Thursday, 8 March 2012

Cartoons that all revolutionary socialists should make their kids watch, Part I an Introduction and Avatar: The Last Air-Bender

No two ways about it, indoctrinating your kids isn’t cool. Using your parental authority to shape the psychological makeup of your offspring in a very specific direction is, some would argue, an abuse of that authority. If you truly have the courage of your political convictions then you should also have the confidence that if you instil values and basic decency into your offspring they’ll come around on their own without specific prompting from yourself.

There’s also the possibility that they’ll have picked up your bolshie streak and if you lay it on too thick they’ll become reactionary little bastards just to spite you. Just look at Ralph Milliband FFS. It's natural that teenagers lash out against their parents and they will at times do things just because it’s the very thing in the whole world that would piss you off the most. Drinking, doing hard drugs, becoming Emos or joining the BNP (or Fainna Fail or even the SDLP), nothing should be considered beneath them.

So, politically indoctrinating your offspring, morally dubious and liable to backfire. That said, there is nothing wrong with some gentle nudging in the right direction. This is where the Cartoons come in. As we know, all cultural artefacts are loaded with layers of meaning and the cumulative effect is a subtle form of programming that inputs the cultural and social mores into the individual. If this process is a part of socialisation and going to happen anyway, one might as well have a bit of a hand in it.

It is to this end that I direct friends and comrades towards this occasional series on this Blog relating to some of the animated features and TV shows that I feel will have a positive impact on their young minds and as well as being good entertainment in their own right, the sort of thing that any adults reading this might actually enjoy watching along with their brood, because lets face it, some of the stuff you are going to be obliged to watch is going to be pure gack. Also, it is important that these are good shows from the kids POV because if you melt their little heads with a cartoon diet of hard East-German Socialist realism or those weird depressing Soviet Russian cartoons that used to show up on TV every now and again they will grow up to hate you and your politics, become reactionary enemies of the movement and the people in general and will certainly have to be shot, and we don't want to see that happen now do we?

For each cartoon I will be have a little section explaining what it is about and why it's good before delving into the meaning and messages of the show.

With this in mind we'll start with a personal favourite from not too long ago, or at least recent enough that I was in my 20s when I saw it and managed to really enjoy it.

Avatar: The Legend of Aang The Last Airbender (TV Series, Nickelodeon 2006-8)

What it’s about:

Aang is an adolescent boy, gifted with the power of Air-Bending and destined to become the Avatar, master of the 4 elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water). After spending 100 years encased in an iceberg, he finds that a war has been launched by the imperialistic Fire Nation to conquer the whole world, and that his own people, the Air Nomads, have been wiped out. He and his small band of companions travel the length and breath of their world (based very loosely on mythic China) so he can learn the ways of the other 3 elements and hopefully stop the Lord of the Fire Nation’s plans for world domination.

Why it's good:

Its works very well in its own right as a cartoon. The animation is extremely well done, it’s a perfect fusion of the expertise of American and Asian animators. The world of Avatar is well constructed, the attention to detail in every aspect of which makes the complete whole something marvellous. A good example would be the different elemental magics which are based on real-world Chinese martial arts which the series writers feel capture the essence of the elements, the smooth flowing Tai Chi style is water bending, the sharp and explosive Northern Shaolin style represents fire bending and so on. It’s obvious that the animators have spent a lot of time studying how the human body moves when performing the various moves.

The story is well told too. There is a good mixture of personal stories relating to each of the well constructed, believable characters and the epic quest with a huge back story in the best traditions of fantasy against a background of war that makes up the story arc. The stories can be by turns, funny, heroic, emotional, exciting, human and in a couple of episodes, really really dark (the story from the third season about the Water-Bender who could use her power over water to control people by manipulating the water in their body seriously creeped me out). The voice cast (mostly quite young themselves, no middle aged women playing adolescent boys here which is usually the case in animation) do a fantastic job, particular props have to go to the, sadly deceased, Asian-American actor Mako for his turn as Uncle Iroh who in some ways provides the emotional and philosophica; heart of the show.

What the young ’uns will hopefully take from it:

Well, the basic thing of exposing small children to concepts and ideas from different culture is, I believe, always generally beneficial to creating open minded and well rounded individuals. The story setting has a definite anti-war theme to it, the degradation of war and the effects on civilian populations are well handled. The main character is the last survivor of what is essentially a holocaust.

There are also a lot of strong female roles in it. For example, the Earth-Bender Toph (pictured), who joins the show in the second season, is both female and disabled (blind) and manages to be a very strong role-model for both in a nicely un-forced way.

So it’s a popular American TV show that is well made and enjoyable, has some good action, well drawn characters (in all senses of the term) and some nice anti-war, pro-diversity and feminist themes that are all handled with a deft touch, i.e. they don’t beat you round the head with “the message”. The only mild criticism I have is that the humour is sometimes a little forced and it doesn’t quite go far enough, but I think that that’s a reasonable trade off.

Next blog I'll be doing at least a small report back from this weekends up coming Revolution 2012 conference in the QUB Student Union. There will be more of these to follow over the coming months and theres a lot happening in and around Belfast.