Fangirl Fridays: Toph Beifong, Earthbending Master

If you’re any kind of fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, then you probably already know that the follow-up series, The Legend of Korra, officially premiered on Nickelodeon today. If you’re not a fan, then you should probably either stop reading this post (because you’ll hate it), or – if you haven’t seen the series at all – you should go watch it and then read this post, because really, you deserve to meet Toph Beifong for the very first time as the living, vital, amazing character she is. I’ve included the usual Amazon links up above, but I believe the show is also available on Netflix Instant. Go on, give it a watch, I’ll wait. (Please note that I’m referring to the series here. Don’t bother with the live-action movie. I know I haven’t bothered with it. I’ve just heard horrible things.)

As awesome as Toph is, she isn’t the star of the show – that role, of course, falls to the Avatar and titular last airbender, Aang. Toph doesn’t even appear until Avatar‘s second season (or Book Two), but she makes a hell of a splash once she does show up. Where most of the first season revolved around Aang’s attempts to learn waterbending, the second season premiere marks the beginning of his quest to find an earthbending teacher. (If you did as I asked above and watched the show before reading this post, then I don’t need to explain that bending is the ability to manipulate the primal elements of nature – water, earth, fire, and air. If I did need to explain that, then seriously, go watch the damned show now.) Though Team Avatar finally finds an Earth Kingdom city with an earthbending school in the sixth episode, Aang doesn’t really trust the teacher there, and he and his companions, Katara and Sokka, keep on looking. With a little digging (and a moment of badassery on Katara’s part), they find their way to an underground earthbending competition full of ridiculous, larger-than-life personalities like The Boulder. (THE BOULDER!)

Toph is NOT going to take your crap.

Despite all of the raw might on display, Aang doesn’t seem too impressed…until the competition’s champion, the Blind Bandit, emerges to fight The Boulder herself. The Blind Bandit is aptly named: because to Team Avatar’s obvious surprise, she’s a tiny little blind girl, seemingly easy prey for someone with The Boulder’s power. But Aang soon realizes just what she represents – an earthbending friend of his had previously told him to find someone who listens to the earth, and as he watches this girl fight, and ultimately hand The Boulder’s ass to him, he realizes that’s exactly what she’s doing. When the ringmaster calls for challengers to the Blind Bandit, Aang throws himself into the ring, using his airbending powers to defeat Toph more or less by accident. Though he tries to catch up with her and persuade her to become his earthbending tutor, her pride initially prevents her from accepting the offer, and she ultimately storms off.

I won’t spoil the rest of the episode (even though hopefully you’ve all already seen it), but suffice to say that Toph finally does join Team Avatar. Unlike Katara or Sokka, though, she’s not instantly on Aang’s side. Their friendship – and it does swiftly develop into full-fledged friendship – remains playfully antagonistic even at the best of times, and seriously antagonistic at the worst of times. Toph does not suffer fools gladly, and Aang frequently acts like the ultimate fool.

I like Toph for a lot of reasons. She’s the queen of snark, of course, and that’s always sure to win me over. Her deadpan sarcasm is frequently hilarious. Her no-nonsense attitude is refreshing in comparison to Aang’s impulsiveness, Sokka’s arrogance and madcap scheming, and Katara’s idealism. She’s far from perfect, of course – she has a major chip on her shoulder, but not without reason. She’s a character with genuine depth.

Toph uses METALBENDING! It's SUPER EFFECTIVE!

She also proves the old adage that – in the words of Master Yoda – size matters not. The greatest earthbender on the planet is a little girl with flowers in her hair, and that’s awesome. When (in the third season) Team Avatar goes to see a play about their adventures, the role of “Toph” is played by a huge, hulking man – with Toph’s characteristic flower-adorned bun – simply because, clearly, no one will believe that someone of her incredible power actually looks like she does. (Of all the members of Team Avatar, Toph is least offended by the actor playing her part – she actually thinks it’s really cool and pretty funny.) Toph’s understanding of earthbending is so profound that, when her back is forced up against a wall, she actually forces herself to metalbend – something that no earthbender was previously able to do on the show; worked earth was essentially ‘dead’ to them. But in a moment of crisis, Toph has her limit break, and that leads her to help reshape the world.

But when I really think about Toph…there’s a lot more to her than that. Namely, her blindness doesn’t define her. To be sure, it informs her character: her earthbending talent derives in part from the fact that she’s used it to augment her senses and, in a way, to replace her sight with her instinctive perception of the vibrations in the earth around her. She even learned to control her talent as an even younger girl by going directly to the source: the blind badgermoles who originally demonstrated the power of earthbending to humankind, and with whom she shared an affinity. And Toph’s powers do have their limitations, and yes, sometimes the fact that she can’t see clearly makes her life difficult.

But that’s not all she is. It’s so common on children’s shows – on television to general – for writers to turn characters with disabilities into caricatures. To turn every focus episode those characters happen to get into Very Special Episodes all about how their disabilities make their lives difficult and force them to depend on friends and family. Toph doesn’t get that treatment. Her blindness is there, yes. It’s acknowledged. It’s part of the story. But she remains independent and headstrong and snarky and powerful. When I think of Toph, I think of the deadpan snarker and earthbending master and all-around awesome character who happens to be blind. I definitely don’t think of a poor, beleaguered blind girl we were all made to feel sorry for…because that’s simply not who she is, and we weren’t made to feel sorry for her. Sympathetic, yes. Scared, at times, sure. But no more or less so than any of the other characters. Toph accepted who she was, found her strength, and used it to stand as a hero, on equal footing with all the others. And that is why I love her.

Gone, but not forgotten.

Her legacy lives on in the new series. One of my favorite moments in the premiere of The Legend of Korra was the moment when the camera cut away to a statue of an adult Toph Beifong, master of earthbending and metalbending alike, and founder and mentor to Republic City’s metalbending police force. And then the camera cut back to Toph’s no-nonsense daughter, the leader of that same police force, and we saw the other part of that legacy. We probably won’t ever hear Toph snarking at Aang or Katara again. We probably won’t ever see her use her earthbending to shut some poor fool up. But Toph’s story isn’t over – not as long as her legacy remains. She laid the foundation for a whole new world.

That world belongs to the new Avatar, Korra, now. It belongs to Tenzin. And it belongs to Lin, not Toph, Beifong. But as long as it endures, Toph lives.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you like what you’ve just read, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. If you can’t donate yourself, but you’d still like to help, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive itself. The more readers and potential supporters I pick up, the better.

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