Friday, June 8, 2012

Guest Post: The Last Airbender Has the Right Idea

Today's guest post is coming courtesy of Elizabeth Kobayashi. You can check out her video blog here.

The other day, I introduced a friend to Nickelodeon’s hit animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender. After a few episodes, she complained that we hadn’t met any women from the Fire Nation yet. “Gender inequality!” she cried. I laughed and said something along the lines of, “Oh, just wait.”

When it comes to males and females, The Last Airbender probably has the most balanced set of characters I’ve seen in any action show. There are just as many regular and recurring female characters as there are male characters, and I can’t think of a weak damsel in the whole series.

From the incredibly strong waterbender Katara, to the headstrong and ridiculously powerful earthbender Toph, to the evil-insane Fire Princess Azula, the female benders in this show can give any male action hero a run for his money. The non-benders pretty much rock the world too: the fierce Kiyoshi warrior Suki can and will take on anything, chi-blocking Ty Lee speedily takes down bending and non-bending warriors alike, knife-throwing-expert Mai never bats an eye but fights half an army when she wants to stand for something, and even the seemingly vanilla princess Yue bravely sacrifices herself to save her tribe.

Kiyoshi Warriors
Numerically and qualitatively, The Last Airbender has guys and girls equally matched and, more importantly, equally treated. The powerful women in this show aren’t bull-headed and sensitive to the tiniest accidental slight, constantly competing with male characters and trapped in the notion that they have to prove themselves in the world of men. They are, all of them, confident and comfortable.

Toph knows without a doubt that she is the most powerful earthbender in the world, period. Her arrogance and independence spring from her confidence in her power, not from a need to prove herself “equal to any man” or any other such detrimental idea. Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai dominate everyone, eliminating the need for gender competition altogether (but they’re scary bad guys…girls…). Katara has to fight for her right to train as a warrior in the Northern Water Tribe, but when she is finally accepted as a student, she remains secure in her worth and ability and does not succumb to the all-men-must-think-I’m-inferior-therefore-I-must-always-do-everything-they-do-but-better-always disease that plagues many female action heroes.

Sure, Katara bickers with Sokka, who starts out with some sexist notions, but Sokka learns quickly around girls like Suki and Katara and his sexism is more or less eradicated by the end of the first season. After Suki puts Sokka in his place for mocking the Kiyoshi warriors, she forgives him and they form a powerful alliance. It is no coincidence that during his coming-of-age challenge—navigating a ship through rocks—Sokka calls on Katara’s waterbending skills (as well as Aang’s airbending) to succeed. All the characters recognize the importance of working as a team instead of constantly striving to prove oneself.

For the bulk of the series, the fighting female warriors simply coexist with the male warriors, working together to save the world. It’s not a show about strong females as anomalies worth noting. They’ve moved past the booster-seat stage and the characters in TLA portray a world where (for the most part) people are people with unique, useful, and powerful skill sets, regardless of gender. Isn’t that what we want?

And that’s not all, either.

Being the kind of girl who likes to watch heroes who do more than kick butt, I really enjoy the fact that these strong female warriors, particularly Katara, have admirable qualities beyond fighting skill. In fact, because I’m a little bit of a fangirl, I’m going to make the case that Katara usurps the title character as the star of the show.

(First of all, disclaimer: Obviously there are multiple heroes in this show, and several characters get equal amounts of screentime. In this case, I’m looking at awesome-steal-the-show-type qualities, rather than archetypal stuff.)

Let’s start at the very beginning—the beginning of every episode. Who narrates it? Katara. Okay moving on.

If you’ve seen the show, you know the obvious bits. (If you haven’t, stop reading this article right now and go watch it.) Katara accidentally surfaces the iceberg containing Aang, and she wants to help him first. She learns waterbending quickly and immediately turns around to teach Aang. She carries Aang away after he is shot by Azula’s lightning and her powers (with the magic spirit water) heal him.

She is generally Aang’s biggest supporter. More than once, grief drives Aang to enter the Avatar state, and Katara is the one who comforts him, braving the dangerous and whirling mass of wind and dirt to literally pull him out of it.

She keeps Team Avatar together and practically drags them along when they are lost in the desert. Frequently, she serves as the voice of reason among the kids, but she isn’t above quarrelling, having fun, or making mistakes. She has her own set of problems and deals with them as the series progresses, confessing feelings of abandonment when she reunites with her father and having to make the choice between revenge and forgiveness when she confronts her mother’s killer.

Though the entire show chronicles Aang’s journey from Air Nomad monk to fully-realized Avatar, Katara is the only bender who starts the show barely able to perform a single trick and ends as one of the most powerful and skilled masters in the world. And she has her moment of glory in the series finale, displaying her ingenuity and power. Though Aang, as the Avatar, faces and defeats Fire Lord Ozai, Katara ultimately defeats Azula, who was the immediate physical threat throughout the series.

After the poetic confrontation between brother and sister ends with Zuko injured and Azula raving and dangerous, the showdown between the most prominent heroine and the most terrifying villainess furthers the idea that girls can hold their own, right to the very end. Even the lack of damaging competition between the sexes continues to this point: Zuko is injured because he tried to protect Katara from Azula’s lightning, not because he was incompetent, and though Katara proves to be quite capable of facing Azula, she respects Zuko and thanks him.

That sort of summarizes Katara, and similar paragraph-fulls of praise could be said for the other heroines as well. In a show not at all lacking in meaty character arcs, Katara and the slew of other female heroes (and villains) leave me with few complaints.

The sequel series, The Legend of Korra, is also fabulous…but I’ll get to that another time.

She's contractually obligated to review this show. Because polar bear.
Elizabeth Kobayashi is a recent film school grad working as a Post-Production Coordinator for Biola’s Distance Learning and spending all the rest of her time writing and reading YA novels, comic books, and TV. She likes astronomy, food, Star Wars, and being a ninja, and her favorite TV show is The Legend of Korra. Watch her vlog here.

3 comments:

  1. Oh hey, there's a sequel? Good to know! I suppose now you're going to tell me it's just as good? Because I'm going to have a hard time believing that.

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    1. Hate to burst your bubble, but the sequel is just as good as the original, and expands on the world in cool new ways. Sorry.

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  2. Whee! I also recently was introduced to AtLA, and am totally in love with the show. I think the third episode (The Warriors of Kyoshi) did it for my inner feminist when Suki points out to Sokka that yes, she's a warrior - but she's a girl too. Men don't have a monopoly on warriorness in this show, and female warriors are still able to be nurturing and loving. I definitely agree that Katara seems to usurp Aang as the best character a lot of the time as well!

    Not to mention that there's an amazing evil-turned-good arc that isn't cheesy and overdone...

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