by J.R. Yussuf
I think there is something to be said about the West and our obsession with — and sexualization of — serial killers, hit men and violent individuals in general and how this ties into our repressed, regressive relationship with sex and sexuality. In this essay, I will create parallels between Combustion Man and Prince Zuko and discuss the ways the aforementioned can be seen throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender, ultimately relating back to imposed societal attitudes surrounding sexuality.
Though this tweet was made in jest — part trolling, part expressing my love for Avatar: The Last Airbender — and could be dismissed as a reach…I made some points. The series has been made available for streaming on Netflix as of May 15th 2020 and I immediately began ruminating about what would happen if I were to flesh out this somewhat abstract idea; see what I could find in the series that was also present in the real world and the ways they reflect Western society’s pent up milieu. Though the show has roots in Asian tradition and mythology, it is made with a Western audience in mind.
Combustion Man also known as Sparky Sparky Boom Man, — given his nickname by Sokka — is a firebending assassin and silent bounty hunter hired by Prince Zuko to track down and eliminate Avatar Aang. He first appeared in “The Headband” which is the second episode of Book Three: Fire of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Over the years many fans have deemed him hot, fixating on his beard, never mind that he was a clear cut foe who never spoke. (We love an emotionally distant, hyper aggressive, silent type; yay!) He’s traditionally masculine, strong jawed, immaculate beard–goatee combo with an above average height and build. At face value, Combustion Man is a beefed up reimagining of Zuko equipped with far more explosive and precise fire bending skills, metal prosthetic limbs and unwavering determination. (Combustion Man is Prince Zuko’s tethered sans the daddy issues and protégé sister.) We see Combustion Man go up against Aang on multiple occasions, nearly completing his mission each time until he is finally vanquished at the Western Air Temple with the help of Prince Zuko. Though the Zuko redemption arc over the course of Avatar’s three seasons is arguably one of the most well-rounded, engaging and satisfying redemption arcs in recent memory, much of it plays into the point I allude to at the start; the obsession with dangerous men being related to regressive sexuality. Zuko’s pithy character is humanized by fans who label him the bad boy type and is repeatedly framed as brooding, alluring and fixable instead of as an asshole who is completely off the table.
Another aspect of this obsession is the romanticization of the bad boy and the pull to fix them, though many of us must learn the hard way that people won’t change until they’re ready. Trying to make that happen will only result in more harm as is evident in the case of Zuko and I believe that pull toward Zuko is the same as the draw to Combustion Man; just to a different degree. I wonder if the attraction to these men’s wild, exacting, violent monikers of masculinity speaks to something more primal, an aspect of ourselves we are encouraged to bury and deny. Perhaps this pugnacious history garners attention because on a primal level they’re interchangeable with courting dances, dances performed by male peacocks vying for the attention of a mate. Throughout the series, there were sparks and an undeniable connection between Katara and Zuko juxtaposed the pull Katara felt toward Aang, the golden boy, the chosen one, the saint to Zuko’s sinner. This choice Katara faces throughout the series propagates the atavistic good versus evil trope. There were times when it seemed Zuko and Katara would be together with many fans shipping them — she too was perhaps wooed to some degree by the bad boy image — yet the war and the Fire Nation had already taken too much from Katara (her mother’s life and her father’s presence) and she would not allow the exiled Prince of the Fire Nation to take her heart too.
Avatar: The Last Airbender explores mature topics without losing its children’s show feel, making it all the more jarring when it comes to an end without featuring characters who are attracted to the same gender. Attitudes around LGBT characters in children’s shows are often negative because the puritanical belief is that same sex attraction is lewd, malignant and inappropriate for children. Here is another contentious point of contact where the spectrum of human sexuality is restricted because of the West’s poor relationship with sexuality. From the first episode we are shown mutual attraction between Aang and Katara and varying degrees of crushes, romantic pursuit, hand holding, kisses, long embraces, companionship and various stages of love in the series but any same sex attraction was too much. Okay.
Though Avatar fans did get to see this with Korra and Asami in The Legend of Korra, that was a different show where many fans said that the storyline felt rushed and the show clearly had an older audience in mind. This acts as another caveat feeding into conservative ideas surrounding sexuality which say, anything outside of heterosexuality is inherently corruptible and unpalatable for children. This isn’t true and neither is the idea that presenting sanitized, regressive human relationships is the best way to represent sexuality on a children’s shows. Western society’s programming — by way of conservative religious indoctrination and pressure — has shown to be ineffective at managing primal attraction to these types (Combustion Man and Prince Zuko) and have actually caused many problems. Children’s shows that go beyond the limitations of repressed, cisgender heteronormativity are simply presenting a clearer, fuller picture and should be emulated.