Friday, April 2, 2010

Kyriarchy in Avatar: The Last Airbender - Perpetuating & Challenging Oppression & Imperialism

In a previous post, I wrote about kyriarchy and how it permeates our institutions of today, and is a driving force behind imperialism. Being a value system that places priority on control, it has its manifestations in a lot of the fiction we create, to the extent that a work without its presence is an unrealistic utopia, lacking any tension to drive the plot.

Many stories which involve grand-scale plots and politics also illustrate the kyriarchy at work, among these the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (which I will cut short to A:TLA) is an epic adventure spanning an entire secondary world, in which magic (the bending arts) and technology blend together in a form of industrialization. Its steampunk visual aesthetic are most visible in the technology of the Fire Nation, an island nation that uses the most visible amount of metal, refined by the element that they bend.

If you haven't watched it, you should. (I, for one, consider it a wonderful example of Asian-inspired steampunk.) This essay will contain spoilers, so you were warned.
Kyriarchy in the A:TLA Universe

The Fire Nation, being the major threat in the show, is the most obvious example of imperialism at work within the plot. Its technology is geared towards conquering the other nations. The army eradicates or imprisons the benders of other elements to weaken the other nations, in order to conquer them more easily. In a single heinous day, the Fire Nation wipes out the Air Nomads at all four Air Temples. These are all recognizably hostile acts committed to gain control of territory and destroy any threat to their power. In a hundred years, the Fire Nation has wreaked devastation and created an environment of normalized fear. 

Kyriarchy informs other levels of Fire Nation society as well. Within the Fire Nation itself, this value system has created an underclass of non-industrial regions that suffer the effects of pollution caused by factories, as illustrated in the Season 3 episode "The Painted Lady". When Katara pilfers from the factory to help the ailing villagers, the factory soldiers react violently - within the system of kyriarchy, all those with status and privilege fight any threat to that status using the self-same privilege that accompanies the status, in this case, the firepower that firebending provides. 

For this stark values system to take such a hold, it is, as it usually is in our world, ingrained into children from young, as Aang discovers in Season 3 episode "The Headband." Under the guise of love for the nation, the children are taught propaganda that revises the nation's actions in history, such as framing the attack on the Air Nomads as a battle, reverence to the Fire Lord through the Fire Nation oath, and a repression of their creative expression by strict disciplinarians.

Although the Fire Nation is the great evil of the world, it is not the only nation to exhibit oppressive behaviour. In the Earth Kingdom, Zuko confronts Earth Kingdom soldiers who use their status as soldiers to bully an unarmed and already-impoverished village (Season 2, "Zuko Alone"). General Fong threatens Katara's life using his earthbending to trigger the Avatar state in Aang, in order to harness Aang's powers to win the war (Season 2, "The Avatar State").

The bureaucracy that regulates Ba Sing Se is, while efficient, yet another example of kyriarchy in form place. In order to maintain the perfect order of the city, the Dai Li use intimidation tactics that ensure anyone who might be able to help or answer Aang's inquiries live in fear of losing their status, privileges and maybe their lives (Season 2, "City of Walls and Secrets). This extends to mind control, as done to the many young women recruited to be Joo Dee, the ostensible tour guide (Season 2 episode "Lake Laogai"), and brainwashing those who threaten the internal peace of the city by talking about the war the way Jet does (Season 2, "City of Walls and Secrets"). To make their control absolute the Dai Li keep the Earth King ignorant of the war beyond the city walls, granting them executive power over all of the city. 

Kyriarchy renders the bonds of loyalty weak, as those who operate in it only respect power, and by extension, those who have and are willing to wield it. The only thing which can contain the Dai Li as a whole is  the power held by its leader, Long Feng, earned through cunning, strategy and charisma. It is this weakness that Azula exploits when she co-opts the Dai Li. The combination of her finely-honed firebending to intimidate, her own well-tuned cunning, and the supreme confidence that her royal birthright affords her make her a force that outstrips Long Feng, and any respect held for him is easily transferred to this new mistress (Season 2, "The Crossroads of Destiny").

People who live under a certain privilege system that values power - and all the rules that maintain it - often do so at great personal and political expense. The Northern Water Tribe has a patriarchal system that forbids women from practicing waterbending. Pakku's rigid hold to the patriarchal rule of his culture is what alienates the fiancĂ©e he loved (and still holds a flame for), driving her to leave the great city of the North Pole for the comparatively poorer, but more egalitarian, Southern Water Tribe (Season 1, "The Waterbending Master"). The Northern Water Tribe also risks the ill will of the Avatar when they are unwilling to insist that Master Pakku train Katara, the Avatar's companion. The greatest cost of maintaining this system comes in the form of battle, where the Northern Water Tribe's army is not as powerful as it could have been, had they allowed women to fight as well (Season 1, "The Siege of the North").

Tipping the Balance of the World

Kyriarchy is not necessarily an inherent part of all humanity, as shown in A:TLA; often, all that kyriarchy requires to become the value system is for a few atavistic individuals to amass enough power to instate a rule based on power. Avatar Kuruk's time was comparatively peaceful, indicating that the inhabitants of the world are quite capable of settling their own differences without the Avatar's interference (Season 3 "Sozin's Comet: The Old Masters").

To mitigate any widespread effects of kyriarchy, however, this secondary world has an adjudicator of sorts: the Avatar. As keeper of the balance, the Avatar acts as a pinnacle point of kyriarchy with all the bending arts at his or her disposal. Guided by the principles of diversity and equality that are held firmly in place through a mixture of early education, rigorous training and social expectation, the Avatar's duty is to ensure each nation is equal in relation to each other. For example, Avatar Kyoshi was challenged by Chin the Conquerer of the Earth Kingdom, to which she responded by changing the physical geography of the world a little (Season 2, "Avatar Day"). Avatar Roku delayed the Fire Nation's imperialism by half a lifetime, warning Fire Lord Sozin not to colonize Earth Kingdom territory (Season 3, "The Avatar and the Firelord").

Granted, this is how kyriarchy is easily exploited - all Fire Lord Sozin had to do was take out the current Avatar and the next nation the Avatar would be reborn into. Bamf, chaos. All this secondary world can do is wait for the Avatar to return, even as each successive Fire Lord consolidates even further the Fire Nation's rule. As the Fire Lords went unchallenged, even within the Fire Nation, subsequent generations were brought up to believe this was the norms, to the point where the majority of people alive could not remember a peaceful world. The Avatar is required for status quo challenges, and the continual renegotiation of authourity.

Crown Prince Zuko: Chaser of Privilege and Challenger to Kyriarchy

One of the most valuable lessons learnt from A:TLA for children is that kyriarchy, upholder of oppression, can and must be challenged for positive change in the world. And it can even be challenged by those who have a great deal invested in maintaining kyriarchy - the journey that Prince Zuko takes is that of a boy who seeks to restore his honour - that is, his place of privilege as Crown Prince of the Fire Nation - to a young man who willingly gives it up to dismantle the kyriarchy that his father perpetuates. 

Prince Zuko begins with the understanding that we the audience have about power - being a prince is a matter of pride, a place from which to receive respect. He wants to regain his position of privilege, even as he uses what he has of it left as a means. Like many in the privileged class, Zuko is not inherently evil; he has been raised to see his princedom as a birthright, and the Fire Nation's imperialism as good and glorious. Even in disgrace, Zuko is still buffered in privilege, and participates in the Fire Nation's goal to erase any threat - by hunting the Avatar. Oppressors are often in competition with each other to gain more power, and this is manifested in Zuko's competition with Zhao, whose goals are similarly short-sighted and self-serving.

In the second seaon, Zuko's status as a traitor strips him of all social and political privileges. As a result, he is left to rely on the few advantages he has left: his firebending, skill with swords, education, and Uncle Iroh. The isolation and newly marginalized position he is now in is necessary for him to get down to the level of the people that the Fire Nation has been affecting, in order to see for himself how the Fire Nation maintains its glory through the suffering of others (Season 2, "The Cave of Two Lovers"). 

Like many brought up with privilege, Zuko vacillates between generous selfless behaviour (such as looking out for his crew, and saving his Uncle Iroh, Lee and Appa), and harmful, self-serving acts (turning on the Avatar in the Season 2 finale). And just like many brought up with privilege, Zuko has been brought up to defend his privilege more than empathize with the people his privilege causes suffering for. Even though branded a traitor and hunted by his sister, he merely bides his time to consider a way to regain his father's favour and return to his place of power.

However, like many in privileged positions, Zuko is also the person best placed to directly challenge the kyriarchy that rules his life, and the lives of so many others. As a boy, he is shown to be earnest in his desire to be a good ruler, and thus challenges the right of generals to exploit the powerlessness of new army recruits. Inexperienced in politics and lacking authourity at that age, this doesn't work out too well (Episode 1, "The Storm"). Coming to his manhood at the tender age of seventeen, he confronts his father, this time knowingly and with a full understanding of the force he faces - an oppressor who is willing to fight an obviously powerless child to demonstrate his power over another person's life (Episode 3, "Day of the Black Sun"). 

There are no excuses for Zuko - when Zuko fucks up, he royally fucks up, in epic proportions, and likely will spend the rest of his life paying for the deeds of his forefathers. But it is his willingness to do so that is his more admirable quality.

The Status Quo of the A:TLA Universe

A:TLA has a definite status quo: Avatar on top, rulers of each nations below him or her, and so on, so forth. The Avatar's end goal of the series is to restore this status quo. Yes, it is kyriarchy, but it has marked differences from the kyriarchal systems of our world.

For starters, the most powerful being in the world is not allowed to oppress others, and is tasked the duty of preventing oppression, whereas in our world, our most privileged classes are the most oppressive, and to protect their interests, must perpetuate oppression. When Fire Lord Sozin asks Avatar Roku to help him expand the Fire Nation's empire, Avatar Roku refuses, emphasizing that there are four nations in the world, and have to remain so to retain balance (Season 3, "The Avatar and the Firelord").

The second marked difference is the fluidity of power and authourity, as well as a willingness to share and relinquish it for selfless purposes. Chief Arnook of the Northern Water Tribe welcomes Aang and his companions to the North Pole, offering them housing, meals and training (Season 1, "The Waterbending Master"). The young Earth King throws off his royal personage to go traveling the world when he is dethroned from his seat of power in Ba Sing Se (Season 3, "The Awakening"). Zuko, crowned Fire Lord, vows to help the Avatar restore the balance of the world and make reparations for the damage that a century of imperialism has wreaked (Season 3, "Sozin's Comet: Avatar Aang").

Although the A:TLA universe is one in which power is respected, it is acknowledged that there is a qualitative difference between power for its own sake, and power combined with the desire to serve others. This is why the Avatar is respected - not only does the Avatar have great power, but the Avatar is the ultimate servant of the world. It is the Avatar who preserves the liberty of all nations, who carries the ultimate burden of peace. The Avatar's power is used to protect, not oppress, and the Avatar, who trains in all four nations, is taught to understand that each nation has its own culture and way of life. 

A:TLA's universe acknowledges that even those with power can fail to live up to their ideals and endanger the people around them. Aang is the reason for the attack on the Northern Water Tribe (Season 1, "Siege of the North") and fails to hold Ba Sing Se (Season 2, "The Crossroads of Destiny"). Up against the strategic mettle Azula wields, he misses his chance to confront Fire Lord Ozai on the Day of Black Sun. The Avatar, being human, is fully capable of accidentally misusing his or her power - Avatar Kyoshi, in her compromise to the Earth King, trained the group of earthbenders that would become the corrupt Dai Li (Online Comic, "Escape from the Spirit World"). However, the Avatar, being constantly reincarnated and being able to consciously access that history, has that capability to fix the mistakes of their past, just as all human beings have that chance to take responsibility for their actions and make amends.


The creators of the series are thus to be credited for the creativity they possessed in presenting to such an impressionable young audience a true alternative in viewing power, hierarchy and responsibility, than what may will otherwise be taught to them in the myriad of other pop and mass media. Although simplified for the understanding of children, presenting the complexity of power differentials that occur on politics and their far-reaching effects in an engaging manner is no small feat. 

A:TLA may offer little real analysis on power and kyriarchy, few tools with which to critique power, but it is still solid social commentary to educate children with, that meets their level instead of condescending to them. It is when we are willing to speak at the level of those most powerless in society that we show how prepared we are for true change. 


  1. This is a great post!

    I think it's also worth noting how kyriarchy trumps even close ties or bonds of love - Ursa is disposed of, Zuko is disposed of, all in the name of upholding the status quo. In a way, we can see Aang's choice to give up on the meditation with Guru Pathik as the opposite decision- connection with others matters more than power, not the other way around.

    And how easily the machinery of control is turned to oppression- the Dai Le easily fall under Azula's sway because it's what they've been trained for- suppression, only more so.

    It's also interesting to consider what role the spirit world has to this: it's one thing in which does not survive under the chains of kyriarchy. When people try to abuse it, use it, or chain it, the nature of the spirit world is to lash out, or retreat - it's not controllable as society is. It refuses to accept the chains, under any condition.

  2. Those are great points! I knew I wasn't being completely comprehensive when I wrote the essay, but it's definitely a subject I'll be re-visiting at a much later date when I've had more time to think on the subject. And you're absolutely right, of course - Aang's real strength to power isn't his desire to master it, but his desire to remain connected to others in a meaningful way: through living, hence his decision not to kill Ozai (a conclusion I wasn't completely satisfied with, because it has no real-world application, but nonetheless offers alternatives).

    I love your point about the spirit world - I briefly considered its lack of kyriarchal rule, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but you really solidified the concept ^^ May I use it for a future essay? (I'm thinking one on man's relationship with nature. Steampunk too often disregards this.)

  3. Yeah, feel free to use the point.

    I see the spirit world both as nature and as the subconscious, it includes also the spirit of people- consider that the Avatar State proves itself uncontrollable - it cannot be dominated or mastered- the very attempt is wrong in and of itself.

    The correct response is acceptance- notice at the end of Season 1, that the Water Tribe simply bows down to the Water spirit? They're in total acceptance that it could wipe them out as well, and they don't even think it about - it's too holy to contend with, too sacred to even gaze upon.

    This is actually the problem with kyriarchy- it can never have acceptance of anything else, which is why it's always about diminishing, controlling and taking- the narcissistic personality that kyriarchy produces leaves no room for anyone else- there's only above and below, but never equal.

    Also, yeah, my problem with Ozai was that it wasn't shown as a "choice". The season built up to Aang having to choose how to deal with an unreasonable person - the moral issue that has. It felt very deus ex machina that a) he gets back his Avatar State, and b) suddenly he has this new power that solves everything and avoids the moral issue of it. (Same problem with Azula's sudden madness, with the additional problem of "power makes women crazy" trope).

  4. Azula's breakdown didn't seem like deus ex machina to me. She was never 100% alright to begin with. While her father almost certainly nurtured her destructive traits from an early age, even as a small child, she gets most of her joy from hurting things and manipulating people. She's addicted to the feeling of gaining more control, more power, and when she's finally granted absolute power, she can't take it, because there's no power left to gain, the only further control she can have is to dismiss servants, cronies, advisors and her own hair.

  5. That's an interesting take, that she didn't have much power left, seeing as she'd reached the pinnacle. However, there's still the fact that once Ozai was dead, she would still be in the running to be the next Phoenix King, with the rest of the world to conquer, so it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense that she would suddenly break down just because she becomes Fire Lord. She's still under her father's thumb there, after all. Nobody is 100% alright to begin with, so her breakdown still seems suspicious.

  6. From a psychological stand point Azula's breakdown was deeply satisfying as it played on her need for acceptance that was very subtle throughout the show. She parallels Zuko in a way, she was reinforced by her father and grandfather that power, subjugation and perfection were the ways to gains affection. This affection was denied by her mother for those same reasons which can be very confusing as a child. I think the breaking point for her was the betrayal of Mai and Ty Lee who she controlled by fear that in her mind equaled affection. The betrayal of the only "friends" she's ever had put her in a very vulnerable place which was evidenced by the dismissal of pretty much everyone because she felt they would also betray her. Add to that her father's ultimate form of "affection" was in granting her further power but denying her with personal closeness that she so needed at that point, the girl snapped and it was deeply satisfying from a character building place.

  7. I don't see the use of Energy-bending as a deus-ex. I say that as someone who was raised on and loves the martial arts sagas, including ones where ancient masters could destroy your ability to access or generate chi using targetted pressure point attacks and spiritual techniques. Also, the fact that Ty Lee could block bending despite not being a bender herself sets a precedent in the setting before Aang had to use the technique to lock away Ozai's bending. And just like every other bending it traces its root back to an ancient and legendary creature that was mentioned or shown at various points, like in the 2nd season episode, 'The Library'.

    Also, Azula was specifically shown throughout the series to control people using threats and manipulation. Her world view was shaped by who she was, someone always obsessed with the accumulation of power or the belittling of others. Once she reached what was supposed to be the pinnacle, only to be discarded by her father, who at the same moment made the position she'd strived for all along an empty figurehead position, it's pretty obvious she was going to go to pieces.

  8. I can see the argument, but the introduction of energy-bending as a concept occurred too fast for me to really see it as a thing. The way it unfolded was: Aang couldn't find it in himself to kill; meets legendary creature; suddenly, problem fixed. It takes away from the dilemma he faced, which was how to defeat Ozai, and makes it seem easy as a result. (Although the link to Ty Lee's chi-blocking is a good catch.)

    And again, Azula's arc occurred extremely quickly and although it is sensical (it's not that I disagree with you that the series of events as it happened don't work together), it does play into a trope on how mental illness unfolds, with a gendered aspect as well.

    In both these cases, it feels like there should have been more episodes in the third season to really address them.

  9. I guess as an asian who loved the right type of stories, this just wasn't as out-of-left-field as it is for non-asians or less exposure to 'internal art' martial arts stories.

  10. That's some squicky-ass identity-policing right there (the "right type of stories"? I had no idea Asians had such requirements to fulfill). My argument has more to do with storytelling; yours has to do with expected tropes.

  11. Huge navel-gazing version cut,
    Basically, I'm sorry, that came out very poorly, and I was meaning right type of stories in the sense of being familiar with the right genre to expect certain tropes and solutions.

  12. Ah, all right. Well, yes, but the thing is, just because a trope is expected, doesn't make them unproblematic. Again, I'm looking at it more from how the story unfolds than tropes. I CAN buy energy-bending as a good final solution; it's just the way the story played out, it went from point A to point F very quickly, completely missing everything else in between.

  13. Any argument for there being MORE Avatar? Good argument.

  14. Well, in Aang's case there was a fourth option. But it would have involved the risk of accidentally killing Ozai, and would have been entirely too graphic for what is ostensibly a kids show, and just as out of character as Aang suddenly deciding to enter a steak-eating contest.