In February 2005, Nickelodeon aired the first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Avatar takes place in an Asian-inspired fantasy world. Some individuals can manipulate the four elements with telekinetic variants of martial arts, otherwise known as ‘bending.’ The only person capable of bending all four elements is the Avatar. The Avatar is responsible for maintaining peace among the four nations and connecting the spiritual and physical worlds.
The series follows the story of 12-year old Aang, the current Avatar and the last survivor of the Air Nomads. With his newfound friends and allies, Aang fights to master all four elements and end the imperialist rule of the Fire Nation. The story also includes exiled Fire Nation Prince Zuko’s journey, who is tasked with capturing the Avatar to regain his lost honor.
Referred to as the greatest animated television series ever, Avatar: The Last Airbender presents several strong female characters. These characters break several gender stereotypes as they vary in appearance, skills, personality, flaws, and background. Regardless of the magnitude of their role, the female characters of Avatar are diverse and well-written with their own definitions of strength.
Rejection of sexist character tropes
Women in television are often categorized as conventional character archetypes, enabling the development of several misogynistic tropes. With its varying cast of female characters, Avatar differentiates itself by breaking away from the norm and rejecting these character stereotypes.
One such character is Katara, who, unlike standard television love interests, retains a storyline independent of the main character’s. Even though she is presented as a girl-next-door type, that is not all she is limited to. Katara’s combat abilities are also reflective of her emotions, with an emphasis on the development of skill, providing her with relevant character development as well.
Similarly, another character, Toph Beifong, is initially forced into the role of a damsel in distress due to her blindness. Though she is a champion earthbender, her parents choose to acknowledge her only as a helpless little girl. Her rebellion against her parents is almost symbolic; by running away, Toph rejects societal norms as well as the potential character trope she could have been classified as.
Even supporting characters in Avatar are not restricted to cinematic tropes. Among them is Ty Lee, who presents a ‘dumb blonde’ personality but possesses enough storyline to make her three-dimensional. Though Ty Lee is naively optimistic, she longs for a sense of individuality in the midst of six identical sisters. She is also one of the few characters that do not possess any bending abilities but remains a formidable opponent.
All of these characters possess storylines that are not dependent on the development of male characters. Rather, they retain realistic features and flaws that enrich the overall plot. The female cast of Avatar deviates from hyper-sexualization; though they are conventionally attractive, their appeal derives more from their personalities rather than their appearances.
Integration of diverse cultures and backgrounds
Compared to standard fantasy television, Avatar integrates a myriad of real-life cultures and ethnic backgrounds in its story. The influence of these ethnic cultures and backgrounds reflect in the appearances of characters as well. The warriors of Kyoshi Island don makeup and uniforms that bear a resemblance to those worn by Japanese kabuki actors and geisha. Water Tribe members possess darker complexions and dress in fur-trimmed anoraks, corresponding to the attire of indigenous people inhabiting Arctic regions. The spiritual practices of the Water Tribe are also similar to Chinese moon mythologies; most prominently, the appearance of Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe closely mirrors that of Chinese Moon Goddess Chang’e.
The diversity on Avatar not only limits to the onscreen characters of the series. A significant portion of the cast also originate from various ethnic backgrounds; in fact, several voice actors and crew members are of Asian-American descent.
The combination of these differing backgrounds in an American television show starkly contrasts the Eurocentric appearances adopted by most series. They’re also vital in providing the appropriate representation to diverse audiences.
Women, particularly of Asian, Hispanic, and Native American backgrounds, are critically underrepresented compared to their white counterparts. The emphasis on cultural representation on Avatar is prominent; the stories of characters from these four nations, though fantastical, embody the lives of real women who have been consistently marginalized, misrepresented, and excluded from television media. It is also evident that these efforts to provide representation is not merely for indulging international viewers. Avatar’s storyline is free of tokenizing women of color and centralizes on depicting accurate portrayals of these cultures with respect and appreciation.
Analysis of women’s rights, liberation, and oppression
Though Avatar highlights a variety of social issues, a topic of frequent discussion is women’s rights. Like many television series, Avatar is no stranger to on-screen sexism. However, how these issues are consistently discussed and often challenged in the show.
This was illustrated when Aang and his friends visit the Northern Water Tribe. According to the tribe’s traditions, women were denied from learning combative waterbending and participating in battle. Instead, they were forced into the role of healing and caregiving. The tribe also valued masculine traits over feminine ones; their soldiers and armory were prized due to previous victories in defending their homeland. The weight of discrimination in this arc was never about indulging the audience; instead, it presented a storyline that forces the acknowledgment of patriarchal ideologies and the oppression of women, all while developing the narrative.
A contrasting storyline introduces the Kyoshi Warriors, an order of women formed by Aangs’s predecessor, Avatar Kyoshi, originally intended to protect women. Unlike the Northern Water Tribe, the Kyoshi Warriors celebrate the liberation of women and ensures their safety in male-dominated spaces. These warriors, led by Suki, represent access to equal opportunity; though they are mostly women, there have been few men that have joined their ranks as well. They also prefer not to adhere to masculinity to seem tough. In actuality, the Kyoshi Warriors embrace their femininity and do not view gender as an obstacle.
Elimination of toxic masculinity and gender stereotypes
Avatar: The Last Airbender does not only celebrate women via their differing female characters but with their male ones too. One of the leading characters and Katara’s brother, Sokka, initially presents a misogynistic streak. His assumptions about women’s incompetency in battle, however, took a turn upon meeting Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors. Humbled by their skill, he pleads for their guidance and develops a respectful camaraderie with them.
Another such character is Pakku, the leading waterbending master at the Northern Water Tribe. He maintains that women should only become healers and adopt the position of nurturer. Nevertheless, his battle with Katara allows him to acknowledge her skills as a waterbender and accepts her as a student. Under his tutelage, Katara sets the foundation in removing cultural gender norms and becomes one of the first female waterbending masters.
There are several minor instances in Avatar: The Last Airbender that question gender norms as well. The main character, Aang, displays emotion openly and affectionately, which is stereotypically effeminate. Sokka also dons the traditional Kyoshi makeup and uniform when training with them. Another character, Iroh, enjoys traditionally feminine activities such as brewing and serving tea, despite his royal status. The integration of social commentary still provides characters with relevant storylines while refusing to pander viewers.
Further development of female characters
The lasting impact of Avatar: The Last Airbender extends beyond the television series and has cemented itself into today’s pop-culture. The original series paved the way for several other forms of media, and they provide the necessary character development for many beloved characters.
Most notable among them is Avatar: The Legend of Korra, which is a sequel series following the adventures of Aang’s successor, Korra, a female Avatar. Similar to the original series, The Legend of Korra highlights a number of distinct female characters with varying attributes. There have also been various Avatar comic series and graphic novels published. One of the more popular series is Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rise of Kyoshi, chronicling the life of Avatar Kyoshi. Recently, two more novels announced for release in 2021, focusing on Toph and Suki, respectively.
Even though it has been fifteen long years since Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered, the series remains beloved and highly recommended by many. Its progressive stance on women’s rights, as well as its list of complex female characters, have successfully appeased many viewers. These characters are a vital source of representation for younger audiences while also providing emphasis on significant teaching moments. The balance of heavy and light-heartedness has comforted children and adults alike, especially in the midst of today’s political climate. Additionally, its integration of social commentary into the story continuously inspires viewers and manages to resonate among newer generations as well.