Here, we will journey through the realm of psychological monsters lurking in the culture of the Fire Nation and in the recesses of Zuko’s mind. Together, we will discover how monstrosity is perpetuated, how a monster is created, and how the battle against monstrosity is simultaneously a battle against oneself and a battle to find oneself.
“The monster polices the borders of the possible… to step outside this official geography is to… become monstrous oneself.” -Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Culture (Seven Theses)
The monstrous culture of the Fire Nation Family
The Fire Nation is a name that incites fear. Indeed, the Fire Nation– until Zuko is crowned leader– truly rules by fear in their attempt to conquer all four nations. But the Fire Nation also rules by fear from within the royal family itself.
Zuko’s family is defined by a traditions of ruthlessness, power-seeking, and an unwavering belief in an almost-divine right to rule over the four nations. The royal family is clearly a monstrous entity. How is it, then, that this monstrosity is allowed to thrive and continue to give rise to individuals who embody these monstrous ideals, becoming monsters themselves? How is this monstrosity perpetuated across generations, despite the fact that some members of the royal family recognize and speak out against it (e.g. Iroh, Ursa/Zuko’s mother, and eventually Zuko himself)?
The answer is one we might expect, because this story is not a fictional one– the same pattern has played out in our own history many times. And the answer is this: the royal family ousts those who challenge the status quo. Members who challenge this monstrous status quo, then, by definition lie outside the bounds of monstrosity– in the realm of goodness and conscientiousness. But these traits are intolerable in the royal family because they threaten the balance of power, and the right of the ruthless leaders of the Fire Nation to rule– and more broadly, they threaten the right of the Fire Nation to conquer all four nations.
The reason for this lies in the original turning point of the Fire Nation’s royal family toward monstrosity. Monstrosity took root with Sozin’s idea that the Fire Nation was superior to the rest of the nations, and that by conquering them, the Fire Nation would be spreading its prosperity and effectively rescuing them from their own inferiority (ATLA, Season 3, Episode 6).(We might recognize this as the logic behind colonization. Once again: this is not a totally fictional story.) Then if this is the root of monstrosity, a truly kind and conscientious soul would see through the logic, which would threaten the balance of power, tipping it away from the Fire Nation.
If the innate traits of someone like Iroh or Zuko were allowed to flourish in the Fire Nation, they would reveal these logical inconsistencies within the Fire Nation’s claim to power and superiority. Because of this, the Fire Nation’s leaders and the royal family live in fear of losing power; they will do anything they can to maintain it. The Fire Nation rules by fear because they are ruled by fear.
Thus, the Fire Nation family exiles Iroh, Zuko, and Ursa. All three are portrayed as weak and without ambition– people who would bring the Fire Nation down (and in fact, they would bring down the Fire Nation as they knew it, but they would have charted a better path, too). Zuko, beyond just being exiled, bears the brand of an outsider on his face. In this way, defamation of those who threaten the status quo perpetuates power in the hands of monsters.
Portraying these three outsiders are weaklings doesn’t transform them in monsters per se, because they are not innately monstrous, fearful, or horrifying– they are, in fact, quite the opposite. But labelling them as weak makes them repulsive and undesirable, and transforms them into monsters within the culture of the royal family. These labels of repulsion and undesirability are common in the patterns of creation for many of the canonical so-called monsters we might encounter (e.g. Frankenstein’s creature, the people in Freaks), even if these people were not inherently monstrous.
Invasion of the psyche
What is the psychological effect of this twisted family dynamic on Zuko? Ultimately, it is at the root of Zuko’s struggles with the age-old question in the study of monsters: who is truly the monster? And by extension: what am I? who am I? (also age-old questions that we might recognize from our own journeys of self-discovery).
The royal family’s monstrous values are upheld by tradition– in the royal family, monstrosity is seen as desirable, and this culture, as we’ve seen, is perpetuated by ousting the “other;” by labelling those who refuse to conform as monstrous weaklings. Thus, from his vantage point growing up in the royal family and shielded from the rest of the world, Zuko sees something wrong with himself from a young age. Because the monsters of his family disguise and elevate themselves by distorting values like honor, respect, strength; that is, they distort honor, respect and strength into cruelty, obedience, and ruthlessness. In this way, it becomes very unclear what is right or wrong, and what (or who) is monstrous.
From a young age, Zuko struggles to find his place, feeling the pressure to be ruthless and power-hungry like his father, Azula, and the rest of his family. In the following example, Zuko tries to imitate Azula (ATLA S2,E7):
In one sense, Zuko is trying to show off this ruthlessness by mimicking Azula in the same way that he tries to show off his bending in front of his father and grandfather. But in another sense, he is testing this new possible identity, because he does this in front of his mother, who is the another kind soul, and an outsider, in the family.
The way he presents his action implies that he is not taking full responsibility– that it is an act of questioning:
“Hey mom, want to see how Azula feeds the ducks?”
He is not feeding the ducks in his own way; he is showing his mother how Azula feeds the ducks and showing her that he is willing to be like Azula. But he also shows his mother that he is questioning whether he should be like Azula, or like his father, or his grandfather.
Thus, from a young age, Zuko struggles with the question of how he fits (and whether he fits) into his family.
When Zuko gets his scar, he is marked as an outsider– a weakling “monster” in the eyes of his family– which leads him, ironically, to embody the monstrous traits of his family in his quest for “honor.” But Zuko is not seeking honor: he is seeking to belong in his family. When he is scarred by his father, Zuko is led to believe that he is devoid of honor and strength, which leads him to question himself and struggle to find his place in his family.
Betraying the self, becoming the monster
The story behind Zuko’s scar is significant because it demonstrates the conditioning that Zuko undergoes in his family, which leads to his inner turmoil.
Zuko desperately wanted to be a part of the decision-making that his father and the generals participated in; he desperately wanted to learn how to be a capable leader– and to prove himself to his father. In the war room, when a general suggested that the Fire Nation sacrifice a battalion of young soldiers in order to win a key battle, Zuko immediately spoke out against it. His kindness and conscientious leadership was not rewarded. Instead, his own father challenged him to an Agni Kai; Zuko pleaded with his father for mercy, and begged forgiveness, reminding his father that he is a loyal son to him. His father paid no attention, and inflicted a scar upon Zuko to teach him a lesson (ATLA S1, E12).
In this backstory, we see Zuko’s innate self: an objectively kind, caring, and conscientious soul who would make an excellent leader. But these qualities were not nurtured by his family; instead, Zuko was led to believe that in order to be a great leader, he needed to cultivate the monstrous qualities of his father, Azula, and the royal family. Thus, Zuko is conditioned to believe that his best qualities were signs of weakness, since he was punished and visibly scarred when he demonstrated kindness and loyalty. And so, he began to betray himself in order to find belonging in the culture of his family.
We can see this self-betrayal occur as Zuko begins to embody the monstrous qualities of his family in his quest for honor/belonging. The scene on the left depicts younger Zuko, when he spoke out in the war room to defend the safety of Fire Nation soldiers (ATLA S1, E12). After he is reprimanded– and branded– he begins to act like the general he spoke out against; in the scene on the right, Zuko neglects the safety of his crew in service of his quest for honor (ATLA S1, E12). It’s a striking reversal of values.
And yet, Zuko is always questioning; he is never totally converted to the other side. In the same episode where he neglects his crew at first, he later heroically rescues a helmsman and decides to let the Avatar go for the time being so that his crew could find shelter in the eye of the storm (ATLA S1, E12).
For Zuko the process of questioning is constant and the journey of self-discovery is long and arduous. He continuously oscillates between the person he thinks he wants to be, and the person that he is. Over time, he slowly cuts at the ties that bind him to his family’s culture, but it is a process that is gradual– the transformation never occurs all at once, because the desire to belong, to no longer be an outsider, to no longer be a weakling, is so strong. In order to embrace his true self, Zuko has to learn to break from his family, and embrace his otherness– his “monstrosity” in the eyes of his family.
Let’s examine an instance from an episode aptly named “Zuko Alone” (ATLA S2, E7), where Zuko travels through an Earth Kingdom town alone, and flashbacks about Zuko’s childhood are revealed. A striking moment in this episode occurs when Azula tells Zuko that his father would have to kill him as punishment for disrespecting Iroh, who had just lost his first-born son. Zuko repeats to himself: “Azula lies,” over and over (left scene below) (ATLA S2, E7). To believe Azula would be to believe in his father’s and grandfather’s cruelty. He has to actively, painstakingly, hold onto his own identity, to hold onto the goodness inside him, and to extricate himself from Azula and the generations of cruelty before him. He repeats “Azula lies” as his older self too (right scene below), showing that he is still in the process of extrication.
A Side Exploration: The Ghost of Ursa
Another set of striking scenes in “Zuko Alone” occurs when Zuko’s mom, Ursa, reappears to him in visions (ATLA S1, E12). Ursa is a crucial tie to Zuko’s true identity, and in this episode she renews Zuko’s connection to himself.
I’ll suggest here the idea that Ursa can be viewed as a “protective” monster. In the story, she commits treasonous acts in order to protect Zuko from his father’s punishment (it turns out Azula wasn’t lying after all). Her actions were possibly immoral ones, since it’s implied that she may have had something to do with the death of Zuko’s grandfather in order to secure Ozai’s place on the throne (ATLA S3, E11).
But that is her duty– she is fierce and protective, and will become monstrous in order to protect her own:
[Scenes above are from ATLA S2, E7.]
And in the same way a ghost might come back to enact justice, she comes back in visions to Zuko to remind him of his core self. This is her promise to him just before she leaves / is banished:
[Scenes above are from ATLA S2, E7.]
And she continues to haunt him in visions, in the most beautiful way. She continues to reappear, reminding him during this episode (ATLA S2, E7) — a vulnerable moment for Zuko– of who he is:
Pendulum Transformation (continued)
Zuko swings back and forth between right and wrong, because he doesn’t know which is which. As previously discussed, the royal family intentionally obscures morality and monstrosity. Even late into the show, after many moments of possible transformation, Zuko recognizes that he still doesn’t know (ATLA S3, E5):
All the small moments of questioning, of clarity, moments where his mother returns, where Iroh gets through to him– this barrage of moments leads to a final break from his family. Zuko finally understands how his family environment molded, and he finally rejects that set of values: [how to make this a cool slideshow?]
[Scenes above are from ATLA S3, E11]
Monsters.. can be… hidden away… in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return. And when they come back… they bear self-knowledge. -Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Culture (Seven Theses)
There are many psychological “monsters” hidden away in the recesses of Zuko’s mind, which resurface throughout his journey and play a key role in his becoming. One is Zuko’s mom, who bears knowledge of his true self– his kind, morally good self. Another monster which is present throughout Zuko’s journey is his father (and by extension, the monstrous culture of his family); his father and familial values don’t remind him of who he is, like his mother does. Instead, these psychological monsters lead Zuko on a path of questioning, which “bears self-knowledge” in a very different way.
Although this path may have been tortuous and long for Zuko, it was necessary for him to truly know who he is, to find his true self and understand his true destiny. By having to battle these monsters, by fighting against the urge to belong and instead charting his own path, he realizes where the monsters truly lie. In fact, it is only by battling them that he can realize this, because the very act of the battle implies that there is something monstrous to fight against.
[Scene above is from S3, E11]
These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. -Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Culture (Seven Theses)
In his journey of questioning, the monsters of Zuko’s mind force him to seek out the truth even when it is hard. By grappling with these monsters, Zuko realizes important truths about himself and the way that he misrepresented his family and his quest in his own mind:
[Scenes above are from S3, E11]
Not only does the battle against these monsters reveal powerful truths to Zuko about himself, but it also reveals powerful truths about his identity as a member of the Fire Nation, and his duty as someone who sees the faults in it:
[Scenes above are from S3, E11]
As Zuko grapples with the psychological monsters of his family, he reaches echoing the same conclusions we might arrive at from a political analysis of fear/monstrosity in the Fire Nation, as we saw earlier in this exploration. The psychological monsters illuminate (monstrare) the truth to Zuko by forcing him to grapple with them. If he hadn’t been exiled, hadn’t been forced to question his identity, he wouldn’t have questioned the culture he had grown up in.
What about us? The monster’s message to the viewer
In a more high-level sense, Zuko as a monster in the show illuminates to the viewer, too, the monstrous dynamics of the Fire Nation family. Because the viewer naturally feels some empathy toward Zuko (mixed with horror/repulsion, to be sure), we are led to resolve this feeling of empathy by trying to understand what made him this way. Thus, we are forced to understand the true source of monstrosity– and that true source, as I’ve argued, doesn’t come from within Zuko himself. It comes from his family and upbringing– from the “cultural tea” he had been steeped in from a young age.
This is an important way that Zuko as a monster serves a crucial role in challenging our own views of monstrosity, by revealing (monstrare) that monsters are created by their cultures, that the blame perhaps doesn’t fall on innate characteristics of monstrosity, but on those who perpetuate cultures of cruelty. Zuko shows us that monstrosity is in the eye of the beholder; he and Iroh were made out to be monsters in the context of his family. But when Zuko embodied his family’s values, he became a monster in the context of the greater world. Zuko’s story , then, shows us how monstrosity is defined– and thus, how it can be perpetuated– by those who hold the power of definition, because they hold the power to obfuscate their own monstrosity by declaring an “other” as a threat.
Then, Zuko’s monstrosity and his battle against monstrosity is lesson for us, too. He warns us (monere) of what can happen when we pursue values that are not are own in the quest for belonging: we end up losing ourselves in the process. He invites us to question our own cultural context and reconsider what is truly monstrous and what is not, and whether the two have been mixed up. Zuko warns us that we all have the potential to be monstrous in the quest for belonging if we blindly follow our cultural context; and perhaps it is not our fault that this monstrosity is seeded within us (just as Zuko’s monstrosity was seeded within him by his family). But it is our responsibility, just as it was Zuko’s, to question our culture; it is our responsibility to pull out the roots of monstrosity from within us. When Zuko uprooted the monstrosity within him, he lost the part of himself that could have belonged to his family, but in the process, he discovered his true identity and his true destiny. To weed out the monster within us is to lose a part of one’s self, but it is also a discovery of the true self.
Finally, Zuko’s ultimate transformation shows us that embracing our true selves and throwing off values that have been imposed by cultural powers is not easy; staying true to our selves may require us to accept the status of an outsider– a monster in the eyes of our culture. We may become outsiders, strangers, to the group that we most want to belong to in this process of self-actualization, but at least we will not be strangers to ourselves.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56.
DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2005-2008.