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Avatar the Last Airbender is a popular animated series co-created and produced by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Running from February 2005 to July 2008, the show gained a sizeable fan base, including teenagers and adults, despite being aired on the children’s network, Nickelodeon. It takes place in a world where people are divided into four nations, each aligning with one of the four major elements: earth, fire, water, and air. Certain individuals are born with an ability to control one of these elements, a talent referred to as “bending.” The “Avatar” is a reincarnated soul, able to control all four elements and tasked with the duty of maintaining peace. Avatar centers around a 100-year war between nations, with the Fire Nation being the main antagonist, and follows the current Avatar, Aang, as he struggles to master the elements. Two of the most important parts of the show are the depth of its characters and the relationships they formed. Viewers especially took interest in the romantic relationships in the series, sparking much debate about the “canon,” or official, couples. The most highly discussed debate is whether Katara, one of the main characters, should’ve ended up with Zuko, the fire nation prince, rather than Aang.
As an avid fan of the series, and after reflecting on its characters, I have come to the firm conclusion that the pairing of Zuko and Katara, known as “Zutara,” exemplifies and better represents a healthy relationship in comparison to the the official, in-show pairing of Katara and Aang, known as “Kataang,” due to the obvious compatibility, mutual respect, and immense trust they displayed in the series.
The first aspect of a healthy relationship is compatibility, something Zutara excels in when compared to Kataang. This is due to the maturity levels of the characters, as well as each of their abilities to understand one another. The second aspect is respect, which includes respecting both physical and emotional boundaries. Kataang falls short in this department, with Aang violating both facets at one point or another. The third aspect is trust. Over the course of the show, the relationship between Zutara took many twists and turns, tested heavily on various occasions. The result was an immense amount of trust between the two, something severely lacking in Kataang.
Many of the theories in this paper are my own, but I am also indebted to other contributors. The first is the Tumblr community and “Zutara fandom,” a group of supporters for the show and the pairing. As a fan, I’ve had casual discussions about the show before, so when writing this paper, I didn’t have to look far for evidence. The second influence was Derek Lymus, my interpersonal professor for interpersonal communication class, taken fall semester of 2017. His class was all about looking deeper at how people communicate in efforts to better relationships and self-concept. Using what I learned in class, I was able to look even deeper at the intricacies of Zutara, and even in my personal life, I find myself improving in my relationship and communication skills.
The first part of this paper will show how Zutara is a more mutually beneficial relationship in comparison to Kataang, the “canon” pairing. Zuko is more similar to Katara in terms of mindset and maturity, able to understand her and share in responsibility, while Aang needs constant coddling and guidance. Zuko is also more respectful of Katara’s boundaries, restraining from physical touch and knowing that certain subjects require patience and time. Aang, on the other hand, is pushy, both physically and emotionally. Zutara thirdly excels in trust, displaying immense faith in each other’s abilities, judgment, and character, whereas Kataang shows signs of doubt and uncertainty on Aang’s part. All this is proven through citable evidence from the show, as is explained below.
Firstly, we look at compatibility between Katara and Zuko vs Katara and Aang. Katara displays a very mature mindset. When she was very young, her mother was killed, and with her father fighting in the war, she was left to raise both her and her brother. When she meets Aang, she takes on a similar role with him. Aang’s dynamic with Katara, in turn, is more mother-child. Zuko, unlike Aang, possesses similar traits of independence and responsibility. In season 2, episode 7, he is seen taking a young boy under his wing as an apprentice, displaying mature, almost fatherly qualities. When he officially joins the group with Katara and Aang, he joins Katara in the role of guiding everyone, the two of them serving as the voice of reason for most situations. This shows that Zuko is a partner capable of sharing responsibility rather than a partner who is a parental responsibility. In addition to this, it’s Aang’s job as the Avatar to maintain peace. However, he has been shown on multiple occasions to put his personal feelings above his duties as Avatar, again displaying his immaturity. For example, in episode 19 of season 2, Aang needed to unlock “the Avatar State,” an ability that was crucial to winning the war. However, when told he must let go of his attachment to Katara, he ran, putting the rest of the world at risk for his own feelings, a sign of immaturity. Thirdly, Aang lacks the experience and capacity to relate to Katara. Katara’s mother was killed in the Fire Nation’s raid of the Southern Water Tribe, their goal being to kill the last surviving water bender. Katara’s mother lied to the soldiers to protect her daughter, resulting in her death. Zuko also lost his mother to the Fire Nation. Growing up, he was never the favorite, though he was heir to the throne. After his mother foiled the attempted assassination of Prince Zuko, she was banished from the Fire Nation, never to be seen again. Through this common loss, Zuko and Katara are able to relate on a level that Aang fails to understand. His lack of ability to empathize is highlighted especially by his comparison of Katara’s mother’s murder to his temporary loss of Appa, his pet bison. This contrasts Zuko heavily because even at a time when Zuko and Katara were still enemies, they were able to find comfort in one another and relate.
Secondly, the level of respect in Zutara outmatches the level of respect with Kataang. This is extremely important when considering the fact that Katara and Zuko started out enemies, going on a long journey before accepting one another as friends. In terms of respecting physical boundaries, Kataang is highly lacking. On two separate occasions, Aang has been shown to invade Katara’s personal space, forcing a kiss on her both times. In contrast, Zuko and Katara’s physical touch is always very careful, and Zuko is courteous of Katara’s wishes. In episode 16 of season 3, Zuko goes to shield Katara from falling rocks, but when she expresses for him to move, he does not hesitate, respecting her wishes despite wanting to protect her. Aside from respecting physical boundaries, Zuko has been shown to respect Katara’s emotional boundaries. Episode 16 of season 3 centers around the backstory for Katara’s mother and follows Katara on a journey of closure for her mother’s death and forgiveness for Zuko after his previous grievances. Obviously, the subject matter is very sensitive for her, and Zuko is respectful of her boundaries, going as far as waiting outside her tent all night so that she could speak to him when she felt comfortable. In contrast, Aang has been known to be very pushy with Katara. At the same point of his forced kiss in episode 17 of season 3, Aang demands for Katara to discuss the status of their relationship, disregarding her statement where she says she’s confused and needs time to figure herself out.
Finally, the amount of trust between Katara and Zuko is astonishing for two people who started out as enemies. The biggest example of this comes in season 3, episode 20, when Zuko must face his mentally unstable, highly dangerous sister, Azula. Knowing he cannot face Azula alone, Zuko chooses Katara to help him. He chooses her because he knows that even with Katara’s immense power making her the most powerful waterbender to date, Katara is still incredibly merciful. Azula needed to be taken down one way or another, and while Zuko was willing if necessary, killing his sister would have destroyed him internally. By bringing Katara, he was not only trusting her abilities as a fighter, but also trusting and hoping for her to somehow find another way. This is a severe contrast to Kataang, because in episode 16 of season 2 when Katara plans to face her mother’s killer, Aang is nothing but worried and doubtful. He spends the entire episode telling Katara she is wrong for wanting to find her mother’s killer, doubting who she is and believing that the only reason for her quest is to gain revenge, displaying how little faith he truly has in her character. He even compares her to Jet, a previously seen character known for his radical beliefs and unwarranted thirst for revenge. Even in this episode, Zuko differs heavily from Aang. He is the one to journey with Katara, trusting her to deal with her pain in her own way and find closure on her own terms.
In conclusion, the pairing of Zutara simply outranks Kataang in all topics discussed. According to Looking Out, Looking In, a textbook on interpersonal communication, people form relationships based on appearance, similarity, complementarity, reciprocal attraction, competence, disclosure, proximity, and rewards. For the focus of this paper, I addressed compatibility, respect, and trust. Compatibility falls under similarity and competence, while respect and trust fall under disclosure. Personally, I find it disappointing that the creators of Avatar the Last Airbender opted to pair Katara with Aang in the end. In interviews with Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the two have stated that Kataang was always their end goal and that they found Zutara to be “simply dark and intriguing,” but not realistic. I feel, however, as though they missed an opportunity with Zutara, an opinion that I am not alone in. I hold that their decision to stick with Kataang also enforces the unrealistic idea of “first love” because Katara was Aang’s only interest the entire series. Kataang is unrealistic in that aspect, and in the fact that there was little to no growth in their relationship. The two grew as people separately, but as a unit, they were stagnant. Zuko and Katara, however, never stopped growing in terms of their relationship, beginning as friends and going on a long, tough journey before developing the trust and friendship they had at the end of the series.
In the future, I would like to examine the other aspects of a healthy relationship mentioned in Looking Out, Looking In. Zutara also meets the criteria for complementarity, in terms of the fact that they also hold many contrasts to each other that are mutually beneficial. I’d also like to discuss the criteria of proximity because it is the one aspect that Kataang could perhaps outmatch Zutara; Aang and Katara spend almost every episode in each other’s company, while Zuko and Katara don’t travel and live alongside each other until the third season. In truth, there is so much more to discuss regarding Katara and Zuko’s potential for a relationship.