The Not-A-Princess Disney Ladies

Let’s talk about the ladies of 90s and early 00s Disney movies who aren’t princesses, simply because we don’t do it enough.

Esmeralda

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When I was a kid, I wanted to be Esmeralda. I didn’t want the dancing or the persecution. I just wanted to have her sense of justice and the courage of her convictions.

She’s probably still my favourite Disney lady (honestly the competition is tough, but the fact that she was my childhood hero probably pushes her over the edge).

^^ This. All of it. This is who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Not the part about getting burnt at the stake. But if someone did ever try to do that, I hoped (and I guess I still hope) to be that defiant.

Esmeralda and the Jewel song “Hands” – that’s the definition of who I want to be.

Esmeralda is a bit more complicated than the fact that she’s my hero, though. For one thing, Jason Alexander (the voice of Hugo – everyone’s favourite gargoyle) was very excited about how “voluptuous” she was, compared to, >cringe< “Pokie.”* Which is just great.

But on that note, she’s one of Disney’s women of colour characters, and she is more sexualized than a lot of the white women characters and that’s… disappointing.

In the context of just the movie she’s in, though, her being sexualized is a good thing. She uses her sexuality to earn a living. Frollo tries to slutshame her and ends up falling directly into hell at the end of the movie so, point taken, Hunchback of Notre Dame.

She’s just doing her job, man. You can’t sentence her to death by burning just because it made you confused about… not even your religious convictions, really. Just your convictions about what a great, virtuous guy you are, despite all the genocide you’re doing.

If Esmeralda had been portrayed much more “innocently,” the point the movie makes about male entitlement wouldn’t have been as strong. Esmeralda is unmistakably a sexy, sexual woman, and you still don’t get to just do whatever you want with her. It’s important. A miracle, even, that this is a major part of a movie aimed at kids. When people say they want Disney to go back to making Hunchbacks of Notre Dames instead of the “garbage” they’re doing now I always roll my eyes but in this one respect, I agree. I’d like something edgier and ultimately more valuable from Disney occasionally.

Look at how she’s this woman that men can’t stop just flat out grabbing.

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… why does he think he should just sneak up behind her?

After this, of course, he earns her trust and respect and doesn’t pull this crap again.

The crown jewel is, of course:

Blegh.

Anyway. With Quasimodo, on the other hand – if they’re touching, she’s often the one who initiates it.

And these moments are always really sweet and thematic or whatever.

The moment that stands out where Quasi is the one rather forcefully initiating contact is, well:

I’m sure there are others, like when he’s helping her escape the cathedral or when he thinks she’s dead but the point still stands. There are clear differences in how these men act towards her, what is being coded as wrong and unacceptable, and what is demonstrated to be right.

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I’m not one of the people who wishes Phoebus wasn’t in it and the romance had been between these two because one thing we are sorely lacking in this world is portrayals of male/female friendship. I think it’s perfect the way it is, though I do get the yearning for this romance too. But it’s OK. There are other women in Paris.

Anyway, especially in a movie that goes all in on male entitlement to women’s bodies and love, having a scene where Quasi gets all heartbroken and then moves on, remains her friend, doesn’t, ultimately, anyway, resent her boyfriend, saves her life from the guy killing her because he can’t have her… is cool.

The word “cool” covers it, right?

Meg

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AKA, the best thing in Hercules.

Maybe most out of all other Disney ladies, at least the ones who aren’t villains, Meg is jaded, cynical, worldly.

“Well, you know how men are. They think ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and ‘get lost’ means ‘take me, I’m yours.'”

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Regarding these ^, first, she’s great, second, Hercules is the cutest, and third, her stinger, “Don’t worry, Shorty here can explain it to ya later” is fantastic and deserved.

Meg is soundly mistreated throughout this movie, and a good chunk of that mistreatment is, again, this is another woman various men can’t stop grabbing. But there are also moments where the good characters are overly hostile towards her as well.

Phil is the worst to her, and some of the time his mistrust and anger towards her are justified but mostly his attitude is pretty garbage. Then Hercules himself, when Hades tells him Meg’s his henchwoman, just – like – dude, let her talk. If you’d let her talk, she’d tell you the whole stupid story in which she’s only sort of to blame, and even then, not really.

She’s sad and indentured. Come on, now.

And I know, we need him to get really really sad and feel all betrayed because we require some dramatic tension, but it’s still a little tiring when she’s right next to him and he could have just asked her to explain it to him after the fact. And if he really is the nice, understanding guy that the entire Meg relationship is painting him to be, he probably wouldn’t have blown up right away.

Then there’s Hades himself. Since Hades is the villain, everything he does is wrong so I guess it’s fine how extremely grabby he is with her the whole time.

Hades is the worst.

He’s not worse than Frollo but he is pretty bad still.

While collecting images of him seizing her by the shoulders and being gross about “curves” I remembered that he even grabs her spirit and mimes her talking to Hercules, so here’s that:

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That’s – yeah. That’s not cool. Hercules’s face is the truth there, as is the part where he megasonic-punches him into the pool of the dead for this.

It’s just so extremely disrespectful. Again, he’s the villain, but Meg gets snarked at way too much by the good guys too, which is lousy.

Meg, you deserved better. Which is something Hercules knows (throughout most of the movie, anyway).

I like her as she is, but the fact that she’s all but blameless for her situation (she sold her soul to Hades with the best of intentions, after all) is something I’ll note.

If Meg was working for Hades out of a general lack of consideration for people around her and had to realize the error of her ways, like Kuzco in Emporer’s New Groove, it would just be… better. First because it would make how angry Herc gets make more sense.

More importantly, though, and this is a recurring theme here at OwlMachine, we really want, nay, need, some unlikable, morally complicated women characters in Disney movies. Honestly, Maleficent in Maleficent is a START. We need them to pick up the ball they started rolling there and go way bigger.

Maybe not way bigger. But we wouldn’t say no to a female Kuzco.

Please?

Jane

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I’m not a huge watcher of Tarzan so mostly I know that Jane is a very enthusiastic zoology/art nerd. Which is cool.

I do like this one moment where she’s the one who initiates the kiss at the end and he doesn’t know what that is so she gets all embarrassed.

CuuuuuuuuuuuUUUUUUte.

Like all of the ladies so far on this list, she’s here to fill the love interest role, and although I prefer the almost kind of edgy version they did with Meg – the cynical, downright jaded  version of the love interest – Jane is pretty great too. She’s warm, enthusiastic, and empathetic. Pretty much impossible not to like, is Jane.

Nani

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I would die for Nani.

This girl has it all: tragically dead parents, a traumatized/eccentric/probably needs some therapy little sister that she is now the sole guardian for, a violent alien dog, no job and tourist season is over, a really hyper-vigilant social worker hounding her every step, a love interest she can’t actually deal with right now, and more aliens coming to destroy her house.

Poor Nani.

Her relationship with Lilo is a typical explosive but close sister relationship, strained these days mainly due to the dead-parent thing. And also because The State keeps threatening to take Lilo away, which is very unhelpful.

Thanks, Stitch.

There’s really nothing else to say about her, at least, not that I can think of now. How about a bullet list? That always helps when I just like something and wouldn’t change it one bit.

Nani for president:

  • because she’s good to the core
  • she’s doing a fantastic job considering her circumstances
  • she is holding it together like a champ and I’m not even exaggerating when I say: her presence in Lilo and Stitch is always legitimately inspirational and comforting
  • the part where she tells Stitch she knows he can talk, then he says, “OK, OK,” and she screams and hits him is GOLD
  • David could tell you the rest
  • I wish every Lilo could have a Nani looking out for them.

The End

And that’s it for this era of Disney movies. I’d like to talk about each of them in more detail some other time because these characters are great and should get talked about more.


*I know this because of this Lindsay Ellis essay which is always worth a watch

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Three’s Abandoned Princess Appreciation Post

This post is a thing Three wrote months ago and then abandoned. Apparently she abandoned it because she was under the impression that she had already posted it. It doesn’t have a conclusion but I’m posting it anyway because it’s pro-Princess and why not, we could use more of that always.


For most of my life, I have been confused and fascinated by “Baby On Board” bumper stickers. My primary concern is this: If you do not, in fact, have a baby on board, is it then okay to crash into you? No? Then isn’t the sticker a little redundant?

I suppose I can forgive the existence of these stickers since they are well-intentioned – they mean to remind people to drive safely. I’m okay with that. However, every day when I get to work, I park next to a car which has two crown-shaped bumper stickers.

The blue: “King on Route.”

The pink: “Princess on Route.”

I’m sorry, I have to ask. Assuming that these do not refer to legitimate royalty, why does your son get to be King and your daughter is a mere Princess? That was obviously a deliberate marketing decision made by someone, somewhere. Do we not like the word ‘prince’? Or, worse, do we mistrust the word ‘queen’?

Or… are we using the traditional patriarchal monarchy in which your son is the Crown Prince (still not King, but anyway) and therefore your daughter will be Princess for life because she’s not entitled to rule unless your son dies with no heirs?

Gotta say, since this isn’s a real monarchy (again I’m making an assumption, but if these people really are royalty, why do they work in the same building as me?) why can’t you stretch reality just a tad further and make your daughter a Queen?

Thus, every morning, I am reminded about Princesses and all the rules and regulations that come with being one. And this is where I’ll begin.

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“SHE DOES NOT DOODLE”

A Princess Is a Role Model

I’m the princess. I’m the example. I’ve got duties, responsibilities, expectations. My whole life is planned out, until the day I become, well, my mother. She’s in charge of every single day of my life.

The requirement for Princesses to be Role Models goes beyond the lessons Merida gets from her mother in Brave. Indeed, when Brave was released, we were inundated with criticism about Merida and her suitability as a role model for girls. Clearly, these people either didn’t watch the movie or just completely, embarrassingly, missed the point. But I digress: Today is about Disney.

While Disney certainly relies on traditional female narratives more than it should, it is also not afraid to unpack those narratives. As the Disney Renaissance rolled around, we saw princesses begin to participate more actively in their stories, and Disney began to provide some gentle commentary on the patterns we tend to see in our female characters.

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G:”And you know who that little wife will be?”/B: “Let me think.”

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Gaston is the best thing about this movie. He, and the way Belle reacts to him, hit way too close to home.

While Ariel pursues a dream of her own, and Jasmine plays a side-role in someone else’s adventure, Belle’s story has the most poignant animate metaphor ever for all Patriarchy who marches into her house and tells her that she’ll be marrying him. And as we all have at some point or another, Belle rolls her eyes and then tricks him into leaving her house so she can get on with her life.

Four years later, this happened:

Pocahontas

“Is all my dreaming at an end?”

Pocahontas, like Belle, is faced with a traditional narrative: Marry the man who we’ve deemed good enough for you. In fact, Pocahontas’ narrative is a little less on-the-nose than Belle’s, because her father is in on it – and because Kocoum seems to be perfectly nice, if serious. Despite this movie’s (many) flaws, it opened the Disney Door to the idea that even if a man is decent and good looking and  your dad likes him, a woman might not want to bone him and shouldn’t have to. HMMMMMM IMAGINE THAT. And it isn’t even because she’s after John Smith instead, because she hasn’t met him yet. She just doesn’t want the future she envisions when she imagines herself married to stoic warrior dude.

Now, this isn’t groundbreaking stuff. These are tropes in themselves that belong to many female characters outside of the Disney and Fairy Tale realm, where they don’t go for the one guy and instead go for the other guy (see: every Romantic Comedy ever). So let’s get into the real deep-fried tofu of the discussion with my three personal favourites.

Mulan and the Female Narrative

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“Can I just-“

There she is. You knew it was coming.

Mulan depicts an extremely strict cultural narrative for women, referenced again and again in song, dialogue, and imagery like this:

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Literally painting her face to look like “a perfect porcelain doll.” There’s a reason why many complaints about the tendencies of women in Disney end in: “Well, except Mulan.” Also, I could watch this GIF all day. I wish I had those liquid eyeliner skills.

Self-image, or “reflection,” is one symbol the movie uses to not-so-subtly talk about the female narrative and how it doesn’t quite suit all of us. While Belle and Pocahontas lamented being expected to marry men they weren’t really into, Mulan didn’t even mention the that they were attempting to marry her off – she sings about the fact that her personality is at odds with the role she is expected to play as a woman, wife, and daughter.

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“Can it be, I’m not meant to play this part?”

The crux of this issue, of course, is that being who she is would “break [her] family’s heart.” While it’s clear that she feels conflicted about who and what to be at this stage in her life, the choice is taken away from her when her father is summoned back to the army – now that she has to save her father’s life, she grasps the opportunity to escape as an added bonus.

That reflection imagery comes back when Mulan goes to chop her hair off, in this genius sequence which is only more genius with soundtrack:

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Thus, Mulan solidifies her commitment to rejecting her narrative that society is trying to impose on her because she is female, while taking one last look at her own face in the reflection of her father’s sword. Symbolism.

Tiana and the Female Narrative

Tiana

“Look out boys, I’m coming through!”

We discussed this one recently (erm’s note: haha, recently), touching on how Tiana rejects the idea of fairy tales and wants to gain everything through hard work. We can try reading this through a feminist lens as well. Shall we?

The traditional female narrative we like to criticize Disney for involves a lady like Cinderella sitting pretty while the plot happens around her. Some ladies, like Belle and Mulan, get dragged into adventure because they have to save their fathers, and in doing so manage to become self-actualized. But they didn’t do it on their own – they were compelled by circumstance.

Tiana is also technically compelled by circumstance once the frog stuff happens, but the difference between her and her fellow princesses is that unlike Cinderella, Belle, and even Mulan, she isn’t waiting around at home passively dreaming about how nice it would be if things were different, which is what Cinderella does before starting her day and in between her chores, and it’s what Belle does after Gaston proposes to her, and it’s what Mulan does before the conscription notice happens. Not that this sort of passivity is inherently bad, because it’s not. It’s relatable, for one thing. A lot of life is being a little patient and dreamy. But it is nice, for a change, to have a female character out there taking charge and actively trying to make her dream happen as soon as we first see her as an adult working two jobs. Ambition. It’s a scary thing for women to have, apparently, but Tiana has it in spades. (erm’s note: we should really talk about how the movie is a little really weird about Tiana and her ambitions at some point but for now just take it for what it is.)

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“Prince? But I didn’t wish for any -“

Fairy tale circumstance only slows her down, if we’re pretending that the main narrative is Tiana getting her restaurant (which… it kind of is). Between froggy princes and racist realtors, it seems like everything is working against Tiana’s Palace.

But even though she has to temporarily stop chasing her restaurateur dreams and fall in love real quick, the role that Tiana plays in her fairy tale is a role often held by a man.

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“Yep, I’m used to it. Guys, I want a castle.”

Like this man, for example.

Tangled is a traditional story of optimism VS cynicism, in which optimism wins out because Disney and also because Children’s Lit. We have our beautiful, virtuous, wide-eyed optimist Princess, and then we have Flynn Rider, who is just too good for all of this fairy tale stuff. Or so he thinks.

The new renaissance princess of The Princess and the Frog is probably this lady:

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Tiana is held in stark contrast to Lotte throughout the film:

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“I’d really like to help you, but I just do not kiss frogs.”

Tiana is no thief, and she’s not a “heartless” “cynic,” but as far as she’s concerned at the beginning, she is definitely too good for this fairy tale nonsense. The movie sets out to prove her wrong about love and magic and fairy tales, and in doing so, it completely turns Disney stereotypes on their heads by letting the princess change her own mind rather than her dude’s.

Elsa, Anna, and the Female Narrative

Here’s another movie that deliberately set out to deconstruct female narratives.

Let’s talk about Anna first.

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“We would like your blessing of our marriage.”

So Anna is supposed to be the traditional princess in this movie. She checks all the boxes – cooped up with no social life to speak of, gets compelled to go on an adventure to save someone else, falls in love immediately and decides to get married right away… Every part of her story mimics the Renaissance princesses.

Until:

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“If only somebody loved you.”

*Glass shatters* This isn’t a Renaissance movie, folks.

Now, I think we all saw the Anna/Kristoff thing coming, so I doubt many of us were completely shocked by this reveal. However, it was the first time in any Disney film that a Princess has it wrong about her Prince. Until now, we’ve been very reverent toward the idea of true love, but Frozen argues that it’s a little more complicated than that.

But this isn’t about romantic, prince/princess love, it’s about women. So what does Anna tell us about women in Disney?

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“Some people are worth melting for.”

From the beginning, this was a movie about sisters in particular, but Olaf’s love for Anna makes an important point: Love isn’t all princes and princesses. Sometimes it’s family. Sometimes it’s animals. Sometimes it’s snowmen. And all of it has power. In other words – the romantic story arc for women is not all we’re good for. Women have plenty of other stories to tell:

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Like when we throw ourselves in front of a sword to save our sisters.

Elsa is a whole other thing. First of all, is she the first Disney Queen? She is, right? I mean, the first Disney Queen who isn’t a villain. (erm’s note: she’s forgotten Nala and Nala counts OK I don’t care that she isn’t human.)

So she’s got that going for her. She’s also got a bit of a Mulan thing going on, except where Mulan is bad at being ladylike, Elsa is bad at not killing everyone around her with her ice powers. She knows that if she were honest about who and what she is, she would be letting an entire kingdom down. She puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself to keep everything as it should be.

And then:

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While Mulan had to take drastic steps to save her father, Elsa reveals her magic in front of the whole kingdom, so she flees. It’s simply time to face the storm inside of her.

She has already broken the mold at this point, but I also want to take a quick second to discuss the following:

Let it Go as a Source of Female Empowerment

As evidence, I present all the little girls who sang this song for like a year straight. It wasn’t annoying at all. Okay, it was annoying.

Only because I hate kids.

But anyway, let’s break this thing down, shall we?


That’s where it ends.

Because she wrote a whole separate post about “Let it Go” which is here.

 

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.

stealth confession 8korrasami2

lin and sukuviraold tophkorrasamitoph and katara 2toph su and lindangerous ladies 2korrasami3

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.

azula smile

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: 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: Su and Lin Party

Week 7: Cool AF Old People Parties

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

Day 20 is for the badass metal-bending sisters and the badass things they do.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Su and Lin aren’t as old as Iroh (we… think…) but they’re both gray-haired ladies with very impressive credentials and combat abilities, so they’re getting a party whether they want one or not.

Lin Beifong leaps into danger more times than we can count in Korra. She sacrifices herself to let the airbending family escape, knowing that it probably means she’ll be losing her bending in the process. In Book 3, she volunteers for the job as bait so that Su can take P’li out as she tries to combust her. She and Su dive into the fray of Red Lotus talent in order to scoop the unconscious Korra out. As Meelo says, “That lady is my hero.”

The first time we meet her, this happens:

lin3

That… is the best thing in the universe.

She and Korra do begin to grudgingly respect each other without either of them giving up their stubbornness, which we love.

Lin is #TeamNoKids4Eva.

lin4

She’s also bound and determined to be the MVP in every battle and she usually succeeds.

That has bonus Korra being awesome, but man is Lin the MVP here.

She’s Republic City’s police chief, taking after her mom, and living and working under this perpetual statue of said mom, who is also the Greatest Earthbender in the World.

toph at police station

Not that her younger sister Su doesn’t have a statue of her mom staring down at her whenever she’s just trying to live and work. In fact, by our count, she has two in Zaofu.

While Lin tries to emulate her mother by following her footsteps into the police force and eventually as the chief, Su does her version by founding an entire city dedicated to perfecting all sorts of specialties, with metal bending being the focus. Lin’s metal benders are cops, Su’s are guards, soldiers, but also dancers and athletes.

su metal dancing

She’s handy (but not 100% handy) with metallic poison.

Su and Lin also differ in how they emulate their mother when it comes to their family life. Lin is a loner forever (although she’s still just a tad bitter about the Tenzin break-up), but Su, who longed for more structure and more emphasis on family while she was growing up, has a gigantic family that she’s extremely overprotective of, sometimes to a fault.

Unsurprisingly, the really impressive stuff happens when all the Beifongs get together to do some serious damage.

The other best thing in the universe, for example, is when Mr. Su didn’t want to try escaping due to his extreme fear of heights, so Lin just kind of tosses him.

That’s what sisters-in-law are for.

And ignore the weird, altered sound for this beautiful moment in which Su, Lin, and Lin’s sons battle Kuvira and her mecha tanks, eventually joined by mama Toph.

 

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: 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: Complicated Villains

Week 3: Avatar Villains

Day 7: Azula
Day 8: The Complicated Villains
Day 9: Ozai and the Voldemort Problem

Day 8 is for villains with some depth to them. So, not Ozai, and not Unalaq or Vaatu. And not Azula, who we’ve covered, and who isn’t that complicated.

Content warning: Suicide.

Super spoilery spoilers in this one.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Amon

amon

Managing to be at least three times as scary as Ozai ever was, Amon also had an ideology that sort of made sense and a tragic backstory that explained everything.

Amon heads a movement of people determined to create perfect equality for all in Avatar land, and the only way to achieve this is to take people’s bending away. Amon has this ability and no one can figure out how he does it, until it’s explained later.

Amon’s ending is also perhaps the most tragic of all the villains. It’s nothing short of horrifying.

Tarrlok put an end to his own sad story. It’s doubly awful because you can trace these horrifying events back to a choice Aang makes – not that this is his fault, because everyone else involved certainly has their own agency. But still. Tiny baby Aang would feel so responsible for this.

The Red Lotus

Apart from being the most interesting villains when it comes to their bending abilities, the Red Lotus actually have an ideology that isn’t just about them having all the power when everything eventually goes according to their plan. They’re like Amon in that way, but their ideology is much stupider than Amon’s “equality for all.”

That’s why Zaheer is much more interesting when he’s fighting than when he’s speaking, and also why it’s OK for Bolin to just “put a sock in it” at the end. “We’d be better off without world leaders.” Whatever you say, bud. But there are no libertarians in an ice storm, as someone funny on Twitter once said.

Of course all you’d need in an ice storm in Avatar land is a couple of decent water benders, but the point still more or less stands.

How about, “There are no libertarians in a city invaded by spirit vines?” That one works, yes?

Zaheer’s merry band of talented anarchists all die and he ends up imprisoned for life, but in Book 4 Korra journeys to talk to him, believing that if she can see him face to face and know for sure that he’s not a threat anymore, she will no longer be haunted by him. Instead, Zaheer himself acts as Korra’s spiritual guide and helps her get over her fear of their past encounter, because, as he says, their interests are currently temporarily aligned – Zaheer totes wouldn’t be big on mega mecha-suit driving dictators, after all.

Speaking of which…

Kuvira

A lady dictator!!!!!!!!!!!!

This shouldn’t be so exciting but THANK YOU UNIVERSE, ALL OF THE DEITIES, CEILING CAT ET AL for this show and its multitudinous depictions of all of the women doing all of the things.

What’s even better about Kuvira is that she’s motivated by both personal politics and a deep sense of disappointment in her hero, Su, for not stepping up when she was offered the job that Kuvira then took and ran with, forever and ever. A lot of what Kuvira does in Book 4 is dedicated specifically to revenging herself on Su for not doing what Kuvira wanted her to do: taking the opportunity to unite the Earth Kingdom with her utopian ideals and advanced technology, and getting rid of a regressive monarchy. Suyin Beifong is Kuvira’s mother figure as well as her teacher, mentor, and leader, and Kuvira feels that Su’s refusal to take on the role of interrim Earth Kingdom leader is akin to the abandonment of an unwanted child.

We know all of this because Korra is determined, this time, to talk to her villain, to empathize with her, feel compassion for her, and make her see reason. Everyone tells her this is foolish.

But! Kuvira is the one and only villain who apologizes! Korra gets through to her eventually! Even though she will have to face justice – and she even says that she’ll face whatever justice the republic chooses! This is just great. Bless this show.

Zuko

And finally there’s Zuko, who spends Book 1 being an angry jerk, Book 2 being a confused and angry jerk, and Book 3 redeeming himself. He’s not really a villain. Anyone could see just a few episodes into Book 1 that he’d eventually be redeemed, but man, his redemption journey is beautiful and painful and heart-wrenching and IROH and omg.

Poor Zu-Zu.

30 Days of Avatar: What’s Up with Azula?

Week 3: Avatar Villains

Day 7: Azula
Day 8: The Complicated Villains
Day 9: Ozai and the Voldemort Problem

Day 7 is for Azula being amazing. And also pretty evil.

Spoily spoilers.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

Because she’s a people person, obviously.

So Iroh says of Azula in “Bitter Work,” “She’s crazy and she needs to go down.” That’s never sat especially well with us, considering Iroh really is the wisest character in the show. Because there has to be more to Azula than being “crazy,” right? And that’s not even with unpacking the mental illness stigmatization going on there.

Can we just say: Azula isn’t mentally ill – at least – we don’t think so. She has just lived unchecked, being the favourite of a warmongering genocidal dickface of a father and having a mother who tried to set her right but then, mysteriously, had to leave court forever after committing regicide to seal a deal with her husband to stop him killing their son at the behest of his grandfather upon whom the regicide was committed, as you do.

But Azula’s motivations aren’t all that clear. She just seems to be taking after her father a little bit too much, wanting all the power and also being really good at getting it. Azula is a captivating character but she’s not all that complex. She doesn’t have any development until the last half of Book 3, and even then all we learn is that, a) the fact that her mother was more supportive towards Zuko than her really messed her up, whatever she says, and b) that she might be an incredibly efficient agent working for her father, but her particular brand of perfectionism makes her completely fall apart when she’s actually in charge of something, and c) that she’s really bad at talking to boys (RELATABLE!)

“That’s a sharp outfit, Chan. Careful, you could puncture the hull of an Empire Class Fire Nation battleship, leaving thousands to drown at sea. Because… it’s so sharp.”

She’s probably bad at it because as she says, when Ty Lee tells her how to do it properly, it’s so shallow and stupid.

But this episode is so cringey.

What that cringey episode does is humanize her, just a little. And it sets up the bigger issue with her, which is her resentment of Zuko and Ursa’s bond.

The Agni Kai that was always meant to be between Zuko and Azula, which is probably the most beautiful battle in the series, should reasonably have been Azula’s, no question. But her paranoia makes her incapable of winning, so she gets the better of Zuko by cheating and exploiting his basic human decency at the same time.

Here’s the whole thing sped up a little because copyright laws, I guess:

Pay special attention to how she reacts to Zuko’s not being dead.

And how Katara reacts to her reaction.

This is a perfect defeat for Azula, but it’s not celebratory at all. It’s not like when someone evil dies in Game of Thrones – look, even the “Ed, fetch me a block,” scene in A Dance with Dragons had me jumping up and down – that small amount of character development makes us sympathize with her. We get it. We watched her get what she wanted and then fall completely to pieces, because even in her most triumphant moment she hasn’t actually filled the void.

There’s also the fact that she’s so fun to watch before this happens. Zuko was sinister enough in Book 1, but he was a little inept. Aang, Sokka, and Katara all got the better of him on plenty of occasions, sometimes quite humiliatingly. But when Azula shows up in Book 2, she’s never truly defeated. Our heroes escape Azula, they don’t beat her.

And there is nothing like watching a woman on a power trip, which is something we’ve said a billion times on this blog by now and we’ll probably say it a billion more times.

In The Last Airbender, if women on power trips is what you’re looking for, Azula is where it’s at.

azula never even a player

This is when she pontificates about the divine right to rule and then says, “Don’t flatter yourself. You were never even a player,” to stupid Long Feng. So. Hero.

azula lightning

If Azula had been in the Red Lotus (which – she wouldn’t be, considering her feelings about the divine right to rule mentioned above), Korra might actually have died, in her Book 3.

azula blue fire

This is how you hold court.

azula lightning 2

#ThatMomentWhen you figure out how to win the Agni Kai. Sneaky, sneaky, Azula.

Superheroes, Lately

Let’s talk about three superhero movies that came out this year and the important things they did that superhero movies haven’t previously done in my opinion which is a good opinion and is a very informed opinion as always. (Hint – no, it’s not the latter and probably not the former either. But I think I’m on to a couple of things, at least.)

I’d watch Wonder WomanGuardians of the Galaxy 2, and Lego Batman before reading. Also I’d just watch all of those movies in general. So.

In brief:

Wonder Woman

Well, it’s about a female superhero. That alone isn’t new, but it’s also actually critically and financially successful, which is new for a woman-led superhero movie. It gives the love interest really important things to do, which makes it unique among the superhero movies I’ve seen. It’s also clearly actually about something, morality-wise. I’d argue that most of them aren’t, apart from maybe the responsibilities of power – and only if it’s one of the good Spider-Man movies. Most of them present some sort of simplistic good vs evil conflict that we’re supposed to just take at face value, because if we start questioning it it all starts to fall apart (why is Bruce Wayne so rich and can he please just stop, for example). They’re also more interested in being character-driven and all about the spectacle, which would be more than fine usually (superheroes are supposed to be fun, otherwise what’s the point). But with Marvel producing a billion a minute and with DC producing a bunch that are pretty impressively not entertaining or fun in the slightest, it’s getting super boring up in here without even basic introspection or bigger attempts to shake things up. But yeah, this one is about stuff. Pretty basic stuff but stuff nonetheless, and I’m interested to see if future Wonder Woman movies are also actually about stuff in more ways than this first one is.

Guardians of the Galaxy

This one paired up all of the characters (except Groot) and they all discussed their flaws and past mistakes and vulnerability with each other, to varying degrees. For me, the most intriguing pairs were Gamora/Nebula and Rocket/Yondu. Quill/Dickface was more important to the plot than it was important for character development (if I’m remembering correctly) and Drax/Mantis was comic-reliefy. But either way, I found it really engaging, and it meant that I liked this one waaaaay better than the first one, which I think is a minority opinion but I’m thrilled to have it even if I have to be alone.

Lego Batman

Finally, Batman is deservedly, deservedlydeservedly being mocked. Catharsis, at long last.

Also Voldemort was in it a lot. I told everyone who asked me how it was after I saw it that he was prominently featured and the reaction to that was, universally, “… what?”

Now, in length:

Superheroes are weird, and also Pixar movies make me feel all sorts of things

“Superhero movies aren’t about anything,” I just said, cruelly. I do understand why it has to be that way. There are lots of reasons but I think the main and obvious and boring one is that if you make a story be entirely about morality, it’s not going to be a good story. It doesn’t need to be said because it is pretty obvious, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: you need to strike a balance. Characters and the small, specific plot that they have to work their way through need to be at the forefront – but some sort of morality should be behind it and will be there whether you try to put it there or not – especially if it’s a story about powerful people trying to protect vulnerable people from other powerful people, which is supposedly what all superhero stories are.

My problem then is not that there isn’t morality in these movies, it’s more that I think these movies specifically would lend themselves to important morality discussions, but they tend to waste that opportunity. So now let’s talk about Pixar movies for a while.

I have what I suspect are silly problems with Wall-E that resemble my probably silly problems with superhero movies in general. But at the risk of sounding like a humorless moralist, I’ll go into it anyway. I think Wall-E has a moral that doesn’t go along with its plot. The moral is that you shouldn’t just do boring, repetitive things or you’ll miss out on life. And that’s fine, but there’s also the pesky thing where they have a plant, which, as far as anyone knows throughout the entire movie, is the only plant on earth. But the plant is treated as incidental. It’s why Eve shows up on earth and it’s what the captain, who is the best character, is invested in, but is otherwise unimportant. Wall-E and Eve’s love story is what’s centered, and the return to earth is just the subplot, as it should be. But the moment that Auto crushes Wall-E is the moment the moral plot gets swallowed by the love story, because now they aren’t going home to start taking responsibility for destroying it, but rather because the stupid robot needs to be repaired. Because the plant has previously been Eve’s sole directive but now Wall-E is and blaaaaaaah I don’t care, I’m too worried about the plant starting to wilt to care about the robot.

At this point I become a reluctant viewer. Because the entire moral of Wall-E is to forget about your job. Just, toss it aside in complete abandon so that you can do what’s important to you personally instead. For Mo, it’s cleaning Wall-E. For all of the broken robots, it’s being completely useless and somewhat dangerous, let’s be real. For Wall-E and Eve it’s holding hands.

BUT OMG EVE THE PLANT!!!!! THE WHOLE WORLD IS DEAD AND NOW YOU ALL HAVE A CHANCE TO CLEAN IT UP I DON’T CARE THAT YOU WANT TO HOLD HANDS YOU’RE JUST ROBOTS AND SOMETIMES YOUR JOBS ARE ACTUALLY VITAL AND YOU NEED TO DO THEM PROPERLY I MEAN GET THAT MASSAGE THERAPY ROBOT REPAIRED BEFORE THEY KILL SOMEBODY WHY DO I HAVE TO EXPLAIN THIS

Maybe I have a heart of stone but Wall-E could have actually died and I wouldn’t have cared at all. I was way more invested in the return to earth for sake of, just, earth. That’s probably because seeing endless piles of garbage everywhere made me actually upset and I stopped being a passive audience-member and started being an environmentalist. But the sort of sentimentality they were going for with Wall-E and Eve works like a charm on me if the story meshes character and moral flawlessly, which Pixar does with Inside Out. The moral is that sadness is a good thing and that being relentlessly happy in every context can be thoroughly damaging, which is pretty revolutionary. I think Bing Bong’s death is… let’s just say it’s sad. Very sad. I care about that one. And that’s coming from me, the person who thought, as soon as Bing Bong showed up on screen, “OMG that character has to die before the end or this movie will have no integrity.” And I stand by that opinion.

Sorry. As well as being more likely to get attached to a plant in a shoe than a personified romance robot, I have a major problem with Pixar relentlessly valuing the infantilizing of female characters. I hate – HATE – the Jessie/Emily scene in TS2. I hate it so much. I shouldn’t hate it as much as I do but by golly I hate that scene. To be fair, they do this with male characters too and I hate it then also, but I find it particularly insidious when it’s girls. I liked my childhood; I look back on it fondly. But I’m also super glad that I got to grow up and I get really mad when people treat me like a child despite the fact that I achieved adulthood and it’s a thing that happens to women all the time. So Pixar needs to stop. And they did when Bing Bong died and Riley gets to experience new, complicated, reaching-age-of-maturity emotions without clinging to things that were only relevant to her as a toddler, and it’s amazing that he recognizes this and that he can still be helpful to her by sacrificing himself to get Joy back to where she belongs, but his death is still really, really sad.

To summarize: meshing character/plot/morality is crucial and easy to get wrong and it’s going to make different people respond differently to different movies because your mileage may vary, of course. But I think that this sort of thing should, in theory, be easy in superhero stories, maybe even easier in superhero movies than Pixar films. Superheroes are effortlessly cool, and they also kind of have to be about the good/evil binary, so, really they should just write themselves.

And yet, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I’m only going by recent movies, though. I’m sure the old Superman movies did a reasonably good job with this. I’ve heard of the one that tries to take on the nuke issue and does a kind of naive job of it, but at least, as far as I’m concerned, it took on that issue. Because lately I haven’t seen actual morality discussed in superhero movies and I think they could use those discussions. And what I mean by that starts at Superhero Ethics 101: Should You Even Be Doing This At All I Mean Really You Can So Easily Kill So Many People Just By Doing This Stuff Please Think About it Carefully at Least Once in the Run Time. And then there’s Superhero Ethics 102: What to do When “Some Lunatic Comes Along with a Sadistic Choice.” We’ll get to that one in a minute.

Uncle Ben’s “With great power comes great responsibility,” is the closest thing recent superhero movies come to examining what responsibilities superheroes have. Peter learns the lesson on a very personal level, since his spite is indirectly responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, and then I guess he vows to fight crime, because he can, being a wall-climber. I’d like to see a little more focus on the commitment to do-goodery. It’s often taken as a given, and goes unquestioned. It stops at that one quote. “With great power comes great responsibility.” But I have no idea what that means to any of these dudes personally, beyond, “Let’s fight petty crime in this city and wait around for a supervillain to show up and then fight that guy too.” What are their values, these superdudes? Why petty crime, specifically? And why is it so passive, the hanging out fighting petty crime until some other costumed dude shows up? Why are superheroes not more proactive about any of this stuff? How exactly are they committed to making the world a better place, other than stopping crimes that are conveniently in progress right when they show up?

Focusing on Spider-Man, I could ask: are spider powers really the best way to protect New Yorkers from crime? I get that spider powers are the coolest visual way to fight crime in New York, but is it really just car chases and muggings and bank robberies and fires and back alley rapists that Peter should be focusing on, to live up to Uncle Ben’s expectations about taking responsibility? There’s other stuff going on, too, like police brutality. Or homelessness. Has – has a superhero ever done something for a homeless person, in a movie? Maybe some self-reflection would be nice, occasionally. Part of the reason that doesn’t happen is the supervillains, who apart from being super villainous, are also super convenient. The heroes are just out and about, doing small-time hero work, stopping cliché crime people, and I assume they go home and contemplate their strategies and maybe look into ways to get rid of the causes of petty crime rather than just whipping around putting bank robbers in huge spiderwebs, because Peter needs to pay the rent and also eventually he’s going to get older and he won’t be able to do this anymore so maybe trying to make the crime rate go down in ways that don’t require his physical presence and prowess would be prudent, and then maybe poverty-stricken Peter Parker starts thinking about different ways he could try to use his powers to shelter homeless people or to combat crimes that don’t generally get treated like crimes because society is annoying – like what are the superhero ethics of going against the police to stop them hurting people they’re arresting, whether they’re arresting them rightly or wrongly, and not just going against the police because it looks cool (TBF it probably shouldn’t be a white character who does that but Miles Morales – I’m just saying)? I really want to see all of that stuff explored, but inevitably right at that point in all of these movies is when the supervillain shows up and all of the interesting stuff that could have happened just doesn’t happen.

Also I know Watchmen exists but it doesn’t count. It’s too cynical to be included in this discussion. I strongly believe that superhero stories don’t have to be cynical in order to take on interesting, thought-provoking, real-world relevant morality issues. Not to disparage Watchmen because it is very good, but it isn’t useful here.

Speaking of cynicism, the first Guardians movie briefly does a thing in which the characters debate whether they should risk their lives to literally save the galaxy – the big scene about this is probably the best scene in there. This happens on and off throughout the movie but when it comes right down to it, they barely even contemplate the possibility of trying to run, because despite how cynical most of them are, they believe in friendship and stuff – shockingly, it has to be said. And it is the power of friendship that both saves their lives, and then the galaxy, in the span of maybe five or ten minutes.

But there isn’t really any commentary there about making a tough choice because it’s the right one. There probably shouldn’t be, because the movie is supposed to be mostly comedic but then sincere at the end, so it has to remain comedic enough throughout to allow for the sincerity of the climax to actually work without coming across as being as stupid and insincere as everything else these characters do. But that still means they aren’t really saying much about this stuff.

wonder woman

Wonder Woman doesn’t say all of the sophisticated and complex things it could have said about WWI or war in general. When Steve says, “I’m one of the good guys… those are the bad guys,” he’s not wrong, because those guys are specifically trying to return stolen plans for a devastating gas attack, an attack that would kill people on both sides, but the futility of the Allies/Central Powers conflict, and how a lot of posturing and egomania led to millions of deaths and plenty of devastation (not to mention that twenty years later an even worse one broke out that was directly a consequence of how badly the first one’s end was managed) is one heck of a discussion that could have happened and does not happen. It’s hard to have that discussion and still root for… anyone, to be fair. But because Wonder Woman does a broader thing at the end where she declares that she’s going to try, and keep trying, whether humanity deserves her labour or not, it still is sort of making a point about war. Despite how banal and commonplace and empowered real evil is during wars and leading up to them, she’s committed to trying to influence the world towards eventual peace. That makes her one of a kind, recently, and previously I do suspect it’s only Superman and the Naive Cold War Stuff that has tried to take on a cause worthy of a freaking superhero. I mean really.

Importantly – I don’t want to see superheroes taking on the Holocaust, or anything like that, because that would be in pretty bad taste and would be way more naive than Superman vs the Nukes. I just think that the movies set in modern times could stand to say something bold and useful about what people in various places of privilege should maybe sort of try to do with their privilege, since we have it.

But. Diana is proactive. She believes, fiercely, in her responsibility to the entire freaking world. She believes in protecting mankind even though she isn’t one of them. And the final decision she makes is to continue to pursue her goal of peace for everyone despite the fact that people are flawed. Her determination and belief are presented as naive and occasionally reckless, but ultimately she succeeds. Because, sure, Ares wasn’t disguised as that German guy, but he does exist and he does show up and she does have to kill him. And then there’s that no-man’s land scene where her idealism turns out to be perfectly fine, because she can back it up with superpowers. I’ve also seen a bit of griping about how Diana is constantly set up to learn things from Steve, but I actually think that they learn from each other fairly evenly. Sure, her boldness messes things up a couple of times, but he follows her into situations he declares are too risky like a billion times (OK fine, it’s maybe once or twice, but shut up) and it turns out to be fine, and she was right after all. Also this has nothing to do with superhero ethics but early on there’s this perfect moment where he tries to set himself up as a potential educator for her, since she’s a woman from an island filled only with women, and therefore obviously she wouldn’t know anything about this, on the subject of sexual pleasure. I think that’s what he’s trying to do, anyway. He says he’s virile because he’s a spy (lol?). And she’s like, “Dude, please.”

Later when they do have sex, it’s preceded by her explicitly asking him to tell her what typical long-term committed heteronormative romantic relationships are like and he says he has no idea, which I think is a good summary of who’s teaching who what. They’re both in extraordinary circumstances and are constantly having their ideas about what they and the people around them should or shouldn’t or can or can’t do challenged which is EXACTLY what superhero movies need more of. I think the reason this movie seems to achieve this so effortlessly is that it necessarily has to confront gender roles throughout the run time, so all of the not-specifically-gender-role-related things just naturally get the same treatment because they’re already conscious of and trying to challenge norms.

At the end as Diana battles her supervillain, the literal god of war, it’s not really him that’s the danger to her, or, crucially, to the people around her who she is supposed to be protecting, and influencing. She’s just battling herself. She has believed for most of the movie that guiding humanity toward peace is her job, so now that she has discovered that it’s going to be a lot harder for her to accomplish than she thought, and it might be impossible, does she want to do difficult work for people who may not be inherently good without an external evil influence after all? And then she decides that, yes, she does, and then that’s that.

She’s not only committed to physically ending war but to being an influential figure for the good, always. The influential figure part of her identity is also an aspect of superheroes that doesn’t get highlighted enough. There are some kids in Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and those parts are always really good, and I know Gotham-Joffrey is in Batman Begins and wannabe-Batmans are in The Dark Knight and there are orphans (or at least, a discussion about orphans) in The Dark Knight Rises, so it does happen, but it’s a thing that should happen more. Superheroes should more often actually reflect on the fact that their actions will inspire lots of people. If they make a mistake, they may unintentionally endorse a lot of terrible stuff and that’s a story line I already know I’d like better than “oh no Doc Oc has robot arms and stuff.” It’s also much, much better than another type of story that tends to emerge: “oh no, all of the ordinary people hate and fear these massively overpowered metahumans among them and they’re trying to stop them waaaah.” Sometimes that can be OK, like in any given X-men story, but personally I don’t think “superpowers as stand-ins for marginalization” works very well for good discussions about what marginalization is and how it works and why it needs to stop. It’s better for making marginalized people feel empowered, which is no small thing. But if your identity is marginalized because you can move all the metal around you at will, well, maybe you’re actually the privileged one, now. And they attempt to explore that with Magneto but it’s never a clear exploration of these ideas because they never fully own that the X-men literally are extremely dangerous to everyone else, if they choose to be, and that even the hatemongering rises out of an actually legitimate concern. They can’t. It would ruin the whole thing. So.

Also sometimes it isn’t OK. That part of the story in The Incredibles is important for setting up the plot and raising the stakes, but it’s also kind of uncomfortable, if you think about it long enough. And everyone who ever expressed a concern over Batman’s vigilantism was right and I hope they’re eventually vindicated. What Bruce needs is a good therapist.

I haven’t seen the most recent Captain America movie but I heard that it was about Iron Man deciding that maybe the Avengers need to be more careful about the things they do and the unintentional damage they cause, but the movie seems to think that’s silly and takes Cap’s side, which is, weirdly, “Nah.” So if I’d watched it I could go into more detail but that seems like it’s close to what I’m looking for – introspection-wise, at least. But it also sounds like it’s a clear rejection of the premise that maybe superheroes need to take several steps back in every situation, because they are way too powerful for comfort.

Someone on twitter talked briefly about how weird it is that superheroes are actually pretty fascist, if you think about it, and that no one talks about this. Well, hey, I think the movies themselves should talk about it. I think that might make an interesting superhero movie. Take just one conflict that often arises in these movies: the, “oh no, the supervillain is going to make the hero choose between x and the screaming female love interest because he can only save one in time!” And the hero always is actually able to save both. Here’s a thought: have the hero choose the love interest. Have the hero really own that selfish choice, and have to live with how they made a selfish choice that benefits only them and the person they love at the expense of others and they made the choice because they can. And if the hero chooses whatever x is? Well that isn’t much better. Why did the hero knowingly place a vulnerable person in a dangerous situation? Why didn’t they just make like Don Quixote and choose “to love, pure and chaste, from afar?” (I know that isn’t fair for Peter in the first movie because MJ being in danger is all Harry’s fault but still, even having lived through this experience, in the later movies he decides that it’s worth the risk to be with her, so…) Why do these movies always make it really easy on these characters – why do they get to have it both ways? Why are they never responsible for the actual damage they cause? Why are they not responsible for the conflicts they choose not to try to get involved with?

Beeeeecause superhero movies are, to a one, uniformly morally dull. It’s enough to make a marxist critic out of me, honestly. Why are we celebrating all of these silly-costumed ubermensches anyway, if they can’t even be bothered to do something about homelessness?

The stuff in Wonder Woman is definitely not as complex as I would have liked – and it doesn’t address the fascism thing, I mean, she’s literally a god – but I did write this paragraph once when I was talking about how Starkid keeps scooping mainstream popular culture:

My thing is a Harley Quinn movie where she dumps the Joker for good and that’s all. Throw some Batman cameos in there, maybe have Poison Ivy be the love interest, Catwoman cameos too because Catwoman is my queen. My thing is live-action Kim PossibleTeen Titans and literally no one is white. Superheroes fight grassroots battles too, like Beast Boy fights against the meat industry or Cyborg joins BLM. Superheroes literally stop wars. Those are the things I want.”

It seems to me that Wonder Woman is the closest thing to that last thing that I’ll be getting. And right now, I’m OK with that. It ever-so-slightly began a conversation about superhero responsibility and it took on a real, actual, gigantic issue that isn’t the stupid Joker again. And while sure, there’s never a discussion about “Hey Diana, use your powers judiciously maybe, people are delicate,” the entire final conflict is her clearly stating her intention to fight for people rather than ignore them because they aren’t perfect. I think this clear statement is kinder than the sorts of things that happen in movies like The Incredibles or The Dark Knight or whatever went on in Batman V Superman. It does highlight Diana’s decision to not drop a tank on Dr. Poison, even though she is awful. That’s promising, as far as I’m concerned.

And of course it centers a woman doing superhero things, and just like when I saw The Force Awakens, I hadn’t realized until I actually saw it happening how big of a deal it is, letting female characters be centered in the sorts of stories where previously only male characters have been centered.

So also, we need to start doing that with people of colour. It’s happening a little bit, but it needs to happen more. Stat. In Wonder Woman there are black Amazons which is great, but unfortunately because there’s only so much time we can spend on Amazon island it’s only Diana’s mother and aunt who get to say and do plot and thematically important things, and that’s too bad. Sameer is also a bit of a stereotype, which seems extremely unnecessary. This movie could have done a better job with this stuff, too, but what’s really important is those movies that will center superheroes who are POC. Black Panther looks good, eh? But that doesn’t excuse Marvel for not just having Miles Morales be their Spider-Man because we have enough Peter Parker movies, and some of them are really good. Come on.

One little side note before I move on: Big Hero 6 and Megamind both have better, more clearly stated, and more thematically relevant examinations of what it means to be a superhero and the responsibilities inherent in it than most (… all?) live action superhero movies do (I hesitate to say that maybe Wonder Woman does this pretty flawlessly too, because I think it does, but I’ve only seen it once and it’s still too fresh). And sure, a lot of that is that the better family films always more clearly state their moral while still embedding it nicely in the surrounding plot, and the morals are usually a lot simpler, but still.

Lego Zatana, is what I’m thinking. I don’t know much about Zatana but I’m willing to learn, people who make the Lego movies. And Disney animated women of colour Marvel superheroines that I don’t know the names of because I’m unfamiliar with comics generally and we don’t have any of those in the movie Marvelverse despite having an Ant Man, a Doctor Strange, and three Thor movies. I’m not nearly the first to point that out and yet it’s still 100% true.

One other little side note: a story where an ubermensch uses their mystical, magical powers ALWAYS with the greater good and responsibilities of power in mind and front and center is Avatar, both The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Which is part of why this blog is going to be clogged with posts about it for most of the summer. But yeah, Avatars are the true heroes that Gotham needs, and deserves. To be perfectly honest I have no fucking clue what that “hero that Gotham needs right now vs hero that Gotham deserves” thing even means, and I don’t even know how the sentence actually goes, and I don’t think I ever will.

All right I won’t write as much about Guardians 2

When I saw the first Guardians movie I was really annoyed about how it used Nebula. I thought she had an interesting backstory because it was exactly the same as Gamora’s, except with a bit of an inferiority complex thrown in, and I wanted to see some sympathy thrown her way but she just propped up the boring villain, got shot at by Drax, and then she took off. So then I saw the second Guardians movie.

Boy howdy.

I don’t even think that the Nebula/Gamora thing was that prominent, but it was actually satisfyingly addressed. I honestly didn’t think it would be until it actually started happening, but it was! Look at me, getting what I want out of a Marvel movie for once.

What the Gamora/Nebula pairing up also accomplishes is that it takes Gamora away from Quill for a bit. Their relationship is all right, but it’s also kind of really not. She’s humorless, he’s not, she doesn’t dance, he does, but also she’s much more of an idealist than he is, or at least, it seems that way because of his performative carefree carelessness, whoo, haven’t seen that one before. She’s both a melting ice queen and the inspiration he needs to give a damn. It’s fine, it’s just also really predictable and hard to care about. Gamora in the first movie does interact with the other Guardians besides Quill, but not in any meaningful way. Her character development happens solely around him, whereas he gets to have deeper discussions with Yondu and he’s the one who sees Rocket’s back all mutilated and nonverbally reacts with at least some sympathy. Not to mention his whole backstory with his mom, which we see happen onscreen at the beginning of the movie, whereas Gamora’s childhood/adolescence is just stated in a heated conversation. Rocket and Drax also don’t have their backstories depicted onscreen, but they do get into a huge, violent fight about it and later sort of make up. Gamora is just there, supposedly feeling a lot of things but not sharing them with anyone, except, reluctantly, with Quill sometimes.

But now that her sister shows up, Gamora has someone else to open up to and feel sympathy for. They provide each other with the opportunity for character development that isn’t tied up in a heteronormative romance subplot. Bechdel for the win, guys.

Can we have superhero movies about a team-up of sisters? Or mother-daughter team-ups? Or girlfriends, or girl friend-friends?

Then there’s the Yondu and Rocket pairing. Both of these dudes are in some serious pain in this movie. Rocket cries again. It’s important to me that Rocket cries in both movies. Yondu actually says things that are supposed to be supportive to Quill. I might argue that Yondu and Rocket are the most hypermasculine characters here (let’s set Drax aside, he’s just here for the ride in this movie). Yondu gets all stoicly quiet-defeated-sad (… I would too, what happens to him is pretty horrific), and Rocket just relentlessly lashes out at everyone around him, but then they help each other deal and then they express their feelings in ways that are still a little muted, but at least they’re expressing their feelings.

Yeah I liked this movie.

And finally, making fun of Batman because he is the worst

I think Batman is officially the world’s most popular superhero. I get it. He used to be my favourite, too. Mostly that was because he was closely associated with Catwoman but I did like him on his own as well.

My love for Batman started to ebb away because I thought the politics of The Dark Knight Rises were stupid, and not even the magnificent fact that Catwoman appears in that movie could fix that. There are also a lot of internet personalities who I followed who were beginning to lament how cold and macho and unfun Batman had become in the Nolan movies, and I sort of agreed.

Then Holy Musical B@man! happened. Here are some lyrics:

I was seeing a girl for a while.
A couple days, anyway, and I told her I loved her.
She said, “You’re such a good friend, that rash is bad.
You should probably go see a doctor.”

Then she just disappeared, sent me some text
About bad timing and my love being selfish. [Pout]
Then my doctor called up, and the blood came back,
and as it turned out, I’m allergic to peanuts and shellfish.
(I loved peanuts and shellfish, once.)

I’m falling apart, I’m lacking punch.
I can barely eat. This morning I BARELY TOUCHED MY BRUNCH.
Two spoons of oatmeal, a couple of nuts, and half a banana.
And like my soul, the banana was bruised and black.

Those are from a song where Batman is talking about how he wants a friend, for a lot of reasons but chief among them is that he needs a co-captain for the Friendship Ship (or maybe just the Friend Ship). Later Robin shows up. Honestly, this story is almost exactly like Lego Batman in everything including random, not-officially Batman-related characters showing up.

I can’t exactly remember but I think Lego Batman makes at least sort of a point about Batman’s violence being a little over the top and in need of some introspection. I do know that the musical does this explicitly. There’s a cutesy song about Batman and Robin’s budding friendship that keeps taking pauses so that they can scream a lot and beat criminals into submission. So.

But where Lego Batman goes beyond even Holy Musical B@man! is that part near the beginning where Barbara Gordon declares that they should try a new approach to dealing with crime, because the typical “let Batman handle it by beating people up” approach has become kind of unnecessary. That is so cool. I’m pretty sure that even the comics haven’t done a “what would happen if Bruce just tried *not* doing it the ultraviolence-in-the-backalleys-of-Gotham way” story, and I’m pretty sure the comics have done a lot of different, incredibly wacky things, to the point where maybe they’ve exhausted all of the wacky premises for Batman stories and maybe they should try to re-imagine how a superhero story might work and be revolutionary, for a change.

I don’t know how to conclude so here are some pictures of Nigel dressed as Wonder Woman

nige and gender

The only push back I got on that was, “But does he like wearing any clothes?” Which is fair enough. He doesn’t. But he likes to go outside and clothes mean he gets to go outside so he’s fine.

30 Days of Avatar: Toph, Never Change

Finishing the week off with a bang, like the bang of a burning boulder landing inches from your foot after a cry of, “I AM NOT TOPH! I AM MELON LORD! MUAH HA HA HA!” is our appreciation of Toph Beifong, the greatest earth bender in the world.

Week 1: Friends of the Avatar

Day 1: Katara
Day 2: Sokka, Bolin, and Mako
Day 3: Toph

Day 3 is for Toph being unmovable, like a rock.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

toph

We’ve said before (and we’ll say again) that we love watching women go on power trips. Toph is the ultimate woman on a power trip. Always on a power trip, all the time.

(^^^ a nice compilation to that effect)

You might assume that Toph was a spirited kid who eventually had to grow out of her in-your-face personality. Right?

Wrong.

(^^^ have we perfected the astral plane marriage thing so that we can each marry this 2D animated old lady yet or what)

(OK maybe one of us can marry the elbow leech)

In the cameo-to-end-all-cameos, Toph shows up in Korra as a very grumpy, very irresponsible, very talented old woman living in a swamp because obviously she would live in a mystical swamp by herself. She has literally not changed even a little bit, despite having a couple of kids and starting a metal bending academy/police force.

Her version of motherly affection? How about this speech to Lin in “Operation Beifong:” “Look, I know I wasn’t a great mother, but one way or another, I ended up with two great kids. Good enough to risk my bony old butt for, anyway. If you can just find some way not to hate me, maybe that’s enough, at least for me.”

This was a bold move for the writers of Avatar (but… no one should be surprised by that). Allowing your female character to be perpetually brash and angry and not-nurturing and basically the antithesis of rigid femininity is something that we don’t get to see very often, especially in a protagonist role. Or in any role.

Never change, Toph.

toph su and lin

30 Days of Avatar Day 1: Katara, Pseudonym MVP

Our love for Avatar knows no bounds, so we’re spending 30 days celebrating various aspects of both shows because why not?

*If you haven’t seen The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra yet, well, please do yourself a favour and get on that. We will be talking about majorly spoilery things (not in this one, but sooner or later we will), and it would be a shame if glancing at one of our posts got in the way of your perfect enjoyment of watching some of the greatest television ever. Ever. EVER. We do not exaggerate. You need to watch this show. Once you do, you won’t even understand how you got by as a person who’d never watched Avatar before. It happened to both of us, it will happen to you. Go forth and live your best life.*

With all of that said, here’s the first of our 30 days’ worth of Avatar love.

Week 1: Friends of the Avatar

Day 1: Katara
Day 2: Sokka, Bolin, and Mako
Day 3: Toph

Day 1: we start a bit small with Katara’s magical ability to sell whatever stupid fake name her compatriots come up with in the moment.

All screenshots from Avatar Spirit.

In Book One, while Katara’s water bending is still nothing special, her major skill of making obviously fake names seem believable is already fully developed.

In “The King of Omashu,” Aang gets carried away because he’s disguised as an old man using Appa’s shed fur and comes up with an elaborate pseudonym.

“Name’s Bonzu… Pippin…paddleopsicopolis… the third!”

Now this surly guard would surely have turned the Gaang away if not for Katara stepping up immediately with a most natural, “Hi. June Pippinpaddleopsicopolis.”

The guard says, (more or less), “Well that sells that. Enjoy Omashu.”

In “City of Walls and Secrets,” Katara gets to make up pseudonyms of her own for herself and Toph when Long Feng of the Dai Lee won’t leave them alone. She comes up with “Kwa Mai” for herself and “Dum” for Toph, and apart from getting her hair pulled by an irritable Toph, she’s pretty much sold it.

If Aang or Sokka had been around to make up the names Long Feng would definitely have ended the game much sooner than he did – although we’re sure he knew from the start who these two ladies really were. You can’t pull one over on Long Feng… unless you’re Azula.

Still, Katara made it easier for him to play along, because Long Feng just couldn’t stomach a “Bonzu Pippinpaddleopsicopolis the third.”

Finally Katara once again is called upon to wow us with her acting skills in Book Three’s, “The Headband.” She and Sokka pose as Aang’s concerned and disappointed parents when he enrolls in a Fire Nation school and accidentally beats up a bully using diversionary air bending techniques (as you do).

By now you’d think they’d have learned to let Katara take the lead but Sokka’s having so much fun that he SUPER GLUED THE BEARD AND MUSTACHE TO HIS FACE.

The Headmaster says, “Thank you for coming, Mr. and Mrs…?”

Sokka: “Fire. Wang Fire. This is my wife, Sapphire.”

And without missing a beat, Katara says, “Sapphire Fire. Nice to meet you.”

The Headmaster seems a little annoyed by their last name but up against Katara’s amazing “selling the stupid fake names” skills, he doesn’t stand a chance.

So apparently some excellent people have created transcripts of the episodes online which proved very useful for this post. Here is the one for “The Headband” but simply google the word “transcript” and any episode title you like and the information is at your perfectionist fingertips! Thanks, excellent people at the Avatar Wiki!

 

Since Katniss is mine, lemme clear some things up

revolution

In response to the many male critical voices who just don’t get it.

In which Bob Chipman argues that The Hunger Games codes the feminine as evil and the masculine as good, which is a thing movies have been doing for a long time:

The thing is, he’s completely right. He’s also argued recently on Twitter that The Hunger Games’ coding can be interpreted to suggest that the white, rural working class are the true heroes and the true victims of oppression while urban elites and effeminate fashionistas are actually evil. This would at least partially disqualify it from working as one of the cultural touchstone narratives that should have warned people against letting Trump get elected (others include Harry Potter and Star Wars, which are fine, but I seem to recall that Tatooine and Coruscant are making use of some coding and things as well but that doesn’t count apparently).

The Capitol is evil. The fashion and obsession with fashion demonstrated there are not the reasons why the Capitol is evil, but they are a part of the larger problem. The Capitol is evil because of how normal the Games are considered to be there.

Indulge me for a second; it’s shoehorn-in-some-animal-rights-stuff time.

This controversial post from a local Dog Rescue describes normalizing brutality for meat industry animals at Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair:

“What struck us most about the entire day was the sense of normalcy. Thousands of smiling visitors gazed adoringly at groups of tiny piglets, blind to the caged mother who stood in the corner, friends took group photos in front of chained cows while holding steak sandwiches, and crowds laughed and cheered as announcers joked that perhaps the pigs in the auction ring were squealing in terror because of the auctioneer’s bacon costume. It seemed as though none of these animals were viewed by guests as living creatures, but as products, photo-ops, and, in some cases, a joke. Making a spectacle of the suffering of animals and transforming it into a fun-for-the-whole-family event should not be considered a proud Toronto tradition. It should be considered a primitive black mark that a compassionate and civilized society must work together to remove.”

Imagine someone like Plutarch or Cressida, Capitol citizens, watching the Games year after year, knowing them to be wrong, horrified by how the media and average citizens are so willfully blind to the brutality. This could easily be a paragraph either of them would write on the Capitol’s version of Facebook while they watch the festivities leading up to the 74th Hunger Games, if they had been allowed to express a dissenting opinion without having their tongues cut out.

Fashion and obsession with fashion certainly play a role in the Capitol’s normalizing of spectacle child murder. But these things are more like distractions that would be considered completely benign if it weren’t for the Games, the fascism, the poverty, and the oppression Capitol citizens are ignoring and facilitating while they focus on what loud colour to die their hair (or skin) next.

The movies admittedly let the coding do the work for them, but Katniss’s inner monologue reminds us that the real mechanics the Capitol uses to normalize the Games are the celebrity culture and worship, in which Capitol citizens drool over the tributes while they live and drool over them while they die brutal deaths at the hands of other oppressed children.

Celebrity worship is a thing everyone does. When it’s men worshiping sports stars (heterosexually, of course) we don’t really equate it to women (and effeminate men, because you’d have to be an effeminate man if you care about non-sports celebrities, amirite) following whoever in gossip columns, but it’s all the same. The Hunger Games, I tentatively argue, meshes the two together, as everyone sits back and watches in anticipation as the tributes are graded based on their athletic abilities and survival skills. Capitol citizens don’t just love the tributes because of how their stylists dress them, but also because of their physicality. Remember that the two most prosperous Districts have special academies for kids to train in until they’re 18, at which point they volunteer. Their athleticism and weapons-mastery are required to make it a good show.

Of course, the fact that sports-worship is meshed in to the rest of celebrity worship in these stories still doesn’t change how fashion and celebrity worship are considered by culture to be feminine things and therefore perpetual targets for mockery and hatred. Here’s where The Hunger Games changes things up in this regard.

Katniss makes use of both fashion and celebrity worship to become The Mockingjay, beginning the revolution that will end the Capitol’s tyranny. She doesn’t do these things actively, because she’s Katniss. All Katniss wants to do is live in the forest and shoot things with her bow. Unfortunately she has greatness thrust upon her, literally at times, by Cinna, one of the most celebrated stylists in the Capitol.

Yes, Cinna’s clothes are comparatively muted (just look at Effie). But he does wear gold eyeshadow for special occasions, and his work is adored by the excess-loving Capitol citizens as much, and often more than the louder designs by his peers. This is probably because as a highly fashion-conscious people, they can appreciate the beauty in something more simple than what they are used to, they will love something that is to them novel, and they can certainly appreciate the statement of clothing catching fire (even if they don’t see it as a call to arms as the rest of Panem does). I even remember one moment in Catching Fire (the novel) in which Katniss’s prep team listen very respectfully, and even reverently, as her mother teaches them how she does Katniss’s trademark braid. Katniss is impressed by this, and it’s one of those moments that makes it clear that the problem is not how excited these people are about fashion and celebrities, but rather that it’s all they care about. They never consider, because of their privilege, that basic human rights and human dignity are being denied to the people in the Districts. The resentment Katniss and her peers have about their fashion and celebrity culture grows directly out of that real concern. To me, that’s less about slamming American urban culture for being too wrapped up in, well, urban culture to know what the concerns of “real America” are, and more about illustrating through this one particular allegory how the privilege afforded to those with wealth, and, underneath everything else, the privilege afforded to those who were lucky enough to be born in the Capitol, and not in a District being harshly oppressed by the Capitol, requires that people be given spectacles to keep them from thinking too hard about any of the systems that make them so lucky at the expense of others.

The Hunger Games is not deliberately apolitical. It is making a deliberate statement about how privilege works. I’ve seen it argued that it’s an indictment against American imperialism, and I think that’s probably the “most correct” way of reading the Capitol/District dichotomy. That still leaves the coding in the films especially but it’s certainly there in the books too. And if people are going to take advantage of the lack of spectrum politics to declare that their people and way of life are the real ones being oppressed because they dress like Katniss and coal mining is a thing, well, that’s just life imitating art. People are using The Hunger Games, a story about an upper caste using spectacles to distract them from the human cost of their affluence and power, as a spectacle to distract them from how their actions and inactions will hurt those in worse states of vulnerability than them. This is why we need to teach critical thinking in elementary and high schools. And all the time. Always.

So back to fashion and celebrity culture in The Hunger Games: there’s also the fact that Katniss genuinely loves the outfits and costumes that Cinna makes for her Being from District 12, she appreciates both how the Capitol’s citizens will interpret her outfits and how the people at home and in the other districts will. When her wedding dress burns and transforms into a Mockingjay costume, her role as the revolutionary hero is cemented. Fashion, typically a tool used in the Capitol as a distraction from their brutal government, is co-opted and used against them, encouraging people rigidly separated to unite, and people who would rather ignore the underside of the Capitol to face it honestly.

And real quick: the fire is activated by twirling. TWIRLING. There is nothing girlier than twirling.

Celebrity worship is the other part of this, and Katniss and her various handlers certainly makes use of it as well. Katniss believes that there are better contenders for the Mockingjay role. She thinks Johanna would have been great, as she is loud and impossible to ignore. Peeta, though, is the real contender. He can make anyone believe anything and is highly likable. Still, the role has fallen to her, awkward, sort of prudish, constantly deer-in-headlights Katniss. There are layers to why it has to be her:

  • because it all started when she volunteered for Prim
  • and then the riots all started because she stopped playing the role of survivalist competitor in order to grieve for Rue, breaking the illusion of the Games and calling District 7 to action
  • and then she defiantly threatened to commit suicide with Peeta because it was the one act of true rebellion she was actually capable of as well as the only opportunity she has to save her own life as well as someone else’s
  • Cinna put her in a dress that looked like it was on fire
  • Peeta told the entire country that he was in love with her and thus everyone else fell in love with her
  • Snow decided she was his number one target (villains need to stop doing this. I’m looking at you, Voldemort. And the Peacock from Harry Potter and the Kung Fu Panda 2)
  • Cinna put Katniss in the fairy tale wedding dress everyone in the Districts knew to be a lie, only for the country to watch it burn into a Mockingjay costume
  • The alliance of the victors decided Katniss was their priority
  • Plutarch was like, “Yup, she’ll do.” And then he kept insisting.

Most of these layers have little to do with Katniss herself. Also, those layers that are just Katniss doing things because she must, or because she is self-righteously compelled to, are only as powerful as they are because the Capitol is filming and displaying her every move. Katniss spends most of the trilogy (quadrilogy if we’re talking the movies) deeply traumatized and damaged, sometimes physically as well as mentally. I’ll never forget how the opening of Mockingjay: Part 1 is a traumatized Katniss hiding in the dark, trying to remember what she knows for sure. And Mockingjay: Part 2 begins with the neck brace coming off, and I can’t express how horrifying it was to hear her try to talk for the first time. How many times in Part 2 does the movie pause to zoom in on Katniss’s injuries? Katniss faces the consequences of being made into a myth, which has been a joint effort but mainly the work of other people, more talented, strategic, and charismatic than her.

And thus, by Katniss herself and by other players who are better at the game, celebrity culture and fashion obsession are both co-opted to wreck the Capitol.

To be clear: the coding is still there, and Katniss’s outfits are not quite comparable to the things Effie and the like wear, but The Hunger Games can’t be easily dismissed as having just lazily used the most typical and problematic shortcut to designate good and evil in the book since black hats and white hats.

So the urban versus rural thing.

PSA: I am not an expert in any way, shape, or form. I’m still going to talk about it though because lol

District 12 are coal miners. This fact and the very muted fashion choices 12’s inhabitants have to make really do seem to invoke the city elite versus working class rust belt type disaster that apparently helps to elect Donald Trump.

This is because, yes, that’s what Suzanne Collins is doing.

I can’t really back up that claim because I haven’t asked her personally, but I’m going to assume that because she’s an American, the huge divide between urban and rural is a thing that she is hyper-conscious of. Creating a distopia where people are divided into classes geographically is certainly going to make the rural/urban divide the prudent choice for which obvious real-life class divide your fictional universe will resemble.

On the other hand, the District system is not the only vision of class divides and class warfare that we see in the books (and films, briefly). The Avoxes live among the Capitol citizens, waiting on them silently because their tongues have been cut out. The Capitol has found a way to dehumanize a group of people so as to justify using them as slaves. Some of the most horrific stuff that we see in the books has to do with the Avoxes (I’m recalling Peeta talking about listening to Capitol soldiers torture an Avox for information even though he couldn’t talk), and Katniss herself ponders more than once how horrible it would be to be made into one, empathizing with the Avox waiting on her.

So while poverty more like what we see in urban environments is not the focus of this story, disenfranchisement happens in plain sight in the Capitol. People are not automatically safe in the Capitol just because they’re in the Capitol. In fact, there’s a certain freedom in living in the Districts. Katniss feeds her family by hunting illegally beyond the electric fence. She sells to Peacekeepers who should be turning her in, but they don’t, because otherwise they wouldn’t get their occasional squirrel meat. This kind of liberty couldn’t possibly work in the Capitol.

I’ve read the argument that because these stories are “deliberately apolitical” anyone can decide to identify with the oppressed Districts – for example, a reasonably well-off white person could identify with Katniss’s struggle against those liberal elites in their cities. I actually like the lack of politics here (I am pretty political, but I feel like if you had the chance to defeat your tyrannical President who hosts an annual child murder fest, arguments about whether to set up a capitalist society or a social democracy or something more like communism would be sort of a secondary concern). I would argue that although there isn’t any invoking of the economic spectrum of left vs right, the Capitol is very clearly a fascist regime, and as fascism is about more than money (read: identity), we don’t need the Districts to be clearly identified as poor, oppressed progressives in search of a socialist democracy. We know they’re poor and starving, and we know that every year they face the prospect of their children being taken away for slaughter. We don’t need more than that.

Identity politics do happen in these stories, but it’s a tad subtle and race politics don’t really happen at all. I fully acknowledge that Collins could have been a little more careful with her handling of race and diversity. All of the main players are white in the movies for sure, which does make the larger oppression narrative a little less relevant to the real world it’s supposedly speaking to. In the books, District 12, which is racially homogeneous, could be any number of things: Katniss has dark hair, olive skin, and green eyes. To me, that suggests that 12 is a mix of all sorts of ethnicities. Because all of the Districts are racially homogeneous, racism isn’t really at play. It probably will be after the revolution, when all of these people forced together out of necessity have to start living with each other peacefully, but during the timeline we have it isn’t a thing. Misogyny, too, isn’t really at play. The Capitol is not a nightmare vision of the patriarchy. But identity politics happen nonetheless. And I will show you.

So the thing about woman heroes…

Think about The Lord of the Rings. There aren’t many women. One of the women is actually a spider. There is one woman who gets to do cool, violent things, but she’s also hopelessly in love with some guy who couldn’t care less and then she randomly falls in love with a different version of that guy and declares out loud that she’s giving up shield-maidening to be the wife of a steward. Fun times. (To be clear, I love Faramir, but gah.)

Think about Star Wars (the original three and the prequels. I don’t know what’ll happen in these new ones). Leia is amazing but a huge huge huge part of her story is being in an antagonistic love story with Han. I’d go so far as to say that the part of Han’s story that is being in an antagonistic love story with Leia is comparatively much smaller, because Han has Chewy to be friends with, Luke to disappoint or impress, and his own motivations in life to reconsider. Leia nes pas.

Amidala is my favourite. She deserved better than Padmé and stupid-face’s stupid-faced “love” story. But that’s what she got.

Think about Harry Potter. Hermione is one of the best things in the known universe and the most important female character in the Potterverse, but she’s also one half of the major romance of that series. And I love it. But. Romance.

There is nothing wrong with romance.

But there’s a reason Merida from Brave is so special, and a reason that the ending of Frozen, which, while it does include romance, emphasizes female familial love above all else, is so special. And that is because female characters usually have to do romance things.

Male characters, not so much. Luke kisses his sister and that’s it. Frodo is ace for life, or maybe he’s just hopelessly in love with his straight BFF but we never have to watch him brood about it. Harry and Ginny sure, but that’s barely a thing in the books and even less of a thing in the movies. And when female characters find themselves as protagonists, usually they’re the protagonists in what is, above all else, a love story.

Katniss, who very well may be asexual, is definitely starring in a love story, but the romance takes a back seat. In the first book, Katniss is positive that everything Peeta says to her is for the cameras. That’s why when Seneca Crane announces, “Whoops, you know how we said you could both be the winners if you made it to the end together? Well, never mind,” Katniss immediately whips out her bow. In the movie, I notice, she pulls out her bow at the beginning of the announcement, but in the book she very clearly intends to fight Peeta to the death, because she is naively sure that he intends to do the very same thing.

On the train home she discovers that Peeta actually did love her this whole time. Oops. Double oops, because the next book finds them barely speaking but having to pretend the fairy tale romance is a very real thing because unrest in the Districts. Triple oops, because it turns out Katniss’s BFF Gale actually loves her too. Quadruple oops, because it turns out that Katniss could really use Peeta’s presence and support the whole time so they have to sleep in the same bed for months but she isn’t sure how she feels about any of this because she does like Gale, but she does like Peeta, but she doesn’t like either of them like that (maybe) and she definitely doesn’t want kids because they might end up reaped. Quintuple oops, because the Capitol will basically force a Katniss/Peeta wedding whether they want to or not and can apparently HIJACK HER REPRODUCTIVE ORGANS to ensure that she has a baby and you’d better believe that baby will end up as tribute because the Capitol would just LOVE that. Sextuple oops because while we were worrying about all of that stuff a lot of other things happened and they’re both back in the arena again fighting against each other because they are both bound and determined that the other one is the sole survivor, but this is just platonic, maybe, but now there’s a kiss and it actually makes Katniss feel things she hasn’t felt before. Septule oops, Gale will be sad because Katniss kissed him once out of pity. Octuple oops, the Capitol got Peeta and psychologically tortured him into hating Katniss and now he feels an uncontrollable urge to kill her when all he’s been doing this whole time up until now is trying to protect her. Novuple oops, turns out even that madness can’t stop Peeta being primarily motivated by making out with protecting Katniss. Dicuple oops, they end up together with kids because the war is over. And Gale sucks.

So. Look, I don’t know what to do with that summary of the romance in these books that I just made apart from reiterating that while romance is definitely there, and it is definitely a much bigger thing in the books than in the movies, it is not the defining thing. Katniss’s love triangle choice is not like Bella Swan’s between a freezing cold statuesque douche canoe and a boiling hot statuesque used-to-be-nice-but-is-now-a douche canoe, which is to say that it isn’t the centerpiece of the story, and the choice is a lot more intertwined with the themes. I used to know what Peeta and Gale represented, respectively. I seem to recall that Peeta represented a safe and secure future, and Gale represented an unsafe, unstable present, but those divides are clearer in the books and I haven’t reread them lately. In the films it’s less obvious because the romance was less featured.

What I do know for sure is that Katniss’s inner monologue allows for The Hunger Games to use romance tropes, and it allows us to enjoy them, but it also critiques them. The Capitol is enraptured with the romance between Katniss and Peeta but it’s a complete lie. They don’t actually get together until well after the war is ended. The Districts watch the romance play out and they don’t believe it for a second. It’s only those close to Peeta and Katniss who suspect that there might be a modicum of truth to the romance. Everyone else knows that Katniss didn’t offer Peeta the berries because she would rather die than live without him (cooooooooough New Moon).

forbidenfruitforbidenfruit2

Apart from enduring a love triangle she did not want, pursue, or enjoy, Katniss gets to play out female power fantasies that are really intriguing. Because Peeta makes Katniss desirable by confessing that he’s always loved her on compulsory TV, Katniss becomes something of a sex symbol. Her flaming dresses don’t hurt either in this regard. But she paradoxically reads to others as being “pure.” Johanna apparently strips in the elevator in front of Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch because Johanna knows what kind of a reaction it will get out of pure, incorruptible Katniss. The twirling conveys innocence, the fire conveys lust and power, the offering forbidden fruit to a male love interest conveys original sin but it is revolutionary in exactly how NOT motivated by sex or romance the act is.

Peeta tells everyone Katniss is pregnant in book two as an attempt to get the 75th Games called off, but it doesn’t work. In book three, Katniss and Peeta are pitted against each other in a propaganda war. Charismatic Peeta tells everyone to calm down and stop revolting. Katniss, who has, supposedly, suffered a miscarriage, stands resolute and calls for open rebellion.

In the background, Katniss is described as being moving only when she’s being genuine and empathetic. She’s also described as being psychologically broken and emotionally volatile. She describes herself as being bad at making friends, and not a nice person. But look at her with Prim, and even her mother as she begins to forgive her. She is a gentle and loving nurturer, but she also thinks with her heart (dangerous and impractical in the efficient District 13) and can’t be trusted to follow orders.

She kills animals for food and when it comes down to it, she kills other tributes in the Games. But she is squeamish about wounds, admiring her “delicate” sister and mother because they aren’t bothered by a bit of pus.

In the midst of being offered up as a sacrifice to the bloodthirsty appetites of an oppressive ruling class, she gets a genuine kick out of wearing pretty clothes.

She gets to play a lot of different roles as a woman with power, but it is the innocent, sexless version of herself that wields the most power in the end. What is nice is that even though eventually she always has to return to the inhuman Mockingjay symbol, along the way, she gets to play with fire. Reading the book, it’s almost always clear that the real Katniss is there under the outfit and the makeup. This dichotomy is not new for female characters (the one that immediately springs to mind is Hannah Montana) but The Hunger Games does a lot of interesting things with it, and I rarely see it get credit for that.

It’s been argued that a character like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider is just like any male protagonist, but female. It’s a difficult argument to chew on and I definitely think it has some merit, but the reason I briefly bring it up here is to point out that Katniss Everdeen cannot be honestly read like that. She isn’t a male action hero in female skin. She is very, very clearly a young woman. It is the character’s very rich, complicated performance of her gender that proves that.

Having the female protagonist live through multiple and contradictory female-specific power fantasies and romances that both are and aren’t romantic is huge. Trust me, girls didn’t just love The Hunger Games because Team Gale or Team Peeta and JLaw. Though we did of course enjoy those things.

The ending of The Hunger Games is a lie and pointless and blah blah blah

If you’ve decided that coding the feminine and the urban as evil is disqualifying, and that the setup for class warfare is woefully lacking economic progressive politics, and for reasons relating to identity politics you are less inclined to notice when a female character gets to do new and exciting things beyond romance and also gets to quietly discuss the multiple and contradictory realities of the female existence, you will probably have misread the ending of this series.

Let me help you.

So District 13 shows up in a surprise move at the end of book 2. They’ve been fighting a rebellion for decades – indeed, they’ve never stopped fighting ever since the Capitol nuked them underground. But now, as their reproductive abilities are visibly slowing down and the Mockingjay has stirred up rioting in the Districts, 13 has a chance to unite the other Districts and end the war.

To end the war, President Coin bombs a bunch of Capitol children, swiftly followed by the second, deadlier blast killing the medics and everyone else who rushed in to aid the children, using a Capitol plane. You see, war crimes are OK if your politics are basically utilitarianism gone extreme.

Coin then proposes a democratic vote on one final Hunger Games, this time with Capitol children, because if they do this, then the oppressed Districts will be less inclined to yell and scream for vengeance against every Capitol official ever. 23 Capitol children will die, many more will be spared. She has completely missed the irony of her suggestion, even though Beetee and/or Peeta points it out to her.

So Katniss pretends to go along with it so Coin will let her execute Snow. But Snow is dying and he has lost the war and Katniss knows this. Her real goal is to assassinate Coin.

The misreading of this states that The Hunger Games goes for lazy nuance by suggesting that both sides are equally evil, like any given episode of South Park. The mechanism of the misreading is that you are comparing Coin to Snow.

Snow is a fascist who lost the war, lost power, and is succumbing to a fatal illness. Coin is the utilitarian version of a fascist (… whatever that is). The reason she doesn’t make a lot of sense (besides the fact that the whole apolitical aspect makes her arc rather clunky, admittedly) is that she isn’t really meant as an alternative to Snow. She is instead a foil to the entire revolution.

Recall that Katniss started the revolution simply by volunteering as tribute in Prim’s place. Reinforcing the revolution was Rue’s death. There are plenty of images of older women sacrificing themselves for younger women. Mags volunteers for Annie and then sacrifices herself for Peeta, for Katniss. Johanna puts herself in danger multiple times to save or protect Katniss. Cressida places herself between Jackson’s gun and Katniss. In the movie, the Leeg sister who doesn’t get injured chooses to stay with her injured sister and they die together.

Coin deliberately sends Prim to the front lines, knowing that once the children are bombed, Prim will rush in and be killed in the second blast. Coin kills the younger sister to end all younger sisters, and she does this specifically to psychologically destroy Katniss, another younger woman, so that Katniss will fall in line and support her in the first democratic elections.

We are not supposed to compare Coin and Snow. We are supposed to compare Coin and Katniss.

What Coin will do to secure her own power is exactly the opposite of what Katniss does at the beginning of the uprisings. Katniss sacrifices herself, even though she is the breadwinner of the family, because her little sister is worth doing the impractical and right thing for. The spirit of the rebellion is that little girls are worth sacrificing ourselves to protect, because they are the future we have to safeguard. Practicality and pragmatism are for nothing if we can’t save them. That is bold and naive and beautiful. Coin is a traitor to her little sisters, to her gender, and to the rebellion, and she must die.

The bitter end

And that is where we are. I, an older sister, feminist, and awkward lady, will take my perfect awesome hero girl, thank you. I don’t have that many to choose from, but Katniss is more than enough.