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Ginie Muses: Masculinity and Heroism in Avatar the Last Airbender

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?
Aang: Yes!
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.

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Ginie Muses: The Women of Avatar the Last Airbender

TV Show: Avatar the Last Airbender
Creators: Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Years:
2005 – 2008
Rating: 5/5

Once again, I am several years behind fandom and have only recently discovered ATLA. To be fair – I partially blame M. Night Shyamalan for this. I may have ended up watching that terrible excuse for a film against my will, and it put me off looking into the TV show for a good few years (up until there was a lot of flurry on Tumblr over The Legend of Korra) and – having been drawn in by all the artwork and character designs – I ended up checking out the original series to see what all the fuss was all about.

All I can say is? Oh my gosh my feels. There are too many of them. How does a Saturday morning cartoon simultaneously manage to make me giggle-snort with laughter and also move me to tears? (Yes, I did. Just a little when Zuko was re-united with Uncle Iroh. Shut up.)

Basically, this show is good. Really, really good. The animation is stunning, the kind of research that went into re-creating a Sino-centric fantasy universe is impressive and fantastic and the characters are wholly believable and well-fleshed out with different motivations and conflicts; and as the series progresses they all learn and change a lot.

It’s also probably one of the few mainstream TV shows that features POC’s so prominently and also has a remarkable number of girls in the cast that aren’t merely love-interests and serve as main characters in their own right. Anyway, without further ado – here is my post celebrating the women of Avatar the Last Airbender.

Also! ~*SPOILERS*~

Katara (Water Bender)

Katara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of all the women on this show, Katara is probably the most conventionally feminine – she’s often described as motherly and caring, she has healing powers and she looks out for everybody in the group. But you know what? This is also cool. I feel too often when we think of “strong women” in the media we think of the Action Girl – she’s hot, she’s tough, and she fights and talks just like a man! And while there’s nothing wrong with this, this version of strong femininity often ignores or dismisses traditionally considered ‘feminine’ virtues such as compassion and mocks other displays of femininity, whether it be in dress or in interests. Katara takes all of that and shoves it back in their face – yes she’s motherly, yes she’s a healer and yes, she takes an interest in her appearance. But she’s also a master waterbender, a strong fighter and following the death of her mother, is someone who has had to grow up very quickly and learn to be brave very young. I also like that throughout the series she has more than one flirtation. Katara isn’t a particularly flirty character, but her interactions with Haku and Jet are refreshing in a female character aimed at young girls – finding “the One” was never her goal; she found different men attractive throughout the series and that was ok. The fact that she ends up with Aang makes sense when you consider all that they’ve been through together and the fact that they have quite compatible personalities (i.e. they’ll both always do whatever they can to protect and help people in need), that and she never really got to spend enough time with any of the other guys to see where those relationships might have led. But I liked that there was a possibility for something different, and I liked that as far as Katara was concerned, Aang wasn’t her only option.

I also like that despite all of this, Katara has her own potential for darkness: bloodbending. Although initially horrified by thought of controlling other people by bending the water in their bodies (i.e. blood – this kid’s show goes to some dark places), canonically Katara has used bloodbending twice. Once against Hamma to protect Aang and Sokka, and the second time against the man she thought killed her mother. While the first time left her anguished and horrified at what she had done, the second time she had done it was in revenge-fuelled rage, and you can see that even the best of characters have the potential to do evil things. What makes a person good is ultimately in the choices that they make, and when Katara finally comes face-to-face with her mother’s murderer, Katara makes the decision not to kill him – even though every fibre in her being wants revenge on what he had done. This level of complexity (moral or otherwise) is rarely ever shown in a female character, and for these reasons Katara is an awesome character. When people mention their favourite Katara-moment, they’ll usually cite her challenging Master Pakku to teach her waterbending (in the Northern Water tribe only men are allowed to learn this martial art) and the waterbending fight which ensues, in which Katara holds her own against a sexist waterbending Master. While that scene is awesome, I must admit that the defining Katara moment for me is when she tells Sokka:

“No! I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me… I’m going down to the village. And I’m going to do whatever I can!” – Katara, The Painted Lady (S3E03)

Because that is who Katara is. She learnt early on how to stick up for herself, but what makes her truly a hero is that she’ll always stick out for others too.

Toph Bei Fong (Earth Bender)

If Katara represents a more conventional view of femininity, Toph represents what we usually assume a strong female character to be. And just as femme heroes shouldn’t be dismissed because of their femininity, female heroes who don’t fit prescribed gender roles shouldn’t be dismissed either. She’s a tomboy, she spits, she’s sarcastic and she can kick your ass. She’s also blind and twelve-years-old. I tend to think Toph follows a more recent tradition of female action-heroes, the one where a young-harmless girl turns out to be far more deadly than anyone could ever imagine (See: Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, or Hanna). However unlike Hit-Girl (and unlike most female action heroes) Toph doesn’t need rescuing at the crucial moment by the ~real~ hero of the story. Toph holds her own in all fights, and in the season finale plays her role in defeating the Fire Nation. I must admit, that what I do love about Toph is her sarcasm. A lot of the more hilarious moments in the show are a direct result of what she says.

While being rescued from drowning by Suki.
Toph: Oh Sokka, you saved me! -kisses Suki-
Suki: Actually, it’s me.
Toph: Oh…well, aheheh. You can go ahead and let me drown now.

I also like that while on paper she is slightly in danger of falling into the disability-as-a-superpower-trope, Toph’s explanation for how she can “see” (i.e. through the vibrations she feels in the ground) makes intuitive sense considering she’s an earthbender and is used consistently throughout the show. Whenever she’s in water, sand or another element that doesn’t conduct vibrations as well as steady ground, she has trouble ‘seeing’ what she is doing and what is going on. Despite this, the show makes it clear that it isn’t her disability, her gender, her age or small stature that hold her back, but other people (most notably her overprotective parents). I think Toph’s initial clash with Katara also makes sense in view of all these things. Their personalities and experiences are very different – Katara who has had to take care of her family all her life is naturally motherly and slightly bossy. Toph on the other hand has been ‘handled’ all her life by her parents and carers and the last thing she wants when she’s finally found her freedom is to have someone else tell her what to do, even if some of Katara’s suggestions are entirely sensible. But I like that despite these differences they have quite touching moments of friendship, such as in Tales of Ba Sing Se and when they are both in prison together.

Also, Toph invents metal-bending. Basically she’s amazing.

Azula (Fire Bender)

So the first time Azula is presented to the audience, I must admit my first thought was “Wow. She is so eeeevil.” Like, I was genuinely impressed with how fucking terrifying she was, and I would happily list her as one of the most intimidating fictional characters ever created. This isn’t because she’s a firebending prodigy (which she is), or because she’s powerful (which she also is). It’s because she’s a master of manipulation, and one who knows just which buttons to push to threaten people into submission. I also think Azula is the one character who could have easily been a guy without changing a single thing to her storyline; and in any other production, they probably would have made her a guy. Tragic sibling-rivalries concerning actual struggles for power in fiction only ever seem to happen between two brothers (while female sibling rivalry is usually presented in the form of conquest over a male object of desire); and the fact that they chose to make her a girl (despite no ‘reason’ to do so story-wise) I think is a step in the right direction in terms of the way we think about representation. I think Azula presents an interesting contrast to Zuko, mainly because Azula represents what Zuko may well have turned into if he had never been banished from the Fire Nation. Of course, we’re given hints in their back story that Azula was always the more talented and the more violent one, but I think we have to remember that even though Zuko changed his mind  and decided to fight on Aang’s side in the end, he did some horribly manipulative things too. Both Azula and Zuko are a product of a self-aggrandising nation and culture that believes in its own superiority and only respects displays of  intimidation and power. While Zuko had an opportunity to experience a different kind of life, Azula did not; and moreover Azula was always rewarded for her  displays of ‘strength’, while Zuko was always punished for showing ‘weakness’. I think this is the true difference between the two siblings, and while I don’t excuse any of Azula’s actions there is something slightly tragic about her character.

The episode The Beach shows a more human side of her, the tragi-comedy of Azula trying to flirt with a boy she finds attractive while failing miserably because the only interaction with others she’s ever had has always been through coercion and intimidation. (This is also different from most female villains; while most female villains are usually portrayed as manipulative, they are usually portrayed skilled seductresses who use their sexual wiles in order to manipulate supposedly hapless men. Azula is no seductress, and at no point does she use her beauty to manipulate anyone.) The betrayal of her friends of Mai and Ty Lee drives her to near insanity; first of all because I think a part of her maybe have believed that their friendship was genuine (but how can it be when it’s based on fear?) but also because Mai’s love for Zuko outweighs her fear of Azula. Azula, who has never been able to convince anyone to love her (not even her own mother) is suddenly left in a position she has never been before: powerless. Because if love outweighs fear, than what does she have left to bargain with?

And a special shout-out…

To Suki (Leader of the Kyoshi warriors, who shows Sokka a thing or to about what it means to be a warrior), Mai, Ty Lee and Avatar Kyoshi herself. They aren’t as central to the show as the above three ladies are, but the world of ATLA has a lot of interesting women both in the lead roles and in secondary roles and that is a welcome change from the usual line-up of characters in action-adventure stories.

Things also seem set to be just as awesome in the spin-off/sequel series Avatar: The Legend of Korra which I look forward to watching and reviewing. In the meanwhile if you’re interested in exciting previews (the shows doesn’t come out until the 14th of April) sign up to Korra Nation here.

For my analysis of how Aang challenges traditional narratives of masculinity and male heroism, please click here.


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