Light spoilers ahead!
I recently watched the entire Avatar: The Last Airbender series for the first time, after years of people telling me I would love it. And you know what? I did love it.
The series’ three seasons chronicle the journey of 12-year-old Avatar Aang as he struggles to master all four elements and defeat the evil Fire Lord. The series has been lauded for its depiction of Asian culture and tradition, and for being awesome in general.
Part of this awesomeness comes from the show’s female characters. Though the world of Avatar is patriarchal (an unnecessary detail, I thought), women play a huge role in Aang’s journey–by helping and hindering. Women also help and hinder each other, fall in love, fight in the war, and go through their own character arcs as fully-fleshed heroines and villainesses.
Let’s take a look at the women who make Avatar awesome:
I actually wrote this paragraph last because I did not know where to start! Katara is Aang’s confidant and first friend after he awakens from being trapped in an iceberg for 100 years–awakened, in fact, by Katara’s unhoned waterbending skills. Throughout the series, she becomes a waterbending master herself, and trains Aang during their travels. Katara grapples realistically and sometimes painfully with growing up during a war, mastering her craft (as both a warrior and healer), and facing off with enemies and friends. Katara is a kindhearted caretaker, but as we can see in many an episode, she has her faults and never falls into an angelic trope.
Here’s another character who you won’t see being accused of being an angel! Toph Beifong is an obtuse but gifted earthbender. Toph was born blind, and she senses vibrations in the ground to help her see the world around her. She becomes Aang’s earthbending teacher and begins to travel with Team Avatar after escaping her parents, who believed she needed to be “protected” (read: isolated from the rest of the world forever). Toph knew being blind shouldn’t stop her from making her own choices. She becomes a vital part of the crew in season two (after learning to get a long with others) and is the inventor of metalbending.
This badass villainess arrives on the scene in season 2 in a blaze of blue lightning. That’s right, Azula’s so powerful she can bend lightning, and does so to great effect. She pursues Aang & Co across lands, leaving destruction in her wake and enjoying herself the whole time. She strikes fear into the hearts of everyone around her, partially because of her combat skills and partially because of her ruthless, relentless nature. Azula is pretty sure of her own greatness and it’s hard to disagree after watching her kick ass and keep Aang on his toes.
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We meet Suki in the fourth episode of the first season, and she pops up many times afterward. Suki is a sworn Kyoshi Warrior, but she leaves Kyoshi Island to help with the war effort–and to support Team Avatar wherever necessary. Suki is the second woman (after Katara) to put Sokka’s sexism soundly in its place by showing him what powerful women are capable of. (The patriarchy in Avatar is always solved in the same way: by proving women can fight, too! This method is simplistic but I guess it is a kids’ show.) None of the Kyoshi Warriors (all women) have any bending abilities but they can definitely hold their own in a fight–by using their opponents’ strength against them.
The Northern Water Tribe’s heir to the throne, Princess Yue wants to escape her arranged marriage and structured life. What I love about Princess Yue’s storyline is that it’s resolved without Yue being rescued by another love interest, as so often happens in arranged-marriage storylines. The resolution is tragic and yet, Princess Yue finds a way to be true to her people and her own desires, and become a hero of the Water Tribe.
Love anime? We also recommend Seirei no Moribito. Read our review.
Mai & Ty Lee
Princess Azula’s henchwomen are her two former classmates, whom she rounds up to help her capture the Avatar and her traitorous brother, Zuko. What’s cool about Mai and Ty Lee is that neither of them are benders. Like Suki, they must rely on superior fighting abilities (Mai likes throwing stilettos, Ty Lee is an acrobat who uses chi blocking to immobilize opponents). But, like many other characters on the show, Mai and Ty Lee have a choice about which side they’re on and will have to make decisions about where their loyalties lie.
Past Female Avatars/Empress Ursa/Hama the Bloodbender/Gran Gran/the Painted Lady/and more…
I’m not going to write about each of this women because they are smaller characters, but I do want to give them a short shout-out. These female side characters have roles and personalities vastly different from each other, and are some of the best examples of how well Avatar represents women.
Instead of just having a fantastic, but solitary, female lead (like many other shows), Avatar has a wealth of women characters with separate agendas. These female characters forge lives in the fictional world as diverse as those real women lead, and it’s very awesome to see them represented.
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12 thoughts on “The Amazing Women of Avatar: The Last Airbender”
Great post! I would like to clarify though that it is primarily the Water tribe that shows blatantly sexist and patriarchal values. The Earth and Fire nations seem to treat their women as equals. They can fight in the war, and– as in the Fire Nation’s case– hold positions of power if it is in their birthright to do so.
*Minor spoiler for Korra*
Although come to think of it.. during Korra’s time there was an Earth Queen in power. I’m not sure if it was a traditionally common practice or if the Earth Kingdom’s views just changed over time between Aang’s time and Korra’s time but…there’s that at least.
Good point–I guess little details (like Azula going to an all-girls school, or Toph’s treatment by her parents) read patriarchal to me. There’s also an absence of women if you look at groups of warriors or people in power (Dai Li, Aang’s friends at the Southern Air Temple). But overall you’re right, there’s nothing as overt as in the Water Tribe.
Good, now go watch Legend of Korra! It’s even better!
*waits for hardcore original series fans to start throwing things at me*
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I’ve definitely heard mixed reports on Korra! I still might go for it though…
Haha, I agree! Love Korra, so much girl power. 😛 But I think I will give The Last Airbender another chance though after reading this. ^^
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I’m not going to lie, I skipped over most of this because I don’t want spoilers. I’ve been hoping beyond hope for this series to be on Netflix. I saw the first season on Nickelodeon back in the day and then stopped for some reason. I feel a desperate need to finish what I started.
Get it from the library! It’s definitely worth it!
The Avatar shows have fantastic women in them! They are all shapes and sizes too! It’s hard to pick a favorite.
You made me realize I barely mentioned the physical/cultural diversity! But it definitely plays an important role and you’re right, makes it hard to choose a fave.
Awesome post! There really are so many amazing female characters in Avatar. Princess Yui’s story was one of my very favorites, glad to see you included it=)
Thank you! I love her story, and the animation of those episodes is fantastic!