This post in the first in a series of planned posts on my favourite feminist characters and female role models in books and TV. Check back during the next few months for other posts in this series!
Earlier this year I was introduced to the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender by a friend. Since then, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking “why did I not know of this show before?”
A brief summary for those unfamiliar with the series, the opening sequence and voiceover tells you most of what you need to know: Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.
There are many things I love about Avatar. It’s a television show with a strong sense of social justice. It is set in an iron age/early industrial Asian/Inuit fantasy world and as such is filled with characters of colour. It highlights non-white cultures and spirituality. It explores issues of colonialism and imperialism intelligently and empathetically.
What stands out to me especially is that within three episodes, the show was firmly rooted in my head as feminist. The way that gender is explored is excellent, and the characters – both male and female – exhibit a range of personalities and behaviours that challenge and re-write gender-essentialist notions, and in a very obvious way. One character who especially embodies this mindset is Katara.
Katara is a young woman from the Southern Water Tribe, which has been strongly affected by the war. She is a girl and – despite blatant whitewashing by the (terrible) film adaptation – a person of colour.
Katara embodies many positive traits for female characters on TV – she is warm and caring, fiercely loyal to her family and friends, and generally a calming influence on her friends, especially Aang. She’s been described as the emotional heart of the series – and yet she’s more than just that. She’s also fierce and brave, and definitely won’t put up with any bullshit. She’s a warrior, teaching herself quite a lot of waterbending before starting any official training. Sometimes her loyalty turns into hot-headedness and aggression, and she can be a little vindictive. She is not the type to forgive and forget easily, and carries long grudges again people who hurt her or her friends.
There is no doubt that Katara is a balanced and multi-faceted character. However, Katara really shines for me as a feminist in two areas. First, she manages to balance being a nurturing, caring character as well as being a warrior. She shows us that you don’t have to be masculine, hard and emotionless to be a successful fighter, and that likewise, you don’t have to be all soft and stereotypically “girly” to be nurturing. She is both a warrior and feminine – and neither to the detriment of the other.
Secondly, she has a very strong sense of social justice, and she won’t stand to see people being oppressed without trying to help. She leaves her tribe to help Aang fulfil his destiny as the Avatar and to fulfil her own dreams of being a master waterbender. Wherever her travels take her and the rest of the gang, she is the voice of empathy and justice, encouraging people to speak out and fight back against their oppressors. She also readily and overtly points out sexism (and other -isms) where she sees them – something that doesn’t happen all too often in children’s television, or even in adults’ television.
Here are some of my favourite Katara moments: (here be spoilers, though they don’t relate too much to the overall plot)
- In the very first episode, Sokka tells Katara “I knew I should have left you at home. Leave it to a girl to screw things up.” Ha, see that sexist comment there? Katara’s reaction: “You are the most sexist, immature, nutbrained… I’m embarassed to even be related to you!” And then a long rant on unfair division of chores, etc. Yeah, you call out the sexism, Katara!
- A couple of episodes later, Sokka makes a stupid comment about “women’s work” while Katara is mending his pants. Which she then throws at his face and tells him to fix himself, if “women’s work” is so menial.
- In the episode Imprisoned, the gang inadvertently gets an earthbender names Haru taken to prison by the Fire Nation for using his bending skills. Katara feels guilty and gets herself captured in order to break him and other earthbenders out, motivating them to take power into their own hands and fight back against the Fire Nation guards.
- On a similar theme, in the episode The Painted Lady Katara pretends to be the patron spirit of a small village in order to provide them with food and heal their sick. Later she destroys a factory polluting the river which the village depends on, but realises her mistake when the Fire Nation punishes the villagers for this. She drives them off for good with her waterbending as the river spirit, but when the villagers realise that she isn’t the painted lady, they accuse her of appropriating their beliefs. Rather than getting angry, she apologises for doing so, even though she only wanted to help (which the villagers also eventually realise).
- In the final battle between Zuko and Azula at the end of Book Three, it’s Katara who steps in when Zuko is injured and manages to trick Azula, defeating her.
- The best for last: When the gang finally reaches the north pole so that Aang and Katara can learn waterbending, Katara is told that women of the Northern Water Tribe only learn to use their bending to heal, and are not allowed to fight. Katara challenges the patriarchal system by picking a fight with Master Pakku (the waterbending teacher), not backing down until he finally relents to teaching her. Victory to feminism! Here’s a video where you can watch the whole epic scene: