Avatar – The last air bender (Fire)

On the left is a crossed out picture from avatar by James Cameron, on the right there is a poster from Avatar-the last airbender. The caption reads 'When I say avatar, I'm talking about avatar, the last airbender.'

So that we are clear…

I recently watched the three books of Avatar – The Last Airbender. No, I am neither talking about the movie on the left nor this fail.
Now, I would like to tell you why I do not like the book of fire. This is, by the way, unfortunate because I really enjoy these series; the episodes are funny, they are not as obviously western-centric as other productions and there are cool female characters (yes, that is outstanding), cute strange animals and sweet bending skills.

[Sorry, spoilers ahead. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to write a version without spoilers due to the nature of the post’s content.]

First of all, the third book is less funny. This is a crime in and of itself. During the book, the female protagonists lose more and more of their agency, culminating in a lot of disappointing passivity in the final battle.

Here comes what bothered me as well:

In one episode, the female characters (Toph and Katara) pick a fight, they generally do not act like friends but only get along. This episode appeared totally constructed because the group is usually good friends but, out of the blue, the girls could not stand each other. Due to the fact that there never was a tension before, I felt uncomfortably pushed in the direction of “women cannot get along, they always fight and hate on each other. There is no way women can support each other and discuss anything productively.” This myth further alienates girls and women and is really harmful to the audience of these series, who are (apart from people like me) children and teenagers who are maybe infected by this crap.
With this episode, the producers went from the “we have an awesome group of friends” terrain into “we just pick up on real-life tropes and do not care about our message” country (yeah, awkward metaphor). That is disappointing.

Next point: Who’s breasts grew? Kataras! And why? WHO KNOWS. It is true, the friends are slowly becoming adults and I heard that women’s breasts sometimes grow in puberty, but hers are unnecessarily big by now (she is a teenager – do they really have to sexualize a teenager in a series that could live off its humor instead of teh sexay ladiez? Which by the way shows the female audience that they still have to be dead-on sexy instead of themselves, the latter being encouraged before this book).
I really appreciated how everyone always wore pants, even under their skirts and women displayed rather sensible armor (see the fire princess in battle), but women’s bodies became more and more disproportionate and less sensibly shaped (for, you know, stuff like breathing and standing upright without braking their back).
Some people may still not see any sexualization but what about this pointless scene in the episode with Toph’s and Katara’s “conflict”, where, when Soka and Toph talk about Katara, she overhears them while taking a bath in a lake? Yes, except for her naked shoulders and head, everything is under the water surface and her braids were lying over her imaginary breasts and maybe, just maybe, she even wore this white swimsuit surrogate, but you couldn’t tell. And I don’t get why this scene was even necessary because you can overhear people in a lot of places. And apart from this example, they usually managed to depict people bathing without having to hint at their nakedness.

When we’re still at problematic depictions of women, lets stop shortly at princess Azula’s. What was this shit with her going crazy? These last scenes were so offensive to me. It’s really hard to describe exactly how offensive. Where to start…

  • The only woman who is interested in power goes crazy.
  • Craziness as a trope in general, especially connected to women.
  • Women in general don’t want power – no, only crazy and dangerous women want power.
  • Azula is evil because of her “fate”. I’ll get to why this is not logical in a second.
  • When she is caught by Katara and tied to these metal bars, she lashes out and stares and screams and growls. This was the most offensive scene of the whole series to me and an inhuman depiction of the main-stream opinion on craziness. I could have puked.

So, like I mentioned, Azula is evil “because of fate”. There are no good reasons for people being evil, no, it’s in their blood or something.
The explanation goes a little like this: Azula’s and Suko’s grandfather, the former Fire Lord, went all “I will conquer the whole world”.
But when, all of a sudden, Zukos decisions were explained by the identity of his ancestors, things became completely ridiculous. Prince Zuko’s struggle to do the right thing which prompted him to go to the Avatar was explained with the difference in/of his grandfathers: Avatar Roku on the one hand and the evil Fire Lord on the other. Now think about it: He changes between being good and bad because there is the fight between the “good” and the “bad” side of his heritage. Okay. And Azula is his sister – not a half-sister, his sister. She has exactly the same heritage. And do her decisions resemble her brother’s? No, they don’t.
So why didn’t they follow the story ark they started with the party in the Fire Nation? The royal kids attend a party and afterwards, at the beach, each of them explains why they are like they are. Azula mentions that her mother always thought she’s a monster. I think that’s a good reason to have some inner conflicts. And it is much more sensible that she would have a problem with this fact than the “It’s all fate and bloodlines and shit”.
That’s why I was kind of disappointed they decided to take the easy road with “fate” and “Fire Nation people just are evil” (which doesn’t make a lot of sense in many episodes because they also meet harmless and nice inhabitants) instead of explaining their actions with their past and their family. That is how people actually work (i.e. they are shaped by their life experiences) and story telling which would have been less lazy.

The last thing I want to talk about, which I didn’t like, is the scene when the Fire Lord is finally defeated and Toph, Aang, Sokka etc. make fun of him. I know these are series for children and they are supposed to be funny, but you still have the duty to depict defeat in a human way and not forget you are writing about people. Fictional people, but still people. Like with Azula, they did not manage to walk the thin line in this final scene.
There just are situations which you cannot use to crack a joke. And this was one of them.

So the third book had several flaws which took the innocence of the characters away – taking the innocence away could have been logical in the context of the story because the protagonists are slowly coming of age and fighting a damn war, but that’s not what happened here. What happened is that the producers didn’t grasp the fine nuance between showing defeat and robbing a person of their dignity – which is problematic even if the person is “just” an animated character: people are watching and they are learning about compassion … or not.

2 Responses to Avatar – The last air bender (Fire)

  1. WM says:

    (…)

    I also just can’t help shake the feeling that you were nitpicking for every little thing that could be wrong with it and that bothers me. I’m probably very wrong about the nitpicking, since I don’t know you at all, however that feeling probably displayed itself in my post and if it did, sorry. I tried to edit it out, but if it’s still there, I was trying to keep it as low as I could.

    Anyway, I’m sure there are issues with the characters in Avatar. However, a single fight due to lack of sleep (when there had been multiple other fights between characters in the series), saying that they were useless in battle (…), and a sociopathic female character (accented by various other sociopathic male and female characters), is not nearly enough to count as a criticism in my opinion, not enough, honestly, for the tone of this post to really be warranted.

    [Heavily edited, Zweisatz 20.06.2012 08:40]

  2. zweisatz says:

    You know, I am nitpicking because I like the series. Because it’s very funny, clever and has great female characters compared to other shows. And that’s why I was disappointed with the Third Book – because I didn’t feel that it was as good as the books before due to the reasons listed above. Well “not as good as” is not really the reason I didn’t like it as much: because it was ableist and sexist (and less funny).
    I am still very much looking forward to the Legend of Korra and I still like the Legend of Aang, but I am also still disappointed with the Third Book.
    You also have to keep in mind that me writing about the bad parts doesn’t mean I didn’t think there were good parts. There were a lot of them! This text is only a sign of disappointment due to the rest.

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