interrogating the misogyny behind iconic female villains
“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s been 12 years since the Avatar: The Last Airbender Finale and the series contribution to pop culture is more relevant than ever. At face value, the show is marketed as a children’s fantasy series adding to an array of entertainment on Nickelodeon’s impressive line-up. Yet, over time, it’s diverse and ever evolving fan-base has since proved otherwise. It’s greatest asset is not just the exploration of what would otherwise be “complex adult themes” like tribal warfare and a critique of the military-industrial complex, but the depth of it’s characters - a consistency that doesn't waver over time. Notwithstanding this glory, the fanatic in me itches to reconcile the creators’ treatment of my favourite character Azula, with my unearthed discomfort. In this instance, closure is most definitely not overrated.
Azula stans like myself are a walking paradox. Yes I love her. Yes there are moments watching the show where this admiration evolves into strong dislike. We exist. Judging from the Azula GIFs and snippets of her scene stealing one-liners that frequently flood my timeline, it’s evident that our numbers are growing. I’m aware a satisfying ending translates differently for every fan, but fulfilment isn’t derived from the outcome we want. Instead, satisfaction is engendered by endings that complete a character’s transformation. Endings that move the reader beyond speculation to a degree that they feel real. Azula deserved better. As a 12 year old watching the show, I didn’t have the language to articulate why the creator’s treatment of Azula made me uncomfortable, but I do now.
“My own mother thought I was a monster. She was right, of course, but it still hurt”
Despite being presented as a strong female figure and lauded as one of the show’s most layered characters, Azula never transcends beyond the perimeters of a sociopathic villain, which contradicts the writer’s claims. The series creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are especially proud of Azula, with Konietzko praising her as "the most complex, interesting, and dangerous villain in the series." A firebending prodigy, Azula’s lack of compassion is symbolised by her unique ability to create and redirect lightning. Lightning is often referred to as “the-cold-blooded fire”, which would not prove difficult for her to generate because just like lightning itself, Azula is ‘precise and deadly’. When we are first introduced to Azula, she is a powerhouse who is impossible to defeat, “able to hold off the combined attacks of Aang, Katara, Zuko, and Toph simultaneously”. Therefore, the writers needed a convincing plot device to justify Azula’s downfall. But whereas this should be implemented through a progression, it is crafted as an afterthought in the episode before the finale. Azula suddenly “snaps” when her closest friends betray her to join the opposing forces. This psychosis is fatal to her downfall when she is defeated at the hands of Katara and her brother Zuko. Arguably, without this scapegoat, this defeat wouldn’t have otherwise happened if she were mentally stable.
Watching the finale made it brutally clear that the show’s creators were more willing to offer rehabilitative justice to it’s male antagonists in spite of the severity of their crimes while female villains like Azula were met with disproportionately punitive measures. Though Azula committed many atrocities on the show, she acted on command from her father and was not alone in her efforts. Ozai did some pretty messed up things, but we never hear critics or fans refer to him as a ‘psychopath’ or ‘crazy’. By contrast, Azula was an impressionable child raised by a tyrannical father and a mother who neglected her. She ‘had to be nothing less than perfect in her father's eyes just to earn any affection from him’. Her ancestry is a shadow that incessantly haunts her. Named after her grandfather Azulon, whose reign was symbolised by militarism and the genocide of the Southern water tribe, her mark of brutality on the world is simply her doting her family’s shoes. Zuko benefitted from a redemption arc, which some critics have lauded as ‘the best redemption arc in television history’ but Azula is crazy to the core. There are whole episodes dedicated to unpacking the startling trauma from Zuko’s childhoods as well as flashbacks that run throughout the course of the show. By contrast, instead casting her as a girl with a capacity to do good just like her brother, after Sozin’s comet, Azula never knows peace. “It's revealed in the graphic novel The Search that Azula was admitted to a mental institution in the Fire Nation after her defeat by Team Avatar”. She never reverts to the witty, scene-stealing firebending prodigy that once graced our screens. Fire Lord Ozai lost his bending, but Azula lost her mind.
In this purgatory of crazed power hungry women, Azula is not alone. There are female villains just like her who are condemned to this hellish fate as a result of sexist, ableist tropes. How can one forget Danaerys Targareyn, her iconic platinum lace frontal and her fire-breathing dragons. Although she spends many seasons as the fan favourite for the Iron Throne this rapidly unravels like a tumbling yarn in the last episodes. Even with King’s landing at her surrender, Danaerys burns the city to the ground anyway, fulfilling her destiny as “the Mad Targaryen”. The messages these male writers are communicating is that regardless of whether these women are downright evil to the core or even when they are willing to die as heroes like Danaerys, they live long enough to see themselves become the villain either way.
“Bitches be crazy”
Reflecting on the relationships between fantasy and criminal law allows us to reconcile the actuality that it is not just male writers who are scared of complicating the narratives of women who commit harms, so is the legislature. These tropes generate real consequences for female perpetrators who’ve been entrapped in the narrowness of the criminal justice system. According to Siobhan Weare, a criminal law lecturer at Lancaster University, ‘Mental illness is often incorrectly associated with weakness. As men are not expected to be weak, they’re less likely to be considered severely mentally ill’. Consequently, ‘creating more opportunities for women to use the insanity defense makes it easier to explain female acts of violence’. These gender biases are a global phenomenon. Swedish psychology professor, Jenny Yourstone studied this gender gap in 2008 and her findings indicated that ‘female defendants in Sweden were one and a half times more likely to be deemed legally insane than their male counterparts’ even though they committed the same crime. Thus, in lieu of acknowledging that women are capable of committing heinous crimes, ‘it’s easier to make her psychiatrically sick or a victim of context’.
Critics will point at characters like Toph and demand that us feminists are ungrateful. “Look! Look! There’s your empowered woman!”. But representation politics alone cannot serve as the litmus test for good writing. We aren’t saying that we don’t want female villains in fantasy. If we got a Joker movie explaining how strife and hardship exacerbated mental illnesses, it is possible to create complex female villains who also HAPPEN to develop mental illnesses but not as a means to excuse lazy writing. As writer Shailja Patel once put it, ‘Read women, cite women, hire women’. When your writing is informed by sexist, expired stereotypes, it shows.