Femininity and Masculinity in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

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– By Marielle Cuccinelli –

Contains spoilers for all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender

I was skeptical the first time I started watching Avatar: the Last Airbender. There was only one girl in the main cast, after all, which is one of the top tropes out there – the Token Female Character, who not only is fated to be the Male Hero’s love interest, but also bears the responsibility of representing and being relatable to all the very diverse and dissimilar women in the audience. I have a deep-seated dislike for the Token Female Character (TFC), as her countless iterations have almost never been relatable to me over the years, and I have always been irked by the presumption that she alone is a sufficient female presence for the given piece.

However, by the time I had been introduced to the full ensemble and watched the show run its course, I had formed my still-standing opinion that Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA, in fandom shorthand) is not only one of the hands-down best story arcs in modern television, but also, one of the hands-down best illustrations of diverse femininity and healthy masculinity I’ve ever seen.

That’s right, you heard me – the f-word and the m-word. Two of the most cringe-inducing words in the entire English language. Yeah, we’re going there. Avatar is worth it.

Femininity

Since the portrayal of women in mainstream entertainment is sort of my thing, let’s talk about that side of the show first. Let’s talk about how ATLA is a phenomenal depiction of such a wide variety of well-drawn women, so many different kinds of strength and power, so many strong female characters in the TRUE sense of the word – ie, compelling, complex and flawed, regardless of literal physical strength. If you don’t already know what I mean when I reluctantly use the phrase Strong Female Character, take a quick glance at my article about why the mainstream SFC usually sucks.

 


Katara

The obvious place to start is with Katara, the aforementioned Token Female Character. While she retains her TFC status throughout the first season, apart from some one-off guest appearances, not just one or two but several more female ensemble members arrive in the second season to relieve her of the burden of representing and being relatable to all women everywhere.

Here’s what I love about Katara: she’s very feminine, even girly. Why do I, a not-so-feminine, very-not-girly woman, love her for this? Because one of the most common, and most toxic, mistakes that storytellers make when trying to depict strong women is to conflate stripping her of femininity with empowering her. I wish I had a catchy acronym for this one, but I haven’t come up with one yet, so instead, here’s a long-winded explanation…

“She’s not like other girls” is one of the most infuriating, supposedly-complimentary, covertly-misogynist descriptors that can be used on a woman. What it really means is: “Most if not all women are deficient, lacking, inferior, insufficient, unworthy of being liked; what makes THIS woman extraordinary is that, unlike all those undesirable others, in spite of being female, she manages to be worthy.” 

If we follow the “she’s not like other girls” train of thought from the individual to the abstract, the underlying mindset is that femininity is inferior to masculinity. This is why it’s not just socially acceptable, but often encouraged – especially in those formative childhood years – for women to lean masculine in their self-expression. Tomboyishness is seen as a good thing; I certainly remember very vividly being proud of being a tomboy, and being conditioned to look down on girly traits. And yet, on the flipside, feminine leanings in men are widely frowned upon – once again, especially in children. And so, the mindset that masculinity is more desirable than femininity is imprinted deep in young minds and effectively perpetuated.

And when those young minds become storytellers, they churn out female characters who are supposedly awesome BECAUSE they are unfeminine. They produce a steady stream of women whose best quality is being “one of the guys,” once again passing the concept that femininity is undesirable down to the next generation. They praise women for being more like men, elevating traditionally masculine virtues like toughness and ambition while scoffing at traditionally feminine virtues like compassion and gentility. They plaster their art with the idea that to be powerful, a woman has to be like a man – that a strong woman is not a girly woman.

I could go on, but I’ve just used almost half my word count talking about the Not-Like-Other-Girls Girl. Let’s get back to Katara. As I was saying, what I love about her is that, undeniable powerhouse that she is, she’s very feminine, and the show’s creators don’t treat her girliness like a bad thing. She’s the motherly one of the group – there’s even an episode about it. She can use her bending powers to heal. Her teaching style with Aang is nurturing, gentle and encouraging – there’s an episode about that, too. She’s even costumed in a dress for most of the show, countless fight scenes included. And she is a BADASS. Remember how she goes from not even being able to control a fish-sized splash of water to SUSPENDING AN ENTIRE THUNDERSTORM? Remember when she not only BLOODBENDS, but OUT-BLOODBENDS A BLOODBENDING EXPERT? Remember when she KICKS AZULA’S BUTT?


Azula

And on that note – here’s what I love about Azula: she’s absolutely insufferable. Seriously, I can’t stand her. And I LOVE THAT. Why? Because true on-screen equality would see women in every sort of role – not just the hero, but also the sidekick, the comic relief, the anti-hero, the gray character, the troublesome third party, the mentor, and, yes, the villain. And is Azula ever a villain. She’s so freaking evil, I love it. And at the same time, she’s not just evil for the sake of being evil – she’s twisted by her terrible, traumatic childhood and desperately, single-mindedly obsessed with power because the more of it she has, the more she will please her father. 

With her perfectly manicured fingernails and lipstick, Azula is another example of coexisting femininity and strength – very different from Katara in her expression of both, which doubles ATLA’s points for diverse female representation. On countless occasions, Azula proves herself to be one of the best fighters and most powerful firebenders in the ATLA world – but my favorite Azula scene, and what in my opinion is one of her most epic moments, comes in the middle of season 2, when Zuko challenges her to an agni kai (firebending duel, for the layman). Everyone – including Azula and the audience, and excluding Zuko – knows she’s a better fighter than he is. Yet she just dismisses his challenge with a wicked smile and a “no thanks.” 

What is it that makes this moment so epic? The agni kai, throughout this show, is a patriarchal staple of firebending culture; men duel each other because they think their honor, their manhood, is synonymous with their physical strength and battle prowess. Azula knows just how powerful she is, and she’s self-assured enough that she doesn’t care to prove it. She knows she doesn’t need to throw her weight around and flex her muscles like so many male firebenders do throughout the show. She couldn’t care less whether they think she’s weak for not adhering to this patriarchal construct of strength. Someone who’s truly strong and secure in their strength feels no need to show it off and tell everyone about it, and in my opinion, that unassuming security is Azula’s most impressive trait, not the actual power she’s packing. More on this in a moment when we get to masculinity and firebending culture and Uncle Iroh!


Toph

Then there’s Toph, who’s very different from Katara. She falls more on the tomboy end of the spectrum in everything from combat – she’s as assertive in her fighting style as in her frequent arguments with other characters – to humor – joking about pit hair with the boys while Katara rolls her eyes at their gross humor. Yet she doesn’t look down on more girly characters, and is happy on occasion to lean into her feminine side, like when she and Katara go out for a girls’ night, or when she puts her noble knowhow to use dressing herself and Katara up for a party and coaching Katara on high-class manners. 

She’s also such a well-drawn character, because half of her personality is infuriating and grates on your nerves – or mine, at any rate – while the other half of her personality is SUCH A POWERFUL EARTHBENDER THAT SHE ACCIDENTALLY INVENTS METALBENDING?!?! Oh, and she’s blind, which the show keeps in mind very well – she’s constantly not making eye contact, facing the wrong direction, speaking to someone’s stomach, and best of all, cracking jokes about how things look. She’s a top-tier powerhouse without it feeling like a pushy commercialized girl-power effort by the storytellers.


Suki 

While I wish the show had dug more into Suki’s character outside of her being Sokka’s main love interest, I kind of love that she’s the one that starts him on his journey from bumbling misogynist to respectful powerhouse by giving him both a butt-kicking AND his first warrior training. I’m here for any woman who can not just take a misogynist down a peg, but also help him see how his ideas are wrong and guide him on his journey of self-education to becoming an egalitarian. Plus, female friendship is way too scarce on screen, and Suki has a sisterhood of warriors and friends for life in the Kyoshi warriors.


Mai and Ty Lee

Speaking of which, you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you how much I love that Azula has an EVIL GIRL GANG! It was very intentional on the part of ATLA’s creators to make Mai and Ty Lee, some of the baddest warriors in the series, non-benders; yet another storytelling choice that makes this show so extraordinary. 

The first time I watched ATLA, I saw Ty Lee as an example of male storytellers egregiously sexualizing a female character. While I do still think there’s some of that at play, my reservations have since been somewhat diffused by the fact that the storytellers dig into her backstory; there’s a logical cause that made her this way, just like there’s a logical cause that made Azula power-obsessed. Additionally, Ty Lee kicks serious butt while being an unapologetically girly flower child (right down to the pink aura). Even her fighting style is feminine. Forget brute force and heavy blows; Ty Lee practically dances, with a light-footed grace rivaled only by Aang’s.

I love Mai as a love interest because a) she’s not the obvious choice, and b) she has heaps of agency and character independent of her significant other; her romance with Zuko is in the back seat most of the time. How often do we see a love interest who’s not jealous or competitive when girls fangirl over her shirtless boyfriend? And while she’s fantastically monotone, Mai proves both her emotional nuance and her unique brand of strength when she has to choose between two people she loves, and chooses – at her own expense – to save Zuko from Azula. No character is more lovable than a villain who’s a good person.

Masculinity

And on the note of villains who turn out to be good people, let’s talk about the men of ATLA!

ATLA is, in my opinion, one of the best deconstructions of toxic masculinity in contemporary cinema. Whether this is intentional or not, I couldn’t say for sure – although I’m inclined to believe that the reason the show pulls it off so well is because it is done unintentionally, as any other piece I’ve seen tackle the topic has been too on the nose in its approach for my taste.

As briefly as possible, for the skeptics in the crowd, let me define my terms here. When we say “toxic masculinity,” we are not by any means suggesting that masculinity is inherently toxic. Just like there can be both healthy and toxic iterations of the feminine, there are both healthy and toxic iterations of the masculine. Where either becomes toxic when it is skewed in such a way that vice is elevated rather than virtue. On the feminine side, toxic femininity might look like manipulation, ingenuine niceness, the overvaluing of feminine beauty ideals, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, a few bullet points under the umbrella of toxic masculinity include emotional repression, aggression, and the overvaluing of physical power.

As mentioned earlier, one of Azula’s most outstanding moments is when she declines to engage in an agni kai. The agni kai is the centerpiece of the patriarchal structure of the Fire Nation; despite the Fire Nation seeming to be one of the more advanced civilizations in this world, it still views brute force and sheer physical strength as the measure of honor, strength and heroism. Firelord Ozai is the Fire Nation’s glorification of vice personified in an individual: he’s power-mongering and dominating, abusive and manipulative of even his own children, arrogant and egocentric, and perfectly content to rule through force and fear.


Aang

Because the antagonist is the patriarch of such a civilization and the embodiment of those skewed values, Aang is the ideal protagonist. In truly dramatic contrast to Firelord Ozai, Aang values peace over power and is ruled by an outwardly-focused moral code – the centerpiece of which is his commitment to doing no harm and his refusal to kill. Aang packs more power than anyone else in the show, but he’s smol and soft and sweet instead of forceful and aggressive. He loves nature, critters, flowers – he’s so respectful of life that he’s vegetarian, in fact, which is a pretty good character detail. 

The fact that ATLA is an action-adventure show packed with epic fight scenes and tasteful slow mo serves to highlight all the more Aang’s unusual fighting style: that is, that he constantly tries not to fight. He always favors reason and words in situations where he could settle things with a few airbending moves. When he does have to fight, he goes to great lengths to dodge and dance his way through every confrontation, never resorting to throwing blows unless he has no alternative.

And about that centerpiece of his moral code: props to the writers for Aang’s stellar character arc. He starts out as a goofy, fun-loving, innocent little child, and gets put through the freaking ringer – he literally DIES at one point (sidebar: ATLA did it before Game of Thrones did it). BUT – here’s the clincher. At the end, after he’s matured through trials of every sort, when everyone is rooting for him to kill Firelord Ozai, Aang keeps his innocence. With the crushing pressure of the whole world relying on him for salvation and everyone he respects telling him he’s got to finish off the show’s single most justifiably-deserving-of-death character, Aang still finds a way to hold to his values and avoid taking a life, even an irredeemably evil one.

Where the Firelord embodies the toxic exultation of vice – greed, abuse, power-mongering, manipulation – Aang constantly takes the more difficult route of striving for virtue – even when put to the test, he is gentle, kind, generous, considerate, empathetic, courageous, patient, and always prepared to swallow his pride and admit his shortcomings when he’s in the wrong. If Firelord Ozai and the civilization he has built are an illustration of toxic masculinity, Aang is an illustration of healthy masculinity: focused not on the outward appearance of manhood and power, but on inward virtue and self-control.


Uncle Iroh

And now that we’ve gotten to the topic of healthy masculinity, let’s talk about Uncle Iroh! Uncle Iroh is the DEFINITION of healthy masculinity – which, by the way, goes hand in hand with the embracing of one’s feminine side. That’s right: ultimately, all this masculinity and femininity stuff merges together and it turns out it’s really about being human. So someone like Aang or Uncle Iroh, who strives for virtues that are typically construed as masculine such as courage or self-restraint, also strives for virtues that are typically construed as feminine, such as empathy or gentility. 

While Katara, as established earlier, is a very nurturing individual, she’s got nothing on Uncle Iroh. Here are a couple of the many pearls of wisdom and support Uncle Iroh blesses Zuko with: 

“Protection and power are overrated. I think you are very wise to choose happiness and love.” Pretty much a more effective way to say what I’ve been going on about over the last page.

“While it’s always in one’s best interest to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.” A supportive endorsement of the healthy and difficult-to-achieve quality of being willing to lean on, accept or ask for the help of others. It’s easy to believe that being strong means being completely self-sufficient and independent, but really, it’s stronger for someone to be secure enough about their strength to ask for help.

Those are just two; I could spend days pointing out how Uncle Iroh’s sayings steer Zuko toward becoming more like Iroh and less like Ozai. Since actions speak louder than words, I’d like to point out that Iroh’s solid in that department, too. Like Aang, he’s sitting on tremendous power, but he almost never resorts to using it; he’s secure and humble enough that he doesn’t try to whip out his firebending and prove himself when his honor or strength is questioned. I could go on with endless examples of Iroh being a paragon of humanity, but let’s move on to…


Zuko

Iroh and Ozai, Zuko’s two father figures and the contrasting ends of the virtue/vice spectrum, serve as the goalposts of Zuko’s journey over the course of the series.  Zuko has one of the most iconic arcs in popular cinema, and justifiably so – I’d be hard pressed to think of a better illustration of redemption and metamorphosis.

Zuko starts out obsessively entrenched in the toxic elements of Fire Nation culture. He’s singlemindedly consumed with proving himself by – say it with me – capturing the Avatar to restore his honor. He’s quick to throw down the gauntlet for an agni kai when his authority or strength is questioned, and Uncle Iroh has to constantly pull him back from the brink of making bull-headed blunders to prove that he’s powerful and competent. And all of it, all his bravado and machismo and belligerence and obsession, stems from a desperate desire for the approval of a father who has abused, domineered and traumatized him.

In Zuko, we see both the pinnacle and the downfall of Ozai’s evil ways. Where are toxic and healthy tendencies put to the test and highlighted more than in parenthood? While the Firelord’s brutality and cruelty affect the whole world, they affect his children most personally of all. For everyone else, the struggle against Ozai is external and straightforward, but for Zuko it’s deeply internal and existential. No one is as profoundly, pervasively damaged by Ozai as his son.

But wait! Here’s my favorite thing of all! If Zuko had been loved rather than maltreated by his father, he would never have ended up on the other side, and team Avatar would probably not have been able to prevail. If you connect the dots, Ozai goes down BECAUSE he abused his son. So satisfying! So perfect! What storytelling! Zuko is an amazing character! His redemption is beautiful! ATLA is the greatest work of art of all time!


Sokka

Last but not least, let’s talk about one of the crowning jewels of ATLA’s roster of well-drawn characters: the one and only Sokka. While Aang, Iroh, Zuko and Ozai may be the most thematically crucial characters, Sokka is one of the most well written: he’s a delightfully unique combination of contradictory traits – a difficult equilibrium to achieve as a storyteller. He’s both the comic relief and the brains of the operation, the one who strategizes for battle and the one who’s constantly thinking about food, the relentlessly practical cynic and the master of puns who laughs at his own jokes until he cries. Big Sokka fan here.

Although Sokka’s character arc is phenomenal, it’s not my main point, and since I mentioned it earlier while talking about Suki, I’m going to bypass talking about that in favor of focusing on the main points I want to make about Sokka.

Like Suki, Mai and Ty Lee, Sokka is a more dangerous warrior than most benders by the end of the show. He also has the humility and ambition to learn the fighting style of anyone who will teach him, which means he masters skills from each nation, which, as Uncle Iroh teaches Zuko, is what sets the greatest warriors above everyone else.

But being able to keep up with the benders in a fight isn’t the greatest asset Sokka has to offer; he’s the mastermind, strategist, and backbone of team Avatar. He’s the one who plots their course, schemes up their missions and changes the course of battles with his ingenious inventions and strategic brilliance. He’s the one that tricks the bad guys into taking each other out. He’s the one with the gut instinct and common sense to prevent a fishy situation – or at least to recognize one, since the gaang never listens to him and always ends up learning the hard way.

One of my favorite things about Sokka is that he manages to pull off a trait that almost always annoys me in male characters: protectiveness. Whenever there’s an explosion – which happens with amazing frequency – you’ll catch everyone covering their own heads, except for Sokka, who always without fail is covering Katara (or sometimes Toph). 

What makes this usually annoying trait endearing in Sokka’s case? Protectiveness is healthy when, rather than being rooted in the idea that the other is weaker, it is rooted in self-effacing love of the other. Sokka’s first instinct is always to protect Katara – not because he thinks he’s more capable than she is, but because he loves her. If one of them has to go down, he’d rather it be him. He knows he’s not the most powerful member of the team, but he takes it upon himself to be the protector of everyone else anyway.

***

In conclusion: ATLA has my complete endorsement as one of the greatest works of character-driven storytelling ever to grace the screen. It’s fun, it’s packed with worthwhile themes, and it revolves around a diverse cast of brilliant, human, well-fleshed-out, thoroughly lovable characters with top-notch arcs. Show it to your parents, children, friends, enemies, siblings, acquaintances, strangers on the street – there is no wrong audience for Avatar: the Last Airbender.


About the Author

Marielle Cuccinelli (class of 2019) is Virginia-bred storyteller who’s been obsessed with action movies for as long as she can remember. She graduated with a degree in Media Communications with a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing at JPCatholic in 2019, and hopes to live out her ambitions of bringing the female action heroes she looked for as a kid to life on the big screen. She spends her free time writing feature films and choreographing fight scenes.

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