Katara and the men who made her

My new video about Avatar: The Last Airbender is out now!

Shain Slepian
5 min readJan 26, 2024

Zuko often gets accolades for being one of the best written characters in all of television. But the older I get, the more affected, inspired, and entertained I am by Katara.

So, I’m just gonna lay down my hottake up front. Katara is the best character in the show and anyone who finds her mean or shrill or hysterical has some unresolved issues with brown women, or maybe just women in general.

Forgive me if this sounds too confrontational, but for almost 20 years now, this fictional teenage girl has recieved so much hate for precisely the reasons I find her so lovable: her depth of feeling, her frank observations of the world around her, her relentlessly positive framing of her world.

There are so many just… effusively cruel Katara-haters littered around the internet. People who think she’s overly-emotional, mean, hysterical, any list of adjectives applied to just about any leading female character.

And I just don’t think you’re really a fan of Avatar if you hate the thematic and emotional lynchpin of the show. Katara brings us into the story, introducing the war through her lens. She is the quintessence of Avatar; the many implications of the war on normal people are reflected in her goals and backstory; her tireless effort to not just survive her trauma and pain but to create inspiration from it; she is the embodiment of compassion and trust and is the truest expression of children’s media’s fixation on friendship; her martial arts are visually engrossing, and… she’s freakin’ hilarious:

“Look at those things. Do hordes of animals use them for shade.” “This is my cousin — Dum” “Look at what I good job I did!” “The stars sure are beautiful tonight. Too bad you can’t see them, Toph.”

But it must be said that Katara’s story isn’t perfectly integrated into the larger whole of the series. While it certainly looks like it’s going to be, her story in the end is rendered exterior to the thematic aims of the piece. If you’ve seen my last video about Aang’s internal struggle, you may know where this is going. The big damn kiss at the end of Avatar is not just terrible for Aang’s arc: it takes a steaming dump on one of the best characters ever drawn.

There is a tag on Tumblr called “anti-Bryke”, (Bryke is a combination of Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino as an amalgamated name for the creators of Avatar: not a ship name.) Katara is a particular subject of interest in the anti-Bryke community. Generally, posters critique how the show chooses to frame and discuss issues from a feminist viewpoint which almost always comes down to how Katara is treated; #proKatara commonly overlaps with anti-Bryke posts. (For some reason, it doesn’t really affect Toph as much. I guess I’m not the only one who assumes Toph isn’t a binary girl). I should say, I don’t agree with the severity of a lot of these posts, but goddamn they’re cathartic to read.

What I love about these posts is that they sometimes almost seamlessly fit with the text itself. That’s not to say the criticisms are warranted, they’re usually spot-on, but what I mean is: when watching the show in 2024, we’d probably assume that Bryke agreed with these criticisms too! Like, one common point of discussion is the episode “The Southern Raiders” (like, duh) during which Katara comes across as the darkest version of herself. Unlike the rest of the show, where Katara protects others’ feelings, nurtures her friends, and keeps her outlook optimistic and productive, here she is angsty, assertive, and a bit mean.

It seems at first like the show is going to punish her for wanting revenge and taking Appa without permission and telling Sokka he didn’t love their mother as much as she did. Aang and Sokka’s objections to her behavior and their insistence on ‘forgiveness’ and the condescending and entitled tone with which they tell Katara, the ultimate bearer of the Gaang’s emotional labor, to suck it up and move on are treated as noble and good and righteous! Sorry, I’m still mad at them, clearly.

But in the end, the episode isn’t about punishing Katara for pursuing her needs. She is given a position of moral authority in the end, where she passes judgment on Zuko and fully accepts him as a friend and as a redeemed person. She conclusively tells Aang that he was wrong and she regrets nothing. She offers no apologies and she ends up happier for it. And she effectively gets the last word in the episode when Zuko confronts Aang with his own capacity for violence.

Katara is never even prompted to reflect upon the deeply cutting response she makes to Sokka at the top of the episode . Hurtful though it may be, the show seems to allow for the fact that Katara doesn’t need to apologize; in some way, this line reflects a truth that Katara really needs to vocalize. By the way, Sokka isn’t blameless for how heated this exchange became — he doesn’t just saying “she was my mother too” because it’s suddenly a thought that sprang to his mind: he was trying to silence and insult Katara into backing down, and so, she states the obvious. If Sokka gets to have a special relationship with their father, then it should be evident and completely fair to say that Katara had and has a special relationship with their mother. The show demonstrates to us that Katara isn’t being cruel, she’s just correctly observing the differences in the three characters’ grief and advocating for her needs with passion.

A similar thing happens with the two forced kisses Aang does to Katara before the last episode. A worse show might try to hint that Katara is into being kissed by Aang, but in the first instance, she seems bemused and embarrassed and in the second, she rightfully yells at him and storms away.

So someone behind the scenes must have realized that Katara is actively battling sexism throughout the show, mostly from her own friends and allies. You’d think such showrunners would… I don’t know… give her some kind of resolution? Show her overcoming the obstacle through radical authenticity and self-knowledge. Maybe?

But no. All this poignant and intelligent writing does is make it so much more frustrating and vexing and stunning in the very end of the show when Katara is written into a relationship with the one main character in the series who hasn’t learned a damn thing about who she is. Seriously! Toph and Sokka have moments where they express deep affection and appreciation for who she really is beyond being a parental object. Zuko absolutely shines in the Southern Raiders, seeking her out to get yelled at, actually listening to what she says, thinking about what it means, and offering to bring her to Yon Rah and back her up: no conditions, no speeches, just a willingness to understand.

Aang, on the other hand, has broken down under the weight of Katara’s full character. Aang and Katara have never been more at odds then when Katara has been at her most uninhibited and authentic. So how is ending up with Aang a good ending for Katara?

Like what you see? Watch the full video below!



Shain Slepian

Shain is a screenwriter and screenplay editor. For more content, follow their blog and check out their YouTube channel, TimeCapsule. shainslepian.com/