Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most beloved TV shows of the past 20 years.
So many fans who grew up with the series are now well into adulthood and still enjoying the series and sharing it with their families. The show’s addition to Netflix in 2020 caused a massive revival in its popularity and even more people fell in love with the beautiful and unique story of Aang, his friends, and their journey for him to master all four elements and realize his potential as the only one who could save the world.
‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’: Toph Beifong
Toph was Aang’s Earth bending master in his journey to learn all four elements and master the Avatar state. Her skill at earthbending totally overpowers most of what we see in the show, and she improves on their journey until, by the end, she’s pretty much become the ultimate earthbending master.
Toph’s role as the master of the sturdy and powerful bending form came as a refreshing surprise after her introduction as the sheltered young blind daughter of a wealthy family. The subversion of expectations created by her vulnerable and meek appearance made her an immediately endearing character and a powerful part of the story.
This contrast between Toph’s seemingly unimposing nature and her raw power and confidence also was a perfect fit for what Aang needed in a teacher. Aang commonly struggled with his confidence, and Toph was a reassuring voice that was a massive part of what helped him to get over his hesitation and doubt of himself.
The original tough Toph
Though the difference between Toph’s fragile exterior and tough-as-rocks inner strength was part of what fans loved about her, the character’s original concept was far different. The Earth bending master Aang encountered was originally supposed to be a strong, intimidating teenage boy.
The team knew that they wanted to throw a wrench into the team’s chemistry in season two, so had planned on introducing a rival to play foil to Sokka as the new earthbending master. Eventually, though, the team realized that the dynamic between two teenage boys on the team could be a little more engaging with a few changes to the character.
Toph’s age was changed from 16 to 12, and she was made small and unimposing. Having someone who would butt heads with Sokka that he normally wouldn’t be intimidated by made the fun much more light-hearted. With the character’s gender changed to female, coming to slowly respect Toph fits more in line with the progressive journey Sokka goes on in overcoming cultural sexism throughout the series.
A throwback performance
The original design for Toph had changed so much by the time the show was complete that it was an entirely different character. The original wouldn’t entirely go to waste though. According to Mental Floss, the original design for Toph would eventually be used as the model for Sud, Avatar Roku’s earthbending instructor.
In the final season of the series, the original concept for Toph even makes a bit of a cameo appearance. When The Ember Island Players put on their stage biography of Avatar Aang (with Team Avatar watching), Toph is portrayed as pretty close to her original design. While the other members of Team Avatar are mortified by how they are portrayed on stage, Toph is thrilled with how she is shown and loves every minute of it.
According to ScreenRant, the creators included this as a nod to the character’s roots. The Toph that made it into the story because of course, she would. Toph’s tough and often prickly exterior is revealed time and time again in the series to be just a cover for her loneliness and struggle for acceptance. What The Ember Island Players put on the stage was the exact character that Toph wishes that she was, so that nobody would see any hint of what was underneath.
Buff, older, boy Toph would’ve made for some funny gags tormenting the awkward and more than a little nerdy Sokka, but probably would’ve gotten old pretty fast. Looking at the Toph we got throughout all of ATLA and LOK, it’s pretty safe to say that they made the right call in switching up the design.