Updated: Jul 23, 2020
An Analysis of a Popular Fandom Ship
In what is regarded as one of the greatest shows, animated or otherwise, of all time, Avatar: The Last AirBender contains one of the most popular ships in any fandom- known as "Zutara." Zutara is the name given to the idealized coupling of the show's characters Zuko and Katara who attract admirers due to their perfect yin and yang dynamic. Zuko is a boy from the fire nation who was exposed at a young age to physical and emotional abuse from his father and scarred from the disappearance of his mother. Thus, forcing him to grow up faster than any child should have. Similarly, Katara is a young girl from the Water Tribe who experienced immense hardship when she lost her mother and her father went off to war, thrusting her into a motherhood role to support her brother and the rest of her village.
Despite the show at times hinting at a possible ending with Zutara as canon, Aang, the Avatar and show's main protagonist, gets with Katara in the end. The Kataang and Zutara debate is a heated one in the Avatar fandom, even after 12 years of the show's ending and Kataang being the canon relationship. Kataang receives criticism from fans for its awkward coupling and one-sided perspective. Many fans of the show have concluded the reason Katara and Zuko work better than Katara and Aang is because the former have a leveled/shared responsibility of self and others that allowed Zuko and Katara to help each other grow. Coupled with the fact that the ideal dynamic of Zutara's relationship is rooted in an understanding that Aang and Katara simply do not have.
In season 2 episode 20 titled The Crossroads of Destiny, while Zuko and Katara are temporarily imprisoned underground at Ba Sing Se, they share an intimate moment of empathy when confessing the ways in which they have been negatively impacted by the war. As a result of Katara's newfound understanding and respect of Zuko for his honesty, she offers to heal his scar using water from the oasis at the South Pole. Zuko is initially skeptical but allows Katara to physically heal him with the hope she could free him from his emotional burdens. Despite the moment being interrupted when Aang and Iroh rescue them, the short screen time Zutara had in this episode is electric. There has always been an "opposites attract" allure to their relationship but after that episode, the characters and audience were able to realize Zuko and Katara share more similarities than not.
For example, Zuko and Katara both lost their mother at a young age and were forced into a mature role over others. That is not to say that Zuko and Katara didn't have their childish moments throughout the show, but for teenagers they both took on a lot of responsibility almost seamlessly. Because of Katara and Zuko's maturity, they are both self-sufficient, and their self-sufficiency allows them to effectively help others. Moreover, in the little scenes/episodes Zuko and Katara do have together, they greatly contribute to each other's character growth. In season 3 episode 16 titled The Southern Raiders, Zuko takes Katara on a journey to find her mother's killer. It takes a great deal for the two of them to track down the perpetrator but when they find the man who murdered Katara's mom, Katara finds the strength to let him live. This episode was essential to Katara's character arc, and she couldn't have fulfilled it without Zuko's help. Notably, this mission of character growth and self-reflection was completed by just the two of them, further demonstrating the coupling's paralleled talents.
In contrast to Zutara, Kataang honestly feels cheap and unearned (don't hate me because I still love Aang). Aang and Katara's relationship was not explored enough throughout the show as much as it should have been, especially in season three. In season 3 episode 17 titled The Ember Island Players, Aang expresses his disappointment to Katara that they were not "together" after they kissed before the invasion of the Fire Nation from earlier in the season. Katara told Aang she was confused about her feelings and understandably distracted from the war. Despite her saying this, Aang goes in to kiss her (maybe hoping Katara would have changed her mind). Katara then gets upset and walks away, leaving Aang regretful that he crossed a boundary with her. This moment is never resolved before the 4-part Sozin's Comet episodes and before the finale. After all conflicts are resolved, in terms of Team Avatar ending the 100-year-war, Aang and Katara are just... together. There was no conversation, apology, admittance of feelings, or resolution to their previous conflict, again leaving their relationship feeling unearned.
Additionally, with Kataang, Katara's character is reduced to being the prize the hero gets for saving the day. She is a strong and essential character to Team Avatar but gets objectified by the show's writers into being a trophy figure. Also, throughout the entirety of the show, Katara mothered Aang. For example, she helps him out of the Avatar state several times; in season 3 episode 9 when he is feeling anxious in anticipation for the solar eclipse, she helps him relax and get much needed rest; when Aang is having trouble earth bending, Katara offers him reassurance and gives Aang advice to help him understand why earth bending is so difficult for him. Whereas because of Zuko's age, he does not need to be babied or looked after like Aang. Zuko only spent a short time with Team Avatar in comparison to the others in the group, but in his time with them he helps the crew equally and at times on his own.
People reading this might say, "Zutara is unhealthy based on how their relationship started." Katara did initially hate Zuko because of his constant pursuit of the Avatar. However, the dynamic of their feelings for each other change after they are imprisoned together in season 3 episode 20. She tells Zuko when she imagined "the face of the enemy" she always saw his face. Zuko candidly responds by basically telling Katara she's right. He says he felt his scar marked him as if it was a curse to chase the Avatar forever. This confession from them both is a pivotal shift in how the two saw each other, both learning they misunderstood each other, and they aren't so different. With this admittance, coupled with the Southern Raiders episode, their relationship could have seamlessly moved into a more romantic dynamic that would have been on brand with their characters and ultimately more satisfying for the audience.