Inherent Toughness in Girl Warriors: The Girls of The Last Airbender

This post is about the TV series, not the film, and contain spoilers.Avatar: The Last Airbender, also known as The Legend of Aang, is my favourite children’s TV series. Having watched the entire series recently with my partner, I rediscovered my absolute love for this show and now feel the need to gush about how awesome their female characters are. No wilting helpless damsels here! (Well OK, maybe just one.)


Katara is the only waterbender left in the Southern Water Tribe. When the series starts, she’s not even a very good bender. After she receives training at the end of season one, she becomes arguably the best waterbender in the world. She surpassed Aang’s waterbending, even when she was only a beginner and Aang had a lot more power than her. She became Aang’s teacher.


I love Katara because she very easily finds the balance between being motherly and being a kick-ass warrior. Even though the waterbenders are modelled on Tai Chi, and their bending is more about using their opponent’s power against them, waterbenders can become very powerful. They also have the ability to bend water into ice and vice versa, and as a bonus, can also heal. At first, when Katara reaches the Northern Water Tribe, she is told that healing is women’s work and she’s not allowed to learn combat. This angers both her and Aang (and just about everyone who watches it) because we already know she’s a more than capable warrior. Later, she also learns to embrace her healing.


To me, Katara is a perfect meld of feminine attributes and a less traditional feminine approach. She’s so resourceful that she even learns to bend water out of thin air and take the water from plants around her. In the end, she succumbs to the horrifying magic of bloodbending, which is a power she first refused but then embraced to save her friends. As Katara adjusts to her new all-powerful status, she begins to embrace her anger and eventually she and Zuko go off to find the Southern Raider who killed her mother. While Katara embraces her massive power, in the end she decides to let the man go. She finds the balance with her supreme power, and doesn’t let it go to her head. For that, I admire her.


Toph is the strongest, best earthbender in the world, and the least girly girl in the entire show, but she thinks it’s fine to be that way because she’s blind and doesn’t care for physical appearances. One of the best things about Toph is that appearances mean so little to her: she develops this crush on Sokka because he’s hilariously funny, not because he’s cute. Toph doesn’t care about her appearance or even very much about her hygiene – she works with earth all day and is often covered in dust. When she and Katara take a girly day in the Tales of Ba Sing Se, she confesses to Katara that it’s nice to be girly for a change but it’s not who she really is. As some spoiled rich bimbos walk by and taunt her for looking ridiculous, Toph does what she does best – her earthbending. She knocks the girls into the river and Katara washes them away.


One of my favourite Toph moments is when she stops the library from sinking. Toph hates sand because it makes her feeling-vision look fuzzy. She had to make a very difficult choice between saving Appa and saving everyone else. Aang, understandably, is very upset. Toph doesn’t cry much (not like Katara) but you can tell how upset she is at losing Appa. She is so strong in that moment, and you realise just how good she is at earthbending.


When Toph is shown in the Ember Island Players’ version of Avatar events, she’s represented by a big, burly bloke, who says his name is Toph because it sounds like ‘tough’. Toph thinks it’s cool to be cast as a man, but I think it’s interesting more than anything else. Toph is so tough, stubborn, and unmoveable that it’s seen to be unfeminine. The Players believe Toph is a man just because she’s so tough. But she’s not. She’s a very tough blind little girl who often punches people to show affection and never lets anyone push her around. She’s admirable. She may be a tom boy, but she still enjoys her girly time with Katara. It’s interesting that the play within the show made her a man, because she has many attributes that are seen as traditionally masculine.


What can I say about Suki that isn’t totally gushing? Nothing. I love her to bits.


Suki is an Earth Kingdom citizen and a highly trained Kyoshi warrior – named after the island on which she lives and is trained, and also after Avatar Kyoshi, the first female Avatar that we learn about. She is so incredibly amazing, as the Kyoshi warriors are trained to use weapons and stealth. She’s physically agile, but she’ not gifted with bending powers. Suki and the other Kyoshi warriors teach us that you don’t need bending to become a great warrior. Suki’s introductory episode shows us the worst side of Sokka (and even though he’s my favourite character, I hate him in this episode). Early on, Sokka believes very strongly in the distribution of women’s work and men’s work. He can’t believe that a ‘bunch of girls’ are better warriors than him. In the end, he learns from his mistake and begs Suki to teach him. It’s interesting to note that the Kyoshi warriors wear clothing that strongly resembles kimonos, and make-up that strongly resembles a geisha’s. They clearly show in their armour that they are women. Later, in season 3, Suki is one of very few female prisoners kept on the Boiling Rock, a maximum security prison. While Sokka, Zuko, and Sokka’s dad Hakoda start a prison riot, Suki takes the warden captive in an impressive physical feat. Hakoda says, “That’s quite a girl,” and Sokka gets a dreamy look on his face as he agrees.


To me, this is one of the best moments for female warriors in Avatar. The men clearly admire Suki because she’s physically bested everyone in the entire prison. Sokka has moved on from being a misogynist to falling in love with a woman for her daring, bravery, and physical skills. And she’s generally just totally awesome.

Princess Azula

Azula is a firebending prodigy, and one of the most dangerous people in the entire show. She’s a princess and rules through using fear to control others. I think it’s admirable having such a wonderful character as a main villain. She’s so confident that she’s perfect in every way, and generally she is. But she’s also conflicted because she knows her mother favoured her brother, Zuko, thinking that she was a monster. Azula knows this is true, but it still hurts her. She’s mean, cruel, and enjoys inflicting pain and distress on others.


I admire Azula for being Azula, but there’s an interesting moment in her development where she totally fancies the pants off a Fire Nation boy and attempts to compliment him, and it falls short (“You better watch you don’t cut anyone with that outfit, because it’s so sharp.”) The thing is, with her strong will and desire to conquer, coupled with her belief in her divine right to rule, she often intimidates a lot of the people around her. When she tells Ty Lee that she only gets a lot of male attention because she makes it too easy and is a tease, she ends up apologising and then confessing that she’s jealous. Ty Lee then advises Azula to laugh at everything the boy says, even if it’s not funny. Azula takes this advice, scores a boy, then ruins it all when she declares she and the boy will be the most powerful couple in the Fire Nation and rule the world.


Azula is so adept at using her superior firebending to control others that she is shocked at Mai’s betrayal on the Boiling Rock, where Mai helps Zuko to escape. Mai tells her that she loves Zuko more than she fears Azula, and the princess tells her, “You should have feared me more!” before attacking. Ty Lee saves Mai’s life using her chi-blocking punches, and then Azula realises she has been betrayed by her best friends. This leads into my favourite downward spiral of any TV show villain: Azula becomes paranoid at the betrayal, and drunk on the power her father has granted her. She ends up banishing all of her staff for petty reasons. With no more support, Zuko takes advantage of her deteriorating mental state, and he and Katara manage to defeat her. I love this mental spiral for Azula: it shows us that her defeat was her own fault, that the entire show has been building up to this showdown.

Mai & Ty Lee

Mai and Ty Lee are Azula’s best friends. Neither of them are firebenders, but they are both very capable warriors. Mai is an expert at throwing knives, and Ty Lee is superior in hand-to-hand combat, and, along with her flexibility and circus-trained agility, is the only person who knows how to block a person’s chi, making them unable to bend or even stand.


One of the coolest things about Mai is that when Zuko breaks up with her to go and join Team Avatar, she doesn’t get all weepy and mopey but tracks him down and yells at him. Take that, Bella Swan! Mai loves to fight because it offers a diversion of her normal, boring day. Easily bored and often pessimistic, Mai eventually turns on Azula and leads to her deterioration. At the end of the series, we see her get back with Zuko. I hope they get married and have lots of angry, gloomy little firebending, knife-throwing babies!


Ty Lee is a total flirt and loves male attention. She was born one of six identical sisters, so she enjoys being different. She gives a direct contrast to Mai’s gloomy personality by being bubbly and energetic. It’s always fascinating watching her in contrast to Mai. Ty Lee will always do as she’s told by Azula, but Mai sometimes won’t even bother enough to fight back (like in the drill episodes in season 2). The most interesting thing about Ty Lee’s development is that when she stops Azula from attacking Mai, and she and Mai are locked away on the Boiling Rock, Ty Lee then befriends some of the Kyoshi Warriors. At the end of the series, she is accepted to become one of them. After her whole life trying to be different and stand out, Ty Lee becomes part of a group that wears identical outfits and make-up.


June is a travelling bounty hunter that recurs throughout the series. In a job often reserved for men, she is one tough lady. She’s so tough that she wins arm wrestles with bigger, burlier men. She fights in a casual kind of way while still keeping her tea in its cup. She’s also very confident, sassy, snarky, and very hard to push around. She’ll work for you if you pay her enough, but don’t expect her to be loyal. Uncle Iroh develops a sort of crush on her, because she’s just that awesome.


Princess Yue

imageSpecial mention goes out to Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe, whom we only get to hang out with for a couple of episodes. I need to point out that Yue is the only non-warrior of the girls of Avatar, and as a major contrast, is also the only one who died. She’s physically fragile and needs to be guarded and looked after, and, like Bella Swan, the only way she can save her friends and family is to sacrifice herself. I think it’s a great lesson in the Avatar world: if you can neither bend nor fight, you are of little use or interest to the series and can therefore be sacrificed to save your people.

So, what do you think of these warrior girls in a children’s TV show? Is it good for our children to be shown just what girls are capable of? Do you disagree with what I’ve written? Do you have an alternative point of view? Let me know.