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.
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.