so... back to this series again... what would young children and other viewers in general of ATLA have learned from a zutara relationship in place of a K@taang and m@iko?
One of the reasons Zutara is a superior narrative to the canon ships is that it supports the preexisting messages in the show, as opposed to creating a new message that contradicts previously established themes. Here are a few ways Zutara strengthens and reinforces the show’s messages:
1. Balance. Avatar the Last Airbender is all about balance. The people of the Four Nations have strengths and weaknesses that play off each other in a beautiful counterpoint in the Avatar world.
Koh: Tui and La, your Moon and Ocean, have always circled each other in an eternal dance. They balance each other… push and pull… life and death… good and evil… yin… and yang.
Zuko: You rise with the moon. I rise with the sun.
Aαng and Katara don’t have a balanced relationship. On Aαng’s side, the relationship is one-sided because he pines for her while never allowing Katara to know how he feels. On Katara’s side, the relationship is one-sided because Katara spends much more time and energy catering to Aαng’s emotional needs than Aαng spends catering to Katara’s.
But in order to have balance, you must first have …
As Katara grows in her waterbending abilities, she is shown to be more and more Zuko’s bending equal. Zuko and Katara have comparable amounts of drive and determination, a moral code that gets challenged as they go through their journeys, and are two of the most developed characters in A:TLA.
Mαi and Zuko are completely unequal in terms of characterization.
Mαi never goes through a redemption arc, realizes she was wrong about the Fire Nation, or treats the people around her any better at the end of the show than she did at the beginning. And it should be noted that unlike with their canon love interests, Zuko and Katara spend about equal amounts of time in the show being “in the wrong” or “in the right” when it comes to their interactions. In Mαiko, Zuko is always the one to blame, and in Aαng always gets irritated when Katara refuses to follow the wisdom of the monks.
3. Redemption. A large part of the show focuses on redemption–not just of Zuko, but of the Fire Nation as a whole. Things that went terribly wrong in the past can be rectified. Relationships that failed in the past can be restored. This is the point of the Avatar Roku/Firelord Sozin dynamic that foreshadowed Zuko and Aαng. If the “Cave of Two Lovers” had foreshadowed Zutara as it was likely intended to early on, it would have carried this message through flawlessly.
So it always baffles me when canon shippers make the argument that Zutara shouldn’t happen because of the Crossroads of Destiny, or because he captured her in the past. Zuko did far worse things to Aαng than he ever did to Katara, and yet the former end up best friends. And Katara gets, not a redemption arc, but a forgiveness arc with Zuko, where she lets go of her hatred that has been poisoning her ever since she was little. With Mαiko, not only does Mαi herself never get fully redeemed; Zuko going back to Mαi at the end of the show means going back to a superficial relationship based on attraction and gift-giving, rather than substantial principles in common. It’s jarring to see next to the rest of his peerless character path.
4. Freedom of destiny.
Aαng: You didn’t really see love in my fortune, did you? You just told me what I wanted to hear.
Aunt Wu: I’ll tell you a little secret, young Airbender. Just as you reshaped those clouds, you have the power to reshape your own destiny.
Iroh: You know, Prince Zuko, destiny is a funny thing. You never know how things are going to work out. But if you keep an open mind and an open heart, I promise you will find your own destiny someday.
Sokka: What about us? [Meaning Sokka, Toph, and Suki] What’s our destiny today?
Iroh: What do you think it is?
Aunt Wu: I feel great romance for you. The man you’re going to marry… Katara: Tell me more!
Aunt Wu: I can see that he is a very powerful bender.
[later in the episode]
Sokka: Man, sometimes I forget what powerful bender (Katara’s expression instantly changes at this, remembering Aunt Wu’s words) that kid is.
Katara: Wait, what did you just say?
Sokka: Nothing, just that Aαng is one powerful bender.
Katara: I suppose he is…
One of these things is not like the others. And the only reason to disturb the ongoing A:TLA lesson of choosing your own destiny, is for Kαtααng to happen at the end of the show.
It also doesn’t help that the canon ships BOTH have hints of the endgame pairings when at least one of the people is still very much a child.
These characters are too young to be dating! They do not have the mental and emotional wherewithal to choose their romantic destiny when they haven’t even started adolescence. Freedom of choice is an essential theme of the Avatar world; it’s just a pity the romance gets so little of it.