Has Avatar’s best earthbender overcome her greatest limitations?
Avatar: The Last Airbender made huge strides in representation with the character of Toph Beifong, a young blind girl who took the word “empowerment” to a whole new level. Not ignoring his blindness nor reducing his character to anything more than this aspect of his experience, Avatar allowed for a rich and dynamic girl who became not only a welcome comic relief, but one of the strongest and most formidable fighters on the show.
Toph has grown as much as anyone over the course of The last air Master, and more in the comics that continued the story. His blindness served not only as a limitation, but also as an aspect of his uniqueness that allowed him to perform feats no one else could. But how far did Toph manage to exceed her limits?
When she was introduced in Season 2, Toph was already one of the most powerful earthbenders Gaang had ever encountered. Known as the Blind Bandit while defeating competitors in the Earth Rumble arena, Aang and his friends learned that Toph had developed a unique ability known as “seismic sense” which compensated for her lack of eyesight. By sensing the vibrations of the surrounding earth, Toph not only could “see” better than many sighted individuals, but she could even predict their movements. She later learned to perceive earth granularities in metal which allowed her to invent the art of metalbending.
Yet that did not mean Avatar dispensed with acknowledging the unique challenges Toph faced. Initially, Toph’s reliance on her seismic sense meant she was more easily surprised by aerial attacks. Although she could compensate to some degree with her hearing, her enemies periodically managed to surprise her with attacks that did not make contact with the ground. Master Yu and Xin Fu managed to surprise Toph with an ambush from above, and a Dai Li once managed to catch her with a rock gauntlet while fighting under Lake Laogai. But Toph’s limitations were the worst when she wasn’t on solid ground at all.
Most memorably during Gaang’s time in the Si Wong Desert in Book Two, Toph struggled to perceive individuals in the sandy terrain around her. Describing his perceptions as “fuzzy”, his own attacks proved difficult to aim and his mastery of the sand left something to be desired. Her limitations seemed even worse when she crossed an icy path in “The Serpent’s Pass”, where it was revealed not only that she was completely blind on icy ground, but that she could not swim if she had been. reversed.
Yet Toph’s growth in stories beyond The last air Master suggest how far the earthbender has come beyond these limitations. Although she referenced her mastery of sandbending in the series finale, the comics portray Toph as relaxing much more comfortably on sandy ground in stories like Imbalance and the last beach wars. In North Southshe even ventures to Katara and Sokka at the South Pole where she mentions the blurring of her perceptions through her shoes on the icy terrain, but is still shown to be extremely capable of summoning the earth to compensate for these challenges.
The Toph which proceeded from the history of Avatar: The Last Airbender is growing steadily beyond the limits that initially held it back. Not completely renouncing these challenges, she instead devotes herself to the bitter task of overcoming them. At time The Legend of Korrashe even says that while in the Foggy Swamp, she can use the supernaturally connected terrains to perceive individuals across the globe.
The result is a character that stands out with an even richer texture than the already stunning portrayal first introduced in Book Two. Toph Beifong is perhaps the greatest earthbender of all time; though she was certainly a prodigy, Avatar does a stellar job of showing how she constantly works to maintain that title with each new installment in her story.