Pop Pedestal: Toph Bei Fong

Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

Welcome back to Pop Pedestal, the blog series about pop culture personalities we admire. Today’s tribute goes to Toph Bei Fong, earthbender extraordinaire from the Nickelodeon cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Toph in a warrior outfit against a blue sky. She is in the midst of pulling on a glove. She has a determined look on her face.Pedestal Profile: Toph Beng Fei is the only daughter of the Ba Fong family, a noble family of Ba Sing Sei, the capital city of the Earth Kingdom. But unbeknownst to her overprotective parents, Toph moonlights as “The Blind Bandit”—a pint-sized professional fighter who takes on grown men ten times her size in a battle of earthbending. Although only 12 years old, her unmatchable earthbending skills make Toph an ideal candidate to teach Aang (the last airbender and heroic Avatar) the skills he needs to save the world from the Fire Nation overlord, and ends up running away to join Aang, Katara, and Sokka on their quest to defeat the Fire Lord.

Toph falls into the “blind seer” trope Anna details in her Trans Continental Disability Choir post, “A Wizard Did It!”—because she’s blind, Toph’s mastery at earthbending comes from her ability to “see” the earth and its vibrations through her feet. (This is not a new thing in martial arts pop culture.) Toph avoids the “super crip” trope, though: Her earthbending skills may be out of this world, but they’re never portrayed as a way to “overcome” her disability (and Toph’s vulnerability in water or air is always noted).  And it’s clear from the get-got that Toph’s blindness isn’t holding her back from anything—it’s people who treat her patronizingly (like her parents) that limit her the most.

Admirable Qualities: She’s got a cyncial sense of humor, and is one of the few characters on the show unafraid to give some tough love to Aang, nicknaming the guy who holds the fate of the world in his hands “Twinkletoes.”  She also dishes it to her friends, especially when they “forget” she’s blind. In one scene, Sokka laments, “It’s so dark down here…I can’t see a thing!” after ending up completely underground. “Oh no!” says Toph in typical sarcastic fashion. “What a nightmare!”:

But mostly I love Toph’s unabashed confidence. Some may call it ego, but I love how self-assured Toph is with her unbeatable skills. I think it’s often difficult for women to take ownership of their skills and talents—be it writing, athletics, facing Fire Nation overlords, whatever—and Toph’s unapologetic pride in her abilities is inspiring. In Season Two, Toph finds herself alone in a particularly tight situation. To escape, she ends up inventing a game-changing bending technique, and with no one else around to hear, she announces, “Toph? You rule!” And although her pride occasionally keeps her at emotional bay, Toph’s moments of reconcilation are some of the series’ most touching.

A landscape picture of a forest with mountains in the background. Toph's small figure in the middle coming up the trail still seems very bold and powerful. She is solitary, but in stride and determined.

Her influence: Like all great cartoon characters, Toph has inspired a gaggle of Tumblr sites, creative cosplay outfits, and all-around awesome creations (I like the Lego sculpture, personally). Click through each image for their source:

A picture of a Lego sculpture featuring a Toph-like character raising up brown stones. An Aang figure crashes into one of the earth structures.    A crafty mosaic of Toph made from small plastic beads ironed together. The medium of the tiny beads conjures pixelation. A small, handpainted toy of Toph that has shrunk her proportions but is still very cute and Toph-like 

That’s not all: While her character was cut from M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation of The Last Airbender (maybe for the best, considering the film was critically panned for its racefail and general clumsiness alike), early peeks at the Avatar spinoff The Legend of Korra (omigodomigodomigodomigod) will apparently feature Toph’s daughter as Chief of Police. Color me totally unsurprised Toph’s daughter is large and in charge!  

Think of her when: You’re the best person for the job, but might have trouble owning up to how much you kick butt. Remember—you rule!

Toph standing in the middle of an empty fighting square. She triumphantly holds her fist in the air as the winner. She is wearing her typical outfit: barefoot, a green tunic with a tan tunic belted over it.

Previously: Patty Chase, Cleopatra Jones

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6 Comments Have Been Posted

I LOVE Toph!

I love this entire series - all of the females are fantastically awesome. I love Suki's quote about being a warrior but also being a girl; it summaries perfectly how the show maintains a great balance between being a woman and being a fighter without compromising either.

Favorite Toph quote: "I love fighting. I love being an Earthbender. And I'm really, really good at it. I know I've kept my life secret from you, but you were keeping me secret from the whole world. You were doing it to protect me, but I'm twelve years old and I've never had a real friend."

Avatar had some awesome girls

Avatar had some awesome girls in it! Toph is always one of my favorite. She was really a representation for me of all the spunky tom boys who don't care about kicking but and taking names. In Korra, she makes this school dedicated to teaching other's her method in fighting.

The real movie was pitiful and the only way for anyone to like it if they either A, didn't watch the show or B hated the show. I really like this a lot! I can't wait for the next one.

Strictly speaking, she wasn't

Strictly speaking, she wasn't cut from "The Last Airbender". The movie was an adaptation of the first season of the show -- Toph didn't show up until the second season.

TOPH IS AWESOME! I personally

TOPH IS AWESOME! I personally would like to see a post on the female villain in Avatar, the slightly psychotic fire nation princess, Azula, just to show a different side to typical female villains

Way to go Nick!

The creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender did a fantastic job in creating varied and deep characters within this series. There are reasons for their personalities and the strength of these ladies is diverse and different from your cookie-cutter female character. That said, Toph is perhaps the easiest to love because she very obviously goes against "dainty lady" stereotypes. Like Kjerstin said, it's her parents holding her back into this frail ideal that they view her in that hinders her power. She thrives when outside that world and those limitations. She's the one that juxtaposes those ideals and breaks them spectacularly with her sarcasm, wit, and physicality that is stereotypically identified as male.

I think it's good to point out other characters who explore the different kinds of feminine stregth and also break the barriers of the typical gender role. For example, Katara who can fill the motherly sort of role that is stereotypical but also breaks those ideals with mastery of her element and general kick-assery as the series progresses. Or Suki, our first obvious feminist interpretation of girls with her warrior-but-also-a-girl lifestyle. Can't forget Azula, the sociopathic antagonist that overshadows almost anyone with her firebending prowess.

Mike and Brian did an incredible job and I'm excited for their next installment of equalist cartoons. Korra is gonna be such a bad ass! :D

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender has always been one of my favorite shows and I still watch reruns of it today. One of the things I've always loved MOST about the show is that they have such a wide array of different female characters with different personalities who do not simply act as enablers or sidekicks for the male characters on the show, but have power in their own right.

Toph is an extreme of this, but with even the girliest female characters there is work put into their mental strength and characterization. Ty Lee, although beautiful, flirty, and giggly, has her own mental demons, can stop people from bending, and gives her own unique humor to the show while still being as girly as she wants to be. Azula is a sociopath with deeply rooted mental issues who is considered to be a Firebending Prodigy; in her correct mental state, she can firebend miles better than her older brother and has shown herself to have intellectual power rivaling that even of the Firelord himself. Suki is the classic feminist character and I love her for it. Gender issues are well addressed in the show and it is made clear that the men and women are on an equal footing.

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