Avatar, Humiliation, Exaltation, and Manhood

On Sokka, Pride, and Masculinity

Bryan J. / 10.13.20

To start at the beginning of our exploration of gracious themes in Avatar: The Last Airbender, go here.

Theologians and scholars have noted that the pattern of Philippians 2‘s famous “Christ hymn” is one of exaltation through humiliation. We understand that Jesus is a big deal, but what made him a big deal was and is offensive to the human spirit. He “emptied himself,” “taking on the form of a slave,” and “humbled himself … to death on a cross.” After all that self-giving abasement Jesus is “highly exalted” and all the knees bow. “The way down is the way up,” as Christians who follow Jesus’s lead often remind themselves. It’s an offensive lesson to those who prefer to “win win win no matter what” (DJ Khaled), but it’s a lesson that Avatar’s writers have in mind for Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. We’ll be exploring his story today in our third survey of the gracious themes in Avatar: the Last Airbender.

When our story begins, Sokka is the village’s eldest male at age 15. Years ago, Sokka’s father left with the tribe’s other men to join the war effort against the Fire Nation. When we meet Sokka in the show’s opening scenes, he embodies an inept, proud, and stereotypical masculinity, one that knows it should be strong but is functionally weak. The men in his village have all left for war, and with none of them around to ground Sokka in his formative teen years, his understanding of the masculine is misguided. Across all three of the show’s seasons, Sokka’s journey into adulthood, and thus manhood, will manifest as a direct assault on his pride. Unlike Jesus, who took on his humiliations voluntarily, Sokka will be brought low by his own machismo and boasting. But with each failure, he will grow closer to becoming the warrior and man he had hoped to be.

Those failures come swiftly. During the second episode, Sokka takes a stand against the Fire Nation as they invade his village, and he is summarily beaten by Prince Zuko with a single kick. After leaving his home with the newly discovered Avatar, Sokka encounters the Kyoshi warriors, a tribe of geisha styled warrior women who also hand Sokka an easy defeat. When the first season ends, Sokka fails to protect his crush, Princess Yue, who is forced to trade her life for that of the world’s moon spirit. Sokka imagines that a real man doesn’t let this sort of thing happen to the woman he loves. It is a bottoming-out moment, a true and deep humiliation.

In the show’s second season, Sokka begins to learn from his mistakes, though he will make many more. On the one hand, he discovers his role as the team’s strategist. He’s able to outsmart the Fire Nation on a number of levels, saving rebel insurgents by creating a fake plague, finding weak points in Fire Nation war machines, and even discovering a solar eclipse that could turn the tide of the 100-year war. On the other hand, Sokka finds himself trapped in holes, beaten up by Princess Azula and her girlfriends, and missing the romantic overtures of a smitten crush. Although Sokka notches a few “wins” in this season, he is far from the successful stereotype he hoped to be in season one.

If the first two seasons showed how Sokka’s growth was related to Sokka’s failures, the third season showcases both Sokka’s greatest failure and his great triumph. Even though the Avatar has yet to learn all four elements, the team plans to invade the Fire Nation during an upcoming solar eclipse, which will drain the Fire Nation of their ability to bend fire. Sokka and the show’s heroes have amassed a sizable invasion force, with Sokka taking charge of the battle plan. All of the show’s fun B-characters from across the first two seasons join the fight. Even Sokka’s father Hakoda and the men of his village are among those who have joined the invasion force. Between Sokka’s planning and the gathering of beloved characters, viewers are left wondering if this battle will be the show’s climax.

Sokka’s plan works at first, but the invasion fails spectacularly. The Fire Nation knew about the threat and made plans of their own. The invading army cannot accomplish their goals by the end of the solar eclipse and are defeated by the Fire Nation’s fantastical steampunk war machines. While Katara, Aang, and Sokka are able to escape with some of their fellow teens, all of the their adult allies and parental figures are captured.

Sokka’s great challenge in the series is to be freed of his pride. Whether he dons the traditional garb of the woman warriors of Kyoshi Island or plans an invasion that fails, the key question of Sokka’s success depends on whether he approaches a situation with unearned confidence or quiet humility. After the failed invasion, Sokka has nothing left to feel proud about. He internalizes his failures: he is to blame for his father’s capture. He has been brought as low as one can go.

It isn’t long, however, before Sokka is given the opportunity to fix his failures. He discovers that his father is likely being held in a high-security prison called Boiling Rock. It’s the Alcatraz of the Fire Nation, a prison built in the middle of a boiling lake in the bottom of a volcano caldera. With the help of a new friend, Sokka is able to quietly infiltrate the high-security prison and escape with his father.

In Greek mythology, they call it the katabasis — the descent into the underworld to rescue that which has been lost. From a psychological perspective, when Sokka descends into the hell of this volcano prison to rescue his father, he finally transitions from boy to man. Rescuing his father proves that he is both deeply respectful of what has been passed on to him and also proves he has become his own differentiated person. He infiltrates the underworld and rescues his father from certain doom. It’s a remarkable piece of storytelling, one that highlights the down-and-up, death-and-resurrection journey that Sokka has taken throughout the show.

The Christian life, or any life, really, is not all that different from the humiliations that Sokka endured. A number of years ago at a Mockingbird Conference, our own Ethan Richardson spoke of the nature of this kind of embarrassment. Who doesn’t, he asked the assembly, look back at themselves from ten years ago with chagrin and mild embarrassment? But he also asked why we also view our current selves as fully formed and free from error. Are we really so bold as to claim that, ten years from now, we will look back at current selves without that same mild embarrassment? I remember this point vividly because the crowd that night had to stifle a wave of involuntary laughter, as if they had been surprisingly called out by a comedian. The gathering was blindsided by an unexpected epiphany: perhaps they were not as put together as they had thought.

As we noted from Philippians 2, we could also look to Christ himself, whose life on earth was defined by repeated and embraced humiliation. The Son of God assumed the life of a slave. He was born to rural peasants and abandoned by his friends and followers. He was executed as a criminal, naked and exposed on a public road with sarcastic signs tacked above his head. Jesus even went so far as to descend to the dead, his own katabasis, to rescue those who trusted in God’s promise of a savior and died before that trust found fulfillment. Because of this great work of self-emptying, Jesus is recognized by his Father for his humiliation in the service of others and is extolled by all. Not only is Jesus Christ raised back to life again, but he ascends to heaven apart from death to sit at God’s right hand and judge the world. The way up for Jesus was first the way down.

We should not be surprised, then, that Sokka rises to the challenge when the show’s final battle arrives. With the help of two of the show’s leading women, Sokka defeats a fleet of sixteen airships bringing fire and genocide to the Earth Kingdom. While Sokka’s humiliation was certainly not embraced or part of his plan for growing up, the pattern of humiliation and exaltation is still there. In every episode, in every conflict, in every fight, Sokka is humbled by his weakness and rewarded for his humility. The result is a young man who can rescue his father from hell and defeat the army of fire. That kind of inner strength and fortitude can only be forged in the furnace of repeated embarrassment and repentance. 

Katara’s path to the maternal ideal leads her to reflect the protecting, healing, and defending love of God to those in her care. Sokka’s path to become the righteous warrior leads him through seasons of humiliation that burn away his pride. These challenges of growing into adulthood are hard for Katara and Sokka, but they are especially true of our show’s main hero. Next week, we’ll see how Avatar Aang resists the world’s call into adulthood, and we’ll ask whether his “faith like a child” can actually save the world.