The Ecofeminist Evolution of Sokka in Avatar: The Last Airbender
The hit television series Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) captured worldwide audiences with a dynamic storyline, complex characterization, and its overall theme of peace and prosperity. The show, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, ran from 2005 to 2008, inspiring several video games, graphic novels, and a series called The Legend of Korra. Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Chinese art, and history inspired the creators to produce a show about the struggle to find balance in a world split between the physical and spiritual realms. Konietzko describes the show as an “epic, Asian-influenced martial arts, fantastical action, adventurous comedy, [with] dramatic showings of the four elements!” (Clark). The show is also heavily influenced by Japanese anime, particularly the work of Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese film director and writer well known for his creation of films touted for their various environmental and feminist messages. While it has garnered less critical attention than Miyazaki’s creations, the show has still been widely received as a powerful story that was given a Peabody Award in 2008 due to its “multi-dimensional characters, unusually complicated personal relationships for a cartoon serial, and a healthy respect for the consequences of warfare” (Unruh).
ATLA takes place in a fictional universe of four nations that are based upon the four classical elements: the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, and Air Nomads. Within these nations, certain individuals have the ability to manipulate their associated element, a talent called “bending.” These “benders” use different styles of martial arts to interact with their element, bending water, fire, air, or earth. The television series follows the journey of the Avatar, a powerful figure with the ability to bend all four elements who exists in a continuous cycle of reincarnation. The Avatar exists as a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds and is intended to be the physical incarnation of the planet itself (Konietzko 40). The Avatar’s goal is to create stability between nature and culture. ATLA focuses on the latest reincarnation of the Avatar, a twelve-year-old boy named Aang, who is attempting to bring peace and balance to a world that has been split apart by a war caused by the Fire Nation. Fire Lord Ozai, the main villain of the series, attempts to conquer the other three nations. He says that he only conquers in order to “share [their] prosperity with the rest of the world,” but instead his greed leads to widespread strife in the other nations (“The Avatar and the Fire Lord”). The Fire Nation fails to realize that the war they engage in, which involves the use of intensely polluting machinery such as ships, tanks, and hot air balloons, only brings increased prosperity to their own nation, while throwing the rest of the world into a state of oppressive environmental destruction.
Throughout the series, Aang is aided by two young members of the Southern Water Tribe—siblings Katara and Sokka, ages fourteen and fifteen respectively. In this paper, I will analyze Sokka, one of the Avatar’s closest friends throughout the series. Sokka is widely considered a source of comic relief in ATLA by virtue of his sarcastic nature and incredible clumsiness. According to the show’s creators, Sokka functions as “the sarcastic ‘everyman’ of the show…. He like[s] to hunt, eat, and annoy his sister” (Konietzko 18). As such, his early attitudes conflict dramatically with ecofeminist, Buddhist, and Taoist ideals. Ecofeminism can be defined as “occur[ing] at the intersection of gender justice, animal rights, and environmental conservation” (Carr 160). The ecofeminist ethic asks for an end to the domination over women and the environment, and for people to think deeply about how to create a culture of interconnected respect. The Tao is seen as an eternal flow through the universe, a flow devoid of societal hierarchies (Watts 2). Buddhism contains similar beliefs regarding the importance of preserving and caring for the earth (Kabilsingh 132). These philosophies work well with the ecofeminist ethic in that they deny the existence of hierarchy and urge mutual respect between all forms of life. Within the ATLA universe, Buddhism, Taoism, and ecofeminism interact to create an ethic that asks for a true sense of equality for all: man, woman, animal, plant, and rock. Sokka helps to usher in this ideal world of equality, free from the domination of the Fire Nation, by helping the Avatar to bring balance to the world. As he interacts with strong, powerful women such as his sister Katara and the formidable female police force known as the Kyoshi Warriors, Sokka begins to reevaluate his initial beliefs of the inferiority of women. His evolution towards a feminist frame of mind coincides with his changing views about how to treat the world. The powerful, multi-faceted women in Sokka’s life inspire him to treat the world that he lives in with equal deference. His growth and character development exemplify his movement towards an ecofeminist ideal. As Sokka’s character slowly and steadily evolves, his reliability, creativity, and adaptability subtly illustrate his eventual support for the values of an ecofeminist society.
A Warrior and a Girl: Sokka’s Progression from Misogynist to Ecofeminist
Sokka may begin his journey as an admittedly sexist character, but his sexist inclinations are checked and battled against when he encounters a group of women called the Kyoshi Warriors. When the show begins, Sokka defines the roles of men and women as the following: “Girls are better at fixing pants, and guys are better at hunting and fighting. It’s just the natural order” (“The Warriors of Kyoshi”). Sokka initially believes that women cannot be as powerful or warlike as he can. He follows expectations that appear to come from his upbringing in a society with rigid gender roles where the men left the women and children behind in order to fight the war against the Fire Nation (“The Boy in the Iceberg”). Sokka’s ideas begin to change when he meets the Kyoshi Warriors, an elite, all-female fighting force created to help protect an ecofeminist society. These women emulate the Avatar Kyoshi, a female past-life of the current Avatar. She created the island of Kyoshi so that her “citizens’ culture [would] be isolated from the tyranny of the world forever” (Konietzko 129). At that time, the tyranny came in the form of a great conqueror from the Earth Kingdom, but through Kyoshi’s creation of the island and the Kyoshi Warriors, her people were protected until the Fire Nation began to spread even to their safe haven. This pocket of society precludes the changes in the entire society as they try to move towards a landscape of peace similar to the one on the island of Kyoshi. When Sokka encounters these women, his first comment is “[s]orry ladies, didn’t mean to interrupt your dance lesson” (“The Warriors of Kyoshi”). Sokka implies that these women could not possibly be fighting, because only men can be warriors. However, the women quickly prove to Sokka that they are not only capable warriors, but also that they are more adept than he is. He begins to realize that his initial treatment of the Kyoshi Warriors was reprehensible, but even then he fails to understand the lesson he should be learning. He apologizes to the Kyoshi Warrior Suki, saying, “I treated you like a girl when I should’ve treated you like a warrior,” still not understanding that the two are not mutually exclusive. Suki tells him, “I am a warrior, but I’m a girl too” (“The Warriors of Kyoshi”). At this point in the story, Sokka still does not quite embrace the value and strength of all women, but in accepting one group of female warriors as his equals, he takes a step forward.
Sokka’s slow acceptance and understanding of the Kyoshi Warriors’ strength as both women and warriors stems from his ability to allow himself to engage in feminine traditions in order to learn. One of the few critical articles on ATLA, titled “(Gender)Bending in the Animated Series Avatar: The Last Airbender” by Megan Jackson, examines the show as a third-wave feminist text that exhibits fluidity between masculine or feminine roles. Jackson argues that the “gender-bending” in ATLA “can teach young boys and girls a more inclusive and inviting perspective of gender [that does] not perpetuate the oppression that results from society’s current gender dichotomy” (16). Jackson’s claim certainly rings true with Sokka as he embraces feminine practices and even dress, thus allowing boys and girls watching the show to see a boy taking on a role generally regulated to girls. In his first encounters with the Kyoshi Warriors, Sokka is defeated in a fight by the girls, which pains his delicate sense of masculinity to such an extent that he pouts and even refuses to eat (“The Warriors of Kyoshi”). However, Sokka does not remain entrenched in his humiliation from a bruised ego, but rather decides to learn from the women who have bested him. In order to do so, Sokka must don their garb, long dresses, and full paint covering his face, thereby exploring his own ability to bend the typical role of his gender (“The Warriors of Kyoshi”). Sokka becomes unrecognizable as a man as he learns a new style of fighting, more subtle and smooth than his own, all while wearing women’s clothing so that he can truly understand the methods these women employ to fight. Sokka’s unabashed exploration of a fundamentally female tradition allows him to move past his initial sexist beliefs regarding women.
These first steps forward into ecofeminism later become leaps, exemplified by his love and respect for the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, Suki. Sokka and Suki become romantically involved toward the end of the series, after they have developed a solid bond of mutual respect for one another’s skills as warriors. Their romantic relationship may complicate the argument of Sokka as a feminist, as much of his character development is stymied by his interactions with Suki; however, ultimately the two learn and further develop together as an interdependent unit. Ecofeminist writer Rosemary Reuther argues, “In ecofeminist culture and ethic, mutual interdependency replaces the hierarchies of domination as the model of relationship between men and women” (21). Reuther’s description of ecofeminist culture becomes Sokka’s reality when he finally realizes that he and Suki are not only equals, but also dependent on one another’s strengths to get through difficult tasks such as crossing the Serpent’s Pass, a dangerous mountain pass infested with giant sea serpents. At this point in the series, the two are merely flirting, as they are both too busy fighting their own respective battles and maturing as individuals to be together until near the end of the story. At the beginning of the journey to Serpent’s Pass, Sokka displays his immaturity and misogyny, but as the episode moves forward, he develops and begins to battle against his misogynist tendencies. Sokka worries about Suki’s safety, acting ridiculously overprotective of her. When she confronts him, he says, “I know, you’re perfectly capable of taking care of yourself,” acknowledging that Suki does not need him to protect her (“The Serpent’s Pass”). The Sokka at the beginning of the series would not have even dreamed that a woman would not need his protection. Suki actually ends up saving Sokka’s life in the finale of the episode, informing him that she only came on the journey in order to protect him, nullifying the typified view of a woman needing a man’s protection (“The Serpent’s Pass”). The two come to a realization that they both have similar desires to protect one another, but that neither character should fail to take into account that both are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. Through the influence of Suki and the other Kyoshi Warriors, Sokka is finally able to understand that he is not superior to women by virtue of his being a man; rather, he understands that a man and a woman can find a level of equality within which they can protect one another and the rest of the world together. Sokka’s realization here corresponds with the ideal relationship between man and woman that needs to exist in order to have an ecofeminist society, wherein all people must rely upon one another and work together to achieve truly balanced equality of life.
Beyond simply learning to view women with the respect they deserve, Sokka must also reverse his initial environmental leanings. Sokka’s environmentalism improves as he gains understanding of Buddhist philosophy, which urges him to treat the world he lives in with greater care. Sokka’s treatment of a magical swamp that acts as the center of spiritual energy in the ATLA universe is an example of his changing environmentalist attitude (“The Swamp”). At first, Sokka operates in direct defiance of the Buddhist belief that “those who destroy or contaminate nature do so at great karmic peril” (Kabilsingh 132). Sokka may never verbalize a belief that the environment is inferior at the beginning of the series, but nonetheless engages in several damaging activities such as the wanton destruction of a swamp (“The Swamp”). By using his machete to hack at swamp vines, Sokka definitely falls victim to karma when the vines start to fight back, attacking him and his friends in retribution for his cruelty. Sokka may have believed that the vines were “just plants,” but as the episode continues, it becomes clear that, in reality, the entire swamp is very much alive, existing as an interconnected web of life at the heart of the universe (“The Swamp”). An article examining the connections between Buddhism and ecofeminism written by Stephanie Kaza argues that within this ethic, “it is impossible to live outside the web of interconnectedness” (60). Sokka does not yet understand this ethic of connection and how every swipe of his machete does not simply cut a single vine but rather harms the entire ecosystem.
Sokka’s treatment of the swamp becomes problematic as the actual landscape shows itself as being charged with feminine energy through the visions of important women that the magic in the swamp chooses to show each of the main characters: Sokka, the Avatar, and Katara. Katara sees her lost mother, Aang sees a future teacher, and Sokka sees a vision of his first girlfriend, Yue, who sacrificed her life to become the spirit of the moon previously in the series. That the swamp would give each of them a separate vision of some of the most important women in their lives proves not only that the swamp is a space of interconnected magic, but goes further to charge it with the strength and power of important female characters in the show. At this point Sokka is not ready to accept that killing a few vines in the swamp could have such a detrimental influence. Sokka, like the majority of society depicted in the show thus far, has yet to come to the conclusion that an ecofeminist attitude is needed in order to truly bring balance to the world. The show entwines ecofeminism and Buddhism to create a powerful, female-driven space in nature that acts as a spiritual heart to the entire world, one that Sokka grows to understand by the end of the show.
Before Sokka can truly embrace an ecofeminist mindset, he must first learn that all oppressions enforce one another and that no oppression can be ignored. The show often serves as a subtle method of criticism of American environmental and social values, like many other contemporary cartoons, as examined by Deidre Pike in the introduction to the book Enviro-toons. Pike writes, “Despite passionate efforts to communicate information about urgent ecological issues, in recent years Americans have placed the environment… low on their list of priorities” (12). Like the Americans described, Sokka often places urgent environmental crises low on his list of priorities, favoring the need to eradicate the Fire Lord as leader of the Fire Nation over all other causes. In the episode titled “The Painted Lady,” Sokka and his friends explore a small fishing town that was decimated by a Fire Nation weapons factory spewing industrial waste into the river that once provided the town its livelihood (“The Painted Lady”). Sokka does not outright dismiss the struggle these people face, but he also does not immediately jump to their aid, as he is more concerned with keeping to the schedule he has created in preparation of their invasion plan to hopefully defeat the evil Fire Lord (“The Painted Lady”). Despite his initial misgivings, Sokka does not remain entrenched in his refusal to deal with the environmental problem he is faced with, and the episode concludes by showing Sokka’s support of his sister’s choice to help the townspeople. Soma says, “Because of her, that factory won’t be polluting your river, and the army is gone (“The Painted Lady”). Not only does he help Katara and the town to clean the river, but he also insists that others view his sister with the same respect that he has come to have for her over the course of the series, learning that small problems cannot simply be ignored, as they often breed more grandiose issues. Sokka may not have originally wanted to help the people of the fishing village, placing other priorities on a higher level, but in the end, he finally realizes that Katara was right and the health of the environment should be considered with equal importance as bringing down the Fire Lord.
Sokka: Taoism, Comedy, and Engineering
Sokka’s ability to both attain Taoist enlightenment and still be a relatable character makes him the ideal candidate to inspire viewers to also help enact great change in the world. Within the Tao, everything flows and no hierarchy places humankind above any other kind, which allows for a more caring environmental ethic that takes all creatures into consideration (Watts 2). Sokka exhibits key Taoist principles in the episode “Sokka’s Master,” when he learns the ancient art of swordplay from a master. Sokka completes his lessons by rubbing a print of his face over a piece of paper in order to “stamp the paper with [his] identity” (“Sokka’s Master”). Both the audience and Sokka’s master expect him to complete his tasks through calligraphy or painting, but instead Sokka behaves like a fool. Initially, Sokka’s behavior comes across as merely comedic and even stupid, but in reality, his chosen technique of rubbing his face over the paper, leaving behind a print of his visage shows how Sokka can “appreciate the Tao” as it is essentially impossible to properly understand “without becoming, in a rather special sense, stupid” (Watts 2). In this sense, Sokka exemplifies the idea that enlightenment cannot be reached until the mind stops trying to manipulate the world for the purposes of their own understanding (Watts 2). Sokka’s special form of stupidity allows him to fulfill the purpose of the assignment on a deeper level than merely writing his name in calligraphy would have. He truly transfers his own essence onto the paper, thus proving not only his own creativity, but also his ability to understand a philosophy known for viewing human culture and nature as similar types of flow and growth that must be respected and nurtured beyond hierarchal values. Sokka’s seeming idiocy not only conveys a sense that every person is capable of greatness, but it also suggests the deeper environmental leanings touted by the show that even the most seemingly ordinary characters espouse.
As a comedic character, Sokka serves as an example of the proper way in which young males should view both the environment and women. Literary ecologist Joseph Meeker writes in his book The Comedy of Survival that comedy is a useful tool for getting people to appreciate environmental issues because it is “mindful of human limitations and modest in its assessment of human potentials” (191). Sokka embodies Meeker’s discussion of comedy because of his status as a non-bending character and an ordinary young man, and his easy-going manner and source of comedic relief, place him in the perfect position to become a better person over the course of the show. Sokka’s comedic qualities come out best when he finds himself in ridiculous situations, such as during the episode “Bitter Work” when he manages to trap himself from the neck down in a crack in the earth while hunting a baby saber-tooth moose-lion. As he wriggles and attempts to get free, he engages in conversation with the creature. Sokka finds himself promising the little creature that he will give up eating meat (“Bitter Work”). While the show never reveals whether Sokka maintains his promised vegetarianism or not, his shrieks and promises to give up one of his favorite foods in the world still point to his adaptive nature. Additionally, after he escapes from the hole, Sokka announces to his friends that the entire incident was of the type that “makes a man… think about what's really important. I realized—” (“Bitter Work”). Interrupted by his friends, Sokka never finishes his sentence, leaving the viewer to decide precisely what Sokka has realized about life, thus allowing viewers to interpret it to include deeper environmental meaning. Similarly, Deirdre Pike argues in the book Enviro-toons that comedy “may offer a strategy for communicating environmental themes… by sparking conversations about active strategies for change” (25). Certainly, on the surface level, Sokka’s run-in with the baby saber-tooth moose-lion may appear to be merely an amusing diversion, but when looked at more closely, the way that he learns from the experience gives viewers an example of a change such as adopting a lifestyle of vegetarianism which allows people to feel more in sync with and respectful of all creatures in the environment.
As the “everyman” of the show, Sokka even takes on a relatively standard position of being surprisingly talented when it comes to engineering, which illustrates that the environmental dangers engineering poses lie not in the technology, but rather in who uses it. In any media with an environmental message, there is typically a dichotomy between technology and nature as the use of technology often hurts nature. ATLA continues this theme through the depiction of Sokka as an engineer fighting against the Fire Nation, a manufacturer of pollution. The inspiration for placing technological knowledge in the hands of a good character is one continually used by Hayao Miyazaki, whose films greatly influenced the creation of ATLA. Both texts urge for the responsible use of technology within their respective universes. The critic Helen McCarthy writes in her book Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation that Miyazaki may be skeptical about technology and his films do include criticism on the subject, but he seeks not to push society back into a dark age, but rather comments “on man’s ability to use [technology] wisely” (95). McCarthy’s analysis of Miyazaki’s skepticism also applies to ATLA in that ATLA follows a similar thematic structure by placing technology in the hands of both good and evil characters to stress the ways that technology should and should not be used. In ATLA, Sokka serves as a force of human decency wielding technology to end oppression, while the Fire Nation uses it to destroy and to dominate the world. The Fire Nation uses technology in the form of large ships, tanks, drills, and other giant monstrosities of metal and mechanics to wage war against the other three nations.
The technology used by the Fire Nation not only harms the environment, but also works as the ultimate form of oppression—as a literal prison. As the show’s creators discuss in the book Avatar, the Last Airbender: The Art of the Animated Series, in the episode “Imprisoned,” Katara helps to free a group of Earth benders from a prison on a metal-bound offshore rig powered by coal and designed to resemble an offshore oil-drilling rig (Konietzko 50). The rig represents just one of the Fire Nation’s inappropriate uses of technology to oppress rather than to help society move forward. It also functions as a symbol of the oppression the real world faces from the continued use of fossil fuels that pollute and spoil the environment. In contrast, Sokka’s use of technology never seeks to oppress, but rather to free people. In fact, later on, in the episode “The Drill,” Sokka’s manages to stop the Fire Nation from using a huge mechanized drill from blasting through the walls surrounding the last Earth Kingdom stronghold, thus saving an entire community of people from being overrun by the rule of a tyrannical overlord who seeks only to use their resources and tax them (“The Drill”). As McCarthy argues, these two very different ways of using technology and science point not towards a refusal of progress, but rather towards putting technology into the right hands. In the case of ATLA, the right hands are Sokka’s, an average character who may seem ordinary on the surface, but whose choices ultimately help him to usher in an era of balance free from the domineering and toxic practices of the Fire Nation.
Out of all the characters in ATLA, Sokka undergoes the most change throughout the series. Sokka may begin as a somewhat problematically sexist character, but by the end of the series, he has learned better. He is by no means a perfect character and at the end of the series remains as sarcastic as ever, but he has become a more respectful and less problematic character. Sokka comes to respect the many nuanced and powerful women that he encounters on his journey to rid the world of the oppressive, polluting force that is the Fire Nation, he reaches a state of Taoist enlightenment, learns to accept early Buddhist inclinations towards nature, and generally becomes a better person as his journey progresses. Sokka’s personality and position as the comedic relief and everyman of the show allow him to develop alongside the narrative as a new society aimed at creating equality for all, humans and nonhumans alike, becomes a reality. As Sokka learns to embrace the ecofeminist ideal, so do viewers of the show, revealing how even the most ordinary or flawed characters can become members and even driving forces for a society defined by the desire to foster equality in all senses of the word—truly to create a kind of ecofeminist utopia where men, women, and animals alike can all enjoy the same treatment, respect, and freedoms in a world unmarred by excessive pollution or environmental degradation.
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