For those of you that don’t know, Katara is one of the principal characters in the hit cartoon show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Set in a world where people can control one of the four elements, the plot follows the adventures of the Avatar – the one person in the world who can control all four elements – as he attempts to defeat the evil Fire Lord and restore balance to the world. Katara is not the main character, but she stars in almost every episode and plays a significant role in helping the Avatar on his quest. The show was hailed as a modern classic – particularly for the ways it dealt with adult themes and problems in a show aimed at children – and Katara herself was has been described as a role model for young girls everywhere.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Katara has a really interesting relationship with her wider destiny. When we first meet her she is a member of a very small village, and it’s quickly made clear that after her tribe was decimated by war, she had to take on a lot of responsibility and put her dreams on hold. When she gets her grandmother’s blessing to leave, she is given control over her own future and gets to travel the world, become a master waterbender and help stop the Fire Lord. Throughout most of the show she is in control of her own destiny – she gets to decide where the group goes, whether to help the people they meet and picks the battles she wants to fight – but she’s always very aware of the fact that at times, she will have to put her own goals on hold in order to help the Avatar.
This ties in to parts of the traditional ‘Chosen One’ narrative in that Katara feels she has a destiny that she cannot walk away from; she could go back to her normal life, but she can’t do it in good conscience. The difference between Katara’s story and this traditional narrative is that while she may be on a difficult and dangerous path, it is a path she chose to walk. Unlike characters like Buffy and Sailor Moon, Katara has an easy way out – if she wanted to, she could just go back home at a moment’s notice, because there are no higher powers compelling her to fight evil. However, she chooses to fight it anyway, even though it can mean putting her personal goals to one side and putting herself in danger. To my mind, that’s a much more meaningful narrative than being shoe-horned into place by destiny.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Katara has a very clear set of goals that come from a variety of different places. She wants to become a master waterbender, allowing her to telekinetically control water, snow and ice, and this is something she’s wanted to do for most of her life. She also wants to help the Avatar, stop the Fire Nation from conquering the world and rebuild her village in the South Pole – these are mainly goals that have come about from her involvement in the war with the Fire Nation. Her beliefs tie into this: she believes in helping as many people as she can, not leaving people behind and in helping people reach their fullest potential – all of which are linked to the things she has worked for. As far as hobbies go, she doesn’t have many to speak of – apart from a very strong interest in fortune-telling – but two out of three isn’t bad.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
On the whole, Katara is a pretty consistent character. Throughout the series she remains a brave, passionate young girl who tries to be kind to everyone but is prone to holding grudges. As the series progresses, her skills do too – she starts out knowing almost nothing about waterbending, and has to figure out much of it on her own, but eventually becomes good enough to teach the Avatar. This progression of skill is handled pretty well – it’s a slow, gradual process that spans over sixty episodes, and she’s never simply handed the ability to immediately crush her enemies. She really has to work for it, and that’s what makes her transformation so believable.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A young girl determined to bring down a conquering empire, become a master of her craft and protect her friends and family.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Katara has a brief crush on a ‘freedom fighter’, Jet, but that quickly turns sour. The rest of the series is spent establishing an extremely tentative, awkward relationship between her and Aang. However, this is actually a really minor part of the show, and doesn’t affect many of Katara’s decisions. Most of her decisions are influenced by her goals, her beliefs and her concern for the people she cares about.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Katara undergoes quite a bit of character development over the course of all three series. She grows into her abilities, becoming a waterbending master who can fight and heal with equal skill. More importantly, she takes control of her own destiny, works towards overcoming the grudges she holds and learns to loosen up a little.
That’s a range of character development for a range of problems, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Katara exhibits a whole range of weaknesses on the show, some of which she overcomes and some of which she doesn’t. She can be extremely stubborn, very fussy, can lose her temper over irrational things, has a very rigid moral code that doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility, and finds it extremely difficult to forgive people. This last flaw in particular really holds her back, as it can take her years to come to terms with what the other person has done, let alone forgive them for it, but it is something she tries to work on as the series progresses.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Over the course of the series, Katara is a driving force for the plot. Her actions, goals and beliefs directly influence the plot of each episode – on more than one occasion, she gets to decide where they go, what they do, and who she fights. She does get captured a handful of times, but these occasions are par for the course in Avatar – all the main cast members each get captured at least three times. What’s more important is that this is far from her only influence on the plot, so she passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In many ways, Katara is a traditionally feminine character. She often acts as a kind of caretaker to the other characters, providing them with emotional support, acting as a moral compass and even doing a lot of the cooking and sewing required for their journey. It’s made pretty clear (through the comments of her occasionally sexist brother) that this is both the result of an upbringing where she had to take on a lot of responsibility after the death of her mother, and the result of growing up in a culture where gender roles seem to be pretty rigid.
However, the traditionally feminine parts of her personality never hold her back. She becomes a waterbending master, using her powers to heal people and to deliver beatings when needed. She’s very resourceful and driven, keeping the group on track when the others are flagging. She also actively fights against sexism, particularly when her first waterbending teacher initially refuses to teach her because she’s a girl – she demonstrates her skills by beating the smugness out of him and manages to change his mind – albeit not in the way she originally planned.
Much like Sailor Moon, Katara does not deny the more feminine parts of her personality in order to be strong. She takes on the role of group mother, provides emotional support for her friends and keeps them all together, but it’s very clear that this never once detracts from her strength.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Katara has a range of relationships with a range of female characters. She both loves and is frustrated by her grandmother, who took care of her after her mother’s death. She has a very strong friendship with Toph, even though they are polar opposites and frequently butt heads. She’s also intensely antagonistic towards Azula, the Fire Lord’s daughter – over the course of the series, Katara grows to hate and fear her, while Azula remains largely indifferent. Her relationships depend very much on the character she forms them with, so she passes this round spectacularly.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Another perfect score! Like Granny Weatherwax before her, Katara has completely aced my test, and it’s not hard to see why. With a range of strengths and weaknesses, Katara is a character who fights against stereotypes, develops over the series and remains in control of her own destiny – not bad for someone who’s only supposed to be fourteen years old. But one of the best things about Katara’s role in the show is that she isn’t it’s main female star – it’s filled with compelling female characters and I’d really recommend watching it.
Next week, I’ll be looking at The Millennium Trilogy. Lisbeth Salander, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.