This month for OWLS, our theme is colors! Although OWLS usually only concentrates on anime and Japanese pop culture, I decided to use a Western cartoon when I heard this month’s prompt:
“Colors” refers to people of color in anime. For this monthly topic, we will be discussing how people of color or characters of different “races” (a literal alien race) are represented in anime. Some topics we considering is the dangers of stereotyping, bi-racial characters, and the importance of racial inclusion.
When I think of color, I mostly think of skin color and sexuality, but a myriad of things can fall under this category.
The Problem Of Under-representation
In most anime, the characters are portrayed as pale-skinned and heterosexual. Throughout my anime career, I have seen only a handful of tan-skinned or dark-skinned characters, and, while they are usually great characters, they are underrepresented. Most characters, male or female, tend to be straight as well. Yuri and yaoi have been becoming more mainstream lately, but many times their relationships are not validated as real or genuine.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with being pale-skinned (I, for one, am as pale as it gets) and heterosexual, but under-representing the various colors that make up so people is problematic. Everyone needs characters they can relate to, and everyone should feel legitimate.
Even in Western media, most characters fall in the pale-skin/straight category. Western shows do tend to be more diversified, though, especially in the United States, which has such a varied population. Homosexuality has become more apparent as well in media. But what about cartoons and animated shows? Many of the most popular and famous Western cartoons fall into the same trap of portraying straight, light-skinned people. Although tan or dark-skinned characters are pretty common, homosexuality does not usually show up in children’s shows.
This is why I chose both Avatar series (The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra) to write about for this month’s blog post. These two shows celebrate color in many ways, and are very progressive in their message. Their underlying message to accept one another’s differences.
Here are the ways that the Avatar series portray various forms of color, not just skin color and sexuality, but also those who are different or marginilized.
The World of Avatar
Avatar takes place in a fictional world with its own history, countries, and people. There are four nations: Water, Fire, Earth and Air. Each nation has its own distinct culture that has developed over time. Throughout the show, the characters travel through each nation, being exposed to these different cultures. The main cast is made up of characters from each nation and, despite their differences, they all eventually learn to understand each other. Overall, the show is about acceptance.
Tan/Dark Skin Representation
In the first Avatar series, the main protagonist is Aang. Although he is obviously light-skinned, his two best friends are the sibling pair Katara and Sokka. Both are extremely important characters in the story, and they also happen to be tan. And they aren’t the only ones. The entire Water Nation (both the Southern and the Northern tribe) is tan, making many other characters in the show tan as well.
Katara (pictured on the left) is strong-willed, always speaks her mind, doesn’t take crap from anyone, and always goes out of her way to help others. Sokka (pictured on the right) is the comic-relief character, but he is clever, innovative, and stands up for his friends. Both Katara and Sokka play critical roles in the story- they literally help to save the world.
Then there is Korra from Legend Of Korra. She is also from the Water Nation, and she is tan-skinned as well. On top of this, she is the main protagonist of the series. She is headstrong and fights for what she believes in, no matter the cost or difficulty. Korra works to save the world multiple times.
This is incredibly important. People of color, especially children, will be exposed to characters that look like them, which can help make them feel validated. Not only that, but they are seeing influential, positive characters that share the same skin color.
Avatar shows us that people of color can make a huge difference.
Strong Female Representation
If it isn’t obvious from my previous description, both Katara and Korra are very strong female characters. They prove that women do not have to be weak and can fight for themselves. Both have incredible bending abilities that make them formidable opponents. Katara has a sharp tongue that isn’t afraid to defend her beliefs or tell people when they are wrong. Korra is physically strong and muscular, and can take down most anyone in a fight, including males. Both characters undergo extreme hardships and personal conflicts, but overcome them in the end to become even more versatile.
Not only are they both incredible female characters, they are strong female characters of color.
These two wonderful ladies also represent another important form of color: interracial relationships. Katara and Aang eventually become a couple. Katara is tan while Aang is pale; they are also from different countries and heritages. Not to mention different time periods.
Korra is also ends up in an interracial relationship. However, in a way, her relationship is even more colorful. She gets together with another girl: Asami. Korra has an interracial LGBT relationship.
Nowadays, interracial relationships are more accepted, and they have been appearing more in the media. Even in children’s cartoons there have been interracial couples, such as Sheen and Libby from Jimmy Neutron. On the other hand, Korra and Asami are the very first cannon LGBT couple in a Western cartoon. There is still a long way to go for colorful couples, especially LGBT couples, to be normalized among children’s cartoons.
Despite the progress that has been made, it wasn’t that long ago that interracial and homosexual relationships were illegal in certain places. Therefore, it is extremely important that colorful relationships are celebrated.
Avatar did a wonderful job of this.
Marginalizing Those Who Are Different
Another theme in the world of Avatar is marginal-ism. There is always someone who is being treated unfairly because of their heritage or identity.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender almost the entire planet is being marginalized. The main story of the first Avatar series was the tyranny of the Fire Nation. It was the Fire Emperor’s goal to take over the other nations in the world and bring all of them under control of the Fire Nation. If you were not of Fire Nation descent or were not a Firebender, you were treated terribly by Fire Nation soldiers.
In fact, Aang’s entire nation was completely wiped out by the Fire Nation, making him the only Airbender left in the world. He is seen as different and strange by some because they have never seen others like him before. Aang also gets treated unfairly because he is the Avatar. The Fire Nation is desperate to capture him, and some people blame him for the war because of his disappearance. Through the series, Aang needs to come to terms with his identity as the Avatar.
Korra struggles with something similar in the Legend of Korra. As the Avatar, a lot of pressure is put on her, and she is often publicly ridiculed whenever she makes some kind of mistake. Throughout the show, Korra has to constantly prove herself.
Although the war is over and the Fire Nation no longer abuses its power, the idea of color and marginal-ism also comes up in Legend of Korra. The main issue in the first season is the idea of benders against regular people. In Republic City, people from every nation, both benders and non-benders, live together. However, tensions start to rise when benders are blamed for causing problems around the city. A whole movement is created that wants to ban benders from using their powers. Korra, the strongest bender of them all, has to prove that everyone can live harmoniously, whether or not they have bending powers.
In later seasons, the barrier between the normal world and spirit world is severed, making spirits able to walk among humans. This again causes problems because the humans are scared of the spirits, although many of them are harmless. Once again, everyone needs to put aside their differences and learn to get along.
Conclusion: Living Together
From the very first season, Avatar has been about change. As the world keeps going, things change. Old things die out while new ones replace them. When this happens, we have to set aside our differences and come together.
Avatar has so many various representations of color: skin color, sexuality, gender, relationships and more. With a diverse cast of all colors in a diverse world, Avatar shows us that different colors can mix and blend. We can live together in harmony if we try to understand each other.
Spread More Awareness!
If you are interested in learning about the different kinds of color that exist within the world, or are interested in spreading awareness through the lens of anime, please follow the work of OWLS. Here is the official OWLS blog.
For the full schedule of OWLS’ April blog tour, click here. Below are some of the blog posts about color that have come out so far this month:
Rosario + Vampire – Colorful Love by Matt-in-the-Hat
K-PROJECT OWLS POST: YOUR ‘COLOR’ SAYS IT ALL (OR MAYBE NOT) by Japan Talks
Forged Through Adversity: A Look at Killer B and the Shinobi of the Hidden Cloud Village by Nice Job Breaking It, Hero
Be sure to check out my other OWLS posts, and the previous blog tours!