|All screencaps: Piandao.org|
When I was working out this month’s posting schedule, I ran into a problem I haven’t had since we put together the Disney Princess series: too many ladies. I knew that Katara, Toph, and Azula needed their own posts, but that left me with the issue of placing Mai and Ty Lee. Should they get their own post or double up with Azula? Should I group Kya, Ursa, and Yue together to discuss the theme of women’s sacrifice, or should I risk the dubious implications of putting Yue and Suki together in what would seem to be a collection of Sokka’s love interests? What would I do about the two female Avatars? And, most importantly, could I fit Smellerbee in somewhere?
|Avatar Kyoshi: Master Genderbender|
When Aang, Katara, and Sokka visit the Southern Air Temple, they come across a room containing statues of all of the past Avatars, a sea of dudes stretching across the floor and up into the walls. So it’s something of a surprise to learn in the very next episode that the most recent Earth Kingdom Avatar was a woman, especially given the fact that her statue clearly depicted a man who looks nothing like her.
While the show does wonderful things with many of its female characters, it’s scenes like this that remind us that its representation of gender is far from perfect. The Avatar is an almost omnipotent being whose primary responsibility is keeping the world working properly. While other world leaders are humans who have been granted tremendous power, the Avatar is a tremendously powerful being who has been given human form to keep him or her connected to human concerns. To make the Avatar a man about 99.9% of the time suggests that men are more worthy of this power.
The series already perpetuates this insidious message in many of its human hierarchies. The Northern Water Tribe, Fire Nation, and Earth Kingdom are all ruled by men, and the Air Nomads that we meet are all male, save for the Avatar Yangchen. The Order of the White Lotus, a secret society dedicated to spreading ancient knowledge across the world, is a massive sausage fest. The masters are men, the generals, admirals, and inventors likewise.
As a woman in an officially recognized position of power, Kyoshi is a big deal. She is also big in the literal sense, a statuesque woman with the biggest shoe size of any Avatar. She wears a uniform with face makeup intended to intimidate others, and she wields two fans that she can use both as weapons and as tools for bending. Whenever she shows up, she is the most striking, terrifying person onscreen. Had Aang been able to summon her to fight Fire Lord Ozai, you get the feeling that the show would have been over sometime during the first season.
The first time we see Kyoshi “in the flesh,” she is borrowing Aang’s body. He is standing trial for a crime that the villagers of Chin claim she committed 370 years earlier, when she killed their leader, Chin the Conqueror. While Aang and the Water Tribe siblings argue that no Avatar would commit murder, the first thing Kyoshi does when she possesses Aang’s body is admit to killing Chin. She offers a description of justifiable homicide, citing Chin’s tyranny and his army’s expansion across the continent. When he reached the peninsula where she made her home, he demanded her surrender, and she refused. To protect her people, she used her bending ability to break off the chunk of land that would become Kyoshi Island. Chin did not step back in time and fell to his death as a consequence. “I created Kyoshi Island so my people could be safe from invaders,” Kyoshi says, and you can almost hear the mic drop.
In an online game that bridged the gap between the second and third seasons, Aang ventures into the spirit world to reconnect with four of his past lives. Kyoshi tells him about one of her greatest challenges: resolving an attempted revolution in the Earth Kingdom. The peasants felt that the king did not represent their interests, and they started to destroy symbols of the old government, which included historical artifacts. The Earth King ordered Kyoshi to help him quash the revolt, and she refused; to his exclamation of “How dare you defy your king,” she responded, “How dare you defy your Avatar!” Still, she offers to protect his interests and Ba Sing Se’s cultural heritage if he will listen to the peasants’ grievances. She does this because, as she says, everyone should have a voice “if balance is to prevail over tyranny.” Unfortunately, part of her solution is the formation of the Dai Li, an elite group of earthbenders who became corrupt sometime during the 170 years since her death. Considering the fact that the city Aang established went wrong less than two decades after his own death, Kyoshi did pretty well.
Finally, in the last arc of the show, Aang calls upon Kyoshi once more. She gives him the advice that “only justice will bring peace.” While she admits that she made mistakes, she clearly considers the Avatar’s duty to be the dispensation of justice. To assume that kind of authority, a person would have to be pretty self-confident. Then again, if you were an almost all-powerful Amazonian woman who lived for centuries and watched kings cower at your feet, self-confidence would hardly be a problem.
Verdict: Strong Female Character™ (because she’s awesome, but ultimately undeveloped)
While the Dai Li didn’t work out precisely as planned, Kyoshi had more luck with the establishment of another fighting force: the Kyoshi Warriors. A group comprised entirely of young women, the Kyoshi Warriors practice a fighting style that involves using their opponent’s force against them. They wear armour that resembles their founder’s own preferred garb, as well as her customary makeup. Their leader, Suki, describes the outfit: “It’s a warrior’s uniform. … The silk thread symbolizes the brave blood that flows through our veins. The gold insignia represents the honour of the warrior’s heart.” As non-benders, their technique relies heavily on the use of fans as weapons.
The warriors are introduced in an episode which revolves around another condemnation of overt sexism. After claiming that girls are inherently better at sewing than boys (who are apparently better at hunting and fighting), Sokka needs to learn a lesson about the inaccuracy of stereotypical gender roles. The show teaches him this lesson at the hands of the Kyoshi Warriors. When he claims to be the best warrior in his village, Suki asks him to demonstrate his abilities. Sokka thinks that he will be showing off his skills to a bunch of untrained girls, but he quickly finds himself with his hand tied to his foot, humiliated by Suki’s vastly superior technique.
Soon, Sokka swallows his pride and asks Suki to teach him, which she agrees to do on the condition that he trains in the traditional uniform, makeup included. While this is played for laughs, it is to the show’s credit that both Sokka and Aang end up fighting Fire Nation soldiers while wearing this makeup, and absolutely no one comments on it either during or after the battle.
The most interesting part of this episode for me, however, is Suki and Sokka’s goodbye. He apologizes for his behaviour, saying, “I treated you like a girl, when I should have treated you like a warrior.” Suki replies, “I am a warrior, but I’m a girl too,” giving him a kiss on the cheek. The rest of the episode is fine, if a little heavy-handed, but this exchange, clearly intended to bring the message home, actually undermines it.
Let’s break the story down a bit. A sexist guy who thinks that fighting is an exclusively masculine pursuit makes fun of a group of female warriors. When they prove themselves to be better fighters than him, he is forced to confront his own prejudices. (Conveniently, there is no parallel story in which Sokka sees men who enjoy sewing and performing stereotypically feminine tasks, although the show does give him a love of shopping.) As a reward for learning that women can be warriors, he receives a kiss and a future love interest. This is the part that bugs me. Without the kiss, she is telling him that femininity and fighting ability are not mutually exclusive, and that he should respect both of these aspects of Suki. With the kiss, however, the message becomes more complicated and arguably less progressive. “But I’m a girl too” signals Suki’s romantic interest in Sokka, making her designated love interest status more important than the message that she deserves to be treated with respect because girls are people too. It also suggests that being treated like a girl necessarily means being valued as a potential romantic partner. In addition to all of this, the fact that Sokka is still spouting nonsense about treating girls and warriors differently proves that he didn’t really learn his lesson. Instead of a kiss, he probably should have been given the Not-As-Much-Of-a-Jerk-As-You-Could-Have-Been Award.
The next time we see Suki is in “The Serpent’s Pass,” where we learn that she and the other Kyoshi Warriors have taken work as security officers at the ferry terminal leading to Ba Sing Se. When the members of Team Avatar decide to forego the ferry and travel to the city using the infamous Serpent’s Pass, Suki accompanies them. Sokka, having experienced a terrible loss, becomes overprotective of her, and Suki confronts him about it. She can take care of herself, and she needs him to see that. She proves this claim when Toph falls into the path of a sea monster and Suki immediately dives into the water, armour and all, while Sokka is still removing his shoe. She saves Toph, and later reveals that she went along to ensure Sokka’s safety. She knows that she is highly competent, and she will only indulge Sokka’s misguided attempts at chivalry up to a point.
The next time we see her, she and the other Kyoshi Warriors are trying to protect Appa from Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee. Though they lose, the warriors do manage to send Appa away. Suki demonstrates tremendous courage: first, when she approaches the abused and terrified sky bison, and then when she takes on Azula in combat. Considering the fact that by this point, Team Avatar and its three powerful benders have been unable to do any real damage to Azula, Suki’s single-handed attempt to take her down is both foolishly brave and terribly impressive.
Unfortunately, if inevitably, Suki loses. She turns up again in the Boiling Rock, a Fire Nation prison that houses political dissidents. The Boiling Rock is famous for its inaccessibility; no escape attempt has ever been successful. Still, when Sokka and Zuko decide to escape with Sokka’s father, they are certain enough of their success that they neglect to figure out how to enact one of the most important parts of their plan. Suki takes this opportunity to have her Crowning Moment of Awesome, during which she travels over a prison brawl by running on the inmates’ heads, performs incredible parkour moves to scale a wall, and makes her way past four guards to tie up the warden. And she does all of this in the span of thirty-five seconds without getting out of breath. And she tops it all off with the line, “Sorry, Warden, you’re my prisoner now.”
It is because of this scene that it’s such a disappointment when she does almost nothing during the final battle. She accompanies Sokka and Toph onto an airship, but she doesn’t help them take out the crew or destroy the other airships. While the reason for her general lack of action clearly lies in the fact that Sokka and Toph are principal characters and therefore require our attention, I like to think that none of the writers could think of anything to top her display at the Boiling Rock. (Edit: Except that I am sometimes an idiot and forget that Suki actually saved Sokka and Toph from certain death when she brought an airship around to pick them up. Still, even this heroic rescue can't top her acrobatic feat at the Boiling Rock.)
While Suki’s characterization sometimes suffers due to her love interest status, she nevertheless manages to be an engaging, active character. She and Sokka work as a couple because she challenges him, matches his wits, and refuses to let him get away with his sometimes careless behaviour. She comes across as Sokka’s equal, not his accessory. One thing I particularly appreciate about Suki is that, even when we don’t see it, her story doesn’t stop. She doesn’t hang around on Kyoshi Island, waiting for Sokka to come find her; instead, she decides that she wants to help change the world. Even at the Boiling Rock, when she claims that she knew Sokka would come for her, it’s clear that she would still manage to get by on her own if he didn’t.
Verdict: Strong Female Character™ (because she’s amazing, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that her story largely revolves around Sokka)
Sokka’s other love interest, Princess Yue, doesn’t fare quite as well. At the end of the first season, Team Avatar arrives in the North Pole, seeking a waterbending master to train Aang and Katara. While they’re busy with that plot, Sokka distracts himself with a love-at-first-sight attraction to the Northern Water Tribe princess.
We are introduced to Yue via Sokka’s male gaze. His attraction to her seems to stem entirely from her appearance; while Suki was introduced as a clever, sarcastic, strong-willed person, Yue initially appears to be nothing more than a beautiful mystery. He admires her status and looks, but gives no personality-related reason for his attraction to her. For the entirety of Yue’s first episode, she exists primarily to frustrate Sokka, expressing interest in him only to run away quite literally as soon as they are together. Because we see her through his eyes, we can only see her as a girl who can’t make up her mind.
This changes, however, when she reveals that she is engaged. Yue’s story, while still entangled with Sokka’s, shifts from a tale about romance to a lesson about duty. She tells him that they can no longer see each other, and he defends their non-relationship on the grounds that she doesn’t love, or even like, her betrothed. She responds that she does love her people, and he reminds her that she’s not marrying them. Still, she persists, telling him that he doesn’t understand the duties that she has to her father and to her tribe.
This exchange and the shift it signifies are subtly subversive. Yue is the antithesis of a Disney princess; while she does want to follow her heart and marry for love, she understands that being a princess requires her to put aside her individual desires for the sake of the tribe. She’s learned the Spider-man lesson, but in this case, it’s the knowledge that with great privilege comes great responsibility. Sokka argues in favour of romance over civil duty, and in so doing demonstrates his naivety. He tries to tell her what choice to make, and urges her to defy social convention; she seems to recognize that her position of power is itself a matter of social convention, and that she must therefore live by it.
Her devotion to fulfilling her obligations becomes clear when we hear her backstory. When she was born, she was very sick and likely to die. No healers were capable of saving her, so her father pleaded with the spirits to save her. He took her to the oasis where the moon and ocean spirits live in the form of koi fish; they gave her life, and she took the name Yue, for the moon. Knowing that spiritual help made her life possible, Yue is aware that she owes the moon spirit a debt. Up to this point, it seems that she has repaid it by devoting herself to her people, who draw their power from the moon.
When Admiral Zhao kills the koi that embodies the moon spirit, Yue discovers the true nature of her debt and its payment. As Aang observes, “Without the moon, everything would fall out of balance. You [Zhao] have no idea what kind of chaos that would unleash on the world!” Yue figures out that she can restore balance by giving her own life to the moon spirit, and she recognizes this as her real duty. Aang defeats the Fire Nation armada using the Avatar State, but Yue ultimately saves the day.
The show deals with the topic of women’s sacrifice on a few occasions. For the purposes of this post, it would be best to limit the discussion to the situations in which a woman trades her life for the lives of others.
Kya performs the quintessential maternal sacrifice, giving up her own life to save Katara’s. What separates her death from those of a large number of fictional mothers is the fact that she includes the village in her bargain. She saves her child, but she also secures the safety of her people. However, the truly subversive aspect of Kya’s sacrifice lies in its consequences. She’s obviously fridged, but, while many stories would use her death to drive a man’s character development (either her son, Sokka, or her husband, Hakoda), A:TLA makes Kya’s sacrifice the foundation of Katara’s characterization.
Yue’s sacrifice is a little different. First, its most obvious narrative implications lie in its effect on Sokka’s character development, as her death and rebirth as the moon spirit at least superficially fulfill the requirements of a classic fridging. Sokka’s loss leads him to be overprotective of Suki because he believes that he should have done more to protect Yue. What the show neglects to address is the fact that, despite its effect on his life, Yue’s sacrifice had very little to do with him. She didn’t die because he failed to protect her; she died because she chose to give her life in service to something greater. The show’s focus on Sokka’s feelings, however understandable, nevertheless undermines Yue’s agency.
There’s a trend in superhero movies of the past few years, in which the individual white male hero performs the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the world. Captain America does it when he crashes the plane in the Arctic, Batman does it when he flies the nuclear bomb away from Gotham, and Iron Man does it when he carries the missile into space. Except none of them actually die. When iconic white male characters sacrifice themselves, they somehow manage to save everyone and live to take credit for it. When equally courageous women of colour sacrifice themselves, they stay dead, and the narrative tends to focus on the emotional response of the men their sacrifice affected.
Verdict: Supporting Role (because the narrative doesn’t spend nearly enough time acknowledging her as a person before it shows her to be a hero)