The Last Airbender and the Misguiding Power of Romantic Tropes

When you—a television fan of great taste, I’m sure—love a show, that show isn’t obligated to love you back. It’s a source of despair for the avid television watcher.

It’s nice if the writers and artists of said show appreciate you. Without a fan base, many programs linger and die unmourned deaths, remembered on message boards in blurry screencaps or YouTube videos watermarked with the TV channel’s logo. Creators of entertainment should, if they’re kind and, more importantly, smart, appreciate the audiences that have championed their fame.

They still have no obligation to love their fan base back with the same fervor that the fans love them. The stories a show tells are its own. Even a program’s most fervent follower isn’t entitled to change the content the artist wants to deliver.

Fans can love that content. They can hate parts of it with a fiery passion. They can hate it for an ending that, to their minds, doesn’t quite work, and they can sure as hell critique it. Sites like this this one wouldn’t exist if we weren’t allowed to analyze and question our entertainment. Still, one can’t change what’s broadcast into a TV box unless they’re providing or else hired to shape that content.

To make this preamble short, I’m not sure I understand some fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The animated fantasy martial arts show aired from 2005 to 2008, a family show with a wide ensemble cast which stars the spirit of the world in one of his many human incarnations, Aang (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen). It has nothing to do with James Cameron’s Avatar films and has regrettable connections with M. Night Shyamalan’s lackluster 2010 live-action adaptation of the series, The Last Airbender.

Detailed, often spiritual, and sometimes just plain beautiful to look at, the heavily Asian influenced fantasy show is a bright jewel in Nickelodeon’s recent programming.

It has garnered a huge following, not only among children and parents, but young adults who identify closely with some of the teenage protagonists. This includes, Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman), an approximately 14-year old member of the Water Tribe and the earliest ally of the show’s protagonist, and Zuko (Dante Basco) the show’s fire bending antihero and conflicted villain who makes good.

Katara has found a lot of popularity in fan fiction and fan art as a cypher for girls and young women. She’s thoughtful and loses her composure in only the most tense of situations. A number of fans have devoted very detailed fan fiction, art, and communities, meanwhile, to pairing her off with the anguished Prince Zuko.

I would by lying if I said I didn’t think pairing-off polar opposite characters as couples is bad storytelling. It’s a reliable plot, a very well used trope at this point but one that fosters great chemistry between leads. It’s an easy idea, though, and a classic arc that, according to a very relevant TV Tropes article, is at least as old as Much Ado About Nothing.

A couple of problems surface with being zealous about this pair. The first is that the contingent of fandom that adores the couple, “Zutarans,” has some very vocal members who insist that the relationship be canon and that the creators have actively made fun of the fans for thinking they were supposed to be.

This may be the case in all honesty, though, because of the second problem: the characters in question meet only a few times before teaming up at the end of the last season. The screen time they do share involves Zuko: invading Katara’s village in search of Avatar Aang (“The Avatar Returns”), tying her to a tree (“The Waterbending Scroll”), attacking her (“The Siege of the North,” “The Chase”) and betraying her (“The Crossroads of Destiny”).

It’s a testament to the power of tropes that this little shared screen time and animosity is interpreted as a love connection. Popular entertainment conditions its viewers to expect certain developments in a story. When two beloved characters pay attention to each other in a certain context, that translates as “romance” for any audience that has a passing familiarity with Beauty and the Beast.

Even if that context is violence.

Maybe especially if that context is violence, judging by the number of fans who respond strongly to Zuko tying Katara to a tree. It is fantasy, I guess, and a fictional hate-to-love romance is better than audiences attempting to reconstruct it in real life. It’s excellent catharsis.

But that isn’t the story Avatar: The Last Airbender wanted. The context of Zuko and Katara’s relationship is violence up to the end of the third season, where he understandably has to work for her trust. Katara, meanwhile, spends a lot more time supporting and building an emotional bond with Aang. He’s a suitor that, while a year younger than her, certainly seems like a gentler, more stable option than the moody Fire Nation prince.

Stability doesn’t make for a very good will-they-won’t-they romance, however, but that’s not what the series creators wanted to make. This isn’t due to a lack of “appreciation” on their part, it’s just that an earth-shattering, high-drama romance wasn’t a part of the series’ shape. Co-creator Bryan Konietzko, for his part, certainly adores his fans enough to make a Tumblr account with daily images of the next series set in the same universe, The Legend of Korra. Which I find to be quite nice.

Fans, of course, are entitled to loving a show for their own reasons and taking from it what they like best, especially if the things they like best feed a burning passion that would otherwise go hungry. The original show, though, is ideally beholden to no one but the whims of the artists and the vision that they try their best to bring to the rest of the world.

2 thoughts on “The Last Airbender and the Misguiding Power of Romantic Tropes

  1. Several points, in the interest of friendly disagreement.I think a lot of Zutara shipping comes from the fact that Avatar gathered an older fanbase than it intended to. Girls in high school often go for older guys, since high school boys on the whole aren't terribly mature. These are the girls who like Twilight, yes, but also, I don't know Buffy and Angel and Buffy and Spike. Zutara appeals to that sector of the fanbase.To me, though, Zuko falling for Katara would have been more than a cliche. It would have been about character growth for both of them. Learning to forgive the fire nation for what they did to her family was a huge character arc for Katara, and her learning to trust Zuko was kind of the climax of that arc. For Zuko, learning to think for himself instead of trying to live up to his father or his sister's expectations was his big character arc. Falling for Katara would have been and excellent culmination of both those character arcs.More importantly, the growth of friendship and cooperation between the nations was a major theme of the entire show and a fire nation/ water tribe romance at the end of the series would have been an excellent illustration of that theme.Finally, in the few scenes they did have together, especially in "The Crossroads of Destiny" and "The Southern Raiders", Katara and Zuko had excellent chemistry. Honestly, that one scene where they're imprisoned in the gave together was what turned me into a shipper, and I think a lot of Zutarans would cite the same scene.I understand that Aang is the protagonist and people wanted to see him get the girl, but personally I think that was a move that pandered to the show's younger fanbase at the expense of it's (unexpected) older one.The point you make about violence is a sound one, and I'm not sure how to refute it. All I can say is that I don't think it would be nearly as bad a relationship model as Edward and Bella (Or Buffy and Spike for that matter.) But that is of course not saying much.

  2. Friendly disagreement! Hurrah! (Not sarcasm. I love this comment.)Honestly, if the show wanted to re-shape itself in order for Zuko and Katara to get together (which was, yes, in the pre-production rough draft according to DVD commentary), I don't think it would have been cliché. A cliché is only such if you don't dig beyond the character types. If the writers wanted the characters together, they would have done it well.BUT.This doesn't change the fact Katara and Zuko just don't spend a lot of time together throughout the series, at least compared to Katara and Aang. Yeah, Zuko and Katara are a nice team and she does show him compassion in the cave, but these are isolated moments compared to the history of interaction between Aang and Katara. Zutara is a pairing not based in cliché, really, but high romance, and Katara doesn't grow into a romantic but a pragmatist. She builds a relationship with Aang based on a bedrock of understanding each other's strengths and weaknesses and loving each other because of this. It's not an un-containable, wild passion (see: Edward/Bella, Buffy/Spike) which I think is what disappointed romantically-inclined fans who wanted more focus on this.As for the nation-metaphor, I would argue that Katara did NOT hate every Fire Nation person. She hated the soldiers that killed her mother and diminished her tribe and resented them for leaving her in a hopeless situation, but she never hated the entire country. In the episode involving the occupation of Omashu, she happily coos at the Fire Nation baby that winds up with them while Sokka was hesitant to help it because of its background. Also, before Zuko betrayed her in "Crossroads of Destiny," she did, as I mentioned, show him compassion despite their violent history. AND, even after this, when the gaang is hiding out in the Fire Nation, Katara adapts to their new surroundings with very little hesitance unlike, again, Sokka.Katara is a single person in the Water Tribe. She may share their strongest qualities, but she did not represent the feelings of her nation as a whole. A case can be made for Zuko representing the conflicted feelings of his people, but Katara was not as much of a symbol of her people as Sokka or even Princess Yue.If Katara is a representation of any group in the show, it's those who feel disillusioned and lost within the war. Aang, the symbol of hope long since thought dead but just asleep until she awakes him, is a much better partner in the game of relationship metaphors. Their union is that of the population finding guidance and rekindling its belief in a better world.

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