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Why Ty Lee From Avatar The Last Airbender Is More Important Than You Think

Avatar: The Last Airbender endures as one of the best animated series ever. Part of this reputation is thanks to its depiction of nuanced antagonists, such as Prince Zuko with his famous three-season redemption arc. However, one secondary antagonist captured the hearts of many fans and set their keyboards aflame with theories: Ty Lee.

Along with her childhood friends Azula and Mai, Ty Lee attempts to capture Avatar Aang multiple times throughout the series. She has no bending capabilities, but was an expert in acrobatics and chi-blocking, which temporarily disables a bender's capabilities.

As a bubbly, cheerful girl, Ty Lee is the heart and soul of the Fire Nation Trio (she often seems to be the only soul between the three of them). In contrast to the cruelty of Azula and the stoicism of Mai, Ty Lee stands out as carefree and energetic. In fact, she stands out so much that Avatar fans have developed a theory that she's actually descended from Air Nomads.

Ty Lee looks just like Aang

Ty Lee, one of seven identical sisters, was born to Fire Nation nobility. However, it's possible that there was at least one Air Nomad in her ancestry. Redditor u/Juxitr assembled a slew of evidence in favor of this theory, starting with Ty Lee's appearance: She's got the gray eyes and brown hair characteristic of the Air Nomads.

The animators of Avatar took great care in crafting their world, and use appearances to indicate nationality. People of the Fire Nation have gold eyes and black hair, waterbenders and earthbenders have blue and green eyes, respectively, and Air Nomads have gray eyes. Ty Lee doesn't look like Azula, Zuko, or Mai in this regard, but combined her round face and constant smile make her look a lot like Aang.

The spinoff series The Legend of Korra gave us several more Air Nomads to compare with Ty Lee. In fact, Aang's granddaughter Jinora somehow strengthens and weakens the Ty Lee theory at the same time. The two look like sisters, but curiously Jinora has brown eyes. Her airbending siblings and father all have gray eyes, making her a mysterious outlier of the family.

She has the spirit of the Air Nomads

If the theory were only based on Ty Lee's appearance, it may have fallen flat, but user u/Juxitr offered some other points to back it up: "Her personality matches Aang's so well that it's almost as if she is the female Aang. Both are very excitable, care-free [sic], happy, outgoing, and social." Plus, it's not just her personality, but also how she moves and fights, they argued: "Ty Lee is incredibly quick, agile, flexible, fast, and capable of jumping very high. Aang shares those abilities as well." All of these qualities are often associated with the element air.

As a last bit of evidence, Ty Lee shares several qualities with the Air Nomads. First off, her fighting style does not appear to inflict a ton of pain on her opponents, like firebending does, which is similar to the Air Nomads' general pacifism. Secondly, other than Iroh, she is the only member of the Fire Nation that is particularly spiritual. She often talks about auras and energies. The Air Nomads are the most spiritual group of all the nations. Finally, Ty Lee chooses to join the circus, which includes a nomadic lifestyle and may be a hint to her ancestry.

So how did Ty Lee come from Air Nomads?

100 years before Aang woke up, the Fire Nation attacked and killed most of the Air Nomads. However, the airbenders are by nature nomadic, and thus not all of them were in the air temples at the time of the attacks. It's possible that one (or more) of the Air Nomads wound up in the Fire Nation and started a family.

User u/Rae-senpai posited the idea that Ty Lee's grandparents were Air Nomad refugee children: "I imagine they were adopted/assimilated by sympathizers who taught them how to be proper Fire Nation children in order to stay hidden." In contrast, user u/AlienEarSlug thought it started before the war: "Something along the lines of an Air Nomad had some sort of relationship with a Fire Nation citizen that resulted in a child just before the start of the war. Maybe the nomad lived out the rest of his/her days in hiding and taught the child/children the spiritual ways of the Nomads?"

While it isn't considered canon, there is an Air Nomad character in the Avatar: The Last Airbender Trading Card Game who betrayed his people and worked with Fire Lord Sozin at the beginning of the war. Perhaps he (or someone like him) had a family in the Fire Nation?

How does the theory hold up?

While many commenters agreed with the theory that Ty Lee is part Air Nomad, some disagreed. User u/MrsRatt said, "I think everything related to her appearance (eye color, face shape, white swimsuit, etc.) was to make her look more innocent by giving her an almost child-like look. As far as her personality goes, I believe it exists solely as a stark counter to Mai's cynicism (who is also a non-bender)." 

One redditor, user u/workingboy, didn't like the theory: "I think this theory would detract a lot from the feeling of the universe. I think TLA does an excellent job of representing that people of all different nations, races, and backgrounds can be good or evil, spiritual or materialistic." So the question remains for Avatar: The Last Airbender fans, were these aspects of Ty Lee purposefully chosen to hint at Air Nomad ancestry, or was she just meant to be a fun, unique representation of diversity within the Fire Nation?