Friday, April 3, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Azula (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

As I was going through my recent watch of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show I pretty much entirely missed when it was airing originally (because I was in college, and contrary to what pop culture tells you, there's a lot of homework), I was genuinely impressed by how many awesome female characters it has. I mean, just in the main group alone, it's solidly 50% female badassness, with Toph and Katara's relationship developing just as complexly and compellingly as the boys'.

And it doesn't stop there: I was thrilled to see that the supporting characters are both gender-equal and also written with a level of compassion and care that, even having been told this was true, I really wasn't expecting. Mai, Ty Lee, and Suki are the ones that come most immediately to mind, and they're all fantastically badass, awesome ladies. But you've also got other versions of feminine strength represented here too: Gran-Gran, though more mentioned than seen is an ideal of female leadership, while Princess Yue showed what self-sacrifice really means. 

But, out of all of these characters and all of the women of the show, the female character I most appreciated was Azula. The crazy, intense, legitimately insane antagonist who you just can't help feeling really sorry for. That's impressive.

See, what makes me love Azula so much (aside from her impressive voice-acting, courtesy of Grey Griffin*), is how deeply and well she is characterized. Because while Azula is definitely shown as evil, she's a really and truly complex character. I mean, far from BBC Sherlock's "high-functioning sociopath" drivel, Azula is a representation of a character who has actual anti-social personality disorder, or something closely related. She cannot process emotions in the same way as other characters, and she is not only aware of this, but also sometimes frustrated by it.

Which makes her really interesting to watch. Because you know that even if Azula would never change anything about herself - which is very clear, she thinks she's great - she is irritated by how hard it is to understand everyone else. And, ultimately, it's her inability to understand human motivations more complex than fear that brings about her downfall.

But more on that in a minute. For those of you who are going, "Eh?" here's the deal:

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a Nickelodeon show that pretty much proved once and for all that "for kids" and "deep and profound" are not mutually exclusive concepts. The story is a fantasy one, set in a world pretty different from our own. In this world there are four nations: Earth, Fire, Water, and Air, and in those nations there are groups of people who can "bend" that element. By which we mean control. It's a show about preteens with magic powers, essentially.

The premise for the story is that these four nations "lived in harmony until the Fire Nation attacked!" Which is to say that, human nature being human nature, one of the nations decided to destroy and colonize the others in an attempt to concentrate power. Because that is what people do.

Our hero for the show is the "Avatar" or the one person in the whole world who can control every element. Aang, the Avatar, is reincarnated from the last Avatar and so on. The Fire Nation thinks they killed him, but just to be sure, they periodically look for him and try to kill him some more. And since Aang did sort of die, they don't find him.

What he actually did, though, was accidentally get himself frozen into a ball of ice, which is found a hundred years later at South Pole by Katara (a water bender) and Sokka (her non-bending brother). They rescue Aang and agree to help him master all four elements so that he can defeat the Fire Lord and save the world. 

The show takes three seasons to deliver on this premise, by the way, and for the majority of its run, it's a road trip show. The kids are traveling all over the world, hiding from the Fire Nation and trying to get Aang all trained up to go. They pick up other characters as they go along, including the world's most powerful Earthbender, Toph, and the disgraced Fire Nation Prince Zuko, who was hunting Aang but later becomes his Firebending teacher.

Got it so far? Good. (If not, I don't know, go read the wiki or something.)

Azula is Zuko's sister, also an heir to the Fire Nation throne, and frankly much more beloved of their father than he is. See, Zuko has always suffered from an overabundance of reasonableness, which is a problem when your family business involves enslaving or destroying everyone else on the planet. Zuko's just not good at being a Fire Lord because he's too dang sane. And since insanity doesn't run in the Fire Lord family, it gallops, Azula is a much better candidate to lead them all.

Of course, by better, I mean way way worse. Azula is introduced in the second season or so as the bane of Zuko's existence, a bully who has tormented him since childhood, even though she's actually younger than him. By virtue of being completely nuts and also having a personality disorder, Azula views the entire world in terms of fear and power. If people fear her, then she has power over them. Since she has no fear, she has all the power. Hooray!

And in the rare cases that she cannot control people with fear, she is perfectly capable of pretending to be normal, pretending to love them, and aping normal human reactions. But she really prefers being herself, which means being what is, basically, a monster.

Make no mistake, Azula is a monster. Which she is at times very sympathetic, it's key to remember that you are being made to sympathize with a girl who murders people for giving her a bad haircut, and sees human life other than hers as a necessary evil. Other people exist either to help her or for her to crush. There is no in between.

It's also worth noting that for the majority of the series, Azula's emotional blank space is actually a really good thing for her. It allows her to be an incredibly powerful Firebender, since instead of using her anger to fuel her she is able to be completely dispassionate at all times. It helps her to strategize and defeat her enemies. It keeps her one step ahead and helps her do things the good guys would never consider. In other words, it helps her win. For the most part. Until the end.

Since Zuko's arc involves him becoming increasingly sympathetic and human, going from a spoiled brat trying to kill our hero to one of the most beloved characters of the series, it makes sense that the writers would want to introduce a character who explains a lot about Zuko. And that's what Azula does. She explains so much about Zuko's childhood and formative experiences, while also giving us a reason to feel sorry for the guy (his psychotic sister is trying to kill him, after all).

As the series progresses and Zuko is pushed more and more out of his family's life and more and more into rebelling alongside the Avatar, Azula becomes the central figure in the Fire Nation. With her father getting ready to basically wipe the planet clean of all rebels and declare himself master of the world, Azula is in place to become the Fire Lord in his stead. But it's as this goal is finally in her reach, the power that she so firmly believes she deserves, that everything starts to go to crap for her.

First her friends abandon her, telling her that they don't fear her more than they love Zuko (basically). This completely upsets Azula's understanding of the world - after all, she's worked for years under the assumption that nothing is more powerful in motivating people than fear - and puts her severely off balance. Then her brother, who she has always considered weak and over emotional, defeats her in Firebending. She didn't even think that was possible.

And finally, just as Azula is set to get everything she has ever wanted, she starts to feel afraid. She feels her power leaking away and she is terrified. She's never been afraid before, and she has no frame of reference to handle it.

By the end of the series, you do honestly feel bad for Azula. Not insofar as you wish her story would have turned out differently, because that would mean wishing that the bad guys had lost, but more that you can see how she got to where she is. You can see how she became this thing, and you can pity her. Which is fitting, because she would hate that.

So why am I bringing all of this up today? Why talk about Azula? Because in looking for better female representation in television and media at large, a lot of times what we forget to mention is the villains.

Women are a lot of things - arguably all of the things - and to tell stories where women are never given the chance to be villains and monsters is just as bad as telling stories where women are never given the chance to be heroes. Because if we do not have the moral ability to become villains, then that suggests that women are somehow less than human. If we are not given the ability to see ourselves as monsters, then that means we are somehow less: diminished, less capable of human choice.

Obviously I'm not advocating that women or any other group that is generally underrepresented in media should only be shown as monsters, that's not what I'm getting at at all. More, what I mean is that only showing positive female characters feeds into the stereotype that women are somehow less capable of violence or murder or ill intent than men. And that is absolutely definitely not true.

So it matters that the most terrifying and ultimately most interesting villain on a show made explicitly for children was a girl. A girl the same age as the heroes. Because that showed the young audience that moral fortitude is not something you're born with, but a choice. Zuko chose to be good, and Azula chose to be bad. I mean, that's vastly oversimplifying it and the show does a great job of showing the real complexity here, but that's the main point. Because the heroes and villains were all the same age, and there were boys and girls on both sides of the line, it showed that you have a responsibility to monitor your own morality. It's not fate, it's up to you.

And that's a powerful message to send children. If Azula is capable of great evil, then so are you. But if Katara and Toph and Aang and Sokka and Zuko are capable of great good, then so are you too. Both these sides are vitally important, but sadly we tend in culture to veer to one side or the other with our stories.

I'll admit that as I was watching the show I didn't really think to myself, "Oh my goodness, Azula's characterization is such a compelling example and explanation of moral responsibility." I'm not that weird. But I did slowly come to see it as I thought about it afterwards, and that means that the show was shaping me without needing to preach or say what it was doing outright. That's good writing. 

Isn't that what we want our children's shows to be doing?

*Grey Griffin was originally credited as Grey DeLisle but has since changed her name.


  1. I am so happy that you watched A:TLA, and that you decided to write about Azula! I love the show and all of the characters, and it's great to get to hear your take on it :D

    1. :DDD I love the show. While I'm bummed it took me so long to get to it, I'm glad I finally did.

  2. Love the article! One quick thing, though: you credited Azula's voice actor as Grey Griffin, which is correct; but back when the series was made, she was credited as Grey DeLisle. You might want to make a note of that somewhere, in case others get confused. (I certainly was, until a quick google showed that she now has two professional names.)

    1. Good call! I credited her that way because that's how she's listed on now, but that's a very good point.

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