Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Last Waterbender

All screencaps:

When I became an aunt, I volunteered to compile a list of suitable children’s programming. Living in the age of DVDs, Blu-rays, and Netflix, I knew that I had decades of shows to draw from, and I wanted to pick the best of the best. To qualify, shows had to be enriching, empowering, and intelligent, though bonus points were available for sheer coolness. Above all these things, however, I looked for ladies.

The show that topped the list -- and the one that we’ll be analyzing this month -- is chock-full of them. Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world separated into four regions: the Air Temples, Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Water Tribes, analogous to Tibet, Japan, China, and Inuit territory. In each region, a significant percentage of the population is born with the ability to control their respective element. One person, the Avatar, can bend all four elements, and their mission is to maintain balance between the four nations and to serve as the bridge between the natural and spirit worlds. When the Avatar dies, he or she is reincarnated into a newborn baby of the next nation in order (Air, Water, Earth, Fire -- lather, rinse, die, repeat).

When we join the story, this cycle has been disrupted. The last Avatar, an airbender named Aang, disappeared, and in his absence, the Air Nomads became the victims of genocide at the hands of the Fire Nation. The Fire Nation selected the Water Tribes as their next target and, a hundred years after the eradication of the airbenders, only one waterbender remains in the south. This is Katara who, with her older brother Sokka, discovers the Avatar and joins his quest to save the world.

Katara is not only the first female character we meet, but the first voice we hear. She explains her world’s history in the opening credits of every episode, going into greater depth in the introduction to the pilot. It is her point of view that frames the show. In addition, she is responsible for breaking Aang out of the iceberg in which he was frozen for a century, thereby acting as a catalyst for his narrative. While the show is named for Aang, it is very clearly Katara’s story as well.

When we first meet Katara, she is fourteen years old and frustrated. She has a father who left two years earlier to fight the Fire Nation, a brother who dismisses her bending as child’s play, and a power that she cannot harness due to a lack of training. She is prone to outbursts of rage that are accompanied by uncontrolled displays of bending. Because bending requires specific movements, the fact that Katara can crack ice apart with nothing but the force of her righteous fury speaks to the depth of her power.

Katara’s storyline in the first season revolves around her quest to become a trained waterbender, as she defies the sexist traditions of her culture to achieve her dream. This quest begins in the first episode, when Sokka not only dismisses her bending ability as a weird trick that she should keep to herself, but blames her for the destruction of their canoe. “Leave it to a girl to screw things up,” Sokka says; Katara responds by calling him out on his sexist attitude and his dependence on her. When he tells her to calm down, she refuses, and her anger releases the Avatar from his iceberg. A:TLA explicitly has its hero enter the narrative through the force of one girl’s unapologetic feminist rage.

This arc reaches its conclusion in the final episodes of the first season, when Katara, Sokka, and Aang reach the Northern Water Tribe and its thriving community of benders. Having worked with Aang to develop her ability, Katara seeks a master to train her. Unfortunately, the best instructor available, Master Pakku, refuses her entry to his program. In the Northern Water Tribe, he tells her, female benders learn how to heal while their male counterparts learn how to do everything else. Katara rejects this model, saying, “I don’t want to heal, I want to fight!”

She soon gets her chance; Pakku dismisses her as a “little girl,” and Katara challenges him to a duel if he’s “man enough” to take her on. Aware of her own inferior bending technique and the reality of her inevitable defeat, Katara nevertheless chooses to face Pakku and forces him to fight her. She refuses to be dismissed and, while fighting, she exclaims, “You can’t knock me down!” It’s meant literally, as Pakku has just sent a torrent of water over her, but she intends for him to understand her full figurative meaning. She won’t give in, she won’t bow down, and she won’t be made to feel like anything less than what she is: an already accomplished waterbender who deserves the chance to master her element.

Still, it takes a plot device in the form of a necklace, representing the need to defy tradition when the tradition is flawed, to change Pakku’s mind. He takes Katara on as his student and, by the end of Book 1, declares her a master of waterbending (and the practical application of feminist rage). Because Aang has not been as diligent with his own studies, Katara becomes his teacher, serving another important role in the salvation of the world. By the end of the first season, she has achieved her lifelong dream, and she has done so by refusing to abide by men’s rules.

In a lesser narrative, this admittedly awesome moment would have been the zenith of Katara’s character development. She would have broken through the glass ceiling, struck down the most overt forms of sexism possible, and then settled into her role as Aang’s love interest. Having established herself as a Strong Female Character, she would never again have to prove that strength. Instead, the show uses its next two seasons to explore the nuances of her character, revealing an array of compelling strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions.

One aspect of the principal characters’ connection to their respective elements is the reflection of the properties of that element in their own personalities. Zuko is hot-headed, impulsive, and destructive, and Toph is tough, blunt, and resistant to change. Aang is gentle and generally non-combative, but his grief and anger have an almost cyclonic quality, sweeping him up and tearing apart the things that get in his way. Like water, Katara can assume a variety of forms, ranging from a nurturing caregiver who keeps the team together, to an inspirational force empowering the downtrodden, to a vengeful spirit committed to punishing wrongs.

The first form is best exemplified in “The Desert” and best described in “The Runaway.” In the former, the team is lost in a desert, having lost Aang’s flying bison, Appa. Toph is unable to see through the shifting sands, Sokka is high on cactus juice, and Aang is downright murderous. Without a firm hand to guide them, they would die and the information they carried would be lost with them. Katara takes it upon herself to save the group, saying, “We’re getting out of this desert and we’re going to do it together.” By remaining calm and helping her friends, she manages to get them out.

The remarkable thing about this episode is the ease with which Katara leads the group. As the oldest person with the most tactical know-how, Sokka tends to lead most of the time. As the Avatar, Aang takes the lead in official Avatar business. However, in a situation where staying together gives everyone a chance to stay alive, it is Katara’s status as the glue that allows them to survive.

In “The Runaway,” Sokka reveals that he relies on Katara’s strength and responsible nature. He describes the role Katara has played in his life since their mother’s death: “I’m not sure I can remember what my mother looked like. It really seems like my whole life Katara’s been the one looking out for me. She’s always been the one that’s... there. And now, when I try to remember my mom, Katara’s is the only face I can picture.” The show explicitly acknowledges Katara as the team mom, but at the same time, it defines the motherly role. It is not merely about nagging her friends or bossing them around, but about being the source of strength on which they can rely, no matter the situation.

Katara plays this role even for those outside the group of principal characters. In the first season, she gives a rousing speech in an attempt to motivate imprisoned earthbenders to rise up against their Fire Nation oppressors, risking her own safety in an effort to secure theirs. She tells Aang and Sokka, “I’m not leaving. I’m not giving up on these people.” In a third season episode, “The Painted Lady,” she echoes this sentiment: “I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me!” True to her words, Katara helps the people of a Fire Nation fishing village nearly destroyed by polluted water. Taking on the guise of a local legend, the Painted Lady, she becomes a superheroic force for good.

“The Painted Lady” also serves as the first in a triptych of episodes that encapsulate Katara’s Book 3 character arc. The arc focuses on the issues of revenge and forgiveness, culminating in Katara having to decide what to do to the man who killed her mother. In this first episode, Katara demolishes the factory that is pumping pollution into the river; she thinks that destroying the factory will save the town it has suffocated. Instead, she causes soldiers to invade the village, seeking vengeance for their lost property. They promise to “cure the world of this wretched village,” forcing Katara and her friends to save it once and for all.

Here, Katara inserts herself into the situation without considering the consequences of her actions. Thinking that she is helping them, she takes revenge in the villagers’ stead. Had Sokka not figured out what she was doing, she would have been responsible for the destruction of the village. While the episode’s primary message is basically “when helping others, first do no harm,” “The Painted Lady” also sets the stage for the show’s treatment of the destructive power of revenge.

In the second episode, “The Puppetmaster,” Katara and company encounter an elderly woman named Hama, who confesses to being the former last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. They bond quickly, and Hama offers to teach Katara the bending techniques of the south. Hama’s methods turn out to be quite destructive, as she teaches Katara to steal water from plants, leaving large swaths of dead, desiccated vegetation. On the night of the full moon, Hama explains that the most important technique she will teach Katara is one of her own invention. Having been captured during a Fire Nation raid, a young Hama was imprisoned and forced to live in terrible conditions which prevented her from using her bending. Eventually, she realized that life requires water and that animals are “nothing more than skins filled with liquid.” This led her to invent bloodbending, a form of waterbending that allowed her to control the movements of any other creature.

Initially, Katara rejects this teaching, saying that she doesn’t know if she wants that kind of power. Hama responds, “The choice is not yours. The power exists, and it’s your duty to use the gifts you’ve been given to win this war!” She appeals to Katara using their shared loss, reminding her that the Fire Nation is responsible for wiping out their culture. Then she goes further, including the death of Katara’s mother as reason for her to punish the Fire Nation. She reveals that she has been imprisoning civilians just as she and her fellow waterbenders were imprisoned. As she states, “We have to fight these people whenever we can, wherever they are, with any means necessary.” Finally, she asks Katara to continue to enact her revenge.

For Katara, this is a powerful appeal. She and her friends face nearly impossible odds in their battle against Fire Lord Ozai, and she stands to lose everything if they fail. Still, I think that it is the loss already suffered that most threatens to make her give in. Katara’s quest to become a waterbending master was, in part, about connecting to a culture to which she had been denied access, living as she did in a small village of non-benders. She never experienced the community of benders that Hama lost, and even the Northern Water Tribe is not a sufficient replacement. Beyond this loss, however, is the loss of her mother, Kya. As we learn in the final episode of the triptych, Katara is willing to do just about anything to avenge the death of her mother.

Still, she refuses to learn bloodbending, telling Hama that she will stop her. Hama bloodbends Katara, who manages to fight back due to the superior strength of her own bending ability. When Aang and Sokka arrive to fight Hama, she bloodbends them into a fight to the death. To stop this, Katara uses the technique on Hama herself; despite being untrained, Katara immediately masters waterbending’s most difficult form. In this moment, she essentially cements herself as the greatest waterbender in the world.

However, her moment of triumph is also a moment of defeat. Despite losing, Hama tells Katara, “My work is done. Congratulations, Katara, you’re a bloodbender.” Katara sinks to the ground, weeping. Katara may not have agreed to take up Hama’s crusade, but she now knows that she is capable of doing similarly terrible things. In a way, Hama has infected her.

In the final episode of the triptych, “The Southern Raiders,” we see that the infection has taken hold. At this point in the series, Zuko, who spent most of his time tracking down the Avatar in an attempt to regain his honour, has joined forces with our heroes. He has accompanied both Sokka and Aang on important personal quests, and he has proven his loyalty to them. He has not, however, earned Katara’s trust, and she has gone so far as to threaten to kill him if he steps out of line. She trusted him once before, and he betrayed her; she does not easily give second chances.

Her important personal quest is getting revenge on the Fire Nation soldier who killed her mother. Both Sokka and Aang try to dissuade her, telling her that she should forgive the soldier and move on, but Katara says that that would be impossible. When Zuko tells her to save her strength, she tells him that she has plenty: “I’m not the helpless little girl I was when they came.” Implicit in this statement and in Katara’s recollection that her mother sacrificed herself to protect her is Katara’s feeling of guilt. She has immense power now, but she couldn’t protect her mother when it counted. She had to rely on her mother’s strength so that she could one day increase her own. For Katara, a child who not only suspects, but knows that her mother exchanged her life for her own, it would be impossible not to think of her death as Katara’s fault. Tracking down and punishing the man who physically did the deed might allow Katara to feel less responsible.

This doesn’t mean that Katara is above doing terrible things in her quest for revenge and redemption, which becomes evident when Katara bloodbends the man she suspects is Kya’s killer. When it proves to be the wrong man, she appears disheartened, but not particularly remorseful. The weapon that once horrified her is now just another in her arsenal. Still, when she finds the killer, she uses only normal waterbending, which suggests that some of that initial reticence has been restored. She still resists becoming Hama’s successor.

When it comes time to make a decision, Katara decides not to kill the former soldier. She explains the situation to Aang: “I wanted to do it. I wanted to take out all my anger at him, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because I’m too weak to do it, or if it’s because I’m strong enough not to.” Aang tells her that she did the right thing, and that forgiveness is the first step toward healing. Katara replies, “But I didn’t forgive him. I’ll never forgive him.” She does, however, forgive Zuko.

This is a significant point in Katara’s characterization. Whole episodes are devoted to Aang learning how to let things go, and we know that he has had to overcome the loss of his people in order to become a better Avatar. We appreciate his thoughts about forgiveness because we know that he knows what he’s talking about. But Aang and Katara are very different people, and her inability to forgive is just as important to her character as his unwillingness to take revenge. After watching three seasons of A:TLA, the viewer knows that she holds grudges, that she has immense stores of rage, and that the loss of her mother has informed much of her personality. To take violent revenge would be to become Hama, but to forgive Kya’s killer would be to stop being Katara.

It is this Katara that defeats Azula, Zuko’s younger sister and the most compelling villain in the show. She risks her own life to get close enough to trap Azula in ice, then shackle her to a metal grate. Even against an Azula who is not at the top of her game, this is an impressive feat, considering the fact that she spends just about the entire time she’s on screen soundly thrashing Team Avatar. Katara also heals Zuko, the person she once described seeing as the face of the enemy. In this sequence, she displays the tremendous growth she has undergone as a person and as a bender.

I should mention that Katara accomplishes all of this while technically being Aang’s love interest, proving that the best kind of love interest is one who is just as dynamic and interesting as the main character. My major complaint about their romance -- other than the fact that they are really, really young -- is that we generally see it only from Aang’s perspective. In these scenes, Katara tends to transform into the Mysterious Girl, a creature whose sole aim in life is to frustrate the male character who just wants her to stop seeing him as a little boy. The most explicit commentary we hear from Katara on the subject occurs in “The Ember Island Players,” when she tells Aang that she is confused and wants to focus on more pressing matters like, you know, the battle that they’re about to fight. When the show ends with a kiss between Aang and Katara, it feels like the culmination of a major arc in his storyline, and nothing more than a subplot in hers.

Finally, it is important to note that, voice actor and film casting notwithstanding, Katara is a young Aboriginal woman. She is not only an active, compelling female character whose value to the narrative goes far beyond her function as a love interest, but a strong, intelligent, nuanced woman of colour. She represents a fictionalized version of a population that is too rarely depicted in mainstream television and film, and the Fire Nation’s attempts to eradicate Southern Water Tribe culture and disempower its people echo a very real oppressive history. As a character, Katara is not only strong, but important.

Verdict: Actual strong female character

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