The Wondrous Pacifism of Avatar Aang

Why it matters that a children’s hero chooses non-violence every time.

Avatar Aang | “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

I was only nine when Avatar: The Last Airbender began airing on Nickelodeon.

By the first episode, I was immediately enthralled its colorful world, by its magic, by its curious cast of characters. I would plop my impressionable butt on a couch religiously every single Monday for three years, excited to get a glimpse into my favorite fantasy world. If I could have pressed a button to catapult myself through the TV screen to join Aang and his friends, I would have slammed it faster than Sokka could say “Cactus juice.”

On my fourth-grade playground, my friends and I would chaotically swoosh our arms around and make silly sound effects — pretending to be the “benders” of the Avatar world: Fire, Earth, Air, Water. Most of my friends were drawn to the tortured angst of Zuko or the fiery passion of Katara.

But me? I was always drawn to Aang, the sensitive, tattooed, bald kid at the center of all the drama. On the surface, he seems like a classic Chosen One hero — powerful, prophetic, and destined to defeat a great evil.

But on rewatch (the series recently dropped on Netflix) it’s apparent that Aang is not a normal hero. His morality and virtue system sets him apart. He was raised by monks to be pacifist and non-violent, virtues he takes with him throughout every single episode of the show. His pacifism is infectious — he spreads his message of love through every character he interacts with, and in many different ways.

Aang singles to children everywhere that non-violence is always the answer. It’s a message that I carry with me to this day.

Pacifism Through Combat

It sounds like an oxymoronic phrase right? Pacifism through combat.

But it’s true. Aang’s entire method of combat is based around defensive maneuvers and redirecting his opponents’ attacks. He manages to be a powerful fighter without being violent.

Airbending, Aang’s primary fighting style, is based on the Chinese martial art discipline of Ba Gua (八卦掌). Ba Gua is characterized by ‘circle walking’ — a technique in which a practitioner coils and uncoils their body positions, with dynamic maneuvers, in order to evade their opponents’ blows. Movements are smooth and swift, encompassing every part of the body.

Aang only attacks directly is he is forced to. Instead, he dodges his opponents’ attacks, blocks their blows, flees, or redirects their energy against them. Only when pressed into a corner does he attack directly.

Image for post
Image for post
Aang uses an evasive Ba Gua strategy against firebender Zuko

While this may seem like a passive combat strategy, the show takes great lengths to show the virtue of this style of combat.

His system of evading and dodging is not weak — he actually redirects his opponents’ energy into harming themselves. When Firebender Commander Zhao attacks Aang in Book 1 Episode “The Deserter”, Aang strategically avoids every single fireball until the fireballs destroy Zhao’s ships, leaving him stranded inland. He harnesses his opponents’ destructive nature against them.

Aang: You’ve lost this battle.

Zhao: Are you crazy? You haven’t thrown a single blow.

Aang: No, but you have.

Aang’s fighting style is a combative assertion of karma. He mainly uses the violence of his opponents against them — what goes around, comes around. If his opponents don’t intend to harm him, they won’t get harmed themselves.

Aang hesitates before contributing more violence into the world: His combat strategy is about redirecting existing violence against his opponents. He refuses to (literally) fight fire with fire.

Empathy Towards Animals

Aang’s love of animals is palpable throughout the series. He fiercely protects his animal companions — lemur Momo and sky bison Appa — and treats them like sentient creatures capable of love and pain, not mere pets. In return for his love, Appa and Momo offer Aang transportation and protection.

Aang even offers enemy animals his compassion. Urged by his friends and villagers to attack Hei Bai — a monstrous forest spirit Aang encounters in Book 1 — Aang is conflicted, unwilling to hurt another living creature.

Instead, he listens to his instincts and attempts a different approach: he tries to understand Hei Bai’s actions. After learning Hei Bai was distraught after a forest fire burnt his home to a crisp, Aang taught Hei Bai the circle of life, showing him how to regrow trees to replenish nature. Hei Bai transformed from a monster into a panda. Then, throughout the series, the creature was in service of Aang, popping up from time to time to guide him. It helps to be kind to animals.

Image for post
Image for post
Hei Bai threatens Aang | “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

Like many monks from Buddhist philosophy, he never eats a morsel of meat throughout the series. Aang knows that his dietary actions can impact his environment in harmful ways so he abstains from meat.

I stopped eating meat at the age of ten; it just felt needless and cruel to a sensitive kid like me. When many people hear this, they assume I was raised by vegetarians or hippies, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of my male family members bond over hunting trips and fishing, and no Thanksgiving would be incomplete without not one, but two turkeys.

But Aang’s love of animals is never ridiculed nor criticized by other characters as weak. Avatar went out of its way to demonstrate that our animal companions are more than mere subservient creatures, but worthy of dignity and respect.

When my classmates and family members teased me for not being manly enough to eat a steak, I found solace in Aang’s resolution. Like me, this bald kid with tattoos didn’t eat meat like me. Like me, this incredibly powerful hero — who can defeat entire nation-states— values the lives of sentient beings around him. It doesn’t make him weak. It makes him strong.

Aang’s Emotional Arc

The bending in the world of Avatar, its fixed magic system, is inextricably tied to emotional regulation and discipline.

Within the very first scene, Katara is only able to summon great power to destroy a glacier when she becomes upset by her brother’s sexist comment. Throughout the series, one can only master an element when they understand the spirituality behind the elemental system (fluidity in thought for Water, stubbornness for Earth). And Aang’s Avatar State, the most powerful card up his sleeve, can only be consciously unlocked if he frees of his chakras, each blocked by a negative emotion like guilt or fear.

It’s not that Aang becomes an emotional Avatar, it’s that his emotions are required to becoming an Avatar.

To contrast, consider the qualities that make a good magician in other fantasy series. Harry Potter values studiousness and work ethic (think of Hermione Granger being the best witch of her age) and Game of Thrones values mysticism and sacrifice (think of the Red Woman many cult-like rites). But Avatar’s bending is about emotional regulation and discipline.

Image for post
Image for post
Aang learns waterbending | “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

The series visually represents what happens when emotions become undone. In Book 2 opening episode, Aang becomes distraught when Katara is captured and ends up destroying an Earth Kingdom military post, one of his allies. Just as in real life, unrestrained emotions are powerful and often hurt the wrong side when not properly controlled.

It may seem like a simple thing, but this magical valuing system actually helps define the end goals for its protagonists: in order to learn all four bending disciplines, Aang will have to be able to master the corresponding emotions of each one. One of Aang’s canonical objectives is to be in tune with his own emotions.

Aang’s mission is not just to win a war; it’s to understand and control his emotions.

Only after Aang is able to understand his negative emotions — guilt for leaving his people, anger at his enemies, fear for his friends’ well-being — is he able to become his most powerful. And also his most compassionate.

The Avatar must be compassionate towards all people, and the only way to do that is to live with them. The Avatar must experience sadness, anger, joy, and happiness. By feeling all these emotions, it helps you understand how precious human life is, so you will do anything to protect it. — Avatar Yangchen

Of course, all fantasy characters possess some form of an emotional arc — that’s part of what makes a good story. But Avatar takes it a step further. By embedding emotional regulation and discipline into its magic system, it argues that emotions are a precursor to power.

It’s not that Aang becomes an emotional Avatar, it’s that his emotions are required to becoming an Avatar.

His emotional journey is more impactful because Aang is a male Avatar. Vulnerability, empathy, and emotions are often shunned in men, especially male leaders. Boys are told never to cry, instead holding in their emotions so as not to appear weak — leading to emotionally distant and stunted adults. Men are told not to wear face masks because it makes them look weak, who then may in turn infect others.

Avatar teaches young children, especially boys, that emotions don’t just vanish. They need to be examined and understood.

By the third episode, Aang has been reduced to tears by the genocide of his people. The series doesn’t gloss over his anguish. It tenderly examines it. It sits with the consequences of genocide. We empathize with him.

And Aang learns from it. He begins to process to respectfully let go of his own pain. In his own words “It’s easy to do nothing, it’s hard to forgive”. Aang learns that he shouldn’t hide from his emotions. He needs to face them head-on, understand them, and then (the hardest step of all) grow.

His emotions don’t make him weak. They make him strong.

A Commitment To Non-Violence

Aang’s destiny, as stated in the opening credits of the very first episode, is to defeat the Fire Lord, a genocidal and tyrannical dictator. The show, ever a master at storytelling, saves the best for last: this world-changing showdown only takes place in the very last episode.

Image for post
Image for post
Fire Lord Ozai | “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

When I was eleven years old, watching this battle for the first time, I was so excited to see Aang pummel the Fire Lord into submission, to really show him who’s boss. I imagined a violent and aggressive beatdown, where the evil villain is finally tossed off of a cliff to his doom.

But that’s not exactly what happens.

Hours before the showdown, Aang is frightened by the possibility of having to kill someone and betray his opposition to murder. He retreats inwards, meditating for hours and speaking to his spiritual guides for advice. He consults a Lion Turtle, an ancient spirit that is essentially a deity in his world.

Aang is scared, not of dying, but of having to take a life.

During the final battle, Aang has a clear shot of victory halfway through. He had the ability to redirect lightning directly at the Fire Lord, ensuring his enemy’s death. The choice would be easy — utilitarian even. Kill one dictator to end his tyranny and genocide. Remember, this man represents a government who killed Aang’s entire ethnic tribe except him.

But when faced with this decision, Aang shoots the lightning into a nearby mountain, harming no one. The decision appears to be foolish; he lost his first chance to kill his enemy.

But it reflects a prophetic saying from the Lion Turtle earlier in the episode. “To bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable.”

Aang’s spirit is unbendable. His morals cannot be changed due to external forces or pressure. He won’t kill his opponent because it’s easier to do so.

Aang is scared, not of dying, but of having to take a life.

Through his unyielding morality, Aang is able to unlock an extraordinary power: Energybending, removing someone else’s power. Aang ends the fight by stripped the Fire Lord of his abilities, removing the possibility of him hurting someone else again.

Image for post
Image for post
Aang’s new ability is wondrous to behold | “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

It’s a radical move, in more ways than one.

Imagine Infinity War concluding with Iron Man meditating onscreen for a half-hour, trying to understanding the morality of conflict. Imagine Harry Potter going to extreme lengths to prevent the death of Lord Voldemort. Imagine Simba wrestling with his own guilt and societal pressure about tossing Scar to his death on Pride Rock.

Avatar argues that morality and values are worth sacrificing everything for. If we don’t own our belief systems, we don’t own anything.

Pacifism is not Passivity

Aang shows us that emotions don’t make us weak, that non-violence is an active choice, and that there is nothing on Earth that can make us sacrifice our own morality.

For many, it’s easy to equate pacifism with inaction. It makes intuitive sense, right? Being peaceful means standing by and doing nothing. Peace seems more like an idealistic luxury, something that people living in the real world cannot abide by.

In fact, Aang’s biggest mistake is one of inaction: fleeing the Southern Air Temple when he became frightened of the implications of his destiny.

Aang spends the entire series trying to remedy this mistake by bettering the lives of the people around him through pacifism. Not just his friends, but even strangers and enemies too.

Many people mistakenly that violence is always an option, always on the table, always a last resort. We see this in the real world when diplomacy gives way too quickly to military intervention, when police forgo de-escalation in favor of drawing weapons. I’m sure every reader can think of a real-life example that occurred to them or someone they know.

But this is not how Aang lives. His non-violence is a very active choice. He is driven to actively spread his non-violence everywhere through his combat, through his actions, and through his choices.

Image for post
Image for post
Avatar Aang | “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

I’m going to say it: Avatar Aang is goddam inspiring. I am now a fully grown adult, but I still look back on the actions of a cartoon bald child with glowing blues tattoos for guidance.

I am truly pleased that a new generation of children (and teenagers! and adults!) will be able to watch this majestic series and understand its value and belief system. Aang shows us that emotions don’t make us weak, that non-violence is an active choice, and that there is nothing on Earth that can make us sacrifice our own morality.

If I could go through life with a tenth of the dignity and compassion and non-violence of Avatar Aang, I would be a happy man. I see a little bit of him in me, a part of me that I try to nurture and grow every single day.

A queer, herbivorous, leftist Viking. I write about society, justice, and popular media. UChicago grad. Based in Iceland.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store