The Depiction of Mothers and Motherhood in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (Spoilers!)
Originally, these were just notes jotted down for the review of Gene Yang’s The Search (since that graphic novel reveals what happened to Ursa and explores the theme of Motherhood) but it seems like they might be useful to the broader conversation about the depiction of mothers in Avatar and Korra. (Hopefully I’m not missing any important characters!)
A couple of things I noticed upon rewatch were that whenever the original Gaang met a family, usually the mom would defer to the dad (eg. the mom’s of Haru, Lee, Toph, Mai, etc.) We see this deference to the husband in Korra, as well (Unulaq’s wife doesn’t know what’s up. Senna is relatively passive about Korra’s upbringing and the rebellion compared to the deeply engaged Tonraq.) While the worldbuilding has established that the setting is patriarchal, we know that what is expected by society shouldn’t necessarily be reflected in what we see in practice. (For example, my grandmother was raised in a patriarchal society and expected to defer to her husband, but that doesn’t mean it actually happened—and she was far from being an exception among her peers.)
In many of the examples above, where the name of the mother is not given, we do know the name and identity of the character’s father. (Frequently, the mother will be dead.) The only significant example reversing this trope is the identity of Lin Beifong’s father—and in this case, the identity of her mother is known because she is a main character in the original series. The only other example of this that I can think of is that we don’t know the name of Kanna’s first husband (Hakoda’s father.)
I don’t think we need to know the names of every single parent of characters in the series. Obviously, it is based on the demands of the plot. In this case, the plot the writers have created prioritizes the roles of the fathers, and that reinforces patriarchal tropes.
Hope these notes help generate discussion around representations of women and mothers in Avatar. Interested in hearing what people think!