Character Analysis: Toph Beifong

There’s a meme making the rounds these days that says – and this is an exact quote – “If a show was released today where a disabled girl dominated 90% of the fights she was in, was never a love interest to anyone, and actually taught the male protagonist 25% of his combat skillset, they’d call it woke propaganda. Anyway, her name is Toph.”

I’m not sure they’d call it woke propaganda, since Toph isn’t the lead character in Avatar: The Last Airbender. In fact, she’s not even in the top three, and I’m not sure where she’d stand among the supporting cast. What do you think? Toph or Zuko? Toph or Iroh? Anyway, that’s where Toph is.

What’s cool is all those statements about Toph are true. They’re supposed to sound improbably powerful in combination, but in fact they are less a quality of Toph and more a quality of the job the Toph character has to do in Avatar. Yeah, she fits into a square hole because she’s BUILT to fit into a square hole.

Of course Toph teaches Aang 25% of his skillset. That’s her narrative function. If she didn’t, there’d be no purpose to having her in the show. Because the point of most of Aang’s journey is for him to accumulate trainers/masters who expand his abilities. If he didn’t need to learn earthbending, Toph would not exist.

Toph Beifong, girl meme

That doesn’t mean Toph can’t be an interesting character. In fact, quite the opposite. There’s a limit to the number of Wise Old Men trainers Aang could have and still have all of them be interesting. So someone said, “Hmmm…what’s the opposite of a Wise Old Man?”

I mean, she’s EXACTLY the opposite, right? So, sure, why not have a little girl do it?

Once you have that, the second characteristic falls right into place. Toph is cute but she’s a KID. Of course she’s not a love interest to anyone. The only time you see kids as love interests is for comic reasons, like Teasing-Master Tagaki-san, right? Isn’t the way Tagaki tries to express her pre-adolescent crush on Nishikata just sooo cuuuute?

It is, you know, and that’s the gag: She’s crushing on him so hard and she’s just a kid. Instant tension, released as humor. That’s how it could have worked out for Toph EXCEPT that would have messed up her structural function, which is to mentor Aang. You can be a kid and a mentor, but you can’t be a SILLY kid and a mentor!

Beyond that, while her structural function is mentor, her social function is Bratty Little Sister. What I find interesting about that is that Bratty Little Sister is a thoroughly American trope. BLS’s pervade sitcom families, don’t they? Their brattiness allows them to be astute for their ages, and the tension between “little” and “bratty” makes them interesting narratively.

At the same time, they’re hard to find in manga and anime. There’s Yuzuru Nishimiya from A Silent Voice, but she’s really just protecting her deaf sister, not really bratty. There’s Kyon’s little sister (from Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya), but in truth she’s not all that bratty, either.

Bratty Little Sister is an American sitcom trope, not an anime trope. Oops.

Toph’s disability, her blindness, echoes a LOOOONG history of similar characters. Blind? Okay…I have superior senses elsewise. Look at the blind shamisen player (and assassin) Sara from Samurai Champloo. Or better, how about Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, played in movies and on TV by Shintaro Katsu and Westernized by Rutger Hauer?

The blind warrior trope is strong, of course, because it has to be believable, and that can be hard to do. But it’s a good trope if you can pull it off because the tension between Powerful Warrior and Blind is STRONG. How can that possibly be? She must be amazing!

The cool thing about Toph is that you can almost see the reasoning processes that put her together.

Step 1: We need a mentor for earth skills.
Step 2: We don’t want another clichéd Wise Old Man, so let’s make them the opposite: A kid. A girl kid.
Step 3: Why is this kid a mentor? She’s really good at it. Why is she really good at it? She’s blind.
Step 4: Okay, so what kind of person is this blind girl kid? Girl kid? Got it: She’s a Bratty Little Sister.

Everything else about her flows from that one story session.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Toph. I like all of them, of course, since that’s their job, but Toph is a good character. That’s not an accident.

She was built that way.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

10 thoughts on “Character Analysis: Toph Beifong

  1. I never really thought about it, but you have a point. A lot about Toph as a character comes from American entertainment rather than anime. The idea that people who are blind can also be heroic, like the super hero Dare Devil, or Geordi from Star Trek the next Generation. And having bratty little siblings is definitely an American cultural thing! Honestly, bratty younger characters aren’t my favorite, which is probably why I had a hard time connecting with Toph much.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m pretty sure the blind here goes way back. I would have to look up the dates on Zatoichi, but it had to be the sixties. And there was a blind general (a real one) back in the 1500’s. But the Bratty Little Sister is 100% American. A number of the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender are American tropes. It was really jarring for me to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. At least in Toph’s case, the justification works. She learned earthbending from moles, which are also blind, and sensing the vibration is not exactly that rare. Snakes do it, a lot of fishes do it, and some animals also can do that with terrifying accuracy even in the air.

    As a blind person myself, and a male one at that, I find Toph to be a very tasteful character compare to other blind characters in media. Did you know that her voice actress passed away? She also voiced Tao Kaka in English in BlazBlue game series, which I suggest you check out if you haven’t already.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I disagree. Even though most of your elaboration is accurate, the main point of why you’re writing this doesn’t seem to add up. If the point is “Toph wouldn’t be accepted today because she would be called woke,” then you’d need to prove she is a “woke” character by today’s standard. In my opinion… she’s the exact opposite of a woke character by today’s standards. Toph was a very well written character that didn’t require any extra attention because people could connect with her no matter who they were or where they came from. The problem with characters today that make them “woke” is the fact they aren’t written to be likeable like Toph was. They are written to send a message. When the character becomes more of a talking point than a living person you can empathize or connect with… people tend to dislike them. Take Legend of Korra for example. Korra and Toph are from the same franchise. They have the same attitude. The same upbringing of being overly sheltered. They are almost identical in terms of background. Yet she wasn’t as widely liked and accepted by the fan base. Why? In my opinion, it was because she lacked the writing that made her relateable. People had an easier time connecting with a wealthy, troublesome, overly masculine, blind girl than they did with an able-bodied, bisexual, woman of color stuck in a love triangle. That’s not to say everyone disliked her or the LoK show. It was still enjoyable to a lot of people. But it just didn’t hit the viewers like ATLA did. If you ask me… thats due to the writing. A well written character can be loved by any and all no matter what sex, gender, race, religion, political party, etc etc they belong to. But a poorly written character that was made to be a talking point will be defended from simple criticisms with the very talking points the character was made to be. Thats what we are seeing today. No one defends today’s written characters for who the character is as a person anymore. The defend the character for specific demographics that character fits into. Just my take.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t say she’d be regarded as woke, either. That conclusion was based on observations of several features of her character, and all I wanted to do was show how those feature grew naturally out of her narrative function.

      I don’t give a darn whether she’s woke or not. In fact, in the way it’s typically used as an insult, I’m woke myself.

      And for what it’s worth, I’m not sure people had a lot of trouble relating to her. She seems to be generally well-liked; I know I liked her. But she was built to be likeable. That’s how the character was constructed; in fact, just about all of them were in ATLA.

      Like

    1. I especially liked the way Aang and Katara were allowed to develop a genuine affection without all the typical groping and leering and such. But it’s REALLY easy to like Toph. All those tropes she combines are either likable or admirable.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh absolutely, the series excelled at giving time to develop the relationships, and organically. Whether it’s Zuko/Mai, Aang/Katara, or Sokka/Suki, they made it clear these were the ships to root for through action and words.

        My favourite thing about Toph is her snarkiness – a complete opposite of what you’d expect from someone of that trope. She literally subverted it and became the in-series version of John Cena. I mean, even that gif of her shaking hands over her face confirms it XD

        Liked by 1 person

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