An Examination of Toph Beifong From Avatar: The Last Airbender
***Author's Note: The end of this post will have links to organizations that help or educate people on physical and mental disabilities/handicaps. Thank you for reading and enjoy!
Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender is understandably a fan favorite character of the show. Though Toph is stubborn and blunt, like her element, she is also strong, understanding, and at times admiringly vulnerable.
Toph Beifong grew up in a wealthy, royal household and was stifled by her parents because of her disability. Toph is a 12-year-old blind girl and due to her age, size, and physical handicap, her parents isolated her from the world with the hope she would never get hurt or get in trouble.
Little did her parent’s know, Toph would sneak off to earthbending tournaments under the disguise known as “The Blind Bandit." While participating in the tournaments, Toph would exert her earthbending prowess, defeating her opponents night after night as the reigning and undefeated competition champion.
The audience is introduced to Toph in Book 2 Episode 4: “The Swamp” when Aang sees Toph as a vision. We’re later re-introduced to her character two episodes later, as Aang is looking for an earth bending teacher, so the gang discovers Toph at Earth Rumble 6 while she is fighting under her pseudonym.
When the audience sees Toph's earthbending skill for the first time, her size and disability are juxtaposed with the able-bodied, athletic, and/or large grown men she is fighting against. Might I add, she has one of the most bad*ss character introductions in the show. Moreover, the stark contrast between Toph and her opponents emphasize her extraordinary earthbending capabilities as she effortlessly defeats every one of her challengers.
People often say, “Toph is a powerful earth bender despite her disability.” This take is not only inaccurate but also a disservice to Toph’s character and abilities. Additionally, this take is ableist because even if her disability did get in the way of her earthbending, that would be okay and still wouldn't take away from her skill. Rather, Toph is a powerful earthbender because of her blindness, not in spite of it. Her lack of sight heightens her other senses (sound, touch) and allows her to most effectively do what earthbending entails: waiting and listening.
Toph learned earthbending when she was younger from badger moles, the original earthbenders. The badger moles are also blind creatures who have long mastered earthbending for thousands of years. In Book 3 Episode 12: “The Firebending Masters” Toph states,
“I was able to learn earthbending not just as a martial art but as an extension of my senses. For them, the original earthbenders, it wasn’t just about fighting. It was their way of interacting with the world.”
It can be assumed that Toph has been blind since birth. In addition, she has had to live her whole life in isolation and without friends. As a result, when she initially joined the group, her mantra was "I can take care of myself by myself." This principal was a projection of her parent's excessive coddling; as well as, Toph's fear of being a burden on others. Later, while sharing tea and advice, Iroh tells Toph,
"There is nothing wrong with letting people who love you help you."
Toph's insecurities are an illustration of the stigma people with disabilities often struggle with. Sometimes people living with handicaps, whether physical or mental, feel they need to prove to the world that they aren't weak or a burden to society. With Toph Beifong, Avatar highlights that needing help and/or having a friend to lean on is not only necessary but human.
After her conversation with Iroh, Toph can be seen many times leaning on Sokka for support or guidance. Additionally, Sokka often goes out of his way to protect Toph when the group is in trouble and she cannot see the potential danger. Her leaning on Sokka for support, literally and figuratively, portrays immense growth for a character as stubborn as Toph. She conquers her fear of feeling burdensome and allows those who love her to protect her as loved ones do.
Furthermore, not only is Toph a bad*ss earthbender, more specifically the greatest earthbender in the world, but she is also a girl who has insecurities and stigmas she must unlearn or deconstruct just like everyone else. The greatness in Toph's character is that she isn't entirely capable all the time and she isn't entirely incapable, which is a realistic portrayal of not just people with disabilities but humans in general. Through Toph, the writers of the show demonstrate how to properly write a character with disabilities. Like Toph Beifong, people with disabilities are multi-faceted and complex and human, deserving of proper character arcs and realistic representation just like everybody else.
REACH offers a wide range of services, including communication, education, and housing to service people with disabilities of all kinds with the mission to help people with disabilities live as independently as possible.
Friendship Circle is a non-profit organization that connects individuals with special needs with support and friendship in their community through recreational, social, educational, and vocational programming.
The Arc aids those with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families by protecting their rights and ensuring those living with disabilities are supported by their community.
Parents Helping Parents is a non-profit organization that empowers families of youth and adults with disabilities.
NAMI is a national mental health advocacy organization that takes mental health related issues to county, state, and national levels with the intent to pass legislation ensuring people with mental illness get proper care and representation.
The Child Mind Institute is an independent, national non-profit organization that advances science and research of the developing brain and delivers clinical care, education, and outreach programming to help society better understand how mental health affects children.