Zuko is the most feminist character in Avatar.
Sure, there are a lot of other contenders – a fact which reflects well on the show. Katara’s competence at waterbending, her slight motherly bent, and her suffer-no-fools attitude combine to make her the most obvious choice. But while Katara has power, it also comes with a distinct “horror show” streak, as shown in the episode about bloodbending. Ultimately, the implication that fully exploring her power is morally dangerous undercuts her purity as a vehicle for a feminist message – if her power is tainted, is female power itself then tainted by association? If Katara must limit herself to be decent, does that mean women should limit themselves? Is there something sinister about a woman behaving at her full potential?
Suki, the Kiyoshi Island warrior, must be rejected for different reasons. Despite a promising start proving herself the equal of any other warrior, she manages to get knocked out and captured – off screen, no less – and then plays only a small part in the episode dedicated to her escape from prison. In between telling the compelling story of Sokka and his father, and introducing the plight of the other prisoners in the Fire Nation maximum-security prison, the writers sideline and diminish her to the point where she is less a character than a plot device.
Suki’s most heroic moment comes when she states that she is willing to return to captivity to help Sokka get another shot at freeing his father; aside from this one difficult decision, she is reduced to being another damsel in distress until near the very end of the escape. Even Suki’s decision is not given the weight it deserves; her suffering and emotions after being a female, mistreated prisoner of war for months are not really explored. No doubt much of this is to spare kids watching it the horrors of war, but the result is an unfortunate glossing over of Suki’s feelings and burden, as if they don’t really matter next to the great and glorious task the males are fixated on. She doesn’t even get screen time to agonize over the decision, which would at least make the audience stop and think about just how much Sokka asks of her.
While we’re on the topic of women in the story, Azula has to be mentioned. Here is someone who ostensibly fills the role of a powerful woman, but she is repeatedly presented as so reprehensible and out of touch with humanity that she seems more like a parody of feminism set up by its critics than any kind of advertisement for it. Azula is less a human character and more a devious, malicious spirit wearing a villain suit that happens to be female. She is not shown wrestling with serious urges to be more feminine, difficulties with social pressure, or desire to find a man mingled with resentment that people would assume such. (She does attempt to become better socialized in one episode, but fails horribly and brushes the matter aside in favor of burning down the house in revenge.) Azula’s psychosis alienates people, but while she uses social pressure as a weapon, she doesn’t really allow herself to care all that much about it, and that’s where she goes wrong as an exploration of the dialectic between women and power. Her gender, much like the spectacular self-destruction tacked on to the end of her story, is an afterthought.
Zuko? Zuko wanted something so badly that he betrayed himself to try to make it happen. He’s insecure and repeatedly undercuts his own intentions to try to please a distant and uncaring authority figure. That’s something teen and preteen girls in Western society can instantly relate to – certainly better than most guys of that age. While Ozai sacrificed his own family members for the throne, and Azula goes to great lengths to torment people because she’s a catty bitch, what Zuko seeks above all is a happy and harmonious household. He wants a nice, domestic scene.
It might seem odd to say the best story in Avatar about the female experience is that of a male, but if we accept that the world unevenly applies rules, that there is nothing inherently wrong with women wielding power, and that women often start from a position of being socially disadvantaged and must work harder to prove themselves, Zuko’s tale is the one that fits. Zuko’s ultimate lesson is to learn to be true to himself despite what the world thinks, and as Liz Phair once said: “Be yourself, because if you can get away with it, that is the ultimate feminist act.”