Monsters have multiplicitous semiotic capacities. Their meanings can be molded depending on their culture and context. The vampire, for example, can signal both exploitative capital (see the writings of Karl Marx) and transgressive subculture (see the HBO series True Blood). In the episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender called “The Painted Lady,” exploitative and liberatory versions of monstrosity come into contact, providing exciting grounds for analysis. In “The Painted Lady,” we see monstrosity as both oppression and resistance.
In “The Painted Lady,” Avatar Aang, waterbender Katara, her brother Sokka, and earthbender Toph come across a small fishing village on a polluted river. The town’s inhabitants are sick, malnourished, and exploited by the Fire Nation, mainly through the presence of an army factory nearby which pollutes the river’s waters and hordes the village’s medicine.
The factory engages in the monstrous exploitation described in Karl Marx’s Capital and analyzed in Mark Neocleous’ “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires.” By using the metaphor of the vampire, Marx emphasizes the way parasitic capital sucks the life out of its laborers. This vampiric relationship is shown in the relationship between the factory and the villagers; they must send all their medicine to the factory as the factory sucks their resources dry (8:19). The villagers used to sustain themselves through fishing, but the pollution from the factory renders that impossible, enacting the process by which capitalism destroys sustainable forms of work.
The factory also embodies Marx’s claim that capital is “dead labour” (Neocleous 669). When the villager Dock explains why the town is sick, he refers repeatedly to “the factory” but rarely mentions the people who run it, saying, “At least that’s how it was before the factory moved in” (3:12) and “all the medicine we have goes to the factory” (8:12). The factory takes on a life of its own, with its human operators often linguistically excluded from blame. Even when Katara and Aang infiltrate the factory to destroy it, there are no humans inside. The factory is empty, a large metal monster, glowing red and breathing steam but not alive, draining the life of the village below.
In order to help the ailing villagers and ultimately destroy the deadly factory, Katara assumes the identity of a monster: a river spirit called the Painted Lady. Katara marks herself as monstrous, painting swirls on her skin, and visits the villagers only at night, delivering food and healing the sick. Her choice to assume this non-human identity in order to resist the factory and the Fire Nation reveals the function of monstrosity as a place from which to derive power in the face of a normative system that exploits and harms.
As the Painted Lady, Katara shares much in common with the Girl in Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as both are figures of explicitly feminine resistance. Their encompassing names emphasize their womanhood rather than an individual identity (they are “girl” and “lady”), while the definite article “the” allows them to become representative. In other words, “the Girl” becomes the embodiment of all girls, the essence of “girl,” so to speak. Both assume “alter egos” of sorts in order to engage in their resistance; while the Painted Lady is clearly an assumed identity for Katara, even the Girl seems to separate her identity when she is outside at night from her identity in her own home, a distinction marked partially by the assumption of distinctive clothing. The Girl wears a chador, a flowing garment which covers most of her body. Katara also dons a dark flowing garment as the Painted Lady, covering her head with a wide-brimmed hat and veil. Both the Girl and the Painted Lady are notably beautiful, and they both “paint their faces”: we watch the Girl put on eyeliner and lipstick before leaving to kill a pimp and Katara paints red swirls on her body and reddens her lips to become the Painted Lady. The combination of flowing clothing, concealed bodies, and painted faces adds to the particularly feminine allure of both the Girl and the Painted Lady, gendering their transgression. At the same time, the focus on beauty and makeup allows these figures to subvert expectations surrounding traditional femininity. Both Katara and the Girl fight explicitly against men and refuse to accept injustices perpetrated by them.
Monster v. Monster
“The Painted Lady” thus stages monstrous exploitation and monstrous resistance in conflict. The factory is destroyed by Katara, in the guise of the Painted Lady, and Aang, whose Avatar status destabilizes his own humanity (see The Avatar’s Ancient Roots). The two monsters attack in the middle of the night, destroying the symbol of normative power and oppression. When the Fire Nation army comes to seek revenge for the factory’s destruction, Aang, Toph, and Sokka team up with Katara to create a spooky display of the Painted Lady’s spirit power. By leaning into monstrosity, the group is able to defeat the soldiers. The fight against the army solidifies the episode’s message that through resistant monstrosity, one can find rebellion and liberation, even against monstrous exploitation.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Vice Films, 2014.
DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2005-2008.
Neocleous, Mark. “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires.” History of Political Thought, vol. xxiv, no. 4, 2003, pp. 668-684.