Avatar: The Last Airbender is regarded as one of the greatest shows, animated or otherwise, of all time. For reference, Avatar: The Last Airbender ranks #12 on IMDB’s Top Rated TV shows, following right behind the critically acclaimed Game of Thrones. The show’s recent release on Netflix has excited old fans and garnered new fans alike, expanding the Avatar fandom like never before. The revival of Avatar’s fandom has sparked over a decade’s old shipping wars of the show’s character couplings, whether those couplings are canon or not. Fans of the show have formed ships between practically every character in the show which makes engaging in shipping discourse fun because there are so many ships battling it out. Additionally, what makes shipping wars in the Avatar fandom all the more entertaining is the co-creators of the show, Micheal DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, created such an expansive universe with so many diverse and well-written characters for fans to critically engage with. (And I mean fans really engage with the characters and their respective ships.)
More than occasionally, there are *ahem* heated disagreements between fans on social media over canon and non-canon ships in Avatar, specifically between those who ship Zuko and Katara and those who ship Katara and Aang. There has always been a healthy divide in the fandom between Zutara and Kataang fans. The creators and some of the voice actors of the show have also participated in the shipping wars or teased fans with the possibility of their respected ship becoming canon. More recently, even the Avatar: The Last Airbender official youtube channel participated in a long-standing tradition within the fandom known as Zutara Week. The ships between Avatar characters have so much history, bringing back nostalgic memories for old fans and creating defining memories for new fans. However, perhaps with the show’s release on Netflix and the show’s growing fandom and in turn expanding popularity amongst the fandom’s favorite ships, the shipping disagreements tend to spill into argumentative territory.
Healthy debates or discussions in shipping wars should be harmless. Again, we’re all fans of the same show, a show everyone cares deeply about, and it’s cool that fans of all ages can engage critically with an animated children’s show. I think one thing that can be agreed upon by most people within the fandom is some of the canon pairings in Avatar aren’t as fully fleshed out as they ideally could have been. That is not necessarily a bad thing because for many, myself included, that makes shipping non-canon pairings just as entertaining as if they were made official.
However, engaging in shipping wars become less fun when fans of opposite ships hyper-criticize, personally attack others or police other people’s fan art and creations; shipping wars should be fun, not mean-spirited. The Zutara vs. Kataang debate was always meant to be a light-hearted competition to see whose ship would become canon in Avatar’s third season. Though, some of the non-canon ships have stood the test of time and even created fandoms within the Avatar fandom, that’s okay because it shows how much Avatar fans care about their favorite characters. One unfortunate aspect about the argumentative environment within the Avatar fandom over people’s respective ships is that it creates an uninviting tension that may intimidate new fans from engaging in the fandom, especially for fans unfamiliar with the concept of shipping wars. Of course, this problem isn’t exclusive to the Avatar fandom and extends to fandom culture entirely. Debates within fandoms over our favorite shows, characters, and ships often perpetuate problematic and divisive behavior, especially towards BIPOC fans.
Perhaps the passion within the fandom for the show and our favorite characters in Avatar cause us fans to jump at the chance to defend the art we love, but the defense of our favorite ships shouldn’t be at the expense of other people’s feelings. As stated by the wise Guru Patiq, “Things you think separate us are actually one and the same.” Fandoms allow people from all walks of life to find solidarity and community amongst each other while bonding over their favorite artists and creations. Ships make that sense of community even more niche, giving fans an added layer of commonality between people within their favorite fandoms. It’s important to remember- shipping wars are not the opportunity to vehemently attack other’s preferences. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a fantastic show which is why it has the extensive and diverse fan base that it does. Ideally, we want to keep that fan base welcoming so new fans can continue to find a home within the Avatar community.