attackfish: Discretion prevented me from saying that I thought she was a fiend from the underworld (Lin Bei Fong MWT quote)
[personal profile] attackfish
Trauma in modern American media is a tricky thing. On one hand, the backstories of nearly everyone, heroes and villains alike are full of it. On the other, trauma is heavily shamed, and leaves characters open to accusations of weakness, or of being whiny. This means that while we want characters who go through traumatic experiences, we are extremely uncomfortable with expressions of trauma. Also, we are much more comfortable with some expressions of trauma than with others. Only certain kinds of traumatic expression are allowed, and like so much about culture, who and what a character is determines what kind of traumatic expression we as a society will allow them to have. Straight white men are given the most freedom to be traumatized, and stereotypically masculine trauma is the most widely viewed as legitimate within fandom in my experience. A character who was in battle and suffers symptoms of PTSD for example is much less likely to be called weak than a character recovering from an abusive relationship who has the same symptoms. A character who lashes out is much less likely to be considered weak than one who breaks down crying. A character who reacts with anger is seen as stronger than one who reacts with fear. There are very few roles for the traumatized woman or girl in American media. Traumatized women can be broken damsels in need of rescuing, but then once the danger is past, the damsel either recovers quickly, or disappears. They can be villains, who use their trauma as an excuse to hurt others, or they can... well. This isn't to say that portrayals of men coping with trauma are all that great either. For all there are so many more of them, they are usually not especially nuanced, though of course some are.

This is why I was so amazed and grateful when I saw Avatar: the Last Airbender for the first time and why Frozen struck such a chord with me as a woman dealing with childhood trauma. Now, in Book Four of Legend of Korra, the narrative is once again giving a female character, this time its heroine, Korra, the space and the right to be traumatized.

I've spoken a great deal about abuse as a main theme in the Avatar franchise, but it's probably more accurate to say that trauma is a main theme of the franchise. The list of characters who have experienced severe trauma encompasses almost the entire cast. To start with, our heroes, and many of the antagonists as well are child soldiers, and the world has been at war for a hundred years. The central theme of Avatar: the Last Airbender is imperialism and the harm it does, which the characters' traumas bring home in intimate, personal fashion. Aang is the only survivor of a genocide. Katara and Sokka lost their mother at the hands of a Fire Nation soldier and then their father and the men of their village left to fight the Fire Nation. Jet witnessed the deaths of his family and his entire village. Hama was held captive in horrible conditions. Even the characters whose traumas seem the most unrelated to the war, Fire Nation citizens like Zuko, Mai, Ty Lee, and Azula, all had their childhoods sacrificed in various ways for the war effort. Because of this, there is tremendous variety and sensitivity in the portrayals of trauma and characters' responses to it. Everyone has a right to their trauma, the Avatar narrative tells us, but everyone is also responsible for the actions they take while traumatized.

Avatar: the Last Airbender's varied portrayal of trauma also includes characters who have wildly different responses to similar traumatic events, and some of these reactions are rare to nonexistent in most other American media. Mai and Ty Lee were both abused by Azula, but while Mai distances herself from her emotions and cultivates an air of uncaring calm as her defense, Ty Lee instead masks her pain behind bubbly sociability. This is so important for media to portray in a society which has very firm ideas about the "right" way to be traumatized. If they were really traumatized, society tells us, Mai and Ty Lee would be raging like Zuko, and not acting like they don't care, or smiling and trying to keep everybody happy. The narrative doesn't dismiss their trauma any more than it dismisses Zuko's, because their reaction to it is the "wrong" kind though. It portrays them throughout as valid victims of abuse dealing with it in their own way. This was especially important to me, since I responded to my trauma much like Ty Lee, by covering it with a smile and a need to please. Avatar: the Last Airbender told me that this was a perfectly valid response, something no other piece of fiction had done when I saw it, and encouraged me to realize that just because I was smiling didn't mean I didn't need help.

I mention these personal responses to shows dealing with traumatized characters because it highlights how important it is for victims of trauma to see characters like themselves in media, which brings me to another pair of characters I felt a strong kinship with due to how their trauma was portrayed. I read an essay a while back that said that Frozen was a terrible movie for girls, because the main characters made so many bad decisions, and went so far as to call Anna stupid because she fell for Hans and wanted to marry him so soon after meeting him. It was difficult for me to remind myself that this person wasn't calling me stupid. I had been where Anna had been, and I threw myself headlong into the arms of the girl who would abuse and stalk me for the next four years. I spent enough time calling myself stupid, I didn't need to hear it indirectly from anyone else. What this essay writer seemed to have missed was that at its heart, Frozen is a story about trauma, and the very different reactions of two sisters to that trauma.

Elsa's trauma is obvious, as is her reaction to it. As a child, she almost killed her sister by accident, and has been terrified ever since that it will happen again, that she will hurt someone else. She spends her life hiding and isolating herself, and when she leaves, she isolates herself again in her ice castle. But Anna is equally traumatized. Like Ty Lee, her trauma doesn't stop her from being bubbly and sociable, just the opposite. She has an entire musical number about how trapped she feels and how scared she is of living alone. One day, without warning or explanation, her best friend in all the world, her sister, stopped coming near her. She suddenly found herself hidden away along with Elsa, without companionship, with her family acting as if something terrible had happened, with everyone around her suddenly afraid. It must have been very frightening as well as absolutely heartbreaking for little Anna. And she has been living with those feelings ever since. She is looking for someone, anyone to love, who will make those feelings stop. Like Anna, I came to my stalker pre-traumatized, deeply lonely, and deeply afraid that I would always be alone, and like Anna, I let my trauma talk me into making a very bad choice. Like Anna I didn't do it because I was stupid, but because I was scared. This is one of many reasons why someone who has been previously victimized is more likely to be victimized again, and I for one am glad Disney portrayed it in a children's movie in an entirely nonjudgmental fashion.

Of course, the reason it's easy to miss Anna's trauma is because it doesn't fit the view of trauma that we have been socialized to expect. Anna isn't really traumatized, we've been taught to think; if she were really traumatized, she would be running out into the mountains to build an ice castle like Elsa. But what about Elsa and Elsa's trauma? She, like her sister, spends the course of the movie acting out her trauma, and she too is given the narrative space to do this without judgement. Elsa's story arc highlights how messy trauma can be, that it isn't fixed overnight, and often it gets worse before it gets better. Elsa leaves behind her traumatic situation, and sings about her triumph and newfound freedom, only to find out that she isn't really free, that she could leave behind the situation, but the trauma followed her. Although she has broken away, she has only isolated herself further, and she is still just as scared as ever. Her fear and pain ultimately leads her to do the one thing she was so terrified of in the first place, almost kill her sister in another terrible accident. It is only by coming to terms with her fear that she is able to truly break free from her trauma and begin to heal.

Elsa hurts people in her trauma. She freezes her kingdom, and almost kills her sister, but she isn't demonized. The narrative asks us to recognize that she didn't mean to, that she was hurting, and she was scared, just as Anna didn't mean to put her kingdom and her sister in the hands of a monster like Hans. The flip side of this is that the narrative also asks us to remember that people were hurt. Anna did almost die. Hans did imprison Elsa and almost take control of Arendelle. Arendelle was frozen. Whether the sisters meant it or not, they hurt people, and it's their job to make it right. This is such a vital message, both that people often hurt others without meaning to, and that this doesn't make them evil, and also that this doesn't make the pain of those others go away. At the very start, Anna and Elsa's traumas didn't come from anyone's deliberate act, but instead from accidents and people who meant well, yet their trauma is always shown as completely valid. Likewise, that Anna and Elsa's recovery from their trauma was messy, didn't happen all at once, and led to them hurting others, and yet they were never shown to be evil is extremely rare, in popular American media especially for girls. The normal role for a woman or girl who doesn't immediately recover from trauma, is as the villain. The essay writer I mentioned earlier thought that Frozen was a step backward for the portrayal of women in movies because Elsa and Anna weren't good models of heroism. I could dispute that as well, but for me, that isn't why I feel Frozen is so important. Representation in media isn't just about giving little girls examples of heroism to look up to. Anna and Elsa give traumatized children, especially girls, a model for their own experiences, and a way to articulate them. Anna and Elsa give children who have not been traumatized a model for the trauma in people they meet who have not been so lucky. Maybe, the children who grow up with Anna and Elsa won't look at the people who fall in love with an abuser and call them stupid, or give up on their traumatized friends when they withdraw and try to drive them away, and instead acknowledge that they are going through something hard and messy, just like Anna and Elsa. Maybe the children who grew up with Anna and Elsa, or Aang, Zuko, Mai, Ty Lee, Katara, Sokka, and all the rest will realize that there are many ways that trauma can look, and will support their friends and family whose trauma looks different than they expect.

As I write this, the fourth book of Legend of Korra, the sequel to Avatar: the Last Airbender, is currently airing. The second episode of the season, titled "Korra Alone", deals head on with the trauma suffered by its titular heroine in the previous season. Much like Zuko from the previous series, Korra's traumatic expression is of the most widely recognized variety. She lashes out, gets angry, and fights like mad. Indeed, the show creators have deliberately paralleled her trauma and journey with Zuko's. The title of the episode echoes the Avatar: the Last Airbender episode "Zuko Alone", and the episodes themselves share a similar structure. Korra spends three years away from Republic City and her friends, much like Zuko's three years in exile. And much like Zuko, Korra doesn't spend any of it really healing. The parallels to Zuko, whose trauma and his journey through coming to terms with it was such an important part of Avatar: the Last Airbender is a strong signal that Korra's trauma is to be considered equally as valid, and her pain and frustration equally understandable. The show backs this up by showing Korra in moments of intense vulnerability, as she struggles, fails and struggles some more, as she is lost and afraid. In her trauma, like Zuko, she hurts others, including the people closest to her. She lies to her friends and family, runs away, and battles self loathing and shame. The narrative never gives any indication that we are supposed to view her her as weak or contemptible for any of this. Her pain is real and the narrative tells us that we should not expect her to bounce back from it quickly or smoothly.

This is what I mean by the narrative right to trauma, that a character's trauma and their reaction to it is acknowledged as legitimate by the narrative. The various characters of Avatar: the Last Airbender, Anna and Elsa in Frozen, and Korra in Legend of Korra are all given the narrative right to trauma. Portrayals of people facing trauma, of all complexions, genders, and dispositions is vitally important in children's media to help children learn to understand trauma in themselves and others, and in this regard, Avatar: the Last Airbender, Frozen, and now Legend of Korra are all part of an enormous step forward.

Date: 2014-10-12 08:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is an amazing essay. I started tearing up more than once.

Mind if we link this at metanews, by the way?

Date: 2014-10-12 09:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you! I'm glad you like it, and I absolutely don't mind at all.

Date: 2014-10-19 05:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is a great essay. My sister and I related so much to Frozen and I'm sad this kind of thing wasn't more present in media when we were younger. This post also gave me the final push to give Korra another go, so thank you for that. :)

Date: 2014-10-19 12:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Be warned, season one of Korra is meh, but season two is pretty deeadful, in part because a clearly abusive relationship with a female abuser/male victim, is played for laughs. Season 3 and season 4 (so far) however, have been fantastic.

Also, I strongly reccomend Lilo and Stitch. For some reason, possibly because a lot of Frozen fans go on about how it's the first Disney movie about sisters, forgetting all about Lilo and Stitch, a lot of Lilo and Stitch fans act like Frozen is trash. Don't let them turn you off. Ther can be more than one amazing Disney movie about sisters dealing with trauma, thank you.

Date: 2014-10-20 04:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I watched Korra as it aired up until early season 2, and decided to just skip ahead to season 3 this time. Some of the victim-blaming with Korra's PTSD didn't sit well with me, but overall, I'm liking it.

And Lilo & Stitch is my favorite Disney movie, actually, I just didn't relate to it on the same level as Frozen. But it's good to know there's someone else who doesn't act like there can only be one.

Date: 2014-10-19 01:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wait wait wait--someone thought Frozen wasn't feminist enough because it portrayed women being less than perfect under pressure? Obviously the writer doesn't think women haven't had it drilled into them enough that they have to fit a certain mold or they're worthless; no, we need feminism to get into the game of policing women's worth, too. *Resists the urge to break all the things*

I mean, I do understand the defensive impulse: Too often, "X did bad things because X made bad choices while walking wounded" can be used to say "Traumatized women are weak and/or evil" if X is a woman. Still, there is a huge difference between depictions of women being imperfect and sexist depictions of women, and I'm angry at the idea that women have to fit a mold of perfection even in fiction.

The idea that a (real) woman hurts no one and does nothing with real consequences leads to things like the Broken Bird trope, analyzed brilliantly in the essay Broken Birds, Damage and Brave New Worlds ( This trope doesn't only suck for women, either: Stories without consequences are untrue to life and the human experience, making them simply bad fiction.

On the male side of the One True Trauma Reaction is the infamous and insidious phenomenon of manpain (, where men are only allowed to hurt for the "right" reasons--all too often the horrific and senseless deaths of the women in their lives. As the vidder points out, all too often men aren't allowed to cry for themselves, only for their failure to be there for loved ones and especially women. Because obviously women's lives aren't their own but the responsibility of men, so that a woman's death is not a loss to be mourned but rather an evidence of a man's personal failure. *shudders* I can't even.

Date: 2014-10-19 04:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, I read it and thought to myself, here is a new and heretofore undiscovered definition of feminism! How revolutionary!

I seem to remember a conversation with you about fridging and manpain, and how it did not indicate the extraordinary value we place on women as a society, or how men's deaths just aren't impooooooortant, waaaaaaaaahhhh! but instead is all about hoow these men have had their sense of honor violated by not being able to protect their female property person. I don't think it's a coincidence that when writers want to give women characters a manpain type revenge arc, they have her raped. Women are not expected to protect their male significant others, or feel the same honor based violation at the loss of them, or even their children. A woman who loses a husband or child isn't supposed to go hunt down the killer, but is instead supposed to sit sad and crying at home, whereas a woman who is raped has had her honor violated, and must restore it. How lucky we are that the traditional masculine way of restoring honor, through violence, is now open to us!

Of course, if a raped woman has a father, husband, or brother, her honor isn't worth nearly as much as theirs, which has also bwen violated by failing to protect their woman, so she should sit back and let them avenge her.

In some ways, Zuko is a bit of a narative reverse of manpain. Not only does the narrative regularly call him out on how he treats others, which is the antithesis of manpain, which can be defined as the narative agreeing with how special this man's suffering is, he also is nominally trying to restore his honor, when really he wants daddy's love, whereas a character in the throes of manpain nominally wants to protect people, but really wants to restore his honor.
Edited Date: 2014-10-19 08:21 pm (UTC)

Date: 2014-10-20 01:37 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I don't think it's a coincidence that when writers want to give women characters a manpain type revenge arc, they have her raped.

Unfortunately true. That's a really good catch about the parallels and the hierarchy of offense.

How lucky we are that the traditional masculine way of restoring honor, through violence, is now open to us!

Yes, at least the able-bodied or disability-superpowered among us. But I guess disabled women are never raped in Awful Writingland because they're sexless beings who... wow, I just threw up a little in my mouth.

In some ways, Zuko is a bit of a narative reverse of manpain.

Another good point, and it helps me make sense of something I'd always found mystifying: The many Zutara stories where, immediately on learning Zuko's backstory, everyone falls over themselves feeling sorry for him and going on and on about how justified his actions were, and (if this is post-Western Air Temple) what an abusive bitch Katara is for treating poor tortured Zuko so terribly. Because yes, of course Aang, Sokka, and Toph will instantly turn against Katara who is friend and family, in favor of Zuko who made their lives miserable and helped get Aang killed. This turn of events leads Katara to immediately fall in love with Zuko or realize she was in love with him all along. What?

Seeing Zuko's canon story as a reverse of manpain helps me understand the impulse for stories like the above. Seeing how powerful a cultural construct manpain is, maybe it's only natural that some viewers sense Zuko's story going against the grain and wish to bend it back to the cultural norm, i.e. that men who have suffered loss are entitled to sympathy and sex, no matter how awful their behavior. In fact, the worse the behavior the more entitled he must be, since the bigger a jerk he is the deeper his suffering must have been.

Date: 2014-10-20 03:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes, disabled men are infantilized, whereas disabled women are either infantilized like men as sexless creatures, or fetishized as helples, tragic, beauties, whose significant others, and/or the hero are oh so noble for noticing that they are fuckable, and are not at all like the creeps who try to play my white knight when I show up to school on a bad day, pale skinned, shaking like a leaf and using oxygen, and only want to talk about my illness, and not about whatever is actually on my mind, or like the countless people who have raped disabled people, because we live in a society that conspires to make us easy prey.

(I have the misfortune to look fairly picturesque on bad days. It helps that I'm good looking and strongly resemble Anne Hathaway. Also, I'm white, which contibutes to the frail Victorian maiden vulnerable white woman fantasy. But just to reinforce how much social signalling goes into this, I get hit on a whole lot less on bad days now that I have short brown hair instead of long blonde hair down past my hips.)

Writing the above made me so stupidly nervous. I'm not supposed to think I fit the social standard of good looking, much less say it, or else I'm arrogant. Well I am physically good looking, and it has never really had any impact on my self esteem, positive or negative.

Oh Zutara. I have nothing against the ship itself, and have read one or two amazing ones. When in character, I can totally get into it. But most of it really isn't in character, I think because most authors aren't interested in Zuko and Katara per se, but instead see them as the closest two characters to a certain kind of romantic pairing trope, the feisty naive woman, and the tragic manpain riddled sexy jerk. The problem, aside fro the fact that the trope is already problematic to start with, is that you have to mangle both of them to get them to fit it. Add to that the fact that for many of these writers, Zuko is their precious baby who does no wrong, and well, feisty Katara must be an abusive bitch.

This means, when I want my Zuko-and-Katara fix, I go for gen friendship fic. I've gotten really good at telling the bad Zutara quickly though. If Zuko doesn't come across as a total dork, it's probably a no go. A Katara who has real grievances doesn't fit the trope, and neither does a Zuko who lisps, whines about bad acting, and gets embarrassed because his firebending form has the word "dancing" in its name.

But yes, a lot of people really want Zuko to have manpain, and I think the fact that the narrative never lets him manpain it up, or make Katara go, "oh you poor tragic baby, here's some sex" is what a lot of them mean when they say "bryke don't know their characters" and "Zutara just fits the story better." They've been taught to want manpain, sexy jerks, and magical healing pussy.

Date: 2014-10-21 05:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Unfortunately too many people see "pretty" as an invitation to objectivize. Combine that with "physically or emotionally frail" and too many predators see it as an invitation to victimize.

Also I was actually surprised by my own surprise--and flash of defensiveness--at seeing a woman admit that she's good-looking. And that led to a broader realization about how taboo it is for a woman to admit she likes anything about herself, though it's the strongest against looks. System is at its most powerful when it gets people to self-police for it.

But yes, a lot of people really want Zuko to have manpain, and I think the fact that the narrative never lets him manpain it up, or make Katara go, "oh you poor tragic baby, here's some sex" is what a lot of them mean when they say "bryke don't know their characters" and "Zutara just fits the story better." They've been taught to want manpain, sexy jerks, and magical healing pussy.

Which also explains why there's such a high percentage of bad porn in Zutara. *shudder* My objection to this sub-genre can be summed up in five words: "Fourteen-year-old sexpot Katara." Not that I deny that teenagers have sexual drives and actual sex, nor am I bothered by the idea of consensual sex between young adults. It's just weird and off-putting when teenagers who are just starting their sexual explorations are portrayed in that porny, performative, practiced way. That's just one of many ways in which Katara and Zuko in bad Zutara have nothing to do with the actual characters, I guess.

Date: 2014-10-21 06:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes yes, have high self esteem, (whatever that's supposed to be) but don't you dare like anything about yourself, or you're a stuck up bitch.

t's just weird and off-putting when teenagers who are just starting their sexual explorations are portrayed in that porny, performative, practiced way.

Oh yes.

Date: 2015-01-22 06:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you for this analysis of trauma in media in general - I kept thinking about all of the TV shows I watch, mainly, especially the more "action" based ones which tend to really include extremely traumatic backstories for all of the characters... - and for your interpretation of both Anna and Elsa reacting to trauma in Frozen. I'd never thought about Frozen this way and it's really nice to get this new perspective.


attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)

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