Not Giving Up on Zuko: Relational Identity and the Stories We Tell

In Helen De Cruz & Johan De Smedt (eds.), Avatar: The Last Airbender and Philosophy: Wisdom From Aang to Zuko. Wiley-Blackwell (2022)
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Everyone thinks they know who Prince Zuko is and can be. His father, Fire Lord Ozai, and sister, Azula, think him weak, disobedient, and undeserving of the crown. His Uncle Iroh thinks him good, if troubled, but ultimately worthy of his faith. The kids initially think him a villain, but eventually come to see him as a person – neither monster nor saint – someone who can choose to go in a new way. Zuko himself shows great ambivalence between these conflicting stories about who he is, though each one helps to craft his own self-understanding. In this paper, we apply Hilde Lindemann’s narrative account of the self to explore the ways that others “hold” Zuko in one identity or “let him go” from others. According to Lindemann, our personal identities consist of the first- and third-person stories that cluster around significant acts, relationships, and commitments in our lives. Our identities are fundamentally relational, formed by the interaction between our own self-conception and the ways in which others see us. As such, others’ stories can enable or prevent us from imaginatively projecting ourselves into a particular future. This can lead us to becoming trapped in our identities; without the possibility of being perceived differently by others, we might find ourselves unable to try different ways of being or acting. The converse is also true, in that others can open up new possible identities by seeing things in us that we have trouble seeing in ourselves. If others in our moral community see us as wicked, beyond redemption and unable to repair our wrongs, we are held in the role of the villain and might come to live into that role without question. Zuko’s story is a perfect illustration of Jean Harvey’s reminder that, “it is just not true that once a thief, always a thief” and that agents can choose to go in a new way, can choose to change. How does Zuko change? We argue that Zuko’s redemption is enabled by those in his moral community holding him in identities in which he is a good person, capable and deserving of care, friendship, and love. While the identity he has in relation to his father and sister closes down many possible futures, his uncle Iroh in particular persists in holding him in an identity in which he is loved and worthy of love. And in doing so - in holding this space for him - Iroh opens up a way for Zuko to exercise agency and choose to become a different kind of person than the one he thought he was destined to be.

Author Profiles

Audrey Yap
University of Victoria
Barrett Emerick
St. Mary's College of Maryland


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