Tests such as the Bechel, Mako Mori, and sexy lamp tests are becoming more well-known ways to identify how much agency female characters have in film or TV shows. The way to pass the Bechel test is if two or more female characters have a conversation about something other than a male. Sounds easy, right? But there are a worrying amount of films that do not pass this test. Avatar: The Last Airbender passes each of these of these tests. Heres what Avatar gets right about the "strong female character".
Firstly, Avatar subverts the idea that a strong female character must be tough. While many of the female characters in the avatar are incredibly physically strong there is a lot more to them. For instance, Yue is a strong female character despite never actually fighting. There is strength in her compassion and in her sacrifice and commitment to duty. The show also reinforces the idea that being traditionally feminine is not a weakness. One of the clearest ways this is addressed is in the Tales of Ba Sing Se. This episode is one of the shows filler episodes and is also one of the best and most fan-loved episode, featuring three vignettes of the characters day in the city of Ba Sing Se. In the first short tale, Katara and Toph spend the day at the spa. After being made fun of by some local girls Toph and Katara have the following exchange, Toph says, "I don't care what I look like, I'm not looking for anyone's approval. I know who I am." and Katara responds, "That's what I really admire about you Toph. You're so strong and confident and self-assured and I know it doesn't matter but you're really pretty". Showing firstly that beauty is only a part of a person. And also that you can be the strongest earth bender to have ever lived and not have to abandon stereotypical femininity.
Secondly, the avatar makes sure that all women aren't put into one box. There are many complex and unique women in the world of the Avatar and there are many wonderfully complex and unique women in the world we inhabit. This is something a lot of shows miss out on when they only include one or two female characters. Across the world of the Avatar, each character has a character design that makes each one individual and unique. This is in contrast to the new controversy involving Disney's character designs, where characters like Rapunzel from Tangled and Anna from Frozen were critiqued for their incredibly similar facial structure. While there is diversity in the appearances of the characters in Avatar there is also a distinction in their personalities. Katara is a kind, fierce, mother figure. Toph is tough and rebellious. Suki is compassionate and intelligent. Ty Lee is perky and positive. Mai is apathetic and cunning. Azula is powerful and ruthless. What makes all of these traits even more important is that no character is flawless.
Flaws are an important part of what makes a strong character, regardless of gender. In the Avatar each character is a fully realized human being with strengths and flaws. And I would say it is these flaws that allow the show to have such strong female characters. Azula may be powerful and deranged but she is also a fourteen-year-old girl who was used by an abusive father to help him get what he wanted. Katara may be kind but she is also easily angered and unafraid of violence. And it is this flaw that allows her to see growth over the course of the show. And this is something that can be said for each of the characters in the show.
Whether you are a child or not, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a show worth watching and re-watching again and again.