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Posts Tagged ‘Sokka’

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.

Katara

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.

Left: Southern Tribe/ Right: Northern Tribe

Master Pakku

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.)

waterbending-master-cart-c.html

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).

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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.

Katara & Sokka

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.

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