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

October 2017


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