Uncle Iroh’s Got Abs?

Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Today we share the second of three pieces of public writing selected for publication from an assignment in ENGL 801 “Graduate Studies in English”: a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words) which tailors an academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.

Read more about the assignment and the first publication, “Judith and the Vikings” by Caitlin Radonich (MA ’22), in last Thursday’s post. Now, on to “Uncle Iroh’s Got Abs?” by Morgan Shiver (MA ’22)!

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 (Fall 2020)

If you’re asked to close your eyes and picture an elderly man, you probably don’t imagine him as shirtless, buff, and badass. Avatar: The Last Airbender will change that.

A “children’s” animated series treasured by viewers of all ages for nearly two decades, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Avatar: The Last Airbender features a compelling range of characters who crush the stereotypes that other early 21st century children’s TV shows embrace. From a warrior guard comprised entirely of young women to a 12-year-old blind girl who beats up grown men in her spare time, Avatar’s cast defies social norms in every episode. Among the long list of Avatar’s exceptional representations is its atypical portrayal of elderly characters.

Other children’s television series of the early 2000s depicted elderly people as weak, ugly, senile, and insignificant (Robinson). Across Avatar’s three seasons, you’d be hard-pressed to find even one elderly character who falls victim to these unflattering tropes. And it’s not a coincidence! Directly confronting inaccurate stereotypes, Avatar: The Last Airbender intentionally subverts industry norms by featuring elderly characters whose power is unmatched across children’s television programs, even today.

Enter King Bumi and Uncle Iroh.

When Avatar Aang and his friends Katara and Sokka first encounter King Bumi in Season 1 Episode 5, “The King of Omashu,” Bumi’s hunched back, toothless grin, and off-the-wall comments indicate that he is no different than any other powerless, crazy old man on children’s television. Questioning the King’s mental state, Katara leans over to Aang, muttering, “Is it just me, or is his crown a little crooked?” (“The King”). Moments later, Sokka declares, “This guy is nuts!” (“The King”). Because of this stereotypical first impression, all three protagonists dismiss King Bumi as a weak fool.

Big mistake.

Later in the same episode, Bumi forces Aang to choose an opponent for a duel, presenting him with two young, athletic competitors. Still believing his initial impression of Bumi, Aang cleverly selects the King as his opponent, instead of the two strong men by his side. “Wrong choice!” exclaims Bumi, suddenly straightening his hunched posture and stripping off his cape to reveal a toned, muscular physique that absolutely no one saw coming (“The King”).

Towering over Aang, Bumi is no longer the frail old man he initially resembled. As Bumi proceeds to dominate the duel against the Avatar, his physical prowess is undeniable. After the duel, Bumi reveals that he is actually an old friend from Aang’s childhood, showing that although his methods maybe strange, his mind is sound enough to both manipulate the Avatar and teach him a valuable lesson. Bumi’s character arc is a masterclass in manipulation. The show’s creators relied on viewers’ stereotypical expectations of elderly characters to absolutely shock them with Bumi’s true persona. Bumi’s initial introduction as a weak old man only enhances Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s intentionally atypical representation.

King Bumi appears just a handful of times in the show’s 3-season run, but Uncle Iroh, a universally beloved character, makes a more prolonged impression on Avatar’s viewers as he contradicts elderly tropes throughout the series.

Like Bumi, Iroh understands that he is likely to be underestimated because of his age and uses others’ demeaning assumptions to his advantage. In Season 3 Episode 4, “Sokka’s Master,” Iroh manipulates a prison guard who vastly underestimates him. In one scene, Iroh is shown doing clapping pushups in his cell, a physically demanding exercise that an elderly character would never be seen doing on children’s television shows, let alone any television series. Hearing the clapping, the guard rushes to investigate only to find Iroh, who quickly repositions himself, clapping mindlessly in the air with a blank expression. “Crazy old man,” the guard mutters before walking away (“Sokka’s Master”). Avatar’s viewers, who are in on Iroh’s ruse, are confronted with the guard’s blatantly inaccurate assumptions about the elderly man. As Iroh continues to prepare for his escape, he removes his robe — along with the pillow he uses to stuff it — and proceeds to do one-armed pull-ups, his muscular body and rock-hard abs on full display. I repeat: Rock. Hard. Abs. This is not your typical elderly man!

Both Iroh and Bumi continue to defy expectations by destroying stereotypes throughout the series, ultimately defending the great city of Ba Sing Se alongside the other 3 leaders of the elite fighting force the White Lotus, who are all elderly men. Through Iroh, Bumi, and other elderly characters in the series, Avatar: The Last Airbender subverts industry norms by showing that age brings power and importance as well as rock hard abs.

Next time you’re asked to picture an elderly man (I’m sure it will happen), remember Uncle Iroh!

Works Cited

DiMartino, Michael Dante, and Brian Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studios, 2005.

“The King of Omashu.” Avatar: The Last Airbender, season 1, episode 5, Nickelodeon, 18 Mar. 2005. Netflix.

Robinson, Tom, and Caitlin Anderson. “Older Characters in Children’s Animated Television Programs: A Content Analysis of Their Portrayal.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 50, no. 2, June 2006, pp. 287–304. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1207/s15506878jobem5002_7. Accessed 15 October 2020.

“Sokka’s Master.” Avatar: The Last Airbender, season 3, episode 4, Nickelodeon, 12 Oct. 2007. Netflix.

Morgan Shiver (MA ’22)

One thought on “Uncle Iroh’s Got Abs?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s