The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender prides itself on the sheer number and depth of its characters. It makes constant allusions and references to each of the characters quirks and traits.
A fan of the show can deduce the last three avatars, three or even four generations of a character’s family tree, and 7 firelords. One fan in fact did this exact feat.
This is no exception to the villains. Mai in particular is a character assisting Azula in her quest for the avatar after Zuko failed, and in only two of the three seasons of the overall show she has three whole hero’s journeys. The first is her leaving the fire nation to go to Omashu with her parents and her little brother Tom-Tom, the second hero’s journey is the most obvious one of her leaving Omashu to go help Azula capture the Avatar, and the final hero’s journey is her betraying Azula along with Tai Lee to go to save Zuko from being drowned with boiling water. Mai is a second tier character with enough depth within her character to create her own series.
Mai could be characterized as a shy, disinterested girl, who wears black and dark shades of red since she’s from the fire nation and is commonly used as trope amongst many badly written tv series. She is a perfect contrast to Ty Lee, a very bubbly woman who wears a lot of pink and is sexualized fairly heavily throughout the show. If there were a perfect summary of their relationship, it would be this.
Mai does not directly try to challenge western gender norms, by that I mean she never does anything exclusively to challenge gender roles. She challenges the system by simply being and doing things she wants to. Her mere existence is a challenge to contemporary tv tropes. When the show introduces her she is living in a Fire Nation occupied Omashu where she is a princess of the region. She does not deny her role as princess out of spite, but out of mere boredom. She has her own motivations and follows through with them, and if she happens to defy or acknowledge gender roles then so be it. She has some dependency on other people, everybody does. She is not just a generically capable woman who can fight and take down enemies with efficiency without advancing the plot.
Her biggest drawback from a feminist standpoint, where she falls into typical media tropes, is when she betrays Azula. It’s not the act of betraying Azula where this could be considered controversial, but it is for why she betrayed Azula. She did it for the sake of her love interest Zuko. At the point in the episode where this happens, Azula was going to drop Zuko and plenty of escaping Fire Nation convicts into boiling water surrounding prison. This however is not her only reason. Another argument is that her love of Zuko is what inspires her to defy Azula. Her love is bigger than Azula’s fear, and Ty Lee’s love of Mai is what inspires her to stop Azula from killing Mai. Ty Lee stops Azula’s lightning by blocking her chi which causes Azula to fall down. When Ty Lee and Mai are captured for their dissent, Mai and Ty Lee are standing, but Azula needs to be carried. Their friendship is a much more powerful statement against Azula than Mai and Zuko’s relationship and should be the real focus of the scene, not just Mai and Zuko’s love.
As for the argument about her relationship with Zuko, it is well established that Zuko and Mai had history of romance in the past. Her disinterest gives her room to both defy and acknowledge her assigned roles in society since any motivation could make sense within her established character. If the purpose of feminism is to inspire the freedom of choice in all people intersectionally, then wouldn’t that include the freedom to marry whomever they want, and wouldn’t Mai therefore be the most feminist character of the show? Perhaps. Could their marriage merely be an example of the male gaze manifesting itself in the media seeing as both of the creators of the show are male? Possibly, but would Mai care about that? Unlikely.
Most of the female characters within Avatar follows murdoch’s interpretation of the heroine’s journey pretty well such as Toph, who demonstrates a shift from feminine to masculine and even resents the mother figure before the show even begins. Mai’s rejection of the feminine doesn’t manifest itself in a literal rejection of her female characteristics, but in a rejection of her princesshood. Neither Mai nor most of the female characters ever reject the call to adventure. They all know what they’re getting into and agree to it. Toph even lies to her parents to ensure that she can go on the adventure. They’re all motivated to go on their quest. There is not a single major female character who follows more steps of Frankel’s journey than Murdoch’s story. There are times when female characters embrace the feminine however they are still within the context of being a warrior.
They certainly follow Murdoch’s heroine journey better than the hero’s journey due to the lack of temptation within the heroine’s journey. There could be temptations implied in the journey of the heroines however this claim is shaky because Joseph Campbell emphasized the woman as temptress and none of the characters are mentioned as non straight. Referring back to the family tree, every single major character in Avatar who has children marries a character of the opposite sex. The characters also don’t reconcile with the masculine and the feminine either. The characters all know they wish to be masculine in demeanor but feminine in appearance. The biggest grappling with the masculine and feminine, Katara’s negotiation with the Northern Water Tribe’s customs over female waterbending restrictions, is still an external conflict. The best example of an internal conflict over masculine and feminine is within Aang nonetheless. He needs to decide whether or not he’s going to preemptively kill Firelord Ozai. For that matter most of the male characters on the show also go through more of a heroine’s journey than a hero’s journey. Throughout the entire first season Sokka slowly gets over his sexist ways by being shown examples of strong women.
If there was one word to describe Avatar: The Last Airbender it would be progressive however intended with a male audience. Avatar aired on Nickelodeon, a children’s TV network with a largely male demographic. Childhood influences change the way they grow up and it is important to show them good, nuanced examples. One could argue that the Disney channel did this long beforehand however they had a much larger female demographic. Avatar was a great example of a progressive show for boys.