Dangerous Ladies: Why I Love Avatar

Watching the reactions to my TBH post about the Team ICO thing come rolling in last week was kind of surreal. The only rational reaction to Ueda’s comments is dismissal, eyerolling, facepalm, etc. The only way you can possibly defend the comments is if you think all young girls are helpless porcelain dolls. And yet people defended the comments–so many people defended the comments. So many people really do think that girls are inherently weaker than boys, at eight fucking years old, even.

It got to the point where I couldn’t help but laugh. This is what our world is. People deny reality (damn near everyone has at some point seen girls playing on a fucking playground) in order to fit their biases about how boys and girls should be. People deny the existence of pants, shorts, bloomers, skorts, leggings in order to fit their biases of who should be the hero. People deny fucking reality. The absurdity hit me like an anvil, thank fuck I was alone because my cackling must have been scary.

It hit me so hard because for the past three weeks or so I have been vacationing in a glorious land of feminist escapism: the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I have watched all three seasons, some episodes multiple times, and most of the DVD commentary for season 3. It’s safe to say I’m a little bit obsessed. But with good reason. As I said on Twitter:

Of the many, many things I adore about Avatar, it’s the number and quality of female characters that I appreciate the most. The world of Avatar is a wonderful feminist fantasyland because the world, and the vast majority of the characters, take it as a given that girls and women are competent people, with skills and interests and opinions. (That this isn’t the case in the real world is fucking absurd and contributed to the breaking of my brain described above.) The other thing about Avatar is that, in this world, the few people who don’t take the fact that women are competent as a given can be shown the light in the span of an afternoon, with sufficient spunk.

Season 1, despite having only one major female character and a couple minor ones, is the season that actually deals with sexism the most. In the very first episode, Katara, our heroine, calls out her brother, Sokka, on making a sexist remark. A few episodes later, our heroes come to a village that is protected by a team of female warriors who physically knock the sexism out of Sokka. At the end of the season, Team Avatar gets to the North Pole, a city where the genders are strictly divided, with men as warriors and women as healers. When faced with a master who will teach her male companion but not her, Katara forces him to reconsider by nearly kicking his ass in a fight.

When faced with the reality of the strength of women, Sokka and the waterbending master are forced to change their views. If only it worked this way in the real world.

In seasons 2 and 3, the show really makes good on practicing what it preaches. We’re introduced to our new main villain, Azula, who is manipulative, always three steps ahead of everyone else, and a talented firebender to boot. She’s most entertaining when she’s at her evillest. She’s aided by her two friends, Ty Lee (a bubbly, sweet acrobat who can block a person’s chi by hitting their pressure points) and Mai (an avatar-world-goth who disables her opponents by pinning them down with precisely-thrown blades. Sokka hilariously refers to the three of them as “dangerous ladies.”

Another girl joins Team Avatar: Toph, the tough and snarky earthbender, easily one of the best characters in the series. She’s funny and stubborn and kicks ten kinds of ass. At the end of season 2 (um, spoilers) she even invents a new kind of earthbending. She just rules.

Suki is the warrior who knocks some sense into Sokka, but she doesn’t permanently join the team until late in Season 3. She’s a proud, strong, and agile fighter who embraces femininity. She teaches Sokka that being a warrior and being a girl aren’t mutually exclusive.

These are just the main characters; there are many more minor characters who are awesome women: Ursa (Zuko’s mother, she goes to incredible lengths to protect him), previous Avatars Yangchen and Kyoshi, bounty hunter June, Yue (the shy princess who sacrifices herself to save the moon spirit, and thus the world), unnamed women across the world who work to protect their villages and families.

It’s downright amazing, really. And it’s not just the number of women but the variety as well. Each one is a unique character with her own strengths and weaknesses. And they aren’t all physically strong, either; many are emotionally strong as well, and that strength is valued, by both the story and the other characters, just as much as being a good fighter.

I spend three weeks immersed in this world and I come back to deal with some comments about how girls are too weak to climb things and couldn’t possibly wear pants? Really? Screw. That.

On the season 3 DVD, there’s this cute feature called “The Women of Avatar,” which focuses on Katara, Toph, and Azula, and talks about how the many varied female characters are part of the reason the show has so many female fans, despite expectations. Toward the end, one of the creators of the show says, (paraphrased from memory) “In real life, we have men and women, all living and working together. Why wouldn’t you have that on a TV show?” Indeed.

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5 thoughts on “Dangerous Ladies: Why I Love Avatar

  1. I adore Avatar! My little sister jumped on the first episode because she loved Nickelodeon cartoons, and I wandered in just as Katara was raging at Sokka for being a sexist jerk. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

    And apparently, another series by the same people and set in the same world is in the works! Called Legend of Korra, and follows a female Waterbender Avatar seventy years after the events of the first series. I saw a bit of concept art, and saw something that thrilled me: it just showed her from the back, but she looked a lot stockier than most of the women in Avatar: The Last Airbender. She even had hips! It’s amazing!

  2. You forgot to point out that Toph is also blind and uses her Earthbending to help her “see”.

    I liked Avatar for other reasons, but still enjoyed the show for it’s strong women merits as well :3

  3. Yes the women on the show really do make it worth watching with there own genuine personalitys. I remember when they first sent this series out for screening back in 2000 I believe . The cartoon series debut. My first thought was katara had this really mature look than any other character. Loved the cartoon but when it came out to movie it just was a big flop for me.

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