Katara: The Spirit of Life
If Zuko's repentence-arc is the most existential journey in Avatar: The Last Airbender, then Katara's heroic ascent is the show's most mythic.
Over the past month, Avatar: The Last Airbender rocketed to the top of the Netflix charts. A decade-and-a-half after its release, the series seems to be undergoing a renaissance. Huge audiences, new and old, are more fascinated than ever with this mythic story of a war between four nations.
In many ways, Katara's story initially follows traditional literary tropes. As the show's most prominent female character (sorry, Toph fans) Katara is both depicted as the love-interest of the show's male hero and the maternal figure of the group. From the very beginning, she is defined by the men in her life.
Until she isn't.
Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
In the final season of Avatar, Katara takes pity on the oppressed villagers of the Fire Nation of Jang Tui. In secret, Katara adopts the elaborate outfit of the mythic water spirit, the Painted Lady. Gliding across the water by night, Katara tends to the sick and hungry of the villagers. Later, when her companions discover her secret, she leads an assault on the local Fire Nation fortress--destroying the factory inside it that has polluted the rivers of Jang Tui. The Fire Nation retaliates by attacking Jang Tui, but is again driven-off by Katara in the guise of the Painted Lady.
This episode, which is actually framed as a disruption of Aang's heroic quest, is the keystone in Katara's own journey. For much of the series, Katara's own powerful abilities exist only to be transcended by Aang's own skills. Aang masters with ease skills that take her years to discover. Even her prowess as a healer is ultimately treated as a mere contribution to Aang's journey when she sacrifices a sacred gift of water in order to save Aang from death at the hands of Azula. Time and time again, Katara is subordinated to Aang despite the fact that she is clearly more intelligent, responsible, and driven.
During her quest to save Jang Tui, however, Katara flips the script. This episode allows Katara to redefine the story, shifting its focus from masculine to feminine. Katara accomplishes this by taking on the identity of the Painted Lady, a water spirit. This transformation moves the show away from a narrative of transcendence (Aang must learn to transcend matter and spirit) to embodiment (Katara must learn to embody the unity of matter and spirit). If this brings to mind notions of "mother nature," it should. As psychologist Susan Rowland writes in, "'She' is the fertile earth as immanently sacred, meaning that the divine is within the earth, nature, and the body, not separated from them" (59).
Katara's decision to adopt the mask of the Painted Lady is not a rejection of herself. If it were, then Katara would be acknowledging her own identity as insufficient to the task at hand. But Katara is more than sufficient--as demonstrated by the fact that the spirit of the Painted Lady expresses her gratitude to Katara personally, establishing Katara as the heroic do-er of deeds. Katara, in a very real sense, is the Painted Lady: She is the force which restores harmonious equilibrium between nature and the creatures that inhabit it.
Ultimately, this form of heroism is why it must be Katara who defeats Fire Lady Azula. The end of a tyrannical nation's movement of destructive mechanization must be at the hands of a hero who embodies the all-encompassing restorative power of nature. Katara, not Aang, must perform the final act which brings the Fire Nation low. She is the healer, yes, but her healing often takes the shape of creative destruction (just as water often does). Katara is the embodiment of our space as creatures within and a part of nature. Katara is not just the savior of Aang's life.
Katara is the spirit of life itself.