your favorite character?” I hear that question come up a lot over Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show
particularly near and dear to me. Iroh and Toph get tossed around a lot. Zuko
is very popular. Sokka has his fans. But something I’ve noticed? Aang very
rarely gets the pick. When he comes up, it’s usually in that “Oh, and also…”
kind of way. Which is strange, I think, considering he’s the main character,
the titular airbender, of the entire show.
really thought much about it until a couple weeks ago when I finished my annual
re-watch of the series and found myself, for the first time, specifically focused
on Aang’s arc. Somehow, I never really paid that much attention to him before.
I mean sure, he’s front and center in most episodes, fighting or practicing or
learning big spiritual secrets, and yet, he always feels a little overshadowed.
Katara takes care of the group. Sokka makes the plans. Zuko has the big, heroic
Joseph Campbell journey. Aang…goofs around. He listens and follows and plays
with Momo. And yes, at the end his story gets bigger and louder, but even then
I feel like a lot of it dodges the spotlight. And here’s why:
Avatar casts the least
traditionally-masculine hero you could possibly write as the star of a fantasy
war story. Because of that, we don’t see Aang naturally for everything he is,
so we look elsewhere.
what I mean, I want to talk about some of the show’s other characters, and I
want to start with Zuko. Zuko is the hero we’re looking for. He’s tall and hot and
complicated. He perseveres in the face of constant setbacks. He uses two swords
and shoots fire out of his hands. He trains with a wise old man on ship decks
and mountaintops. Occasionally he yells at the sky. He’s got the whole
180-degree moral turn beat for beat, right down to the scars and the sins-of-the-father
confrontation scene. And if you were going into battle,
some epic affair with battalions of armor-clad infantry, Zuko is the man you’d
want leading the charge, Aragorn style. We love Zuko. Because Zuko does what he’s
supposed to do.
look at Katara. Katara doesn’t do what she’s supposed to do. She doesn’t care
about your traditionally gender dynamics because she’s too busy fighting
pirates and firebenders, planning military operations with the highest ranking
generals in the Earth Kingdom, and dismantling the entire patriarchal structure
of the Northern Water Tribe. Somewhere in her spare time she also manages to
become one of the greatest waterbenders in the world, train the Avatar, defeat
the princess of the Fire Nation in the middle of Sozin’s Comet and take care of
the entire rest of the cast for an entire year living in tents and caves. Katara
is a badass, and we love that.
about Aang? When we meet Aang, he is twelve years old. He is small and his
voice hasn’t changed yet. His hobbies include dancing, baking and braiding
necklaces with pink flowers. He loves animals. He doesn’t eat meat. He despises
violence and spends nine tenths of every fight ducking and dodging. His only
“weapon” is a blunt staff, used more for recreation than combat. Through the
show, Aang receives most of his training from two young women – Katara and Toph
– whom he gives absolute respect, even to the point of reverence. When he
questions their instruction, it comes from a place of discomfort or anxiety,
never superiority. He defers to women, young women, in matters of strategy and
combat. Then he makes a joke at his own expense and goes off to feed his pet lemur.
there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this, and it’s the one that
shielded Aang from the heroic limelight in my eyes for ten years. The reasoning
goes like this: Aang is a child. He has no presumptuous authority complex, no
masculinity anxiety, no self-consciousness about his preferred pastimes,
because he’s twelve. He’s still the hero, but he’s the prepubescent hero, the
hero who can’t lead the charge himself because he’s just not old enough. The
problem is, that reasoning just doesn’t hold up when you look at him in the
context of the rest of the show.
look at Azula. Aside from the Avatar himself, Zuko’s sister is arguably the
strongest bender in the entire show. We could debate Toph and Ozai all day, but
when you look at all Azula does, the evidence is pretty damning. Let’s make a
list, shall we?
completely mastered lightning, the highest level firebending technique, in her
spare time on a boat, under the instruction of two old women who can’t even
the drill assault on Ba Sing Sae, one of the most important Fire Nation
operations of the entire war, and almost succeeded in conquering the whole Earth
bested the Kyoshi Warriors, one of the strongest non-bender fighting groups in
the entire world, successfully infiltrated the Earth Kingdom in disguise,
befriended its monarch, learned of the enemy’s most secret operation,
emotionally manipulated her older brother, overthrew the captain of the secret
police and did conquer the Earth
Kingdom, something three Fire Lords, numerous technological monstrosities, and
countless generals, including her uncle, failed to do in a century.
did this all when she was fourteen.
part is easy to forget. Azula seems so much her brother’s peer, we forget she’s
the same age as Katara. And that means that when we first meet Azula, she’s
only a year older than Aang is at the end of the series. So to dismiss Aang’s
autonomy, maturity or capability because of his age is ridiculous,
understanding that he and Azula could have been in the same preschool class.
then accept Aang for what he truly is: the hero of the story, the leader of the
charge, who repeatedly displays restraint and meekness, not because of his age,
not because of his upbringing, not because of some character flaw, but because
he chooses too. We clamor for strong female characters, and for excellent
reason. But nobody every calls for more weak
male characters. Not weak in a negative sense, but weak in a sense that he
listens when heroes talk. He negotiates when heroes fight. And when heroes are
sharpening their blades, planning their strategies and stringing along their
hetero love interests, Aang is making jewelry, feeding Appa, and wearing that
flower crown he got from a travelling band of hippies. If all Aang’s hobbies
and habits were transposed onto Toph or Katara, we’d see it as a weakening of
their characters. But with Aang it’s cute, because he’s a child. Only it isn’t,
because he’s not.
his relationship with Katara, a landmark piece of any traditional protagonist’s
identity, Aang defies expectations. From the moment he wakes up in episode one,
he is infatuated with the young woman who would become his oldest teacher and
closest friend. Throughout season one we see many examples of his puppy love
expressing itself, usually to no avail. But there’s one episode in particular
that I always thought a little odd, and that’s Jet.
In Jet, Katara has an infatuation of her
own. The titular vigilante outlaw sweeps her off her feet, literally, with his
stunning hair, his masterful swordsmanship and his apparent selflessness. You’d
think this would elicit some kind of jealousy from Aang. There’s no way he’s
ignorant of what’s happening, as Sokka sarcastically refers to Jet as Katara’s
boyfriend directly in Aang’s presence, and she doesn’t even dispute it. But
even then, we never see any kind of rivalry manifest in Aang. Rather, he seems
in full support of it. He repeatedly praises Jet, impressed by his leadership
and carefree attitude. Despite his overwhelming affection for Katara, he
evaluates both her and Jet on their own merits as people. There is no sense of
ownership or macho competition.
this with Zuko’s reaction to a similar scenario in season three’s The Beach. Zuko goes to a party with his
girlfriend, and at that party he sees her talking to another guy. His reaction?
Throwing the challenger into the wall, shattering a vase, yelling at Mai, and
storming out. This may seem a little extreme, but it’s also what we’d expect to
an extent. Zuko is being challenged. He feels threatened in his station as a
man, and he responds physically, asserting his strength and dominance as best
go on and on. I could talk about how the first time Aang trains with a
dedicated waterbending master, he tries to quit because of sexist double
standards, only changing his mind after Katara’s urging. I could talk about how
Aang is cast as a woman in the Fire Nation’s propaganda theatre piece bashing
him and his friends. Because in a patriarchal society, the worst thing a man
can be is feminine. I could talk about the only times Aang causes any kind of
real destruction in the Avatar state, it’s not even him, since he doesn’t gain
control of the skill until the show’s closing moments. Every time he is powerless
in his own power and guilt-ridden right after, until the very end when he finally
gains control, and what does he do with all that potential? He raises the
rivers, and puts the fires out.
isn’t what he’s supposed to be. He rejects every masculine expectation placed
on his role, and in doing so he dodges center stage of his own show. It’s
shocking to think about how many times I just forgot about Aang. Even at the
end, when his voice has dropped and his abs have filled in, we miss it. Zuko’s
coronation comes and we cheer with the crowd, psyched to see our hero crowned.
Then the Fire Lord shakes his head, gestures behind him and declares “the real
hero is the Avatar.” It’s like he’s talking to us. “Don’t you get it?” he asks.
“Did you miss it? This is his story. But you forgot that. Because he was small.
And silly. And he hated fighting. And he loved to dance. Look at him,” Zuko
seems to say. “He’s your hero. Avatar Aang, defier of gender norms, champion of
self-identity, feminist icon.”
Zuko and Azula have the most fascinating relationship in ATLA
Sibling rivalry is often a trite story of one sibling hating the other out of jealousy. On the surface, the Zuko and Azula may look that way. They have no problem blasting fire and lightning at each other and both of their parents had a favorite. But there’s so much more to it.
First of all, I would argue that in spite of many near-fatal encounters, they don’t necessarily hate each other. It’s far more complicated than that. How they view each other is closely tied to how they view themselves.
For most of Zuko’s life, Azula is the standard he’s held to. She’s ambitious, ruthless, and a prodigy. No matter what he does, he can’t earn their father’s approval like she can. And she rubs it in his face constantly. When Azula is cruel to Zuko, Ozai affirms that she’s not wrong to do so. Zuko rarely argues with her because he’s been conditioned to believe she’s right. Zuko has internalized the blame for how his father treats him rather than project it onto Azula, and accepts how she treats him as normal. He has plenty of bitter feeling toward her, but none quite as clear as hate.
Azula’s view of Zuko is even more convoluted. The first time we see Azula, she’s smiling because their father is about to burn him. The next time they meet, she berates him for being a failure of a son. It looks like she enjoys watching him suffer.
But when Zuko helps “kill” the Avatar in Ba Sing Se, we get to see them in a new context. In the rare moments that they aren’t pitted against each other by the ever looming presence of their father… they actually get along fine.
Every time Azula appeared happy to see Zuko suffering, it was at the hands of their father. It wasn’t just that Ozai hurt Zuko, it what that Ozai hurt Zuko and not her. Every time Ozai insulted or injured her brother, it cemented Azula’s position as the favorite child. And she had to stay the favorite child because she’s seen what would happen to her if she wasn’t. Deep down, she knows just how conditional her father’s positive regard is. When Ozai leaves her in the Fire Nation while invading the Earth Kingdom, the first words out of her mouth are “You can’t treat me like Zuko”. Being better than Zuko is part of her identity.
When Zuko defects from the Fire Nation and begins to succeed without meeting, or even trying to meet, the standards set by their father, it throws her priorities into doubt. In her mind, Zuko is supposed to fail. But she isn’t truly unnerved until she’s betrayed by Mai and Ty Li.
She is incapable of understanding why Mai would chose Zuko, and this drags to the surface her inability to understand why her mother preferred Zuko. She believed her mother loved Zuko and not her. Now Mai, her closest friend, loves Zuko and not her.
This conflicts with her entire view of the world. She sees the worth of a person as equal to their quantifiable skills and accomplishments. She has been admired, respected, and feared, but as far as Azula believes, no one has ever loved her. She was a prodigy who did everything right, while Zuko was the family screw up. Yet people loved him and not her.
For years, being better than Zuko was how Azula measured herself. Ozai said Zuko was lucky to be born. That he was worthless, weak, disrespectful, and both his children believed him. When Zuko left, he finally saw that Ozai was wrong about him. When Zuko returns during Sozin’s comet, Azula too is forced to see that her perception is wrong.
Zuko has become the embodiment of everything she lacks. She thought he was weak, but he’s not afraid enough to fight her fairly as an equal. She thought he was dishonorable, but really he was independent enough to break away from their father’s control. She thought he was worthless, but he’s found people who care about him in spite of his flaws.
Azula isn’t just trying to kill him, but everything he represents. And when she can’t, she breaks. Zuko is still standing. She has nothing left.
Word of God (Bryke) confirmed that at the end of the Agni Kai, Zuko felt pity rather than hate for his sister. This continues into the comics as he genuinely tries to help her. He knows that while she may not have been overtly abused like he was, she was raised in the same web of lies, agendas, and violence.
Their past left them both unable to trust people. Azula controlled everyone around her with fear. Zuko shut other people out and tried to do everything on his own. It isn’t until Zuko has left his old life behind that he slowly begins to let people in.
While Azula hangs onto the beliefs of Ozai and the Fire Nation, Zuko can see their situation from the outside. He sees two screwed up teenagers who spent their lives fighting their father’s war, manipulated into a conflict that isn’t their fault, forced to kill each other over choices made a century before they were born. It took Zuko years to figure out the hell that was his home life wasn’t his fault, but only a few minutes to see that it wasn’t Azula’s either.
Fire Lord Ozai:
Here is my perfect daughter, Azula. She's prodigy in Firebending and has high abilities in war strategies and battlefield beside her unquestionably loyalty to me. She achieves anything I want her to accomplish even if I don't oreder her to. She was at the top of her class in the Fire Nation Academy for girls. But I don't have a room in my heart for her. And if she disappointed me, there'd be consequences just like the other child who failed me.
Here is my nephew, Zuko. I love him. He's angry and cute.
“Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history, and somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation. They don’t see our greatness. They hate us, and we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world.”
Can we just talk about how impressive this was and how well-written it was? I know I like to do a lot of critiquing meta, but I’m gonna do a positive one today. Zuko facing his father was a scene the entire series built up towards. Throughout the first two seasons, Zuko’s father is shrouded in mystery, and you only hear about him through the menacing memories Zuko holds, and the impersonal impression the world has of his tyrannical reign. But, in the third book, you are shown Fire Lord Ozai, and he isn’t this grotesque, horrific sight: he looks exactly like Zuko, but without a scar- older. That was a clever buildup and character design.
But, this scene never ceases to amaze me, nor does Zuko’s character arc. Zuko has been abused so severely. He’s been beaten down from his upbeat, lively, natural self that we see when he is little. When he is thirteen, and goes to the war meeting, we see a little boy who, despite the trauma of losing his mother, and being abused by his dad, is still eager, optimistic, loving, social, and confident. After his banishment, he becomes repressed, pessimistic, cold, more aloof, and painfully insecure, masked with arrogance that is expected in his culture.
Zuko has been locked in a palace with no interaction with any peers, or anyone his age, or anyone at all- except Azula’s little friends who were strung along into tormenting him, his mother, and from time-to-time: his uncle and adult cousin. He has been stripped of every ounce of confidence and optimism he had, yet his loving nature still shone through in the series. We could always tell that Zuko was repressing his sensitivity, and that he could not bring himself to cut off entirely his strong sense of empathy that got him into the situation of banishment in the first place. Ozai hated Zuko for his empathy, that was weak to the imperial Fire Nation. But, Zuko was bursting with it. He and Azula, have always possessed prowess in emotional intelligence, just in different aspects and choices of execution that parallel. Ozai perferred what Azula did with it. Nothing was weaker than compassion, and Zuko held it innately in his personality. We see it when he speaks with characters even before his redemption. When he interacts with his uncle we see it the most, when he just knows what his uncle is thinking and feeling before he even says it, even when he saves his crew, when he spares Zhao, when he helps Song, when he helps Lee and his family, when he opens up his heart to Katara, when his true, repressed nature comes to light when he frees Appa, when he overcomes his social anxiety from his abuse and palace sheltering and comes out with kindness to Jin- all of it.
And, Zuko finally speaks his mind to this man who cast him aside like he was nothing. This is the most difficult thing for an abuse victim to do. And, Zuko comes to a full realization through his abuse and struggles. He now realizes that he had been brainwashed by his culture- his father. His father hurt him, Zuko realizes he mustn’t blame himself. It’s his father, and it is his people who are hurting the world. This is a revelation wise beyond Zuko’s years, and not oft-noted enough the amount of intelligence, maturity, courage, and of course: honor this took. Zuko took out his father, not with a lightning bolt, but with swift eloquence and concise truths of humanity Zuko has, deep down, known all along.
Zuko deserves more credit. He overcame so much. He won, in the end. He overcame all his hardships, and got love. He gained back his confidence, and blossomed socially, gaining friends, something Azula never could do, and he accepted himself, something Azula too, could never do, and he regained his sense of hope for the world and optimism, something Azula could never hold. These parallels were so fascinating, showing two sides of what abuse can do, and how you can choose your own fate with your own actions, in spite of your maltreatment.
Zuko deserves more credit.
which is why the comics infuriate me for regressing on this, and the other characters arcs HUH HEMM, but this is a positive meta
Y’all, Ozai is so fucking extra he straight up plans a whole coronation ceremony for himself to become phoenix king complete with choreographed flag bearers and elaborate decorations and pyrotechnics which must have taken weeks to organize and doesn’t tell Azula just so his dramatic ass can have that reveal what a fucking dork