‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ And Critiques Of China

I’ve been enjoying all of Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s allusions to science fiction, particularly Star Wars, whether it’s the Tatooine-like stint in the desert or the unnerving ghosts the characters encounter in a Degobah-like swamp. But the show isn’t necessarily directly political — until we get to Ba Sing Se.

When I went to China, I was there on a tourist’s visa, not a journalist’s one, so I didn’t have a minder assigned to me to both facilitate my trip and make sure I didn’t wander anywhere my hosts would prefer I didn’t. But from what I did see of our less formal guides on trips to places like the Great Wall, Ba Sing Se is a pretty hilarious parody of the minder system. Whether it’s the utterly fake names guides and minders adopt — Joo Dee in Avatar or Connie, which seemed to be the Westernized name of choice for women at the time — or the relentless cheerfulness that’s meant to deter you from seeing things your guides would rather not see or doing things they’d rather you not do, be it noticing a major conspiracy to dupe the government or order the spicy pork on the menu, Avatar has it dead to rights.

China obviously has a higher level of expressed discontent than the Earth Kingdom does, and many, many more people to administer. But this is a nice little poke at the idea that you can keep people oblivious whether they’re your own citizens or visitors. What matters is both what people see — and what they decide it means.