Gender in Avatar: the Last Airbender

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.

“Del LaGrace Volcano: A Mid-Career Retrospective”

Del LaGrace Volcano is a visual producer and cultural producer born in California, but based in Sweden. Del LaGrace was born with male and female characteristics and was raised as a girl, but now Del lives life as a man and a woman. Though Volcano is not as well known in the United States as they are in Europe, they came back to the United States with the intention of broadening our horizons and exploring the nature of gender and different sexual identities. Volcano’s art exhibit “Del LaGrace Volcano: A Mid-Career Retrospective” in particular is what I aim to explore because it makes the viewer think about what gender and sexual identities are and how they relate to race and other social constructs. This exhibit began in September of 2012 and ended in November of 2012 in the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, located in New York.

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Del LaGrace’s exhibit explored many aspects of what gender is and how it is portrayed in today’s society. One of the portraits on display, entitled “Del LaGrace Volcano, Self-Portrait Collaboration with Gerard Rancinan I, Paris, 2004” is of him/herself wearing a skirt while still maintaining his/her sense of masculinity. This piece is meant to display how masculinity and femininity do not have to take turns being displayed; rather they can be displayed at the same time and can still be beautiful and empowering. Del LaGrace is also holding a body-building pose which plays more into the masculine aspect of this piece, like they are saying “skirts do not make me anymore feminine or masculine, and neither does this pose.” Volcano wants to defy the norm and show that normality is what is weird.

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Del LaGrace also explores drag in black culture. Their piece “Dred: BigDaddyMomma, New York City, 1997” is a picture of a woman dressed as a man, which shows that these things go both ways. It is not always a man who wants to be a woman, but rather women want to be men too. Another thing that is so prominent in this piece is the fact that, whether she wanted to keep them intentionally or not, she still has breasts and utilizes them with her drag. She still exudes a confident masculinity. Volcano wants to display that even in black culture—which tends to be stereotyped as a culture in which women are overly sexual and feminine and men are overly masculine and dominant—there are people who deviate from a perceived norm.

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The last piece that I looked at was Del LaGrace’s “Liminality (Self-Portrait), 2004” the symbolism in this piece is much more prominent than the other pieces that I have looked at. In the first one, it was more a display of confidence and acceptance. In the second one, it was more a display of the act that there are exceptions to the norm in different cultures and amongst different races that may not get as much representation as they should—and it was important to see it displayed. This final piece is another self-portrait and he/she is pressed up against a piece of glass and he/she is absolutely covered in shaving cream. The thing that draws the most attention is the fact the Volcano is pressed up against this piece of glass, almost as if being pressed into society and symbolic of being almost forced into societal roles. This piece is so indicative of how Del LaGrace feels about the norms that dictate society. It also looks like he/she is pushing away, as if he/she is trying to become his/person. This is supposed to be symbolic of what it is like and what it was like for him/her to accept the intersex aspect of his/her life and adjusting to it to become his/her own person.

These pieces on their own and as a collection display the differences in intersex and transgender culture and portray them in a way that they would feel and look beautiful and symbolize something on a deeper level. This art exhibit pushed the limit of how people think about people and this community in general. Del LaGrace knows what he/she is about and knows that pushing people to realize that there is now such thing as a normal gender, or even a normal sense of gender, brings attention and representation to intersexuality, drag, and transgender culture.