Earthbending stereotypes

"Toph Beifong" | Art by DarrenGeers. Used with permission.
“My daughter is blind! She is blind and tiny and helpless and fragile. She cannot help you!”

Toph Beifong’s father describes the convention of portraying disabilities in television. Typically, mainstream television shows depicts characters with disabilities through one-off episodes. These characters are admired for their courage, but pitied for the disadvantages they face on a daily basis. The stories almost always focus on the character’s disability and how this teaches the main character something about life, and rarely on the disabled person’s abilities, personality, or accomplishments.

Few shows, if any, challenge that stereotype better than Avatar: The Last Airbender.

When Aang and his friends are searching for an earthbender powerful enough to teach the Avatar everything he will need to know, they attend Earth Rumble VI, an earthbending tournament held underground in a giant arena. They watch huge men pummeling each other with rocks until the final round, where the reigning champion known as the Blind Bandit shows up.

“I am the greatest earthbender in the world! Don’t you two dunderheads ever forget it.”

The Blind Bandit turns out to be a tiny girl who is literally blind. She uses her abilities to sense vibrations through the earth in order to tell where her enemies are. And of course, she beats the hulking champ, “The Boulder” to a pulp in the final round.

After she disappears when the tournament concludes, Aang uses clues from a vision to find her, and discovers she is the only child of a wealthy couple who treat her with kid gloves; they allow her to learn earthbending, but only at beginner levels, hire servants to blow on her soup when it’s too hot, and make sure her walks (within the confines of their property, of course) are supervised.

When her help is needed to save the Avatar, who had been captured, her father reveals that the only reason they keep her so close is, in fact, because of her blindness, and denies her ability to help anyone.

Toph bulldozes through seven earthbenders at once to prove him wrong and saves the Avatar’s life.

She then confronts her parents with a speech that does not try to convince them of her ability to overcome her blindness, but focuses on her love of earthbending and her talent at it.

“The obedient little helpless blind girl that you think I am just isn’t me. I love fighting. I love being an earthbender. And I’m really, really good at it. I know I kept my life secret from you, but you were keeping me secret from the whole world. You were doing it to protect me, but I’m 12 years old and I’ve never had a real friend. So now that you see who I really am, I hope it doesn’t change the way you feel about me.”

Instead of acknowledging her, her father declares that they have given her too much freedom, and puts her under 24-hour surveillance. Toph then sneaks off with Team Avatar because they can give her the adventure she craves, and more importantly, the acceptance she needs.

The show condemns her father’s point of view. His attitude and actions keep her a prisoner instead of setting her free. He appears to think less of her by focusing on what she can’t do instead of on what she can. It also seems he doesn’t know her at all, and has defined her by her disability instead of who she is.

Toph’s episode is not a one-off. She becomes a member of Team Avatar and a main character in the show. After her introductory episode, her blindness is never focused on, though it’s not ignored either. In fact, the show reminds us time and again of her disability through humour, especially through interactions with Sokka, who frequently forgets that Toph is blind.

Sokka: “It’s so dark down here. I can’t see a thing!”
Toph: “Oh no. What a nightmare.”

When it became clear that Toph was a new addition to Team Avatar, my initial thought was “Oh no, she’s going to ruin the dynamic of the trio that I have come to know and love!”

It also seems he doesn’t know her at all, and has defined her by her disability instead of who she is.

How wrong my negativity was, and she soon became my favourite character in Avatar: The Last Airbender, and possibly my favourite female character of all time (Rey may change my mind come Episode VIII but we’ll wait and see on that one).

Toph defies all stereotypes of the disabled (and of women too, I might add). An interesting dynamic is added in the group between Toph and Katara; Katara is a gentle, mother-like figure who has to fight to be respected by the men around her, while Toph is most comfortable slinging trash talk and showing her immense strength to opponents five times her size. “Tough love” is her teaching method when she’s training Aang, as she comes up with a variety of derogatory nicknames for him and tends to “teach” by throwing boulders at his face.

“If you’re not tough enough to stop the rock, then you could at least give it the pleasure of smushing you instead of jumping out of the way like a jelly-boned wimp!”

Earthbending, what she loves most in the world, is what forms and defines Toph’s character, not her blindness. Even trapped in a metal box, supposedly an inescapable prison for an earthbender, does not stop her from fighting for her freedom.

“I am the greatest earthbender in the world! Don’t you two dunderheads ever forget it.”

Toph is different than the others. And not only is that perfectly fine, it’s perfectly awesome. She is stubborn, sarcastic, loyal, talented, hot-headed, reckless, hilarious, secretly insecure, and tough. Oh, and she just happens to be blind.

Allison Barron

Allison Barron

Commander at Geekdom House
Allison is like Galadriel, offering wisdom where needed but turning treacherous as the sea when competitive games are involved. She is the executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is often preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.
Allison Barron

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