Gender is explored in many ways in the Nickelodeon show Avatar: the Last Airbender. The show was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and ran from 2005 to 2008. It is an animated series that was created in the U.S. but draws inspiration from anime styles. The show is set in a fictional world where certain people, called benders, can control an element; water, fire, earth, or air. In this world each “nation” of bending ability co-exists with the others peacefully until one nation, the Fire Nation, goes to war with the other nations to dominate the world. The Avatar is one person who can control all four elements at once. When the Fire Nation goes to war with all other nations the main character Aang is only 12 years old and is told that he is the avatar. Due to the pressure he runs away and gets caught in a storm and is frozen for 100 years while the Fire Nation wipes out the Air Nation, a nomadic people who embrace nonviolence. Aang is awakened by Katara and Sokka, who are from the Southern Water Tribe. I will focus on Aang, Katara, Zuko, and Toph as representative of prominent male and female characters depicting gender differently.
In the show gender is explored in a way that queers normative culture by challenging gender roles, prominent depictions of gender, and traits that typically correspond to gender. Through its diverse cast of characters the show depicts female characters that embrace masculine traits and feminine traits, and femininity is not depicted as submissive to masculinity. There are also male characters that embrace more feminine traits and defy the idea of heroic masculinity.
Katara embraces feminine characteristics in the show by becoming a motherly figure to other characters. She dresses in a feminine way and is nurturing but she is also very strong. She defies patriarchal institutions as well, asserting herself to become the student of a master who only teaches men. Toph is the opposite of Katara, she is rough and aggressive and does not dress in a feminine way. She is smaller than Katara but equally as strong. She was introduced to the show as an earthbender fighting in an underground competition where she beat out many huge and aggressive men. She also defies her parents who only see her as a delicate little girl by running away. This clip shows her defying her father’s and master’s expectations of her by defeating multiple enemies and saving Aang.
Zuko and Aang, two main characters who are male, help to deconstruct the heroic masculinity ideal presented by Halberstam. Halberstam presents that the typical heroic masculine character is a straight white male who is very one dimensional and depends upon others to prop him up. Aang and Zuko are the exact opposite of this. Aang is the avatar and has to resolve the worldwide conflict but he comes from a nomadic culture and typically avoids violence when he sees another alternative. Zuko is a much more aggressive character and is initially the villain of the series, but throughout the series he becomes less violent and eventually helps Aang defeat his father Firelord Ozai. Zuko was banished from the Fire Nation by Ozai because he showed sympathy for Fire Nation troops. The empathy and sympathy shown by Aang and eventually Zuko as well defies the idea of heroic masculinity. They are both heroic characters who are masculine but are well developed and complex character who also embrace nonviolence and understanding, traits more often seen as feminine.