A video essay by Eva Katelic on TV and on animation, one that asks a question worth asking — is Avatar pastiche or cultural appropriation? — and that mobilises a whole array of audio-visual sources and techniques to help provide an answer. Also, great fun to watch.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
From the anime inspired, bright coloured animation to its bold, yet realistic, fighting styles, I believe that what truly sets the show apart from other kid’s series is its skilful interweaving of varying cultural artistic practices under a single story.
The show is set in an alternate universe that is comprised of four nations, the fire, water, air and earth nations. What differentiates this animated world from ours is that certain characters, called benders, have the power to control the elements to their will. There is only one person who is able to control more than one given element and that is the Avatar. The Avatar is destined to restore peace and balance amongst the nations which have been at war for the past 100 years. There is always only one avatar in the world at any given point in time and as soon as one dies the next one is born, this is called the avatar cycle. The next avatar in the avatar cycle is a young airbender called Aang. Aang wakes after being frozen in an iceberg for the past 100 years and, upon awakening, is burdened with the task of mastering all forms of bending to end the 100-year war. The overarching goal of defeating the fire lord remains the same throughout all three seasons. The series is a classic coming of age story which follows Aang on his journey of defeating the fire nation throughout all three seasons. During Aang’s journey the audience discovers the carefully constructed world which the show is set in. We discover the oddly realistic fighting styles, abstract yet grounded architecture and the prominent cultural norms which shape the avatar’s world.
The video critique delves into the dialectical tension between pastiche and cultural appropriation within the diverse cultural references of the Tv series Avatar: The Last Airbender. I delve into the show’s incorporation of the style of popular Japanese animation, how the show blends together diverse architectural styles, how the show’s simplification of respected cultural figures such as the Dalai Lama is a case of cultural appropriation and how Avatar’s inclusion of diverse Kung Fu fighting styles is a respectful pastiche to the art of fighting. I conclude with the fact that, although the avatar takes some forms of cultural appropriation, it predominantly celebrates the varying cultural art forms in what can be labelled as pastiche. Prior to delving into a detailed analysis of the show I delineate what exactly I mean by the terms pastiche and cultural appropriation within this context.
Pastiche carries with it a number of connotations, derived back from its Italian origins. In the words of Ingeborg Hoesterey, the opinions of pastiche art fluctuated between positive and negative ones over the years. However, pastiche, in the context of contemporary film has come to hold a positive connotation and this is evidenced by numerous film critiques found online today.  Similarly, the phenomenon of cultural appropriation can be viewed differently depending on the context, however, I view cultural appropriation as bell hooks views the “acknowledgment of racial difference”, a hegemonic commodification of the ‘other’ . I outline the inherent juxtaposition between the two and question whether the Avatar series falls on the positive side of pastiche or the negative one of cultural appropriation. The aforementioned is evidenced by Avatar’s anime-like animation style (which celebrates the art of Japanese anime and thus falls on the side of pastiche), the creative adaptation of real world architecture, the incorporation of varying kung fu fighting techniques (both forms of pastiche) versus the simplification of cultural figures such as the Dalai Lama (an example of cultural appropriation).
 Hoesterey, I. (2001). Pastiche. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
 hooks, b. (2014). Black Looks. Routledge, pp.0-212.