It might appear to the average reader that I do not, in fact, care for most things, and that my talents are limited to pointing out the homoerotic subtext in various media and bellyaching about the bigoted patriarchal heteronormativity found within video game marketing. Not true, nagging voice of self doubt that keeps me from participating on message boards and other things I dream of doing while drinking chai tea in the bathtub at 2 in morning. In the Venn Diagram of my mind, there is something that fits into both the “Stuff I Like” and “Stuff I Have Nice Things To Say About” categories. And that is something is cartoons. I fucking love cartoons. More than Seth MacFarlane loves the sound of his own voice. I've watched every episode of every Adult Swim series, have an entire external hard drive devoted to Animated Batman and Justice League, have been known to watch Spongebob Squarepants while sober, and have had to talk myself more than once out of cosplaying as Dr. Girlfriend. I don't share this information to impress you, as if we're in bizarro world where the coolest kid is the one who has the least semblance of a life, but as a helpful reminder to myself as to why I don't have a girlfriend. Or own a pet.

Why cartoons, you might ask? Well, I have narrowed down all my nonsensical pontification into three, concise answers. The first, the one written on my “art student” hat, is that my background in Brechtian theatre has conditioned me to reject most live-action media that insists upon the suspension of disbelief and/or striving to achieve a “realistic” effect. The second, which we will call the “obvious choice”, involves me lying on the carpet listening to ocean sounds while looking into a kaleidoscope for an hour. The third (the one we're going to focus on because we don't have the time to properly dissect Brechtian theory and because my parents are disappointed in me enough as it is) is that cartoons are often the most progressive shows on television, providing messages on tolerance, identity and all that other feelgood shit. A very popular example is Spongebob Squarepants, who's queer overtones are so documented they deserve its own blog. And I know at least one person who's cited Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends as a promoter of racial tolerance in an academic thesis. But today I want to focus on a somewhat more obscure cartoon, at least to the “grown ups who like cartoons” demographic. Not quite anime, not quite “kids show”, it's gained a cult following rivaling some midnight movies and features a voice cast including Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, and the late Mako. I'm speaking, of course, about Avatar: The Last Airbender.

A brief synopsis for people who don't feel like Netflixing it and then reading this article later; A:TLA takes place in a world divided by four peoples: The Water Tribes, The Earth Kingdom, The Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation. Each people share an affinity for their element, and some can even “bend”, or manipulate their element to suit their purposes. Once every generation is born the Avatar, a bender who can master all four elements and is tasked with maintaining the peace between the civilizations and serving as a diplomat of sorts to the spirit world. The industrious Fire Nation launches a century-long war against the other three peoples, and it's up to Aang, a 12 year old (or 112, if you count suspended animation) airbender and the current Avatar, to master the elements and defeat the Fire Lord before some comet comes and sets the world on fire fuck it look it up on wikipedia.

Unlike other fictitious “chosen one/savior” characters, the Avatar is not a product of prophecy, born under just the right conditions and raised for the sole purpose of slaving some evil and then dying/ascending to heaven/becoming the very same evil they were supposed to extinguish. The Avatar is a spirit, reincarnated throughout the centuries. In previous lives, Aang has lived as been a member of every people (many times over) and at least of those past lives was that of a woman. At some point in this fictional universe's history, the most powerful and spiritual person in the world was a woman. That, to me, presents an interesting query about the role of societal and religious norms in determining gender norms. We, as a Judeo-Christian culture, tend to adopt a “one body, one soul, one chance” attitude to life. Much of the anti-gay static from the far right consists of “if you don't pleasuring yourselves in ways God did not intend you to, you will burn in hell.” God does not grant second chances. But what if he did? What if Jesus was reincarnated? Furthermore, and a little more on the topic of gender, how would Christianity's attitudes towards women be different if it had been mentioned, somewhere in the Bible, that Jesus had been a lady in a previous life? Or that at the Second Coming, Christ would appear in the form of a woman? If some ancient sea scroll or whatever they wrote all this shit down in ye olde times surfaced saying that we would have to endure many lifetimes on earth to be worthy of the splendor of heaven, would the Evangelicals of the world change their tune on the subject of gays and trans folk? How much is this “one life, one chance” way of thinking obstructing our efforts to build a gender equal future? How would your opinions on yourself, your gender, your sexuality, change, if you, like Aang, could walk to a village where a statue of a previous you stood, one of a different gender? Shouldn't we be more open, as a society, to the idea that we are not the glistening snowflakes we thought we were?

Just, you know, making inane observations from a cartoon I saw.

Another thing that I find refreshing about Avatar, from a “gender/queer studies” perspective, is that while many kid shows are quick to tell you that prejudice is bad and makes a lot of people really unhappy, Avatar goes the extra mile to demonstrate the effects of misogyny and chauvinism on both the people who espouse it and those who are oppressed by it. In your regular cartoon, the “be nice to girls” episode would consist of the alpha male of the show not letting the spunky girl play soccer with them after school, until one day they're short a person and they reluctantly allow the girl to play and she scores the winning goal and everybody learns a valuable lesson and has tuna casserole for dinner (AGAIN? OH NO!). In “Warriors of Kyoshi”, Sokka, the warrior/comic relief of the group, insults the all-female militia, and is soundly beaten by their leader (twice). After being humiliated (twice), Sokka expresses humility and asks to be trained in their fighting style, and is told he must don female garb and makeup like the rest of the fighters. “Whoa dude looks like a lady” humor ensues, though I doubt anyone actually laughed.The message I deduced from this scenario is “not to insult somebody's traditions and rituals and then expect to be educated in them without having to lose a little face”. I think anybody who's ever heard the “well maybe you should be educating me so I don't offend you” argument might know what I'm talking about. If they're not still screaming at their computer screens.

By the time Sokka finally overcomes his prejudice and accepts his rival/teacher/sexual tension for who she is, and learns to appreciate and celebrate her womanhood, it's too late. The Fire Nation attack the village, and he is forced to flee with Aang and Katara, possibly never to see her again (I may be wrong, Netflix took a little while getting Season 2 to me and I don't feel like spoiling it by looking it up). Later, in the season finale, Sokka's next love interest, Princess Yue, is forced to reject his advances because at 16 she's already betrothed to her tribe's “stereotypical jerkface” in an arranged political marriage, and then sacrifices herself to save the moon, and subsequently, the world. I think Sokka's learned a very valuable lesson about the harm outdated views on gender norms can do. But he's not the only one enrolled in sensitivity training. Pakku, the sexist water-bending master from the last three episodes, is at first an icy chauvinist, which isn't really all that ironic because his powers include dominion over ice. In his eponymous episode, you learn that Pakku's disdain for women stems from the love of his life running out on him and going to the other side of the world to escape and have a life free from the tribe's archaic gender norms (the “one that got away” turns out to be Sokka and Katara's grandmother). I found this profound, not only because I have the mindset of a very easily impressed eight year old, but because prejudice in its many forms is often portrayed as being the result of misinformation or some other easily excusable reason, and it's nice to see prejudice for what it is; a cycle. If you hate, or support a system that hates, you will eventually cause yourself harm, which will just make you hate even more. It's a shame I'm not very good at what I do, or that could have sounded really profound.

Avatar talks a big game with its gender equality message, and it backs it up with some of the most dynamic female characters in animation. Unlike many other shows/movie series/franchises, Avatar features strong, female characters on both sides of the good/evil conflict. Stars Wars, Lord of the Rings, even Transformers featured “boys club” antagonists, with strong female baddies left to the shitty “expanded universe/spinoff” that often comes with trying to stretch out the cash cow. Even comic books are prone to this; when a female villain becomes popular enough she will inevitably switch over to the good side or at least dabble in neutrality. In Avatar, the good guys get water-bender Katara, the group's “conscience” who frequently switches from compassionate and maternal to raging fury. Despite being the “love interest” of the main protagonist, Katara avoids falling into the “damsel in distress” cliché and actually saves Aang's ass on a couple of occasions. The bad guys get fire-bender Azula, the sadistic perfectionist slowly losing her mind to her insecurities To foil Katara's innately good nature, Azula is cruel, paranoid, competitive, and delights in her destruction.

Between the two of them, they span the spectrum of feminine archetypes commonly found in fiction, from nurturer to protector to spoiled princess to cunt. While splitting the entire range of human emotion between two characters is not something to be encouraged in writers, the fact that the show featured enough female principles to spread it around like that is a step in the right direction. Normally when you have polar opposites the trend is to stick them together to make some wacky mismatched duo, but Avatar puts them on opposing sides with differing goals and motives, preventing them from encountering that “oh, I guess you're supposed to be the anti-me, let's duel to the death, I suppose” moment you get with token characters (of both genders). While you could argue that Katara and Azula comfortably fit into stocks and stereotypes, they don't feel like token characters, and this is important, because it tells the viewer that they're not here just because they're girls, they're here because they belong.

Ideally, I would have liked to see Katara and Azula split into two characters each, both to spread out the personality, and also to balance out the sausage fest we have with the rest of the characters. But this was a nice start. We need to see more female villains in media, and not just sidekicks or “brains of the operation who don't get their feet wet” types, more girls who shoot fire from their mouth. And we could stand to see some more reciprocity in the rescusing of asses. We're never going to vote a woman in the white house if we scoff at the notion of Pepper Potts rescuing Iron Man (see Marvel fans? I'm trying).

While we're on the subject of girls, I would also like to mention what I find to be very empowering about the show. Boy on girl fighting. In many shows, the token girl is either hands off support, or exists solely to fight the other token girl, who's existence on the show is solely to fight the other girl (i.e. Cheetah from Super Friends), or is giving nigh-invulnerability when fighting all the nameless mooks who will always be taken down by her because they're too afraid to hit a girl (alas, you've fallen for our evil scheme to wait for you to knock yourself out!)

Media seems to adhere to the notion that a girl can raid tombs and save the world, but she simply can't match up to an able-bodied man. This is bullshit. If you've got superpowers and he's got superpowers, or if she's a samurai master and you're a ninja, there is no reason the two of you cannot have a fair fight. Really, we should be getting with the program on this one. We were a generation raised on Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, games which featured girls breaking guy's faces in. I'll be up front with you, the action and fight scenes are what sold me on Avatar. They are equal to or greater than “the shit”. People throwing fire and rocks at each other and there's swords and catapults and flying buffalo. And not once, not once, do they take a “okay, girls get to safety” break.

Despite my attempts to embrace pacifism and live and let live, I crave violence with good art direction and sound editing.

Treating a woman like a delicate glass house that can not and should not defend herself under any circumstance is just another form of sexism. If girls grow up seeing women kick ass, then they'll believe that they can kick ass, and we'll see more girls playing sports, more girls in self-defense classes, more girls striving for the same playing field that a man has. Featuring prominent female antagonists in media sends a message to the future men of our generation that yes, it is honorable to compete/match wits/debate/insert analogy here with a woman, and there is no shame in losing, because in the end, we are all the same: human. Ultimately, this touches up on why I think cartoons are so important to us in the digital age; it gives us the chance to impart knowledge and understanding on children in a way that stimulates and motivates them, and by reversing some of the gender norms in cartoons, creators and illustrators could inspire the next generation or two to pick up where we left off in our struggle for reduced bullshit tomorrow. Also, they are pretty to look at and are sometimes very funny.

It's a silly theory (or two), I know, especially considering that despite my attempts to credit it as a show empowering women, it is still a show with a male-dominated cast with a male protagonist aimed primarly at male viewers, and any idiot who tries to extract deep spiritual questions from a cartoon is doomed to fail. But that's what I do around here. That said, I don't think I'm very good at the "gender theory" stuff. I might have to go back to pointing out the Ho Yay in Watchmen.

Moral of the story: Avatar for the win.

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