(Trigger Warning for Ableism and Abuse)
Okay, rant time, because this is something that really grinds my gears. Listen closely, because I’m only going to say this once:
Azula is not fucking crazy.
Yes, she’s dangerous. Yes, she manipulates people and torments her brother and uses fear to keep her friends in line. Yes, she suffers a mental breakdown at the end of the series because her entire life turns upside down and she doesn’t know how to deal with it. Does any of that indicate any sort of mental illness?
For one thing, it’s a diagnosis none of us are qualified to make (unless there’s an actual psychologist reading this, in which case, feel free to weigh in). A term I see thrown around a lot when it comes to Azula is “sociopath,” often using her more sadistic tendencies as evidence. Diagnosing that sort of thing is not as simple as opening up a Wikipedia article and going down a checklist. It takes hours of observation to make an informed diagnosis on this sort of thing, and the sad thing is that a lot of people display some of the hallmarks of the disorder. The reason it’s called a disorder is because people who suffer from it display those tendencies to an extreme not seen in so-called “normal” people.
Another thing to consider is her age. A vast majority of psychologists will flat out refuse to diagnose anybody under age eighteen with any sort of personality disorder for the simple fact that kids can be cruel. Don’t forget that Zuko threw rocks at the turtle ducks too because he thought it was acceptable behavior and only stopped after his mother corrected him. And that’s the difference between them: nobody ever really stepped in to tell Azula “no.”
And newsflash: psycho/sociopaths are not Hannibal Lecter. With very few exceptions, most of them lead perfectly normal lives. Azula’s cunning, manipulation and charisma are all products of her natural personality, and not indicative of any sort of mental illness. In fact, there is a very simple explanation for why Azula acts the way she does:
Azula was raised in an abusive household.
No two children respond to abuse the same way, and where Zuko always disappointed his father, she was the favored one, and it’s very common behavior among children with abusive parents to let one sibling take the fall for something so that they look better in comparison and can reap all the love that the other sibling is denied. It’s not even hatred of the other sibling that produces this behavior: it’s a learned response that arises out of a need to survive.
This, by the way, explains why Azula was so desperate to get Zuko on her side and back home instead of simply killing him. If she hated him, she would have ended him a lot earlier instead of trying to convert him. Because while Zuko was around to draw Ozai’s scrutiny, she was free to be his perfect little angel and had a scapegoat to pin things on. Once Zuko got banished, all of Ozai’s unreasonable expectations became hers to bear alone, and she wanted to get him back because she knew that if she took one wrong step she wouldn’t have her father’s favor anymore.
Even her casual dismissal of Lu Ten’s death and desire for Ozai to take the throne from Iroh can be explained by her reaction to Iroh’s gift. I don’t think he meant to be sexist about it, just like he probably didn’t mean to be ableist in the quote above. He’s just not very close to her, so like any well-meaning family member he gets her a gift he thinks she would like because “all girls like dolls.” The message this sends to her, though, is that Iroh thinks that she should behave in a more “girly” manner, like her mother.
To Azula, a girl who prides herself on being an awesome firebender who makes her father proud, this presents a dilemma. She can either stand by and let Iroh become Fire Lord, which from her perspective means that she won’t be encouraged to be a great firebender who kicks ass but a more traditional, feminine Princess, or she can do something about it. Even her mother thinks that there’s something wrong with her, and says as much, though not to her face. Ozai, on the other hand, not only doesn’t mind that she doesn’t stick with “girly” activities, but is actually proud of her firebending abilities. To Azula’s eight year old mind, the only way that she can continue to be herself is if her father takes the throne.
Look at how much she was affected when Ozai made her Fire Lord and then rendered that meaningless by declaring himself the Phoenix King. Right before that she said, “You can’t treat me like Zuko!” which indicates that her greatest fear was failing to live up to her father’s unrealistic expectations for his children, a burden she had thus far managed to foist on Zuko. When Ozai tasked her with hunting down Iroh and Zuko, she conquered Ba Sing Se, captured Iroh, converted Zuko, and killed the Avatar. She went above and beyond out of a desire for the love and acceptance that children naturally crave, and when Ozai demonstrated that it meant nothing to him, it was the last fucking straw on a foundation that had already been weakened by Mai and Ty Lee’s betrayal.
Absolutely none of this, by the way, indicates that she had any sort of preexisting mental condition. She is just as much a product of her environment as Zuko , and what’s more, she is the inverse of Zuko. Zuko never got the love and acceptance he craved from Ozai, but Azula got to enjoy it for a while and then when she realized that she never really had his love either, she completely came apart.
I hate, hate, hate when people call Azula crazy, because it reinforces the stereotype that mental illnesses naturally make a person dangerous. Here’s a thought: maybe she suffered a psychotic break because her life rested on pillars, and when those were knocked away she didn’t know how to respond. She was already dangerous, and the only reason she was able to be beaten is because she was slipping. As in, acting like a lunatic made her less effective.
Blaming Azula’s more extreme personality flaws on some amorphous condition that doesn’t fit any actual disorders is insulting to the people who do have those disorders and manage not to be the dangerous lunatics that television and movies love to portray them as. It’s ill-informed and really pisses me off, and I’m not the only one out there.
So please, don’t call her crazy. Call her what she is: Dangerous. Manipulative. Cruel. Tragic. Overburdened by her father’s expecations and desperate for somebody to love her. But not crazy. Never crazy.
I don’t feel like reblogging those panels from The Promise that are going around so I’m just bringing this back instead.
Hm, never thought of it in this way but that’s a pretty damn good observation. Fortunately I’ve never had to experience abuse, nor do I have any close sibling to relate to the sort of “divided love/acceptance” dilemma, so it’s hard to grasp the concept entirely just upon watching the show. But this is an awesome interpretation of her character, aye.
Interesting points. I may weigh in at some point…