For those of you that don’t know, Azula is one of the main antagonists on the phenomenally successful children’s show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Daughter of the evil Fire Lord, she spends most of the show hunting down the Avatar – the one person in all the world who has the power to control all four elements and restore balance to the universe. It’s Azula’s mission to stop him, uphold her father’s regime and plans for world domination, and eventually become ruler of the Fire Nation – so she’s aiming pretty high. As I’ve already discussed, the show has been a huge success, with Azula being widely hailed as one of its most complex characters – largely due to her tendencies to maim and manipulate everyone she comes across while still remaining at least a little bit sympathetic.
But does she measure up to the hype? 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?
Azula isn’t completely in control of her own destiny due to her position. As she’s born into the royal family, a substantial part of her life has been shaped by the fact that she’s in line to inherit the throne – and this covers everything from her training, her goals and her upbringing.
However, this does not mean she is a passive character. Despite her natural position of power – she is second in line to the Fire Nation throne – she doesn’t use this as an excuse to rest on her laurels. Even though she does get sent on missions by her father, she takes every opportunity to prove herself a worthy heir, whether that’s by endlessly perfecting her firebending skills or by constantly undermining her older brother. What’s more, the fact that she gets sent on missions by someone else doesn’t undermine her agency as a character – even though she’s fulfilling someone else’s goals, she does so using her own intuition, intelligence and tactical skills. Ultimately, she is the one who decides where she goes and what she does, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Azula doesn’t really have much in the way of hobbies, although we do see her playing a game of volleyball with her friends and expressing a dislike of playing with dolls. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined, and are often interlinked. One of Azula’s main goals is to capture the Avatar, and while her father was the one who originally asked her to do this, she has her own motivations too – as her father also tasked her brother Zuko with capturing the Avatar, part of what drives her through this quest is her desire to prove that she is better than her brother.
This is where her goals and beliefs get a little muddled. Azula firmly believes that she would be better suited to ruling the Fire Nation than Zuko would be – therefore she goes out of her way to prove it, determined to be both the perfect princess and a ruthless strategist. She’s deeply jealous of Zuko’s position within the royal family – therefore she goes out of her way to usurp it by winning her father’s affection. In this respect the two are interlinked, and both come from the same source: her strained upbringing within the royal family. Nevertheless, her goals and beliefs are very well fleshed out and really drive her through the story, so I’ll give her the full point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Azula is consistently shown to be a relentless perfectionist, a ruthless military commander, a brutal fighter, a callous ruler and a brilliant firebender. She’s cold, calculating and will not stop until she has everything she wants, and this often affects the way she relates to other people – i.e., she can’t. What’s really interesting about the question of consistency is that it is these elements of her character that drive her both to success and to mental instability. Her inability to relate to other people allows her to be an utterly ruthless military commander, but it also leads to her underestimating her own allies. Her brilliance and her perfectionism mean that she trains to be one of the best fighters on the show, but they also mean that she cannot tolerate it when her plans go awry. Her calculating, suspicious nature allows her to pick up the slightest trace of the Avatar, but it also eventually devolves into paranoia. Elements of Azula’s character remain consistent right up until her final appearance – despite the drastic changes she goes through – so she passes this round with flying colours.
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 ruthless, calculating princess with a fierce eye for military strategy who’s determined to track down her enemies and ascend to the throne.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Azula doesn’t really have a love life, but this isn’t for lack of trying.
It’s made pretty clear that she is jealous of her friends’ abilities to attract potential boyfriends and in one episode, we see her try and get one for herself. It’s not clear if this is because she doesn’t want to be seen as lacking in something or if she really does want a relationship, but as this is only for one episode, I’m not going to go into more detail. What motivates Azula through the show is her desire for power and her need to surpass her brother – she’s much more driven by her military plans than her desire to get a boyfriend.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Azula does develop over the course of the story, although not really until the very end. In a series of flashbacks we see Azula as a child, in which she’s just as nasty but not quite so manipulative – clearly, this is a skill she learned while growing up. For most of the story she’s a relatively static character until her mental breakdown in the last few episodes. To the casual viewer it seems as though this comes out of nowhere: after being named ruler of the Fire Nation and her father leaving to conquer the rest of the world, Azula snaps right before her coronation when her closest friends betray her.
As I discussed earlier, this is foreshadowed in earlier episodes. We see her inability to relate to other people when she burns down the house of some teenagers who kick her out of their party. We see her relentless perfection when she flips out when a single hair falls out of place during training; ‘almost perfect’ just isn’t good enough. We see Azula demonstrating her paranoia when she allows her father to think that Zuko killed the Avatar – she suspected that there was a chance he might have survived, so even though she dealt the ‘killing’ blow, she let Zuko take the credit for it rather than entertain the possibility that she might have failed. Azula’s mental breakdown might seem sudden, but in reality, all the elements were there long before it ever happened.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Azula has several weaknesses that really hold her back. She can’t relate to other people to the extent that she can’t understand their emotions – she relies on fear to gain supporters, rather than actually bonding with them. She’s paranoid, suspicious and cannot deal when things don’t go her way. She spends most of the series in a state of functional mental instability – I’m no psychiatrist, but she seems like a total psychopath – and eventually, this catches up to her.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Azula drives the plot forward at every turn. She’s always hunting down the Avatar and his friends, or plotting to kidnap one of their allies, or secretly working to overthrow a kingdom the Avatar needs to save. While her position could allow her to do nothing and let the plot generate around her, she’s such an active character that this is never the case – she’s constantly moving the action forward.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Azula is actually a really interesting character in terms of gender stereotypes. She’s a ruthless military commander, a total psychopath, has absolutely no empathy whatsoever, is a strategic genius and a brilliant fighter – and she’s also a teenage princess. This is a far cry from the kind of princesses we’re used to – you certainly wouldn’t see Azula singing to adorable little woodland creatures.
And yet, it’s made clear that despite all of this, Azula is still a teenage girl. We see her worrying about boys, and taking pride in her appearance, and hanging about with her two closest girlfriends. She still has insecurities – she’s convinced that her mother never loved her and is desperate to win her father’s affection to compensate for it, and sadly, this is something that some teenage girls can really relate to.
What’s really refreshing about the way Azula relates to gender stereotypes is the way that the two sides to her personality – the merciless commander and the attention-seeking teenager – fit together so seemly. Azula doesn’t flip from one to the other like flicking a switch; it’s a very natural part of her character. Each side of her personality informs the other: when she’s commanding an army, you don’t forget that she’s a teenage girl, and when she’s awkwardly trying to make friends, you don’t forget that she’s a manipulative psychopath. This is a very natural blend of two seemingly irreconcilable elements, but something that fits very well with her character, so she passes this round with flying colours.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Azula has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She has two elderly female servants (Li and Lo) who she treats with disdain, but who accompany her almost everywhere. She refers to any woman not born into the aristocracy as ‘peasants’ – but if they’re formidable fighters like Katara, Toph and Suki, she has the sense to view them as a worthy adversary. She has two best friends – Ty Lee and Mai – who go almost everywhere with her, but she manipulates them into joining her quest and goes out of her way to make them unhappy on more than one occasion. Her most interesting relationship is by far with her mother, who we only ever see in flashbacks and hallucinations. Azula is convinced that her mother never loved her and thought she was a monster – the audience, however, see Azula’s mother as trying to correct dangerous and manipulative behaviour in her child, rather than her acting out of spite. These are all really interesting relationships that make for some cracking telly, so I’ll give her the point.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Azula is a ruthless, cunning military leader, a brilliant fighter and an accomplished political leader. She’s firmly in control of her own destiny, follows her own goals throughout the series and is a real force on the plot. She has a weakness that holds her back, her character development is well-established and draws on existing aspects of her personality, she has a range of relationships with other female characters and her character isn’t just based on gender stereotypes. She hasn’t just passed my test, she’s destroyed it.
Next week, I’ll be finishing off Villain Month by looking at one of the classic Disney villains. Ursula, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.