Why ‘The Legend of Korra’ is (Still) a Feminist’s Headache

The Legend of Korra Book 2 promotional poster.

Written by Erin Tatum.

Let me start by saying that I love Avatar: The Last Airbender. I’ve watched it since its original run in 2005 and I continue to re-watch it. The themes are relatable and they always will be. Yes, it’s a kids’ show, but it has genuine appeal across all ages, and not in the same tongue-in-cheek way as Adventure Time or My Little Pony. Set in a world where people can “bend” (control and/or manipulate) the elements–water, earth, fire, and air–the series borrows heavily from martial arts and eastern spirituality. We follow the long lost Avatar, Aang, as he and his friends attempt to restore peace after a hundred-year world war. The animation is gorgeous and the action scenes are impeccably well choreographed. Most of all, the narrative and characterization are emotionally balanced and unexpectedly poignant given its target demographic.
Avatar: The Last Airbender.

 

Critics noted that A:TLA was unique for the children’s genre in its incorporation of serious romantic themes. Most of the characters have long-term love interests and complex moral or emotional turmoil relating to their relationships, rendering them much more nuanced. This was a radical departure from the usual crush fluff, probably due in part to the fact that the characters were in a perpetual war zone. The writers did a phenomenal job of devoting proper attention to the military conflict while providing the audience just enough fodder to keep us invested in the characters’ personal dynamics. Ultimately, the war always superseded romantic angst in importance.
Korra on her way to steal yo man.

 

In theory, The Legend of Korra initially seemed full of potential. A strong female protagonist! A woman of color! A woman who could easily be reinterpreted as queerly coded! Unfortunately, the execution is less than stellar. Korra and her friends are 17-20, as opposed to the 12-17 age range of the A:TLA cast. The writers took advantage of the age jump to make the sequel series the Y7 equivalent of Hotter and Sexier, which apparently means piling on the hormones. Whereas in A:TLA, relationship tensions had a slight influence on the action, the conflict in The Legend of Korra serves as mere white noise to the Love Drama of the Week. I almost feel like I shouldn’t bother explaining the alleged overarching premise because it frankly doesn’t matter. A civil war is brewing between benders and non-benders and Korra (the reincarnation of Aang) must again fight to restore balance. While this could have been a fantastic commentary on class struggle, what’s really important is who Korra dates! Accordingly, the plot is consistently suffocated by a love square so forced and melodramatic that I was honestly embarrassed that this was considered quality enough to inherit the legacy of the franchise.
The Legend of Pheromones: Mako and Asami (front) with Korra and Bolin (back).

 

Long story short, Korra finds herself torn between the affections of two brothers, geeky Bolin and brooding Mako. That sound you hear is me slamming my head against my desk. Korra pines after Mako, who represents a botched attempt to recapture the popularity of Zuko, resident bad boy and puberty catalyst of the A:TLA universe. Mako gets a girlfriend, Asami, who is actually really nice and arguably more sympathetic than Korra, but we are supposed to irrationally hate her because she’s blocking the Official Couple. Sexism ensues. Mako is a douchebag who cheats on Asami by kissing Korra and never taking accountability for it or apologizing to Asami and Bolin. Korra saves the city via a last-minute deus ex machina and Mako tells her he loves her. Essentially, we spend 10 episodes watching the beautiful love story of two emotionally unavailable teenagers with anger issues passive aggressively refusing to date each other until they do. Cool.

Bolin accurately captures my reaction to Mako and Korra’s brief PDA.

 

With this in mind, I was reticent to say the least about giving the second season a try. Apologists insisted that the choppy quality was attributable to the fact that The Legend of Korra was originally planned to be a standalone miniseries, so I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It’s not that Friday’s premiere was necessarily worse, it’s just that the characters continue to be bogged down by needing overt romantic storylines to validate any narrative movement. Six months have passed and more trouble is on the horizon. Korra needs to decide whether or not to go to the South Pole to advance her Avatar training. Korra and Mako have a lot of arguments about whether or not he is being supportive enough because she’s confused and he won’t make a decision for her. Ninety percent of their interaction is arguing. If there’s anything young fans want, it’s to excitedly pair up with your crush and then immediately skip to the part where you’re jaded and irritated with each other.
Luckily for Korra, she has plenty of other men eager to tell her what to do. Her mentor, her dad, and her uncle fight about what’s best for her the entire episode while Korra huffs and pouts. This is supposed to make her more sympathetic by again painting her as an average (gifted) girl who has her precociously cunning intuitions stifled by myopic adults who unfairly underestimate her. I am less inclined to believe this since she never seems to do anything other than either begrudgingly following orders or deliberately doing the opposite and claiming it’s her idea because she’s pathologically incapable of admitting she can’t take anyone’s advice. She has had virtually zero character growth since the pilot, which is a real travesty in light of the extensive personal evolution in A:TLA. I guess Mako came along and made her Distracted by the Sexy.
Korra uses firebending to stop a Spirit from attacking the town.

 

Korra has a new enemy in the form of angry spirits. The combat scenes are, as usual, visually stunning. I’m in this for the Scenery Porn. True to form, Korra punches her way through everything, choosing to bypass more meticulous styles of bending in favor of brute strength. The problem with LOK is that Korra’s stubbornness and aggression are marketed as female empowerment in that they seem to be the self-aware antithesis to traditional femininity. Korra even pigeonholed Asami early on as prim and proper because she was a girly girl. Why is femininity still considered the enemy or an embarrassing relic to move past? Masculinized traits on their own don’t automatically equal a liberated female protagonist. Reversing the stereotype doesn’t necessarily make the resulting portrayal a positive one. Having a strong point of view is all well and good, but you should have a vague grasp of your identity. We still have no idea who Korra is and it’s the second season. She’s actually quite a disappointing cliché if you think about it. She can only understand herself and her potential for progression through her relationship with Mako. The various conflicts and the bending are simply bells and whistles to distract from the fact that she still feels the need to define herself through a man.
Asami faces down an intimidating businessman.

 

Asami is kicking ass and taking names as the new head of her father’s company. She and Bolin close a business deal together and it’s awesome. I want to be excited, I really do. Alas, I’m sure she’ll only reappear to tease romantic subtext between her and Bolin. The scene came off as a bit forced and I think the writers wanted to throw Asami in briefly to respond to the criticism that she wouldn’t have a shelf life after the love triangle. I hope she stays a regular. Also, Mako is now a motorcycle cop, despite the series being very clearly set in the Jazz age. Just in case you needed more confirmation that he’s the golden boy. Mako’s irresistible charisma allows him to transcend the pace of human innovation! Maybe he should use his charm to inspire someone to cure cancer 40 years sooner.
Eska sizes up Bolin.
After getting his heart stomped all over by Korra, Bolin had to be given a new love interest fast or risk losing all relevance to the LOK universe. Seeing that he was relegated to one-dimensional comic relief to eliminate him as a threat to precious Mako for Korra, it’s fitting that Bolin’s girlfriend is… one-dimensional comic relief. Korra’s nearly identical twin cousins, Desna and Eska (boy and girl respectively), come to town and Bolin is instantly taken by the beauty of both twins, although he quickly changes his tune when he realizes that Desna is a guy. Eska’s deadpan, monotone delivery reminded me of Aubrey Plaza and then I saw that Plaza actually does voice Eska, so that’s badass. Eska instantly takes a shining to Bolin’s flirting and suddenly they’re “dating” within a few lines of dialogue. Genuine development is reserved for main characters, which Bolin has apparently been demoted from indefinitely.
Eska breaks up the hug between Bolin and Korra (source).

 

Many viewers have already raised concerns that Bolin and Eska’s relationship is abusive and claim that fangirls are overlooking Eska’s problematic behavior. In particular, they cite the moment towards the end of the episode where Eska uses waterbending to forcibly separate Bolin and Korra when he tries to hug her and then demands an explanation. Eska’s oddly formal way of speaking and morose goth girl personality, once literally coupled with Bolin’s hapless Idiot Hero shtick, indicates that their dynamic exists almost solely to be played for laughs. I’m not sure if it’s actually funny yet because it screams try hard. Either way, Eska has risen to fandom darling overnight. Funny how traits that would’ve been red flags for assholes where men are concerned translate into quirky and adorable qualities for girls to have. It might be too early in Bolin and Eska’s supposed relationship to determine concrete abusive tendencies, but possessiveness is never cute or attractive, regardless of your gender. You know that if it had been Mako blocking Korra from hugging Bolin, fandom would be in an uproar. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl really is catnap to young audiences, especially if you put her in sheep’s (or rather, goth’s) clothing.
Jinora gazes at a statue of Aang.

 

I’m the most intrigued by the plot given the least attention. This episode foreshadowed Aang’s granddaughter, Jinora, having special connections to the Spirit World. She is too young to be given a boyfriend yet, so I have faith that she might be one female character to grow and develop as an individual, but only by virtue of prepubescence. Sigh.
It’s extremely frustrating because anyone who has seen A:TLA knows what Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (the creators of A:TLA and LOK) are capable of. Sure, the romance in A:TLA was enjoyable, but LOK pushes it to soap opera extremes. They seem to be hooked on the thrill of ship wars to the point where it perputually eclipses everything else in LOK. There are already rumblings of a Bolin-centered love triangle with Asami and Eska. Just stop using nonsensical romantic angst to fill narrative space. Not only is reliance on triangles a very amateur writing move, but it signals that you are so uninspired by your own characters that the most compelling thing you could come up with for them to do is fight over each other. That’s stale and frankly depressing.
Lastly, stop leaving Korra in the lurch. One of the last exchanges in the episode gave us this little steaming turd of a gem:
Korra: It’s hard being the Avatar.
Mako: It’s harder being the Avatar’s boyfriend.

(cue forced chuckling and hug)
A dramatic reenactment of my response to the above dialogue.

 

Is there such a thing as sexism bending? Because it should be certified as a fundamental element of the LOK universe.
The Legend of Korra should be about Korra’s journey. It’s not The Legend of Mako and Associates. Mako and the others can help Korra, but they don’t need to compulsively define her every step of the way. Let her find herself and stumble a bit on her own. I guarantee that she won’t scrape her knees too badly if Mako isn’t there to hold her hand. Korra is strong, so give her a little backbone. The Avatar deserves more than just being somebody’s girlfriend.
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    I agree with your critique immensely. Though many argue that LOK shouldn’t be constantly compared to A:TLA, it’s undeniable that the latter knew how to balance gripping conflict with believable character interaction (and romance), whilst the former is constantly and at times bitteringly falling short on that front

    I (very VERY tentatively) have hope for characters Asami and Eska. Asami was my favourite character in S1 in spite of the disservices done to her in writing, seeing her personality and background as one of the most complex and enjoyable ones depicted (I’m still holding out on her becoming Wolfbatwoman, Dark Knight of Republic City…)
    Her interactions with Bolin and Varrick (the shipping owner and historical nod to Howard Hughes) were the highlight of the S2 premier to me and with any luck will be the focuses of a much needed sublplot outside of the Korra Circle.

    As for Eska…she is less than one-dimensional, no denying it. But I’d be lying if I said she didn’t elicit several chortles from me. I see her the same way I still see Bolin: heirs of the Sokka Dynamic. What is one-note comic-relief today could be a well of development WITH humour by a season’s turn. The Identical Twin trait alone holds potential merely by virtue of what could happen if its formula were to be broken.

    The Avatar successor series’ track record perhaps gives us little cause to be hopeful, but I like you am happy to crack on and sit through LOK S2 if only for the glorious animation sequences.

    –C., Capt.
    (p.s: “myopic” is a fantastic word! I need to remember it…)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    Great analysis! I find Korra to be a bit of a let-down after The Last Airbender. It just seems to alternate between action and romance without developing the characters in any meaningful way. I imagine if I had seen Korra first, I would have been pumped for a female protagonist and found the show perfectly acceptable, but Airbender is just a really tough act to follow.

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