Representation of Disabilities and Persons with Disabilities in Avatar: The Last Airbender (and Legend of Korra)

Note: The later part of this essay will contain spoilers for the most recent episodes (as of 10/22/2014) of Legend of Korra, and there will be warning for when they will begin. The whole essay will contain spoilers for the TV version of The Last Airbender in its entirety.

As a person with disabilities whose hybrid spirituality includes certain aspects of Eastern Buddhist thought which are beautifully expressed in the Avatar franchise, watching this series was quite the experience. The variety of disabilities displayed both in Avatar: The Last Airbender and now in Legend of Korra is unusual in television, as is the astute writing. I plan to write more about both shows in the long run, but for now I’m going to focus on this particular aspect.

There are four major recurring characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender (noted after as A:TLA) with disabilities that directly affect the course of their storylines: Teo (a wheelchair user following a traumatic injury), Zuko (facial scarring, speech impediment, potential visual impairment, emotional trauma and possible PTSD and depression), Azula (severe mental illness), and Toph (blindness). One thing all of them have in common is that none of them are given a chance in the show to experience full recovery. The audience is allowed to understand that Zuko may recover from some of his trauma, and I understand that in the comics Azula makes something of a recovery from her illness, but the core show ends before either can occur. Teo and Toph have no chance of recovery from their physical disabilities.

Let’s examine the mental disabilities first. Zuko experiences flashbacks under certain circumstances, has many of the emotional issues often found in people with histories of abuse, particularly in childhood. Azula shows symptoms of the same, though different symptoms – which is a rarity in television, to see two characters showing very different symptoms as a result of directly-related emotional traumas. Their emotional issues show up in particular relief against the contrasting sibling relationship between Sokka and Katara. Azula, in addition to her trauma- and abuse-related issues from her family life, is clearly unstable in a much deeper way, perhaps so deeply as to be identifiable as sociopathy. As her life changes and the pressures alter in ways she is unprepared for, her grip on reality loosens. By the end of the show, she is hallucinating her missing mother, and spends her last moments on-screen chained to a grate, screaming and spitting blue fire. This is particularly poignant when a viewer considers again the fact that this is a sixteen-year-old girl who wants, more than anything else, to be loved. There is a reason why Zuko and Katara, contemplating her at this time, are not even smiling over their victory.

Zuko is the one character who perhaps shows a mix of physical and mental disability. In addition to his flashbacks, trust issues, and clear depression and anger control difficulties, Zuko also flinches when touched, or when someone approaches from his scarred side; he turns too far around when looking to that side, indicating perhaps that there is some visual impairment on that side. This may just be a fluke of animation, however, as there is nothing ever said in the actual dialogue about this. At the same time, it is noted that his hearing is extraordinarily sharp, a trait often found in those who have an impairment in another sense. It is certainly a valid interpretation, and very subtly expressed if intentional on the writers’ part.

The two characters with definite physical disabilities have obvious visual cues: Teo’s bandages and wheelchair, and Toph’s white eyes. At no point have the writers in the Avatar franchise examined the type of physical disability that doesn’t come with that kind of indicator, but to be entirely fair, that would be very difficult to animate on the budget A:TLA had. Perhaps sometime later in Korra? We’ll see.

Both Teo and Toph have a positive attitude toward their situation, and refuse to be restricted and defined by their disabilities. Teo, whose disability is based in his mobility, uses his wheelchair to fly. As an intermittent wheelchair user, it brought tears to my eyes to watch this. Toph, whose disability is a missing sense, replaces it with another ability: her earthbending. Of course, the catch is that, in our world, neither is possible. It makes me wonder what the writers were getting at here.

There isn’t too much more to do with Teo, he’s a relatively minor character, so let’s turn to Toph, whose disability is the most explicitly examined throughout the series in a number of ways. We see how it affects her in certain environments more than others; we see how she is able to function and live a relatively normal life in spite of her inability to see, but still does run into difficulties that clearly rankle; and we see how others react to her based on their knowledge of her and her disability. Each is worth examining separately.

I read a joke theory once, I think it was on TVTropes, that Toph is blind because “she can’t see anything less badass than she is.” Hilarious though that concept is, because Toph really is badass almost beyond description, it really does encapsulate the way in which her disability doesn’t actually impede her in getting things done, most of the time. She can still walk around towns, talk to people and do almost anything she needs to get done. At the same time, she can’t read wanted posters, or write, or enjoy books, or see when they fly over things, or see through sand or ice or certain other surfaces or… a number of other things, because she is in fact disabled. She’s competent enough that it’s easy to forget, both for the viewer and for the other characters, but it comes up just often enough that we’re reminded that for her, it’s a constant. This is absolutely brilliant writing, reflecting the experience of a competent person with a disability, and rejecting the concept of disability binarism (the idea that a person is either completely able or completely disabled all the time with no variance).

It’s worth looking at how the other characters experience her disability, and, to go further, how she experiences their experience. There are two categories of people in Toph’s life: those who knew her first as blind and then as a great earthbender, and those who knew her first as a great earthbender and then as blind. Those who encounter her disability first tend to see her as fragile and in need of protection and restriction, and unable to make decisions for herself. It is difficult for people who know her first as a little blind girl to understand that she can be more than that. Those who know her first as a great earthbender, often forget that she is blind – most often Sokka, played for laughs, but other characters as well. The first is more obviously discriminatory and oppressive, but the second, particularly in light of the insensitivity it reflects to the experience of constancy described in the previous paragraph, is also a serious issue, particularly given that these are supposed to be the friends who understand her best. Again, this is excellent writing, and reflective of the experience of many people with disabilities. The best part is that, being Toph, she’s willing to trap them in it, call them on it, make fun of them for it, forgive them, and move on. She makes an amazing role model.

Alright, it’s time to talk about Legend of Korra up through recent episodes, you might want to skip to the end of this essay. Go to the next line of italics and you’ll be safe.

Another of the greatest women on TV these days is the protagonist of the sequel series. It was a brave move on the writers’ part, to put her in a wheelchair at the end of season three. Unlike A:TLA, we’re going to have time to see Korra process what has happened to her, and either make a recovery or not. She’s been told now by both Katara and Toph – both of whom know of what they speak – that it will come down to her attitude and her decision whether or not that recovery occurs, and to what extent.

So often, when a television protagonist is injured, we get some kind of time-skip and everything is fine. Even this show has been guilty of the rapid-fix, such as the end of season one, when Korra’s bending was restored awfully quickly after being taken away. This time, the writers are taking their time to do this right. We’ve had a time-skip, but we’ve also had flashbacks to physical therapy, to individual steps one at a time, to the painful process of working through the recovery from an injury and an illness. All the while being told by well-meaning people that she should take her time, everything’s under control, her job is being done by other people.

Which is great, because she does need to take her time. On the other hand, she’s also clearly absorbing the message that maybe, just maybe, she isn’t needed anymore. And that part of her identity is being called into question. The viewers see Korra trying to get in touch with her Avatar spirit and failing. And yet, there’s hope, because we know how strong Korra is, to have even survived this far.

Alright, the spoilers are over. You can come back now

As someone who’s been through some of the issues of disability, illness, recovery portrayed in the show (obviously not the Avatar spirit stuff, but I’ve definitely been through a sense of spiritual damage and recovery), it’s hard to watch sometimes. But that’s a sign the writers are doing it right. It should be hard to watch. I hope it’s hard to watch for people who haven’t been through it, but know someone who has. I hope it’s hard to watch even if you don’t know someone who has, because you know there are people out there who have been through it. This shouldn’t be easy to watch.

I so appreciate that there are writers out there who don’t pull their punches on these issues, and write them with care and precision, love and humor. The world would be a better place for people with disabilities if more media examined disability this way; popular understanding would naturally expand. Please support media you see doing good work like this, and point me at other examples you know.

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