The Night Circus and Amatonormativity

Whaaaat Are You Talking About

Amatonormativity: the prevailing belief that romantic relationships are universally desired by all people and that they are preferable to other, nonromantic relationships

Sucky for a lot of reasons, but mainly because there are aromantic people in the world. That’s people who don’t feel romantic attraction, or who feel romantic attraction rarely or only in certain contexts.

For a nice, concise, fairly topical, real-life example of amatonormativity in action: did you watch the ice dancing? Did you see Virtue and Moir? Did you see all the ravenous speculation about how even though they’ve always said that they’re not a couple, they must be dating, they must be having sex, how could they not, it’s not like acting is a major component of ice dancing or anything…

I roll my eyes, but I also understand, sort of. I get it, you got swept up in the dances. They’re very good. They make us all feel things. Great. But hey, if it really does turn out that they’ve been telling the truth this whole time and they’re just a man and a woman with a super close, supportive, platonic friendship that can remain a platonic friendship even during occasional three minute stints in which they stare at/touch each other like they really wanna so that they can up their artistic score, well, that’s good. Because When Harry Met Sally was wrong and men and women can and should be friends, close friends, even. Not everything needs to be a romance.

In Fiction

So, there’s this article talking about how Voldemort, with his infamous lack of interest or perhaps even lack of ability to love, is pretty much the aromantic character in Harry Potter and he’s also the guy who wants to murder a baby so that he can adequately chop up his own soul.

I don’t really agree with the thesis here, because I’ve always read Harry Potter as centering, first and foremost, friendship. Harry’s survival is thanks to his mother’s love for him, and after his parents are gone it is Ron and Hermione, neither of whom he is attracted to, who are most important to him. He has a special bond with Molly Weasley as well, who treats him like he’s her own son.

When Harry finally reveals himself to Voldemort in their final battle, it’s to stand in front of Molly when Voldemort turns to kill her. He’s saving Molly, not Ginny. After the battle, Harry sees Ginny but lets her be for the moment, choosing to seek Ron and Hermione out instead. Friendship and the love between a parent and child. That’s they key thing Voldemort doesn’t have time for – or, actually, that’s the stuff he devalues so completely that he thinks it’s a good idea to spend much of his time killing peoples’ friends, children, and parents – and why, according to Dumbledore, he is ultimately defeated.

People asked JK Rowling throughout the years whether Voldemort ever dated, and her answer was always, “Um, no. He totes wouldn’t even ever have been interested.” The thing is, people who do evil things in real life often do form romantic and sexual attachments and relationships, but in literature it always seems strange to have the evilest of the evil date someone. And that is probably absolutely entirely because of amatonormativity. If romantic relationships are the best thing ever, even, maybe, the only thing that really matters, why would evil people take part in them? Surely they would be too evil to understand how great they are, and, if evil people did get into a romantic relationship how could they remain evil?

So. Even though I think every time Dumbledore said, “Harry it’s cool, you’ll beat him because you can love and he can’t,” he wasn’t talking about romantic love, yes, Voldemort being so very clearly aromantic is kind of a buzzkill.

Buuuuut I love Harry Potter for its depiction of friendship. It’s top notch on the topic of friendship, and bless JKR for that. Harry PotterIt, and AvatarThe Last Airbender/Legend of Korra are stellar for friendship. Sure, there’s romance and sometime sex, sometimes even eleven-year-olds having sex, but it’s mostly about how great and important and life-saving and world-saving friendship is and I’m giving them all props for that.

(also I think Charles Weasleton and Sirius Black are aroace and awesome, but only Charlie’s ID was *sort of* confirmed, in an interview, post the Deathly Hallows release, so I guess they don’t count)

(but they’re totally aroace and awesome I don’t care)

the night circus 3

The Night Circus: Sales Pitch

Hi.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is one of the best fantasy/magical realism books I’ve read in a long time. It’s stylish, in it’s chic third person present tense, with the occasional chapter in second person present tense. When I read third person present in other books, and so far the only other books I’ve read in third person present are the Sidekick Squad books by C.B. Lee, it drives me up the wall. But not here.

It has beautiful, mystical, magical, romantic prose. When I read super stylish, super romantic prose, and mainly I’m thinking of anything by Anna-Marie McLemore, it drives me up the wall. But not here.

(C.B. Lee and Anna-Marie McLemore are still very good though, I’m just a little picky. I like Rowling prose, OK? Sweet and super simple. Leave me alone.)

The prose is… it’s… it’s just flawless. Reading this book is like eating a giant piece of this cake. Or this cake. Or – oh. Oh wow. OK so it’s like all of those, I can’t decide. Just all of them. It’s very decadent, and very good, is the point I’m trying to make.

I want to go to the Night Circus. I want to live there. It feels real, it feels beautiful and magical and just a little bit dangerous, and it’s been a very, very long time since I’ve fallen so hard for a fictional, magical world.

the night circus2

The Night Circus: Alas.

Here’s the thing, though.

The entire circus itself is created in order for the two protagonists, Marco and Celia, to have an arena in which to compete. The competition is deliberately vague: they basically just have to create magic things, different tents, different showcases, and they have to keep all of the people they’ve roped into the endeavour relatively safe and happy while they battle it out. Both are set on this journey by overpowerful completely cold-hearted ancient father figures when they are powerless children. They grow up, learn their different styles of magic from their different mentors, and then they start battling it out.

But, wouldn’t you know it, they’re both super hot young adults and they fall for each other. He falls first, she’s sort of resistant until she just can’t ignore how intensely he burns for her, you know, typical stuff. And because of this, the fairly vague competition turns into basically just them writing love letters to each other in the form of circus exhibitions and being completely impressed by each other’s magical prowess. Mostly he’s impressed. Typical stuff.

I’m not aromantic, and, more importantly, I’m usually a sucker for this sort of thing. I’m pretty sure, even not being aromantic myself, that you can be a huge fan of cutesy but still extremely intense romance stuff even if you don’t feel romantic attraction or if you only feel it sometimes. Anyway, what I wanted to get at is this: this is fine. It’s fine. It’s great. I’d normally love it. I did quite like it, I guess, as it is.

But, I’d read the “Voldemort as aromantic is super problematic” article first.

And.

So.

Here’s the thing.

There isn’t… really… like… any friendship in this.

There are two sets of twins, I’ll grant.

Here’s the thing about that: in the older twins’ case, they’re two fabulous ladies, two members of the really awesome group of people who found the Night Circus. One of the other members, some guy, is trying to determine which one of them he’s more in love with. Happily for all three of them, one of them dies. She goes to that some guy and asks why none of them have aged in the ten years since the circus began, and he sends her to Marco’s mentor, who compels her to accidentally walk in front of a train. And then the second twin and some guy start dating.

I make it sound sort of suspicious, like some guy wanted one of them to die to make his choice simple. I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But it’s just rather weird to me that, well, this is what happens to one set of twins. Like. Some guy is in love with both of them, trying to choose. And then. One of them dies. Like. What?

The younger twins are a boy and a girl. Widget, the boy, says and does normal, overly precocious literary child things that no real child would say or do. Poppet, the girl, says and does normal, overly precocious literary child things that no real child would say or do, and she also falls in love with some other boy who shows up to save the day at the end.

I’ll be honest: I’d be a little less annoyed if it had been Widget falling in love and Poppet just got to do her own thing in the end. But I’d still be slightly annoyed. There are a handful of scenes with the brother and sister being together, but their relationship isn’t as real as I’d like, and most of their scenes include Bailey, the boy Poppet falls in love with. And there isn’t a reason for her to fall in love with him. From Bailey’s perspective, she’s an exotic circus girl who is super nice to him, so of course he falls in love with her. I’m not saying he needs to be the most interesting manboy in the world for her to fall in love with him but there’s no exploration of how she feels about him at all. It’s just supposed to be a given, I guess, that she’d like him.

The only other relationship that has any sort of significance and that isn’t a romance is the one between the enigmatic contortionist Tsukiko and Isobel, the woman who is in love with Marco and who Marco is not in love with but he doesn’t tell her that until near the end (of course). But we only see glimpses.

And then the villains. Mr. A H- and Prospero the Enchanter, who both enjoy teaching children how to do magic so that they can compete with the rival’s student until one of them eventually dies. Prospero is Celia’s father. After she and Marco have sex, Prospero follows her around and calls her a whore a bunch of times, telling her she’s weak, she’s better than all of that, he’s extremely disappointed in her, he’s probably manipulating her girlish heart and of course doesn’t feel anything real for her, those feelings are for lesser people to indulge in, etc.

Tsukiko is a former winner and student of Mr. A H-‘s. Her opponent was another woman, and the competition between the two of them was also basically just a giant magical romance sexytimes fest. She says something along the lines of, “It’s been great being here, it’s the only thing that comes close to reminding me of the bliss I felt when I was magically intertwined with my long lost love, etc.”

Eventually Tsukiko’s magical girlfriend killed herself to end the game because she couldn’t bear to go on living if she’d have to live without Tsukiko. And Celia and Marco do the same thing sort of. It ends with Bailey saving them somehow. I’m still very confused about how that works, because to me, Bailey seems like a competely boring blank slate moderately enthusiastic fan of the circus, so why he’s ultimately the key to saving the circus and preserving Celia and Marco in eternal ghostly love is sort of beyond my capacity to understand. But boring rando saviours are not my topic today. And if they were, I’d much rather talk about the complete and utter bullshit that was Bard the Bowman being the guy to take down Smaug randomly near the end of The Hobbit. WTF forever, Tolkein, that sucked. But the Luke Evans version of events is fine.

MORE IMPORTANTLY is that even though reading this book was freaking delightful, by the end of it I was more than a little bit tired of how central and all-encompassing all of the sickening romance of it all was. I’d have liked there to have been just a little tweaking; just give Celia maybe one friend (one that doesn’t want to bone her because she does in fact have a friend and we never see her side of that friendship, which was platonic, we only see his, and he mostly wants to bone her) (sigh); give Marco a friend instead of a poor hopelessly devoted woman he continues to lead on despite being thoroughly uninterested in her; highlight Poppet and Widget and their sibling fights and mischief, things that would be more realistic than just having two precocious literary children being sagely and dull. There’s a super old glamorous lady who is (of course) entirely desexualized along for the ride too; give her something to do other than making knowing comments to Celia about how much Marco wants to bone her.

There is one conversation between Celia and the surviving fabulous lady twin in which surviving twin has figured it out and knows that Celia is somewhat responsible for her sister’s death, and she calls her out on it magnificently. That conversation was one of the highlights of the book and left me in awe. That’s the sort of thing that’s sorely missing from the rest of it: evidence of love that exists beyond and outside of romance and sex.

Regarding the Tsukiko revelation, also, at first, I thought, “Oh good, finally, a queer romance on top of all of these straight ones,” but then I thought, “Naaaah, we don’t see it at all, and one of them is tragically dead and the other one is tragically stuck living forever without the love of her life. Typical.”

I think it’s unfortunate that the book centers the romance in such a way as to basically overshadow even the possibility of other kinds of love being worthy of mention. I’m not trying to say that romance shouldn’t be the focus; rather, if the characters had been allowed to have other relationships that made them happy, other relationships that fulfilled them in other ways, the exploration of their romance would have been enhanced.

My evidence for this is the two and a half Courtney Milan books I’ve read. And Harry Potter. Courtney Milan writes straight-up romance, and there are always friendships and family relationships while the super sexy romance stuff is the main focus, and the other relationships always complement the romance nicely.

In Harry Potter, it’s much easier to feel the pain of loss when characters die even if they aren’t, like, Harry’s lovers. It’s easier because it has been established, thoroughly established, that friendships and family bonds matter and losing people you love, even if you don’t love them romantically, is excruciating.

Adding friendships and family relationships enhances everything. It makes everything deeper, and ultimately it makes it more real, because our lives are enriched by all of the people who matter the most to us, and many of those people aren’t romantic partners.

The book is good though.

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30 Days of Avatar: Feminism

Week 10: Messages of Avatar Land

Day 28: Masculinity
Day 29: Animal Rights
Day 30: Feminism

Day 30 is for… feminism. Dun dun duuuuuuun.

Content Warning! Y’know. Casual references to a lot of woman hate.

Self Care tip! When you encounter casual woman hate out there in person or on the internet, throw on “Venom of the Red Lotus” and pretend Zaheer and co. are whoever is doing the woman hate and pretend you are Korra. Very therapeutic.

Oh and also it starts with a random tangent about The Handmaid’s Tale and how there was that panel where all the actors were at pains to state that the show wasn’t “feminist propaganda” and we’re not sure why, just go with it.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

OK so feminism is a tough one because even something that lends itself as clearly to feminist interpretations as The Handmaid’s Tale is sometimes revised as “not feminist, but about ALL people,” by both actors who apparently don’t know what words mean, and the author, even, who – OK but Margaret Atwood knows what words mean! She just struggles with the meaning of the word “feminism” because she’s afraid that people use it to claim all women are saints and martyrs and victims, which robs us of our agency and contributes to inequality – which, no. At least in our opinion.

If it seems that way to you, it’s because you’re not really paying attention. There is a lot of turmoil in feminism. There is a lot of introspection. People are always building up on and dissecting the work that has come previously, and everything, EVERYTHING, gets critiqued, always, and forever. The prominence of rape narrative written by actual victims gets critiqued, for example, because maybe rape narrative isn’t doing much to help matters because it constantly portrays women as victims. We’re not cosigning that one because it seems kind of very stupid, but it’s (sort of) a worthwhile discussion that, while we’re personally not fussed about it, is still happening. Also, The Fearless Girl statue gets a lot of criticism. Because “corporate art.” In fact, just add in every “strong female character” lately – particularly if they’re the protagonist and center of the narrative. We’ve seen critiques of Moana, Wonder Woman, and Daenerys to name a few, many of which are thought-provoking even when we disagree with some (or a lot) of the arguments being made. Some are, of course, crap. Marxist interpretations of art are really important but when they’re presented all on their own without recognition of other factors besides the monetary forces behind commercially successful art made to be consumed by the masses, they’re definitely going to ignore all of those other important elements about art, which can make them sometimes super unhelpful, sometimes super elitist, and occasionally pretty misogynistic. It usually depends on who’s doing the Marxist critique. If they’re doing it on top of a bunch of other things it’s great. If it’s just “commercial art is still commercial art even if there’s womz in it,” it tends to be pretty awful.

Then there’re the different factions of feminism that are actively bad. For starters, there’s pop feminism, though we here at Owlmachine think pop feminism is a good thing, actually. It’s definitely a SUPER FLAWED good thing, though. Like, when T Swift claims feminism whenever she wins an award but does nothing with her enormous platform to advocate maybe not voting for the sexual predator, yeah. That’s really bad and needs to be called out. (But real quick: SOLIDARITY TO HER COUNTERSUING THAT SHITHEAD DJ FOR A BUCK. See, this is why pop feminism shouldn’t just be quickly dismissed, because here’s an example where fair critiques give way to the sort of unearned vitriol we seem to only ever see directed at female megastars.) Thoughtful critique of every single pop feminism thing ever is also really good, but we think (and maybe we’re wrong) that if pop feminism were more prominent, the silly “Is The Handmaid’s Tale feminist propaganda or not” discussion wouldn’t have happened and that’s kind of important. But there are certain feminism things that do really suck. Like white feminism (in which white women yell at, harass, ignore, and belittle women of colour and their voices and experiences because we think it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge intersectionality and how even as a woman, being white = major privilege) or trans-exclusionary radfems (who think trans women are men and have stupidly contradictory opinions about what “being a woman” is – like, how are you a feminist if your argument boils down to “woman = boobs, vag, and womb” YOU’RE NOT IS THE ANSWER YOU’RE JUST GROSS) and those are just two groups. Those are the worst two groups typically, but there’re more. There are different subgroups of those two things and there are other things, like SWERFs. And if you haven’t noticed the pushback on all of these things, you’re not listening to the right people.

We will grant that sometimes maybe it does seem that feminism is a big, tribal monolith, but that is probably because there’s a lot of bigger garbage out there that is more important to address than the minor stuff that can cause infighting (we classify “minor” as arguing over pop feminism and marxist feminism, and definitely not, y’know, transphobia and racism). So although we frequently see feminists doing important self-reflection like seriously questioning the merits of pop feminism or the possible fallout of uncritical sex-positivity or insisting that we center women’s agency even while we’re talking about rape culture or wondering what might go wrong with the conservative co-opting of feminism for things like “lean in” or doing more outreach with regards to the intersections of social justice or even more outreach to men, who are also victims of this stupid system, these important and complex topics can sometimes be sidelined, unfortunately, because Donald Trump is president, and misogyny is still very rampant and all of the important conversations get derailed because feminists consistently have to repeat things that should be taken for granted by now, like: yes, women should be equal, no, women are not currently equal even if there are laws stating they are because of the way the system actually works, yes, women at various intersections have it harder than the rest of us and need to not be talked over, no, women should not be expected to endlessly “debate” whether we are biologically inferior to men in the interest of upholding some idiot’s freeze peach, and yes, rape should be illegal.

Annnyway. The Handmaid’s Tale shows women subjugating other women in order to seize what small amounts of power may be seizeable, which, well, consider what happens when trans women, sex workers, and women of colour speak up about how feminism leaves them behind to see how that happens EVEN WITHIN FEMINISM. It shows how poor men are exploited for their labour similarly, though not completely the same, as women are. It’s therefore kind of clearly feminist – the complex, thoughtful kind of feminist, introspective and self-critical, showing how a hierarchical society hurts everyone at every level and those at the lowest and most vulnerable ends of the hierarchies are hurt the most – though, there is that one pesky criticism for most popular dystopias: there’s nothing about racial politics. And in the book, there’s little in the way of queer politics, though the show has improved on that a bit, if showing horrific executions of and FGMing queer women can actually be considered an improvement (which, no, and of course there’s still nothing whatsoever about transgender and nonbinary people). So The Handmaid’s Tale overall talks about how oppression works, but without showing the mechanisms that would (and do) apply in real life for marginalized people beyond the gender binary, it does fall a little short.

… Anyway. Avatar also has no racial or queer politics. And it can’t even be read through a feminist lens like The Handmaid’s Tale can. This is because in Avatar Land, women and men are equal.

Sure, Sokka makes a stupid comment about women being better at housework and men being better at warrioring and such, and we see his casual insistence that gender roles are real, unquestionable things manifest itself twice: first when he meets the Kyoshi warriors and his fragile masculinity is threatened, and then later more sinisterly in the Northern Water Tribe where women are not allowed to learn how to use their water bending for combat.

In “The Warriors of Kyoshi” Sokka gets all ruffled because the titular Kyoshi warriors are all girls, and they best him multiple times. But then he gets a crush and learns some things and wears makeup and a dress, and he apologizes to Suki for “treating [her] like a girl when [he] should have treated [her] like a warrior.” And she’s like, “Dude I’m both. Loser.” Anyway after that Sokka stops with the casual misogyny and starts being a bit of a fanboy – mostly for Toph and her metal bending skills.

But casual misogyny is alive and well when master Paku refuses to teach Katara combat water bending, because in the north it’s illegal for women to use bending to fight. This situation is solved because Katara is awesome, and the entire Northern Tribe obviously is like, “OK, sure, let’s change our super old customs immediately, that’s something we’re definitely all going to be cool with. Totes believable.”

OK so first, what gives, they edited a bunch of reaction shots and long pauses out 😦

Also, it’s not really that Katara’s already pretty impressive combat skills change Paku’s mind about accepting women pupils. It’s because he realizes that his prejudice is based on being bitter about how he was dumped by Gran-Gran five thousand years ago. She dumped him and moved to an entirely different pole because the Northern customs were too restrictive for her awesome self. This is what gets him to reevaluate his life choices.

And other than that, there’s nothing unequal about how men and women are treated.

Toph’s parents see her as helpless, sure, but it’s more because she’s blind than because she’s a girl. Would this work as well for us if Toph were a boy? Probably not, but that’s not because of the inherent constrictions of gender roles in Avatar Land, it’s because of our own cultural norms. If men, women, et al. were allowed to express themselves and perform their genders in whatever way they pleased, and if everyone were systemically equal, then we probably would read Toph as a blind boy exactly the same way we read her as a blind girl – but then blindness would not be read the same way either so that’s a whole other thing.

There’s also the case of Azula. She is the second of Ozai’s children but he likes her better, because she’s stronger, crueler, and more skilled. He makes her Firelord without even a question. Like in Moana, Azula’s gender is never, ever, brought up as something she has to struggle against in order to be taken seriously as a leader. She bests Zuko in their father’s eyes, but she also overcomes Long Feng and wins the loyalty of the Dai Lee even though she’s THE ENEMY NATION’S PRINCESS AND HEIR APPARENT! Like. They’ll sell their entire kingdom to the Fire Nation because they think her leadership is so great.

Korra is never told that she can’t be a good Avatar because she’s a girl. Time and time again people see her Avataring and later tell her, “Jesus, lady, you are a legend,” without ever qualifying it because of her gender. Even Zaheer, who wanted her wiped out, tells her years after their incredibly epic battle, “Uh, you should have died. There is no logical way you survived that. You kind of rock; have a self esteem boost on me.”

This is probably because when a nation or kingdom or tribe or republic starts backsliding and wants to force women to stick to traditional gender roles, someone like Katara shows up and challenges whichever dude is in charge to a duel, and as we see, gender has no bearing on how powerful someone’s bending is.

It’s important to note that performing what we see as traditional female gender roles does not make someone a bad female character, or a bad, gender-betraying, actual, real-life woman. Katara, who is a fierce warrior, is also a skilled healer, and eventually becomes the best healer in Avatar Land. Besides that, she also performs a lot of wife-work (the less exclusionary term feminists use for this type of work is “the mental load” but we like “wife work” for the moment to easily express what we mean – but here’s an excellent comic on the topic) and motherly support for her group of parentless children as they take on the Firelord. Her emotional and mental labour is central to her character and whenever someone mocks her for it, they usually get taken to task (see “The Runaway” for that). Perhaps the best depiction of Katara doing the wife work is in “The Desert” – as Aang has a gigantic breakdown because of Appa’s theft, Katara is left taking care of the Gaang. She’s even more on her own than she normally would be because her older brother is high on cactus juice – it’s the quenchiest. An incredible moment shows Aang, who is accusing everyone of being less invested in Appa than he is, demanding to know what Katara is doing lately for the group. You see her pause, close her eyes, inhale, and say, calmly, “Keeping everyone together.” What an amazing way of showing something like that. She never breaks down herself, she visibly stays strong, and yet there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that she is under some serious pressure here. Katara is a LEGEND.

What’s more is that just because she’s motherly and sweet, she also gets to make mistakes and be kind of selfish sometimes. See her snapping at Aang for being a quick learner in “The Water Bending Scroll” or mocking Toph for not being able to see the stars in “The Chase” or everything that happens in “The Southern Raiders.” Katara is a really good example of how this show allows its female characters to be just as complex as the male characters. Katara isn’t defined by her combat skills or her nurturing or her occasional selfishness. She is all of these things put together, which makes her real in a way that a lot of characters, female or not, just aren’t, when the story they’re in isn’t letting them be.

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Anyway, we love it.

Avatar Land shows a lot of varied female characters which is one of the best things about the show. It shows women being nurturing as well as hard as stone, making mistakes, learning, and growing. It shows warriors, leaders, police chiefs, dictators, monarchs, villains, heroes, sisters, mothers, daughters, friends, and no one is screaming at them that they don’t belong in any one of these roles or that they should shut up because their words aren’t of value or that Avatar Land is a decaying society because we’ve allowed them to “fuck freely” or that their bodies don’t really belong to them after all as soon as some man is interested in them or if they get pregnant or that they need to smile more. Imagine some patronizing dick telling Azula, unsolicited, that she would look prettier if she smiled more.

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We know this meme is old, but this is the future that liberals want. And we maintain that it’s a pretty feminist move of the show’s creators to depict their world like this.

And that concludes 30 Days of Avatar! It’s been fun, guys.

Get it?

30 Days of Avatar: Animal Rights

Week 10: Messages of Avatar Land

Day 28: Masculinity
Day 29: Animal Rights
Day 30: Feminism

First of all, shout out to the creators of Avatar for making every animal in Avatar Land a combination of two animals, except for the Earth King’s bear:

Legendary.

Anyway, this post is about Animal Rights, and the only logical place to start is with the Greatest Creature Ever Committed to Television, Appa, the Flying Bison.

Please familiarize yourself with Appa using this self-proclaimed “Definitive Appa Montage,” which sets tragic scenes from Appa’s Last Days to a cheerful tune in order to lessen your pain:

While Avatar is not afraid to unpack complex ethical issues, Appa’s Lost Days may be one of the most honest and upfront interpretations of such an issue in the franchise (or in any franchise). It does not hold back on making us want to cry in a bath tub forever while the horrors animals face in this world slowly wash over us until we drown in a sea of unending misery.

Seriously, it gets real.

 

We start this horrifying journey with the illegal exotics trade. Sandbenders rope up our favourite Flying Bison and drag him out of the desert, away from his friends, forcing him to listen to Aang’s desperate bison-whistling, unable to fly to his lifelong companion. Ugh.

These jackasses sell him to a freaking circus.

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In true “Greatest Show on Earth” fashion, the trainer whips his animals (with fire), using fear to “break” them and force them to do humiliating performances dressed in ridiculous costumes. But this trainer wasn’t prepared to handle a Flying Bison – the original airbenders, this big softie has bending and evasion on his side, and he manages to escape the circus. Would that all animals could murder their trainers and fly off into the sunset, but we dream.

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Next in Appa’s tragic story (seriously, more tragic than Zuko’s, am I right?) he tries to find Aang, discovers that the library sank into the desert, then attempts to take refuge in a few places before being chased off by various predators (giant wasps, giant porcupine boars, and this asshole with the fire stick). No, Avatar is not afraid to handle the question of what to do with wild animals either – what is our responsibility? Something between dressing them up in stupid costumes and chasing them out of our houses with fire, is the answer. (Duh.)

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The Kyoshi warriors find him and show him kindness. Appa is hurt and scared, and they approach slowly, before gently removing the porcupine boar needles and cleaning up the sticky wasp residue from his fur. If you’ve ever attempted to rescue a wild animal or feral cat, this scene will feel familiar – the animal is scared, and ready to either run or fight for their life, and you just want to help them and have no way of explaining that.

Anyway, the Kyoshi warriors do well, until Azula and co. show up and ruin everything.

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Because the writers love to make us sob uncontrollably, Appa navigates his way to the Eastern Air Temple, one of four abandoned homes of his ancestors, the air nomads and their bison, who were extinguished by the Fire Lord. Yikes. Anyway, there he meets Guru Pathik, who shows him some more kindness as well as the way back to Aang.

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But as we know, this episode is a series of disasters and any good news is not to be trusted, so of course, Appa flies to Ba Sing Se, where the gaang is, and ends up being caught by Long Feng, because, of course.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

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YESSSSSS APPA YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

So to sum up, here is what we learned in one short episode of ATLA:

  • The illegal exotics trade is Evil and pure garbage and should all die in a fire
  • Circuses are Evil and pure garbage and should all die in a fire
  • Be kind to wounded animals who cross your path, even if they do not thank you
  • Appa is and always will be the best person place or thing ever written I will fight you on this
  • three has a giant plushie Appa and it gives her life
  • I’m off topic

In other words, if you didn’t really understand why exotics trading and circuses were Evil and pure garbage and should all die in a fire, this incredible episode will take your hand and walk you through the story of Appa’s lost days with the perfect combination of nuance and pure suffering and it will make you want to cry in a bathtub forever while the horrors animals face in this world slowly wash over you until you drown in a sea of unending misery.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

30 Days of Avatar: Masculinity

Week 10: Lessons of Avatar Land

Day 28: Masculinity
Day 29: Animal Rights
Day 30: Feminism

Day 28 was supposed to be for portrayals of healthy masculinity but is mostly for erm having a crush on Sokka.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

I’d like to talk about Aang for basically ever because he’s a rounded character with lots of power and combat abilities but he’s not a total jerk.

His defining feature as a fighter is that he’s opposed to violence, so he refuses to kill even his most evil enemy. Even when his enemy is waaaaay more powerful than he is, even when his enemy is trying really hard to kill him, and even when he gets a split-second chance to end it all.

He hesitates and then redirects the lightening, then collapses. He’d rather put himself at even more risk than kill Ozai.

We’ve discussed this already but through the lens of masculinity, this is kind of cool. I mean, Batman does this crap too, but that’s about where the similarities between Batman and Aang end.

He’s a gentle soul.

The three separate screencaps of that are essential.

guru feeding birdsguru and appa

In fact, being kind to animals is a recurring feature linked to wisdom and spirituality for male characters. When I think animated characters being surrounded by animals or helping animals trust them, I mostly think of Disney women like Snow White, Cinderella, Esmarelda, or Rapunzel. In Avatar Land it’s Aang and Pathik. Katara and Toph get along with the Gaang’s pets, but Aang is the real animal lover of the group. Also, he’s the vegetarian.

Another aspect of Aang’s version of masculinity is his being comfortable respecting, learning from, and being impressed by his female companions.

impressed aang

Of course what he likes most about Toph’s Ba Sing Se sand sculpture is Basco with the King. Oh Aang, you lovely predictable thing, you.

OK but can I complain for a second though.

Where I find Aang a bit tiring is when it comes to his relationship with Katara. He spends the majority of the series chewing on the fact that he isn’t sure if Katara likes him like that. He’s told by a group of surprisingly sensitive prisoners that “she’ll come around.” And even Roku tells him that “it gets better” as you get older, and “being the Avatar helps” when Aang exclaims that the girl “who didn’t even know [Roku] existed” ended up marrying him.

I want to be clear: this is all fine. It is. It really is. Of course Aang likes Katara and of course he wants her to like him back. Of course he gets wounded about it occasionally, of course he pours out his heart to random dudes he meets.

But.

He never really tells her how he feels. Instead they have random cutesy moments that mean very little in terms of relationship progression, and then he just kisses her before flying off to fight Ozai (he thinks).

I mean. He just grabs her and kisses her. And she’s not a fan.

Later when he’s grumpy because the actor portraying him in the play based on his adventures is a woman, he says, “So, we kissed at the Yule Ball, and, well, I thought we were gonna be together forever. But we’re not.” And Katara’s like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”

OK fine, that was Starkid’s version* (and it’s better). I wish Katara had really said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” to Aang. He was being unreasonable. Instead she’s at pains to explain that she likes him but right now is not a good time because they’re in the middle of a war.

Also they’re 12 and 14 but that apparently doesn’t matter.

I have a hard time with Aang in “Ember Island Players.” I get that he’d be mad at the actor being a woman because being as sensitive as he is, and being that he’s in the middle of deciding what to do about his enemy when he doesn’t want to kill him and having basically everyone tell him that’s weak, of course he wouldn’t like having his gender be attacked. But it does seem a little fragile.

Especially because it seems like what makes him angriest about it is that it makes his relationship with Katara sexless.

friend zone aang

That’s the face he makes when stage-Katara says she loves him like a brother.

I don’t know. The Aang and Katara relationship never sat right with me because it always seemed like it would make a better friendship, and also, they were too young to worry about it as much as Aang did at least, and also, they were kind of busy. I really do think portraying Aang’s attraction to Katara this way, in a possessive, jealous, angry way near the end dents the otherwise wonderful portrayal of a nice, sweet kid. In some ways the ugliness in his insistence that there’s more between them than friendship is connected to the war getting worse, but when they do kiss for real at the end it doesn’t do much to heal how angry and wounded he has already been about the situation until now.

I don’t know. I’m probably in the minority here but I’m not a fan of it.

You know where I’m not in the minority, though? Crushing on Sokka.

Ty Lee likes him:

Yue likes him:

yue crush

A room full of haiku masters like him:

haiku girls

Even TOPH is crushing on Sokka.

(She thought Sokka saved her, but it was Suki.)

(Ouch.)

I have a gigantic unapologetic thing for characters like this so I’m right there with these ladies. I love a guy who struggles a bit with his gender performance but who ultimately overcomes his insecurities and realizes he can just be himself. Usually it’s imperative that they do because they always seem to fall for the awesomest of ladies, so they need to get it together as best they can. It’s why I love Wash in Firefly and why I love Ron Stoppable in Kim Possible and why Ron Weasley will always be my favourite. Hopefully somewhere in this thing I talk about how Sokka is a good portrayal of healthy masculinity and I don’t just gush but I’m making no promises.

Sokka is… flawed.

First of all, he’s a fan of meat. Despite his vow to the universe and to Foofoo Cuddlypoops that if he were to be rescued from the random hole he’s randomly stuck in he’d give up meat and sarcasm, the first thing he asks for when Aang shows up is meat. Which is probably a sarcastic request because Aang is a vegetarian.

Sokka has also been known to fail. His invasion plan during the Day of Black Sun doesn’t go the way anyone wants it to at all. During the battle he allows himself to be emotionally manipulated by Azula and he wastes all of their time. He takes this loss about as hard as Aang does, which is pretty freaking hard.

In the final battle, he fights well but if not for Suki’s rescue in the end, he and Toph would have died. Like. In flames. This isn’t his fault, of course, but the thing about Sokka is that he’s not a super powerful bender like most of the other main characters. He’s not a bender at all.

Occasionally this gets to him. Early on especially, his insecurities do show up and bite him. One time of note is when he meets and is defeated by Suki, and is horrified because she’s a girl. And then he gets defeated by her a bunch of other times, humiliatingly, until he humbly asks her to teach him, he wears a dress and makeup, becomes a better fighter with her help, and learns to respect women, I guess.

Another notable time is in “Jet,” which is a beautiful episode for deconstructing masculinity.

jet - sokka

Don’t you just want to punch him?

OK, probably not, if you’ve seen “Lake Laogi.” But still.

In “Jet,” Sokka is making a whole big thing about how he’s in charge because he’s the oldest, and Katara mocks his presumption of this because his voice still cracks and he hasn’t kissed a girl.

I’d take a moment to complain at Katara because, even though Sokka needs to be taken down a peg in that moment, that’s not a good way to do it (the “Sokka’s instincts” joke she and Aang do moments later is a better way), but, well, the episode does it for me.

Soon they run into Jet, an unquestioned leader of freedom fighters. Katara falls in love.

lol katara

Aang respects Jet immediately. Sokka hates him, of course. At first, it seems like jealousy, and Katara dismisses Sokka’s dislike as stupid macho posturing. But as time goes on we see that Sokka’s mistrust is valid.

Jet is not a nice dude. We do learn later that he did genuinely like Katara, but he’s not a genuine force for good in Avatar Land like he claims. He’s trying to drown an entire town because they’re Fire Nation and therefore acceptable targets. He tricks Aang and Katara into helping him do it.

The only reason it doesn’t work is because Sokka warned the people in time. For Katara’s part, it’s not until Jet himself tells her what his plan is that she believes that he’s that awful, and it’s not fun for her.

She also actually says the words, “I’m sorry I ever doubted you,” about her brother while she’s hoping that he was able to somehow save the town.

The next time she sees Jet she tries to kill him, also. If you were wondering whether this experience had a lasting effect on her or anything.

tell it to some other girl jet

“Tell it to some other girl, Jet.”

He seems like the perfect guy. Fighting the Fire Nation, looking after a scrappy band of kids, confident, assured, a leader. But he manipulates her attraction and her feelings for him and is almost successful using her to kill an entire town’s worth of people.

Sokka, who makes mistakes and is not as smooth as Jet and who hasn’t kissed anyone yet and whose voice still cracks and who flies Appa the wrong way when he’s driving and who is sometimes bossy and insecure is still more reliable and a much better person overall.

As we discussed previously as well.

kasokka fight 11

Also he turns out to be a decent leader throughout their adventures.

I like a couple of things in particular about Sokka.

Number one: he has a couple of kiss-mishaps like Aang but he handles them way better.

yue almost kiss

That was when he thought he should kiss Yue but then she stopped and then it was super awkward.

sokka suki 10sokka suki 11

This was him stopping with Suki because despite liking her a lot, he’s going through some complex emotional issues related to the moon seen in that second shot.

He handles both of these better because they talk about them. He’s not a master of “I’m totally fine with whatever, but just so I know could you tell me what went wrong…” or anything. He’s definitely uncomfortable both with apparent rejection and also being the rejector. But he has the conversations anyway.

Also. Look at the faces he makes whenever he sees Suki.

This is a series I call “:/ D: Oh it’s you!! C: :D”

sokka suki 1sokka suki 2

The best part is that Zuko is there.

My favourite thing about Sokka though is while occasionally he gets down about how he has less abilities than most of his friends since he’s the main non-bender of the group, he still is a major fanboy.

Of course he fanboys for Suki’s awesomeness:

sokka suki 3sokka suki 4

But he’s a huge fan of Toph.

sokkafanboying1sokkafanboying2sokkafanboying3

That’s just one instance. But I really love that. I love that he’s secure enough to be smitten by her abilities when he has nothing that compares.

Sokka is a goofball with serious leadership capabilities and he’s a big fan of his dangerous lady friends. He makes it clear that it’s OK to feel your feelings, it’s OK to not be the coolest guy in the room, it’s OK to fail sometimes, even if you’re the oldest and therefore the leader. Of course I love him.

This is a compilation of him being ridiculous and I love it too.

*UM. Did you know that half the dialogue in A Very Potter Musical/Sequel is basically straight out of Avatar? Because I didn’t until just now.

30 Days of Avatar: The Puppetmaster

Week 9: The Horrors of Avatar Land

Day 25: Ko, the Face Stealer
Day 26: The Library
Day 27: The Puppetmaster

Day 27 is for water bending no longer being pretty, flowy, and fun. NOPE.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

This is Hama.

hama

This is the Gaang’s first reaction to Hama’s walking out of the woods and into their midst.

hamareaction

It’s played off as an overreaction. After all, Hama, though she lives in a Fire Nation town, is originally from the Southern Water Tribe. She’s the only other water bender from the south that Katara has ever met. She was stolen from the tribe and imprisoned by the Fire Nation as they tried to deplete the south’s ability to fight back. And, she takes in the kids for a time and feeds them traditional Southern Water Tribe food.

However, their first reaction to her turns out to be the most correct reaction anyone could have at finding themselves in the woods with Hama.

Her story is intriguing and tragic, and partly this is because of how her experience as changed her.

hamabitter

She is so bitter and full of hatred for the Fire Nation that she will do whatever violence she can, even against innocent people, to revenge herself. And as it turns out, she’s capable of a lot of violence.

She learned how to bloodbend while in prison.

Here’s Hama bloodbending Katara, when Katara refuses to use the technique.

hamabloodbending

And while Katara can get away from her, Hama is crafty and manages to force Katara into needing to bloodbend to save Aang and Sokka.

katarabloodbending1katarabloodbending2

And as she’s being led away back to prison, she laughs, because her work is done. She has passed on her legacy to the only other Southern Tribe waterbender there is.

hamalaughingkataracryingkataracrying2

Hama is terrifying. That is all.

30 Days of Avatar: The Library

Week 9: The Horrors of Avatar Land

Day 25: Ko, the Face Stealer
Day 26: The Library
Day 27: The Puppetmaster

Day 26 is for the most horrifying all-knowing owl spirit of them all.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Here is Wan Shi Tong, the library guardian.

wanshitong1

Barn owls are terrifying (unless it’s Errol, but he is a rare exception). It makes sense that the creators of Avatar used a terrifying barn owlesque owl spirit to be the guardian of a vast, overwhelming library, bursting with knowledge, because owls represent wisdom, and barn owls represent terror.

Do not use Wan Shi Tong’s collection of knowledge for developing military tactics. He is violently opposed to using knowledge for violence. Unless it’s to protect his knowledge from being misused, of course.

wanshitong2

Ah!

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Ahhhh!

His look is great, but his creepy, somewhat detached jerk-professor voice (he’s played by Héctor Elizondo who is perfect) really brings this character together so that he can haunt our nightmares forever and always.

30 Days of Avatar: Limitations

Week 8: Aang VS Korra

Day 22: Boy Hero VS Girl Hero
Day 23: Consequences
Day 24: Limitations

Day 24 is for limitations. Do Avatars even have those?

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

In response to the above question, well, sometimes it seems that the answer is pretty clearly, “No.”

Like when Aang angsted about not wanting to take Ozai’s life in order to end the war, and everyone told him that he needed to get over it, but then he ended up learning the power to neutralize Ozai’s threat without killing him.

Or when everyone told Korra that reasoning with Kuvira was a silly idea, but actually it ended up working.

So, when it comes to the Avatar wanting to get the job done but they want to do it their way, which they feel, in their gut and in their soul, is the right way to do it, no, they aren’t limited. And that’s pretty cool.

But they do have limitations. Here are some of the bigger ones, in no particular order:

  • Cannot force relationship to start (-1 Aang) (+1 Korra)
  • Cannot make relationship work (-1 Korra) (+1 Aang)
  • Cannot be the center of attention + center of world of friends at all times (-1 Aang)
  • Cannot make flagrant decisions about casual dating without almost ruining friendships (-1 Korra)
  • Cannot will the Air Nation back into existence (we’re not taking a mark away from Aang for that D:) (but +1 Korra)
  • Cannot restore the connection to former lives (-1 Korra)
  • Cannot bring peace with an upbeat attitude and friendliness (-1 Aang)
  • Cannot remove spirit vines from Republic City (-1 Korra) (+0.5 Aang, he seemed to have better progress with spirit conflicts overall)
  • Cannot convince villain to get over himself already (-1 Aang) (+1 Korra)

So by this and only this, we’re at -3.5 for Aang, and -1 for Korra on the Avatar Limitation Scale. This is pretty astute and significant, we’re sure, especially because The Last Airbender focused on less than one year of Aang’s life whereas Legend of Korra spanned a few years of Korra’s.

korra eye thing 2

intimidated aang

But the point is, our superheroes have limits. Most of the ones highlighted here seem to speak to that old cliché: You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. The Avatars are, in a lot of ways, mainly influencers. Their influence is important and occasionally it does change people’s hearts and minds, but mostly, people have to be relied upon to make their own choices. No matter how badly our heroes want something (whether it’s world peace or just for some girl to decide, at age 14, that she wants to be romantically linked to her 12-year-old friend forever), they can’t just make it happen, even if they declare, “Avatar State, yip yip!”

30 Days of Avatar: Consequences

Week 8: Aang VS Korra

Day 22: Boy Hero VS Girl Hero
Day 23: Consequences
Day 24: Limitations

Day 23 is for all of the consequences.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Aang has two key moments, if we’re talking about facing and living with consequences, and we are.

One: Running Away

Aang is 12 when he’s told that he is the Avatar and must help save the world from an increasingly aggressive genocidal dictator. The monks handle this whole thing pretty durn badly, to quote Alyssa from It Takes Two because why not.

Aang runs away and almost dies and freezes himself and Appa for 100 years. In consequence, the Fire Nation wipes out every Air Nomad. All of them. Except Aang.

In “The Storm,” Aang gets mad at himself, mad enough to briefly enter the Avatar State, because of this. Katara tells him that his running away was probably meant to be, because even with the Avatar State, he probably would have been killed in the attack. Possibly, he would have been killed in the Avatar State, which would have left no one to save the Northern Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom 100 years later.

We don’t necessarily agree with Katara that “it was meant to be,” spiritual though Aang may be. But the way it played out was the way it played out. It wasn’t Aang’s fault – we are never asked to blame him for the Fire Nation’s attack. He was a child. But even though it wasn’t his fault, he has to live with the destruction of his people for the rest of his life.

Two: Azula

One of the first things we see Azula do is practice lightning bending, so it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise in “The Crossroads of Destiny” when she zaps him just as he’s entered the Avatar State.

Whether he truly faces consequences for this is debatable. Katara saves him with magical healing water, so he doesn’t die. And though all through Book 3, we believe that being almost killed closed his chakra and now he has lost the ability to go into the Avatar State, right as Ozai’s about to finish him off he hits his wound on a sticky-outy piece of rock and his chakra opens, much to Ozai’s dismay.

aang

And then against Yakone, at 40:

It probably functions just to make the stakes higher. We’re left questioning, over the entire last season, and as we get closer to the end, how Aang can possibly defeat Ozai without the Avatar State. Because he can’t, obviously. Especially since they time it just right and Aang has to fight him AS SOZIN’S COMET IS PASSING OVER THEM. So, in case you’re wondering, the lesson is to not leave saving the world up to a bunch of kids. They’ll do it, of course, but they’ll leave it to the last possible second.

This is a little clunky. Roku tells Aang in Book 1 that Ozai’s plan is to use the comet to throw the balance too far out of whack. But late in Book 3 they’re having beach parties and talking about how they can just wait for the comet to pass, no big deal. Thank the Lion Turtle Zuko is there to remind them that they do actually have a deadline.

Also, building up “Aang can’t do Avatar State!” and then going, “NVM! He can do it now that his wound got stabbed by some rock!” is just as throwing as having the Lion Turtle show up right near the end to offer up a never-before-seen method of defusing a conflict.

So.

This isn’t to say that Aang doesn’t suffer sufficiently or that enough time passes in which he and the Gaang process what happened at Ba Sing Se, because yes, he suffers way too much, and yes, there’s plenty of time for processing. It’s just that the solutions to the Ozai problem seem awfully convenient, is all.

Korra has her very own little moment of “well, that was resolved quickly,” in Book 1.

In “Endgame,” Korra loses her bending. And then a couple of minutes later, her air bending is unlocked, because apparently Amon isn’t practiced enough at taking air bending away yet. And then maybe a few days later, or even later that same day, Korra, having been told that she can’t be healed and is now solely an air bender, unlocks her spirituality and has Aang heal her.

aang heals korra

So.

The difference here is that everything was building up to this. Korra has been terrified of Amon as soon as she learned what he could do to people. She has also been struggling and and has been ashamed of herself for not being able to air bend. And she has been annoyed at her own lack of spirituality. That she gets the latter two because she loses the rest of her identity, and then restores the rest of her identity right afterwards, is a little quick, but it’s still satisfying.

Yup. We said it. The Book 1 finale of Korra is more satisfying than “Avatar Aang.” At least in that all of the things that happen have satisfying explanations and have been building up the whole time, anyway.

In Book 2, Korra faces extreme consequences after UnaVaatu defeats her. UnaVaatu, in perhaps the hardest scene to watch in the entire Avatar canon, beats Raava up, destroying Korra’s connection to each of her past lives one by one, and then all at once, until finally even the connection to Avatar Wan is broken.

korra defeated

Korra is able to fuse with Raava again, because she exists in Vaatu, but her connection to her past lives is gone forever. Ouch. This is Korra’s version of Aang’s being the last air bender. There’s nothing she can do to change it, and it isn’t her fault.

We like that this show is brave enough to do this. To have its young heroes face the consequences of the evil others will do to them and have to live with them forever, but still move forward and accomplish great things anyway, is such an important thing to depict.

(to say nothing of the “Korra Alone” episode in which a haunted, broken Korra gets beat up a lot by a hallucination of epic poisoned Korra from her previous battle with Zaheer)

korra alonedark korra

(Yikes)

30 Days of Avatar: Boy Hero VS Girl Hero

Week 8: Aang VS Korra

Day 22: Boy Hero VS Girl Hero
Day 23: Consequences
Day 24: Limitations

Day 22 is for reluctance, confidence, gender identities, and hero moments.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Airbender

“Why didn’t you tell us you’re the Avatar?”

“Because… I never wanted to be.”

aang never wanted to be avatar

Korra

“What makes you so sure your daughter is the one?”

“I’m the Avatar, you gotta deal with it!”

Presented without comment.

OK, not really.

When it comes right down to it, Aang and Korra’s genders have nothing to do with their respective approaches to being the Avatar, and, even before that, dealing with finding out and accepting that they are the Avatar. HOWEVER, we thought it would be interesting to look at how Aang and Korra deal with being the Avatar in their different ways through the lens of their genders to make just a little teeny tiny point about representation.

In Book 1, Aang has two entire episodes that explore, either briefly or at length, that learning that he is the Avatar at such a young age really messed him up. Here are some various images of him moping:

aang mopingaang ashamedaang ashamed 2

This is not to say that he should just get over himself, because, of course not. He wasn’t just told too early for no reason. The monks decided to tell him four years before he turned 16 because Fire Lord Sozin was becoming an increasing threat, and they wanted to speed up the process of turning him into a fully realized Avatar so that they could take care of it.

So, you’re 12 years old, you’re told that the balance of the world is in serious peril, and you need to grow up fast and stop doing the things you enjoy and being around the people you love because it’s on you to deal with it. Of course he mopes.

Also, he runs away, and almost dies, and freezes himself for 100 years. While he’s frozen, his entire nation gets destroyed. So. Mope away, baby Aang. 😦

But there’s also the fact that Aang is reluctant to learn fire bending. Well. Not at first.

kataraburn1kataraburn3kataraburn4

After he accidentally burns Katara because he’s not being a respectful, patient student, he vows never to fire bend again. Guru Pathik helps him overcome this, as does Zuko, who understands that fire is dangerous and then some, but this whole thing is a pretty big deal.

And when Aang isn’t doing so well with earth bending, he just gets kind of sad and tries to avoid Toph.

Come to think of it, even when he’s trying to master water bending he’s more interested in snowman bending and playing with Momo.

And then there’s Korra.

Korra is a bending prodigy and never runs from a challenge. She struggles big time with air bending, but rather than mope about it like Aang would, she burns a bunch of stuff and yells in Tenzin’s face that she is bad at air bending because, 1. He’s a bad teacher, and 2. She doesn’t even need it anyway.

That goes away, of course, but she’s always determined to perfect her bending. She seeks out a metal bending tutor in Su Beifong, and is eager to learn how to use bending to purify angry spirits from Unalaq.

Later on she does reject the Avatar label, but that’s a conversation for another day.

How Korra is as a student and how Aang is seems pretty significantly different. She’s eager and determined, and easily, easily frustrated. Aang is fairly eager, but he’s more patient and at least slightly less determined than Korra is. A lot of that may be the age difference… but let’s look at how they both found out they’re the Avatar to begin with.

Aang is 12 when the monks tell him, Korra looks like a toddler and can already bend three elements. Korra was probably the first person in the world to realize that she is the Avatar and is clearly delighted by the prospect. Again, Aang has lots of reasons to not be so happy about it, and Korra definitely doesn’t at that young age. If Korra was growing up already on fantastic stories of Aang’s saving of the world, then why wouldn’t she be thrilled to discover that it’s her turn now?

Women getting to take on hero roles that were once mostly taken on by male characters is a thing now. It’s pretty contentious still for reasons that boggle the mind. There is some cynicism about it as well, like, the radical feminists are cautious about embracing female characters as role models and something to celebrate if they are just as violent and occasionally as fascist as your typical toxic masculine male action hero, also marxist critique would like to remind everyone that commercial art is commercial and rarely challenges the status quo in any meaningful way that will tear down capitalism or something, yadda yadda. Also, of course, it’s been mostly white women who get to do these hero things, and that needs to stop. Women of colour shouldn’t have to “wait their turn” or whatever it is that people are saying to try to justify why, if it isn’t a man, then it has to be a white woman. And we need plenty of characters representing men of colour as well. And that doesn’t even begin to discuss how there are genderqueer people who could use decent rep and trans women are still largely being played by cis men on screen which is absolutely ridiculous, and, really, men full stop could use more varied representation if we’re being honest. There’s a lot of good stuff that at least tries to detoxify masculinity if you look for it (we here humbly opine that Disney does it best) but we could always use some more.

But representation is seriously important. Last year, erm convinced Three to go and see girl Ghostbusters, and then this happened:

(the whole thing is good but it’s the Holtzman part especially, of course)

(just)

It’s hard to explain. A woman character doesn’t get to be cool like that unless she’s wearing something sexy and everything that’s happening has been choreographed specifically to enhance the sexiness. This was completely different.

Also this.

This is the scene making all the women cry in theatres. So.

We can talk about “commercial art” and “violence is bad,” but still, representation matters.

Korra’s declaration of Avatarness is really like a celebration of that. In the first series, we had a typical boy chosen one hero, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and only he could bring back the balance. We’re not knocking it, it was great. But in the second series, rather than have another beleaguered chosen one, we instead get this prodigy, thrilled to be the Avatar. Also, she’s a brown girl, so there’s that.

This is her, trying out her Avatarness for the first time against a street gang and clearly enjoying herself:

Korra has a lot to learn, and her eagerness is mainly a thing that helps her character growth end up being really rewarding and interesting. And this is what pushes Korra as a female hero beyond just “the Avatar but a girl now,” because she does actually have to learn how to Avatar responsibly and not just stomp around declaring that she’s the Avatar. But still, it’s fun to watch her have fun.

Also, notice how Aang isn’t overly involved with Korra’s Avatar training the way Roku was with him? Partly it’s because she’s not great at spirituality, but once she opens up that block, we think it’s because he took a quick peek at how things were going with her, made this face:

intimidated aang

and then said, “Eh. She’s got it covered.”

30 Days of Avatar: Iroh Party

Week 7: Cool AF Old People Parties

Day 19: Iroh Party
Day 20: Su and Lin Party
Day 21: Tenzin Party

Day 19 is for Iroh. ‘Nuff said.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Upon first glance at Book 1, it seems as though Iroh is basically Zuko’s comedy bumbling uncle, there to give us some relief while we watch Zuko fume, and, sometimes, literally steam, about nonissues. But it doesn’t take long to recognize that Uncle Iroh is a pillar of wisdom and grace. It’s also made pretty clear fairly early on that he’s a very skilled fire bender himself, and although he is considered to be a great military failure, he is underestimated at the underestimater’s peril.

And did he ever tell you how he got the nickname, “The Dragon of the West?”

Still. There are lots of funny times, early on.

Iroh is just trying to guide Zuko towards some wisdom of his own. He does so patiently, not coming right out and questioning Zuko’s silly outlook on the world until nearing the end of Book 2. But when he does it, man, does he do it.

“What do you plan to do now that you’ve found the Avatar’s bison? Keep it locked in our new apartment? Should I go put on a pot of tea for him?”

“First I have to get it out of here.”

“And THEN WHAT? You never think these things through. This is exactly what happened when you captured the Avatar at the North Pole. You had him, and then you had nowhere to go!”

“I would have figured something out.”

“NO! If his friends hadn’t found you, you would have frozen to death!”

*Zuko noise of rage and angst* “I know my own destiny, Uncle.”

“Is it your own destiny, or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you?”

“Stop it, Uncle. I have to do this.”

“I’m BEGGING you, Prince Zuko. It’s time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions. Who are you, and what do you want?”

*louder Zuko noise of rage and angst*

Yeah, for 1.9 seasons, this show had been building up to this moment, and we all pretty much had the same reaction. It did not disappoint.

Well. Zuko did. But we could see clearly that he was making his own choices, and from here on out he would have to succeed or fail without Uncle Iroh to catch him when he fell.

But then obviously Zuko came through, which led to this:

Ahhh, catharsis.

Also, there’s this, of course.

The takeaway from this one is always sad, but can we just mention the line, “With that stance?” Absolute perfection.

30 Days of Avatar: Mai Party

Week 6: Dangerous Ladies Parties

Day 16: June (and Nyla) Party
Day 17: Ty Lee Party
Day 18: Mai Party

Day 18 is for Mai, because we wouldn’t want her to throw things at us.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

*Three was late to post this because she is the worst*

There are two things in particular we love about Mai, aside from her general dangerousness.

1. She doesn’t take shit from anyone

And she sure as hell isn’t going to coddle Zuzu’s fragile self-esteem.

2. She doesn’t take shit from *anyone*

*Not even Azula*

*Raise your hand if you did not see this coming when you watched the series*

*Because I didn’t*

*But it makes sense*

*Bye*

30 Days of Avatar: Ty Lee Party

Week 6: Dangerous Ladies Parties

Day 16: June (and Nyla) Party
Day 17: Ty Lee Party
Day 18: Mai Party

Day 17 is for Ty Lee, hoping her aura is super pink wherever she’s at right now.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Quick one today, because Ty Lee’s awesomeness basically speaks for itself.

We are here, all day, everyday, for a talented, precise, deadly, chi blocking badass who is also extremely girly and feminine.

30 Days of Avatar: The Music of Avatar Land

Week 5: Miscellaneous

Some people might leave miscellaneous for the end, or for right before the end, but not us. This week is a few odds and ends that didn’t fit anywhere else.

Day 13: Cactus Juice
Day 14: Zuko Angst
Day 15: The Music

Day 15 is for the music, which is beautiful, sometimes funny, and often heart wrenching.

Literally all this post is is videos of songs from the soundtrack punctuated with variations on “omg good music!!!1”

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Three’s favourite from Avatar: The Last Airbender soundtrack is “Safe Return:”

This is a very pretty song, and it’s always nice to hear it at the end of an episode. On the other hand, a longer, even prettier version exists and it’s called “The Avatar’s Love:”

Erm’s favourite is “Last Agni Kai:”

But don’t we all love the song that plays over the credits:

Not that Korra slacks. Here’s one guy doing a nice, soothing Korra arrangement:

And a pretty impressive song from Book 4:

It’s so good at making you feel the danger.

But there are two from The Last Airbender that we still have to give special attention to.

One is the secret tunnel song:

Two lovers, forbidden from one another…….. you know the words.

What is there to say, even, except, here, listen to the secret tunnel song again?

And then there’s this one.

And all there really is to say about this is that it makes all Avatar fans tear bend.

30 Days of Avatar: Zuko Angst

Week 5: Miscellaneous

Some people might leave miscellaneous for the end, or for right before the end, but not us. This week is a few odds and ends that didn’t fit anywhere else.

Day 13: Cactus Juice
Day 14: Zuko Angst
Day 15: The Music

Day 14 is for Zuko, who, while he is neither tiny nor cute, is certainly still angst-ridden.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

“I’M ANGRY AT MYSELF!”

Oh, Zuko.

Book 1 Zuzu Angst

Book 1 is all about capturing the Avatar. But Aang, despite not being a 112 year old ancient wisdom of an airbender, still proves pretty evasive. Since Zuko’s honour rests on capturing him, that presents something of a conflict.

Greatest Hits:

  • That Fade from Portrait of a Sweet Summer Child to Scarred Bitter Determined Teenager Tho
  • Leave Me Alone, Uncle (You’re Just a Lazy, Mistrustful, Shallow Old Man Who’s Always Been Jealous of His Brother) (technically that last part is Book 2 Zuzu but he still had that hair and it was so Book 1 Zuzu attitude to say that anyway)
  • Ouch, I Got Hit With a Boomerang
  • My Father Says She was Born Lucky; He Says I was Lucky to Be Born

Book 2 Zuzu Angst

Book 2 is all about trying to achieve his destiny but not really being able to anymore because being a refugee makes it kind of hard to track down the Avatar.

Greatest Hits:

  • Don’t Mind Me, I’m Just Berating the Sky for Not Striking Me With Lightning (when the universe has never held back before)
  • Crying Softly in a Thunderstorm (because I didn’t get struck by lightning)
  • LEAVE!
  • I Make Good Choices and Stuff

Book 3 Zuzu Angst

Book 3 is all about that exquisite pain of redemption. We feel you, Zuzu.

Greatest Hits (not pictured):

  • That Food was for My Cranky Girlfriend!
  • I Guess I’m not Very Good at Impressions
  • WHY AM I SO BAD AT BEING GOOOOOOOOOOOOOD?????
  • NOOOOOOOO! (you’re cheating on our Agni Kai? YOU?)

 

30 Days of Avatar: Cactus Juice

Week 5: Miscellaneous

Some people might leave miscellaneous for the end, or for right before the end, but not us. This week is a few odds and ends that didn’t fit anywhere else.

Day 13: Cactus Juice
Day 14: Zuko Angst
Day 15: The Music

Day 13 is for cactus juice. It’s the quenchiest.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

It speaks for itself.

OK one thing: “The Desert” is probably the saddest episode of The Last Airbender – there are very sad moments throughout the series, of course, but the whole episode is sweet, gentle Aang lashing out at everyone because Appa’s just been stolen. Sokka drinking cactus juice is exactly the comic relief that we’re desperate for while watching, kind of like how cactus juice is the thirst-quenching drink Sokka is desperate for while he’s stuck in the middle of a desert.

Cactus juice.

30 Days of Avatar: Sibling Relationships

Week 4: Relationships in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

Day 10: Friendship in Avatar Land
Day 11: Teen Romance in Avatar Land
Day 12: Siblings in Avatar Land

Day 12 is for those moments when you just really want to kill your sister.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Sokka and Katara

Well, this Southern Water Tribe brother/sister duo are the OG sibling relationship of the entire Avatar universe, so it’s no surprise that they set the bar pretty high for all others.

Book 1 is a *tad* juvenile, especially compared to the rest of the series, but it’s Sokka and Katara who lend the show its emotional backbone right from the beginning, giving Aang a new family and a new support network so he can get to saving the world.

They have a couple of key moments in the show’s second episode: “The Avatar Returns.”

First, Katara is determined to go after Aang (who’s been taken prisoner for the first of many times), and is prematurely angry with Sokka, who doesn’t like Aang, assuming he’ll try to talk her out of it. Unbeknownst to her, Sokka has a plan already.

Katara: We have to go after that ship, Sokka. Aang saved our tribe, now we have to save him.

Sokka: Katara, I –

Katara: Why can’t you realize that he’s on our side? If we don’t help him, no one will. I know you don’t like Aang, but we owe him and –

Sokka: Katara! Are you gonna talk all day, or are you comin’ with me?

Shortly thereafter, they’re trying to make Appa fly after the ship. Sokka’s pretty cynical about it. He’s a giant bison, after all. He doesn’t have wings.

Sokka: Go. Fly. Soar.

Katara: Please, Appa. We need your help. Aang needs your help.

Sokka: Up. Ascend. Elevate.

Katara: Sokka doesn’t believe you can fly, but I do, Appa. Come on, don’t you want to save Aang?

Sokka: What was it that kid said? Yee-haw? Hup-hup? Wah-hoo? Uh … Yip-yip?

Appa: *flies*

Katara: You did it, Sokka!

Sokka: He’s flying!!! He’s flying!!! Katara, he’s – (Katara smirks at him) I mean, no big deal. He’s flying.

Then there’s the time that Katara blows up an evil factory.

Sokka: What did you do?

Katara: I kind of destroyed their factory.

Sokka: You what?

Katara: It was your idea!

Sokka: I was joking! I also said to use spirit magic and made funny noises! Did you even think this through? The army is gonna blame the villagers! They’re headed there right now to get revenge!

Katara: Well, what was I supposed to do?

Sokka: Leave! Do nothing!

Katara: No! I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me. I’m going down to that village, and I am gonna do whatever I can.

Sokka: Wait! I’m coming too.

Katara: I thought you didn’t want to help.

Sokka: You need me, and I will never turn my back on you.

Katara: Sokka, you really do have a heart.

They’re great.

Zuko and Azula

Easily the most dysfunctional sibling relationship in the history of Avatar Land, these two. Her conniving mind games up against his never ending oversensitive melodramatic melodrama drama angst oversensitivity parade is the gift that keeps on giving. The last we see of the two of them (on the show, anyway), Azula is tricking Zuko into getting lightninged by TOTALLY CHEATING IN THEIR AGNI KAI. Oh and then because he doesn’t die, she has a full on, fire-coming-out-of-ears breakdown while he stares solemnly at her. Good times.

Mako and Bolin

mako and bolin

(they’ve had better moments)

Like the one in “The Last Stand,” in which Mako decides to risk his life trying to shut down Kuvira’s spirit nuke, and Bolin tries to talk him out of it.

Bolin: This isn’t the time to prove how awesome you are. I already know how awesome you are… you’re awesome.

Mako: I don’t have time to argue! I’m doing this, so get out of here!

Bolin: Okay, but for the record, I do not approve. Just, get out as soon as you can. Promise?

Mako: Promise.

Bolin: I love you.

Mako: I love you too. Now go!

That scene would have worked a lot better if Mako had actually died, trying to shut down the spirit weapon. Imagine Mako locks Bolin out, says goodbye, and actually dies shutting it down. Now, look, that would have done a few things. First, Mako would be dead. Second, Bolin would be devastated, third, Korra’s breakthrough with Kuvira would be completely overshadowed by Mako being awesome, fourth, Korra and Asami running off together would be overshadowed by Mako’s death. So, obviously it couldn’t work that way. But still. It would have been totally dramatic and amazing and extremely sad and why are we imagining this, exactly?

Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi

Listen carefully: whatever you do, you need to inhale, exhale, and then, WATCH THIS VIDEO.

These three are great. Highlights of theirs are in parts one and two of “Civil Wars” and in “Darkness Falls.”

Despite their… varied… memories of what their childhood was like, they were, and still are, a happy, supportive family. Flaws and all.

aang familyTenzin, what, Bumi

Lin and Suyin

This one hurts.

Bolin’s sage words to Korra: “You don’t have any siblings. Fighting is all a part of the healing process.”

Well, he’s definitely not wrong. These two titanic ladies worked things out. Their best team moment is when they take down P’li. Lin, being Lin, puts herself in the line of fire so that Su can make P’li ‘splode. First, Lin tells Su that she loves her.

lin and su

Awww. Just like the moment with Bolin and Mako.

Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo

airbender kidsikki places jinora

The two older ladies could stand to put Meelo in his place a bit a lot more often (he’s a snot, fight us), but other than that, they’re a team like no other and Aang would be proud.

30 Days of Avatar: Romance

Week 4: Relationships in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

Day 10: Friendship in Avatar Land
Day 11: Teen Romance in Avatar Land
Day 12: Siblings in Avatar Land

Day 11 is for how awkward everything is, always.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

There’s at least one important spoiler in this one for Korra.

Korra showcases some pretty dysfunctional romance that should have remained friendship and some not entirely dysfunctional friendship that eventually turns into romance. The only two unrelated people in Team Avatar who haven’t dated are Bolin and Asami. Bolin and Asami’s friendship remains unplagued by hormones and memories of past romance. But that’s it.

Sure, Korra and Bolin went on one date – but Mako is a whole other story. Man, that guy.

  • Korra and Asami’s friendship starts shakily (since Korra’s pretty sure Mako should be with her rather than Asami), and remains at least somewhat shaky because here’s their relationship history:
  • Korra likes Mako. He likes Korra back but doesn’t want to admit it because they’re on a Pro-Bending team and it would get in the way.
  • Mako dates Asami.
  • Korra confesses that she likes Mako; Mako says he doesn’t feel the same way.
  • Korra goes on one date with Bolin and then kisses Mako (who kisses her back.)
  • Asami eventually finds out about the kiss and gets mad.
  • Mako and Asami break up because Asami realizes that Mako’s feelings for Korra are deeper than he’s admitting.
  • Mako and Korra date.
  • Mako and Korra break up (and she trashes the police station).
  • Mako and Asami date.
  • Korra gets amnesia and thinks she’s still dating Mako, who plays along because, well, she’s the Avatar.
  • Korra figures it out, everyone breaks up (Mako and Asami were probably already broken up at this point though, because, well, how could you not).
  • Mako is SUPER awkward around both girls and Korra laughs about it with Asami and it is THE BEST.
  • Then there’s an entire clip show about their rocky relationship past in which Prince Wu comments on everything.
  • Then, you know, Korra and Asami.

Korra and Asami have a pretty steady friendship throughout books 3 and 4, and the closer we get to the finale the more we see that Korra thinks of Asami as a person she can really trust and be herself around. Asami is super supportive. It’s nice. The final scene between them as they go off on a vacation to the spirit world is them holding hands, which is not ambiguous, but nobody really thought they’d end it like that. And that’s probably because everything between them up until that point could easily just be read as a supportive friendship.

korrasami

But if you compare it to Aang and Katara’s version of a supportive friendship that has romantic moments and then turns into a full blown romance by the end, there isn’t much difference. It’s just that we’re used to a heterosexual couple being the endgame, and that’s why the final Korrasami scene caught everyone off guard.

But before the nice ending with healthy romance, there’s also the mess that is Bolin and Eska in Book 2.

This has never been funny. Eska and Desna are hysterical on their own, sure, but this romance is just one big nope pie.

But that’s what’s great about Korra. Despite how dysfunctional this all is, they all remain friends and supportive of one another until the end, which is both an optimistic way of depicting this, and also kind of realistic, and also kind of important. Things do eventually get better, teenagers who are bad at romance.

At least, Korra seems to think they do.

Just look at Bolin! He ends up with Opal.

Much better. And while he’s happy with Opal, Eska is busy running the Northern Water Tribe, which is probably great and should have its own spin off.

The romance in The Last Airbender is comparatively boring because it’s wholesome and cute and understated, except for those weird moments in which Aang gets a little uncharacteristically jealous. Sure, we feel for Aang, but he’s 12 and responsible for saving the entire world, so if he could have just relaxed about what was going on with his love life that might have given him a little bit of peace.

Of course, then there was that Sokka/Suki/Zuko tent thing which will never stop being funny.

We went the entire post without mentioning the secret tunnel song because that gets its own discussion when we talk about music.

30 Days of Avatar: Friendship

Week 4: Relationships in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

Day 10: Friendship in Avatar Land
Day 11: Teen Romance in Avatar Land
Day 12: Siblings in Avatar Land

Day 10 is for ALL OF THE HUGS. AND THE PUNCHES, IN TOPH’S CASE.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

All this one spoils are some of the hugs and the plot of “The Runaway.”

That hug is nice because with everything that’s happened between those two, they really shouldn’t even be speaking. Good for them.

This hug is nice because it’s Bolin. ❤

“All right, we love each other.”

All of the hugging might lead you to believe that friendship is all super easy in Avatar Land, but no.

A greatest hit is in “Runaway,” in which Katara gets mad at Toph for pulling a lot of scams and Toph gets mad right back because Katara isn’t her mother and should mind her own business.

So Sokka and Aang come up with a brilliant scheme to write Katara a letter of apology and pretend that Toph wrote it.

brilliant plan

Brilliant, boys.

Of course, Toph is blind, so that doesn’t work.

What does work is Sokka’s actual brilliant plan to say very nice things about Katara and her motherly ways with Toph above the pool Katara is bathing in.

Another greatest hit would be the entire episode “The Chase.” Just watch it.

It seems to us that kids’ TV is really exceptionally good at portraying good, healthy, difficult friendships and making sure the audience knows how valuable they are, which is always great. Avatar is no exception AND IT IS GREAT. The Gaang and Team Avatar forever!