Some spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender episode 18 season 1!
Last week I discussed two characters–Sokka and Katara–from Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender who gave viewers some feminist/sexist scenarios in the beginning of the first season. In the end, while Sokka threw around phrases like “girls are better at domestics than guys” and “leave it to a girl to mess things up,” he wasn’t what I’d call a serious sexist–rather, he was just naive. However, toward the end of the first season there is a full-blown sexist introduced. If you’re asking yourself “What the heck is she talking about,” hopefully the comparison I’m about to give you will explain.
So, I’m going to give you a little background that’s vital to the discussion. After Sokka and Katara find the long-lost Avatar, Aang, Katara begins her journey with him for two reasons: 1) Katara is perhaps Aang’s biggest supporter in the beginning and wants to help him–the Avatar–who could bring balance to her war-torn world, and 2) She wants to master the skill of waterbending. (For those of you who don’t know, “bending” is a skill that enables the “bender” to manipulate one of the four elements–water, fire, earth, or air. Each type of bending is inspired by a type of real martial art so, when one seeks to master bending, it’s like mastering a martial art with the addition of magic.) Katara works hard on her own to improve her skills, but she wants to truly learn and master it. Since no other waterbenders exist in her tribe, she’s forced to look elsewhere for a teacher. Luckily, Aang must master waterbending as well, their goals coincide. These two motivations are important to what’s about to happen, especially the latter.
At the end of the season, Katara and her friends at last reach another tribe where they should have no problems finding a master to teach them, the Northern Water Tribe. This is the sister tribe to Sokka and Katara’s, but it’s a very different society; while their tribe has been badly battered by the war, reducing the tribe to a small group who live in tents, the Northern Water Tribe has managed to elude much damage from the war and is a thriving city complete with fortification, canals, and other grand structures. As the kids will find out, the look of the society isn’t the only thing that’s different from their tribe.
Aang finds a skilled waterbending master in the tribe by the name of Pakku who agrees to teach both Aang and his friend. But when it is revealed to Pakku that this friend is female (Katara), he flat-out refuses to teach her no matter what she says or does and without even seeing what she can do. It’s a bombshell to Katara. In Pakku’s society, it’s not just that women don’t learn to bend, but that they aren’t allowed to. Remember, bending is essentially a martial art so, basically this society doesn’t let women learn to fight. Rather than learn to fight, girls like Katara who have the skill to bend are sent to learn how to heal. Thus, Katara is sent off to the healing hut with all the other women where, as Pakku says, she belongs. Once again, this show uses infamous cuts against women to portray sexism. Perhaps some people may find it cheesy to use such old phrases like that, but for me those are very telling statements that show viewers just how old-fashioned Pakku and his society are in their views of a woman’s role. While Sokka and Katara’s tribe may have had a traditional breakdown of jobs for men and women (as I mentioned in my last post), their tribe didn’t have the rigid traditions and societal rules that bind the people of the Northern Water Tribe. Master Pakku has grown up and grown old in this setting, creating a more deeply rooted sexist belief in him. Comparatively, Sokka is much younger when his beliefs are challenged and again, his were developed more from immaturity and naivety rather than having been pounded with the idea ever since he was born.
After coming such a long way to learn, Katara is frustrated, but isn’t about to let customs stop her. Her undeterred desire to learn to bend and determination not to let silly customs stop her eventually leads her to trouble within the society. When she’s asked to apologize to Master Pakku for disrespecting his customs, her patience snaps and she tells him off, even challenging him to a fight to the shock of everyone. She knows she can’t win the fight, but she has something to prove. What ensues is one of my favorite moments where Katara’s pure determination and raw talent is pitted against Pakku’s stubborn ways and seasoned skill. Katara’s reactions to the injustice being done to her are excellent and very satisfying, making this episode was one of my absolute favorites. Honestly, for every scene I come across in fiction where I’m willing a female character to do something only to be disappointed for the umpteenth time (you know, like how you keep telling the heroes/heroines in scary movies not to go check on that noise in the basement?), I should just pop this episode in, sit back, and enjoy. Because unlike damsels-in-distress and other stereotypes, seeing a female character stand up for herself and take action on her own will never get old. For those of you who want to see this scene play out for themselves, here’s a link to the second half of the episode which includes the scene. (Sorry! It’s the best I could do since all the other videos out there are dubbed over with mismatched music.)
So, getting back to the two guys I’ve been talking about, while Sokka is able to open his eyes and learn once his ideas of men and women are challenged, Master Pakku is not willing to accept something that challenges his long-held belief system. In the end, he does reconsider his beliefs, but it takes a lot more effort to do so. For those of you who feel like it’s not very realistic that one girl could change this stubborn man’s beliefs, you would be right. That’s why the Avatar: The Last Airbender doesn’t do that. The fact is that all of Katara’s efforts are not what gets him to reconsider, but other circumstances lead him to realize his mistake.
Avatar: The Last Airbender managed to present the issue well without villianizing people or diluting the issue down. All the scenarios are classic–girls can’t fight, being told to swallow their pride, etc.–and that played out affectively. They’re classic for a reason as these beliefs and scenarios go way back in history and women had to make a huge effort to debase them. Some people still believe these old, washed-up ideas. It’s very satisfying see Katara and other female characters from the show hold strong against sexism, not allowing others to knock them down. I applaud the people behind Avatar: The Last Airbender who weren’t afraid to tackle the issue and did so in a way that really conveyed the emotions and thought processes of those on both sides well. And while sexism is really only brought up in the first season, there are plenty of empowering moments for the show’s female characters. As the creators said in a commentary for an episode in which another great female character is introduced, they don’t make “token” female characters; they create female characters who are vital to the story. “In many cases, [the girls] kick more butt than the guys do.” admitted one of the co-creators of the show (commentary for episode 6 season 2).