For those of you that don’t know, Toph Beifong is one of the main female characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Introduced halfway through the series, Toph is a young earthbender who joins Aang and his friends on their quest to help the evil Fire Lord Osai from taking over the world. The show has been hailed as some of the best children’s TV in recent years, and Toph herself is definitely one of the most popular characters on the show.
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?
Toph is actually very much in control of her own destiny, despite other people’s efforts to prevent this. Toph was born completely blind into a very wealthy family, who treated her like a delicate little doll because of her disability, keeping her existence a secret from the rest of the world and stopping her from learning earthbending and meeting other people. But that doesn’t stop Toph – she learns to sense the vibrations in the earth, giving herself a different kind of sight, teaches herself how to become an earthbending master and sneaks off to compete in what are basically pro-wrestling matches which include chucking rocks at people. And that’s all before she joins up with Avatar Aang and his friends.
Toph is a fiercely independent character who’s determined to take control of her own life. She runs away from home, teaches Aang how to earthbend, has a small sideline as a successful con artist, develops a completely new form of bending and helps to take down an evil overlord. She decides where she goes and what she does more than once, and if she doesn’t like the plans the rest of the team come up with she’s perfectly prepared to just leave them in the dust. By the time she appears as an old woman in The Legend of Korra, we find out that she’s also established and run the Republic City police department, had a couple of kids, and retired to a swamp just because she can. She’s firmly in control of her own destiny all the way through the story.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Toph is very much a tomboy – she enjoys getting dirty, playing rough and picking her toes. Her beliefs are tied into this – she’s very reluctant to embrace girly things because of her upbringing, where her parents tried to make her into a proper little lady. This has also given her a real love of independence and a slight suspicion of people trying to help her, as she can’t stand the thought of people treating her differently because she’s blind. Her goals are similarly linked to this, too – she wants to prove herself by becoming the best earthbender in the world, to live life on her own terms, as well as stopping the evil Fire Lord.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Toph is a very consistent character. She’s tough, abrasive, independent, a little bit disgusting, confrontational and stubborn, and she remains this way throughout both The Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra. She’s brutally honest, has trouble expresses her emotions openly, and never backs down from a fight.
Her skills are similarly consistent. Toph, though blind, can ‘see’ people by sensing the vibrations in the earth, but this is not without its limits. She can use this ability to sense activity deep underground, to predict her opponent’s next move and to tell if people are lying by sensing an increase in their heart rate or breathing, but this is all dependent on her having direct contact with a stable surface. She finds it much more difficult to use her ability on loose terrain, such as sand, has a very difficult time fighting someone who doesn’t need to touch the ground very often, and is completely blind when placed in water or in the air. What’s more, she has to be barefoot in order for this to work, and if the soles of her feet are injured, she can’t use her ability at all.
We also see Toph actively work on her skills. It’s made clear that her ability to ‘see’ through earthbending was something that took years to master, but we also see her practising sandbending – which she initially finds difficult, but comes to master – and metalbending, which she invents after detecting impurities from the earth in metal. 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 tough, belligerent young girl who’s determined to assert her independence, become the world’s greatest earthbender and overthrow an evil dictator in the process.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Toph’s love life isn’t really a feature of either series. In The Last Airbender, it’s hinted that she might have a little crush on Sokka, but this is mainly played for laughs and doesn’t really affect her decisions. In The Legend of Korra, it’s revealed that she has two daughters, both with different fathers. She doesn’t seem to have strong feelings for either one of the girls’ fathers and made the decision to raise them both alone as she didn’t want to be tied down. That’s really as far as her love life goes – the rest of her decisions are influenced by her desire for independence, a need to prove herself and her involvement in the battles against various baddies.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Toph does develop over the course of the story. In The Last Airbender, she learns to recognise the fact that not every offer of help from her friends is confirmation that they see her as weak due to her blindness. She comes to see that it’s all right for her to accept help if she wants to, and it doesn’t always come from a place of condescension. She also tries to rebuild her relationship with her parents, learns to compromise a little, and develops strong bonds with people she initially found difficult to get along with.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Toph has plenty of weaknesses. She’s stubborn, tactless, confrontational, refuses to admit defeat, often acts out when she feels vulnerable and uses her tough, confrontational exterior to mask her insecurities about her disability and appearance. She also finds it difficult to accept help, a trait that she manages to partially overcome, and is constantly afraid that she will be treated like an outcast due to her blindness. These are all traits that she actively has to overcome and create tension within the story, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Toph is a huge influence on the plot. Whether she’s beating up the bad guys, teaching Aang earthbending or helping them sneak into a fancy party, she’s a very active player in the story. Her actions always have direct consequences on the plot no matter what they may be, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 8
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Toph pretty much throws all gender stereotypes right out the window.
She’s a tomboy, she enjoys rough and messy activities, she picks fights and she’s difficult to get along with – but this isn’t the end of it. When she’s older, we see that she’s had two children with different men and raised them both as a single mother, with very few restrictions on their behaviour. The story never once passes judgement on this – Toph’s parenting decisions and lack of a long-term relationship are presented as valid choices and ones that fit her character. This is actually really unusual, particularly as the overwhelming trend in modern media is to present single parents as somehow ‘lacking’.
But what’s really interesting about Toph and her relationship to gender stereotypes are the fact that she directly acknowledges their affect on her, and how they interact with her disability. Due to their social standing, Toph’s parents probably would’ve raised her to be a demure young lady even if she wasn’t born blind, but on discovering her disability they shut her away from the rest of the world, believing her to be pretty much helpless. In her parents’ eyes, Toph is a defenceless little girl who needs someone to take care of her at all times, and this is actually a perception that many disabled women have to deal with as part of their everyday lives.
Toph hates this – both the restrictions of the traditionally feminine behaviour she’s expected to display, and the added dimension that her blindness adds to this. She resents the idea that she’s a helpless little darling so much it’s palpable and goes out of her way to prove it’s not true. This affects her for the rest of her life, as she chooses to raise her children with barely any restrictions on their behaviour because she hated her cosseted childhood so much. It’s very rare that this is acknowledged so openly on a kids’ show, so I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 9
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Toph relates to quite a few different female characters. She’s distant with her two daughters, but ultimately reconnects with them in a characteristically gruff way. She’s abrasively encouraging to Avatar Korra when she comes to her for help, but ultimately wants to help her despite her confrontational attitude. She gets along well with Suki, the Kyoshi Warrior, is fooled by Princess Azula, and has a strained relationship with her mother.
However, her most interesting relationship by far is with Katara. Initially, the two girls don’t get along well – she finds Katara fussy and girly, and Katara finds her confrontational and unhelpful. Eventually, they find common ground, come to understand each other better and become firm friends. They fight quite often, as neither one of them completely agrees with the other on everything, but the viewer is never left in any doubt that it’s all based on a solid foundation of friendship.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10
Congratulations! Toph is a fiercely independent character with well-defined goals, beliefs and hobbies. Her skills and personality are consistent, she isn’t defined by her love life, she has a range of strengths, weaknesses and interactions with other female characters, and we see her develop over the course of the story. Most of all, she relates to gender stereotypes in several really interesting ways, particularly where her blindness is concerned, and actively acknowledges them within the context of the story. She’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at another Disney Princess. Tiana, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.