Giant Dorks Dork out about Legend of Korra
Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs and Social Media Manager Kristine Hassell. Special guest starring Gaming Event Coordinator Andy Munich.
Avatar: Legend of Korra, the groundbreaking sequel to the animated series Avatar: the Last Airbender, aired its final episode on December 19. Rather than bemoan the show’s ending (Worst. Christmas present. Ever.), GeekGirlCon’s Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs and Social Media Manager Kristine Hassell got together for a frenzy of overcaffeinated squeeing in celebration of all the ways the show got things oh-so-wonderfully right.
Warning: spoilers for the show, including the finale, to follow!
At the top of the list was representation. The show depicts women of color; queer women; women recovering from trauma; women with disabilities; middle-aged and older women; women who choose demanding careers; women who put their family first; good women; villainous women… the list goes on.
Top row: Korra and Asami; Opal, Suyin, and Lin; Katara and Jinora. Bottom row: Kuvira; Toph; Kya and Pema (and baby Rohan). All images from Avatar Wiki.
Given the setting, which draws from Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Inuit, Pacific Islander, and other (mostly East Asian) cultures, none of the characters can exactly be read as white; there is a huge range of women of color representation. None of them therefore bears the responsibility of being “The Asian” or “The Person of Color”–which means that they can have flaws, they can be petty, they can have ugly sides to their personality without that being the show’s sole embodiment of femaleness or Asianness. Korra is hotheaded, and book-learning is not her strongest suit. Lin is bitter. Kuvira becomes an actual dictator.
There are also several examples of biracial people of color where neither side is white, for example the brothers Bolin and Mako, whose parents were from the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. Kristine showed season one to her niece, who was aged seven or eight at the time. It was the first time the niece saw herself represented on television as a biracial Asian. To an eight-year-old, that’s huge! Kristine recalls her own childhood, when the only Asians she saw in media were tokens or caricatures. Hearing her niece express that about a television show struck a major chord about the importance of representation.
Furthermore, the show’s creators seem at least aware of the real-world problems of shadeism both within communities of color and in white producers’ tendency toward casting lighter- rather than darker-skinned people in film and TV. There doesn’t seem to be shadeism in-universe, but creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino have taken pains to make sure that both heroes and villains have a variety of skin tones in Legend of Korra as well as The Last Airbender–more than can be said for the 2010 movie, in which the villains were distinctly darker than the heroes.
It’s not just women of color who are thrilled to see themselves on screen in Legend of Korra. The show’s received both praise and criticism for the way it ended its finale–with Korra going off into the Spirit World for a romantic vacation with Asami Sato, with longing gazes confirming the budding relationship between the two young women. Just to make sure there was no confusion, both Konietzko and DiMartino wrote posts confirming that “Korrasami is canon.”
As Winter puts it, “Korrasami is the story I wanted to see my whole life”–two women who started out as romantic rivals for a boy (Mako) end up in a relationship together. Queer fans had been watching the deepening friendship for three seasons, but many didn’t dare hope to see it realized on screen.
The show was always very obviously about identity and coming of age, but when seen in context with this final development, many of Korra’s decisions take on new resonance for queer fans. One of the show’s strengths has always been in allowing consequences to stand. Where another series might find a way to undo Korra’s disconnection from her past lives (the telepathic connection all Avatars had, until Korra, to those who came before), Legend of Korra makes it a clean break from the past. She leaves the world dramatically changed from the one she found–and not just in the way that Aang from The Last Airbender helped create Republic City and solve the political, human problems. Korra, on the other hand, allows the Spirit World to cross over into the Mortal World so that spirits and humans can live alongside one another, and brings back airbending, reviving the entire nation and culture of the Air Nomads. It seems fitting that a story starring a young queer woman should depict her learning the lessons of the past, and then allow her to move on into a future that celebrates diverse people living alongside one another without needing to become homogeneous.
Konieztko characterizes this not as a “slam-dunk victory for queer representation” but at least a “significant inching forward.” However, when taken into consideration alongside the intersection of Korra’s other identities, it constitutes a much bigger leap.
The show also excels in other, less obvious ways. Take, for instance, the issue of female anger. Unlike in the vast majority of media, women’s anger is portrayed as valid, and the female characters in the show are not required to be ‘nice’ in order to be sympathetic. Lin is grumpy throughout the show, and while she mends fences with her sister and her mother, it doesn’t automatically turn her into a sunny-natured person. Opal is another great example, going from a sheltered existence to the complicated and often rage-inducing outside world when she joins the Air Nomads. Her love interest, Bolin, messes up by supporting Kuvira (who tries to kill Opal’s family). Opal does not immediately forgive him when he realizes his mistake; she makes him work for his forgiveness by acting in opposition to Kuvira’s plans.
All the villains in the show are nuanced and multi-dimensional, to the extent that viewers might find themselves saying, “But Amon has a point…” None moreso than Kuvira, the big bad of the final season, and the only female lead villain (as opposed to sidekick) in the series.
“It’s like Korra has to deal with overcoming a version of her past self,” said DiMartino of Kuvira.
It’s a bold choice, not only to have a wannabe dictator character with whom the audience might find themselves sympathizing, but to make her a mirror of the main hero–and furthermore to make them both women. Kuvira’s arc is like watching what might have been if Korra had simply gone full Avatar and imposed her will to solve every problem in the world.
Another sympathetic-but-flawed female character is Suyin, the leader of the isolationist city Zaofu. She created Zaofu as a safe haven, and has taken in many strays over the years–including Kuvira, whose birth parents abandoned her. However, her commitment to the safety of her charges above all others leads to a form of classism. While impoverished people throughout the Earth Kingdom struggle to get by, Zaofu can close its dome and cut itself off from all threats. Kuvira accuses Suyin of neglecting her responsibility, as a person with privilege and security, to spread those things to the people who need them the most. Winter and Kristine both read this as a sly criticism of well-meaning privileged in the real-world US who really want to believe that they’re making the world a better place, but fall far short.
So many times in genre TV, the “strong female characters” are the ones who take on traditionally male roles. There’s certainly some of that here, with Korra’s constant saving of the world through magical martial arts, with Lin’s career-mindedness as the chief of police, with Asami’s takeover of the role of influential industrialist when her father goes to prison. However, those aren’t the only ways for women to excel. Jinora, though very young, is very spiritually aware, and acts as Korra’s guide to the Spirit World. Her mother Pema, who has spent most of the series wrangling her three vivacious children, has her moment to shine in the finale when she uses her skills to calm down a panicky crowd during a city-wide evacuation.
Other experiences represented well on the show include disability and trauma recovery–take Korra’s experiences with losing her abilities at the end of season 3, and her struggle to define herself after something so integral to her identity is taken away. On many shows, the problem would be solved almost immediately, but here the viewers see Korra struggle with it for nearly an entire season. Toph, the blind earthbender from The Last Airbender also makes several key appearances.
Women of all ages are allowed to shine. Jinora is about 11 years old when she receives the tattoos that indicate her mastery as an airbender; Lin and Suyin are what Kristine calls “gray-haired women kicking ass;” and Toph, their mother, comes out of retirement to save the family, before declaring that she’ll leave the rest of the fight to the young ‘uns.
The show doesn’t necessarily depict most forms of oppression familiar in our world–the ‘verse began, in The Last Airbender, with Katara getting angry with her brother for his sexism, but 70 years later in the Legend of Korra timeframe, the only character who makes an explicitly sexist comment (that Korra is “kind of muscular for a woman”) is Bolin & Mako’s grandmother, who’s depicted as rather traditional and out of touch. It’s a subtle indicator that the world has moved on.
Instead, the show counters real-world oppression by subverting tropes and depicting women in roles that span the full range of human possibility. Marginalized fans often have little choice but to be content with scraps from the media they love, but it’s going to be hard to go back to that after Legend of Korra.
This show has proven that it’s possible, even in children’s animated media, to tell a subversive, riveting story with three-dimensional characters of all types. It’s time to demand more. Don’t be satisfied with scraps when you can have a feast!