Sexuality in The World of Avatar
For my followers here who might not see this…
Some of my thoughts on Avatar and sexuality:
Swimming through the vast, seemingly endless pool of art and animation, gifs and fics, and any other of the sundry, mind-bending results of such tireless, dedicated fan-production on tumblr, I find myself intrinsically drawn to an issue, or topic, I suppose, that in my opinion gets far too little attention. This is, of course, that of sexuality in the Avatar World.
I find this incredibly ironic, seeing asq we have so many wonderful examples of fan art and animation such as this…
From my experience, the Avatar fandom seems to be appreciably more liberal and open than most other fandoms. Furthermore, I am led to believe, based on the terabytes of gay shipping and pairing related fan-production I’ve seen here on the internet, that there are legions of fans open to gay relationships between our beloved animated characters, many who actively imagine new pairings with the very least amount of substantial suggestion in the show (such as the one seen above).
The obvious question here is, why has there never been a single gay character on Avatar: The Last Airbender or its sequel series The Legend of Korra? Why is the consideration and discussion of sexuality in these animated series so blatantly one-dimensional?
Now the discussion here is clearly predicated on animated representation of fictional characters. There isn’t any opportunity for the creators to discuss or initiate conversation on the subject. Nevertheless, the fact that every single character in the world of Avatar is taken at face value to be heterosexual is highly disconcerting. The reality is, however, that with every new character introduction there is this ripe, new, scintillating opportunity to challenge stereotypes, to break from the mold, undermine societal norms and demands. In fiction there is this boundless liberty. When building your own world, one entirely unrelated to our own, there is the legitimate option to completely trash all the norms that restrict and constrain many marginalized, even persecuted individuals nearly all of our human societies, and to contrive new standards.
I think the creators of our beloved universe have realized these opportunities and options and capitalized upon them. They create realistic societies, drawing from many real-world parallels, yet they have successfully engineered real feminist characters, eradicating pre-conceived notions, breaking molds. Though the Northern Water Tribe is introduced as a rigidly cultural society with restrictive gender roles, the other nations present a refreshing disregard for the norms of a majority of human societies. For instance, the more tribal and egalitarian Southern Water Tribe, as far as we’ve seen, eschews the traditions of its Northern sister tribe. There is no evidence of arranged marriages or ceremonial engagement pendants, and females were clearly trained in combat, appreciated and utilized as Waterbending warriors just as any male would. The Air Nomads’ former havens of peace and freedom were virtually indistinguishable along the lines of gender in their two gender-segregated forms. The Fire Nation allows for women to assume high positions in the military, industry, and even rising to the highest position of all as monarch. Even the title of the monarch remains constant, regardless of gender. After all, the calculating Princess was called Firelord Azula in the series finale of A:TLA, and now Zuko’s daughter has assumed the role in the present timeline.
That we have all of this macroscopic positive representation of women and their roles in society is highly impressive. I feel as if it would be inane and almost redundant to fully detail the more microscopic positive representations of women, i.e. the portrayal of individual female characters in a positive often feminist manner. The examples are absolutely countless. Nevertheless, there is not even a single gay character. In A:TLA we join the protagonists of the series as they traverse virtually the entire world, and yet homosexuality is not once encountered, not even hinted at, ever. The Legend of Korra is centered in this bustling new metropolis where people of all creeds and backgrounds are swirled together in this beautiful urban mosaic of culture. Traditionally urbanization often catalyzed the push for more widespread equality for those marginalized by mainstream society. We see this with Amon. Yet, again, here in this new, imaginably more liberal and modern environment, homosexuality is essentially nonexistent. Despite whatever most fans would like to believe, there has yet to be a single inkling of homoerotic subtext or homosexual attraction.
My question is, why?
Just as I sat down to penning this post I turned to my brother, who gave me a bit of a curious look regarding the fan-drawn gif of Iroh II and Bolin tongue kissing, and told him I felt obligated to make this post about the singular and restrictive treatment of sexuality in the Avatar World. Quite expectedly when the argument deepened, he shot back at me, “Dude, it’s a kids’ show.” Right, of course, and that is, when it comes right down to it, the only real reason we don’t see any gay characters on Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra. Because two men smooching, or two women swapping spit is so much more sexual, so much more provocative, scandalized, and inappropriate. Sure we can have five or so different examples of blatant, overt, active heterosexuality, but homosexuality? No. Unimaginable in a show aimed at young folks, or teenagers for that matter. That’s mature material, an entirely different breed of sexuality.
This is the reality of our society. Homosexuality is sexualized, stigmatized, censored. Yet any form of heterosexual affection or attraction, ranging from innocent childhood crushes, to tender love or even outright teenage lust, is totally permissible and certainly scripted on the official societal list of things that are almost mandatorily indoctrinated into the youth of this age.
This is deeply problematic. Though this is undeniably the product of several centuries of homophobic societal tendencies lead to this end result, that homosexuality is still considered to be some sort of aberration - hell, it was only as recently as the 70’s removed from the list of officially recognized mental illness - I can’t help wondering why? Why should this be censored from the viewing material readily available and idolized by our children? Why haven’t we moved past this? And shouldn’t this sort of thing, a wildly popular, progressive cartoon, be used to reconstruct these misguided, erroneous, harmful ideas of homosexuality, just as it has with women’s issues? To spread the idea of homosexuality as normal and natural and display homosexual love as equally innocent and normal as its heterosexual counterpart?
If there’s one unequivocal statement I’d make of Avatar it’d be that the cartoon seriously pushes boundaries. This resounds and becomes even clearer with Korra. Just look at the darkness of the season finale! My only hope is that this irresistible, unbridled force of progression and positivity be directed towards the misconceptions and hurtful notions of homosexuality.
Translation: please introduce a positively represented LGBTQ character.
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