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Zutara. It's a force that can't be ignored in this fandom. It's been well-established that fans who support the Katara/Zuko pairing are more active and vocal, something a simple Google search seems to confirm. "Zutara," as of this writing, turns up about 485,000 results, while a search for "Kataang" turns up about 303,000 results. There is a similar disparity in Fanfiction.net story searches, with filtering for "Katara, Zuko" and "Romance" turning up 4,834 stories and a filter for "Aang, Katara" and "Romance" bringing up 2,735.

So what, goes the refrain. Katara/Zuko fans have always been more active. In some ways they had to be, since their preferred ship was not sanctioned by canon. Plus, simple popularity proves nothing about validity or quality. Just because more people like something doesn't mean it's better. So what am I trying to prove with the numbers game?

For this essay, I am interested in why Katara/Zuko is such a popular pairing. I am not interested in which pairings are canon-compliant (we already know), nor which pairings are "better" or more "logical" or "meant to be" (that dead horse has been not only beaten but pulverized by now). I have my own viewpoint on that question as you will guess, but that's not the subject of this writing. Rather, I want to explore the reasons behind the shipping preferences--what do fans believe about romance that leads them to support the different pairings? Why do we ship whom we ship?

My argument is that the reason "Zutara" (a shorthand for the Katara/Zuko pairing) is so popular is because it is supported by a popular view of romance. That view is that a meaningful romance should be exciting and not complacent. I'll talk more about what this excitement means, but I think of it mainly in three aspects: Conflict, uncertainty, and glamor. Other ideas seem to support this main idea, such as the desire to tame and comfort a troubled bad boy, and the idea that Zuko deserves some compensation for his difficult redemption. I would argue that these are the ideas about romance and drama that drive the Zutara ship.


Because teens who kill together, chill together, amirite? ...Those who are bloodthirsty together, play tonsil-hockey together? No?

In contrast, the support for the two main canon pairings "Kataang" (short for Aang/Katara) and "Maiko" (for Mai/Zuko) are based on a completely different conception of romance. In this view, a long-term romantic relationship should be both comfortable and comforting. Specifically, the idea is that a good romance isn't supposed to be dramatic and filled with conflict. Rather, the relationship should be based on compatibility and understanding that prevent conflicts from happening in the first place, or help the partners resolve them before things turn serious. If you believe romance should not be high-maintenance and should be a source of comfort, not of conflict, you are more likely to support Kataang and Maiko.

None of this is to say that supporters of the "conflict" view of romance exclude comfort from what they see as a good romance. Nor does it mean that those who hold the "comfort" view of romance are averse to excitement in real or fictional relationships. The difference is one of emphasis. It's about the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to romance, the thing that hits you in the gut and draws you in.
 
When you look at the pairings this way, it's no wonder that these shipping debates get so heated. The fans are not only defending a fictional relationship, they're also defending their view of how romance is supposed to work. And since romance is an important part of life for many (I know it is for me), that can be like defending your view of life, or even your worldview. How we respond to these fictional constructs tell us a lot about who we are. It's just one of the ways fiction acts as a focus and lens for life.

To understand this better, let's look at these two different conceptions of romance in turn and how they relate to the different Avatar ships. For this essay I will focus on the idea underlying the Katara/Zuko pairing. Next essay, I will talk about Aang/Katara and Mai/Zuko.


Romance Should Be Exciting: The "Conflict" View of Romance
 
 
The course of true love never did run smooth.
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
 
 
I have proposed that the support for Zutara is based largely on the view that romance should be exciting. Now I'll try to make an argument by supporting that proposition.
 
I rest my case. Easiest. Essay. Ever. Wait, what was my point?
 
I don't have the time or the inclination to pursue and quote everything that has ever been said in support of this pairing (call me lazy if you want, but seriously), but here are some of the common refrains I see:
 
 
Opposites attract. Zuko and Katara are fire/water, they were enemies for most of the series, so they're opposites. Hence, attraction!
 
Katara nurtures and protects Aang. Her interest in him is motherly or sisterly, which was why she was confused in "Ember Island Players." Hence a relationship between them would be wrong.
 
Aang and Katara are boring, obvious, and cliche. They're also unexciting, like an old married couple. Katara and Zuko are more unexpected and exciting.
 
Aang isn't tall enough/physically mature enough to have a relationship with Katara who is already a young woman, while Zuko is a young man himself.
 
Katara and Zuko look hot together.
 
Zuko worked so hard for the Gaang's acceptance, Katara's in particular, he deserves something more than platonic friendship.
 
 
The emphasis of the arguments is on the excitement, the uncertainty and conflict inherent in the relationship. Of course, Katara and Zuko have come to like and respect each other by the end of the show, but it happened too late in the series for them to build anything like the rapport that Aang and Katara have built over the entire series. My hunch is that this makes the pairing more attractive for Zutarans, not less. The unfamiliarity and uncertainty of the relationship is a large part of what draws them.
 
And well it might. Stories, after all, are made of conflict. Katara and Zuko have a lot to work out if they are to have a long-term relationship, not to mention a lifelong partnership. There's the conflict between their two peoples, with Zuko's ancestors helping to almost destroy Katara's culture by abducting their waterbenders. And that's not even counting the genocide of the Air Nomads, something that shook Katara deeply due to her friendship and caring for Aang. Both Zuko and Katara have a temper and can get violent when angered, unlike Aang and Mai's more even keel. Not only do the seeds of conflict run deep, but any conflict is likely to be more intense and possibly violent due to their sometimes volatile tempers. These two could get into the most epic domestic violence cases ever.

At the end of the show, Katara and Zuko are also very recent friends and do not know each other very well. They have a ways to go before they are really comfortable with each other, which amplifies the possibilities for conflict. Their lives, or at least her life would have to change radically for them to be together; they would have to decide where they would live, for starters, and their primary residence will probably be the Fire Nation capital due to Zuko's duties. This means Katara will most likely have to move to a country that is unfamiliar to her and was an enemy nation until very recently. And foreign queens are not always received kindly, remember how the French treated Catherine de' Medici? All this, and more, heightens the tension and conflict in the relationship.
 
Having all this drama built into a relationship is great fodder for stories. That's the reason that William Shakespeare quoted above, Chretien de Troyes who wrote outright adultery into the Arthurian literature, and many of the greats who dealt with romance put obstacles like feuding families and marriage in their fictional lovers' way. Otherwise the romance could not be a story of its own, devoid of conflict and choices. It would be basically "fluff," the characters simply being in love without meaningful conflict. This is kind of the way most scenes between Aang and Katara go, with Katara comforting him and nurturing him, the two sharing quiet moments of friendship and mutual respect. If there is conflict it is usually an outside conflict they face together, not conflict within the relationship. And so, if you want to deal with romance as a central subject matter of a story, Katara/Zuko is much more interesting than Aang/Katara simply because it has more possibility for conflict. That probably explains why there are more fan stories dealing with this ship, too.
 
This conflict generates uncertainty about where the two might end up, about what happens next. One of the complaints about Aang and Katara is that their relationship seems too much of a sure thing, almost predestined if you will. There's no excitement in that, goes the thinking. The prospect of a relationship between Katara and Zuko, on the other hand, is far from certain. Not only is their friendship relatively new at the end of the show, but their life circumstances and different cultures could get in the way as well. Zutara is a step off the well-worn path of predestined love, an embrace of uncertainty. And what is life if not uncertain?
 
Then there's the glamor factor which can't be ignored. These two look good together. Aang is shorter and younger than Katara, while Zuko is taller and older. It may be shallow, but it does tell us what a lot of people prefer to see. They want the guy to be older, taller, and in some ways dominant. Zuko may be used to hardship but he has had a privileged upbringing, and as Firelord he certainly has a lot more resources and power at his disposal than Katara. I also find it significant that Katara's being a nurturing figure to Aang has so many people in the fandom squicked out at the idea of romance between them, yet going by the examples of other fandoms, this same factor seems to be a huge draw when the male is in the protector/nurturer role.* Therefore one can safely assume that Katara/Zuko conforms to a fairly common conception of what looks glamorous in a couple.

* Hey Inuyasha fans--remember Sesshomaru/Rin? *shudder* For extra squick credits, see one fansite's description of their relationship. See also Wife Husbandry.Obviously I'm not accusing Zutarans of being part of this trope, I'm just making the larger point that there is a prevalent preference for the man to be the dominant partner in a heterosexual pairing.

Other than the excitement factors above, which I see as the dominant reasons for support of this ship, there are miscellaneous reasons I've seen including the concept of just desserts, that Zuko deserves to get the girl due to all the hard work he did. I guess this stems from the fact that Katara, while far from the only girl in the series, is the main female character who is arguably powerful and beautiful, and so she's a bigger "prize" than Mai? Or she's the character that female viewers most identify with, and they would prefer Zuko to Aang? Maybe it has something to do with dramatic status, that since Katara is the main female character, being paired with her will elevate Zuko to protagonist status? Or something. I can only guess since I don't follow this argument. I've never thought of love, especially romantic attachment, as something that one is entitled to.

Further arguments for this ship are basically reiterations of the "conflict" view of romance: The complaint that Aang/Katara and Mai/Zuko are cliched and boring fall straight into this category. The popular desire for a bad boy and being the one to tame him are, again, reflections of the desire to have conflict fodder in a relationship. For relationship drama, honestly, you can't wish for much better than Katara/Zuko. Whether drama in a relationship is a good thing, of course, depends on how you view romance and its role in a story. (That will be the subject of the third essay.)

Thus I argue that the primary appeal of a Katara/Zuko romantic relationship is the conflict potential, and therefore story potential, in the pairing. As such, it is more likely to appeal to those who believe that a romance, or at least a fictional romance, should be exciting and dramatic, not to mention glamorous.

Of course, a relationship filled with drama and conflict is likely to be painful for the participants rather than exciting. Such relationships are often less likely to last in the long run, because these strains tend to wear on people and affections. Some do overcome these obstacles successfully, of course, but it's relatively difficult. The more committed the relationship and the more important the area of conflict, the more likely it is that these differences will tear a relationship apart. Katara and Zuko in a committed relationship, in other words, seems pretty much a recipe for pain.
 

Feel his pain. Feel it! See also [info]amiraelizabeth's hilarious take on this scene. (Profanity warning)
 
It may not be enjoyable for the characters involved, but it sure is fun for the audience. And that entertainment is what lies at the heart of Zutara, that this is a relationship for the enjoyment of viewers outside the relationship and not the participants in the relationship. Their conflict, their drama, their pain become the stuff of our entertainment. Drama is fun as long as it happens to someone else, and conflicts build stories. The appeal of Zutara is the appeal of exciting drama, not the appeal of a stable and lasting relationship.
 
Because here's the dirty little secret of stable and long-lasting relationships: They're actually kind of boring. Not in the sense that there's no fun, or no chemistry, or no desire; but rather that these relationships are not fraught with conflict. Or if there's conflict, there is good enough communication that the partners can patch it up before serious damage is done. These romances don't make really good stories in of themselves because they have so little conflict. On the other hand, they do make a stable foundation for other kinds of stories. If you know your partner has your back, it becomes a lot easier to go out there and save the world or your nation or whatever. This kind of romance does not draw attention to itself, but rather quietly supports the partners involved, providing a stable emotional base that they can return to.

This other conception of romance, the view of relationships as a stable base rather than a roiling storm, will be the subject of the next essay. There I will describe the "comfort" view of romance and how it supports Kataang and Maiko.

Comments

(Anonymous)
Dec. 15th, 2015 02:55 am (UTC)
This isn't an analysis. This is an anti-Zutara rant. This is a very biased argument made by someone who cannot understand the side they are choosing to "represent" in this article.

The person who wrote this, and the people who left the comments, they don't understand Zutara or the shippers AT ALL. Notice how most of "arguments" they used weren't pro-Zutara so much as anti-Kataang. Zutara isn't anti-Kataang. Zutara is Zutara. It angers me, and other Zutara shippers, to no end when people accuse us of shipping Zutara because of who "deserves" Katara. No one deserves Katara. The very idea of it is sexist. We ship Zutara because we love the dynamic of the two, the unique relationship they have, and not because of the offensive Zutara stereotypes listed here.

Here, a quote of a Zutarian from Tumblr:
"People will always look back on their lives and think about the great things that could have happened, and Zutara is one of those things. People keep coming back to it because it offers the beauty of 'what if?' It represents a lost first love, chances that should have been taken, a close friendship and bond. It is a dream ship, a ship uncorrupted by canon. Because of that, it doesn’t have to begin or end a certain way. It can go on forever, in the eternal question of 'what if?'"

Stop trying to make it look like Zutara would be an unstable relationship, or that the shippers are shallow, because none of it is true.

Oh, and in case you didn't know, BOTH of the voice actors for Zuko and Katara, Dante Basco and Mae Whitman, ship Zutara. You can see so for yourself on Dante's Tumblr account, RufioZuko. Yes, Zutara is popular. In fact, a recent buzzfeed poll concluded that Zutara is more popular than Kataang by 53% to 47%.

Zutara is popular not because it is exciting, but because it is interesting. Not because of shallow appearances, but because of a deep and unique bond.
ljlee
Dec. 16th, 2015 06:49 am (UTC)
Seeing how I drew from arguments made by actual Zutarans and yes, a lot of Zutarans are anti-Kataang, your No True Scotsmanning doesn't work particularly well. Since I said exactly nowhere that it was wrong to like a ship for reasons of excitement or that it's shallow to do so, it looks like you're the one who's making the anti-Zutaran rant. At the very least, you seem to look down on people who like your pairings for reasons different than yours. Do you get dizzy from that high horse you've put yourself on?

Edit due to premature posting (the "quote" button is evidently broken):

Oh, and in case you didn't know, BOTH of the voice actors for Zuko and Katara, Dante Basco and Mae Whitman, ship Zutara.

Oh, and in case you didn't know, BOTH of the creators of Avatar: the Last Airbender, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, ship Kataang. Seriously, your "argument" for your ship is that other people like it?

Yes, Zutara is popular. In fact, a recent buzzfeed poll concluded that Zutara is more popular than Kataang by 53% to 47%.

Yeah, read the beginning of the essay. Why do you think it's some sort of gotcha to repeat the very assertion I opened with, which is how popular Zutara is?

Seriously, if anything could turn me anti-Zutara it's obnoxious and logic-challenged Zutarans like you.

Edited at 2015-12-16 06:57 am (UTC)
(Anonymous)
Feb. 4th, 2016 09:26 pm (UTC)
I realize this was posted almost ages ago, but I feel compelled to put this back up for discussion if that doesn't bother you.

Truthfully, you make very rich arguments. There's only a few problems I had with this, and feel free to correct me. Everyone's a critic, after all.

I recently finished watching A:TLA as late as I was to the series, and although this doesn't really affect anything, hear me out:

When I'd know Zuko had returned Katara's necklace to Sokka in order for him to give to her in the episode "The Waterbending Scroll," I sensed an instant spark of chemistry right then and there. It sounds absurd, but frankly it was rather sweet to know that he knew how much it meant to her. She was happy about it herself, and throughout the series their interactions continue to hint at something of a deep connection, if you will.

So to answer your thoughts, I didn't start shipping Zutara until just after I noticed their fondness towards one another. Not for shallow reasons such as "they look good together" or "they're exciting." Hell, I didn't even know their ship was a thing until just days ago. I wouldn't have ever thought of placing them together before then. It was so alien to me.

I simply noticed the close bond between them.

It wasn't platonic, but not enough for it to be romantic. Simply that there were clues lingering over the surface; if Zuko and Katara were close enough to indulge in a relationship, their understanding would keep them steady. It's had a realistic chance of happening. Well then, so has Kataang.

Frankly, this supposed analysis is a bit insulting. The author's personal opinions contradict with some of the reasoning. A blind will.

You say that their relationship could be filled with drama and pain. Maybe other Zutara shippers interpret it that way. (Actually, I'm pretty certain a majority do.) But as inexperienced as I am with my knowledge of this show, I can tell you that this isn't the case. It's not angst, nor am I selling you the idea that their relationship would be perfect. Problems arise in every healthy one. It's what gets you through it that makes you stronger.

And yes, you fail to mention their similarities and chemistry.

At the beginning of the show, Zuko's a misguided soul who wishes to restore his honor and hold a place in the heart of his father. Of course, as the series progresses we learn much more about him than what we bargained for. We learn that he has a soft side, that his heart is in the right place. He's lost — requiring a nudge in the right direction. He needs someone he can emotionally rely on. Unfortunately, sometimes his problem is putting right things into place too little too late.

But surely you know this already.

Katara is smart and compassionate. She doesn't need help knowing what's right and what's wrong no matter the situation. She, as any other person, just needs to go with her gut and follow through with it. She's practical and knows the context of a problem. She's prepared to do everything it takes to fix it.

Zuko gave her nerve and bravery, she just grabbed ahold of it and returned to him what was brought: instincts to follow, light.
ljlee
Feb. 10th, 2016 09:03 am (UTC)
When I'd know Zuko had returned Katara's necklace to Sokka in order for him to give to her in the episode "The Waterbending Scroll," I sensed an instant spark of chemistry right then and there.

But that's... literally not what happened. At all. Zuko held on to Katara's necklace in "The Waterbending Scroll" (you know, after tying her up and trying to entice her with it to betray her friend) and in fact he used it to track down and kidnap her and Sokka in a later episode, "Bato of the Water Tribe." It was Aang who wrested it from Zuko during their fight in that episode and returned it to Katara, who thanked him with a kiss on the cheek.

Look, you have a right to ship whatever you like. I'm just confused that the beginning of your ship is based on something that never actually happened in the series. Zuko never returned Katara's necklace voluntarily; he used it against her on at least two occasions, during a period when he was regularly menacing and kidnapping her and her friends. I like Zuko as much as the next fan, but let's not sanitize what a complete twit he used to be.

Your character interpretations are your own, and if you think Zuko and Katara showed a deep fondness and connection for each other while he was mistreating her in all sorts of ways, more power to you. I was simply, as you said yourself, pointing out dynamics that I saw with a lot of Zutarans at the time. And in fact if you look at the comment thread Kataang fans take me to task for not being favorable enough to their ship, so you're right, everyone's a critic lol.
(Anonymous)
Feb. 4th, 2016 09:27 pm (UTC)
Continued...
...And while the "opposites attract" thing is an attractive aspect to their characters, it has little to nothing concerning them as a whole. They're simply good-natured people holding together the thought of saving the world and doing what's right.

Zuko's loyalty and protectiveness towards her would only serve to keep their relationship grounded. I definitely see Katara as the type to nurture him the way his own mother once had. That's where the Zutarians argument falls apart. "Katara's love for Aang was sisterly/motherly." It's only in her nature to provide a gentle touch. So would that not apply to their relationship, too? Or every other sentimental relationship Katara has ever had with anyone, including her own brother? I don't mean this to be weird, either. Logically speaking, we prefer to find mates with similar qualities our own parents carried. He'd see the warmth she has, and Katara sees the determination in his eyes her own father bears. It's not a lose-lose.

As silly as this is to apply it to a cartoon, you have to realize that the creators aren't really seeing them in terms of compatibility itself, rather what they find to be the most fitting to their own creativity. They see Aang as themselves, and how could they not? It's their right. It Is their show, therefore their vision. It's brilliant, really.

In the end, they ended up butchering their characters and destroying whatever friendship Zuko and Katara originally had resulting from their insecurity, hence the bootleg versions of them, Korra and Mako. (That's a completely different show for a reason.) Remember "The Promise"?

My point is — I understand what they were attempting to convey to the audience, but if they'd really wanted fans to ship Kataang as much as they did, they should've done a better job at portraying it as such instead of throwing in a few kisses here and there. It showed how hard they were trying. Pfft, my ten year old brother assumed that Zuko and Katara were lovers. He thought Aang was her brother. It goes to show how emotionally in-tune they were, and it resonated with the audience as well.

I have opinions that have nothing to do with the debate, but if it helps, I thought the "Forbidden Love" thing was pretty fucking hilarious.

ljlee
Feb. 10th, 2016 09:15 am (UTC)
Re: Continued...
Your argument is actually that Zuko would see his own mother in Katara, and Katara would see her father in Zuko? That's creepy, actually.

Add extra creepy points for the "Bryke put themselves in Aang's shoes and want Katara for themselves" insinuation. Believe me, that is far from a new argument and also ew ew ew.

And like, when was Zuko and Katara's friendship destroyed...? As I recall they stayed friends through some really trying times and political turmoil. And yeah, they stayed friends after they each married other people. Because that's a thing. Men and women can be good friends and not have sex. Surprise!

Ten-year-olds are now arbiters of romantic compatibility eh. That aside, you think it's a count against Kataang that Katara and Aang seem like siblings but a count for Zutara that Katara and Zuko would supposedly see their own parents in each other... okay... way to be consistent in your argumentation, pal.

Your post made zero sense and recycles arguments from the worst parts of the Zutara fandom. Have yourself some creep cookies and be on your way.
lb_lee
Feb. 10th, 2016 09:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Continued...
. Logically speaking, we prefer to find mates with similar qualities our own parents carried.

Speak for yourself! My husband is about as far from my mom or dad as you can get, and thank heaven for that! (And I'm pretty sure he didn't marry me for reminding him of his mother either. She was his only parent, but I'm male, and look and behave nothing like her either.)

I'm not even involved with this ship war at all, I just found that statement immensely creepy and kinda baffling.
ljlee
Feb. 13th, 2016 04:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Continued...
It's not a properly entertaining Zutara post unless it has the requisite amount of sexist creepiness! To be sure not all of them are like this, but the ones who are tend to take it pretty far.
lb_lee
Feb. 13th, 2016 05:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Continued...
Like, I'm used to people generalizing their kinks, but that one was just PARTICULARLY creepy. Especially since I've seen that whole, "we all seek out those who remind us of our parents" thing and... *SHUDDER* Nopenopenopenope.

--Rogan
featherwizard
Mar. 21st, 2016 10:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Continued...
Yeeeeaaah. I mean, my opposite-sex parent is pretty awesome and I do actually want someone who shares the awesome traits. But still, no, ew, reminding me of my parent is the last thing I want in a romantic partner.

Edited at 2016-03-21 10:01 pm (UTC)
(Anonymous)
Dec. 14th, 2016 10:17 pm (UTC)
FR!!!!! I hate when people bash the Zutara relationship and its shippers. Like half of y'all think that the reason we ship them is because Zuko's a bad boy or Zuko deserves Katara as a "prize" or because of their hotness and hormones. Don't freaking bash it if you don't know the real reason we ship it. The reasons go far beyond sex and "being a prize" or because we "relate to Katara and want to tap Zuko" Hell I find Katara so annoying sometimes.
ljlee
Dec. 14th, 2016 10:50 pm (UTC)
And this week's "did not read OP" prize goes to...

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