‘The Legend of Korra’ Caps Off Its Feminist Redemption in (Very Queer) Series Finale

[caption id="attachment_17388" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Korra's making a comeback. Korra’s making a comeback.[/caption]

 

Written by Erin Tatum.

If there’s one thing I will never get tired of doing, it’s calling out lazy sexism in writing. Few shows have disappointed me more (at least initially) than The Legend of Korra (LOK), simply because of all the wasted potential. For a long time, I perceived LOK as a clumsy Y7 dilution of a horny teen melodrama that tainted the legacy of its golden predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender (A: TLA). There was far too much reliance on love triangles and romantic angst and on top of everything, the allegedly radical strong female protagonist was a hot mess. Korra (Janet Varney) was an impulsive hothead with an undying need to resist authority for the sake of it, caring more about the attention and approval of crush-turned-boyfriend Mako (David Faustino) than, well, just about anything else. She was whiny, entitled, and dabbled in internalized misogyny to boot, focusing most of her energy in the first season on undermining  Asami (Seychelle Gabriel), Mako’s first girlfriend, in the rivalry for his heart. But it’s apparently justified at the time because Asami is girly and comes from money and therefore it’s automatically assumed she’s shallow or undeserving I guess?

Avatar Aang’s reincarnation may have been a lady, but she was a bit of a dick.

[caption id="attachment_17390" align="aligncenter" width="300"]My reaction to Korra at the beginning. My reaction to Korra at the beginning.[/caption]

 

(The kids were also saddled with a miserable cast of piss-baby adults who redefined emotional dysfunction and clogged up screen time with their Maury-style family drama shitshow. I’ll have to stop here or you’re going to get six paragraphs about how much the adults ruin everything.)

Anyway, I digress. From weak characterization to network issues, LOK had a bumpy ride until the end. During the third season, Nickelodeon decided to pull the series off the air due to overly dark themes (although A:TLA tiptoed around such subjects, LOK never shied away from showcasing progressively less ambiguous scenes of death/suicide/murder).  Rather than outright cancellation, executives took the unusual step of relegating the rest of the episodes exclusively to online streaming. The show thereby cemented its subversive reputation, with creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko seemingly taking advantage of the medium to push the envelope as much as they could.

[caption id="attachment_17391" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Asami offers her support to Korra after Korra is injured at the end of Book 3. Asami offers her support to Korra after Korra is injured at the end of Book 3.[/caption]

 

The second season was an echo of the first in terms of rehashing pointless romantic fodder, but things finally hit their stride in the third season, ironically right when it was pulled from television viewership. Thankfully, following a tumultuous relationship and a messy breakup in Book 2, Korra and Mako stayed apart with shockingly little ship tease the rest of the series. I’m still in disbelief about that one. I can’t believe the breakup actually stuck and that the writers were able to resist the temptation to constantly throw them back into will-they-won’t-they territory. That’s a good message though–not all relationships work out, and you don’t have to feel pressure to stay with someone forever just because you have history. People can learn things from each other and move on. More significantly, the breakup paves the way for Korra to develop a friendship with Asami, who fast becomes Korra’s primary ally and confidant the rest of the series. They’re able to work past their former rivalry to build a relationship independent of shared history with Mako. The connection is heartfelt and genuine and doesn’t just feel like a belated attempt to hastily past the Bechdel test like I originally feared.

There’s also a few phenomenal standalone episodes that shed light on general Avatar history. They brought tears to my eyes not only because they were so good, but because they reminded me that DiMartino and Konietzko do still have the ability to tell beautiful stories when they aren’t mired down in cheesy interpersonal dynamics.

[caption id="attachment_17392" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Older Korra has seen better days. Older Korra has seen better days.[/caption]

 

The fourth and final season (Balance) finds Korra struggling to recover from her latest near death experience, suffering from implied PTSD as repeated, terrifying flashbacks prevent her from fully regaining use of her Avatar powers. Three years have passed since the previous season, putting Korra and her friends into their early 20s. This was one of the best creative decisions of the series in my opinion. It feels a little weird to arbitrarily set the final chapter three years in the future when the first three books have taken place in a relatively slow-moving linear timeline, but the last-minute time skip enables the kids to do something that shoddy writing has always held them back from: growing up. Team Avatar are all young adults now. They don’t have time to worry about who they’re dating because they’re all trying to hold down jobs and working for different corporations and navigating different politics and world views. Even the airbending kids (Aang’s grandchildren) take on much more significant roles as we return to find them entering their early teen years.  The show finally takes a break from stirring the bubbling cauldron of pheromones to at last rediscover what should have been at the heart of any A:TLA franchise–teamwork and friendship.

[caption id="attachment_17393" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Korra must face down Kuvira. Korra must face down Kuvira.[/caption]

 

With her confidence and fragile psychological state badly shaken, Korra has been in isolation since her last enemy tried to poison her to death, choosing to remain in contact with only Asami (suck it Mako). This new older version of Korra is the polar opposite of the headstrong teenager we first met. She’s quiet with a sobering jaded outlook on life, with everything down to her weary body language indicating that her spirit remains just as broken as the physical injuries that brought her to such a darkened mental place. Alas, there is once again trouble brewing on the horizon and Korra must return to face her responsibilities in spite of all of her fears of inadequacy. Harsh dictator Kuvira (Zelda Williams) is conquering villages left and right, becoming increasingly drunk with power under the guise of creating an idealized utopia, a mission for domination that threatens to throw the world out of balance. See what I did there? I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the whole “new radical extremist appears to hand Korra’s ass to her every few months” formula of each season because I feel like it disconnects the books from one another as opposed to the steady buildup to the ultimate conflict in A:TLA, but I will say that the execution of this season plot wise is the most compelling. The threat of Kuvira is definitely more intense than the other villains, so the stakes are appropriately higher.

[caption id="attachment_17394" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Jinora (in front) travels with her siblings to help Korra. Jinora (in front) travels with her siblings to help Korra.[/caption]

 

I’d also like to take a minute to discuss the importance of Jinora, Aang’s oldest granddaughter, because I don’t feel like she ever gets enough credit for being awesome. (Also, she’s voiced by Kiernan Shipka, aka sass queen Sally Draper, which blew my mind because I’ve watched her on Mad Men since she was like 6 and holy hell I’m getting old.) Jinora has been the feminist heartbeat of LOK long before Korra ever got her shit together. Whereas Korra had to be physically annihilated 932 times to actually learn any kind of lesson, Jinora always possessed calm, precocious wisdom and a deep sense of spirituality. She could connect to the spirit world without breaking a sweat. She’s probably around 14 or 15 in the last season. Getting to see her mature and grow into her talents was a real treat. Throughout Book 4, she protects the city, communicates with spirits, and teleports via spirit like a boss. Korra is very protective of her and they have a big sister/little sister type of bond, but Korra should also take notes. Forget Korra’s mopey ass, Jinora is everything that I want to be when I grow up. I don’t care that she’s eight or nine years younger than me. As a bonus, she also has one of the only healthy (not to mention adorable) romantic relationships on the show, even if that could be written off as a function of youth.

[caption id="attachment_17396" align="aligncenter" width="300"]I could even find a picture of Korra and Mako together this season, so here's older!Mako. I couldn’t even find a picture of Korra and Mako together this season, so here’s older!Mako.[/caption]

 

Korra’s gravitation away from brute strength fighting and toward peaceful negotiation tactics was a massive testament to her personal growth in itself, but the most significant crescendo of her character arc came in the form of the final scene of the series. I’ll try not to spoil most of the finale. A lot of people pass out midair and other people catch them. I think you can guess who won the battle of good versus evil. Once everything winds down, Korra has her final meaningful conversations with those closest to her. I bit my lip nervously as expressed her gratitude towards Mako for assisting her in the fight. After a reunion so late in the game, I fully expected everything to wrap up with a humdrum obligatory affirmation of heterosexuality. No matter how I feel about Korra and Mako together, we did have to suffer through two entire seasons of being beaten over the head with the idea that they were the ultimate fated alpha couple. It’s a kids show, so closure is expected and almost mandatory. But the writers miraculously stuck to their guns. A simple “I’ll always have your back” and meaningful glance and that was that. Not even a kiss! Keep that in mind, because we’re about to get analytical.

[caption id="attachment_17397" align="aligncenter" width="245"]CAN YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SINGGG?? (source). CAN YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SINGGG?? (source).[/caption]

 

Suddenly–could it be?–the heavens opened up and the powers that be smiled upon us all. Korra spends her last moments of screen time with…Asami? Is this real, or am I dreaming about fanfiction? Asami tells Korra she couldn’t bear to lose her and Korra suggests they take a vacation together. Asami says she’d love to visit the spirit world. She and Korra then walk alone, hand-in-hand, into the spirit portal. The final shot of the series is the two of them clasping hands and gazing into each other’s eyes while being enveloped in the golden light of the portal.

[caption id="attachment_17398" align="aligncenter" width="245"]It's time to girl the hell up (source). It’s time to girl the hell up (source).[/caption]

 

To me, that’s about as queer of an ending as a kids show can get.

A few articles and legions of rejoicing Tumblr fans have chosen to interpret the ending as implying that Korra and Asami are together romantically. It makes sense. The two of them have been building a relationship for years. I also think it’s significant that the scene with Asami occurred after the scene with Mako. Korra had the opportunity to go off into the sunset with Mako, but she chose Asami instead. Asami is the most important person in Korra’s life. It’s no coincidence that that scene almost directly mirrored A:TLA‘s final shot of Aang and Katara kissing in the sunset. Minus the kissing. Sigh, minus the kissing. How awesome is it that two girls who started out resenting each other over a boy end up choosing each other over everyone else? Talk about every queer shipper’s wet dream.

Predictably, this interpretation has drawn an irritated outcry from fans who insist that the subtext simply isn’t there and Korrasami shippers are delusional. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something along the lines of “but no, they’re like sisters!” in response to even the most vague allusion to romantic ties between Korra and Asami following the finale. Women are already oversexualized or desexualized constantly in media. The second that anyone dare suggest romantic overtones in girl/girl friendships, in comes the sister argument. Sisters are wholesome and loving within appropriate boundaries! Oh my sweet summer children, have you ever read Frozen fanfiction? Many, many people want Anna/Elsa to get it on, and they’re actual sisters.

The Korra/Mako scene was equally open-ended, but no one’s going to complain about fans who want to interpret that moment as suggesting a romantic future between the two. No one’s going to say “but they’re like brother and sister now!” Granted, they already dated. You get my point. Compulsory assumed universal heterosexuality is the bane of my fandom existence.

I wanted to put something else witty here, but I can’t because this actually makes me really fucking angry and it’s important to talk about why. Most people love to talk about how they support gay people (and I say gay because the straight community has far less understanding and patience for bi/pansexuality), but as soon as the possibility of queerness encroaches into the children’s genre, it becomes dirty and perverse. You do realize that gay people were all once gay kids, right? Kids need to see that kind of representation, regardless of their orientation. For one thing, it’s important to show that a girl can love a girl, but another message of equal importance is that just because love looks different doesn’t make it less than any other kind of love. As a disabled kid, I never exactly saw anyone swooning over people in wheelchairs, but every time I saw anything that broke with your run of the mill romance, it gave me a spark of hope. The emphasis shouldn’t be on moaning about ruining childhoods or turning kids gay, but rather on illustrating that everyone deserves fulfilling relationships with people who love you, whomever they may be.

Ultimately, Korra evolved from an insecure teenager eager to define herself around a boy to a confident heroine who found strength in another woman who believed in her. She may have made me want to tear my hair out in the beginning, but with Asami’s help and the help of her entire support system, she proved herself deserving of the Avatar title as well as finally living up to all the strong female protagonist hype. Once rivals, Korra and Asami became lifelong allies who may or may not kiss occasionally in the future.

In Asami, Korra finally found her balance.

UPDATE: Bryan Konietzko has confirmed via his Tumblr that Korra and Asami ended the series as a couple. 

20 Comments

  • Bille Raymond
    Posted December 22, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Neat! Yes I agree we need more male and female representations like that. Are there any shows where the genders are switched and it’s two male characters who fight over the affections of the same girl, but then end up “liking” each other toward the end? I’m sure there are.

    • Erin Tatum
      Posted December 22, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Hey Billie, great question! Hmmm…I can’t think of any male/male love triangle shake ups off the top of my head, but that would also be fantastic.

  • Spergatory
    Posted December 22, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    For as long as I live, I will never forget the image this finale ends on; two women, surrounded by heavenly light, holding hands and staring deep into each other’s eyes as they enter another world.

  • Kate McIntyre
    Posted December 24, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    To be fair, I think Korra’s internalised misogyny in Season 1 was presented as a character flaw, which she overcame after spending time with Asami.
    Asami was also a pretty well-rounded character in her own right – with an arc separate from Mako and Korra. But I do agree that the love-triangle was irritating and the worst part of the show.
    That is, until they brought it full-circle – my poor bi heart is so full of joy.

  • Kate McIntyre
    Posted December 24, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Cry me a fucking river.

  • Kate McIntyre
    Posted December 24, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Oh well – you’ll be the one feeling like crap. Me? I’m in a state of eternal joy – slightly disappointed that I don’t get to bathe in your entitled hetero-tears, but oh well. There are other bigots in the cyberspace.

  • Ocelotl Chimalpahin
    Posted December 25, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I wish I could like the romance but it ain’t no Bubbline. Adventure Time in case is doing it much better.

    • Ocelotl Chimalpahin
      Posted March 2, 2015 at 2:03 am | Permalink

      Hell even Clarence and Good-luck Charlie have done it better. I wanna be on board but it’s so badly done, this show is such a hot mess. What the heck?

      This finale also perpetuates this toxic notion of binary relationship, as if you and your lover are the only relationships that matter. In life we have all sorts of relationships that mean a lot to us. The fact that both Mako and Bolin were shafted at the end irks me, Korra barely had a word with Bolin, her first friend outside of her isolated world!

      Even stranger Asami is again put into the love trophy box, her relationship to fer father grossly ignored. He just died and her feelings are totally negated in order to pursue, while lofty, a romance.

      They also just leave into the spirit portal on a whim? That’s dangerous gurl, I thought Asami would have more sense than to just go rite after a wedding and her father’s death. Why didn’t they all go together as a family? They could still have had the hand holding scene, just have Mako and Bolin go in ahead of them! A kiss is unnecessary at this point

      I dunno maybe Korra needs to lay off the Fire Folk. Damn these past two seasons have begun to sour the more I think about them.

  • David Messner
    Posted December 25, 2014 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    god, I hate that the feminist community is now all over the show… Seriously, I enjoyed the ending, but you all, with your freaking over analysing shit totaly ruined it. So whatß Korra is a lesbian now, big deal, I didnt even waste a second thought about it. “Nice for them, sad show is over”, was all, and I was happy. Then I went to forums and holy fuck, people were bashing their heads about this shit, feminists in the front line…

    • Erin Tatum
      Posted December 29, 2014 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      I’m so glad you came to a feminist website to complain about how feminists are ruining the finale for you. Great use of time.

    • Ocelotl Chimalpahin
      Posted March 2, 2015 at 1:41 am | Permalink

      Only she’s not a lesbian but bisexual, a distinction that i doubt you’d care about. It’s all about dem ev1l feminists, always ruining everything. I bet you’d blame them for eclipses too.

  • at the soup store
    Posted January 4, 2015 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    The ending was so sweet. I had quite a few issues with the show (though I still liked it), but that ending was just beautiful.

    I only wish we could see Asami and Korra’s relationship grow now that they are a couple. Maybe they will have some comics in line like they did for Last Airbender? I know they said “nothing at this time”, but there is always the future…

  • at the soup store
    Posted January 4, 2015 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Also in retrospect it looks like one of Suyin’s sons was hitting on Bolin (Wei, one of the twins). Though that’s not feminism because they’re both guys but equality is still equality haha

  • R I
    Posted January 8, 2015 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Uhh… in the first season, Korra resents Asami for like two episodes. Once they actually meet and hang out, Korra concedes to Asami that she was mistaken, and the two have been friends since then. The romantic overtones, I’d argue, began in the third season, and have been subtly been building up till the end.

    In short, Korra was no feminist headache to start with. Its pretty clear when you look at her entire arc that the writers knew exactly where they wanted to take her.

  • lauraoliver
    Posted February 13, 2015 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    I created an account just to comment in this. When we first meet Asami she is shown to be very kind and eager to help Korra and her friends and uses her money to help them. She is also extremely intelligent and takes over and singlehandedly runs her father’s company. And you say that we are supposed to hate her?? Like a previous commentator said, Korra never hated her. She was jealous of her at first, sure, but they quickly got over that, and by s2 it was never mentioned again. Please, if you write something like “In s1 Korra uses most of her energy to underhand Asami” ADD SPECIFIC EXAMPLES FROM S1. Because I don’t think this ever actually happened.

    “I feel like it disconnects the books from one another as opposed to the steady buildup to the ultimate conflict in A:TLA,”

    LoK was originally one season long. Nick ordered three more after the success of the first, so Konietzko and diMartino ran with it and decided to have each season feature a different villain. Also, both creators had stated again and again that they did not want LoK to be a copy of TLA so creating just one villain for the entire run of the series would have made it too similar to the original series.

    “Korra was an impulsive hothead with an undying need to resist authority for the sake of it,”

    “She was whiny, entitled,”

    “long before Korra ever got her shit together.”

    “Whereas Korra had to be physically annihilated 932 times to actually learn any kind of lesson,”

    “Forget Korra’s mopey ass”

    You don’t need a perfect female protagonist to appeal to girls, you need a human one, and humans have flaws. It’s not anti-feminist to have a flawed woman as a main character. It’s anti-feminist to have a perfect female protagonist who never does anything wrong and sets an impossibly high bar of perfection for girls. Throughout the series Korra matures from an immature, hot-headed teen girl to a level-headed, clear minded and compassionate young woman. LoK would have been boring as hell if Korra was perfect from the get-go and we watched her flawlessly conquer all of her problems and beat all of the baddies on the first try.

    “Jinora always possessed calm, precocious wisdom and a deep sense of spirituality.

    “Jinora is everything that I want to be when I grow up.”

    I agree, Jinora was always a great character. But she was boring because she was so perfect. She has no flaws, and nothing to overcome. She often faded into the background in contrast with other characters.

    I love how you wrote this piece to prove how LoK is feminist, but neglect to mention the characters of Suyin, Lin, and Kaya. All older 40+ year old women, but all strong and just as capable as the men. While older men are portrayed as powerful and authoritative, older women are often swept to the side and are seen as mothers or aunts or teachers. Suyin proved that just because she’s a mother doesn’t mean she can’t kick ass. Lin and Kaya proved that just because they are older and unmarried and don’t have children doesn’t mean they can’t also kickass.

    This article just made me mad. It’s like you blew up a lot of minor problems and neglected some very important ones.

    • Avatar_One
      Posted August 23, 2015 at 5:15 am | Permalink

      my thoughts exactly, we need more flawed female characters like korra in our media. I just wish the lok writers didnt humble and tone down korra just to satisfy her detractors

  • Mary Walker
    Posted February 28, 2015 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    “Oh my sweet summer children”
    Actually lol’d there, being an ASoIaF/GoT fan. Great article. I’m to watch Book 4 right now!

  • never write again
    Posted August 27, 2015 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    this article gave me cancer

  • AdeptDamage
    Posted April 10, 2016 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    People sure like to act Asami is treated in a feminist way in the narrative, but get real and think about it.

    Asami has NO other female friends aside from Korra, and their friendship is pretty damn one-sided with only Asami giving and receiving nothing; also, she needed to prove to Korra that she could do “non-feminine” things as well for Korra to respect her and not call her a prissy rich girl; the fact that Asami is not allowed to have other female friends aside from someone who treated her poorly is definitely not okay.

    All Asami’s plotlines are given to men and she is nothing but either an obstacle to makorra, Korra’s cheerleader, or Korra’s girlfriend depending on the season; Asami is a perfect example of a female character who is only used as a love interest and not given any real agency

    Asami is also a perfect example of a female character who just gets to kick and punch things instead of having any real plot of her own; she is supposed to be a main character but she is written like a side character.

    She can protect herself, she can punch/kick stuff and she has the future industries sure, but that’s the problem, she is capable and has potential but the potential isn’t used, so don’t give me the “asami has her own industries!!!! asami can fight!!!” yeah sure but when you compare her character and what the writers did with it to other main characters, it’s poor.

  • thisishowyouaxolotl
    Posted October 7, 2016 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I guess you’ve heard by now that their lesbian relationship has been confirmed by the writers- for which I ma thoroughly pleased because Maki was a terrible boyfriend and Asami was a great character.