Ok, I just have to come out and say it; I love Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’ve loved it ever since I watched the premiere episode for this show back in 2005 on Nickelodeon. The artwork is beautiful, the storyline is perfectly balanced with drama and humor, and the characters captivate and develop wonderfully over the series’ three seasons. It’s one of those rare forms of fiction that comes along that can still bring all the emotion and excitement on the second or third viewing as it did on the first. The other nice thing about Avatar: The Last Airbender is its ability to be relatable and be liked by a very large age group–the creators of the show managed to bring us a story with complex issues without either dumbing it down (my sympathies go out to those parents who most see more and more potty joke-filled, impossibly immature kids’ movies) or trying to make it “more adult” by adding unnecessarily graphic content.
I could go on and on about this show, but rather than prattle on too much, for this post I’ve decided to narrow down my focus to the first season. While the entire series boasts a great cast of strong female characters and plenty of shining moments for them, the first season is particularly interesting for its dabbling in sexist/feminist scenarios which surround two of the main characters, Sokka and Katara. From the very first episode, these two introduce the issue so, I want to look at three particular examples.
To start, for those of you who don’t know, the basic story of this show is in a world divided between four nations–Water Tribes, Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Air nomads, each with their own ability to “bend” a.k.a. manipulate an element. One person is able to control all the elements who is called the Avatar is supposed to keep the peace and reincarnates after death. But 100 years before the start of the show, the last Avatar vanished, no new Avatar came, and the Fire Nation began a war to take control of the other nations.
When we first meet this brother and sister, they’re living with their war-battered tribe (the Southern Water Tribe) in an environment much like the South Pole. These two are the oldest children in the tribe (both are in their mid-teens), their mother has passed away, and their father is away with all the men of the tribe left two-years prior on a war mission, leaving a lot on these two’s shoulders. With that in mind, on this particular day, Katara has accompanied her brother on a fishing trip in a tiny canoe floating along in silent waters with large glaciers scattered about them. In typical brother-sister fashion, the two get into a fight and this momentary distraction leads the two to getting stranded on an iceberg. Within the first several minutes, this show is already introducing the audience to the dynamics of Sokka and Katara relating to sexism/feminism. Sokka puts the blame on Katara, saying he should have left her at home and, as a final insult, “Leave it to a girl to screw things up!” Now some of you reading this might roll your eyes at this. “Big deal. No brother has ever said that before.” Well, sadly these little jibes are the types of prejudice most people had in past centuries and some still cling to. For example, I’m reading a non-fiction book called Mistress of the Vatican about an Italian woman named Olimpia Maidalchini, a powerful woman credited with being the mastermind behind Pope Innocent X, and during her time (1600s), Sokka’s rather juvenile jibe was believed so strongly that according to Eleanor Herman (the author), “There was an Italian saying of the time–‘to make a girl,’ which meant failure, disaster, plans gone awry.” (11) (For any history buffs that are wondering, that’s a great book so far.) So, while it seems a silly taunt to many people, statements like the one mentioned in Avatar have been quite harmful. This show brings up those G-rated but detrimental beliefs at various times throughout the first season, including comments about how girls are better at domestics and guys are better at bringing food to the table and fighting.
Katara doesn’t let these comments slide though. Avatar: The Last Airbender is actually a pretty humorous show so, Katara’s retorts to her brother are often a nice mix of sarcasm/humor and spot-on point. (One of my favorite scenes is a scene where while Katara is stitching back together a hole in his pants, Sokka says one shouldn’t bother a girl when she sews. Katara demands to know why Sokka says girls specifically which is when he explains girls are naturally better at domestics. Suddenly, Katara beams. “I’m done with your pants! And look what a great job I did!” she announces cheerfully, holding up the pants to show the gaping hole in them.) In the scene I mentioned above, Katara actually blows up at Sokka. Her bending skill unintentionally activates because of her anger, cracking open the large iceberg behind her to reveal the lost Avatar (named Aang) who had been frozen inside. He’d been lost for 100 years and probably would have continued to be if Katara hadn’t gotten mad and used her bending. Thus, in a sense Katara is rewarded for her outburst against Sokka’s unfair sexist comment.
Sokka, however, doesn’t embody deeply rooted sexism, but rather ignorance. Perhaps because of the environment he grew up in where the break up of work is more traditional, Sokka has accepted this as the natural order of things. I know, it’s shocking, but he just doesn’t believe his younger sister when she says otherwise. It takes others to prove him wrong–a group of nimble female warriors that kick his butt to be exact, but once they do, he’s able to reconsider things. After Katara, Sokka, and Aang are ambushed and captured by this group of female warriors, Sokka makes excuses for why he, a guy, could have been outdone by girls and continues to insult the warriors. But when he attends one of the young women’s practice sessions as a guest and is once again completely outmatched, he begins to change. Sokka is not so steeped in beliefs of women’s inferiority that he can’t open his mind to new ideas. He changes his feelings of humiliation at being beaten by a girl into an opportunity to learn from someone–even if she is a girl–who is more skilled than him and apologizes for his behavior. This ends the sexist comments from Sokka who develops newfound respect for women.
In my next post, I going to continue this talk about Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s handling of sexism and compare Sokka’s more ignorant sexism to the sexist beliefs of another Avatar character whose sexism is derived from his culture’s rigid traditions.