When I was watching Avatar the first time, I was probably in middle school or high school, and I remember getting into it just for the bending. Each form of bending is based on a different form of Chinese martial art, and because my family is from Taiwan and I grew up in a household where we watched Jet Li movies just as often as any Western action movies, the idea of martial arts giving the martial artist control of the four elements was extremely compelling to me. Upon rewatch, though, I realized that as a kid, I somehow missed a lot of the diversity of the Avatar universe. Though bending is such a physical act, the Avatar universe also went out of its way to showcase many characters with physical disabilities and mental trauma.
Spoilers for all of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra after the jump.
When you think of the Avatar universe and disabilities, the first person to pop into your head is probably Toph Beifong (and if she’s not, why the hell not?). Toph is born blind, and as a young girl, is coddled by parents who believe, in an ableist fashion, that she’s helpless because she’s blind. Unbeknownst to her parents, Toph learns earthbending from badgermoles, who are similarly blind and use their bending to see. Encouraged by her own skills, she sneaks into earthbending competitions as the Blind Bandit, wins all of them, and caps off her amazing record by agreeing to be the Avatar’s earthbending master.
Although Toph can “see” through her bending, there are many scenes in Avatar where we see Toph actually struggle with her blindness. Toph can’t read, and Katara has to read her correspondence for her. She also can’t see important information on posters or enemies when they’re in the air (as they aren’t touching the earth), and relies on the Gaang to inform her of what’s happening in these situations. She sees through earthbending, so she hates sand, complaining that it makes things “look blurry”. Hilariously, she often trolls Sokka, saying that his drawings (on ink and paper) look great to her. All of this helps both to humanize Toph and to normalize her disability in a non-ableist way. Thanks to this, Avatar never really falls into the trap of making Toph a disabled character whose disability somehow makes them more powerful. Toph is never treated as weak, despite her weaknesses, and all of her friends acknowledge that she’s the Greatest Earthbender in the World.
Toph is far from the only disabled character in Avatar. Late in Book 1, we meet Teo, a wheelchair user who, along with a large group of refugees, has taken up residence at the abandoned Northern Air Temple. His father has built him a glider based on the Air Nomads’ gliders, so that he can fly even when he’s in his wheelchair. At first, Aang is taken aback by this, claiming that all glider users are not real airbenders and that no non-airbenders should be living in the place of his people. By the end of the episode, though, he’s changed his mind. Teo, he says, has the spirirt of a airbender, even though he can’t bend or use his legs. Later, the creative ingenuity of Teo and his father help the Gaang drive off the attacking Fire Nation armies. Teo is particularly important because he’s introduced in a completely non-ableist way and the Gaang never reacts to him with pity or even shock—the only comment they make on his disability is Sokka telling him that his glider chair is incredible. By including Teo, the creators of Avatar taught Aang and the audience a valuable lesson about judging people based on what they can do. In a universe where being a nonbender has certainly led to being oppressed, Teo is both a nonbender and a wheelchair user—yet it’s his brain and his flying that help save the day in the end.
Finally, we have Ming-Hua, one of the villains in Korra’s cycle. In Book 3, the completely overpowered supervillain Zaheer breaks free of prison and then travels around the world freeing his compatriots, who together make up the Red Lotus. One of these members is Ming-Hua, a waterbender with no arms. This is particularly interesting, as waterbending, which was based on tai-chi, is largely performed by movements of the arms. Ming-Hua gets around this by shaping two tubes of water to be her arms. She can use these tubes just as capably as any limbs, and she can also freeze the tips of them so that she has dangerous icepicks as fingers. She’s every bit as formidable a fighter as the rest of the Red Lotus. However, Legend of Korra never gets into how exactly Ming-Hua can even bend water to form her arms—Katara uses a similar technique in Avatar, but Katara… does have arms. Korra also never discusses Ming-Hua’s history and how she learned to bend—all things that would have made her seem as multifaceted and as real as Toph and Teo. Instead, it seemed like no thought went into her character conception.
The Avatar universe put in a lot of work with its physical disabilities, but those, of course, aren’t the only disabilities. Though Avatar sadly doesn’t depict anyone born with mental illnesses, it does expose its characters to traumatic events that result in some very realistic psychological responses. A great example of this is Zuko, the Fire Nation prince outcast by his father, Fire Lord Ozai. Ozai only cares about power, and when Zuko’s younger sister Azula shows much more firebending talent than does Zuko, Ozai starts looking for a reason to cast his firstborn son out. When Zuko speaks out of turn at a war meeting, Ozai burns his face in retribution for his “disrespect”. He banishes Zuko, saying that the only way he can return is by capturing the Avatar. Twisted by his father’s emotional and physical abuse of him, Zuko spends much of the series truly believing that the only way to regain his father’s love is to capture the Avatar. Though many people, like the Gaang and his uncle, Iroh, try to help him, he drives them all away. He’s furious at Iroh’s advice for him, considering him a lazy old man. It takes Zuko finally being welcomed back into the Fire Nation to realize that all along, his father was the one who really had no honor. In a great speech to his father, he renounces his father’s philosophy and dedicates himself to his uncle and to the Avatar’s cause.
Zuko’s sister, Azula, is also a victim of poor parenting. (Ozai certainly seems like a psychopath, but, like Sokka says, he’s also “pure evil”, so I’d rather chalk him down as poor writing than as any actual representation.) Azula believes that she has the divine right to rule, something that her father likely told her thanks to her superior firebending ability. She’s clearly paranoid and suffering from both visual and auditory hallucinations by the end of Avatar. However, there are situational factors present in her actions (very well articulated in this meta) that suggest that what Azula suffers from is not psychopathy or schizophrenia, but extreme reactions to parental neglect. Even if we can’t accurately diagnose Azula with a mental illness, she’s still in the same camp as Zuko—she’s looking for love from her parents. Their mother, Ursa, always clearly preferred Zuko, and Azula’s constant disregard for what Ursa appreciates—burning her flowers, tormenting her turtle-ducks—could be seen as Azula acting out for her mother’s attention. When Ursa refuses to interact with her, instead telling her to go to her room, Azula gradually learns to form an emotional attachment to her father, who at least praises her firebending. Ozai’s bloodthirsty behavior certainly informs Azula’s view of the world, and the bloody politics that comes with being a princess of the Fire Nation (one who overhears her grandfather ordering her father to kill Zuko, and who is abandoned by her mother and friends) may also inform her later paranoia.
However, even though we have many scenes dedicated to Azula and her life outside of her relation to the plot, it’s clearly evident that Avatar doesn’t treat her with the same respect as it does its other characters with disabilities. Azula ends the series in a straitjacket, and even in the comics, which expand her story, she’s seen as a dangerous mental patient. She’s not ever offered the same chance at redemption and healing that Zuko is, despite suffering from Zuko’s same problems. Consider what Iroh says about her. Iroh, who has so much patience for Zuko’s angst and teaches him so many things, who later helps out Toph and even Korra when they’re in a strop—when Zuko says, “I know what you’re going to say, [Azula]’s my sister and I should be trying to get along with her,” Iroh only responds with, “No, she’s crazy, and she needs to be put down.” The kindest person in the Avatar universe doesn’t have a single kind word to spare for his niece. I truly can’t understand why the Avatar team chose to dismiss Azula in this way, especially when they put so much effort into making her three-dimensional.
Finally, we have Korra. Though I haven’t seen all the media where PTSD is a factor, Korra’s PTSD in Book 4 is one of the most nuanced depictions of the disorder that I’ve ever seen. At the end of Book 3, Korra is attacked by the aforementioned Zaheer and the Red Lotus (sick band name, btw). She’s chained up and forced to ingest a poison that will bring on the Avatar State. Once she’s in the Avatar State, Zaheer tries to kill her, knowing that killing an Avatar in the Avatar State will end the Avatar cycle forever. However, in her poisoned state, Korra has no control over her powers, and it’s only by the interference of Jinora and the airbenders that both Zaheer and Korra get out alive. Afterwards, Korra hides away from her friends and family, only writing letters to her eventual girlfriend, Asami. She tries to figure out who she is after surviving Zaheer’s attack on her, but she’s tormented by flashbacks of herself, out of control in the Avatar State. At first, she thinks the problem is the poison that Zaheer gave her, but even after an aged Toph helps her to bend the last of the poison out of her body, she’s still hesitant and gun-shy in her bending. She finally has to face Zaheer, face the results of what he did, and realize how her past trauma shapes, but doesn’t define, her new self. As she says in an exchange with Mako,
Mako: Do you think you’re finally able to forget about what Zaheer did to you?
Korra: No. But I am finally able to accept what happened, and I think that’s gonna make me stronger.
As Korra learns, sometimes the only way through recovery is through it. If one is constantly stuck on the whys and what ifs of the trauma—if I’d only done this, if only it hadn’t happened—it’s difficult, if not impossible, to move on. Korra gets several episodes dedicated to her mental state, and her character arc captures the essence of recovery well.
All of the disabilities and traumas mentioned here give the Avatar universe a very real message, one which is doubly important because both shows are meant for children. Kids’ shows can be very formative. Showing kids that people who are not able-bodied and who are not neurotypical are still capable of being real people, with real struggles, is a very important lesson to impart. Although both series of Avatar are action-adventure stories, they show characters who are constantly struggling with very integral moral and philosophical issues. Should I kill for a cause, no matter how just that cause is? What does destiny mean, and how can I shape my own destiny? In a fast-changing world, how can I hold to cultural norms and traditions without strangling them? The Avatar universe doesn’t always succeed at its discussion of disability issues. However, Avatar discusses mental and physical disabilities on a level equal to its philosophical issues, and that sends the message that they are just as important and worthy of discussion.
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“Blind kung fu master,” is a pretty common trope, but Toph is still a great character.
There’s an old Shaw Bros movie called “Crippled Masters” (or maybe crippled Avengers) you might check out, as it involves a blind man, a deaf man, and a mentally handicapped man beating up a bunch of bad guys.
Of course, I’m just a sucker for Shaw Bros movies in general.
Aaah, great post, especially the part on psychological issues! Really helped me relive the sympathy I felt for those characters the first time I experienced their journeys. 🙂
I too find it surprising that so many characters concluded that Azula is irredeemable, because it’s a really negative message that seems to blame her for circumstances of her life that were outside of her control, as you say. There’s no such thing as an irredeemable person. I can only hope the upcoming comics give her her chance to heal.
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Actually, I don’t remember about Korra, but I’ve been rewatching Avatar and there are some disappointing portrayals of what seem to me mental disabilities. In particular – “foaming boy” on Kyoshi Island and “Jinju” from Aang’s memories in “The Storm.” Both of these boys are throwaway punchlines – “foaming boy” has no lines and just foams at the mouth in enthusiasm. As for Jinju, when the other airbenders reject Aang from playing, one boy says “So who wants to have Jinju on their team?” and the view pans over to a boy with dirty clothing who behaves in a way that suggests a mental disability. The audience is supposed to laugh at him and it’s pretty uncomfortable.
However, you’re right that with physical disabilities, Avatar did a pretty good job. I also admire how in Korra, she was in a wheelchair for a bit – she is such a physical person that that sort of healing was difficult for her, and they showed that.