From the South Pole Iceberg to the Republic City Portal: A Critical Study of the Avatar Franchise: Part Three

In which Iroh and Zuko consult a map, Aang plays with some marbles, and Sokka wears a dress.

So it’s basically the “girl power/ sexism is bad episode”, right? No?

First off, let it be noted that I have next to no problem with episodes of television that certain sections of largely male fandom will dismiss as either “girl power” or “sexism is bad” episodes, mostly because the depressingly large swathes of that type of fandom will act like “Oh great, it’s the ‘Girl Power’ episode” is a legitimate criticism of episodes of television like “The Warriors of Kyoshi”. I’ll also defend the type of episodes that simply celebrate girl power or point out that sexism is bad because those are still (sadly) rare to see on television, and good, valuable things for a show like ATLA to do. But I think this episode and its exploration of gender politics takes on so much more depth than those descriptions suggest.

It’s worth examining what the show has done with regards to gender so far. At this point, it has seemed to follow the often used model in genre fiction where there is one significant female character in the main cast in Katara, and the world itself (see the original Star Wars trilogy as a prime example of this model). However, it is worth noting that the show has already created a wonderful female lead within this model – Katara is given narrative weight as the narrator and the viewpoint character of the show, and it has been hinted that she is on a similar journey to Aang, as both head towards the Northern Water Tribe to learn waterbending. And she has already been given a wonderful amount of complexity, with hints of her grief at losing her mother, her maternal nature, and her ability to fight past her limitations already having been demonstrated throughout the first three episodes. And of course, she had her wonderful takedown of Sokka’s sexism in “The Boy in the Iceberg”, a character note that is picked up on for both characters (though mostly Sokka) in this episode. The show has demonstrated through Katara that it can treat its female characters with real respect, but this episode shows what it can become as it slowly moves away from the “One female character of note” model.

The episode does so on the largely female space of Kyoshi Island, a place founded by the last female Avatar, protected by a female warrior troupe who style themselves after Kyoshi, and it’s a notable fact that these are the first group of non-bending fighters we meet. Kyoshi Island also acts as the setting for the show’s first “The Gaang visits a village” episode – a type of episode that is particularly prominent throughout season one (although it is still used in the later seasons as well). And this female space, defined by the figures of Kysohi and Suki, becomes a place for a deconstruction of the harmful masculinity demonstrated by the male leads.

The deconstruction of Sokka’s problematic values is in evidence from the beginning of the episode, as we see a repeat of pattern from the opening scene of the series, as Katara calls him out on his sexism by hurling back the trousers she was sewing for him unrepaired after he casually makes a gender stereotype. It’s an interesting moment because, as well as being a fun joke, it demonstrates how limiting Sokka’s ideas of gender roles are for him – he considers sewing a woman’s job, but after insulting Katara by vocalising these thoughts, he is left stranded, and unable to help himself, because he’s always considered himself above learning what he considers a female role. It’s an effective demonstration of how Sokka’s brand of toxic masculinity is ultimately self destructive.

Yet Sokka persists in his attitudes, being unable to  accept his capture at the hands of the Kyoshi Warriors, downplaying the idea that women can be strong until he is confronted with the inadequacies of his attitudes face on (or rather, with his face on the floor). However, as was noted in my first post, Sokka has always had the capacity for redemption in the fundamental decency he shows when he faces down the Fire nation ship and when he helps Katara rescue Aang in “The Avatar Returns”.  And after being humiliated by Suki, it is this decency, and not his pettiness, that shines through: Sokka kneels down before Suki as a mark of respect, admits he was wrong, and admits he would be honoured if she would teach him. And being taught by Suki allows him to embrace a more healthy attitude towards gender that embraces both the traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine aspects of himself: he learns to fight, but does so in the style and garb of an all-female warrior troupe, with the moment where he starts to embrace wearing Kyoshi-style robes being more of a revelatory moment than him becoming proficient at Suki’s fighting style. Yet even at the end of the episode, Sokka needs reminding that “warrior” and “woman” aren’t mutually concepts. He has been internalising the fact all episode, but his goodbye to Suki is the moment his attitudes truly change.

The episode is also interesting for the figure of Kyoshi herself, who offers the earliest possible revelation that the Avatar Spirit can be reincarnated into male and female bodies. Aang (on the whole) embraces this spirit, being comfortable with more traditionally feminine activities, a prime example being the “Maybe instead of saving the world, you can go into the jewellery making business”/ “I don’t see why I can’t do both” exchange from “The Fortuneteller”. Similarly, he happily shares the fact that he used to be Kyoshi with the people of the village, demonstrating his comfort with having a female past life. Notably, this is the first time we truly see Aang embrace the role of the Avatar.

However, this leads to a deconstruction of Aang’s performative masculinity, and the way being the Avatar feeds his ego. As this essay on the first episode of the series points out, Aang is incredibly comfortable performing in the female gaze for the female gaze, which is largely a positive thing. However, in this episode, Aang doesn’t perform within the female gaze, but instead actively seeks female attention to feed his ego, in particular the attention of an increasingly unimpressed Katara. This decision results in the Gaang staying in Kyoshi Island long enough for Zuko to burn down the Village, and for Aang to end up getting hurt by the Unagi, and need rescuing by Katara, who saves Aang with another piece of brilliant improvisation within her currently limited bending skillset. In the episode, Aang falls into a form of masculinity that is harmful to himself and the society around him. And Aang is only able to save the day by rejecting the hyper masculine “stand and fight” mentality, and listening to Katara’s advice, just as Sokka rights his toxic masculinity by learning to listen to Suki. He also saves the village by riding the Unagi not out of a desire to feed his ego, but to right the wrongs that desire caused: Aang gets rid of the harmful masculinity that caused damage, and replaces it with the desire to right his mistakes that makes him a hero.

And that’s “The Warriors of Kyoshi”: a story where a female space becomes a place for male characters to reevaluate the harmful aspects of their constructions of masculinity. It’s a wonderful little episode.

End of Part Three.

101 Things I Love About ATLA

Goal: Write 1 thought every day re: why I love ATLA

#1: The volleyball game in “The Beach.”

Leave it to Azula to ruin a casual game of volleyball on the beach by bringing in hyper-competitiveness and destructive firepower.  Just look at her scheming with her buddies here to exploit all of the enemy’s weaknesses:

When Azula serves, she means business.  Just look at her intense serve-face here:


Finally, just look at Azula’s precious game-winning face, which goes perfectly with her victory speech:

Yes, we defeated you for all time! You will never rise from the ashes of your shame and humiliation!

One of my favorite Azula moments ever.