kaigou: this is what I do, darling (4 raise questions)
[personal profile] kaigou
Apparently some 'shippers are convinced that this is a post for (or maybe against, I'm not sure) a specific ship. Or several ships. Like I said, I'm not sure, so for the record: the notion of shipping pro/con didn't even enter my head when writing this. If you want to read into the essay as an argument for/against A+B vs B+C, do whatever, but leave me out of it. I'm not even in the blooming fandom, so it's equally possible that fandom-savvy folks wouldn't even find any of this all that new and/or startling. This is me, deconstructing, for my own contemplation and entertainment. That is all.

This is the next in line on a series of back-and-forths about Azula, from Avatar (not the one with the smurfs, the other one). To catch up, first read [personal profile] snarp's post, Girl Power Corrupts. My reply-thread to that begins with this comment, and [personal profile] snarp had enough to reply overall that we got a post out of it.

The first thing to note, just so we get that out of the way, is that I think my original reply may have triggered a bit of defensiveness in whether it's "okay" to critique a work, even one so much admired. Those of you who've been reading me for awhile know I'll deconstruct pretty much anything that catches my interest, including ripping apart my own work publicly if there's something worthwhile to be learned in dissecting what I did wrong. Hell, I've already given Avatar the dressing-down for where it failed for me, in terms of story-telling. Frankly, I don't particularly adore the series overall (though I do admire it), and even where it falls short, it still stands head-and-shoulders above most American cartoons... which, considering I see the bar as being pretty freaking low for American cartoons, is kinda like thinking it's impressive to be the best damn clogger in Kanorado, Kansas*.

But that's not entirely relevant to my points here. It's mostly as disclaimer, because there's still a good story under there, and Azula is one of the most fascinating, and complex, chapters in that story.

Before I get into talking about Azula, though, there's something (semi-related) that's been bugging me. When I first heard about Avatar, I went looking for articles because I could've sworn I recognized one of the creators' names. (Sure enough, he was a year behind my sister at RISD. She housed with at least three illustration majors, and every time I came into town, there was often an infestation of them in the living room.) The interviews I found have either been deleted, moved, overwritten or just plain buried in the morass that is Google, because I can't find them now, but I'm positive I'm not misremembering because they made a huge impression on me, and colored the entire way I viewed the series (which I watched after reading the interviews).

Short version of the interviews: the two creators said they'd had the nucleus of the idea and tried pitching it about, and every attempt was met with, "there's no way any kid would want to watch a show like that." A big part of their first version idea was that the show would be geared towards 13 and up, aiming for a slightly-older audience with corresponding older-nuances in the storylines and characters. In the end, they finally approached Nickelodeon, who liked the idea but required that they tone it down so it'd be accessible to a younger age group (7 and up). In the interview, the guys said that having Nickelodeon back them did mean changing parts of the story, so it wasn't entirely the story they'd intended to tell, but they thought it turned out well in the end.

Remarkably — or maybe not so much — now the only information I can find out there about those starting days doesn't just give the impression, it states explicitly that they had the idea, had connections to Nickelodeon, pitched the idea, and everyone lived happily ever after into development. It just seems odd to me, especially given what is out there. Details like a) the idea was first born in 2001; b) the MC was changed to be a young child; c) they pitch the idea to Nickelodeon "two weeks later"; d) they do the pilot in summer of 2003.

Except "two weeks later" compared to what? It reads like "from when they first had the idea" and the only reason I trip over that is having read that interview (in '07, and I think it was already a few years old at that point) where they'd said they'd had to change stuff to match what was wanted by the only animation house that'd back them. So is the "two weeks later" just a coy way around, actually dating itself from "when they decided to try a much younger protagonist" or "when they decided it had to be even more of a kid's show to get any money"?

Part of the reason I say that is because hiding in the storyline, there are a lot of implications and nuances that tell me that this story was not originally intended for younger kids, and that in fact the screenwriters appear to have struggled at times to gear it towards a younger audience. The story tones down, and then promptly complicates itself again; with my writer's hat on, rewatching it, I could feel a major tension in "what young kids enjoy/understand" versus "there's more to this story and we're pushing that older story as much as we can" — maybe even so far as "as much as we can" also meaning "because that's the story we really want to be telling".

After rewatching, it seems to me that if you keep in mind there's an older-audience story trying hard to push out of Nickelodeon's younger-audience frame, then you'd be ready for considering that there's more complexity to Azula (and the other characters, but especially Azula) then you might've expected. That is, if one says, "this is a children's cartoon" then from what I can tell of criticisms I've seen of Azula, then one is going to expect Azula to be as simple as, well, most children's cartoons, and that comprehending her shouldn't require a depth of experience or a full grasp on human psychology. But if one posits that "Azula is yet another remnant of the original older-audience nucleus", then one might be more willing to consider that Azula's characterization is based on a more complex understanding of human nature.

As for criticisms, I've seen — on [personal profile] snarp's threads, other posts, buried between the lines in Azula's character sheet on the Avatar wiki, and even stated outright in the Avatar-wiki-chat for Azula — a variety that seem to all contain the same basic impressions. She knows way too much, is too easily everywhere, is inconsistent; that she's sociopathic, incapable of empathy, cruel, vicious, and so on.

She's some of that, but only superficially. Such simplistic descriptions don't even begin to grasp the complexity of her character.

To show you what I mean, I think we need to go back to the beginning — that is, to the origins of her backstory. The key is actually Zuko's own understanding of his own backstory.
Zuko: For so long, all I wanted was you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor that I wanted but really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of turn. My father, who challenged me — a 13-year-old boy — to an Agni Kai. How can you possibly justify a duel with a child‌?
Fire Lord Ozai: It was to teach you respect.
Zuko: It was cruel! And it was wrong.

What I find most amazing about critiques of Azula is that to posit her as an intentionally cruel person, if not outright sociopathic, is that it requires ignoring that she and Zuko grew up with the same influences. The same forces of abuse that transformed Zuko (almost literally) were also at work on Azula. For that matter, Zuko himself could be described as having characterization as inconsistent as Azula, if one overlooks two things: a) that unlike Azula, we do get to see Zuko's internal processes, creating more sympathy for him when he's inconsistent, and b) that the inconsistency is somewhat resolved if one puts both in the context of being raised in an abusive family.

No two children react to abuse the same way, and Zuko and Azula represent ends of the same spectrum. Zuko is the child whose heart rules his head, while Azula's head rules her heart; their behavior as children is the starting point for where their adult characters end up. Both are working overtime, as children, to please their father, and both seem aware that everything pivots on, and depends on, pleasing their father. Young Zuko doesn't articulate or express this nearly as well as adult Zuko, while Azula expresses it as a child but in unexpected ways — well, unexpected if you assume that she's completely ignorant of the power dynamics and is therefore speaking out of her own desires, instead of articulating a direction for the power dynamics that would also keep her safe.

How to put this? Let me see... a few thoughts, in no particular order.

The two siblings when together are shown as regular siblings — we see them playing together, and when Azula goes to eavesdrop, she does pull Zuko along with her — as well as already learning a vicious competition for their father's attention/love. I've seen them described as a love-hate relationship, but that's really all siblings even in healthy families. It's not love-hate in abusive families so much as love-need-resent-hate. Azula needs Zuko to stick around, because the only way she can look good is by having a contrast; to be the better child means there must be a worse child.

Part of that is also needing him around to draw off any fire (literally) that might be directed towards her; it's like a kind of self-protection, in a twisted way. If Zuko is gone, completely, then the entire burden of satisfying her father's inhuman expectations falls on her shoulders — that's why she fights, over and over, to bring him back into the family.

Needing him to take the fall is really just a form of needing him to protect her, because there's no one else to do so — no adults willing/able, no mother, Iroh disinclined. All children want and need protection as part of love; in an abusive family where no one stops the abuse, younger children will look to older siblings to be the replacement-protector standing in the way.

But that also creates a sense of resentment and hatred, at the same time. The logic goes like this: the abuse is on you (the elder), and I don't want it on me, but maybe it's really on you because you are that bad, so if you weren't here, maybe there wouldn't be abuse at all, and I wouldn't have to feel guilty for knowing you're getting it worse than I am, but if you go away and I find out it wasn't all your fault, then I'd have to face it all by myself, and I don't want that.

Another point used against Azula is her reaction to Iroh's gifts from the Earth Kingdom. It's implied in the text that Iroh feels a strong affinity to Zuko; I'd posit that's for several reasons — he can relate to a young man better than to a young girl (being male himself), he understands loving a young son and thus Zuko is an extension of that, he may also sense that Ozai's attitude engenders cruel competition and that Zuko will be the loser of it, and that in terms of constitution, Iroh has a greater kinship with Zuko's personality than with Azula's (whose personality does bear a stronger resemblance to her father). All that said, I found Azula's reaction to Iroh's gift to be entirely reasonable and within character, and not the actions of a cruel or monstrous child.

Maybe that's because all my cousins were boys, and when a young child, gifts from those sides of the family were, more often than not, horribly stereotypical. Gifts given with no real thought beyond "this is what girls like": pink dresses and dolls and things for playing house. My own mother got me dumptrucks and dungarees and tonka toys and lincoln logs. I can remember year after year, struggling to write the obligatory thank-you note when I knew — and my parents knew — that I hadn't touched the stupid doll, refused to wear the ugly pink dress. If I'd had the skill with fire, I just might've torched all those stereotypical you're-a-girl-so-you-like-this gifts.

Even as young as four and five, I had a pretty good sense of the message behind those gifts, and I didn't miss that while I got the stupid doll, my boy-cousins got the gyroscope, the remote-controlled car, the telescope, the soccer ball, which only made the message come through as loud as Zuko getting the knife.

I hated that message with the same intensity of disgust, anger, and frustration that Azula shows when she gets the doll. That message — to riff on a previous conversation about gender roles — is basically, "you belong in a shoebox, doing girly things." And Azula's personality and self-esteem is already, even at what looks like maybe age 7 or 8, is predicated on her prodigy as a firebender (and probably also knowing she's far more competitive and masculine-like than most girls her age).

That is, her father's influence has taught her that to be loved, she must be very, very good at what she does — with a side-note that Ozai does get some small credit for the fact that he doesn't enforce gender roles, but appears to reward any show of skill regardless of sex. (As opposed to the usual pattern, in which the son gets the displeasure for not being masculine enough, while the daughter gets displeasure for not being feminine enough.)

Even so young, Azula is sharp and perceptive (a required facet for successful manipulation, like the way she plays her mother, which in itself isn't a sociopathic thing so much as just a younger-sibling kind of ploy). Her willingness to eavesdrop isn't just because she wants to torment Zuko, but it's also a form of self-protection. It's a lot harder for someone to stab you in the back if you already know the attack is coming. Azula can't be absolutely certain she'll win the day (read: win father's approval), so long as Zuko is first-born, so she's required to use all means at her disposal to make sure she's not the one disposed of.

Azula may have a strong affinity to her father, and she's undoubtedly sharp, astute, competitive, and ambitious, but that's also much of the reason she's well-aware that her father's pride is conditional. This is echoed when we see Azula fail at a cartwheel and then push Ty Lee after Ty Lee executes a perfect flip: already Azula is intensely aware that she wins only by virtue of others' failures, just like she only maintains her father's approval so long as Zuko falls short. It's a sick and horrible lesson she's learned, but she's learned it very well, and I don't think the lesson is her fault at all, but Ozai's. She's simply a survivor.

After all, if Zuko — or anyone else, really — wins, she loses, and vice versa. Such is the nature of competition on a level that makes perfect sense to a child's innate drive for love.

When the family presents to Azulon, we don't seen Azulon's reaction to Azula's performance, nor to Ozai's implied compliment of Azulon's history as a prodigy. The only thing we get is that Azulon finds the entire thing rather tiresome: "Prince Ozai, why are you wasting my time with this pomp? Just tell me what you want. Everyone else go." Is this because he's disgusted with Zuko's imperfect showing, or because he's disgusted with the entire dog-and-pony show Ozai is putting his children through?

From the comments about Azulon on various posts and the wiki-chats and so on, it appears that his annoyance is interpreted as being with Ozai having a child as incompetent as Zuko. I think that's really missing the nuance, because if that were so, then the entire rest of Azulon's conversation with Ozai makes no sense at all. If Azulon truly sees Zuko as an embarrassment, something to be dismissed or shunned, then he would see no value in testing Ozai by demanding Zuko's death. To even contemplate such a demand requires that Azulon believe losing Zuko would actually be a loss.

I think what makes it hard to separate Azulon-as-person from the first impression of him is that we're seeing the entire flashback through Zuko's eyes, and previous episodes (and our own sympathy with Zuko) have set us up to view everything through a lens of centering on Zuko. That is, that it's all about him — but I don't think it is, and I think this becomes apparent if we actually consider the overheard conversation between Azulon and Ozai. Only then, I think, can we see that Azulon may not be a grumpy, brusque, displeased father-figure who dislikes his grandchildren, and he may in fact simply be displeased only with Ozai, specifically.

To extrapolate, I think Ozai himself is both much younger than Iroh (given that Iroh's son looks to be about 18 or older while Zuko and his sister are easily a decade younger), and hasn't gained or been given the responsibility that Iroh carries. After all, Iroh is a fire general, while Ozai... well, we don't really see what he does, other than hang around the court. He's not shown being a focus of power like Iroh is, and I don't think that's by mistake. His own request to his father sounds like a spoiled child, envious of his elder sibling, and hoping to capitalize on his elder brother's alleged mistake — that is, he's seeking advantage based on another's failure, rather than his own success. And Azulon, it should be noted, is hardly clueless about what Ozai's doing, and even calls him on it.

Azula's childhood, therefore, is ruled by these specific, limited, adult influences. There's Azulon, who isn't impressed by her abilities (perhaps because of his own, but also perhaps because of Azulon's displeasure with Ozai himself and Ozai's obvious mis-handling of his parental role), who — I can see Azula figuring — would consider Azula forgettable, and she's too smart and aware of her own skills to want to be discounted or set aside.

There's Ursa, who seems more at ease with — and more sympathetic/empathetic to — Zuko, and at times comes close to playing favorites, even if it's in the name of protecting the gentler Zuko against his sister's outspokenness and apparent strength of will. Beyond that, Ursa herself is soft-spoken, also ruled by her heart, gentle, very much the stereotypical loving wife/mother, and in pretty much every way we're shown, Azula is Ursa's complete opposite, as much as Ozai is a complete opposite to Ursa.

There's Iroh, who seems more interested in Zuko, or at the very least seems inclined (intentionally or not) to see Azula within the stereotypical girly framework, which would reasonably lead a child to infer that if Iroh gains the throne, that his approval becomes paramount and by his implied measure, she fails — she's nothing like the kind of girl who'd play with dolls. So, for her own pride and ambition, she's going to discount and dismiss Iroh the way he appears to do to her; any other reaction would be acknowledgment that when Iroh's star rises, it may mean she'll have to set aside her intelligence, immense talent, and ambition and settle down into that gender-based shoebox.

There's nothing in the text that indicates Azula's feelings towards Lu Ten, and the sole reaction shot has Zuko's shocked face in the foreground, while Azula's is drawn rather muddy. I think we're not supposed to really be able to make out her expression, leaving her feelings ambiguous.

So of all the adults around her: Iroh and Ursa seem to fall on the "girls should be sweet and soft-spoken and play with dolls" camp, while Ozai values skill and ambition and seems to pay little regard to stereotypical sex-roles, and Azulon appears disinterested or distant.

I think this is why, in the flashbacks, we see Azula pushing so hard for Ozai becoming Fire Lord, and her insistence that Iroh and Azulon should get out of the way. In the bigger picture, the only way she can advance (and be respected for her advancement and her innate skills) is via Ozai. Any other adult sitting at the top of the royal family is, most likely, an adult who'll expect her to eventually subjugate her personality, compromise her ambitions, start wearing pretty dresses, and learn to say inane things to boys.

Honestly, it looks like Ozai is the only adult around her who approves when she aims higher, thinks faster, pushes harder, wants more. Even without the twisted aspect of Ozai's conditional love, I think Azula would still cleave to Ozai, seeing how his appears to be the only approval that isn't also tied to traditional gender roles, ones she already knows don't fit her.

In other words, when she verbalizes Azulon and Iroh being out of the way, what she's really saying is that she knows already that the only way she can live outside that gender-role shoebox is if Ozai is the one making the rules. Her upward movement is tied directly to how much power he has, because only then is he able to extend any shoebox-breaking power to her.

Getting back to [personal profile] snarp's critique of the big finale: "Azula, upon finally becoming Firelord... immediately loses her self-control and grip on reality. Her father Ozai, upon achieving his own goals, merely becomes more hardcore."

My first response (admittedly dashed off, as my first responses sadly often are) was that "In some ways, I think part of the difficulty with Azula is that the writers were so excited about having a female villain who is actually pretty freaking scary that they didn't really think through either the progression of bringing her down ... or realize just how compressed that come-down would end up being — such that instead of seeming to be eaten up by paranoia, instead there's only like two episodes to go from capable and scary to complete nutcase."

My arguments here may get a bit hermeneutically messy, because I can see the same situation from several angles, and I don't think the answer is in any one of them — plus those angles include with writing-hat-on, and with it replaced by a philosopher's cap. So please bear with me, and I'll see if I can get any order to things. (Probably not, but hey.)

First, I think the limitations of the story are a significant element in how the finale rolls out. There's the fact that the story is, ostensibly, for children 7 and up, so personal death (of a named and known character) is right out. There's also the fact that Azula has already been humanized and made sympathetic, most notably in the episode, "The Beach".

And, with my writer's cap on, I can see the intuitive logic of having the final showdown be Katara and Azula. Some of that is because if the final showdown is Zuko against Azula, then the conflict could be reduced to younger sibling being put-in-her-place by elder sibling.

What'd be even worse is the misinterpretation that could reduce the conflict to 'man wins over woman' and its implications that might (especially male might) makes right. That's dangerous if your intent is to show women as equally powerful, because it allows a potential misread that Azula's loss means her personality and attributes were equally wrong: as though the message is that if only she'd been more like Ursa (read: more stereotypically girly), she never would've ended up in this mess.

And maybe that's true, but that doesn't mean it's okay to devalue those female audience members who are not, and would never feel comfortable being, More Like Ursa. After all, this show is for kids, and while I'm not saying it has to have a moral message, I am saying that a good show is aware of any moral messages it's sent out and being true to its story's continuity means not contradicting those messages completely in the last few episodes.

Back to the Katara v. Azula aspect, moving the final battle from Zuko's shoulders also frees him from the burden of being the one to bring down his sister, someone he does care for (again, as glimpsed in "The Beach", among a few others) even if the extent of caring between them is tied up and twisted around hatred, resentment, and vicious competition. If Zuko delivers the final blow, he's going against nearly his entire final arc, which is of transformation into accepting his heart-centered, gentle core. Moreso than Aang, definitely, who may agonize in the last episodes about facing Ozai and avoiding killing, but then, we're never in doubt that Aang does not want to cause undue pain and suffering.

Given Zuko's history, well, there's always that chance he might get carried away, seeing how much he's caused it in the past without much remorse. And, just as much, given his history, there's still also the chance that he'd refuse altogether, as he did in the pivotal last scenes of "The Crossroads of Destiny", where he joins up with Azula. That action on his part appeared inconsistent (as much as Azula's actions at times might), only if one forgets that Zuko's entire sense of self-esteem is based on his father's approval, and that the same is also true of Azula.

(Why else would she invite Zuko back and give him credit? She is as terrified of failure as Zuko, or more, maybe, since he's been through exile and knows he can handle it, while Azula wouldn't even have Iroh at her side, were she banished, and even before her friends betray her, I doubt she expected they'd join her, if she fell that far from favor. So Azula's lies are a kind of self-preservation, forcing Zuko back into his previous role of being the potential fall-guy if things go wrong — so that she can continue to win, even as he loses.)

Getting back to the final battle: while Aang's test is to find a third way (not win, not lose), Zuko's test requires stopping short of actually taking his sister down, because destroying her means (since Aang's position is the comparison point here) that Zuko will also be destroying himself, in a way. Except that... well, if he doesn't try his best, then that leaves open the question of whether he's truly accepted that the Gaang's perception of her — as destructive, harmful, and must be stopped — is really the right one. He can hesitate (as he does) but he can't not try.

The other literary echo is that Katara, like Aang, doesn't have the burden of having to disprove malice, thus she's free to be more forceful. In effect, Katara's presence in the final battle with Azula has her playing Aang's role, being the one with awesome power who avoids misusing it and instead finds a third way. At the same time, there's a certain balance to having the series' foremost female lead take on, and defeat, the character who's been the most visible bad guy for a large part of the series — especially when you consider she does it in part to save the life of the character who'd been the foremost bad guy for the first part of the series.

But that's not all of it, I think; I think the importance of Katara v Azula, in the final showdown, is because they're mirrors of each other. Azula is what Katara could have been, as a younger sister, as a powerful bender, had Katara not had the influences she did.

More than that, it's also that the story does revolve around the heroes — the Gaang, and to a lesser degree, Zuko (and his eventual joining into the Gaang) — so it's not just that there's not enough time to focus on Azula, it's also that the focus by definition needs to remain on the primary characters. Katara against Azula, Sokka (and crew) against the army, and Aang against Ozai.

In a more complex or adult-oriented storyline, I would look for a resolution to be one of resolution between Zuko and Azula, one of forgiveness between them in light of their father's twisted influence. The problem is that there's no mirror for that, so I can see how it'd feel like an imbalanced resolution — that is, Katara and Sokka have their resolution earlier, and their conflict no longer revolves around their misunderstandings. There's not really any room for Zuko and Azula (at this late point) to introduce such a shift, especially considering the story's focus (on Katara as a center-point in her own right) and the need for a mirror-point where Katara acts as an equal to Sokka and Aang, doing her part to take down a bad guy.

It's not an easy storyline nor conflict chosen by the creators, and in hindsight (and after a lot of thinking), I think they mostly solved it as best they could, given the other limitations. Yes, Azula has been shown to be a prodigy through the series, and immensely powerful (and scathingly intelligent), and she's nearly beaten the Gaang even when they've got combined forces. But I don't think one can underestimate how important it is that the writers did make an attempt (and succeeded, to some degree) to humanize Azula, to note her insecurities, to show she does have both empathy if for a limited few who are closest to her, to express her social awkwardness, and to highlight the very hypocrisy that has chafed Azula all her life (that to be 'liked' she must pretend to be 'less'). These are all things that most children, especially female children, can already relate to on some level.

So making Azula really hardcore — where she tries to kill her brother, as much as Ozai is trying to kill Aang — is to remove the last bit of her humanity and make her completely irredeemable. Unfortunately, stepping down on her power also hollows any victory, so that's not a satisfying route, either, plus neither Zuko nor Katara is the Avatar, so they can't exactly power-up to ultimate levels and out-power Azula. Nor, after all her showboating, would it be in character to suddenly have a change of heart and not get angry, not want to strike out at her brother (who is an emblem of failure, after all, and failure being unacceptable option for her).

The only option, if trying to retain some humanity for her, is to make her unable to carry through on any final strike, even unable to really muster a significant power. Where Ozai gets more hardcore because he's not been humanized — and can thus be de-humanized even further by his willingness to kill a child (echoing his willingness to kill his own son) — the most likely path left, for Azula, is to be ultra-humanized via all her insecurities and fears shoving brutally to the forefront. As Ozai becomes less and less emotional into a killing destroying machine, Azula heads in the opposite direction.

Thus, she effectively destroys herself from the inside, reducing herself to a level that Katara and Zuko have any chance of defeating her. It provides for a semi-satisfying ending, if you're a child and used to more black-and-white kinds of resolutions, but it does leave things a bit more hollow if you have more experience with the world and can intuit that this isn't entirely a resolution. It's more like a way to just wipe Azula off the board, render her impotent but too pathetic to require being killed — it does keep her alive (thus keeping our heroes human, free of having murdered her), but it also reinforces the anti-feminist message just as much as if it'd been Zuko who'd taken her down. Because in this route, where Katara does the work, it's not just man-against-woman, or brother-against-sister, it's feminine-against-non-feminine, and the feminine — the pretty, the graceful, the empathic, the compassionate, the sweet, the thoughtful — is what wins the day.

And yes, that message, I can't stand, even if that's only a superficial part of it, seeing how much on-screen Katara has gotten that makes it clear she's not any of those things and nothing else. She's also got a vicious temper, can be hard-headed, rash, a little naive, and sometimes needs encouragement or reassurance when her own determination fails. But in general, no, Katara is not like Azula; hell, she's even shown playing with dolls in the flashbacks.

What I would've liked? To see Azula and Katara face off, and Katara get the chance and go for the killing blow — and Zuko step between. Because he steps between to protect Katara — a little sister, yes, but not his own — but he doesn't do the same for Azula. If Azula is breaking down and has no one else at her side, then frankly, Zuko and her father are the only two left of her family — and her father's abandoned her, and Zuko's right in front of her. I would've wanted to see her realize, as all her fears came piling out, that she'd rather have her brother alive and hating her, than have him dead, because his death would mean there's no one else who'd ever understand what she went through. And, in the aftermath of Zuko freeing himself from his father's influence, I would want to see within Azula's breakdown that this freedom is what she also wants.

[ ETA: to explain what I mean, why I say that:

When a character's (or person's) entire life-purpose is wrapped up in another's desires, such that one's own desires have been shaped, possibly unduly, by that influence, it raises the question of what that character would've been without that influence. Maybe similar, maybe in some ways very different, but in this set of possibilities, the influence is both undeniable and complete. That creates a massive existential question for the person existing under that influence.

If your entire self-worth, if the entire purpose of your existence, is based on achieving someone else's love or approval or goals, what happens to you when that person is no longer around? What becomes of you? -- and the reason Zuko remains important to Azula is because, as her sibling, he is the only character who could give her an answer. If he is gone or lost, then not only will she be lost in Ozai's loss, she won't even have Zuko's path to lead her out of that loss. ]

Just as Sokka and Katara come to an understanding (sometimes more by accident than design), the lack of resolution between Zuko and Azula is what felt like, to me, such a missed opportunity. I don't think it'd be out of character, either, given how many times she'd fought to get Zuko to come back, to stay in the family, even as she manipulates him. She certainly didn't do it because Ozai wanted Zuko around — but if there was a reason, one only hinted in "The Beach", in the midst of her emotions overtaking her, that's when I'd expect to see some honesty and perhaps even forgiveness, remorse, or at least some attempt at absolution.

The dramatic path, though — and one that's not too hard on younger viewers, I suspect (if we're seeing that 'not too hard' through the eyes of older producers who don't always seem to remember that younger viewers can handle a lot more than they're given credit for, sometimes) — is to have Azula go completely bonkers, make herself so vulnerable she's more easily beaten, rack her emotional state to eleven, and generally play the crazy card. It's only barely a sop that the creators didn't have Azula going crazy from the very beginning per the trope that 'females can't handle power', and that instead the creators gave Azula a masculine path to madness, introducing it only near the end as an implication of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

That masculine path is muddied, of course, by the fact that what precipitates Azula's fall is the betrayal of her friends, and what pushes her off the ledge is her father's abandonment. Those two points could be read as implying that Azula does not, in fact, go mad along masculine power-corrupts lines, but goes mad because it's the first point in her story that she's truly handling the power quote-unquote by herself. I don't think that's the intention, and I think that requires a very selective reading of the text, but that doesn't mean I deny that one could read selectively all the same.

I say "selective reading" because nearly the entire series' argument has been that to truly succeed, one cannot go it alone. Time and again, when a character "goes it alone," s/he fails either badly or very badly. It's even echoed in smaller conflicts like Toph not realizing that "pulling your own weight" doesn't mean "doing your own stuff" but "working with others to do everyone's stuff". In light of that ongoing theme, yes, it makes absolute sense that Azula wouldn't be able to handle power on her own, because what makes us powerful is our connections to others.

Losing her friends (even more than losing her father, perhaps) is the beginning of the end, for Azula; her dismissal of palace servants, then loyal guards, and even family advisors, are all repeating the message over and over and over, so it's completely obvious to the younger audience. The more isolated Azula gets, the less of a handle she has on things. And that's a message that makes sense, in light of the larger story, given that each time one of the Gaang almost loses it, it's the rest of the Gaang that pulls the person back from the brink. Once Azula no longer has anyone at all, there's no one to pull her back.

But I still would've liked a better resolution, one that made for peace between the siblings, and closure — instead of just this simple dismissal of Azula as crazy chick, carted off to some secret island.

There's more [personal profile] snarp brought up, but I'll address those in a later post.

* population: 248. That's one-twelfth of the size of my entire high school.

Date: 27 Mar 2010 11:39 pm (UTC)
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
You know, if the older "creation story" is true, that explains /so much/. One of the things that's made me tear my hair from the moment I started watching is the weird oscillation between "kiddie show with moral sledgehammers" and "full-blown Greek drama". If the concept actually started out as the second, with the first pasted in later, well that makes an unfortunate amount of sense.

Date: 30 Mar 2010 04:34 am (UTC)
anime_babble: (Default)
From: [personal profile] anime_babble
Here via snarp...but this is great food for thought. Am also intrigued over what the original story would have been like and what exactly got changed in the process. Fire Nation politics always seemed much darker than your usual children's show; if Avatar was originally intended for an older audience, this would make a lot more sense.

Though the creators did say that Toph was a late idea they had. So for that, I am glad.

Date: 28 Mar 2010 02:35 am (UTC)
manifesta: (Default)
From: [personal profile] manifesta
and that comprehending her shouldn't require a depth of experience or a full grasp on human psychology.

I think, right there, you connected another piece of the puzzle for me regarding one the major differences between YA and adult fiction. I've always just assumed that it was the age of the characters and the tone of the story that created the divide, but the depth and breadth of the characters, their backstory, emotional responses, and subsequent reactions to their emotional responses, also play a huge role. As a psychology major, I'm a little ashamed to just now realize this.

After all, this show is for kids, and while I'm not saying it has to have a moral message, I am saying that a good show is aware of any moral messages it's sent out and being true to its story's continuity means not contradicting those messages completely in the last few episodes.

*nod* Also an important point. I think this is a good take on the issue of whether or not stories geared toward children should be responsible for presenting good moral messages or not.

I've read through most of the posts/comments between you and [personal profile] snarp and loved all of it, especially the badass psychological dissection you've drawn out here. I'm not much into Avatar fandom, but I've always considered Azula to be the most intriguing character on the show, and this has all been very, very educational. I have much to think on.

Date: 28 Mar 2010 02:40 am (UTC)
reileen: (Default)
From: [personal profile] reileen
Don't have much to say (yet?), but I'm looking forward to more of your writing about Azula. :)

Date: 28 Mar 2010 05:45 am (UTC)
dragonhand: (desert lighting)
From: [personal profile] dragonhand
This all makes so much sense, and I wish I had something intelligent to say to add to the discussion. I'll just have to tell you how well done that was, and that I feel enlightened and further intrigued. I haven't seen the entire series, but I've seen most of the last season, and this all rings true. I like your deconstructions.

Late to the party, but something to say

Date: 29 Mar 2010 05:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brown-bess.livejournal.com
First, thank you for articulating the abuse Ozai gives both his children.

Second, thank you for talking about this reasonably. *g* A rarity in this fandom.

Much of what you say matches my own thinking about the situation. Azula was never a villain I was much into, and I believe it is because her badness could not be shown enough. When you say that her behavior is within the range for the abuse she receives, I agree, but would add that I see it as toned down from what it would be if this were an adult show.

That, I think, is what Avatar suffers from most: the themes are adult, very adult, but the execution is child-appropriate. When I watch it, I sort of put it through the filter of "what would this be like, if they didn't have to do the show within the confines of a kids show?", and that paints a very different picture occasionally.

So my filters tell me that Azula's breakdown at the end would have been foreshadowed better in an adult show - that she would have been shown losing more support that she did. Although, thinking about it - Zuko's gone with the Avatar and can't take the heat off her anymore. Mai has betrayed her for Zuko. Ty Lee has betrayed her for Mai. Ozai won't permit her to join him in destroying the world, and so her situation is even shakier than before, when Zuko was still around.

Then Ozai gives her an authority she's not yet prepared to use. While Ozai was cruel, especially to his children, he came to the throne adult and experienced, while Azula would have had no preparation. And as you said, that has far less to do with the fact that she's female and far more with the rivalry/war between the siblings. Ozai might have favored her, but from what we saw when Zuko returned, I rather think he was hedging his bets regarding preparation. Also he strikes me as someone who thinks he's going to rule forever. But well.

So I can see that much of Azula's breakdown has to do with the fact that the rules have changed. She no longer has her mother, her lightning rod (yes, I'm mean that way), her yes-girls, and suddenly Ozai is leaving her alone to fail. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if she felt she already has failed because he refuses to have her with him. As you said, again, she needs his approval to break out of her confines, and what does he do? He confines her himself.

In my filtered world, I can see her realizing this, that Ozai places no value on her other than as a tool. Her accomplishments mean nothing to him, she's left at home - again in the stereotypical feminine role! Nothing she's done has gotten her what she wanted, despite her successes. Her position is precarious, her attempts to surround herself with competence fail. So I'm not wondering at the breakdown.

The thing is, a resolution with Zuko would demand more than Azula is at this point able to give. She has to deal with him from a position of strength, as shown from all their flashbacks, and is, I think, unable to even consider dealing with him on equal ground. The resolution you wanted would leave me not satisfied, it would mean a major concession for Azula's agency - to be rescued by her brother (which I think is as bad as or worse than Zuko defeating her, since it carries so much more humiliation). They solved the dilemma well, I actually think. Because it skirts several issues for Katara and Azula and makes perfect sense for Zuko.

Also, if faced with the decision whether to give a hero or a villain a good ending for their arc, I'll go with the hero. Especially if he was a villain before. ^^

The funny thing is, I'm not usually an Azula apologist. Since we have very little of her progression, she doesn't hold my interest nearly as much as Zuko does. And I hope you don't mind this long long answer.

Date: 30 Mar 2010 06:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brown-bess.livejournal.com
You're never late by my clock!

I like that clock!

Normally when we discuss "agency," we do mean in a gender-split, and I know that's one way to take the Zuko/Azula conflict -- but underneath that, they're also siblings, and that puts a completely different spin on things, because he is, after all, her older brother.

You make an excellent point. The sibling relationship does negate the gender split somewhat, though due to my own sibling issues it wasn't clear to me until you spelled it out. Personally, I would rather have bitten off my own tongue and swallowed it before having my brother rescue me. But that's me. You're right of course.

It does make me wonder if that doesn't give Azula even more agency than before. At every single point previous, she defeated/dominated Zuko, and not even at the very end this pattern is broken. Zuko needs Katara to rescue him. And while I'm not that fond of Katara's character, I very much liked that even in his own boss battle, Zuko still fails. (Yes, I know that in terms of being good he doesn't fail, but he does in terms of being badass.) /tangent

Katara's agency isn't questioned, but I believe that's because it's more of a maternal agency and mothers aren't questioned. Katara is the one who keeps them going through Aang goofing off or getting depressed, through Toph unsettling the balance, through Sokka being himself. Even her own father backs down before her, a moment that had me going "whu?" when I first saw it. But within the pattern of her backstory (lost mother at young age) and the show, I began to think it was because she took over a mother's role. /second tangent

I think they solved the dilemma well only insofar as they're trapped inside the story's limitations and that overwhelming priority of remaining child-appropriate. I suspect any true showdown between the siblings (even if it did lead to forgiveness, or at least the start of it) would've been a bit much for Nickelodeon to believe a kid could handle.

That one's your BANG. Despite the themes, it remains a kid show, and I remain impressed that the creators were able to get as much adult stuff in there as they did. The secret of Avatar's success with adults. Like Harry Potter, it's aimed at children, but has enough gristle for adults to become interested.

Though in the privacy of my own fantasies, I'm glad they did it this way instead of giving a happy ending to this fight as well. Well, happy is relative, Ozai did not only not get a happy ending, he got a pretty terrifying one. While I don't know any small children who have seen this show, I'm pretty convinced that even at six I would have been able to recognize that to take someone's powers and throne and then lock them up for what is implicitly the rest of their life was not a really kind thing.

Fits, though; Aang takes the way of least resistance, but only against his own desires. So in the end, his solution was kindest to himself. /third tangent

Date: 30 Mar 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brown-bess.livejournal.com
But instead, he just stares at her with a slightly displeased look. It's as though he's negating her as his sibling at all, and that's the last we see of her.

I know what you mean, it's a way of looking at it. And again I didn't see it that way. What I saw (focus on Zuko, as usual) was victory. A victory he would rather not have had to win, a victory he actively dislikes, but one that finally finishes another circle of abuse: that Azula heaped on him. It's over, it's done. He's putting something into the grave here. He always knew he had to. Because Azula wasn't going down any other way.

So I don't think Zuko has it in himself to forgive her. He's not that good at being good yet. And I'm not sure if he'll ever be.

In that context, I don't think it's an accident we get another shot of what happens to Ozai after Aang wins, but we don't get one of Azula...

Date: 31 Mar 2010 04:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theunshaven.livejournal.com
Hi everybody, I ran into this thread during a discussion of "Avatar" on RPG.net.

I didn't read the displeased look from Zuko at the finale, I got the impression that neither he or Katara were comfortable to be there to see Azula's meltdown - in part because of its severity and in part because of empathy. My impression wasn't that Zuko was displeased, there was sadness and pity there - which from Azula's perspective might be worse.

There was no gloating, which I agree with brown-bess is a difference between Azula's fall and that of Ozai, and the show doesn't really make it feel like a 'victory.'

Date: 31 Mar 2010 04:18 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I love your analysis of Azula. I think it's brilliant.

Now, I have never studied psychology beyond first year university (which was about 19 years ago...!) nor am I a writer. In fact, this is the first foray I've made into any kind of fandom for Avatar. (Well, second if you include the "Wherein I Watch... Avatar" analysis I'd been following where someone posted this link.) Anyway, with those caveats in place... I had a thought about your comment here. If you look at Zuko at that point, he's just been nearly killed by Azula, the sister who:
1. he had been abused by ever since she figured out how- in some ways almost as badly as his father (who she'd been emulating for a number of reasons related to abuse SHE received at their father's hand, a number of them you listed above),
2. he obviously doesn't understand AND is still slightly afraid of
3. who is screaming and crying and belching flame in a manner quite unbalanced...
(...not to mention dishonorably broke the sacred rules of agni kai (spelling?), attempting to murder a friend...)

He is still young and though he's begun to take steps along the "right path", he still doesn't have much experience at it. How could he possibly know what to do for her? With the mind games she played with him from when they were children, even up until the "happy" family reunion (how about that twisted midnight incest seduction mindgame... THING she pulled?!) how could he possibly understand her? Zuko is in many ways a very earnest, straight forward person. Azula is his complete opposite. She is utterly alien to him.

I can't see how there was any possible way he could have put aside their past enough to feel anything brotherly towards her at the end because every time he might have had a moment of brotherly connection with her, she'd do something mind-twisty to abuse that "moment of weakness" on his part. How can Zuko be "negating her as his sibling"? She'd done that to HIM long ago. Look at his reactions of fear and mistrust whenever she starts acting "sisterly". All that would be left to him in that moment is regret that things couldn't have been different. To have somehow forged a "being forgiven" moment there would have felt forced and wrong too.

I would have loved to have seen a season 4. THERE Zucko could have attempted to help Azula rebuild herself and build some kind of sibling connection between them they never had. He could have visited her as often as possible in some type of mental hospital prison he'd have to stick her in, while she plotted to escape and attempted mind games on him. Where the series went from there would have been fascinating.

Date: 9 Apr 2010 02:17 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)

This is same person who commented on imbalancing zuko (and katara for good measure).

The Western Air Temple

Toph: I'm just saying... that considering his messed up family and how he was raised, he could have turned out a lot worse.

The Gaang's and Zuko's perception of Azula will change after her defeat. They will realize that what made Azula evil was Ozai. When the circumstances that made her evil are gone, Azula will be redeemed because she is not really evil. Peace between Azula and Zuko will come with time.

Sozin's Comet Book explained Azula's personality a lot better than the series.


Date: 30 Aug 2010 10:07 pm (UTC)
ext_464578: (Default)
From: [identity profile] fulselden.livejournal.com
Hi! Apologies for jumping into a long-dead thread, but I couldn't resist: this is one of the best pieces on Avatar I've come across, and works very well as a corrective to some of the general fandom reactions to Azula. The reluctance to see her as a victim of abuse just as much as Zuko himself is pretty baffling. That being said, I have some quibbles with your analysis, expecially when it comes to the preferred ending you outline - though, I should admit at the outset, I pretty much do adore Avatar, which just hit a lot of my buttons in a way that few other tv shows have.

I wonder, though, reading through this and your earlier look at Avatar, if the fact that my knowledge of anime doesn't really extend beyond Miyazaki (and my acquaintance with US non-Pixar animation basically involves Tom and Jerry and The Simpsons - I didn't grow up watching Disney) doesn't have something to do with my fondness for Avatar - I certainly didn't find the voice acting as big a problem as you did, for instance, and I actually found the voice acting for Zuko, Azula, and Sokka, as well as for Iroh, especially impressive. But it looks as though getting to grips with anime would see me adjust my standards.

I suspect that not viewing Avatar through an anime lens may also explain why I'm much less bothered than you and several others in the comments are by its veering between issue-of-the-week kid-orientated storytelling and complex themes of loss, redemption, and so forth. Actually, I balk fairly instinctively at the implication that kids can't deal with complex stories - as you do admit towards the end, it's often a matter of 'older producers' underestimating children's ability to deal with nuance and darkness.

But, also, watching Avatar, I seldom felt particularly short-changed by its shifts in tone and genre: to some extent because I found its comedy actually funny, but also because I felt it was also an honest and effective way to work with a child's-eye view of a world at war. Partly this is because I found Aang genuinely - and surprisingly - charming, so I was willing to give a lot of weight to the 'goofy kid' side of things that he represented. And partly it's because I guess I do have a high tolerance for genre mash-ups - if we're talking comparisons with Greek tragedy and so forth, I'd say Avatar as a whole is probably best framed not in terms of Euripides or even Lear (though, heh, I guess Zuko is totally (by which I mean not really at all) a mash-up of Edgar and Cordelia...), but in terms of, say, Shakespeare's late romances - since, after all, it is a romance, in the episodic-quest-narrative sense, and as such can sustain quite a few different strands of storytelling, from outright comedy to court melodrama. Though, thinking of late Shakespeare, boy does Avatar not have a redemptive-daughter arc. Which, I guess, gets me back to Azula.

The first point I'd take slight issue with is your description of Azulon: I'd say he could see Zuko, as a royal heir, as valuable enough to act as a meaningful test for Ozai while still realising that, on current showing at least, Azula is by far the most promising of his grandchildren and not worth risking: that way, he stands to lose relatively little whether or not Ozai does the deed. I guess this feeds in to my feeling that, while I buy your take on Azula's need to fight against being discounted as an Ursa-style princess - that scene with the doll is very telling - I'd imagine Ozai may not be such an outlier as all that in terms of Fire Nation gender politics.

They do after all have women soldiers, at least in the homeland, and it would make sense for a broader 'might is right', or, at least, 'all benders go to war' ethos to have some impact on gender roles in society at large. Partly it's a matter of the Fire Nation royal family obviously being imagined along archetypal something-is-rotten-in-this-quasi-medieval-court lines, while the Fire Nation as a whole seems on the cusp of a steampunk modernity which evidently involves a degree of gender equality - but, still, I don't see the stakes being quite as high for Azula, gender-wise, as you do.

Which is, of course, a measure of how well Avatar dealt with gender as far as its younger cast went - though not, as you point out, elsewhere. In fact, this is where I give them a bit more credit than you do, at least as regards the dynamics of the Katara-Azula showdown. I agree entirely that Azula and Katara, fierce and prodigiously talented younger sisters, mirror each other, and I agree, as well, that Azula's defeat looks depressingly, albeit superficially, like the acceptable version of femininity, the compassionate healer Katara, taking down its dangerous side in Azula.

I suppose I'm fond enough of the work they put into making Katara a subversion of the archetypal passionate, headstrong modern heroine - or, not so much a subversion, I suppose, as a realistic take on this kind of character, flaws and all - that I can't see her takedown of Azula as overtly anti-feminist, even on a visual level, to the extent you do. It helps that said takedown was pretty no-nonsense, and that it was a matter of guile rather than sheer power - both Zuko and Katara are still clearly outmatched in battle (though perhaps not in bending as such) by even the mid-breakdown Azula. It helps, as well, that Azula wasn't painted as 'non-feminine' by the series itself - as per 'The Beach', she's a socially inadequate military geek, but it's human interaction in general which phases her, not being conventionally 'girly'.

What I definitely take issue with, though, is the suggestion that Azula's breakdown provides a child-friendly, black-and-white resolution, a 'semi-satisfying ending' which serves only to shove her offstage. I feel pretty strongly that this is a matter of you not giving both the wriers and, especially, the kids in the audience enough credit - that most children would be perfectly capable of realising that Azula's story isn't over; that this isn't a neat resolution at all. In fact, I'd say that both Azula and Ursa - whose storyline is explicitly left hanging - serve as embodiments of the extent to which the world of Avatar is still very much 'scarred and divided' at the end of the show.

One can certainly take issue with the fact that it's the two women of the Fire Nation royals who end up personifying (even more than Zuko) the enduring cost of war and family collapse, but their fate is certainly effective in giving real emotional heft to the otherwise potentially rather nebulous idea that ending a war isn't as simple as all that. I'd say it's a great example of child-friendly storytelling that gets a lot done through what's left unsaid, without glossing much over - Azula's breakdown was pretty brutal.

To have Zuko step in at the last minute on Azula's behalf wouldn't make for a more complex or deeper resolution, I think: it would dilute the sense of loss, of suffering still unresolved, that we feel at the end of the series. And, as various other commenters have said, it would trivialise the extent to which both Zuko and Azula are still profoundly damaged: the Azula we see in her final scenes would I think be incapable of recognising a gesture of protection from her brother, even if he was capable of providing it.

And, to be honest, I think they'd played Azula up as so very effective, so entirely brilliant at being Fire Princess, so far from admitting to herself that she needed Zuzu - and Zuko, conversely, as so far from ever having been able to play the big brother to her - that I can't see the alternative scenario you suggest, with Azula accepting to some degree that she and Zuko need each other, playing out without her also being compos mentis enough to be damn sure that she's the one who should be sitting on the throne - which would make any lasting reconciliation between the siblings pretty much moot.

So, yeah, I don't buy the ending as a 'simple dismissal of Azula as a crazy chick, carted off to some secret island': I'd say the staging of the final Agni Kai, sweeping music and all, made it clear that this was a tragedy - and I'd also read Zuko's final look at Azula as very far from just being 'slightly displeased' - I'd say they were going for an appropriately Fire Lord-ish expression of grim regret. Actually, I've always thought the 'acting' in Avatar was pretty great, especially in the final season when the animation was at its most consistent - they got a lot of mileage out of facial expressions and body language, and it did a lot to sell me on Azula's collapse. And given that Avatar as a whole was consistently good at not disregarding the power of blood ties - Ozai will always be Zuko's father, however much of a father-figure Iroh is for him - I can't see him as 'negating her as his sibling' in that moment. In fact, given what we know of Zuko, I've always imagined his post-series treatment of Azula as a rather unhealthy attempt to be the big brother she needed - business between them is left explicitly and deliberately unfinished, and I don't think it's anywhere near as big a cop-out as you suggest.

Anyway! That was cathartic; I hope you don't object to me getting it out of my system so long after the fact.

Date: 30 Aug 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)
ext_464578: (Default)
From: [identity profile] fulselden.livejournal.com
Aand - heh, I just realised, having gone looking for your Ursa follow up, that I left an equally long and belated comment to that a while ago (the second one; it was anon, sorry). I guess it just underlines that I was very much more content to see some story threads left hanging in Avatar than you were - which is really just a matter of different narrative priorities, I suppose. Anyway! Thanks for being thought-and-comment-provoking!

Date: 21 Oct 2010 08:11 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I've gone through so many of these points when arguing with friends! I adored Azula's character in the show, and wish they'd had a full fourth season to go through the last of the character arc. Several of my friends did make the "Zuko was in an abusive environment" argument but never could let themselves apply it to Azula. They thought nothing of Azula's years in the Fire Nation while Zuko is banished (with no one to deflect criticism), and they weren't horrified when Iroh declared that Azula was crazy and needed to be taken down. Zuko was expressing a doubt, if I remember correctly, thinking that his sister could change, and Iroh (the prince of second chances) very firmly derailed that idea.

I think that was one of my largest problems with the show. Your conclusion would have been infinitely better, rather than director-given statements that "and the fallen princess went to an asylum and no one ever saw her again" (considering that Ty Lee is a Kyoshi Warrior and Mai will be busily married to the Fire Lord, Azula is not going to have frequent visitors, and if being without allies precipitated the insanity, she'll never get better).

I wanted Zuko and Azula to have some last reconciliation. Zuko gets his "where's mom?" moment, but I don't think he ever considers asking /Azula/ what happened that night. She heard a good portion of the story, and she is quite likely to know something.

This is probably a very rambling set of remarks, but I was thrilled to read this. It touched on points that I've articulated (if not so elegantly), and a few new touches on thoughtless "girl presents" really resonated with me. I mentored someone for six weeks two summers ago while working at a camp. I was the nature director and a very proud tomboy, and at the end of the program I was sure to have a few presents that suited her exactly. She had a gift basket of scented body products for me-- the default "hey you're a girl" present. I smiled and thanked her and moved on with life, but I still remember feeling like I had done something wrong if she knew me that little.

Excellent post! I enjoyed it very much.

Date: 16 Jul 2011 04:53 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Just wanted to point out an error in the article:
"The same forces of abuse that transformed Zuko (almost literally) were also at work on Azula."
It was shown and stated in the series that Azula was favored and Zuko was abused. She was treated like...well, a princess, whereas Zuko was treated like the scum you scrape off the top of a pond.

It was more the influence their parents had. Ursa had a bigger influence on Zuko as he acted out against his fathers unnecessary cruelty and was scarred for it. Azula was influenced more by her father as she grew up to BE cruel, and even manipulated her brother from an early age by insisting he was going to be killed because of Ozais outburst.
(reply from suspended user)

Date: 9 Sep 2012 07:25 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Your point about having male cousins get 'boy' presents, while you get 'girl' presents is very true.

I am a girl and my twin brother always got the cool presents. He got the Action Man with the gun while I got the Barbie car, I get the bath salts and lip gloss while he gets Itunes vouchers and video games. It was especially jarring to get lip gloss from close family friends who know I never use those sort of things. It is very easy to see why Azula acts the way she does when faced with a present like that from her uncle who should at least know she would not use it. Even when my brother and I got a shared present such as an Xbox 360, it was always kept in his room.

I took it so far as to stop wearing dresses or skirts for about 8 years to get it into my mum's head that I did not want to be seen as a girly girl. To be honest if I could Firebend I would have an awful lot less rubbish presents.

In regards to the masculinity of Azula

Date: 29 Aug 2014 05:59 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I agree with the great majority of your deconstruction of Azula but the part I have the most issues with are the masculine vs feminine component of the Azula vs Katara fight. I never once considered any of the aspects of Azula's character to be more masculine than feminine. I have always interpreted her as a character who is in balance and accepting of both their masculine and feminine sides. Most of the evidence is visual, so please bear with me.

1. Azula's armor
I cannot think of one female character who wears a decidedly masculine outfit. Toph and Mai who both wear pants wear a cut where their clothes could pass for a skirt or a dress depending on the screen shot and Toph wears a feminine hairstyle. Katara wears a dress over her leggings. Suki's Kyoshi armor is a dress. Even June the bad ass bounty hunter wears a dress over her pants. I think it is also important to note that the men in the Avatar world wear clothes that a modern Western audience would find feminine. Their more "feminine" clothes do not make them more feminine and the masculinity of Azula's armor does not make her more masculine. Her armor is neither more masculine or feminine than Zuko's.

2. Her appearance
Azula is shown to take great care of her appearance. She has finely manicured nails and is shown to wear red or pink lipstick and it is implied during her breakdown that she takes some pride in the care of her long hair (though that is a whole nother can of worms given the connotations with Ursa). When not in her armor her dress sense is very feminine. Just look at her outfit choices on Ember Island and there is even a scene at the Fire palace where she and Zuko wear matching civilian outfits that are similar to the matching outfits Ozai and Ursa wear in Zuko Alone. To me none of this points to Azula compensating for a perceived lack of femininity within herself like Toph briefly does in Tales of Ba Sing Se.

3. Her tactics
Azula rarely, if ever, uses traditionally masculine battle tactics. It's not her style to use over powered martial arts moves to defeat an opponent like Zuko tries to in much of season 1 (ex. the Zuko/Zhao Agni Kai). Azula prefers precision, manipulation, and subtlety all three of which are the main components of Ty Lee and Mai's fighting styles. Also remember that Azula conquered Ba Sing Se not with the brute force Iroh tried during the siege but with subterfuge, disguises, and more manipulation.

4. Her communication skills
Azula is an awkward turtle-duck when it comes to normal interaction, but that doesn't mean she doesn't understand the power of effective communication. Remember, Azula always lies, she knows how words can hurt more than physical actions and how words can be the a last minute saving grace. When coercing Ty Lee away from the circus Azula communicated her desires without explicitly stated what she wanted. Her dialogue with Long Feng must have been powerful to get the Dai Li on her side and she knew just what to say to Zuko at Ba Sing Se. When she is in an environment she is familiar or comfortable with Azula is a much more effective communicator than either Zuko or Iroh. Iroh knows Zuko learns better through example than through sayings and proverbs yet he continually tries to communicate with his nephew with them. Zuko is often misunderstood by others because of his emotional volatility. At the beach it is Azula who starts asking questions to Zuko followed by the other girls when he is trying to figure out why he is angry.

For the above reasons I believe your conclusion of a mirror between Azula's masculinity and Katara's femininity is flawed. Gender politics is a problem in most works of fiction, Avatar included, but I do not see enough textual evidence to support your claim that Azula dislikes Iroh and Ursa because she does not fit into their traditional idea of femininity. One scene with a doll that you have applied your own personal experience to is not enough evidence to back up your ideas of gender politics with the royal family. While I am personally inclined to believe your conclusion about the doll scene there just is not enough evidence to support it. Gender politics in Avatar is only really addressed at the North Pole and then only briefly. While some speculation can be done regarding the male to female ratio for major and supporting characters and perhaps Mai's back story it can only remain speculation.
In my view the few female characters that significantly affected the plot of Avatar were all well balanced with masculine and feminine traits, including Azula.
If you reply please send me a link to your response to Opalalchemy on fanfiction.net since I am posting anonymously here.

Azula, Azula. Azula

Date: 29 Aug 2014 06:24 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hi, I just posted why I thought Azula's masculinity and femininity were well balanced and I just wanted to add that in no way do I think the complete mental breakdown Azula went through was child friendly. Having gone through a similar though by no means the same breakdown as Azula I find the subject terrifying and complex and surprising to see in a children's show. I think a shot of Zuko making an effort to get Azula the help she needs and showing Azula's breakdown did not make her less intelligent and dangerous but a show of the vulnerability that's inside all of us would have been a satisfying ending for her arc. Honestly, I think it was quite brave of them to take her down that route even though it lacked some finesse. More children's shows should have mental illness that is not limited to the elderly and played for laughs but shows that while it is scary it is by no means the end of the world and that it can (sometimes) be overcome with the right help. I also think the root cause for her breakdown, her perfectionist qualities and need to please her father was nicely foreshadowed in her first scene in season 2 where she is generating lightning on the boat when there is just a hair out of place and Azula knows that that's not good enough.


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