Friday, August 2, 2013

Did Aang "Cheat" on Katara?

Okay, that's a bombastic headline. With the new season of Avatar: The Legend of Korra getting ready to air and me working on a new Avatar-themed side project, I find myself thinking a lot about Avatar these days. Now, I think about AtLA pretty frequently anyway, mostly because it's such a wonderfully internally coherent world it's just fun to pull at little threads and see how they twitch, but lately that's been amped up and the thought that's been on my mind the last few deals heavily with Aang and Katara's relationship after the great war was over.

Did Aang cheat on Katara? Or rather, did he enjoy relationships with women other than Katara? Of course, canonical support for something as unsavory as an affair would always be hard to come by in a show like Avatar--this is a show that features a century-long war, yet the war memorial would have  three names on it. Even the insane genocidal tyrant was merely imprisoned after the war. Although the show isn't as shy as it could be, adultery and affairs are necessarily difficult to get details about; these would be closely guarded secrets in real life, and even in a show as frank about adult sexuality as Avatar information is going to be sparse.. There are plenty of historical people we can be pretty sure had extramarital affairs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton (to name a few American presidents). Thomas Jefferson allegedly sired children in his affairs with slaves. Suffice to say, it happens in real life and nobody wants to talk about it. But I think it could have happened. Let me explain.

Reason One: The Man

Aang is a decent man. He has some incredibly strong principles. His taboo against taking life is so sincerely held that even when faced with the dude who wanted to burn down half the planet Aang sought to spare him. Against the advice and counsel not just of probably every single person in the world, but also some of the people out of it; even another air-bender, met through Aang's spirit link to his past lives, strongly implies that Ozai's only just fate is death. Which makes sense--the dude wanted to kill everything in the world's most populous nation and as an unintended side effect probably would extinguish all life on the planet (as a country-sized wildfire might be expected to do).  Aang spared that guy. Aang invented a new kind of bending in order to spare that guy. Morality is basically the only thing Aang can't bend, so if he believes in monogamy, he probably won't stray.

However, Aang is unquestionably a troubled young man. When he wakes up in the iceberg, he feels as though only a day or two has passed, but it's been a century and the total genocide of his people. From his perspective, the transition between "all my friends and family are alive" to "my entire people and culture has been graphically murdered" takes place over a few days. Aang deals with it almost unbelievably well, finding ways to channel his total devastation productively. He has his quest to master the bending arts and defeat the Firelord to distract him. He has to let his relationship with his people go in order to attain control over the Avatar State. He has his relationship with Katara. But then the war's over, he's mastered the elements, and suddenly he'll have time to really appreciate the fact that his people are truly dead and gone. Once again, I just want to emphasize that "one minute everything's fine, next minute it's a hundred years in the future and also my entire culture has been driven to extinction" thing. Holy crow, talk about emotional damage. Although he is strongly principled, he has betrayed his friends when he was afraid he would abandon them (S1E15: Bato of the Water Tribe). This is something he may have matured out of, but his fear of abandonment is powerful, and he's demonstrated that he would lie to people he loves to keep them in his life.

Aang also craves recognition and enjoys the attention of others, especially women. He can be seen showing off for girls on Kyoshi Island before he is seriously engaged in the war (S1E4: Kyoshi Island) and for his fanclubs  after the fall of the Phoenix King (The Promise, Book 1), suggesting a consistent character trait that is unchanged by his character growth during the war. It bears remembering that he's also only twelve during the show--that means he's on the cusp of a pretty confusing time. Men, especially in their late teens and early twenties, tend to have impulse control problems as a result of brain growth and shifting hormones, and Aang has undergone a year of fairly extreme trauma during a very vulnerable part of his social and physiological development. While it's entirely possible that Aang could weather this without cheating, he's a young man that desperately craves attention, has canonically established abandonment issues, and will undoubtedly live a life of easy access to interested women. Which brings me to my next point.

Reason Two: The Ladies
 Women--and possibly men--are going to throw themselves at Aang for the rest of his life. First of all, he's wildly famous, popular, and recognizable. It is in human nature to desire a high-status partner, and Aang is high status. Mesospheric status. Orbital status.The world he lives in is also recovering from a pretty terrible war. All belligerents in the war appear to field mostly male armies (the Southern Water tribe nearly goes extinct doing so), so it's a fair shake that young men in the late teens to twenties are in short supply. The major cultures of the Avatar world are much more egalitarian than comparable real-world cultures, but there's still a traditionalist/patriarchal element that would see some women--and their families--eagerly jockeying for position with a man of wealth and status like Aang.

After the great war, Aang is unquestionably the most recognizable person on the entire planet. While his role in ending the war--defeating the Fire Lord--isn't strategically any more important than dismantling the Fire Nation air force (Sokka, Toph and Suki's job) or ensuring Zuko's ascension (Katara's), it's an important symbolic victory and an impressive feat of bending. Plus, he's the Avatar doing it, so whatever he does is automatically more notable. That's right, you can be historically important for doing stuff that's only important because you did it while being important for having done it. Aang canonically attracts women for this in the graphic novels.

Of course, Aang is also a hottie, I guess? Even as a twelve-year-old he attracts a reasonable amount of attention from girls: Meng (S1 E 5: The Fortune Teller) and On Ji (S3 E2, the Headband), neither of whom care that he's the Avatar. Both his fanclubs on Kyoshi Island and seen in The Promise are exclusively female, and although they might only care about his Avatar status, their interest in Aang certainly makes Katara jealous and suggests some of them have more prurient goals in mind.

Now, all this attention could go to a man's head. Aang has an iron constitution for his principles, it's true, but it is well textually supported that Aang adores getting attention and especially glories in it from young ladies. Plus, he's the Avatar. The Last Airbender. The hero of a century long conflict. No matter where he goes, I imagine there will always be some women interested either because he's famous or good-looking, and it's on him to keep his ego in check. Any man might lose his resolve, and normally he's saved because he have a chance to think about it, because there won't be a ready and willing woman somewhere nearby whenever he wants: and any effort spent finding her allows him to regain his senses. Aang, if he's as popular as he appears, will never get that grace period.

Third Reason: The Mission

I think it bears repeating that Aang is, in fact, the Last Airbender and he loved his people and his culture. His offense at seeing his culture destroyed or mocked represent pretty impressive conclusions for a twelve year old boy.

So here we have a man who likes attention and will definitely receive it from nubile young women for the rest of his life, and his mission is to completely restart a nation by himself. After trying his whole life, the only thing he has to show for it explicitly is one airbender son; he dies at least three years before his first airbending grandchild. It's hard to picture Aang holding Tenzin, the person who will inherit his title of "Last Airbender anywhere in the world" and thinking to himself "Yes. Yes. Now that I have this one basket, time to put all my eggs in there."

Bending's link to genetics isn't really clear, and there aren't any very long multiracial geneologies available for our comparison. While we see nonbenders coming from bending families (Aang's son Bumi is a nonbender) and benders coming from nonbenders (Toph's parents are not apparently benders), it's not clear how bending powers are assigned. However it works, it's safe to say that Aang wouldn't be comfortable trying to reestablish his culture with a single airbender-capable infant.

This is a concern that I imagine Katara would be sympathetic to; while she's visibly jealous of his attention to other women, she's also only fifteen when he starts getting that attention; the jealousy might fade, replaced by her empathy for Aang's dilemma. He's the last breeding male of his race. Or the anything-male of his race. Or anything anything of his race. He can teach a fair amount of knowledge about his culture to the Air Acolytes, but airbending itself apparently hinges entirely with his genetic line. And it could take years--decades!--to find out if any one child he has is capable of bending, and what. Katara predicts that Meelo will be a bender, but it's unclear whether this is a real power she is capable of or if she's just being a normal grandmother; my own grandma predicted I would be a boy because of obscure Polish folk wisdom. Aang is thirty one when Tenzin is born and presumably won't know for sure that Tenzin's an airbender for another four or five years. Tenzin, in turn, does not take his role as scion of the Air Nomads very seriously--his first child is conceived when he's thirty four, seven years after Aang's death.

Suffice to say, this is not a good situation for Aang and it's difficult to accept that Aang would be comfortable with that. There is no way he'll ever reestablish his culture or its dominant physical paradigm (e.g. airbender) without maybe meeting a few nonbender ladies on the side to discuss repopulating all those crazy temples.

So there you have it.  I can't prove that Aang cheated. Canonically he probably didn't, but think about it: this is some pretty compelling evidence that Aang might have had women on the side, and possibly even with her permission. Now, to help you recover from that depressing trainwreck, here's the trailer to The Legend of Korra, Season Two: Spirits.

1 comment:

  1. ROKU: Oh, thankyoujesus we're back in business.
    AANG: What? What happened?
    ROKU: What happened is you DIED, you little ass-shit. In the Avatar State! You let that electric tart kill you, and, y'know, THE WORLD, because you were just floating around all glowy and not getting shit DONE. If that nice Water Tribe lady hadn't had a vial of magic bullshit water to Christ-Analogue you back from the dead, we'd all be in a world of shit. You need to get your dick in that IMMEDIATELY.
    AANG: What?!
    ROKU: Look, the other spirits and I have been talking, and we were hoping this could wait until AFTER you deal with Genocidey McChildabuse, but you need to be putting your little blue arrow in as much strange as possible.
    AANG: What?!
    ROKU: Look, even if you manage to avoid dying, in the Avatar State, AGAIN, you're still The Last Airbender. And like all things called "The Last Airbender", you're a disaster. We don't know how the Avatar Cycle will deal with there not being any more of you people. Will it just go Fire-WATER-Earth? Will it go something crazy, like Fire-Dick Cheese-Water? Will it just END? We think that's an unacceptable risk, so you need to get some genetic numbers on the board EARLY and OFTEN. Now get out there and knock up everything that hoves into your line of sight. Roku OUT.