Gender and Emotional Language in Children's TV Series. An Analysis of "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

Seminar Paper, 2013

46 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents


1 TV Series and their Impact on Socialization

2 Gender-Specific Emotions
2.1 Stereotypes
2.2 Research Results

3 Method

4 Talking about Emotions
4.1 Fear
4.1.1 Direct Expressions of Fear
4.1.2 Indirect Expressions of Fear
4.1.3 Sensing Fear in Others
4.2 Love
4.2.1 Direct Expressions of Love
4.2.2 Indirect Expressions of Love
4.2.3 Sensing Love in Others
4.2.4 The Boys' Love Stories
4.3 Happiness and Joy
4.3.1 Direct and Indirect Expressions of Happiness and Joy
4.3.3 Expectation of Showing Happiness
4.4 Sadness
4.5 Anger
4.5.1 Direct and Indirect Expressions of Anger
4.5.2 Sensing Anger in Others
4.6 Pride
4.7 Summary: Non-Stereotypic Representation of Emotions

5 Popularity of Characters

6 Conclusion

Primary Sources
Secondary Sources

Table of Figures

I Fear
I a) Direct Expressions of Fear
II b) Indirect Expressions of Fear
III c) Sensing Fear in Others
II Love
II a) Direct Expressions of Love
II b) Indirect Expressions of Love
II c) Sensing Love in Others
II d) The Boys' Love Stories
III Happiness and Joy
III a) Direct and Indirect Expressions of Happiness and Joy
III b) Expectation of Showing Happiness
IV Sadness
V Anger
V a) Direct and Indirect Expressions of Anger
V b) Sensing Anger in Others
VI Pride


This term paper was concerned with the stereotypes regarding gender and emotional language in the children's TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Due to the results of several researchers, it was expected that female and male characters display emotions considered appropriate for their sex in order to provide children with idealized gender role models to imitate. As research sees a relationship between showing gender-conform emotions and popularity among peers, it was furthermore anticipated that fans of the series would vote those characters most popular that show emotions considered appropriate for their sex.

The results of this analysis were contradictory to expectations. For the expression of emotions, hardly any differences could be found. In addition, there was a tendency for male characters to be more emotional than female ones. However, the hypothesis was formulated that the reason for certain emotions might be stereotypic in regard to the gender of the character. Concerning the popularity of the series' characters, the male character who expressed most emotions regarded as characteristic of females, was most popular among the male fans of the series. Therefore it can be suggested that children's TV series do not have to be stereotyped to be popular and that they can offer new gender role models for children to identify with.

1 TV Series and their Impact on Socialization

Very early, children start to develop stereotypic beliefs about gender-specific emotions:

[L]earning implicit rules about emotional expressions – including rules about gender appropriateness – is a primary task of the early childhood period. As children begin to identify with role models of their own gender, they will learn that certain types of emotions are not considered appropriate for them to express. (Tepper & Wright Cassidy 1999: 265)

Preschoolers already connect anger to males and sadness to females (Garner & Estep 2001: 393). In today's modern world, such views do not only emerge from the socialization by parents, teachers and peers, but also from the media. It plays an important role in conveying and strengthening gender-stereotypic display rules and models (Brody 2000: 28). Children use these depictions of gender in their favorite TV series as guidelines for what it means to be a girl or a boy (Götz & Unterstell 2013: 12). Their behavior and the view they have of themselves can be a result of what they see on TV (Götz & Unterstell 2013: 173).

As children's TV series can have such an impact on their development, it is the purpose of this term paper to examine, whether gender-specific stereotypes in regard to emotions can actually be found, or whether the claim that TV series are stereotyped is a prejudice itself. Therefore, the characters' emotional language in Avatar: The Last Airbender will be analyzed. It will be closely looked at, whether both genders are associated with differing types and amounts of emotion talk[1].

For that reason, the next section of this term paper will be concerned with stereotypes about emotions and gender in general. Results of several studies will be taken into account. After concrete stereotypes will have been formulated on the basis of those findings, the method that was used to analyze the children's TV series Avatar will be described. The 4th section will deal with the results of this analysis in regard to emotional language and gender. In chapter 5, the popularity of the series' main characters will be compared with the results of the analysis. This is done in order to reveal whether characters that depict those types of emotions that are considered appropriate for their gender are more popular than characters that show emotions which are not conform to gender expectations. In the last chapter, all results, their possible impacts and further research questions will be discussed.

2 Gender-Specific Emotions

2.1 Stereotypes

As for stereotypes, the emotions considered characteristic of males and respectively for females, are clearly assigned. Women are said to show more happiness, sadness and fear than men. It would be typical for them to express their feelings more often, as they like to communicate their emotions to others. In contrast to that, males are said to express more anger and pride and are frequently described as inexpressive (Garner & Estep 2001: 393).

Concerning gender roles in regard to emotions and social interaction, males are presumed to care more about their own feelings. Females, however, are believed to pay more attention to the feelings of others and to offer them social support when distressed. As a result, they are also viewed more likely to receive help and encouragement if needed when they are upset themselves (Garner & Estep 2001: 398). Brody summarizes Hochschild as follows:

[T]he expression of any emotion which threatens to hurt or impair a social relationship, such as […] lack of guilt or remorse in the face of a social wrongdoing, tends to be unacceptable for women in Western cultures. And conversely, emotions which facilitate social relationships, such as warmth, support, and cheerfulness, are prescribed as appropriate for women. (2000: 25).

These gender specific display rules are said to have a direct impact on the popularity of an individual. Boys who show anger and aggression and violate rules are liked more than their peers who disclose sadness and fear or, in general, reveal their feelings easily. Girls are especially popular if they express their emotions verbally and if they are interested in social relationships. The display of anger or aggression is not considered appropriate and causes various problems with peers (Brody 2000: 25).

2.2 Research Results

When asking the question which emotions would be characteristic of a certain gender, finding consistent answers from various researchers is difficult. This is mainly due to the fact that differences between genders are very small (Garner & Estep 2001: 402). Another factor is that researchers use different methods for measuring emotional responses. The results of their studies depend on whether they work with skin conductance, heart rate or facial electromyographic activity. Others also rely on self-reports, listing tasks or analyze written texts the participants of their study wrote about emotional events. The following paragraphs will therefore present some of the different findings of researchers.

O'Kearney and Dadds examined emotional language in adolescents and focused on anger and fear. They used vignette material and found support for the stereotypes concerning those two emotions: "[R]eferences to other-directed negative emotions (e.g., anger) were predominant for boys, and inner-directed negative emotions (such as sadness, fear, guilt, and shame) were characteristic of girls." (2004: 916). They also noticed, that children primarily talk about negative emotions and use state words and attribution terms to verbalize their feelings and discuss the causes of them (O'Kearney & Dadds 2004: 915).

In contrast to those findings, Chentsova-Dutton and Tsai discovered that women reported feeling more anger than men and "that there were no significant differences in self-reports of disgust, sadness, happiness, or pride." (2007: 176). Despite that, their findings support the claim that females experience more love and are more emotional than males (2007: 175).

Using Carol Gilligans distinction of morality, Tetenbaum and Peterson found evidence in children's picture books "that the male characters demonstrated more justice morality while the female characters demonstrated more care morality" (Tepper & Wright Cassidy 1999: 268).

Considering the findings of the studies stated above and the general beliefs about typical emotions and behavior for gender, the stereotypes for the analysis of Avatar: The Last Airbender are formulated as follows:

1. Females show more happiness, love, sadness and fear.
2. Males show more anger and pride.
3. In general, women are more emotional than men.
4. Females care more about the feelings of others and offer social support, whereas males do not.
5. Characters that show emotions conform to gender role expectations are more popular than characters that violate those ideals.

3 Method

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an American children's TV series aired on Nickelodeon, a TV channel especially for kids. The story plays in a fantastic world where different nations can control the different elements. Only one person, called the Avatar, can bend all four elements and is therefore responsible to maintain balance between all nations. When the fire nation started a war, the young Avatar disappeared. The story starts a hundred years later with the discovery of the (still young) Avatar, whose task is now to restore peace in the world.

The male main character Aang, the Avatar, is supported by his friends Katara, the female main character, her brother Sokka, and a second girl called Toph. They travel the world in order to get Aang prepared for his fight with the Fire Lord. The antagonists are Prince Zuko and his sister, Princess Azula. As the Fire Lord's children, they try to capture Aang. This is an especially important task for Zuko, as he is banished and only allowed to return to his country when he brings his father the Avatar. Through this, he hopes that he is able to restore his honor and gain his father's love again.

As far as the six main characters are considered, the amount of male and female characters is equal. In regard to their attitude, there are more protagonists than antagonists, which has no impact on the distribution of gender. The age of the characters is between twelve and sixteen. In Germany, the series is seen appropriate for children at the age of six or older.

The data for this term paper was collected from all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Eight episodes contained no verbally expressed emotions. All utterances in first or second person that referred to an emotion as well as utterances in third person that verbalized the feelings of others were grouped into one of the following emotional categories: fear, love, happiness, sadness, anger and pride. In total 161 utterances were found (for a detailed segmentation see Table 1).

Table 1 – Number of References to Emotions per Category

illustration not visible in this excerpt

It is further distinguished whether the emotion of a character was directly (e.g. I'm scared.) or indirectly (e.g. This is creepy.) expressed or whether another character noticed an emotion of someone else and communicated it (e.g. I know you're scared.). When analyzing the latter utterances, there are two additional questions to be answered: (1) What sex does the character the statement refers to have? (2) What sex does the character that notices that another person is afraid have? The first question will lead to the answer which gender is connected more often with the expression of an emotion. The second question will reveal whether the prejudice that men only care about their own feelings is played out in the series. Within the subgroups it was differentiated between male and female speakers.

Sarcastic and ironic utterances, as well as statements in a dream or phrases of non-human beings were not taken into account, as they do not express the actual emotion of characters or – for fantastic creatures – they do not offer children a gender role model they can identify with and imitate.

As the series has overall more male characters than female characters, the number of utterances was sometimes evaluated per character, in order to achieve a better comparison. For this purpose, the number of statements within one gender group was divided through the number of characters within one gender group.

The full corpus of this study is available in the appendix and grouped according to the chapters of this term paper. References to an exact page number can be found at the beginning of each section.

In order to be able to examine the popularity of the characters in relation to their expressed emotions, the results of a study on the characters of Avatar by Maya Götz and Sabrina Unterstell will be used and extended with the findings of this term paper.

4 Talking about Emotions

The following sections within this chapter will be concerned with the analysis of examples found for the emotional categories fear, love, happiness, sadness, anger and pride.[2]

4.1 Fear

4.1.1 Direct Expressions of Fear

When analyzing utterances that refer to the character's own fear, a differentiation between direct and indirect statements has to be made. For the direct expression of fear there is no difference in the amount of male and female characters, as well as in the amount of utterances found for each gender group. Most self-referred fear expressions were made by Aang, the male main character, followed by Katara, the female main character.

A difference can be found in the source of their fear. Aang struggles with his own identity as the Avatar and fulfilling his role as the world's savior. When confronted with expectations, he describes the feelings underlying his actions: "I was afraid and confused." (01-12[3], 0:15:38)

Girls in the series worry more about the wellbeing of others as it becomes clear in the following example: "I'm worried that they won't [get away in the blizzard]." (01-20, 0:08:45). Half of their utterances were concerned with such fears. For boys, only one utterance related to worries about someone else could be found.

All references to emotions were made by using adjectives as subject complements. The most frequent word was worried, followed by an equal amount of scared and afraid. For females, there is a clear preference of the word worried. However, they did not use afraid at all and also for males it was only Aang who mentioned it, suggesting that it is probably more a character's preference than general preference of boys.

4.1.2 Indirect Expressions of Fear

The sources of fear mentioned above reoccur for indirect statements about fear as well. When Aang saw himself in a dream being in the Avatar State he describes it later as "It was scary. I was scary." (02-01, 0:01:52). He uses adjectives to describe what frightened him instead of directly saying that he was scared. Katara expresses her fear when seeing Aang in the Avatar State in the same way: "[W]atching you be in that much rage and pain is really scary." (02-01, 0:12:13).

Differences can be found in the quantity of utterances. In regard to indirect statements, girls speak almost twice as often about their emotions as boys, most of all Katara. They also express worries about others, whereas male characters do not.

It is therefore not surprising that worried only occurs in the utterances of girls. Scary is also often chosen by girls. Boys tend to have no clear preference. Contrary to the frequent occurrence of adjectives in previous examples, one male utterance features a verb within a postmodifying relative clause: "The day we have feared for so long has arrived." (01-19, 0:05:48) The sentence is used as the introduction of a formal speech. In comparison to the other examples, it can be speculated that verbs expressing fear might be more common in formal contexts. In every day conversations, adjectives as subject complements might be more frequent, as O'Kearney and Dadds suggest.

4.1.3 Sensing Fear in Others

When characters notice that someone is afraid, the most frequent reaction is to tell them not to worry. For boys, also phrases with similar meaning could be found, e.g. "Don't be nervous." (02-19, 0:02:11) or "Don't be afraid […]." (02-05, 0:12:08). These utterances are most often followed by an encouragement like "It'll be okay." (01-02, 0:10:05), "You'll do great." (03-10, 0:05:16) or "You'll all be completely safe here." (03-08, 0:04:36). Most of the female utterances follow that pattern. Nevertheless, girls can get more demanding when a boy cares about them and gets overprotective: "Sokka, I'm fine. Stop worrying." (02-12, 0:10:58).

Instead of being demanding, males rather have a tendency to push others to overcome their fear. This can be very supportive as in "Don't be afraid to tell her how you feel." (02-05, 0:12:08) but often they build pressure upon others. When Katara is afraid to enter a forbidden area, Aang tells her "If you want to be a bender, you have to let go of fear." (01-01, 0:19:57), knowing very well, that all Katara wants is to become a real water bender and using this knowledge for his purpose. When afraid to finally face the Fire Lord, Aang tends to distract himself from his duty. It is Zuko who does not hesitate to mention Aang's fear and builds pressure upon Aang by describing the worst possible outcome to force him into taking action: "I know you're scared. And I know that you're not ready to save the world. But if you don't defeat the Fire Lord before the comet comes, there won't be a world to save anymore." (03-18, 0:08:58).

In conclusion, it can be said, that both boys and girls use positive and supportive reassurances to reduce the fear of others. Additionally, boys also use pressure to make characters overcome their feelings.

Though the corpus of this section shows a variety of characters that note another person's fear, the amount of characters the utterances refer to is surprisingly small.[4] From a total of 19 utterances, eight were connected to Aang, respectively four to Katara and Sokka and three to Zuko, suggesting that Aang shows more fear than Katara and Sokka, who show more fear than Zuko. This mirrors the findings for the direct and indirect expressions.

When answering the question what sex the character that notices another person's fear has, it seems at first that males tend to be more aware of others feelings: males speak two times as often about the fear of others than females. If it is considered, however, that boys appear far more frequent in the series than do girls, this is not surprising. When the number of statements is corrected in regard of the number of characters, the utterances per male character are 1,5, whereas the utterances per female character are 1,3. Though there is just a small difference, children watching Avatar: The Last Airbender will be confronted with more males expressing fear than girls.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the analysis of fear is that even when the number of utterances was cut down to utterances per character, boys expressed slightly more fear than girls did (see Table 2). In this regard, it can be said that the stereotypic belief of females expressing more fear is not played out in the series.

Table 2 - Fear per Character

illustration not visible in this excerpt

However, the source of fear for direct and indirect expressions might very well be stereotypic: boys were more concerned with their own emotions, whereas girls were far more concerned about others. This conforms to Tetenbaum and Peterson's thesis that care morality would be predominant for females. Despite this, the analysis of statements that refer to fear in others has shown that males care about the feelings of others and also try to support them. However, the ways in which boys and girls give help differ strongly. As a result, the findings of the previous analysis are contradictory to Garner and Estep's claim that females offer more support to others than males.[5]

4.2 Love

4.2.1 Direct Expressions of Love

Though there are again more male than female utterances about love, it is only due to the fact that males occur more frequently in the series. When love expressions are accounted for a single character, there are no differences between genders. Both communicate their love for a person of the other sex (cf. Aang 02-19, 0:18:34 and Mai 03-15, 0:21:52), but differ in further types of love. Girls' utterances are more general and deal for example with the love of one's people, whereas an utterance of Sokka has the love of friendship as a topic: "Now I didn't like Aang at first, but I grew to love him over time." (03-10, 0:05:58). His father shows parental love: "I love you more than anything." (03-01, 0:17:30). In contrast to the expressions of fear, love is always expressed by a verb.

4.2.2 Indirect Expressions of Love

As well as the direct verbalizations of love, indirect statements are also distributed equally among the two genders when the utterances are counted per character. Though most of the time love is likewise expressed by a verb, it occurs only in postmodifying position to the head of a noun phrase referring to a person, e.g. "everyone I loved" (01-12, 0:15:18). The verb to care about can be found in the same position (cf. Suki 02-12, 0:15:15), but occurs as well as the verb of a sentence: "I care about you." (03-05, 0:22:25)

Another frequently used word is the verb like, which can also appear in connection with an intensifying addition. Aang, for example, communicates his love for Katara the first time by saying "I like you, but more than normal." (01-14, 0:11:46).

Apart from verbs, nouns (cf. Pakku 01-18, 0:20:13) and phrases are used as well. When Aang later on talks about his love for Katara to someone else, he describes his feelings by saying "I feel an attachment to her" (02-19, 0:18:46).

In regard to whom the love refers to, it is ten times the character of the opposite sex. Five utterances are about love to people in general and one utterance is about parental love.

4.2.3 Sensing Love in Others

For sensing love in others, there is no difference between boys and girls in noticing that someone has feelings for another person. And as could also be found in the analysis of fear, the number of characters the utterances apply to is very small. Most statements are related to Aang. In contrast to Zuko and Katara, he receives support and encouragement: "Love is hard when you're young. […] But don't worry. It gets better." (03-06, 0:06:14).


[1] emotion talk: direct reference to emotions, e.g. happy, scared

[2] The full corpus is available on page 31.

[3] If an episode is the source of a quote, the first number will give the season and the second number will give the episode, e.g. 01-12 refers to the 12th episode of the first season.

[4] Five statements that referred to groups as well as four statements that referred to minor characters were not taken into account.

[5] The full corpus is available on page 33.

Excerpt out of 46 pages


Gender and Emotional Language in Children's TV Series. An Analysis of "Avatar: The Last Airbender"
University of Augsburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
554 KB
emotional talk, stereotypes, TV series, Avatar, The Last Airbender, Gender, Emotional Language
Quote paper
Bettina Breitenberger (Author), 2013, Gender and Emotional Language in Children's TV Series. An Analysis of "Avatar: The Last Airbender", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Gender and Emotional Language in Children's TV Series.  An Analysis of "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free