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Team Avatar with Appa

Ana and I had so much fun watching Series 1 of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ together and discussing it that we decided to join forces again to watch the other two series of this program together. Here's our take on series 2 and 3. Spoilers abound for all series.

Jodie: Everything about Avatar 2 and 3 goes in this post. How do we even begin?!

Ana: I know, right? So much to say!

Jodie: The big difference between S1 and S2 is that the ‘Avatar’ writers put a second regular female character onto Team Avatar in S2. So, let’s start by talking about Toph!

Toph looking awesome and fearsome

Ana, I don’t know if you like Toph (please, chip in and say), but I am really keen on her. Like Katara, Toph is physically strong and smart. Personally, I enjoy seeing female characters who can do the heavy lifting with their arms or their minds, because much of the world still appears to believe all women aren’t capable of hurling boulders or thinking up successful, craft plans and it’s great to see those regressive ideas challenged by female characters.

However, Toph isn’t just a carbon copy of Katara. She isn’t a traditionally feminine character and by being different from the more traditionally feminine, supportive Katara she increases the diversity of the kinds of women that ‘Avatar’ presents and validates. And she’s a disabled character, on the side of good, who turns up in nearly every episode for two series. The existence and placing of such a character in ‘Avatar’ is cause for celebration, on a representational front, at least I think so.

But Toph is not just the sum of her representational parts, she’s also a fun character with her own idiosyncrasies. She brings a lot of comedy to the program, often by being blunt and sarcastic, but she can also contribute heartfelt emotion to the mix at times. She’s just fun to watch and listen to, whether she’s being a hard-ass training master, plotting a scam, or having a quieter conversation with Sokka. I believe in her as a person and I find her fascinating, so I want to watch more of her to see what she’ll do next. The actress voicing her has created an excellent character voice as well, really distinctive and maybe not quite what you’d expect from someone who break metal with her bare hands. As the writers have given her own quick, sarcastic, sometimes harsh personality, which is very different from Katara’s personality Toph’s inclusion in the program increases the diversity of the female characters represented in ‘Avatar’, allowing each character to be evaluated as a person rather than as a figure bearing the heavy burden of representing all of female society.

I’m was also really glad to see that although Toph’s blindness means that the act of leaving home and trying to save the world (and perhaps we should talk about the limits of her blindness later) means she does have a different level of difficulty to navigate than the other kids on Team Avatar, Toph isn’t portrayed as an exceptional character. In S2, her decision is treated as no more awesome, or frightening than the exceptional decision the other kids take to um...defeat the all powerful Fire Lord. The other characters are never like ‘WOW, YOU ARE BLIND AND YOU’RE TRAVELLING THE WORLD! GOOD JOB!’, which makes her disability feel very normalised (though never invisible, which would be a whole ‘nother barrel of weasels).

Finally (gosh, could I let you get a word in?) I like that the narrative never sets her up as idk, some saintly, abstract idea of representational perfection. Like the other characters her personality contains a mix of confidence and insecurity. Like many of the other characters she kicks against imposed restrictions, but also embraces all of who she is, even if some of who she is may not be particularly subversive, if that makes sense. She’s...this is going to sound a stupid distinction, but she’s a person, at the end of the day, rather than a representational character who is written in to show some weird, impossible ‘perfect’ image if a disabled girl. She’s just a really awesome person and I wish there had been a Toph spin off series after ‘Avatar’ finished (that idea of spin off series is going to be a common refrain from me I’m afraid - why can’t we have all the spin off stories?).

Not to drag this section on too long (omg this post is going to end up larger than the Sherlock post isn’t it?), but I’d love to know how you feel about Toph. Maybe we could also talk about any of the big advancements from S1 - S2/3 that you really enjoyed?

Ana: First of all, I love Toph. My reasons are pretty much the same as yours - she's a complex, believable character whose presence brought so much to the series. Like you, I loved the fact that Team Avatar had both a traditionally feminine girl and a "tomboyish" girl without them being set against each other in some sort of contest. And I love the fact that while there are plenty of elements to who Toph is, she's indeed more than the sum of their parts - there isn't a single thing that defines her.

Toph really is a triumph in terms of representation, which like you said is really important, but at the same time she's completely and absolutely herself. You mentioned the fact that she brings so much humour to the series, which I also really liked. One thing I found particularly interesting is that sometimes there were jokes around her blindness, but never at its expense. These jokes were not about Toph being blind, but about other people's awkwardness around her blindness; about the assumptions they made about her; about the moments when they forgot this thing that is crucial to who she is and required her to sarcastically point it out. It seems to me (and I'm certainly more than open to corrections here) that the fact that the humour was always from Toph's point of view contributed to the normalisation you mentioned above, a normalisation that doesn't equal erasure.

You also mentioned the limits of her blindness: as much as I think that having a blind heroine playing such a crucial role in a series like Avatar is awesome, there's the fact that her Earthbending powers pretty much work like a compensatory superpower, in a way that almost offsets her blindness. It's not that it's brushed off, exactly, but she does have abilities that people outside this fantasy world don't have, and as a result her challenges in navigating the world as a blind person are not akin to those of blind people in our world. But at the same time, Earthbending doesn't erase every limitation of her blindness, and that's worth acknowledging. Toph wouldn't be Toph without the combination of these two things, but there's certainly lots of room for discussion here (and again, I freely admit that I'm not the most qualified person to understand all the implications of this). I just did some quick googling and found an interesting post discussing the subject: Toph: "Supercrip" stereotype or well-rounded disabled character?.

Jodie: Ana I’m so glad you pulled out that link. It’s interesting, as is the original Rejectionist guest post that it’s riffing off. I’ve been trying to understand how Toph functions as a character who represent disability by filtering her character through some thoughts N K Jemisin had after her character Oree Shoth a character from the second book in the Inheritance trilogy) had been out in the world for a bit . She talks about the troubling, traditional narrative links between magic and disability in her post ‘Why is Oree Shoth Blind’. After writing and publishing Oree’s story, Jemisin saw a re-iteration of those problematic links in the form of magic she had given her character. The issue she’s concerned about is a little different from the ‘Supercrip’ concept outlined in the post you linked to, but I especially wanted to link to her ideas because Jemisin also includes a link to a tvtropes article that cites Toph as a more realistic example of the ‘disability superpower’ trope:

‘A realistic twist is to have the power not quite make up for the disability. For example, Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender was born blind, but uses Earthbender skills to feel vibrations through stone. This means she can't "see" things that aren't touching the ground and her "sight" is severely impaired if she's not touching solid earthen surfaces - she hates hates hates flying or boating, sand makes everything "blurry", etc. And in a world without Braille, she's illiterate. But if she's on an earthen surface, she can see all around her, even behind things.’

Like you, I think the fact that there are limits to what Toph can see through magic is a really important touch and it’s so great that there is no direct magical healing in the show - Toph is blind until the end. Honestly though I feel like Avatar moves the depiction of disabled people in fantasy on, but still seems to reflect the belief that a disabled character can’t save the world unless their disability is circumnavigated magically (and like you I’m not trying to say I’m the best equipped to interrogate this issue, other opinions welcomed).

While I feel more than happy calling this problem out, I’d just like to say I also think that we could identify similar problematic elements in a lot of media that’s trying to be progressive (and we’d find even more problems in a lot of media that’s not trying worth a damn). Recognising and combating all this stuff is hard for everyone, even people invested in getting disability into fiction and writing it well, as the Rejectionist guest post from Rachel M shows. Renay and Sarah Rees Brennan wrote some pretty useful posts about interrogating media from progressive creators that I’m just gonna leave here for anyone reading.

Right now, even if I wish the ‘Avatar’ creators had done some things differently when it comes to the link between Toph’s magic and her disability, I’m glad we have the Toph we have now, rather than no Toph at all. Again, that’s my personal opinion and other people, who are more personally invested in disabled representation may disagree and know better than me.

Ana: Yes, I absolutely agree. We can simultaneously acknowledge that there are still some problems with how Toph's blindness is represented AND love her as a character, as well as appreciate all the ways in which the show is progressive.

As for advancements from season one to seasons two and three, well, I shall refrain from turning this into a Zuko appreciation post just yet (SO MUCH LOVE, though. SO.MUCH.LOVE). One of the things I enjoyed the most was the inclusion of more regular female characters, which we both said we were hoping for when we discussed season one. Not only did we get Toph, but we got Azula, Mai and Ty Lee and more screen time for Suki.

Jodie: We will get to Zuko, never you fear! Ugh, my heart is constantly re-breaking for him. I MUST also discuss my own love for Sokka at some point, but like you said, we have ladies to talk about first. I don’t know which one to start with: Azula, Suki, Mai? They’re all so cool! Which of them did you enjoy watching the most? Can I be hugely leading and ask if you think having more ladies join the regular cast made it easier for ‘Avatar’ to avoid any kind of problems with female tokenism?

Ana: How can I possibly pick a favourite? I honestly loved them all, and I especially loved watching Azula, Mai and Ty Lee together. It was interesting to see that although Azula uses intimidation to conduct her personal relationships, there were hints of a real bond between the three of them, especially in the flashbacks to when they were younger. This made for a nice change from the way women's relationships are usually portrayed. Those flashback scenes showed that although Azula had always had a ruthless streak, she was also a human being capable of making real connections and having good times with her friends. And of course there's the Ember Island episode, which helped humanise her further, even if only briefly.

Azula, Mai and Ty Lee

Jodie: I really just want to agree with you on everything here. I love the relationships between all three of the girls. Do we need to internet wrestle to see who love the ‘Ember Island’ episode more? I love that episode, because it almost has the feel of an AU fanfic piece even though it’s set in the Avatar universe. It takes the characters totally out of their continuing fantasy struggle narrative and puts them in the more everyday setting of a teen party. And then it uses that setting to humanise and normalise all the characters, through their fraught interactions at the party and the confessional fireside meeting.

And like you, I enjoyed seeing the childhood flashbacks. Obviously Azula terrorises people into doing what she wants, but it’s clear that the people she has to manipulate do genuinely like her when she’s not playing the role of the ruthless fire princess, although liking her doesn’t mean they’re always so on board with her plans to destroy everyone. I kind of get the feeling that sometimes when Azula is giving evil speeches Mai and Ty Lee are fighting the urge to roll their eyes at each other and affectionately tell her to lighten up a bit.Still, if she did lighten up, she’d be a different person than the Azula I love.

Azula on Ember Island

Ana: Azula was a very interesting character, but as you might imagine I have all sorts of feelings about how things ended for her. I never expected her to be redeemed like Zuko, but at the same time, I didn't think Avatar was the kind of show where they'd just kill her off. So I was very interested in seeing where she'd end up.

Jodie: Is it weird that although I really wanted Zuko to be redeemed I really wasn’t that bothered if Azula reached the same kind of place? I just found her utterly fascinating as a near-straight out villain, because she brought a real flair to her evil actions. Her brother’s most interesting feature was his emotional conflict, but I think Azula is most interesting because she embodies that kind of cool, edgy villain sensibility that a lot of my favourite male villains also exhibit. I can’t quite pin down what it is I like so much about her bad side, but it has something to do with the way she embraces the knowledge of her monstrous side and revels in not being a nice person, like that’s just a part of what makes her Azula. She knows it, accepts that side (although there is always still a little bitterness that creeps into that acceptance at times) so she’s not going to spend too much time worrying about how hard it is for her to make friends. Again though, she’s not a cardboard cut out, so sometimes, like during the Ember Island party, she betrays a different level to her emotions and those varying, warring sides of her make her more human.

I also just thought it was excellent that she was good at being evil. She makes decent plans and sometimes they work out - amazing. I get so frustrated with villains that are unbelievably easy to topple and when those villains are female an inevitable ‘ladies can’t do anything right’ vibe attaches itself to them (especially when the heroes are male and all their plans come off). FRUSTRATING.

I’m not saying evil ladies have to win all the time, just because they’re ladies and there’s a female stereotype of incapability that desperately needs to be subverted, but maybe they could just win one time. I mean in purely dramatic terms having the villains gain a victory, before the final inevitable clash of good vs evil, can sometimes make for a more interesting story arc, as ‘Avatar’ shows. I don’t know about you, but I found that the disappointed sensation of seeing Aang and the team fail at times, just made their final victory feel more heroic and realistic. Anyway the point I’m trying to make is, I like that ‘Avatar’ shows you can have evil ladies winning AND good triumphing AND the tingly sensation that comes when narrative expectations are subverted. It’s all good!

Azula Fire Bending

Ana: Not weird at all! I appreciate the fact that they didn't feel the need to redeem every major Fire Nation character, as it adds some extra complexity to the series. And I love your point about female competency and how Azula subverts those representations.

It took me some time to make sense of what bothered me about Azula's ending, but I think I have finally figured it out. First of all, those final scenes raise all sort of questions about how the show frames anger, but I'll wait to hear your thoughts on this, since I know this topic has been on your mind.

Jodie: Actually, although I’ve read Renay’s comments on the way the series deals with anger I’m having trouble making sense of how Azula’s ending relates to legitimate anger. I wonder if I could ask you to go first on that side of things, so I can see where you’re coming from?

Ana: I wasn't the best at puzzling it out myself either, which is why I wanted to hear your thoughts - hopefully Renay will join us in the comments with her reading? I mean, I see the historical associations between female anger and madness, and the ending turns what would be an understandable reaction of fury at being defeated into something that evokes that stereotype (this isn't legitimate anger in the sense of "she had every right to succeed at taking over the world", obviously; just in the sense that it would be in character for someone like her to experience anger in that situation, and I suspect that with a male character this wouldn't have been turned into madness). But I feel there might be more complex readings here that I'm missing, too (for example, here's a great one Renay sent our way).

Jodie: Personally, I like that post's explanation of why Azula is so much more than just a bad person with an evil plan, but I don't agree with the use of antagonist to describe her, rather than the word villain, which someone proposes in the comments. Maybe this is simplistic, but I think to work out whether a character is a villain or a flawed antagonist you need to examine their behaviour towards others. Does the character do bad things to others and do they show any remorse about those actions? For me, if a character shows no remorse, then they can be a complicated, sympathetic villain, but as long as they do bad things to others and show no remorse, I think the perhaps more judgemental language of the word villain still applies. Damon from ‘The Vampire Diaries’ has a sad history and complicated feelings, just like Azula, but he's also a psychotic serial killer who shows no remorse so... villain *shrug* I love him, but he's a bad guy too. I know I’m talking about semantics though and am quibbling over the use of a word which means close to the same as another here, so feel free to ignore me.

I feel the same way about Azula. I think she is cool, I also think she is just as damaged by her father as Zuko is and I feel bad for her, but she’s an absolute power drugged maniac, with an imperialist mindset, so she’s a villain. However, I LOVE how roxanneritchi emphasises that Azula is emotionally hurt and complicated, just like Zuko, because I imagine that gets missed out a lot in discussions of her character. As a culture, we're all over carefully examining the man pain of evil dudes, not so keen on spending the same amount of time analysing female character's hurts.

Ana: So true. What particularly bothered me about Azula's ending were all the problematic historical associations between powerful and inconvenient women and madness it evoked; and additionally the fact that simply portraying Azula as mad depoliticises her. As I said when we discussed season one, one of the things I appreciated the most about Avatar was how it very firmly placed the Fire Nation's imperialism in a political context - these people weren't monsters; that would be too easy. They weren't inherently "the bad guys" - instead, they were a nation invested in a damaging political approach, as several human nations have been at several different historical moments. Framing the problem this way moves the series away from any simplistic, black and white approaches to "good" and "evil". In this context, I don't think Azula's madness was a satisfying resolution; to me, it unfortunately undid a little bit what the show had achieved.

Jodie: Agree. Azula’s madness is just so off. It’s really the only thing I significantly disliked about the three series, apart from Zuko’s last interaction with his father. Don’t leave me hanging here ‘Avatar’! What DID happen to his mother?

Ok, difficult question. Do you think that Azula is always de-politicised, or do you think it’s specifically her madness that makes her more of a pure evil character, than a tyrant committed to a political approach? And how did you feel about the Fire Lord in that respect by the end of the third series? I am torn.

Ana: Hmm. I only got that distinct impression from the ending, but you're right that Azula's investment in dominating the world wasn't always firmly placed in its political context - the series seems to imply that much of her motivation has to do with wanting to follow in her father's footsteps and to feel close to him. But I also got the impression that she enjoyed the sense of competency the whole thing brought her, and like you were saying above she was damn good at being evil.

I think they did a better job with the Fire Lord himself, as there was some exploration of his attachment to power and desire to conquer. But to me what communicates the political context of the Fire Nation the best is the backstory that emerges about Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin. It seems that from then on, imperialism became a way of life that was passed down from generation to generation of Fire Lords; something they see as part of their "natural" role in the world rather than something they all necessarily spent a long time thinking about and whose ideological implications they considered carefully. But you know, that actually made sense to me in terms of how dynasties have historically worked in the real world, which is why I didn't think Fire Lord Ozai and Azula were necessarily depoliticised throughout the series.

Jodie: Ooo, ok, I think you’re helping me see things differently here. I think I’ve been wishing Ozai and Azula displayed the internal self-justification I’d expect them to have created in order to provide themselves with "valid” reasons for their rule. Sozin does that when he comes out with a well-beloved justification of real life colonial nations: ‘We’re doing so well, it would be cruel if we didn’t take over other countries and bring them our cool shit.’.

However, maybe Ozai and Azula are displaying a kind of bolstering, rhetorical argument and I’m just not seeing it as self-justification. On the surface their motivations often look to me like your typical motivationless ‘Mwahaha, we are the villains, so we will be villainous and repressive’ schtick. However, if Azula and Ozai believe that the Fire Nation is the strongest nation (and why wouldn’t they, as you say it’s ruled the Four Nations for a hundred years and it must seem so natural to them that firebenders are ‘best’) maybe every time they repeat that the Fire Nation is the best that’s really a buffering tactic, designed to reassure them that they deserve to rule and no one else does. Maybe, that’s their (false, but internally real) justification for seeking the power they want, just as Sozin’s tells himself he’ll be helping the poor other cultures...

Ana: To return to your earlier question, I personally saw no tokenism when it comes to female representation in these two seasons. This isn't to say everything was perfect (nothing ever is), but having so many different women on screen helped make sure that no characters' individual traits became clearly associated with their femaleness, which sometimes happens when you only have one woman. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, though.

Jodie: Yay that’s what I hoped you were going to say *is shamelessly leading*.

Ana you have been very good and restrained, but I now encourage you to dive right into Zuko appreciation. I’ll be right behind you :P

Zuko smiling

Ana: ZUKO! I just love him so much. I don't get this invested in a character all that often, and it's always such a wonderful feeling to have that happen - especially when that investment was repaid with what I thought was an extremely emotionally satisfying story arc. First of all, I loved his vulnerability. I loved the fact that he's often wrong, that he makes mistakes, that the series doesn't shy away from showing us that his actions have consequences and hurt people who have always wanted the best for him (namely Iroh) - and yet at the end of the day he's still a sympathetic character. His struggle to find out who he wanted to be and to then how to become that person really resonated with me. I love the fact that none of it was easy - he had to let go of so much, including all the political baggage associated with being a Fire Nation Prince, his notion of honour, his belief about his and his people's place in the world - his entire worldview, pretty much. And as much as we find his original stance horrifying, I appreciated the acknowledgment that to let go of all that and to replace it with a way of looking at the world that requires you to rebuild your sense of identity is a slow and painful process. And this continues to be the case even after the end of the series - I don't want to spoil Gene Luen Yang's "The Promise" trilogy for you, but so far it deals with Zuko's continued struggle to figure out what's right and to balance his responsibilities as Fire Lord with his newfound ethos of respect for other nations. There's a lot more that I could say, but to be honest I'm dying to hear what you think of Zuko.

Jodie: I love your idea that Zuko has to let go to become the person he wants to be and that this is super hard. One of my favourite Zuko moments is bizarrely a time when he fails to let go. When he joined Azula, instead of continuing to support the Avatar and Iroh, I thought ‘Hello, now Zuko becomes really interesting’. Nothing goes straight to my heart faster than a villain who is struggling to become a better person, but fails along the way, because...that’s life, we all fail, even when we have the best intentions. I was happy to see him get a final redemption arc though - I have a human heart and sometimes it likes simplicity and salvation.

One of my favourite things about Zuko’s characterisation is how obsessed he is with honour. At one point, I almost thought that by making Zuko’s hunt for A’ang all about regaining honour, the writers made it too easy for the audience to sympathise with this young boy, even as he hurts the people around him. After all, Zuko is just doing the wrong thing (hunting and destroying) for the right reasons (a desire to achieve true honour, the kind his father would understand). In the end I think what they did over the course of three series was to show why, even though we might sympathise with Zuko’s quest for honour, his ideas have been corrupted and he is searching for the wrong thing. His aim is always misdirected until he finally accepts that what his father labels honour is actually a manifestation of ego and pride. So, there’s a nice disconnect there - viewers can sympathise with Zuko through the three series, while also despising his plans and being relieved when he eventually realises that he needs to change his internal vision of honour. I never felt like I was being asked to ignore how cruel Zuko’s could be when he hunted for A’ang, instead the narrative allowed me to separate out my emotions and feel all the things at the same time, while I travelled with Zuko on his slow journey to change.

Can we talk about Iroh and Zuko? In my mind there will always be an alternative ‘Avatar’ universe where they do keep running a tea shop together and all the cast visit...

Uncle Iroh eating noodles

Ana: Yes, that's a great point about how the series doesn't require us to condone (or even excuse) Zuko's actions in order to sympathise with him.

Anyway, Iroh and Zuko! Yes, we absolutely can talk about them at great length. I love Iroh, and I love their relationship so much. Iroh combines aspects of the traditional wise mentor figure (who is usually male) with the kind of tenderness and care that tend to be associated with mothers rather than fathers. He's a father figure, yes; someone who gives Zuko the love and acceptance he didn't get from Ozai. But the way he performs this parental role is more hands-on and openly affectionate than what we tend to see in fictional fathers, who are often kind but far removed from direct care, and I thought this was really great. Do you remember that moment at the end of season one ("The Siege of the North, Part 1"), when Zuko is about to dive and swim underwater to find his way into the Northern Water Tribe's city? Iroh watches him go and tells him something along the lines of, "please make sure your ears don't get cold!". I really loved that moment, but I guess it could be argued that it was played for laughs, as scenes featuring men taking on traditionally feminine roles usually are. The interesting thing, though, is that as the series progresses the characters who have ridiculed and underestimated Iroh for his mother-like and generally "soft" behaviour come to see what a big mistake they've made. By the end of the third season, it has become clear that the fact that Iroh's relationship with Zuko escapes the confines of traditional masculinity doesn't result in a loss of status for him, isn't synonymous with "weakness", and doesn't compromise his performance in traditionally masculine tasks.

So yes, Iroh worries about whether Zuko's ears will get cold, he nurses him when he's ill, he's protective of him, and he generally puts his well-being above everything else. Yet at the same time, he's a respected member of the White Lotus, a man capable of single-handedly breaking out of prison, and generally someone you wouldn't want to mess with. Of course, it would be far more subversive to have a male character actually reject these "masculine" forms of heroism in favour of an entirely "feminine" role and still be respected, but having Iroh combine both is at least a step in the right direction, I think.

As the series progresses we find out how Iroh shifted from being a successful general deeply involved in the Fire Nation's colonial mission to being the kind, caring man he is today; a man whose ambition is to run his own tea shop (I'll join you in dreaming of that alternative universe, by the way). What did you think of Iroh's backstory?

Jodie: Pretty sure there must be fan-fic for that scenario (links appreciated if you’ve made it this far and know of any).

Anyway, moving on from my fannish day dreams, I think the most moving part of Iroh’s story is shown in ‘The Tale of Iroh’ when he visits his son’s grave:

In the first series I felt like we were left to make assumptions about why such a great general might leave all that behind. That left the way open for Iroh to be constructed as more of an idealist character, who left violence and oppression behind because he suddenly realised it is wrong. In S2/3 we learn that Iroh left the war after his son died and although that’s tragic, narratively I prefer that as an explanation for why Iroh changes his life. Personal experience often makes people change their political beliefs, so this seemed realistic to me.

I just want to talk around the idea that ‘...it could be argued that it was played for laughs, as scenes featuring men taking on traditionally feminine roles usually are.’ when Iroh tells his nephew not to let his ears get cold.

It seems to me that men and women step outside gender expectations all the time in ‘Avatar’ and often that crossing of boundaries is played for laughs, or happens to a character that is generally the comic relief (Iroh, Toph, or Sokka). The audience is encouraged to laugh, but at the same time the character who is having fun poked at them never expresses shame, or appears uncomfortable in these situations. And the people around them may roll their eyes, but they never belittle the character, or call them ‘girly’, ‘weak’ or ‘mannish’ (unless these people are being coded as villains, then they say all kinds of mean stuff). Thoughts on this?

Ana: That's a really good observation about how the pattern works throughout the series. I know there are valid arguments about why these characters might not be perfect representations of people who transgress the boundaries of gender roles (and I'd love to hear some in the comments), but at the same time, I think the way the series uses humour is actually quite ingenious. It encourages warmth towards the characters instead of distancing the audience from them. It also works a bit similarly to what I was saying above about the humour around Toph's blindness: it's never really at her expense. Likewise, the viewer isn't ultimately encouraged to ridicule these characters or to think less of them for their gender rebellion. And though not everyone will necessarily read it this way, this strikes me as a subtle but effective way of encouraging critical thinking about why these situations tend to be perceived as laughable or ridiculous.

Also, I completely agree with you about how the personal motivation for Iroh's political change of heart rang very true.

Jodie: At the end of all that discussion, it’s clear that TV has some damn high standards to live up to now that we’ve seen all 3 series of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. When, oh when will I be able to see ‘The Legend of Korra’?

Ana: Hopefully before too long! And I hope it's not too forward of me to preemptively invite you for yet another 7000 words discussion of that series ;) Perhaps we can persuade Renay to join us for that as well.

Jodie: Ana, I assumed that was already a done deal :D There is no escape for you from my ‘Avatar’ chat now!

We thought we'd wrap up this post with a bit of unadulterated fannish glee - here are, in no particular order:

Jodie and Ana's Top Ten Avatar Moments (warning: All The Spoilers)

1) In ‘The Boiling Rock - Part Two’ (Series 3) Sokka and Zuko are trying to form a plan to scale and capture a tower. While they talk, Suki acts. She climbs the tower freestyle and takes out all the guards. Suki has been my favourite minor female character since her first appearance in S1 (during an episode where I actually cried because of the blatant support for feminism and women) and I just wish we’d been able to see more of her. (Jodie)

Zuko and Aang dancing
Zuko, dance with me

2) The whole of the "Dancing Dragon" (season 3) episode, because it's basically my dream of Aang and Zuko hanging out and bonding come true. I especially loved the moment when Aang says, "You're pretty smart, Zuko" and Zuko smiles. D'awww :D (Ana)

3) A little moment that makes me giggle every time comes during the episode where Sokka gets a messenger hawk, which I think is ‘The Runaway’ (Series 3). Katara and Toph have fallen out so A’ang and Sokka concocte a plan to get them to be friends again, by sending Katara a note with an apology from Toph. They’re so chuffed with themselves until Katara screams back that she knows it’s from them because Toph can’t read. Hehe - oh you loveable dunderheads. (Jodie)

4) Zuko and Iroh's reconciliatory hug, which just might have been the single most emotionally satisfying moment in the entire series for me. It's the kind of thing that could have been too easy, but because of how their relationship was built up, it didn't feel that way to me. The hurt caused by Zuko's actions isn't brushed aside, but Iroh explains that his focus was always on getting this boy he thinks of as a son to find a way to be true to himself (though obviously I realise that others might read the scene differently). Just looking at the gif still makes me tear up. (Ana)

5) I love the whole of ‘Sokka’s Master’ (Series 3). The way that Sokka feels left out reminds me of the time Xander got angry about being powerless in ‘Buffy’. I have a soft spot for non-magical characters who are surrounded by people with powers, probably because I know that if our world turned out to be like a fantasy series I’d be the girl without magic who was caught up in the terrifying plots surrounding the saviour character.

It’s also great that in this episode Soka is excited about shopping! Even though I know mentions of his shopping habit are probably put in to provide comic dissonance (where the audience is suprised into laughter, because the normality of their world is subverted in entertainment) and he goes shopping for weapons which are traditionally manly, I’m so glad that Sokka notices absolutely nothing wrong with a boy being so excited about shopping. Seeing a non-gendered approach to interests appear in a program is awesome.

And I thought it was cool that he became a sword master in his own way. Despite appearing kind of awful at all the skills he’s set to learn, in the end he proves that he’s assimilated Piando’s knowledge and worked it into a different shape. I was so excited when he was rewarded for being humble. I thought my heart would burst when he admitted his lie about being from the Fire Nation, because he needed to be truthful with his master and then what seemed like a stupid move to others earned him so much respect. I’m kind of infatuated with Sokka... (Jodie)

6) Okay, so this is a really sappy choice, but I can't leave out Team Avatar's reunion with Appa at the end of "Lake Laoga". And it doesn't hurt that although nobody realises it at the time, it was actually Zuko who released him. The previous episode, "Appa's Lost Days", really broke my heart, so it was lovely to see everyone safe and together again. (Ana)

7) ‘The Beach’ (Series 3), where the Fire Nation teens go to a party on Ember Island is one of my absolute favourite episodes. The mix of fantasy setting and contemporary, normal concerns is just delicious. Fantasy doesn’t have to be all about the war or the quest all the time, sometimes it can just be about people doing regular things in a fantasy world. I love how ‘Avatar’ mixes the normal with the big concept fantasy struggles. Teens go to parties, people run tea shops, A’ang and everyone go to watch the most inaccurate play ever. That normality just makes their world seem so much more real, even though they exist in a fictional fantasy universe. (Jodie)

8) Another Zuko moment (I can't help it, okay?): when he's by himself rehearsing ways to approach Team Avatar in "The Western Air Temple". He's just so nervous and adorably awkward :D It's a huge contrast with the arrogant Zuko of the first season. I also loved how Appa licked him before anyone else on the team decided to trust him - not that I blame them, of course. (Ana)

9) My final moment isn’t a big or important one, but I thought Katara and Toph’s girls day out in ‘The Tales of Ba Sing Se’ (Series Two) was lovely. Even though she’s secure being less traditionally female and a bit of a tomboy, Toph enjoys doing something a bit different when she gets a makeover. Then on the walk home some boys tease her and she becomes insecure about what she looks like. Katara reassures her that she looks great. It’s just a really nice girl bonding moment. (Jodie)

10) And my last choice will have to be when Master Pakku calls Katara "Master Katara" at the end of season one ("The Siege of the North, Part 2"). It's a smaller moment than their big epic fight a few episodes before, but it was one of those details (like Suki's "I'm a warrior and a girl", which you have mentioned before) that really revealed this show's attitude towards its female characters, and it just really warmed my heart. (Ana)

So, that’s it from us on ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ for now. If you haven’t watched this program yet we encourage you to get going, find the DVDs, just...shoo, right now and see if your library has them. We promise you that by the end of the third series everything will be ‘Avatar’ and nothing will hurt.

Team Avatar and Momo hugging

Zuko and Mai hugging

Azula and Ty Lee hugging

Sokka and his father hugging

Katara and Master Pakku hugging

Katara and Zuko hugging

Team Avatar and Suki hugging

Date: 2012-06-01 03:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
I'm so pleased you guys reviewed the rest of the series! I adore it so.

Your thoughts on Azula and the connection between female madness and her depoliticized status are fascinating; I ultimately agree with Jodie that imperialism and conquest is the air with which she breathes. Her descent into madness was pretty sudden for me, but I think I give that development a pass because the moment she starts breathing blue fire, shaking and crying with her rage absolutely floors me. She doesn't seem overwhelmed or scared of herself; she seems, oddly, at perfect peace with her intent. I remember reading somewhere that firebending lightning requires a purity of thought, and I think we see that there.

Of course, I cry when I'm angry and I would like to breathe fire, so perhaps I like that scene for personal reasons.

I echo the love for Suki. I really appreciate that Avatar: The Last Airbender treats its non-powered characters well, especially looking back on it with the context of Legend of Korra, because the divide between benders and non-benders becomes a political struggle. Plus, she and Sokka are just glorious together. (Words cannot express my love for Sokka.)

I would love to hear your thoughts on the two previous female Avatars, Kyoshi and Yangchen. (Again, I like Kyoshi for selfish reasons: she has huge feet.) In the episode "Sozin's Comet, Part 2: The Older Masters", while Roku and Kuruk only tell Aang that he has to be decisive, both Kyoshi and Yangchen advocate killing Ozai if it comes to that. We don't get much on them, but I was always taken with how Aang takes dealing with his past incarnations, male and female, in such stride, even though he grew up in a gender-segregated society (I believe one Air Temple was for monks, and the other was for nuns).

And I think you guys are going to love Legend of Korra. It flirts with some weirdness with the beginning of the romance plot (the tomboy/girly girl conflict is brought up, but ultimately resolved nicely), but, for the most part, it focuses on Korra and the political situation in New Republic City. And the music is amazing and the action is amazing and the setting is amazing and I have a big old crush on Lin Bei Fong, Toph's daughter.

And I bawled when I saw older!Aang in the opening credits.

Date: 2012-06-02 10:09 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I loved Kyoshi too, but I don't remember giving Yangchen much thought - something to pay more attention to on a rewatch! And I love your point about how Aang doesn't see having women among his past incarnations as an issue at all.

I managed to watch the first two episodes of Korra when they were streaming a while ago and yes, I think I'll absolutely love it too. Your reaction to older!Aang was my reaction to Katara's screen time in the first episode. And the very last scene with her - my poor heart.

Date: 2012-06-02 05:58 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
As far as Azula's breakdown goes, I saw a parallel between that and Zuko. At the beginning of the third season, Zuko has everything he's ever wanted. His honor has been restored, his people love him, and most importantly, his father not only accepts him but has elevated him to his right hand. And it's not enough. He reaches his destination, looks around, and thinks, "This is it? Now what?"

It's the same with Azula. She is Fire Lord. Her father trusts her to protect and rule their entire nation. But to get there, she had to sacrifice both of her friends - the only two people we ever see her having a real connection with. Both of those friends left her when she placed her ambition over the life of someone they loved. So here Azula is, everything she's ever wanted, and there's no one she can trust. No one will ever let her desires rule their entire lives, and she doesn't know how to take anything less than the whole. Fear won't make people trustworthy, and fear is all she has. She got what she wanted and it wasn't enough and she doesn't understand why not.

So she lashes out at her servants, at the memory of her mother, at Zuko, at Katara, until finally she's just lashing out at thin air. And she doesn't care that she isn't hitting anybody because that's not the point anymore. She has nothing left but her own impotent rage.

Now, I do think it's problematic that Zuko's low point is framed as a step on his road to redemption, while Azula's is framed as a "descent into madness" (which is an insult to the mentally ill, by the way). I also don't like that her last scene is her out of control, writhing in rage. Ozai's last scene gives him closure: he's in the same prison cell he'd put his own brother and the Fire Lord is questioning him. There's no closure for Azula, since I'm guessing they're not going to leave her chained up in the courtyard.

(My headcanon is that Azula eventually gets parole and is sent to work at Uncle Iroh's tea shop. Because she was just as abused as Zuko and deserves the chance at redemption.)

- Sylvia Sybil

Date: 2012-06-02 09:44 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I love your headcanon! You're right, she absolutely does deserve it.

Date: 2012-06-02 10:06 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Someone needs to build up this tea shop world out of fan fiction words :D

Date: 2012-07-26 07:38 pm (UTC)
myfriendamy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] myfriendamy
okay yay I finally finished so I can chat!

I think Zuko had the best/most interesting series long character arc, IDK maybe because it was so clearly defined or maybe just because the internal conflict he went through was the most relatable to me. (i.e. Sokka's becoming a warrior/leader isn't all that relatable to me, but I still ♥ him so much) My heart was like..exploding with joy every episode at the end once he'd joined Team Avatar and was interacting with them. And while I never shipped him with Aang romantically, I def loved every delicious second of their interaction and I enjoyed the way the show paralleled them so often. I just felt so much for him on a more personal level than the others, even though I loved them all, and would be hard pressed to really pick a favorite character.

I have to admit I was at first slightly uncomfortable for reasons I can't really decipher why with how much the Fire Nation seemed based on Japan to me. I know it wasn't completely and was rather a sort of...hybrid (?) of different Asian cultures, but things like being an island/volcanic nation, using the sun as source power for their bending, and seeking to rule the world through imperialism felt based loosely on Japan's history. And I'm not sure that the redeeming qualities of fire were ever brought forth enough for me, but that's okay.

I think Azula's ending was in fact lazy. I think they wanted her as a threat up to the end, didn't want to actually kill her, couldn't redeem her believably, so they just sent her to madness over having finally achieved her goal.

Re: Toph...IDK I was under the impression that her superior skill with earth bending was partly because of her blindness, because she was more in tune with the earth as a compensatory skill. It's not unusual, and this is not exactly the same, but I've worked with adults who don't read or don't read well, and it's not because they are stupid as a common society myth would suggest, but there are much more complex reasons for why this might happen. Anyway, lacking in a basic skill that's pretty much deemed necessary by society, someone in this situation will come up with extraordinary ways to cope and compensate with the fact that they can't read. And I think I've read it can be quite the same for someone who is blind or hard of hearing, for example. And that's kind of how I interpreted Toph being so good, so that aspect of it actually felt grounded in reality to me. And I mean...since it IS a fantasy world where people do have super powers, it seems completely reasonable she'd have one as well. But this is way out of my depth of experience. I do think representation is always tricky...like one of the shows I enjoy a lot right now, Switched at Birth, has a main character who is hard of hearing and the show really tries to tell a wide variety of stories about people on the hearing spectrum and what they do about it (do they take speech therapy or only rely on signing?, do they get an implant or not? etc.) and some people in the deaf community LOVE it and some HATE it so it's like maybe it's impossible to get it exactly right and please everyone? Not saying that means it shouldn't be discussed though, not at all, like I really enjoy the discussion because it gives me a chance to hear other people's perspectives.

There were lots of things I loved about the show, I loved the characters, I loved their friendship, I liked how lots of little side effects of war were explored (like when Katara had to admit to her dad she understood why he left, but she was so sad and angry. I loved that story b/c it was so honest. Or when she learned blood bending--in five seconds, ha--because it illustrated how we can all be pushed to the things we don't want to do/be when we are faced with the loss of what we hold most dear) It was a pretty great series and a lot of fun! Thanks for writing about it!

Date: 2013-04-01 08:53 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Eek, I never saw this comment until now! #fail I'm so sorry! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, Amy - you make a bunch of great points. And about it being impossible to please everyone with a single character that belongs to an underrepresented group - yes, absolutely. I think part of the problem is exactly that there's such a burden on a small number of characters to stand in for a huge number of people who are, well, individuals and not all clones of each other - whereas if you're able-bodied/white/straight/etc you get a bunch of different characters and there's no pressure for a single one to be all things to all people. So: all the stories, please :P

Azula's ending

Date: 2016-08-29 11:28 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Great post! Only there was one thing I greatly disagreed with.


I actually love the fact that Azula became insane at the end. I might be a little less familiar with the typical plotlines and characterizing as you seem to be, but I saw it as realistic, intriguing and a great and surprising narrative.

The reason for this might be that I've had a bit of a different view on all of the royal family than you seemed to have. You're saying that you're a bit disappointed that Azula seems depoliticized throughout the series, but I think that's perfectly in line with her character. It's like what she told Long Feng (head of the Dai Li) at the end of season two, 'real power you're born into' (or something like that). She doesn't do politics, politics and politicians are far beneath her, she simply demands and all should follow her. Honestly, the way Fire Lords are revered throughout the series reminds me more of the ancient pharaohs than anything else.

That's the part where I find her madness realistic. Though it had never really been hinted at in the series (for obvious reasons), I've always had the idea that there must've been a lot of interbreeding within the Fire Nation Royal circles (as well as in the Earth Kingdom Royal Family) because they are so far elevated above even other important nobles. The fire lord and his (or her) family seem almost to be viewed as demigods. Now I don't claim to have any real knowledge of psychology, but in fiction and in reality there are a lot of instances where long-term interbreeding cause all types of mental illnesses. That combined with the worshiping the must experience daily and the absolute power and authority they have at their hands, it's no wonder many of the royal family are crazy.

Because it's not only Azula. Ozai is obviously a complete sociopath/psychopath with serious anger-management issues and who has convinced himself power is always self-justifying and that having absolute power means that whatever he does or decides is right. I think he even literally says so in the first part of The Promise, though I am not sure. The fire lord has a divine right to rule, and is always right. He's far above any kind of justification.

Zuko, talking mainly season 1 Zuko here, has pretty much the same ideas as his father, he has no account or responsibility because he is far above anything else in the world, but his father, who is the only person above him. That's the reason he's such an arrogant, selfish prick. That's also the reason he keeps believing for a very long time that his father was completely justified of scarring and banishing his own son. His father couldn't be wrong, because he was the fire lord, so it must have been his own fault. And although he is no psychopath, his entirely reckless dedication, obsessive and jealous personality and paranoia could be seen as his own form of craziness. He even had his own variation of 'hallucinations', both when he was alone in the desert and during his mystical fever. If Iroh hadn't been there to guide him on his journey, I shudder to think what would've have become of Zuko.

And Azula obviously is already a sociopath and pathological liar long before she starts seeing things, proven by the fact that Toph can't tell her lies from truth. No wonder, between her unfortunate parentage and her upbringing. You can also clearly see that during 'The Beach', where Zuko continues to be inept at conversing, Azula turns out to be ten times worse in a casual setting. But secretly, she has always longed for some human connection she missed from her parents, and when her only friends betray her, rendering her alone, no wonder she declines even further.

And now, finally, the part why I think her absolute fall is narratively strong. I've always seen Azula and Zuko as mirrors of each other, I think they are very much alike, and had things played out differently, either one could have become the other. They've shared their entire upbringing and have witnessed both the harsh, unforgiving hand of their father and the disappearance of their mother, only from a different perspective. Zuko is dismissed by his father as useless, which gave him the chance to find himself and defy the views he grew up with with Iroh's helping hand. Azula, meanwhile, succeeds in winning her father's approval, which Zuko always desperately sought, only to lose her mother's love in the process and stay caught in the harsh world view Zuko has escaped from. Where Zuko overcomes the inner demons of their shared youth, Azula succumbs beneath them. It makes me very sad to think about it, but I do think her very tragic ending is a good contrast to all the happiness the victory brings.

I know I'm posting this 4 years after date and that it's much to long, but I felt I had to make a reply. :)


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