Avatar: A Cartoon that Makes “The Bald Look” Cool

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AANG, THE “LAST AIRBENDER” IS AN AIR NOMAD WHOSE TRADITION INVOLVES HEAD SHAVING, JUST LIKE THE BUDDHIST MONKS.

In July of 2010, director M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) will unleash his cinematic vision of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” upon the world. It will be a new property for many people – but not for many with children.

That’s because Shyamalan’s movie is based upon an animated series that has enjoyed an extremely popular run on Nickelodeon, garnering audiences as large as 5.6 million – an impressive number for a cable-based children’s show.

And the star of this hit series is a 12-year-old boy whose signature blue arrow tattoo is clearly visible on the top of his totally, 100% bald head.

That baldness, by the way, is a choice. Aang, the character in question, is the titular last airbender. In the future fantasy world in which “Avatar” is set, there are four tribes of people, each of which is related to one of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water). The air nomads died out 100 years ago, except for Aang, who was in suspended animation for that period of time. And part of their tradition involves shaving the head, much as a Buddhist monk might do.

It should be pointed out that for a time in season three of the show, Aang grew his hair out; but this was done simply to cover up his telltale blue arrow tattoo so that he could operate in disguise. When given the chance, Aang quickly returned to his favored hairless state.

“Avatar” is a good show that is enjoyed by a wide range of children (and a surprising number of adults). But it’s the baldness of its lead character that is of special interest.

Introducing a rare bald character who happens to be a child

As is evident from even a cursory glance over the entertainment landscape, there’s a lack of heroic bald characters, let alone heroic bald characters who are children. True, with actors such as Bruce Willis, Michael Chiklis and Vin Diesel around, things are better than they used to be for the hair challenged. But it’s still far from common to see bald characters carrying a film or series.

The fact that Aang is a child is especially important. Baldness in children is, quite naturally, associated with illness. They may have an actual illness such as Alopecia Areata that causes hair loss, or they may lose hair as the result of treatment, such as chemotherapy, for a medical condition. This can be very difficult for a child.

“Children with hair loss are subject to a wide variety of reactions from their peers,” says Lisa Butler, Vice President of Communications for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. “While many peers embrace another child who may look different, there are others who, out of fear of the unknown, may bully or tease a child with Alopecia Areata. It is crucial for parents and school administrators to educate teachers and other students early on; the sooner the peers of a child with Alopecia Areata know that it is not contagious and that the child is perfectly healthy, the less likely they are to tease.”

A character like Aang can perhaps help in changing children’s perceptions of baldness and the stigma that can accompany it. As Butler explains, “role models can be good for an individual with Alopecia Areata, at any age. Many times, the most influential role models for children are those portrayed in cartoons and via other media outlets. Not only is it healing for an individual with Alopecia Areata to see someone else like them, but it can also familiarize their peers with hair loss, making them less likely to see a child with Alopecia Areata as different.”

That is one of “Avatar’s” most significant contributions. Children won’t necessarily think of baldness in another child as “normal” after watching the cartoon, but it does give them a new context for looking at baldness in someone of their own age.

On Avatar, baldness is beautiful

Indeed, many of “Avatar’s” young female fans consider Aang a definite “hottie.” One message board participant wrote that “he is only one year older than me, and if he didn’t belong with Katara (another character on the show), I would totally take him.”

The episodes in which Aang disguised himself by growing his hair out inspired quite a bit of discussion as well. “Who thinks Aang looks goofy with hair?” asked one fan, while another said his hair looked good “but I’m gonna miss his shiny baldness” and yet another opined that “Aang with hair isn’t even Aang for me anymore.”

Perhaps one of the most noteworthy comments came after Aang shaved his head again, when a viewer said that having hair “wasn’t true to who he really is … (the baldness) is beautiful on him.”

Other comments on Aang’s baldness include the terse but telling “cool,” “awesome” and “mighty.”  Quite a change from the derisive comments about baldness that are common in our society.

Of course, one cartoon series cannot by itself change cultural perceptions and reactions. But “Avatar” deserves a salute for taking a bold step in the right direction.