attackfish: Jet and Zuko fighting in the teashop, text "Obviously this is the place to come if you want to get murdered by lunatics" (Jet Juko TDL quote)
[personal profile] attackfish
So during an *ahem* discussion of Azula and her abusiveness, I realized I have never sat down and written a comprehensive version of my particular theory of Azula's breakdown. I've talked about it in comment threads a lot, but I have never dedicated a post to it. So in response to a user on Tumblr who blogs under the name fireroyals, I wrote it up. I figured I should probably post it here The discussion this post is in reply to can be found at my tumblr [link].


While I disagree with you as to whether or not Azula was born without the capacity to feel affective empathy, I don't at all disagree with you that Azula's childhood shaped her tremendously, or that she was abused. I think there are a lot of people who want to say it was either one or the other. Either she is a "psychopath" (an outdated term that has been widely misunderstood and keeps shifting in meaning), and she was born the way she is, and she either wasn't abused, or abuse didn't affect her, or she was abused, and how she was raised made her into who she is. I don't think either of those positions are correct. Being born without affective empathy has no protective power. There is no code that says that predators don't abuse other predators, and there is nothing about lacking affective empathy that makes abuse magically not damaging. Azula fascinates me as a character, and yes, part of this is because she reminds me of my stalker. I have spent a great deal of time figuring out what makes this character tick, and what made her stop ticking at the end. Instead of addressing your points in argument form, I am going to tell you how I think Azula became who she is. Bear with me, it's a bit of a story.

When Azula was born, I think Ozai was a man who was already deeply warped. I do not believe as some in fandom do that he gave up his family and love for power. I believe he never loved them as we understand it to start with. In his children, Ozai wasn't looking for independent people, but for a mirror. Their existence and accomplishments were there solely to reflect well on him and benefit him. Before Azula was old enough to show "promise", by which I mean a combination of cruelty and talent in areas that Ozai approved of, Ozai treated both his children like gold. Zuko was after all his heir apparent. We can see this in the comics, and also when Zuko says things like "back when [his] family was actually happy." This was not a time when Ozai's relationship with his children was healthy, but it was a time before the cruelty he would exhibit later. And this beginning, especially the positive attention Ozai gives Zuko, will have a profound impact on Azula.

Then, Azula's talents and lack of empathy become apparent. Ozai sees himself in her, and sees all those things he likes about himself in her, his own ruthlessness and willingness to use people, his own firebending talent, his own cunning and use of manipulation. He nurtures this in her, and begins to give her the lion's share of his positive attention. When Zuko shows signs of empathy, and when he isn't a firebending prodigy, Ozai, who only sees his children for the value they give him, sees this almost as a personal sight. Zuko isn't good enough for Ozai. Worse, I think he projects his own feelings of inadequacy onto Zuko. So Azula represents all that he sees as worthy about himself, and Zuko all he hates about himself. So he adores (but does not love) Azula and despises Zuko.

In the back of Azula's mind, she remembers a time it was different, when Zuko was a golden child too. This means that Zuko becomes an object lesson. It is possible to fall from grace. Everything Ozai does to Zuko, every harsh word, every brush off, every burning and banishment, is thus also something Ozai has done to Azula, because she sees in it the price of failure. This builds in her a deep deep well of anxiety. To deal with this, she hides it from herself. She masks it with a conscious belief in her own perfection. Almost isn't good enough. Flaws and weakness are unacceptable. They are for people like Zuko. She needs to see herself as better than Zuko, intrinsically, because if she isn't, she could suffer the same fate. She needs to see herself as perfect because perfection keeps her safe.

In this construction of Azula and her world, Ursa treating both her children fairly would read as gross favoritism to her daughter. Any love and attention Ursa gave to Zuko would be a sign that she favored Zuko over Azula, even if she gave Azula love and attention in equal measure. And any disapproval Ursa expressed toward Azula's actions would become a deep injustice, even if she disapproved of actions undertaken by Zuko as well. By giving both her children love, support, and limits, she was treating her worthless child the same as she did her worthy child. The human mind remembers slights and inconsistencies much more than it remembers fairness, so Azula, who has so much invested in thinking that Zuko is inferior to her and deserves his treatment at the hands of Ozai, would remember the times that Ursa was affectionate towards Zuko, while the times in which Ursa rebuked Zuko in some way, which after all is all he deserves in Azula's view, would be invisible to her. Meanwhile the same process happens in reverse. Azula, who is perfect, flawless, above reproach, would remember every hint of disapproval from Ursa vividly, while Ursa's love for her, as her due, would be ignored. Worse, Azula had been taught by Ozai's actions to view parental approval as a zero sum game, and if Ursa favors Zuko what must she think of Azula? This process is almost certainly encouraged by Ozai. When Azula said in "The Beach" that her own mother thought she was a monster, I heard two things, the first was the voice of a very perceptive little girl who picked up on the reasonable worry Ursa felt about her and her behavior, and the other as Ozai's voice whispering to Azula, telling her that Ursa didn't understand them.

Yet on another level, Azula is aware that her mother loves her. We can see this most obviously in the finale, where Azula, in the throes of her breakdown hallucinates her mother gently reproaching her, and telling Azula she loves her, but we can also see it in a scene from "Zuko Alone" that I think communicates one of the saddest things about Azula's story. In this scene, Ursa is walking with Zuko on a covered walkway through the palace garden. Azula is playing in the garden with Ty Lee while Mai glances at Zuko and blushes. Azula decides she wants to tease Mai and Zuko for Mai's crush, and to do that, she needs Zuko. She tells Ty Lee to "watch this," walks over to her mother and brother, and then plays the sweet child for her mother, in order to get her to make Zuko play with her. This scene shows how young Azula began her deliberate manipulation, and how skilled and practiced she is at it already, but it I think tells us something else at least as important, because in this scene, Azula manipulates by playing on her mother's love for her. This is the last time we see her do this in the series. After her mother leaves, this tool falls out of use until she forgets she ever had it. Perhaps she continues to manipulate Zuko this way for a while, but three years later, he is banished as well. For three years, there is absolutely no one that loves Azula, and she forgets to see herself as worthy of love. My abuser/stalker manipulated through affection all of the time. It's part of what kept me holding on to that "friendship" as long as I did. People who lack affective empathy, who are raised with love understand it. They don't feel it, but they understand it, and they use it. Azula doesn't. "Psychopath" or not, this is deeply, deeply tragic.

This subconscious understanding of her mother's love doesn't stop Azula's cleaving to her father. In fact I think it may have strengthened the drive for her to do so. Since acknowledging her mother's sincere love for her would mean acknowledging that someone could hold Zuko and herself in equal esteem, and the psychological costs of that acknowledgement were so high, she would have become even more committed to her father's worldview. And then Ursa leaves, and she leaves for Zuko, something Azula doubtless would have picked up on. This confirms her belief that her mother loved her brother more, but it also takes away a potential source of affirmation and support for Azula outside of her father. Her self-image rests on a very shaky foundation of two intertwined pillars: her father's estimation of her value, and her own belief in her personal perfection. On some level, Azula has to realize that this is an unstable situation, and so she seeks out other ways to prop up her self-image. For a while, Zuko fills this role, but her attitude towards him is still too bound up in Ozai's. So she builds two relationships that are not so intermeshed with her father and their dynamic. This is where Mai and Ty Lee enter the picture.

Azula uses her ability to control Mai and Ty Lee as a constant source of fuel for her self-image, but she doesn't love them. She doesn't care about them, but she is psychologically dependent upon them. She needs them. It never ceases to amaze and frustrate me just how many people mistake psychological dependence for love. In this, Azula is like most abusers, who are dependent upon their victims in some way. That's why they abuse. Most abusers also "love" their victims, at least as much as they feel attachment and affection for their victims, much as Ozai does for Azula. If their victim tries to leave, they react with hurt and anger, a "How could you do this to me?" response. This is not how Azula responds, however, and in this she is very different indeed from most abusers. It is this difference that I think points to inborn lack of empathy. In the series, this difference is shown in several places. The first is when she goes to collect Ty Lee.

At this point, Ty Lee has already tried to get away from Azula at least once, by running away to join the circus. Azula approaches her and asks her to come. When Ty Lee refuses, Azula doesn't become angry, or hurt. In fact she expects, and I would argue even desires this response. She then tells Ty Lee that she will be attending the show that evening. Ty Lee reacts with visible fear. At the show that evening, Azula endangers not only Ty Lee, but also the entire audience, and circus people, meaning everyone in the life Ty Lee has tried to build apart from Azula. And Azula doesn't do it vengefully. She is gleeful at the prospect of forcing Ty Lee to do something she doesn't want to do. Azula could have given Ty Lee an ultimatum to begin with, but it wouldn't give her the same psychological payoff that hearing Ty Lee's no and coercing her into changing it into a yes does. This need for Azula to assert her control is demonstrated again when she goes to Omashu for Mai. Mai's reaction to Azula is different from Ty Lee's. Mai says yes. This means that Azula doesn't get the boost to her self-image from forcing her that she craves. So she sets a situation where she will be able to force Mai to do something Azula knows she doesn't want to. Nothing will convince me that Azula had only just thought about the ramifications of setting King Bumi free. So why did she set up a hostage exchange and then force Mai to call it off at the last minute? The comics show that Mai loves her little brother, and the show itself shows just how deep Mai's love runs. This means that Mai calls the exchange off because she is more afraid of what Azula will do to her and her brother than she is of the rebels. Azula sets things up this way so that Mai will demonstrate just this fear, thereby affirming Azula's domination of her and strengthening Azula's image of herself as perfect and in control.

There is one last place in the series where this dynamic is made clear. When Mai saves Zuko at the Boiling Rock, Azula doesn't react with hurt, but with puzzlement. She doesn't say "how could you do this to me?" she says "why? You know the consequences." In fact, she is cool and collected until Mai tells her that she miscalculated. Remember how I said that Azula's self-image rested on the two pillars of Ozai's value of her and her own belief in her infallibility? Her control over Mai and Ty Lee constitute a third pillar that she has created as a backup. Azula is able to withstand Mai breaking this control without a real emotional backlash, because all Mai did was make one pillar somewhat unsteady. There is no doubt in my mind that Azula intended at this point to punish Mai, and punish her brutally, but this punishment would have been to serve the utilitarian purpose of showing others what haopens when you defy Azula, and not out of any emotional need. Then Mai tells Azula that she miscalculated. This is a direct assault on another pillar of Azula's self-image, her psychological construction of herself as infallible. Worse, Mai finishes her statement by telling Azula that she loves Zuko more than she fears her. She ranks Azula beneath Zuko. This compounds Azula's sense of failure. This is when Azula snaps. She becomes enraged, and turns it back on Mai. "No you miscalculated," she insists, as she gets ready to assert a final, fatal level of control over Mai. And this is when Ty Lee steps in. She too breaks free of Azula's control, and worse, she humiliates Azula by knocking her down.

After the Boiling Rock, Azula stops acting in her rational self-interest and shifts instead to reacting to fulfill her suddenly urgent emotional needs. This change is shown clearly the next time we see her, attacking Zuko at the Western Air Temple. I say Zuko, and not the Avatar, because Azula doesn't seem to be interested in Aang or his other companions at all. She tells Zuko she is there to celebrate becoming an only child, and attacks her brother almost exclusively, allowing Aang and the others to escape. If Azula were not in a state of psychological crisis, her behavior here would be extremely difficult to explain. Zuko's behavior on the Day of Black Sun means that he has no chance at becoming their father's heir, or in any way challenging Azula's power within the Fire Nation. The only way Zuko can interfere with Azula being the chosen heir and future Firelord is through the Avatar's victory, which would be just as damaging for Azula, whether or not her brother is part of it. She is best able to prevent that by attacking and killing Aang, as she was able to do once before. So why does she go after Zuko? To explain this, I would like to go back a little bit.

When Azula brings her brother home after the fall of Ba Sing Se, she lies to their father and tells him that Zuko brought down the Avatar. This does a couple of things for her, like get her brother into the Fire Nation as a potential fall guy, and gives her some insurance that if he rises to high in their father's eyes, she can knock him back down. I imagine that after Zuko's exile, Azula had all of Ozai's attention to herself, and that on one level, this felt wonderful and thrilling, but that on another level, it was very difficult for her, because without Zuko around to soak up all of Ozai's dissatisfaction, she had to be extra extraordinary in order to not have some of it directed at her. Having Zuko around takes that pressure off, and the lie she told gives her something to hold over his head. It is an adroit move on her part, but it is blackmail, and like all blackmail, it has a fatal flaw. If the blackmailee reveals the information first, it is useless. Worse, Azula has a lot to lose if Ozai learns of her deception. Azula didn't figure on Zuko telling Ozai the truth and then splitting to go teach the Avatar firebending, and who could blame her? The answer of course is Azula herself, and also Ozai. Not only did Azula miscalculate, ooh, there's that word again, with regards to what her brother would do, and on some level, she may even see this as him outsmarting her, but Ozai now knows she lied to him. Since Zuko left, things have probably been very uncomfortable for Azula. To put this in the terms I have been using so far, two of her pillars, her idea of herself as perfect, and her father's esteem, are both shaky when she goes to the Boiling Rock. If not for those already shaky pillars, she would have been able to cope much better with the psychological stress of Mai and Ty Lee breaking free of her. Instead, she is left with only one shaky pillar, Ozai's favor, on which to base her self-image.

This is the state Azula is in when she fights her brother at the Western Air Temple. She is fighting to reestablish equilibrium and buttress her dangerously unsteady self-image. She seeks a confrontation with Zuko who she sees as having "beaten" her twice, once by doing the unexpected and telling Ozai the truth on the Day of Black Sun, and once by being higher in Mai's estimation than Azula. She does this so that she can defeat him in an arena she has always beaten him in before, combat, and reestablish her superiority. However, because Azula is not able to be her usual calculating self, the attack on the Western Air Temple becomes a fiasco. She and her brother fight each other to a tie, the Avatar and his companions, including her brother, escape, and she survives by the skin of her teeth.

When her father snubs her, when he "treat[s her] like Zuko" he knocks away her last pillar of support, and sends her spiraling down, down, down into that pit of anxiety and fear he built within her as a child.

None of these emotionally charged interactions do I see any trace of love on Azula's part, not even the selfish, corrosive love of most abusers. In this fandom, I often run across the argument that Azula's breakdown was proof of her love for Mai and Ty Lee, even if she was really bad at showing it. You in fact argued that the way she reacted to their defiance is evidence that she cares. As I described above, this is not true. People don't fall apart the way Azula did because somebody they love leaves them, they fall apart because someone or something that they relied on to fulfill a deep psychological need for them is now unavailable to do so. Love, and this kind of psychological dependence often go hand in hand, but they also each frequently occur separately, which is what I see In Azula's interactions with Mai, Ty Lee, Zuko and Ozai. I mentioned above that people without affective empathy who grow up with love understand love and how to manipulate it even if they don't feel it themselves. The flip side of this is that people who are born with the innate capacity for affective empathy, who grow up without love, feel love but they don't understand it. This love often expresses itself in destructive and damaging ways, but it is there. Azula shows no signs of this. She is both unloved and unloving.

I believe that after her father triggers her final breakdown, Azula has an extended period of brief reactive psychosis, a form of stress induced psychosis caused by her inability to otherwise cope with the repeated assaults to her psyche, as opposed to the development of a neurological or biochemically derived problem such as schizophrenia. This would account for the timing. It also fits in well with the overall picture Of Azula canon has presented us with. That picture in my view is of a girl born with certain tendencies, whose father nurtured and directed those tendencies while giving her a profound fear of failure. It is of a character, who like real people is the product not of nurture or nature separately, but of nurture and nature, of her environment, how she was born to react to that environment, and in turn how that environment reacted to her.

Given this detailed picture I have painted for you of my theory of Azula, it should be pretty obvious that I have given Azula as a character a lot of thought and I do not view her as a fictional twin to my abuser and stalker. I do see profound similarities, and see in her victims some of the characters I have been most able to identify with as abuse victims. However, my experiences have not distorted my view of Azula the fictional character as you have implied, and I am aware of her many differences from my abuser. I am able to see them as two separate entities, with my experiences with my stalker and abuser informing but not forming the whole of my analysis of Azula. Your implication that I can't see past my experiences to the Azula of canon is condescending and extremely insulting.

Oh, before I go:

IT IS NEVER BETRAYAL TO DEFY OR LEAVE AN ABUSER!

That is victim-blaming abuser logic and it is an insult to every real life survivor of abuse who found a way to get away. It feeds into every toxic narrative my own abuser filled my head with as she stalked me, and the logic that almost every abuser the world over uses along with fear to guilt their victim into staying put. Stop calling it betrayal.
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