Most of my f-list is not particularly fannish in nature. Of those that are, most of them probably don't share this particular love of mine. It's a kids show, meant for twelve year olds, and I saw it for the first time when I was already an adult. Still, I think maybe I should say this. It matters to me. Maybe it matters to more than me.
I've been doing a good, detailed rewatch of Avatar: The Last Airbender
over the Christmas holidays, and it got me thinking about one character in particular. Ladies and gentlemen of the internets, I'd like you to meet Toph Bei Fong.
This is Toph. If you look at the picture carefully, you might be able to notice something unusual about her eyes...
Toph is blind. According to canon, she's completely, totally blind and always has been.
When they first introduced her, I wasn't sure what to think or how to feel about it. I recognised a lot of how I used to be as a kid when I looked at her. To a slightly lesser extent, I recognised almost as much of how I still am.
The aggression. The assumptions that people make where, because one part of your body doesn't seem to be in perfect working order, there has to be something wrong with your mind as well so you obviously
can't hear or understand what they mean when they make snide comments behind your back. Being so used to having people assuming that you need help with everything
that you snap and snarl and would rather fail outright that admit you actually do need help with something after all. The need to have something - often a secret something that the people who think they know you and think they know what you can do have no idea about! - where the limitations your body puts on you don't even come into it. Frustration at those limits, when they're so bloody arbitrary.
For me, the escape is writing. The only limits I have there are the ones I set for myself, in my own mind. For her, it's earth-bending - her blindness doesn't matter there, because she doesn't need to see.
When I talked about this with other fans of the show...I started to realise that a lot of other people with disabilities were seeing what I saw. More and more, they were saying the same things I was trying to say. Even the twelve year olds the show was meant
for were finding things in her portrayal. Wanting to love her - for once having a character that they could really, seriously identify with - but at the same time being afraid of how the show would handle her, wanting so badly not to be disappointed. It would have hurt to see someone like me
who in the end was only there to be rescued, or a one dimensional stock caricature of a villain, or to teach everyone else a nice neat lesson about diversity.
After all, even the real world fails there sometimes; with days or weeks or months to get to know us as people with disabilities, the rest of the world can still be so surprised at what they find. What would a show that runs in twenty-minute episodes do, after introducing such a prickly, fierce, bloody annoying character?
Then I watched it.
And I loved
Toph wasn't helpless. She wasn't evil. She wasn't stupid. She wasn't a gimmick. She wasn't there to teach anyone a feel-good lesson so they could tell everyone they were a better person. Her limitations existed, and were addressed, and were realistic
as far as a show with flying bison can be, but they didn't define her any more than Sokka's inability to bend an element defined him. She was blind, and that was part of who she was - she wouldn't be Toph if she could see - but it made such a difference when it became clear that her blindness wasn't ALL she was; she was also snarky, and better schooled in manners than she let on, and proud, with a full complement of hopes and fears that didn't necessarily have anything to do with the fact that she couldn't see. It made such a difference to see a character with a disability who wasn't part of the window dressing or a tragic figure of mawkish pity straight out of Dickens' rejected manuscript pile. Someone who was actually affected by that disability - disability as a throw-away element that only seems to be there when it can add drama or angst...that annoys me no end, mostly because living every day with a disability Does Not Work That Way
! - but was still a part of the ensemble cast, with her own strengths that the others needed.
I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen characters with disabilities on mainstream TV who weren't just there to say My name is Toph, and I'm blind. Did I mention I can't see?
Channel 31...perhaps they're a little different, but one of the problems with specialised programming like donation-funded channels run is that you already have to know it exists to be able to find it, or even to know it exists to be found. No one looks for a fishing show if they don't already have an interest in fishing.
Disability TV? Where's the market for that?
I wish she'd existed when I was twelve, because I think I would have wanted to be her. If this show had existed when I was twelve...I would have loved to see some of the characters that might have been born to follow where AtLA
went in the ten years since.
Maybe in another ten years?