Following my previous post on women in the ATLA universe, I felt it was also important to discuss how masculinity is constructed, especially in relation to the series’ main protagonist and hero, Aang.
Discussions of mediated representations of gender usually revolve around embracing different portrayals of femininity, and I would argue that this discussion is also important when it comes to how masculinity is mediated and how rigid gender roles marginalises and (more often than not) shames the men who don’t fall neatly into those roles.
While I would argue that everyone in the ‘gaang’ are heroic and heroes in their own right (and that both Sokka and Zuko also have pretty amazing growth arcs and story-lines); I’d like to focus this discussion more on Aang as he is the only one out of the three main male gang members who I feel doesn’t conform to conventional portrayals of masculinity. This isn’t to talk down Sokka or Zuko in anyway – they’re both great characters and I love them a great deal, but they are closer to what you’d expect from male main characters and for the purposes of this discussion Aang is the one I want to focus on.
This isn’t to talk down traditional notions of masculinity in men either; but traditional masculinity in men is something that is accepted and often celebrated while different displays of masculinity are often marginalised. This post is just a celebration of a main character who doesn’t fall into what I would consider to be a traditional portrayal of what a man should be, and I think that’s a positive message for guys who don’t necessarily identify with conventional notions of masculinity.
As always, watch out for ~*spoilers!*~
Aang (Air Bender)
This isn’t to say that Aang is feminine per se, but I think Aang is usually contrasted quite effectively with Sokka, who is a more normative representation of masculinity.
He’s also a very different type of hero than what we are usually presented with, and I would argue that there are two main types: 1.) The Underdog who Succeeds Against All Odds (See: Scott Pilgrim, the Karate Kid) and 2.) The Action Man (See: James Bond, most other action movies of that ilk). Aang falls into neither of these categories. While he’s not initially as powerful as Firelord Ozai, he’s still not an underdog. We are shown right from the start that Aang is a powerful airbender; and even though he struggles with some of the other elements throughout the series, we never doubt that he has the ability to master them and that he will be good at all of them. Not to mention the fact that while he’s also at his most vulnerable, in the Avatar state he is also almost invincible.
But he’s not just an Action Man either, and his fighting style is notably defensive and evasive. Rarely does he actually attack people (unless he’s in the Avatar state, or in cases of extreme emotional duress, such as when Appa was kidnapped). The series follows his growth into his role as the Avatar, and while a large part of that growth is learning the different kinds of bending, the most important part of his growth is learning how to carry out his duties as Avatar while staying true to what he personally believes in and staying true to himself. I don’t think it’s an accident that when Aang chooses to abandon his principles (i.e. when he is asked to let go of all worldly attachments and forget about Katara) the moment he tries to actually go through with it, he is brutally brought down by Azula. Forgetting the people he loves isn’t him, and he is weaker for it. Similarly in the finale when he is asked to killed Firelord Ozai, he spends a large amount of time being conflicted between what he believes he should do and what others are telling him he should do. In the end, he defeats Firelord Ozai on his own terms, and is better off for it.
While drawing strength from emotional ties isn’t new in a hero (See: Harry Potter), I think it’s still relatively rare in an action-adventure story, especially when it comes to male heroes, who are mostly expected to be emotionally self-reliant. Moreover Aang’s extremely pacifist stance is quite unusual. While heroes are expected to be merciful, they are rarely shown to be actively pacifist and aren’t usually terribly conflicted over killing the ‘bad guy’ if their hand is pushed. I think the fact that Aang has this conflict is an example of the show’s maturity. Killing someone, even someone who has devastated several cities, isn’t a casual matter.
Regarding gender, I don’t think the Ember Island Players portrayal of him using a female actor was an accident either. I mean aside from the obvious laughs (haha! Aang is being played by a girl!) I think the fact that the Ember Island players chose a big buff guy to act out Toph’s part and a lithe woman to act out Aang’s part actually says something about their characters. Just as Toph has elements to her personality that are traditionally considered masculine, I think there are elements of Aang that are traditionally associated with femininity.
Take for instance the palm-reading episode. While Katara gets excited and goes off to get her palm-read; Aang asks Sokka what he thinks they might be talking about. Sokka (normative male) is highly dismissive of his sister and her conversation with the palmist:
Aang: So…what do you think they’re talking about back there?
Sokka: Boring stuff I’m sure. Love. Who she’s going to marry. How many babies she’s going to have.
Aang: Yeah. Dumb stuff like that…well, I gotta find a bathroom.
This immediately piques Aang’s interest and then he is just as curious as Katara to know who he is going to marry and what his love life will be like.
Aunt Wu: Your destiny. This is incredible! You will be involved in a great battle. An awesome conflict between the forces of good and evil. A battle whose outcome will determine the fate of the whole world!
Aang: Yeah, yeah I knew that already. But did it say anything about a girl?
Aunt Wu: A girl? You want to know about love?
Aunt Wu: I’m sorry. But I didn’t see anything… Oh, look I’ve missed something. Right here. It says “Trust your heart, and you will be with the one you love.”
We know that both boys are interested in love (through the course of the show Sokka has two girlfriends and Aang has a crush on Katara), but being seen to be highly interested in romance and actively being concerned about it (as opposed to just interested in girls/sex) is usually portrayed as something only women do (I am admittedly look at this from a hetero-centric point of view, as a lot of the media in which this dynamic plays out is hetero-centric).
Which is ridiculous of course, I know plenty of men IRL who are plenty more romantic than I am – but for some reason the admission of wanting love and romance is seen to be something that is only acceptable for women to do. (See also: the derogatory way in which we speak of boybands who mainly sing about romance; or the fact that romance fiction and romantic-comedies are seen as something only women would indulge in).
I am reminded of this article about masculinity in The Hunger Games and Peeta. Like Peeta, Aang wears his heart on his sleeve and is relatively open about his feelings for Katara. It takes a while for him to get the courage/confidence to admit his feelings to her, but once he does he doesn’t shy away from them. (I would even argue he is exceptionally-bordering-on-suspiciously mature about the whole thing considering he’s meant to be a twelve-year-old boy. I guess being the Avatar makes you grow up faster?)
Regardless, whether it is about Katara or about his flying-bison Appa, Aang is very in touch with his emotions and he isn’t afraid to show them. Once again, this is unusual for a male hero. (Because male characters are meant to be stoic, of course! Touchy-feely emotional stuff is for girls! Male characters are allowed occasionally to shed a single manly tear. Any other display of emotion must be done – with their fists.)
Aang is also remarkably comfortable in his own skin and knows who and what he is about. He does occasionally have doubts – but as we’ve stated before, he is always shown to be better off when he stays true to himself. When Sokka recommends a more macho-demeanour as a means of attracting female attention it only succeeds in doing the opposite – annoying Katara. Aang’s displays of sensitivity (which are much truer to his character) work much better and that is what Katara responds to.
This comfortableness and security in his own self also extends to when he is made to wear Avatar Kyoshi’s old uniform. Despite the lady’s clothing and make-up Aang is remarkably unfazed by it all. This is also very different to most male characters who, like Sokka, aren’t comfortable taking on different gender roles. Men wearing women’s clothing has often been used as a comedic trope, and I would argue that while we’re meant to laugh at the sight of Aang in Kyoshi’s make-up and dress, the fact that Aang is entirely comfortable with it and the fact that the story and actions carries on (with Aang still dressed as Kyoshi) is a way of saying: it’s not a big deal. Yes, Aang in Kyoshi’s dress is an incongruous image and not what you’re expecting, but once you get over that it isn’t that big a deal. If Aang isn’t bothered by it, then why should anyone be bothered by the fact that he’s wearing a dress?
To conclude, Aang is a remarkable example of how masculinity and male heroism can be different from what it has always traditionally meant. Masculinity doesn’t only have to be the stoic, lone-wolf Marlboro Man. Male heroism doesn’t only have to be about using physical strength and violence to protect the ones you love. It can be so much more inclusive than that.