Monday, April 19, 2010

AtLA Monday: Sokka's Sexism and Aang's Ego

Sokka: I treated you like a girl when I should have treated you like a warrior.
Suki: I am a warrior. But I'm a girl, too.

First, some huge news, via Toonzone: Nickelodeon Animation Studios is hiring artists for a new Avatar-related project!

Or at least they said they were, until about five seconds after the job posting hit the animation-news blogotrons, at which point they announced they'd made a "mistake". I take that as pretty much confirmation.

Book One: Water
Chapter Four: The Warriors of Kyoshi


Open with Zuko meditating. Iroh enters and tells him there is bad news: They have lost the Avatar's trail. Zuko examines Iroh's map, which shows Aang's random path across the islands of the south. Zuko concludes Aang is a master of evasive maneuvering.

Meanwhile, high above the ocean on Appa, the Gaang is completely lost. Aang knows what he's trying to find, and that it's near water, but otherwise he has no idea where he's going. Aang tries to impress Katara by using airbending to spin marbles, but she is engrossed in repairing Sokka's pants and ignores him. Sokka tells Aang not to bother Katara, and demonstrates himself once again to be a sexist ass with his claim that women are better than men at domestic tasks, while men are better at hunting and fighting. Katara tells him off and refuses to finish his pants.

The group lands on the beach at a small island, and Aang finds what he's been looking for: the giant koi fish he said he wanted to ride at the end of "The Avatar Returns." He goes riding, but when he looks back to see if Katara is impressed, she's distracted. Then an eel-like monster, the Unagi, tries to eat him. Aang narrowly escapes. The Gaang is about to leave the island when a group of young women in elaborate, kabuki-like armor and makeup ambush and subdue them in a matter of seconds.

After the commercial, we find the Gaang blindfolded and tied to a pillar as one of the young women and an old man interrogate them. Sokka demands they show themselves, and they remove the group's blindfolds. He sees the armored women, and demands to see the men who captured him. The women's leader, Suki, informs him that there were no men: her warriors did it. Sokka responds with more sexist idiocy, and Suki threatens to feed him to the Unagi. Katara intervenes, pleading mercy on the grounds that Sokka is an idiot.

Aang tries to apologize for trespassing, but the old man accuses them of being Fire Nation spies. In the process, he reveals the island is named "Kyoshi", which Aang recognizes as the name of a past Avatar. Aang proves he is the Avatar, and the islanders free the Gaang and celebrate.

The news that the Avatar is on Kyoshi spreads, and soon reaches Zuko. The next morning, Aang and Katara enjoy breakfast, while Sokka sulks. Katara taunts him about getting his butt kicked, and Sokka storms off. Aang is enjoying being the center of attention, but Katara warns him against letting it go to his head.

After a montage of the village's tween girls going nuts as Aang shows off for them and Katara works to prepare for their journey, we see Sokka entering the Kyoshi Warriors' dojo. Suki tries to apologize for ambushing friends of the Avatar, and Sokka makes sexist jokes. Suki plays on his macho idiocy to convince him to fight her, and proceeds to mop the floor with him as the other warriors look on and laugh.

Aang invites Katara to come play with him and "the girls", but Katara wants him to help her prepare for their journey. She warns that they can't stay long in one place, but Aang is enjoying himself and wants to stay longer. Aang accuses Katara of jealousy, and she leaves in a huff.

Later that day, Sokka returns to the dojo, apologizes, and begs for them to teach him. Suki agrees, but only if he wears their uniform. Once in the uniform, Sokka is embarrassed until Suki tells him that its elements symbolize bravery and honor. Then Aang pokes in his head ("Hey, Sokka! Nice dress!") and Sokka is again embarrassed, to Suki's evident pleasure.

Aang enters Katara's room, where she is practicing "pulling" a stream of water out of a bowl. Aang invites her to see him ride the Unagi, and Katara is neither impressed nor interested in trying to stop Aang from this obviously idiotic stunt. The two argue, and Aang storms out.

Suki and Sokka train. He is having trouble with control, and Suki explains that their techniques are not about strength, but rather about using the opponents' force against them. Sokka is able to throw Suki, and after some mutual teasing, they return to sparring.

Meanwhile, Aang sits in the water, waiting for the Unagi, but it doesn't show, and the bored tween girls wander off. Aang is depressed, but then sees Katara coming. Katara admits she was worried about him, and Aang apologizes for his behavior. As he's about to get out of the water, the Unagi attacks. Aang is knocked out, and Katara grabs him and uses some hastily improvised waterbending to get them out of the water and into the nearby rocks. The Unagi sprays jets of water at them a few times, then abruptly leaves as Zuko's ship arrives and released a party of riders on triceratops-rhino-things, led by Zuko. Katara uses the "pulling" move she was practicing earlier to get the water out of Aang's lungs.

Meanwhile, Suki and Sokka are still training when the village elder runs in to tell them firebenders have come. Zuko's riders begin searching the village for Aang, when the Kyoshi Warriors and Sokka attack. Suki attacks Zuko head on, but his rhino knocks her aside, and Sokka saves her from a fireblast while one of the other Kyoshi Warriors knocks Zuko to the ground. Sokka, Suki, and the unnamed Kyoshi Warrior attack Zuko, but he fights them off. He and Aang fight, and Aang again mops the floor with him and flies off, looking down sadly at the fire spreading through the village.

He finds Katara, leading the tween girls to safety, and she says they have to run, so that Zuko and the firebenders will follow them and leave the village alone. Sokka apologizes again to Suki, and she kisses him, then leads the Kyoshi Warriors in holding off the firebenders while the Gaang escapes on Appa.

Zuko orders his men back to the ship, and Katara assures Aang the village will be okay. Aang then jumps off Appa into the lagoon, and rides the Unagi, using its water-spraying attack to put out the fires in the village. Then he jumps into the air and Appa catches him. Aang tells Katara he knows it was stupid and dangerous, and Katara agrees, then hugs him.


Obviously, this is the "girl power" episode. A staple of children's shows since at least the late '80s, "girl power" episodes exist to teach the characters, and hopefully the audience, that girls are people, and therefore capable of the same range of skills and behaviors as "normal" people, i.e. white males.

Unlike most girl power episodes, however, both the characters and the series take the lessons of this episode to heart. This is really the beginning of Sokka's character arc: by episode six, he will be willing to let Katara plan and execute a dangerous scheme to infiltrate an enemy prison. Over the rest of the season and into the next, he will also drop the serious, macho warrior act and loosen up enormously, becoming much more fun and funny. It's a fairly subtle reminder that sexism hurts men, too.

Aang's "nice dress" is another reminder of the way sexism hurts men, by forcing them into rigid gender roles to avoid the appearance of femininity. As well, it's a reminder of the men, especially young men, use mockery to force one another and women into said gender roles.

Over the course of this episode, Sokka follows a pretty standard arc for pop-culture acceptance of "deviant" behavior. At first, the behavior doesn't exist in pop culture (Sokka denies that women are capable of being warriors). Then, the behavior is regarded as aberrant and evil or comedically misguided (Sokka is angry at the "girls" for beating him, then mocks their "dance class"). Then the behavior is regarded as aberrant and comedic, but harmless (Sokka dresses up in a "dress" and Suki teases). Next the behavior is aberrant but admirable, which is where the episode leaves us. Later episodes of the series will often have female warriors, both in the spotlight and as background elements, the final stage of development: the behavior is accepted as normal.

It's also notable that Sokka is a particularly modern sort of sexist; much of what he says at the beginning of the episode could come straight out of an article on evo-psych. "Women aren't inferior, they're just differently specialized!" And of course, it's just a coincidence that the things women are "specialized" to do all take place at home, for no pay, honor, or glory? Right, Sokka?

This all adds up to a pretty clear indictment of the sexism of our society. As we will see later in the series, the world of Avatar is a lot less sexist than ours. Sokka is very much a stand-in for our-world attitudes, while societies such as Kyoshi are presented as a superior state of living -- so obviously superior that even the villains have women on the front lines.

As long as we're talking about Kyoshi Island society, there's something interesting going on here with the costumes. This is the first culture we've seen other than the Southern Water Tribe, and they're somewhat hard to place. In most episodes, we have four clear ethnicities: each of the four nations has a consistent dominant hair color, eye color, and skin color, a consistent architectural style, and a distinctive style of clothing in a consistent color. Kyoshi Island doesn't fit. They have Earth Kingdom physical appearances and architecture, but Water Tribe clothing, except the Warriors of Kyoshi, who look more typical Earth Kingdom. But then the way Suki describes the Kyoshi Warriors' fighting style sounds rather a lot like the way Iroh describes the philosophy of waterbending later. Kyoshi Island thus serves as the first of many, many hints that Katara's opening narration is oversimplified: there's a lot more complexity to this world than four nation-states.

On the character front, this episode confirms and fleshes out the Freudian trio roles introduced last episode. Katara continues to be focused on consequences, cautious, and a little judgmental -- the perfect superego. Sokka is emotional, angry, and romantically entangled, a classic id.

As for Aang, well, reread that synopsis. Any time this episode isn't about Sokka's machismo, it's about Aang's ego. He serves as a point of balance between Sokka-style impulsiveness and Katara-style guilt, and by combining the two he is able to do something stupid, crazy, and absolutely right to put out the village's fires.

And now that we have the characters slotted into their roles, we can start shifting them: two episodes from now, we'll have a complete reshuffling of roles to put Katara into the ego spot. As I said last week, the Gaang are not three parts to a single main character; they are each a fully rounded character in their own rights.

Random observations:
  • The Unagi's eye is vaguely reminiscent of Eva-01 in the second episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Not close enough to be definitely a reference, but the color scheme, the way it moves, and the way the extreme close-up on it is framed, all strongly suggest NGE. And there's simply no way the obvious anime fans behind Avatar don't remember that iconic moment.
  • Sokka picks up the Kyoshi Warriors' fighting styles very fast. It's the beginning of a pattern for him: Sokka is extremely intelligent, and learns very quickly, especially where fighting is concerned.
  • Each of the Gaang storms off angrily at some point in this episode: Sokka at breakfast, Katara after Aang accuses her of jealousy, and Aang after Katara refuses to watch him ride the Unagi.
  • Later in the series, Sokka will prove the handiest of the Gaang at making things, while Katara significantly surpasses him in combat ability.
  • Update: I nearly forgot one of the observations I wanted to make! Kyoshi founded the island 400 years ago? Really? "The Avatar and the Firelord" makes it pretty clear that Roku was born 150, maybe 200 years before Aang the first episode at the earliest. Kyoshi lived for over 200 years? I find that hard to believe. On the other hand, the "worst village ever" seems to have the same dates for Kyoshi, so I'm not sure how much room there is to argue.

Updated 4/19/10 to add random observation.
Updated 4/22/10 to correct Roku's birth date.


  1. Ah, girl power episodes, how I love thee. Especially when past this point, the show acts like it's a given that girls can and will fight (sadly, we have no Toph, Azula, Mai or Ty Lee to emphasise this point at the moment), to the point that it becomes a problem once the kids reach the North Pole, and are informed that Katara cannot be allowed to learn how to defend herself and others effectively. Heresy.

    Actually, now that I think about it, Sokka learned well from what Suki smacked into him here. Sokka tries to treat his next love interest like a capable person - though he seems very aware of her social status, and that might well play a part in his respectful behaviour. It's still contrasted with, and a definite step up from, the way Yue's fiance seems to view her. Progress!

    Seems like the patriarchy is very much a Water Tribe thing in Avatar-world. I'm less sure of gender roles in the Earth Kingdom, but we don't see female Earth Kingdom soldiers, or many female earthbenders. Political and economic power in the Earth Kingdom also seems to rest with men - though we see working women, they're mostly doing physical labour or bureaucratic form-approving.

    The Fire Nation really do seem progressive by contrast. Not just technologically, but socially. Even though they're waging a war of imperialism, there's something to like in Fire Nation society - and even though the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes are the good guys, they seem to deny opportunities to their female populations. Just like the characters are human, the societies they come from have good and bad points.

  2. Personally, I don't like girl power episodes, because they're usually anvilicious and formulaic, and the formula is counterproductive: Start with a series that has a lot of casual sexism. Make one character suddenly blatantly, rather than casually, sexist. Introduce a female character, have her defeat the sexist in a competition. Sexist admits he was wrong. Next episode, return to the status quo, and never reference the girl power episode again. All it really does is reinforce the notion that female power is aberrant.

    What makes the Avatar episode great is how it subverts this formula. Sokka does not become suddenly sexist; he has been portrayed since the first episode as a chauvinist. And we don't revert to status quo after this episode, and Suki and the Warriors of Kyoshi come back later. It's all much better integrated into the arc of the show than your typical girl power episode, and that makes it stronger, I think.

    As to your other point, most of the earthbenders we see over the course of the series are Dai Li or wrestlers, both of which do appear to be all or mostly boys' clubs. But we do see unaffiliated female earthbenders, most notably Toph and assorted background characters (one stands out just a couple of episodes from now, because she's a grayhaired old woman). We also have women in positions of authority (the leader of the "slob" faction in "The Great Divide") and other important, not traditionally female jobs (the customs agent that Iroh flirts with). Not to mention the Kyoshi Warriors themselves, of course!

    But yeah, the Fire Nation seems to be the most egalitarian of the four nations, at least when it comes to gender. As you say, these are human cultures -- none is completely evil or completely good.

  3. Hm, I take your point, but I think in the context of the 80s I still see it as a step in the right direction. I once read a comment (on women of colour in fantasy) that I thought put it quite well: "We might be the exception in the room, but we are *in the room* now." I haven't been watching much kids' TV of late, but hopefully most of them have moved on from there. Avatar certainly has.

  4. Consumer Unit 5102April 21, 2010 at 5:32 PM

    I'm pretty sure it is official that Kiyoshi did in fact live to be over 200 years old. (It's a kung-fu world, and one common trope in kung-fu films is that people with powerful chi can live a LONG time if nobody kills them.)

  5. You are probably correct.

    I note I made a mistake in the post, too: Roku was born about 150-200 years before the first episode, not before Aang.