LJ Lee (ljlee) wrote,
LJ Lee

The Appeal of Zutara (Zutara vs. The Canon Pairings, 1/3)

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.
Tags: avatar analysis, fandom, shipping, zutara

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