Jaime and I just finished watching the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s one of my most favourite shows which has come out in the last decade, and I wanted to share it with her so she could enjoy Avatar: The Legend of Korra* with me when it came out.
Re-watching it, I remembered my great fondness for the character of Toph, the resident earthbender in Team Avatar, a 12 year old blind girl. Toph grew up in a house where her parents went through great pains to keep her a secret from the outside world, and didn’t let her have any freedom. She frequently ran away, and one day, ran into badger moles, the original earthbenders. The badger moles, who are blind like her, teach her how to earthbend, and Toph becomes one of the world’s greatest earthbenders under their tutelage. Her blindness doesn’t hinder her from “seeing”, she uses her earthbending to feel the vibrations of the earth through her feet, giving her a new and different perspective which saves Team Avatar on more than one occasion.
Her parents are completely unaware of their daughter’s power and continue to treat her as if she is helpless and in need of constant supervision and protection, not knowing that Toph is soon gaining notriety as the “Blind Bandit” in earthbending tournaments. When Toph eventually joins Team Avatar to become Aang’s earthbending teacher, her parents assume he’s kidnapped her, and send two earthbenders after them to retrieve her. By the end of the series, Toph’s become such a powerful earthbender, she can even bend metal, which was previously unthinkable.
Toph doesn’t have the same disability I do, but she shares the damnation with low expectations that people showered on me when I was young. I was over-sheltered and constantly forced to pretend to be demure, helpless, and obedient. I wasn’t allowed outdoors after dark (The one time I defied this, my parents called the police) I wasn’t allowed to go to friends’ houses, I wasn’t allowed to take any after-school courses or activities my mother and stepfather didn’t approve of, and my internet use was monitored. So I had to develop my own agency and assert myself clandestinely if I ever wanted to really break away and become my own person, like Toph did with her secret earthbending.
For me, books and blogging provided me with an outlet for self-expression and identity development, the way earthbending was for Toph. They allowed me to reject the identity and the destiny my mother and stepfather had set up for me, and develop one which suited the true me they never saw. Going to university was my biggest step towards rejecting their life for me and making one for myself. It was the moment I climbed on the sky bison to take off.
Toph should be on the radar of every disabled youngster who has ever felt like they are losing out on the chance to develop their own identity, or feels like people are selling them short because they are different. Toph is a powerful role model and a perfect wake-up call for those who want to break free.
* And no, I will never ever ever call it or think of it as The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra, that name is just plain silly and makes no sense. Screw James Cameron for supplanting the word “Avatar” in popular culture as though he owns the copyright to it with his craptastic Blue Pocahontas.