Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Knife Thrower and The Circus Freak

All screencaps:

Imagine, if you will, living in a world partially populated by superhumans. They can magic buildings into existence, burn down houses with a gesture, freeze people to death, and fly. The more powerful among them can rip apart metal with their bare hands, conjure up lightning, control other people’s bodies, and even remove powers from other superhumans. Surrounded by powerful beings waging a century-old war, is there any way for a normal person to stand out?

The answer offered by Avatar: The Last Airbender is an unequivocal “yes.” Sokka becomes both an excellent swordsman and the brains behind massive offensive maneuvers. Suki plays an instrumental role in a number of dangerous missions. Yue sacrifices herself to save the world. June can fight off multiple attackers in a barroom brawl while holding her drink, and not spill a drop. Many of these characters are among the premiere fighters in the show, but none of them are likely to go up against a powerful bender and come out with a win.

That distinction is reserved for Mai and Ty Lee, the two girls that the greatest firebender in the world calls on when she needs extra firepower. With their respective long-range and hand-to-hand combat skills, they might be more likely than Batman to beat Superman in a fight.


The first thing Mai says is “There really is no fathoming the depths of my hatred for this place,” and this sets the tone for both her personality and character arc. The place in question is Omashu, an Earth Kingdom city recently conquered by the Fire Nation. Mai is there because her father, an important Fire Nation noble, has been appointed its governor. Despite the excitement inherent in a move to a recently conquered city -- assassination attempts by rebellious locals seem to be common -- Mai is bored.

While she claims that nothing happens in Omashu, Mai nevertheless keeps herself prepared in case that changes. An impossibly good knife thrower, she uses the long folds of her clothing to conceal knives of at least five varieties, as well as spring-loaded holsters on her wrists and ankles that shoot arrow-like stilettos. The first time we see her demonstrate her skills, she is chasing after Team Avatar, having misidentified them as rebel assassins. She makes them work for their escape and, when the group disappears into the ground, she sighs at the loss of her entertainment.

When Azula arrives, Mai jokingly hopes aloud that Azula’s there to kill her. Instead, she offers her a part in a mission, and Mai accepts before Azula can elaborate. At this point in her story, Mai appears cold, unable to care about anything but the rare thrills that break up her dull existence. She impassively watches as hoards of plague-ridden citizens fill the streets, going so far as to eat the Fire Nation equivalent of popcorn while looking down at them. Later, she accepts Azula’s logical observation that the return of Mai’s baby brother is not worth the loss of a powerful earthbender king; accordingly, she calls off the deal, leaving her brother with the enemy. Even fighting sometimes fails to make Mai feel, as she observes after temporarily beating Katara and Sokka: “I thought when Ty Lee and I finally caught you guys, it would be more exciting. Oh well, victory is boring.”

Her emotional distance isn’t explained until the third season, in an episode called “The Beach.” After depicting Mai, Ty Lee, Azula, and Zuko’s attempts to be normal, the episode culminates in a soul-baring session. When pressed to reveal her childhood trauma, Mai initially refuses to admit that she has any. She recognizes that her privilege made her life easy, but goes on to describe the stifling rules that that privilege imposed on her: “I was a rich only child who got anything I wanted. As long as I behaved… and sat still… and didn’t speak unless spoken to. My mother said I had to keep out of trouble; we had my dad’s political career to think about.” Azula sees this upbringing as the reason why Mai is afraid to care about anything and incapable of expressing herself.

Azula describes the Mai of the second season, but she appears to have missed the development that Mai undergoes in the third. For the vast majority of the second season, Mai is Azula’s faithful soldier, carrying out her orders. On the two occasions that she defies any part of Azula’s plan, it’s because her task is unpleasant or inconsequential. Still, it’s worth noting that Ty Lee obeys every order without question, so when Mai engages in these minor acts of defiance, they mean something. This becomes clear when she refuses to jump into a slurry of water and earth, saying, “She can shoot all the lightning she wants at me -- I am not going in that wall sludge juice.”

Although Mai says this in a very offhand manner, it’s not hard to believe that Azula would have threatened to electrocute her friends. A flashback episode shows us that Mai served as a target for her firebending on at least one occasion. Later in the third season, it’s confirmed that Azula controlled both of her friends by making them fear her, so it’s important to note that Mai was displaying signs of rebellion even when she seemed to be loyal to Azula.

The catalyst for the change from subtle to overt rebellion is the return of Zuko. Her romantic interest in him dates back to a childhood crush and, after his return, they resume the relationship they appear to have had before his banishment. It quickly becomes clear that unfeeling Mai feels very strongly about Zuko; when he observes that she’s beautiful when she hates the world, she tells him, “I don’t hate you.” With him around, she becomes more optimistic and enthusiastic, even trying to cheer him up on a number of occasions. He also makes her angry, and she expresses this emotion more freely around Zuko than she likely ever has with anyone else. He is the one thing she loves, and the one person with whom she can express herself. In that sense, her relationship with Zuko proves Azula wrong.

Even though he is the one thing she values, Mai is willing to end their relationship when Zuko disrespects her. When his jealousy causes him to start a fight, she calls him out on his uncontrollable temper. He responds with a condemnation of her lack of passion, and she shuts him down. Later, she comforts him after he admits that he’s angry at himself; he comes to terms with the source of his rage, and she reveals that she is passionate about him.

This is what ultimately allows her to break free of Azula. In “The Boiling Rock,” Mai confronts Zuko for the first time following his departure from the Fire Nation. She is livid about the letter he left in place of a goodbye, saying, “You could have at least looked me in the eye when you ripped out my heart.” He tells her that his leaving wasn’t about her, but about the Fire Nation he hopes to save from itself. She responds that he’s betraying his country, and the argument is left unresolved. She has confirmation that he values his country more than he loves her, and the country that he wants to save is the version that exists in his head. To stand by him is to stand against her family and her country. At this point, she has no real reason to take his side.

And yet she does. When his life is threatened, she risks her own life “saving the jerk who dumped [her].” Azula had been willing to let him die, and she is shocked at Mai’s betrayal. She asks for an explanation, and Mai says, “I guess you just don’t know people as well as you think you do. You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you.” For her actions, Mai is locked away. When she eventually gets out of prison, she reunites with the newly crowned Fire Lord Zuko, rewarded for her rebellion with love and the presumed title of Fire Lady.

Now, normally I’d be more than a little leery about supporting a character arc that ends with a woman betraying her female friend in the name of her love for a man, but there’s a lot more to Mai’s story than its basic description would suggest. Firstly, she explicitly chooses love over fear, knowing that she will suffer for her choice. As a person whose character initially revolved around her hatred for her situation, Mai demonstrates enormous growth by consciously deciding to embrace positive emotion. Perhaps more importantly, by defying Azula, she eliminates the last set of rules that restricted her. Once she forces Azula to punish her, she frees herself from the fear of punishment that would otherwise have regulated her actions. Although it seems a bit contradictory, her imprisonment liberates her.

Verdict: Actual strong female character

Ty Lee

The first time we meet Ty Lee, she’s looking at Azula upside down while balancing on two fingers. As in Mai’s introduction, it’s difficult to imagine an image that could more perfectly introduce the character and her arc.

Like Mai, Ty Lee is one of Azula’s childhood friends, her minion dating back to their days at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. She is something of a girly girl, wearing pink and flirting with boys (even the ones on the opposing side). In the Mean Girls-style trio, Ty Lee is “the dumb one;” if Mai’s hair is so big because it’s full of secrets (and knives), Ty Lee is the friend who’d offer to take you to Taco Bell when you’re feeling down.

The show subverts this trope by making Ty Lee the most brutally efficient hand-to-hand fighter in the series. Ty Lee’s intelligence is most clearly expressed in movement, as she demonstrates on a number of occasions a keen ability to read others and exploit their weaknesses. In this sense, she’s similar to Azula; while Azula uses her words to attack psychological soft spots, Ty Lee literally hits a nerve in order to paralyze her opponents. Her most impressive ability is chi blocking, a martial art that uses direct blows to pressure points on the body to disrupt an opponent’s chi flow. In practical terms, this means that Ty Lee can not only paralyze people, but temporarily prevent benders from accessing their bending. After their first fight, Katara claims that Ty Lee is the scariest member of the group. While she says this before getting her own chance to battle Azula, it’s still a pretty powerful endorsement of Ty Lee’s ability.

We meet Ty Lee when she has left her life as a nobleman’s daughter behind to run away and join the circus as an acrobat. Azula thinks that Ty Lee’s chosen lifestyle is beneath her and offers her the opportunity to go traitor-hunting with her. Ty Lee declines, saying that her aura has never been pinker. This is the first and last time Ty Lee explicitly refuses to obey Azula.

By the next scene, it’s not hard to see why. Azula spends the entirety of Ty Lee’s performance persuading her friend to accompany her. Unfortunately, Azula’s method of persuasion involves lighting the safety net on fire and releasing all of the circus’ dangerous animals into the big top. When Azula visits her friend in her dressing room after the performance, she insinuates that she will ensure that the routines will become increasingly dangerous until Ty Lee decides to join her. In the spirit of self-preservation, Ty Lee observes that “the universe is giving [her] strong hints that it’s time for a career change.” When the two girls arrive in Omashu to recruit Mai, she expresses disappointment at the news that Ty Lee has left the circus; Ty Lee had said it was her calling. Ty Lee replies that “Azula called a little louder.”

This concession reveals the pattern of their relationship, as it becomes more and more obvious that Azula is the dominant force in Ty Lee’s life. In the flashback episode, we see Ty Lee paired at all times with Azula, who is simultaneously bully and best friend. When Ty Lee flawlessly performs an acrobatic trick that her friend botched, Azula shoves her to the ground. A moment later, she is whispering in Ty Lee’s ear, planning a game that will humiliate both Zuko and Mai. Throughout the second season and into the third, any task that Azula assigns to Ty Lee is as good as done the moment she says it. This includes missions as dangerous as taking out an elite earthbending squad, which she does both cheerfully and decisively. It is almost as if Ty Lee cannot fathom a world in which she tells Azula “no” and gets away with it. Considering Azula’s violent reaction to Ty Lee’s initial refusal to join her, this approach to their relationship makes sense.

Because we rarely see Ty Lee outside of Azula’s influence, it is difficult to tell just how much of her friendliness toward the princess is based on genuine affection and how much of it is based on fear. When Azula makes a pun about the Kyoshi Warriors, Ty Lee applauds her wit. When Azula outlines her plans to stage a coup in Ba Sing Se, Ty Lee tells her how much she admires her confidence. Even as Azula adds another set of soldiers to her entourage in the form of the Dai Li, Ty Lee praises her speech as “pretty and poetic but also scary in a good way,” all while pouring her tea. It is difficult to determine the ratio of actual feeling to concern for her own safety, and Azula’s own ambiguous feelings toward Ty Lee merely complicate the situation.

The most revealing treatment of their friendship occurs in “The Beach.” One of the conceits of the episode, as explicitly stated by Lo and Li, is that “Ember Island reveals the true you.” In Ty Lee’s case, her true self appears to be an attention-obsessed heartbreaker who manipulates boys into serving her with no real intention of reciprocating their affection. It’s a far cry from the girl who unquestioningly obeys her friend’s every command. In this situation, she has the power, and she is more than willing to use it. However, she is unpracticed in the art of control, so she tries to appease the boys with assurances that she likes them all before eventually knocking them out in order to get away.

Ty Lee turns to her friend for confirmation that her sheer likeability drew in the boys, but a jealous Azula tells her that she’s a tease and that the boys don’t actually care who she is. Ty Lee is hurt, and Azula offers her what turns out to be her only apology of the series, admitting to her own jealousy over Ty Lee’s ease in conversing with boys. Regardless of her motivation, Ty Lee is a good friend, and she immediately offers to help Azula with her problem.

Later, on the beach, Ty Lee is forced to confront the reasons for her attention-seeking when Zuko calls her a circus freak. She proudly claims the title, telling her friends that she joined the circus to escape from a house where she was one of seven identical sisters. She felt that she lacked an individual identity, and she admits to being terrified that she would live her life as part of a matched set. The attention she seeks now is the attention she lacked growing up. This desire might also help to explain her friendship with Azula; being the chosen friend of a princess likely goes a long way to cementing one’s popularity, even at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls.

Ty Lee’s defining moment occurs just after Mai’s, when she defends Mai against Azula at the Boiling Rock. After Mai betrays Azula, the two girls prepare themselves for what would clearly be a fight to the death. A visibly troubled Ty Lee stops the fight before it can begin, using her chi blocking to paralyze Azula. In this moment, Ty Lee appears to relinquish her image of Azula as “the most beautiful, smartest, perfect girl in the world,” replacing it with a truer vision of a violent, destructive girl who rules others with fear. The upside down Azula has been turned right side up, and this is a version of her that Ty Lee can no longer support. Like Mai, she goes to prison a free woman, no longer a slave to Azula’s will.

This, in and of itself, would be a good ending. Ty Lee could wait out the war in jail and return to the circus, safe in the knowledge that Azula has been defeated. Instead, she joins the Kyoshi Warriors. Now, I will readily admit that Ty Lee is a strangely ambiguous character; while Mai’s story is straightforward, Ty Lee’s relies in part on the viewer’s interpretation of Azula’s character, and that can fluctuate wildly across audience members. Still, I don’t understand how it could be considered a victory for a girl who felt like she’d lost her own name to join the show’s most obvious matched set. With the exception of Suki, we know nothing about these girls, including their names. I suppose that it might have been an effort to show that Ty Lee has overcome her need for attention, but that is a pretty hollow victory when the admirable goals of establishing an identity and achieving recognition as an individual suddenly no longer matter. While Ty Lee’s arc includes a journey from obedience to freedom, it also depicts a young woman who has found happiness and self-fulfillment giving it up to become exactly what she was trying to escape.

Verdict: Strong Female Character™ 

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