Nickelodeon originally suspended the production of this series because they believed that girls could watch and enjoy shows about boys, but that boys could not to the same with shows about girls. They were proved wrong when the series tested extremely positively with young boys, allowing the series to be greenlighted.)
Let's talk Korra's positive portrayal of different body types that weren't found in the original series. Korra is undeniably strong and animated as such, since her muscular and athletic body are an incredibly important part of how she fights and even her personality. Most websites estimate Korra to be over 5'7 and her girlfriend to be about 5'10, making both female leads of taller-than-average stature. Korra is also thicker, being portrayed as a very chunky child in the first episode and retaining a softer, but muscular, midsection for all of her adulthood on the show. Korra is a fantastic example of portraying TSC women, even if they are not extreme in their statistics like Susan Strong of Adventure Time, in cartoon universes that previously had no representation outside of the standard mold for women. Korra is a great example of how it is never too late to show a new body type in your franchise, and how people can love and support a character regardless of their figure (or because of, if you're underrepresented yourself *tags myself*) so long as they are well-written and given the chance to be a main character.
Outside of Korra, there are more characters that expand upon the body types presented in the orignal series. P'Li is a villain in the series but she is 6'8 and taller than her male romantic partner. As stated, Asami is about 5'10 and portrayed as very standardly beautiful, a luxury not often given to taller characters in the franchise. This series finds subtle ways to include more body types, even in Hou-Ting, who is taller and wider. It very clearly gives the body types that they excluded in the first series some form of representation.
The Avatar franchise made a lot of moves with their sequel series that other franchises fear. While other series continue to reboot themselves and change nothing, Avatar moved us to new characters who taught new ideas. They filled gaps in representation. Suddenly, the impossible task wasn't a time limit, but an internal conflict of being your own obstacle. We see realistic portrayals of mental health as a part of a narrative through Korra's PTSD. We even see LGBT representation through Korra and Asami that, though not made as explicit as most fans would have liked, made a big stride in bisexual validation and representation. The Legend of Korra did more than just give us the body types that we wanted to see, it gave us the people we needed to see.
In summation, there are no TSC protagonists within The Last Airbender, but there is one (albeit she is a very subtle one, but one none the less), a lead, in The Legend of Korra, accompanied by more variety in size and personality across the board. Though the sequel series is not as widely known or as vastly followed as the original series, it is certainly worth a watch for the sake of seeing the kind of female characters that were excluded in the first series and that are usually excluded from children's entertainment overall.
Thank you for learning with me. I hope you learned something, no matter how small (like that Nickelodeon once thought that boys couldn't appreciate narratives set in a girl's perspective). Later, I'll be discussing OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes! and then Dreamworks films (since I came for Disney, I must be equal).