As I noted earlier, I decided to teach an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender in my "American Manga" class even though only half that title applies. (It's technically "American anime.") I chose the penultimate episode, "The Ember Island Players," because it 1) requires almost no knowledge of the series to understand and 2) it performs the show's fraught relation to its Japanese forebears. I'll tackle the first item today, the second tomorrow.
Before I continue, I'll add the same caveat I have to all these analyses designed for freshmen-level composition courses: they're designed for freshmen-level composition courses.* I'm attempting to model engaged cultural criticism for students who consider culture something to be passively consumed, i.e. I provide the tools then teach them how to construct a persuasive rhetorical argument.** On with the show:
"The Ember Island Players" requires little knowledge of the series because it consists of the main characters watching a play that recapitulates it. All I need to tell the two students who haven't already seen every episode is that the kids are about to go to war with the Fire Nation, and that this play (as the title of the episode indicates) is being produced by a Fire Nation theater troupe. As soon as Sokka—the Zeppo of this crew—discovers the poster, the difference between the kids:
And their on-stage equivalents becomes clear:
Sokka and his sister, Katara, are being played by adults, and Aang, the titular Airbender, by a woman. The episode is as committed to verisimilitude (or a realistic representation the series' established aesthetic) as the average Elizabethean drama in which the women were portrayed by young boys and the young boys were portrayed by old men. Just as with all theater—and by extension, all animated representations of it—the act of suspending disbelief is a wilfull one, a fact which "The Ember Island Players" takes pains to foreground. To wit:
That would be curtain rising in the theater to reveal a highly stylized (ahem) representation of the first event in the series: Sokka and Katara on the verge of discovering Aang frozen in a block of ice. Note that the backdrop is clearly attached to a batten (its top is visible even when staring the stage straight on) and that the lighting above is purely functional (intended merely to illuminate the scene in a way that "suggests" the time of day). The stage is framed like a television, calling attention to the unreality of the events depicted on it; but it's framed like a television on a television, which should (but often doesn't) call attention to the unreality of the events depicted on it. (Especially when they're animated.) Director Giancarlo Volpe has created a complex narrative situation that is simple enough for a child to decode. (Which is partly the point of recapitulating the narrative arc of a complex show aimed at children whose memory for nuances may yet be underdeveloped.)
Not only is the viewer constantly aware that the on-stage narrative is constructed, Volpe regularly reminds them that such engagements with fiction require a critical audience. Witness Katara's reaction to her inappropriately buxom (about which more shortly) and overly theatrical counterpart:
Her friends laugh because the stage equivalent exaggerates a theatricality Katara possesses to a lesser degree herself. Coupled with her annoyance, however, their laughter indicates that they recognize the exaggerated nature of the performance, meaning the scene on the balcony functions both as a critical commentary on the events depicted on stage and as a metaphor for the function and formation of critically knowledgable communities. Only those who know better can recognize the problem with that performance. If those people happen to be children, they join with the community on screen without necessarily recognizing that they're also becoming a member of the larger one that exists off it. It is as members of that latter community that the overt sexualization of a child is something that should disturb them. I mean "sexualization" literally: the Katara depicted on stage not only possesses secondary sexual characteristics, she flaunts them in both her manner and her dress:
Between the cleavage pictured above, a skirt slit past her hips and her ostentatious flirting with every male character except her brother and her charge, the Avatar, the stage Katara forces (or should force) older readers to engage the inappropriateness of this depiction of a child. Because unlike many manga and anime series, the children on Avatar are unequivocably kids. Off stage, as the motherly—if not the only relatively adult—figure in the group, the mutual attraction between her and her younger charge would straddle the lines of both pedophelia and incest were it not typically represented as being the innocent stirrings of first love. However, as soon as Katara witnesses this depiction of herself as the adult she sometimes mistakes herself for she quickly understands the precariousness (and possible wrongness) of her situation. So when Aang attempts to replicate the (relatively) innocent kiss they shared on the eve of their last battle, she balks and (neither for the first nor last time) resembles no one so much as Charlie Brown:
I'm not saying this moment represents a violation of the compact between creators and those opposed to pedophelia and incest on principle; but I am saying that the play-within-the-show presents an opportunity to model critical engagement on both the level of character and audience.
*Certain community college instructors who take credit for UCI when it suits them and slag it when it suits me might object to the unseriousness of teaching contemporary cultural artifacts, but as someone who actually teaches instead of relying on decades-old PowerPoint slides provided by textbook publishers, I consider his objection a point in my favor.
**And indoctrinate them into my far-left ideological commitment to the furtherance of Obama's socialist empire of liberal communism, as the rest of my analysis clearly demonstrates.