Updated: Oct 27, 2020
By Michelle Guan
Image retrieved from Atla
“Water. Earth. Fire. Air.”
Millions of people around the world are familiar with these four words from Avatar: the Last Airbender, a 2000s show that takes place in a fictional world where element bending exists. Avatar: The Last Airbender is beloved for its beautiful soundtrack and character development, but something that truly sets it apart from other shows of its time is its strong female representation. The show contains many well-written and diverse female characters, such as Toph, an underestimated earthbender, Katara, a powerful and compassionate waterbender, Suki, a female warrior, and Azula, a cunning firebender. They are strong in different ways and are depicted as complex individuals whose strengths and weaknesses are frequently demonstrated throughout the series.
At first glance, Toph, a blind twelve-year-old earthbender, doesn’t look like much, and people, including her own parents, frequently underestimate and look down on her for her disability. However, she doesn’t let this attitude discourage her from earthbending successfully by detecting vibrations in the ground with her feet. Toph also invents metalbending, a subsection of earthbending, which is extremely useful to her during the Hundred Year War. Her blindness arguably makes her one of the most skilled earthbenders of her time because she perceives her disability as an advantage and is confident in her abilities. Her use of her other senses, such as touch and hearing, actually enhance her earthbending. Additionally, she consistently challenges the restrictions of traditional feminine behavior through her strong-willed nature. She learns over time that asking for her friends’ help is a sign of strength instead of weakness because it shows how much trust she has in them.
Compared to Toph, Katara displays more traditional feminine traits by acting as a mother figure to her friends. She grew up with the burden of being a caretaker for her brother and community due to her mother’s death, causing her to mature quickly. However, being more feminine doesn’t mean that Katara is weaker than Toph; it simply means that she is strong in a different way. She balances being a nurturing character with being a warrior and proves that it’s possible to be both caring and fierce. For example, in Season 1 she challenges a waterbending teacher who refuses to teach her because of the patriarchal system that only allows males to be taught waterbending. Although she loses the fight against the waterbending master, she shows her determination to learn waterbending. Katara demonstrates her courage by speaking up against injustice and inspiring other people to fight against oppression. Her confidence allows her to express the importance of standing up for what one believes in.
Katara shows her nurturing side in a Season 2 episode when she and her friends are stuck in a desert. She divides rations among them and urges them to continue walking. Her encouragement and level-headed thinking are what allows them to reach their destination successfully, which shows the positive impact a motherly figure can have on one’s life. Katara’s softness and strength exemplify how female characters can be likeable and multifaceted, a quality that Katara maintains throughout the show’s three seasons.
The show-writers seemingly acknowledge their feminist representation of Katara by contrasting her strength and confidence with the sexist beliefs and stubbornness of her brother, Sokka. The Kyoshi Warriors, in their titular episode, help with ridding Sokka of his sexist point of view when they kidnap him and the others, a change that is majorly influenced by their leader Suki. At first, Sokka feels insulted that he has been ambushed by girls, but he learns that they are just as capable as boys are on and off the battlefield and eventually develops respect for them. Suki continues to be a relevant female character throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender and shows her assertiveness often, such as when she defends the Avatar’s sky bison from Azula in Season 2 and when she captures a prison warden to aid an escape in Season 3. Even though she is a nonbender, she is still a strong character, which is shown through her hand-to hand combat and physical strength.
The show has an abundance of strong female characters, but they are not only limited to protagonists. For instance, Azula, the princess of the Fire Nation and one of the main antagonists, is known for being a firebender prodigy. She is able to react quickly to any situation without losing her composure while manipulating other people for her benefit. Her ambition and ruthlessness makes her stand out from the other girls because she is willing to go to any lengths to accomplish her goals. Throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender, Azula’s backstory is revealed, and the audience is told that her distant relationship with her mother, who had always scolded her for her sadistic nature, had caused her to control others using fear. This behavior is driven by Azula’s belief that she couldn’t be loved by anyone. Azula’s experiences with her mother and her overreliance on her power-hungry father, the Fire Lord, contributed to her manipulative nature. Because the audience is aware of her motivations and psychological trauma, she is viewed as a complex and multi-dimensional character. Although she has many strengths, she isn’t an invulnerable person.
By having diversity in the female characters, Avatar: The Last Airbender it proves that there isn’t one correct way to be female. This show depicts them as people who are confident in themselves, which in turn encourages the audience to feel confident in themselves and in who they are. These young women have realistic characterizations and emotional depth, allowing the audience to relate to them. The vigor and perseverance that these individuals exhibit are inspiring qualities that resonate with women of all ages.
Written by writer Michelle Guan