I’ve wanted to talk about Avatar: The Last Airbender for a long time. And now that I’ve been rewatching season 1, I thought it would be interesting to explore one topic that comes up quite a few times during the season: sexism.
Sexism is discrimination based on gender, or the belief that one gender is superior to the other. For the sake of this Meta, I’ll be focusing on discrimination against women, and how men view themselves as superior to them at varying points in the series.
Avatar: The Last Airbender tackles a lot of issues, but I feel like sexism is a really important one, especially in regards to the other characters, most importantly, Sokka and Katara.
Let’s start with Sokka, because part of his character arc for season 1 involves sexism, or more specifically, how his discriminatory thoughts about women are proven false over time.
Warning: this post contains some spoilers from three season 1 episodes: episode 1 (The Boy in the Iceberg), episode 4 (The Warriors of Kyoshi) and episode 18 (The Waterbending Master).
Sokka’s Character Arc: Pride Before The Fall, or How Sexism Fades Over a Season
When we start the show, Sokka is hilarious, but also unfortunately very sexist. Now why do I love Sokka, despite his internalized sexism in early season 1? Well, because he overcomes it, and becomes a better person for it.
The Sokka in episode 1 is very set in his ways, and very condescending toward his sister. He dismisses her waterbending as weird, and then expresses annoyance at bringing her along fishing when they get off course: “Leave it to a girl to screw things up!” (Transcript: The Boy in the Iceberg)
Katara (and the creators) do not agree with his sentiment, because after he says that, Katara goes off on him:
Katara is the first person in the series to call out Sokka on his sexism. We don’t get much time to address how he feels about this though, because that’s when the two find Aang, and they get distracted by that.
We revisit Sokka’s sexism in The Warriors of Kyoshi, or as I like to call it, “Sokka’s pride takes a nosedive and his internalized sexism is called into question.”
First, there’s a moment early on in the episode that’s particularly enlightening:
Sokka: Stop bugging her, airhead. You need to give girls space when they do their sewing.
Katara: [Close side-view shot of Katara as she casts her brother an annoyed glare; irritably.] What does me being a girl have to do with sewing?
Sokka: [Protesting and pleading.] Wait! I was just kidding. [Sticks one arm through the large hole in his pants.] I can’t wear these! Katara, please!
(Transcript: The Warriors of Kyoshi)
Here, Sokka’s views are laid out: girls are better at doing feminine things, like sewing, and boys are better at hunting and fighting. Katara, as a girl who can hold her own in a fight (and can catch fish better than her brother) decides to teach Sokka a lesson, and from Sokka’s pleading and protesting, we can see the lesson having an effect on him.
But because this is an episode devoted to changing up Sokka’s views on sexism, this isn’t the only issue he encounters. When the group is ambushed by the Kyoshi Warriors, they’re blindfolded.
When the girls are revealed to them, Sokka demands to know where the men who ambushed them are. When Suki (the leader) tells him that it was them who attacked him, he laughs at the idea, mocking them and saying there’s no way they could’ve taken them down. That’s impossible, he thinks; girls aren’t good at fighting. It’s only Katara and Aang’s intervention that keeps Sokka from getting thrown into the water to become fish food.
Sokka spends a lot of this episode sulking. His internalized sexism is being torn apart. First Katara teaches him a lesson about gender roles, and now this group of girls kicked his butt in a fight. He’s determined to prove that he can take them on, and thus he heads to where they’re training in order to prove himself. Unfortunately, what happens is that he gets his butt kicked, again. And again. And again.
It’s pretty painful, and by the end, when Suki mockingly asks if he’s got anything else to teach them, his cheeks are flushed with humiliation.
It’s a painful lesson (and a painful blow to Sokka’s pride), but it’s one that he needs, because the next time he approaches the girls, he’s timid and ready to learn:
Sokka: [Sokka…humbly drops to his knees in front of her.] I would be honored if you would teach me.
Suki: [Frog view of Suki; hostile.] Even if I’m a girl?
Sokka: [Averting his eyes.] I’m sorry if I insulted you earlier. I was … wrong.
(Transcript: The Warriors of Kyoshi)
Sokka is one of those characters who absolutely loathes admitting he’s wrong, so for him to get down on his knees in front of a girl, apologize and admit his wrong-doing is a huge character development for him. Even when Sokka is wary about wearing the Kyoshi warrior uniform due to its girly nature, it’s Suki’s description of the meanings of the uniform (“The silk threads symbolize the brave blood that flows through our veins. The gold insignia represents the honor of the warrior’s heart”) that turns him around and makes him proud to be one of the rare men able to wear it.
And when we last see Suki during the season, we get this wonderful (and adorable) moment:
Suki: There’s no time to say goodbye.
Sokka: What about, “I’m sorry?”
Suki: [Surprised.] For what?
Sokka: [Close-up. Regretful.] I treated you like a girl when I should’ve treated you like a warrior.
Suki [Side-view.] I am a warrior. [She leans over and kisses Sokka on the cheek, before continuing again. A surprised Sokka touches his cheek where Suki just kissed him.] But I’m a girl, too.
(Transcript: The Warriors of Kyoshi)
Sokka has realized that women can be warriors and that all along, he should’ve been treating his sister, Suki, and the other Kyoshi Warriors as the warriors that they are, rather than girls he underestimates and mocks. It’s a huge step of development for the boy who said “leave it up a girl to screw things up” in the pilot, and an especially big step for the boy who thought a group of girls could never get the upper hand on him. Sokka has a ways to go, but he’s on a great start, and after this, he’s learned not to underestimate women, and more importantly, to treat women as equals, both on the battlefield and off.
Now, let’s move onto Katara’s more external battle against sexism.
The Northern Water Tribe and Katara’s Stand Against Sexism
Out of all of the locations in the world of ATLA, the Northern Water Tribe has always struck me as the most patriarchal (and sexist). While the South is in shambles, the North is all about tradition and gender roles. Men fight. Women heal. So when Katara shows up there looking for a waterbending teacher, it’s an uphill battle for her.
When she shows up to Pakku’s lesson with Aang, he instantly shuts down her hopes of learning waterbending: “In our tribe, it is forbidden for women to learn waterbending.” (Transcript: The Waterbending Master)
Naturally, Katara is furious. Katara’s main goal in season 1 is getting up to the Nothern Water Tribe to find an instructor in waterbending. Back home, in the South, Katara is the last remaining bender, which means any waterbending she’s learned has been by her own instruction, or via the scroll she and Aang nabbed in The Waterbending Scroll.
But despite her protests, Pakku won’t relent:
Aang clearly agrees, because he’s ready to quit and find a new teacher before Katara insists that he needs the lessons as the Avatar. The two get around the rules when Aang (on Sokka’s suggestion – see how much Sokka has grown as a character?) to teach her what he learns from Pakku, but Pakku finds out, and in order to get Aang his lessons back, Katara needs to “swallow her pride and apologize”.
Does Katara do that? Hell no, especially after he patronizingly calls her a little girl. Instead of apologizing, she challenges him to a fight, taunting him right back: “I’ll be outside if you’re man enough to fight me.” (Transcript: The Waterbending Master)
What occurs next is an epic waterbending dual between waterbending master and determined waterbender in training.
Pakku taunts her throughout the fight, at first telling her to go back to the healing huts where she belongs, and then telling her that he won’t hurt her. Katara ignores the taunts and fights back, holding her own pretty well against a waterbending master. Consider this: Katara has been learning on her own the entire season. And Pakku has obviously been a master waterbender for many years now. The fact that Katara holds her own against a master waterbender proves that she’s a worthy student, and yet Pakku still won’t teach her.
It isn’t until Pakku sees Katara’s necklace – the betrothal necklace she’s worn for years now – that he realizes the necklace belonged to the woman he was supposed to marry: Katara’s grandmother. Katara’s words about her grandmother obviously give him pause.
“It was an arranged marriage. Gran-Gran wouldn’t let your tribe’s stupid customs run her life. That’s why she left. It must have taken a lot of courage,” she says. (Transcript: The Waterbending Master)
Pakku obviously agrees, and this is where he has a turn-around. He’s already lost one thing to these traditions: the woman he wanted to marry. Maybe the traditions aren’t as sound as he thought. And the girl he fought is incredibly skilled. Those two factors lead to him agreeing to teach Katara. It’s slow progress, but Katara gets her teacher, and Pakku begins reconsidering his views.
They’re validated next episode when she kicks his students’ butts and proves herself his best student, despite not being taught nearly as long. The change is slow-coming, but slowly, Katara has begun eroding the traditions and sexism of the Water Tribe, one man at a time.
Two siblings, two separate struggles with sexism, and progress with both: what could be more epic than that? Sokka overcomes his internal sexism, and Katara beats external sexism in the Northern Water Tribe. Pretty amazing wins on both ends, if you ask me.
Do any of you guys watch ATLA? (And if you don’t, did my post make you want to check the show out?) If so, let us know in the comments!
Transcript: The Boy in the Iceberg. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2014, from Avatar Wiki: http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Transcript:The_Boy_in_the_Iceberg
Transcript: The Warriors of Kyoshi. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2014, from Avatar Wiki: http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Transcript:The_Warriors_of_Kyoshi
Transcript: The Waterbending Master. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2014, from Avatar Wiki: http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Transcript:The_Waterbending_Master
I got a lot of my Kyoshi Warriors gifs from Avatar Gifs and Avatar Parallels so I thought I’d give a shout-out to both of them as well: