Antisocial Personality Disorder as Depicted in Avatar: The Last Airbender

        In the series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the setting has four nations in which some are born with the natural ability to control an element: air, water, earth, or fire. A war started in which the fire nation eliminated the air nomads and continued for 100 years, colonizing part of the earth kingdom and culling the water tribes. The Avatar is the only one who can control all four elements, and when he reappears, he must team up with two water tribe siblings in order to save the world. He is hunted throughout the series by Zuko, the Firelord’s son, who eventually ends up joining the Avatar. His sister, however, is consistently on the Firelord’s side, and antagonizes both Zuko and the Avatar throughout the series.

        Azula is one of the most popular villains amongst fans of the show. She is cold, calculating, and one of the most powerful firebenders in the whole series, despite being only fourteen. She fits every DSM-V criteria for someone with an antisocial personality disorder, particularly the psychopathic behavior. She’s much more powerful than just about every adversary she faces, including her older brother, but instead of overpowering them through brute force or outsmarting them, she emotionally manipulates them into doing what she wants. In her introductory fight with Zuko, she doesn’t even use her firebending until she has already attacked every insecurity Zuko has, telling him his father would only want him home to lock him up where he wouldn’t embarrass him, that he’s worthless and imbecilic for believing someone would love him. It’s when he’s enraged, sloppy, and goaded into fighting rather than retreating to safety that she strikes. Zuko only manages to escape because of his uncle’s level headedness and ability to redirect Azula’s attacks. Despite this, she convinces Zuko to join her when she has to take on the Avatar and his friends directly, because she understands that she cannot do it alone. She is later betrayed by her friends, and is confused and enraged that they would choose love over her fear and manipulation.

        Azula’s character arc is one of an inevitable spiral. She creates these huge expectations of herself as this perfect, beautiful, and powerful woman that she must live up to at all times, and as such, failure isn’t an option. The DSM-V states that deceit is an important part of Antisocial Personality Disorder, something the series states heavily. She lies so often that Zuko must repeat a mantra to himself “Azula always lies.” in order to make himself feel better after Azula antagonizes him in their childhood. When a character who has always been able to detect lies by sensing someone’s heartbeat tries to detect if she’s lying, her heartbeat registers as if she’s telling the truth, despite her blatantly lying to their face. She’s so accustomed to lying that her body doesn’t even show any physiological changes to her behavior. Also in accordance with the DSM-V, she is ruthless, exploitative, and terrifying, even to her own friends. Upon introducing the characters in her entourage, she comes close to lighting one on fire, intimidating her into joining Azula’s group. Azula has also been shown to have a disregard for others’ safety and general well being, as well as a lack of remorse for such actions. As a child, she even went as far as to call her uncle weak for losing a battle and leaving when his son died in the war, and asked her mother if her father would become the Firelord if her uncle didn’t come home from the war, now that his son was dead.

        An antisocial person doesn’t understand empathy, they see themselves as the center of the universe, and simply don’t have the capacity to understand how another person feels. Though, the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality disorder requires a patient of eighteen years or older, the depiction of Azula, in this case, is an early form of this. It’s evident throughout the series that the writers intended her violence and stalwart loyalty to her genocidal father as a symptom of her psychopathy. Her father banished her older brother at fourteen, sending him and his uncle to search for the Avatar. Where he was removed from the environment in which his father abused the both of them, Azula was now the only child. She acted as he wanted her to in order to please him, and it is often shown that he is the only character with any kind of power over her, and it’s clear that he developed her Machiavellian tendencies and firebending ability to suit his needs as a tyrannical dictator. In an academic journal article by B. K. Luntz, an interesting observation is drawn from a study of theirs: “Childhood victimization was a significant predictor of the number of lifetime symptoms of ASPD and of a diagnosis of ASPD, despite the fact that controls for demographic characteristics and arrest history were introduced.” (Luntz). Azula was undoubtedly victimized as a child, and without her mother’s approval or her father’s love, she develops these psychopathic tendencies because she must.

It’s also possible that genetics played a role, which happens often in ASPD, particularly in Azula’s patient, Machiavellian, calculating kind of psychopathic behavior. Her grandfather, who she was named after, Azulon, would cruelly have had her father kill her brother because of his treasonous grabs for the throne. Her father is an established psychopath, attempting to murder countless earth kingdom citizens for simply existing outside of fire nation rule. It’s feasible that she simply inherited the traits that coincided to her ASPD. But, it’s not quite so simple. Children are not beholden to their genetically predisposed behaviors, they pick up on what their parents do. In Azula’s case, her mother was banished in her early childhood, and her father was a monster. This dysfunctional household translation of behavioral disorders was researched by a group who determined this: “Parental diagnoses of alcoholism and ASPD were associated with increased risks for a variety of childhood psychiatric disorders, and dysfunctional parenting style was associated with the diagnoses of CD…” (Kuperman).

Azula is, at her core, a tragic character. She’s a teenage girl who cannot please her father and has not known love, so therefore must control people through fear and manipulation. Her ending is a sad one, where her father neglects her and she develops an interpretive delusion. She was betrayed so often because of her inability to form a real relationship that she banishes every servant from the palace for treason, and becomes aggressive and impulsive. She is then taken down by her brother and another character, in direct contrast to her introductory fight with Zuko. Then, when she finally is beaten, and is shown to be weak, she loses it. Her composure that we see throughout the whole show is gone, and she sobs in her chains as she rolls around on the ground in a pitiful display. Azula’s story is meant to show us something, that there are people like this and it doesn’t have to end the way it does with her. She could have been taken out of that environment as Zuko was, she could have simply been shown more affection by her father, she could have been shown real affection by her mother, but instead she turns into a tragedy. ASPD can be pervasive and harmful, and it correlates strongly with childhood trauma. The treatment of it has to start in childhood, or it will manifest into something terrible.

Kuperman, S., Schlosser, S. S., Lidral, J., & Reich, W. (1999). Relationship of child psychopathology to parental alcoholism and antisocial personality disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(6), 686-692.

Luntz, B. K., & Widom, C. S. (1994). Antisocial personality disorder in abused and neglected children grown up. The American journal of psychiatry.

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