Despite Avatar: The Last Airbender being a show geared towards children, the series explores complex themes such as war (in all of its harm and nuance), grief, forgiveness, and more. ATLA even seeks to tackle sexism in its first season.
However, for a show that used one of its male leads, Sokka, to convey the harm of having preconceived and harmful misconceptions about women, ATLA is often guilty of doing just that. Specifically towards women who have dealt with great cruelties and as a result had to learn to adapt to their oppressive environment; however flawed their means of survival may have been.
The Flawed Women of Avatar: The Last Airbender Deserved More
The show introduces many villains and antagonists throughout its three seasons, both male and female. Though, one noticeable difference between how the female villains are handled compared to the males—the women aren’t given the same chances to redeem their character.
Male characters like Jet, Zuko, and Iroh (though not a villain, Iroh has admittedly committed war crimes) were presented as flawed characters on the wrong side of the 100-year-war. The aforementioned characters were then given chances, at some or many points throughout the show, to be vindicated for any harm they’ve caused.
For example, in season 1 episode 10 titled, “Jet” the titular character discusses his traumatic past. And in season 2 episode 16 titled, “Lake Laogai” the audience witnesses the trauma Jet describes. We briefly see Jet as the helpless boy he was, watching his village be raided by Fire Nation soldiers wherein his parents were subsequently killed.
Thus, ATLA suggests that Jet’s resentment and extremist attitudes toward the Fire Nation are of course objectively wrong, but still complicated nonetheless. The examination of Jet’s past on multiple occasions as well as his later redemption in season 2 prompts, perhaps even encourages, the audience to forgive Jet for his initial misgivings.
He was merely a young boy, growing up amid a devastating war who had to learn leadership, forgiveness, and morality all on his own. And, naturally, he fell short in more ways than one along his journey from childhood to adolescence.
Even Sozin, the person initially responsible for the war, was allowed to have a glimpse into his past in season 3 episode 6 titled, “The Avatar and the Firelord.” And though this episode didn’t entirely redeem him for his crimes, the audience’s examination of Sozin’s past allowed us to at least better understand the man behind the villain.
Female characters like Azula and Hama, on the other hand, were presented as rigid villains incapable of positive change. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome the chance to explore antagonism within a grey area, rather than a straightforward ‘good’ or ‘evil’ construct. Because the former is a more accurate portrayal that puts all the characters on equal footing for critique.
I just wish the same opportunity to be illustrated within blurred moral lines could have been afforded to ATLA’s female villains. There were many times the show could’ve provided some nuance to either Hama or Azula, even if by simply showcasing a passing comment from another character seeking to offer them empathy.
For example, when we’re introduced to Hama in season 3 episode 8 titled “The Puppetmaster,” she’s the last surviving waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. That is until she meets Katara. We soon discover that Hama is able to bloodbend: a subset of waterbending and a technique she invented after being held in a Fire Nation prison. Now, Hama seeks to pass on this skill born from survival onto Katara.
However, ATLA demonizes bloodbending the moment it’s introduced as an unethical means of bending. Katara is immediately horrified as Hama explains how she invented this method of waterbending as her only means of escape. So, Hama tries to invoke Katara to understand the necessity of her invented technique. She urges, “The power [of bloodbending] exists and it’s your duty to use the gifts you’ve been given to win this war.”
This line offered a chance for at least one character shown in “The Puppetmaster” to at least acknowledge or validate Hama’s perspective. But none did. Is Hama’s angst any less deserving of compassion from the audience than Jet’s? In the same episode that Sozin’s past was explored, Aang tells the gang, “Everyone… [has] to be treated like their worth giving a chance.”
The last we see of Hama, she’s being taken away in chains. Similarly, the last we see of Azula (in the show), her hands are bound behind her back as she screams and cries in agony and utter abandonment.
I wish the show's writers would have taken that sentiment of chances and forgiveness and applied it to the characters who greatly needed just a little care and understanding to be fully fleshed out and humanized as they deserved.
Ebony Purks is a graduate student at the University of Incarnate Word working toward getting her Master’s degree in communications. She is also a freelance writer, interested in writing about pop culture, social justice, and health; especially examining the many intersections between those subjects.