If you don’t know who Katara from Avatar the Last Airbender is, stop what you’re doing right now and go find a way to watch the show. In my opinion, it is one of the best animated television shows out there and it had one of the biggest impacts on my life growing up. You’re missing out on a great experience by skipping this show.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in anime and that kind of art style in cartoons and TV shows. Hours of my childhood were spent focused on episodic DVDs and daily Toonami regiments. I also filled up several sketch pads of poorly-drawn anime inspired characters that went along with the stories I used to write.
One day when I turned to Nickelodeon I saw the very first promotions for ATLA. Action-oriented? Sweet. Cool elemental powers? Even better. Anime-influenced?! I was sold, and I eagerly awaited the premiere. At twelve years old, the same age as the protagonist Aang, I watched the very first episode of ATLA and noticed something different about the main characters from many of the other anime and cartoons I’d watched.
Katara and Sokka were brown. And they were awesome. Both characters were great fighters and had some of the best development throughout the series. Katara grew to be one of the most powerful benders in the Avatar Universe.
That was probably the first time I’d seen a main character of color in this style of show. I loved watching Katara be a powerful waterbender, be the voice of reason in the group, and sometimes be the one who caused trouble with her own temper. She was realistic, fierce, and everything I loved in my female characters. It was a bonus that she looked kind of like me too.
One day, probably after scrolling through some ATLA fanart online, I flicked through my drawings and realized an uncomfortable trend. None of the anime characters I drew looked like me. They were all white. All of the women and girls I drew were colored in with peach and (usually) light red hair. That’s when it clicked. When I started drawing my original characters again, I picked up brown and tan colored pencils instead of peach to color in the skin. I wanted my characters to be like Katara and the GAang. With Katara I finally had a context, a template for my new original characters.
I’m mentioning this story because the majority of the time in American cartoons and anime, the characters are white or animals, with the token minority characters. Avatar the Last Airbender had Asian influences and the martial arts style combat forms. With this colorful and diverse cast, I found myself inspired in my writing and my drawings even more so than before. Also, please know that I am BY NO MEANS bashing anime for not being more diverse. It’s cool to see that in anime, sure, but it’s a cartoon style that originated from a country where the population of someone who isn’t Japanese is roughly 2%. I love it at all the same, and in many ways, anime still manages to be more diverse than American cartoons in their characters and unique stories.
The cool thing is that the creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko didn’t stop at Katara for the Avatar universe. In the spin-off Legend of Korra, Korra was also a brown main character, and this time…she WAS the Avatar. The most powerful and revered being in the universe. They even (SPOILER) branched into representation for the LGBT community.
I know MANY people get frustrated about talking about race nowadays…for some reason when this stuff is brought up it contributes to some rage and the thought, “this stuff shouldn’t matter any more.” But it does to those of us who don’t have the privilege of seeing characters like Katara everyday. It still baffles me when I reflect at being a child and realized that this happened. I don’t think it was because I had some kind of self-loathing of my skin at age 12, or some inherent colorism and racism imbedded in my head, but I just simply didn’t know any different. The exposure wasn’t there, and Avatar the Last Airbender finally gave it to me and many other children out there. Representation, even in its simplest forms, does matter.