Avatar the Last Airbender Is a television series that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. In the world of the avatar, human beings were bestowed a gift long ago from magical entities called ‘spirits’ which allowed them to control the four elements – water, earth, fire, air. Some people would be bestowed the gift of bending at birth, while others would be robbed of that ability and would need to live out their lives as a non bender, and in some communities non benders are treated as lesser beings. The four elements, all inhabiting their own land, lived in harmony, trading and interacting with each other, although existing separately in terms of culture and beliefs. The show starts with a young avatar, Aang, who was frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years, washes up on a water nation shore. Katara and her brother Sokka are fishing nearby and see the iceberg when it breaches the surface. Shortly after freeing him from his icy grave Aang reveals himself as the Avatar, the master of the four elements, the bridge between the human world and the spirit world, and so their journey was underway.
This show was hugely influential for my generation, acting as the turning point in the way kids my age consumed media, the gateway drug into the mature entertainment world. Each member of the party has their own complex character arcs across the three seasons with very significant and apparent growth being portrayed from beginning to end. These characters are very well written, designed, and executed for their target audience, thus resulting in a very natural and relatable cast of characters for young teen to grow up with. Aang fits the role of the very naive child feeling the weight of growing up on his shoulders, Sokka the lazy goofball growing into a mature adult, Katara the young woman who cares deeply about other people finding her passion and growing into a mother figure, and many more as the party grows. Katara in particular was very impactful on young girls as she embodied the strong, independent woman while, and this may be controversial, still staying close to the familiar ‘gender norms’ (more on that later).
Katara is a water-bender from the southern water tribe. When she was young, her mother was murdered and her father was out at war, so she was raised by her grandmother. To fill the void left behind by this traumatization, Katara assumed a very motherly role which is apparent in her relationship with her older brother, Sokka. This is important to remember as it shapes who she is and who she becomes. Katara’s character arcs are mostly self propelled as there is no outside influence forcing her to act a certain way, forcing her to fit into a mold. When Aang, Sokka and Katara depart on their journey, Katara’s strong maternal instincts drive her to act as the caretaker of these two admittedly inept boys and acts as the rock and the rational part of their original party. She wants to improve her defensive water-bending, and as such searches for scrolls and studies ancient techniques to improve her abilities and become a physically stronger member of the team.
With the fire nation responsible for the murder of her mother, Katara harbors a sense of hatred towards the fire nation and its people and at the same time has empathy for the rest of the world, the subjugated peoples who are now under control and imprisoned by the Fire Nation’s forces. Her good nature shows when she tries to help anyone who is in need, anyone who is being treated badly by the fire nation or the ‘system’. During these episodes the show seems to fall in line with pro Marxist views as Katara goes out of her way to free the equivalent of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, improving their way of life. For Example:
Team Avatar comes across an earth-bending town that’s under the control of the fire nation. If anyone is caught earth-bending in the town, they will be arrested and sent off on a floating prison to ‘serve their time’. Katara disguises herself as an earth-bender and sneaks onto the ship to free the trapped benders. Using her leadership skills and appealing to the prisoners empathy, she starts a coup and frees the prisoners.
City of Walls and Secrets
When Team Avatar visits the earth-bending city of Ba Sing Se, they immediately notice the divide between the rich and the poor, the huge walls dividing each sector and the gap between their quality of life.
The Painted Lady is a prime example of Katara exhibiting Marxist Ideals. A fire nation war factory is heavily polluting a lake in their construction of war vehicles even though there is a fishing village on a barge there. The polluted water was killing all the fish and poisoning the poor villagers. Katara decides to take up the mantle of the painted lady, a local myth of a spirit who protects the lake, and steals food from the factory for the village, and eventually overthrows the factory by destroying it.
Katara is a Marxist.
Something that would be important to touch upon is Katara’s cultural significance to the generation that grew up alongside her. Growing up alongside any of the characters in this series, watching them grow and achieve monumental things while being able to draw parallels to their own lives, the characters of Avatar The Last Airbender Shaped the development of all of its fans. Katara had a massive influence on young girls as she was an example of a strong, independent woman, foraging her own way through her development and her life. She fits in well under the discussion of feminism and add a lot to the feminist criticism.
Feminist criticism exists with many different layers, viewpoints, and lenses. Two lenses that consistently clash are the feminine feminists and the masculine feminists – that is, feminists that think embodying and owning traditionally feminine qualities, being independent and loving themselves for who they are, and the masculine who believe that the physically strong ‘stronger than any man’ woman is the ideal, showing that they don’t conform to any gender norms. Katara is an example of the feminine feminist as she still has many traditionally feminine interests and characteristics while still being the rock and driving force of her own life. A good example of the disparity between these two types of feminists is the episode The Tales of Ba Sing Se in which she takes the other female party member, Toph, out for a spa day in an attempt to make her feel better. Toph is very masculine and doesn’t really enjoy the activities, though she does appreciate the company.
A really good sequence of episodes that show how strong and independent Katara is are when the party arrives at the northern water tribe. They journeyed north to find a waterboarding teacher for Aang, but in her own pursuits, Katara wanted to be trained in defensive and offensive bending as well. In the northern water tribe, water-bending among women is limited to only its healing properties, as water benders and bend water in a way to heal wounds and flush out disease. All the teachers refuse to teach her anything and for a time she learns how to heal with her bending, but eventually she stands up against Aang’s master, and in a duel proves to him that she is strong enough to be trained.