‘A World Free of Whiteness’
A few months ago, writing for The New York Times, Maya Phillips released a scathing review of the famed Nickelodeon show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, I do mean that it was scathing, even if the prose otherwise seemed quite gentle. I rarely have read a review that is so harsh while simultaneously so subtle about it, but true to her skills as a writer, Phillips accomplished this to such a height that even she may not realize how much she crucified the series. Ironically, this is also a product of her weakness as a reviewer.
Titled ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Imagines a World Free of Whiteness, Phillips makes the point expressed in that title. The overall take is ultimately disappointing because she starts out by seeming to have a solid understanding of the show, praising the writing, the pacing, the narrative, and the aesthetics. After opening with that, she nevertheless observed:
Though often celebrated for its sophisticated storytelling and complex characters, “Avatar” most notably dreams up a world free of whiteness, a cultural haven from and refreshing salve in a country that has, especially in recent months, shown marginalized communities its most gruesome face.
In a sentence, she dismissed the creative wonder of the show and indicated that its real value was in being non-white. She goes on to lament the heavy involvement of white people in the production of this show, referring to it as “egregious.” She also takes this as an opportunity to chide the United States in its weakened relations with China, despite the many faults of the People’s Republic in recent years. What we see here is a portrait of an individual who, despite enjoying the show in its original run, has become thoroughly removed from any sense of respect for the material or, really, culture in general.
This review, while offering no insights about the arts, is at least a candidate for a time capsule of 2020 that can inform future generations of contemporary life. It provides for us a look into bourgeois, liberal, American life and the lack of awareness endemic within it. To give an example from this piece, Phillips worries that the coronavirus has increased divides between white Americans and Asians, and yet she seems to have had zero hesitance in taking Avatar and making it into a wedge all her own.
Phillips is even clear that what she values in the show is not so much the Asiatic influences but the absence of white influences. Embedded in this is a double-insult. It is a middle finger to the white/Western creators behind this masterpiece, but it is also a diminutive commentary of the independent merits of Asian/Eastern people. The implicit message of her article is that the show could not be timelessly popular or resonant but that it is only good because it provides a foil to America under Trump. Moreover, she even seems to have forgotten why she originally liked it. (If I made the show, I would hate to hear that from a fan.)
This is has become generally true of critics and reviewers in the mainstream media. Shows are no longer rated based on the artistry behind them. Rather, they are rated based on how the reviewer chooses to project their own insecurities onto the work and then to treat that projection as the actual work itself. In 2020, the projections often misleadingly allude to terms like “inclusion,” “diversity,” and “multiculturalism,” but they are strangely and strictly anti-cosmopolitan. After all, the fact that x number of Western creators saw value in Eastern concepts and thus created Avatar is treated as controversial, rather than enlightened. It is not enough that the West simply atone for errors of the past; many feel that it would be better if Westerners simply vanished.
Despite growing up in the culturally rich period of the 90s and early 2000s, many of my fellow millennials, such as Phillips, seem to have learned almost nothing from it. The period that gave us channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, a decade of Disney hits, the Harry Potter novels, and the first complex and narrative-driven video games scarcely seems to have impacted our appreciation for culture, and thus it is not surprising that the multiculturalists fail. How can one be a defender of many cultures, if the idea of culture itself eludes them?
What many millennials have instead learned from these industries is their cold, mechanical detachment from culture. The generation that notably despises plutocracy, exploitation, corporatism, and fascism nevertheless seems to thrive in these institutions. Where selling non-goods and non-services for a profit will be nominally chided by bourgeois liberals, that is strangely what a subscription to The New York Times seems to be.
I myself try not to be taken in by this cult of shallow values. I appreciate Avatar for what it is, a major feat that encompassed several artistic axes. While I also found its Eastern focus intriguing and elegant, this worked because it revealed the common struggles of humanity faced by each of the characters, struggles that even people in the West can understand. To see Zuko on his first date before I had had mine, and then to see it afterward on a re-watch years later, strikes a chord. The same goes for how he evolved his relationship with his family, as I have with my own.
The value of a show like Avatar is not in how expediently one can use it to lob shots at the current, American regime. Rather, it is in how the show, through its many well-crafted characters, can provide its audience with a mirror of the self, even if their origins may not be so Eastern. I do not care that Zuko does not look as I look. I care that he can feel as I feel. I wish a major publisher like NYT could have conveyed that as well. Instead, we got something from Phillips, a lady who has the right background to possess a deft understanding of the subject matter but instead chose to praise features that the show does not even have. While she may have issues with Western culture, her review indicates that she is fundamentally disinterested in culture as a human phenomenon.