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History in the Making: Women of “Avatar the Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra”

By Jada Jinks | April 4, 2022

Photo Credit: KylaBorg on Wikimedia Commons

“Avatar the Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra” were two shows featured on Nickelodeon that ran in the early 2000s. These shows were phenomenal successes for many reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is these shows’ ability to captivate the audience with well-written female characters. Today, I will be talking about five female characters and their importance within the shows themselves. But most of all, I will talk about these characters’ impact on a world that is striving to be more inclusive, and how they contributed to that.

Women From “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

  1. Katara

Katara is introduced as the narrator for the opening and the biggest catalyst for change in the series, being the one that releases the Avatar from the iceberg holding him. She’s able to destroy entire battleships, defeat the Serpent, bloodbend, and so much more. Katara ends the show defeating one of the strongest firebenders alive. Katara is a badass, and she’s allowed to do so while still being compassionate and nice.

The thing that’s great about Katara’s story is that she always stands up for what she believes in. When she and the Gang finally arrive at the Northern Water Tribe, Katara is eager to start her waterbending training. Once they get there, she finds out that women aren’t allowed to learn combat waterbending, only healing. Furious at the sexism and unfairness of this, she challenges the chief waterbending teacher, Pakku, to a fight. This is a fight that she and the audience know that she can’t win, but it’s one that she has to do anyway to fight for her right to be treated as an equal. This is a great lesson for both Katara and the audience to learn. If someone is treating you unfairly, you have to stand up to them.

What's inspiring about Katara’s story is the character development that she goes through. She starts off the series putting everyone’s needs above her own, forcing herself to be a surrogate mother and caretaker to everyone but herself. However, by the end of the series, while she is still a nurturing person, she realizes she doesn't have to take on a role she doesn't want to. She learns to balance her more nurturing side with the fact that she's still a kid. The greatest example is in‘The Runaway’ episode, where Katara learns to approach Toph as a caring friend, not as a mother figure.

  1. Toph Beifong

We first see a glimpse of Toph Beifong in ‘The Swamp’ episode, where the Swamp gives Aang a vision of her. The gang officially meets her in person during ‘The Blind Bandit,’ where we see her fighting in an illegal earthbending ring. We see, despite the fact that she is completely blind, she is an excellent fighter.

We see her caught between two lives, the earthbending ring that allows her to be truly free, and her family who loves her but treats her like she’s a fragile doll.

A main factor that’s great about Toph's story is that she learns that it's okay to ask for help. Her whole life, as she puts it, “People see me and think I’m weak. They want to take care of me, but I can take care of myself by myself.”

This has made it hard for her to get close to and trust anyone. This has even caused problems with her friends, who expect her to contribute to the group. She doesn’t want to receive help from anyone else and have them think she’s weak, even from her friends who know how strong she is. As Uncle Iroh points out to her, “You act just like my nephew. There’s nothing wrong with letting the people who love you help you.” These words do cause a change in Toph.

Later on, we see her having no trouble asking her friends for help in situations where she can’t use her earthbending powers. The most prominent example is in ‘The Desert’ episode, where the others have to lead her around because she doesn't know how to sandbend yet. Throughout her story, Toph learns it’s okay to rely on others for support. It doesn’t make her weak, if anything, her friends just make her stronger.

  1. Azula

The third character we're going to talk about is the main villain Azula. She was introduced in the first episode of season two, and we got one hell of an introduction. Azula is presented as extremely deadly from the start, and this only continues when we see her go up against Zuko. She easily beats him, almost seems to be toying with him, and would’ve killed him had it not been for Uncle Iroh.

Azula is a scarily competent villain that Team Avatar rarely gets a leg up against. The biggest example is when she, in a matter of a few days, manages to completely take over Ba Sing Se and kill the Avatar. Azula is a great chess player and knows how to work people into doing exactly what she wants. Almost nothing can stand in her way when she puts her mind to something, and I’ve noticed that many audience members both fear and admire her for it.

Azula is a complex villain. Yes, she inspires fear and terror into the hearts of all those who face her. Yes, she will very easily cut down people on her own side if they get in her way. Yes, she is extremely manipulative and has carefully crafted it to where entire armies join over to her side. However, it is also true that Azula is a victim of extreme abuse and propaganda. From the moment she was born, she has had to prove her worth to her father, never being allowed to step out of line or slip up. She has also been indoctrinated into the idea of the Fire Nation having a divine right to rule over other nations. She also struggles to gain the love of her mother. All of these factors and more transformed her into Ozai’s perfect soldier who slowly begins to crack under the pressure of her father’s expectations and her mother’s absence.

Azula is a fascinating villain, not only because of how good she is at being a villain, but also because she’s also not fully a villain at the same time. She is a victim of war and mistreatment just like our main characters, and her story was carefully crafted to inspire both fear and sympathy. That, I think, shows excellent storytelling ability and makes Azula a fan favorite to remember.

Women from “The Legend of Korra”

  1. Korra

In the show “The Legend of Korra”, Korra is presented as a very different Avatar than Aang. Korra is very hot-headed, cocky, and the type to bend first and ask questions later. She can also be very naive at times, as by the time we get to meet her, she has lived most of her life sheltered away from everyone except her teachers and her parents. As the show goes on, however, she starts to come into her own more as both a young woman and the Avatar. She’s faced with extremely complex issues where there is no right or wrong answer, and every action has a consequence.

13 years ago, there was this group called the Red Lotus that tried to kidnap Avatar Korra when she was a kid. Thankfully, the main members were captured and locked up. When Korra opened up the Spirit Portals, the leader of the Red Lotus, Zaheer, managed to get airbending powers also. These enemies present both a physical and a moral challenge for Korra to fight. Korra has to ask herself some tough questions, like “Do I, as the Avatar, have too much power? Is there a better way to keep the peace?”

These questions rush up to her when the Red Lotus manages to successfully capture and poison her. While she does manage to fight back and defeat Zaheer, the poison left her crippled and unable to defend herself and the world anymore for three years. She spends all of season four trying to come to terms with the physical and emotional trauma of what happened to her, to the point where she asks herself if she’s even needed anymore. I think this makes the Legend of Korra unique and an important story to be told. The story became even more important when Korra eventually managed to recover from her trauma by finding meaning in it. She decided to stop being hard-headed, and cocky, and instead be introspective and empathetic towards her enemies. She learns how to become a better Avatar.

What’s also very inspiring and relatable about Korra’s story is the romance between her and Asami Sato. While they don’t officially get together in the show itself, they do get together in the sequel comics. When Korra was recovering from being poisoned, Asami was the only one who had full faith that the Avatar would return one day. This led Korra to keep on working through her trauma, and eventually return to becoming a full-fledged Avatar. Forever changed, but using those changes to have better empathy for others and become the best Avatar she could be. Korra and Asami’s relationship was an extremely groundbreaking moment in TV history because, at the time, networks were hesitant to present LGTBQ characters, much less have the main character be LGTBQ. However, the “Legend of Korra”’s writers kept on fighting and eventually were able to confirm their relationship.

  1. Lin Beifong

Lin Beifong is Toph’s daughter and the current chief of police. We get introduced to her in the first episode when she arrests Korra for starting a fight with a local gang. She and Korra originally have a very antagonistic relationship, with Lin criticizing Korra for being reckless and causing trouble. However, as time goes on, Lin eventually warms up to Korra. She even starts to admire Korra for her passion and sees a little bit of herself in Korra.

That's the thing about Lin. She may take a while to warm up to people, but once you get on her good side, you won’t have a better person in your corner. An excellent example of this is when Amon is trying to capture Tenzin and his family. Lin sacrifices herself to make sure Tenzin's family gets away safely and the Air Nomads will still live on. She manages to destroy one airship but gets captured when trying to destroy another one, ending with Lin getting her bending taken away. Luckily, Korra manages to restore her bending at the end of season one, but what she did still makes her a hero.

In the third season, we find out Lin is not the only daughter of Toph. We learn Lin has another sister named Suyin. However, Lin doesn’t want anything to do with her sister or her extended family. Their relationship is so bad is because of an incident years ago where Suyin committed a crime, but Lin tried to stop her. The incident resulted in Lin getting a scar on her face, and Toph having to erase the incident from the police archives. Toph quickly stepped down as police chief after this, something Lin blames Suyin for, believing that her mother left because she couldn’t deal with the shame. As the episode goes on, Lin’s resentment and clear disdain for her sister grows, until it ends with the two of them getting into a physical fight. However, after the fight, Lin comes to the realization that she should not blame her sister for her mother’s disappearance. Coupled with the fact that Suyin is clearly a different person now, Lin decides to forgive her sister, and the two reconcile.

The ladies of ATLA and “The Legend of Korra” are historic characters and were ahead of their time when it comes to representation. None of the women in these shows are alike and they show these differences without making any of the women seem weak. Let's all have a Happy Women's History Month and enjoy these women for the work they’ve put into building a better future.


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