What 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Taught Me About Unlearning Toxic Masculinity
When I first came out as trans, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. Avatar: The Last Airbender helped me transcend that.
Few characters in American television history have had redemption arcs as compelling and universally lauded as that of Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the animated series which ran on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. Zuko (voiced by Dante Basco) went from a willful, pony-tailed jerk hellbent on capturing the Avatar at all costs to a willful, shaggy-haired hero hellbent on helping the Avatar at all costs.
As a trans boy coming of age during The Last Airbender's original airing, I found in Zuko's plotline meaningful inspiration for challenging my toxic masculinity (which I'll break down). The lessons and tools his journey taught me about confronting, unlearning, taking responsibility for, and changing destructive beliefs and behaviors, are more relevant now in these times of the Trump administration in the US, the global coronavirus pandemic, and growing calls for racial justice than when it was originally aired.
(Image by Harry Strauss from Pixabay)
A recent addition to Netflix, Avatar: The Last Airbender has re-entered the pop-culture consciousness in a big way, becoming the summer's breakout hit and sparking renewed appreciation for its complex characters, outstanding narrative quality, and hard-hitting themes. As the New York Times recently pointed out, it also presents a fully-realized vision of a world without whiteness, although a substantial portion of lead vocal talent in the series is white.
For the uninitiated, the series follows a ragtag group of kids in a fantastical world informed by East Asian (notably Chinese) aesthetics and culture, where some people can control or "bend" elements (fire, earth, water, air). The industrialized Fire Nation launches a bid for world domination, genociding the air nation as the Firelord seeks to capture the newest incarnation of the Avatar, an airbender, and the only person who can master all four elements, defeat him, and "restore balance to the world." The Intro says it all, and if you're a '90s kid, you've got it memorized.
But why does this fictional, animated tale of teens in a magical realm matter so much, especially in these times?
Being forced to quarantine and/or work indoors for indefinite periods of time has people turning to art, often TV, for solace. As Americans processes the fear, rage, and grief permeating every fabric of our lives, The Last Airbender presents us a (however fantastical) thought-provoking, cathartic exploration of uniquely relevant issues: fascism, imperialism, state-sanctioned military violence, xenophobia, prejudice, marginalization and oppression, environmental destruction, and the forces of liberation tirelessly doing the work to, quite literally, save the world.
America now faces the world's highest rates of coronavirus infection, an under-estimated 2.5 million, with over 120,000 people dead at this writing. Recent weeks have witnessed millions turn out for protests and uprisings against our country's ingrained anti-blackness, manifested in the disproportionate murder of Black people by police; George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and so many others. America's leaders are enacting devastating anti-immigrant and anti-queer policies and unravelling climate protections. The list of crimes against humanity and the natural world go on and on.
While the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender is required viewing, it's Zuko's arc in particular that offers a timely, much-needed reminder of the importance of challenging toxic masculinity, and unlearning harmful, misguided beliefs and behaviors at large.
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"Toxic masculinity" is a term which has come to represent in pop culture personally and socially destructive patterns of belief and behavior in men. It often operates on the premise that masculinity is inherently linked to, or even inseparable from, maleness. In his useful primer on the subject, Masculinities in Theory (2011), Todd Reeser explicates masculinity as being technically hard to define as a single coherent concept, yet intuitively recognizable; the common thread is that, whatever masculinity is, "men are afraid of it being taken away."
As an interesting 2019 Atlantic article points out, the term "toxic masculinity" has come to represent catch-all for "bad" masculine tendencies positioned in a binary opposite to "good ones" without really questioning where these tendencies are formed, and what masculinity actually is. Others have challenged the entire existence of "good" masculinity itself, arguing "what about masculinity isn't toxic?"
I believe the term "toxic masculinity" has some utility within a larger framework of cultural feminism to help people discuss and confront harmful masculine stereotypes, attitudes and actions. The term provides a useful- if overexposed- shorthand.
Masculinity is different across time and space, varying by culture. We can all likely conjure iconography of the stereotypical white American masculinity: strong, silent, emotionally unexpressive, resistant to admitting fault. Peggy Ornestein explains in her recent illuminating book Boys & Sex, many American boys receive the most "restrictive messages about masculinity" from their fathers and feel consistently denied "the full gamut of human expression, especially anything related to sorrow or fear."
Indeed, confronting the poisonous influence of his tyrannical father and grief over the mysterious disappearance of his mother are Zuko's deepest emotional battles.
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When I first came out as trans in 2011, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. I even cut my eyelashes and refused to say the word "cute". I pursued my goal of "passing" (a problematic term connoting being undetectable as trans) with a single-mindedness that prevented me from confronting my misinformed ideas and valuations of femininity and masculinity. I had some imaginary final destination of "manhood" in mind. And when I thought I attained it, I still felt empty, and angry.
While procrastinating finals in college, I re-watched Avatar: The Last Airbender. I had since done a lot of work on the aforementioned misguided, harmful ideas and attitudes about gender, yet was still stunned to recognize the show's implications re: masculinity with renewed clarity. Here was a character (Zuko) literally hitting every beat of my journey to unlearn toxic masculinity, and reform a positive, compassionate one. This character went from participating in and perpetrating ignorant and hateful world views to actively working to stop those cycles and correct those beliefs.
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Zuko's story goes like this: he is the son of Firelord Ozai (Mark Hamill) and his wife, Ursa (Jen Cohen), who ominously disappears when Zuko and his sadistic sister Azula (Grey DeLisle) are young. After 13-year-old Zuko speaks out of turn at a war meeting, he is challenged to a duel by Ozai, who seeks to punish the boy for his insolence. Zuko refuses, and the Firelord viciously scars and banishes his son in a gruesome display of child abuse.
In order to win back his "honor" and his father's love, Zuko sets out on a scorched-earth mission to find and capture the Avatar, the world's "last hope" of defeating Ozai and restoring balance to the four nations. But ultimately, Zuko comes to realize the Fire Nation has brought nothing but pain to the world and to him personally; after many false starts he sets his sights on rehabilitation and joins Team Avatar.
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The lessons I took away from Zuko's character arc aren't just about masculinity; they apply to a wide range of destructive beliefs and behavior patterns. While I am analyzing his arc with a distinct eye for toxic masculinity, the broader value of these unlearnings is self-evident. Here are a few of the tools Zuko's evolution offers us to inspire our self-betterment:
Introspection and Processing
At a pivotal moment, Iroh tells his troubled nephew, "I suggest you think about what it is that you want from your life, and why." Challenged by his enlightened uncle, Zuko (reluctantly) begins thinking critically about his behavior and taking responsibility for shaping his destiny. It's not easy; in fact, it's often really painful and hard. Zuko must then give himself time, space, and permission to acknowledge and show his emotions without shame.
Key episodes: 2x7, "Zuko Alone", 2x16, "Lake Laogai", 3x10, "Day of the Black Sun".
Making Mistakes But Still Moving Forward
Zuko appears to have "changed" mid-season 2, but alas, no. He returns to the Fire Nation and his father's side. It is only after achieving everything he thought he wanted that Zuko realizes the spoils are hollow. He is still angry, miserable, and guilty; he cries, "I should be happy now. But I'm not. I'm angrier than ever and I don't know why!"
Key episodes: 2x18, "The Guru / The Crossroads", and 3x5, "The Beach".
Apologizing and Asking for Forgiveness
Part of reckoning with one's past destructive and hurtful behavior is taking responsibility, putting aside the ego, and being able to accept others' anger, grief, and mistrust without abandoning course. This isn't about giving yourself space to process anymore; it's about giving that to others.
When Zuko apologizes, asks to join Team Avatar, and offers to teach Aang firebending, he is unceremoniously rejected. "You can't possibly think that any of us could trust you, can you?" Katara retorts to his offer. Zuko is disappointed and frustrated, but he tries again, eventually becoming an integral part of the group.
Key episode: 3x12, "The Western Air Temple".
Using Your privilege for Good
When Zuko becomes the new Firelord he is able to literally redirect his entire nation towards a restorative, reparative agenda. This aim is born fromf his personal experiences overcoming hatred and witnessing the direct, negative consequences his and his country's violent acts have had on others.
This process also involves standing up to those who are partaking in damaging behaviors, using his power to protect and advocate for the marginalized. As he declares when confronting his father, "We've created an era of fear in the world, and if we don't want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness."
Key episode: 3x16 (four-part finalé), "Sozin's Comet".
Lastly, Zuko eventually surrounds himself with other diverse, compassionate masculinities, notably Aang and his uncle Iroh. However, it's worth pointing out masculinity isn't just a "man" thing; as Jack Halberstam writes in his seminal Female Masculinity, "what we understand as heroic masculinity has been produced by and across both male and female bodies" and others.
The importance of being influenced by multiple sources is a recurring theme in Last Airbender, indeed symbolized by the need for all four elements. As Iroh says to Zuko, "It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other elements, the other nations, will help you become whole."
This is portrayed most potently when Zuko learns to see fire as life-giving energy, not just a vessel for his rage.
Key episode: 3x13, "The Firebending Masters".
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The direct and indirect levels on which toxic masculinity harms are many. Male aggression kills via domestic violence. It kills via hate crimes towards queer and/or trans people. It boils into school shootings. It mixes with classism and racism to kill and brutalize Black people, Latinx people, and other people of color. It kills when predominantly white male leadership enacts anti-woman, anti-queer, anti-immigrant legislation. And it kills the very men perpetuating it by motivating reckless behavior, addiction, and death by suicide as a result of social pressures to, in part, be strong "providers" who don't show emotion or pain, and perceive seeking help as weakness. And most recently, it kills due to men's inordinate, willful refusal to wear a face mask during this pandemic out of a fear of appearing "weak".
Last Airbender takes pains to show the harm toxic masculinity and its attendant stereotypical traits of aggression, ego, and anger wreak on us all. The show evokes and accesses humanity's archive of historical evils in its portrayal of the Fire Nation; America's genocide of indigenous people, Nazism, Japanese imperialism, etc. But equally as complex as its depiction and warning of such evils is the arc of redemptive, individual reform from the beliefs that cause them.
Zuko's redemption isn't merely a single moment when he switches from the bad side to the good side, but rather a painful (but satisfying) process of unlearning and rebuilding, both within himself, his relationships, and with society at large.
As Thomas Page McBee so poetically expresses in his book Amateur (2018), "To build equitable relationships and societies... we must first acknowledge how we are failing, right now, to see the full spectrum of humanity in ourselves and in others."
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