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Discovering the Complexity of Womanhood in Avatar: The Legend of Aang—Defying Expectations With Toph and Mai (Part 1)

A sign on a pole with paint strokes saying "Rebel for Life"
Photograph by Jonathan Martin Pisfil

Growing up, people and society always put expectations on me and other girls. They want us to be soft-spoken, obedient, careful, "lady-like," and much more. These standards, of course, come as ridiculous and baseless to me since these are not what I wanted to be, even today. Add to that, most girls and women I know in fiction (and even real life) don't act that way, especially in my favourite show, Avatar: The Legend of Aang.

Avatar is a famous kid's show produced by Nickelodeon. It's a show known and loved by many as it contains a neat plot, a lot of wise messages, and relatable and lovable characters. But the female characters' developments often become secondary for audiences, as most of them are taken aback by other characters like Zuko and Aang.

We have Katara. She serves as the motherly figure for the team and later embraces hope and forgiveness and makes peace with her anger that stemmed from the war. Then we have Suki, the heroine who embraces the outer world instead of staying in and being closed off to the world. Then we have our diamonds in the rough: Toph and Mai.

Both Toph and Mai come from rich yet overly strict families with high expectations. Toph, a young blind girl, is confined by her parents from the whole world due to their weaponised fear. Toph has a thirst for adventure and good company, but her parents' actions hold her desires back at one point.

Mai, on the other hand, is handed a series of expectations as an only child since her dad holds a very powerful position within the Fire Nation's court. Her family expects her to stay still and only speak when she's spoken to. She can't say no or take a misstep that would risk her father's career and tarnish her family's name.

What makes the two similar other than their problems and strict parents? Well, these two take a leap of faith to reclaim their agency: rebelling and defying expectations given to them. Their revered family dictates their agency and what they should be like as women, yet they go against what has been written for them to find out what they actually are and what they care about the most.

Eventually, Toph decides to rebel against her parents and leave behind the confined life of comfort for her development and to find out her true self, strength, and potential. As such, she humbles herself by partaking in teamwork with Team Avatar and helping others in need on her journey.

She also learns to be vulnerable by exposing her inner feelings and her insecurity instead of bottling them up. There are two strong instances where Toph shows this: "The Tales of Ba Sing Se" in Book Two where she and Katara have a good day until some girls bully Toph for her looks, and then in "The Runaway" of Book Three where she shares her worries and feelings in jail with Katara after all the mischievous things she did.

Plus, had Toph stayed behind, she would not have found her new family within Team Avatar and invented metal bending.

Mai, too, begins to rebel by expressing herself and just being herself. Starting from Book Two, she chooses to take the path of least resistance against tyrannical Azula by not wasting energy doing unnecessary fights. She begins to express herself more in front of Azula (whom she initially feared) and shows her affection and concern towards Zuko by saving him during his escape from Boiling Rock, the Fire Nation's strictest prison, in Book Three.

Had she stayed restricted, she wouldn't have learned to express herself better and indirectly killed Zuko and others. Too bad her development isn't shown as much as Toph's since she serves as a (solid) side character.

Writing relatable and headstrong female characters is a heavy job for writers, but these two nailed the trope. These are the female characters we need more in kids' fiction since they don't showcase the stereotypical damsel in distress or obedient lady in waiting. If anything, younger girls are keen to try new things, challenge the status quo, and discover their identity.

The only thing is these two never get to interact on screen or in the comics. Both could have bonded from the same experience and made a great duo.

As a kid, having these characters and their developments on screen made me feel seen. I wasn't the stereotypical ladylike goody-two-shoes or Mary Sue when I was a young lass. I often ran into trouble, always questioned authority, and went against the waves.

Turns out, I don't need to fit into the box to find who I am as a girl. I can always be myself and break the rules. A journey into womanhood means a journey to discover yourself as well. I met plenty of women who also find these characters relatable for them.

I don't need to sit still and be confined to be a proper woman, I can also break the rules and go through an adventure myself, like Toph and Mai.


Nanda is an Indonesian freelance writer based in Jakarta. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Gunadarma University. She's passionate about art, sports, culture, languages, and history. She aims to be a compassionate global citizen and an influential writer who writes phenomenal works.

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