Legend of Korra: Turf Wars: Balance and Relationship Fragility

Legend of Korra: Turf Wars begins a new spinoff of the Avatar franchise that continues right where the TV series ended. Though the writing is, at times, heavy-handed with its info dumping on the history of homophobia in the Avatarverse (and part of my opinion there may be that I’m above the targeted age range for the comic), I still think it’s a solid beginning to an interesting new Avatar story. The tension between spirituality and modernity is ever more prominent, with a greedy capitalist attempting to claim the lands around the new spirit portal and a new gang leader whose ruthlessness shakes the streets of Republic City.

Balanced with this setup is the official, unambiguous start of Korra and Asami’s relationship. It’s two thirds adorable and one third tense as they brush up against each other’s insecurities.

Spiritual Beginnings

I’ve written in the past about the initial nonphysical nature of Korra and Asami’s relationship and its ties to transcendence or spirituality. While I find this a significant foundation given both women’s past relationships with Mako, which got physical almost immediately, I also find it quite meaningful that their physical relationship with each other begins in the Spirit World. Korra and Asami share their first kiss in the Spirit World, this beautiful yet at times terrifying and dangerous place. The Spirit World is accessible to humans, but not predictable, and the Avatar doesn’t always experience reverence or respect. It’s a stunning, everlasting, yet delicate place. Korra and Asami’s relationship quite literally transcends worlds. Only when Korra and Asami return to the human world do they face the fragility of their relationship.

Realities of the Human World

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From Vice.com

Korra, having absolutely no chill, immediately takes Asami to her parents to tell them the news of their relationship. It’s slightly awkward and cringe-worthy because Korra always does this. She is, self-admittedly, intense, and in this moment that intensity reveals itself. It’s reminiscent of her confession to Mako early on in Book 1, and it’s in line with her rush to accomplish/do everything all at once. Although she’s learned much over the years, this seems to just be a part of her nature. The difference between this instance with her parents and those of the past is that Korra recognizes it and apologizes. She knows she’s intense and she realizes that she charged right into disclosing her relationship with Asami without talking to her about it. If Korra can’t change her tendency to rush, she can now at least catch herself doing it.

Yet this meeting with Korra’s parents is not the most fragile moment in Turf Wars. That moment comes at the refugee camp, where Korra expects Asami to help in exactly the same way that she does: by making public appearances. Korra perceives that Asami is the girl who can keep up with her intensity 100% of the time, so she concludes that Asami must always act and be on her level. She expects the same unwavering support from Asami that she did from Mako. In that moment when they part ways with an awkward “Okay,” Korra may be having a mini-crisis on the inside where she’s terrified that not being on the same wavelength with Asami means that the relationship will fall apart as it did with Mako.

Asami is also terrified in this interaction, not of Korra, but of losing Korra. She is so used to people leaving, and we see this insecurity arise in the look on her face. Both of her parents have died. She’s been cheated on and played (twice). Her company has been screwed over. No wonder she’s antsy about any perceived breakdown in her important relationships. That look on her face says “I’m afraid of losing you over this.”

Balance Nonetheless

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From Entertainment Weekly

This conflict does have a happy resolution. After inspiring the refugees, Korra returns to find Asami and Zhu Li doing what Asami does best: drawing up blueprints for a new construction project, specifically one that would provide new housing for the refugees. In this, Korra (hopefully) sees that while her own way of helping by being a public figure has value, Asami’s way of maximizing her skills and resources for justice is just as valuable.

In fact, it’s this difference in their qualities and positions in society that exemplify how well-balanced Korra and Asami are. At their best, they cover a lot of ground in making the world a better place, with Korra more in the public eye as an inspiring figure and Asami focusing on tangible, material ways to improve things.

Could Korra and Asami’s respective insecurities put a Future Industries wrench in their relationship? Absolutely, if they don’t talk about or acknowledge what they’re feeling. Yet given the foundation Korra and Asami have already built by choosing to be close and vulnerable with each other, they already have the capacity to work through it no matter how awkward it gets.

I’m looking forward to seeing their relationship grow over the next two issues, and seeing that it’s not a perfect, blissful fantasy 100% of the time. It’s still fragile and beautiful and should be shown as such.

Transcendence and Subtlety in Queer Ships

Queer erasure and censorship in media isn’t a new problem. Although things have certainly changed in recent years, overt representation of queer women in cartoons (and anime to a lesser extent) is still pretty sparse. Where it does occur, it’s sometimes embedded in some type of spiritual or transcendent narrative in which the transcendence of one or both partners acts as an ambiguous confirmation of their relationship. At the same time, transcendent narratives present profound themes that tie to larger ideas in the show. Korrasami and Utena x Anthy are two examples of queer lady ships in which transcendence or connection with the spiritual exists in tension with the ambiguity of their relationships.

Korrasami: Nonphysicality and the Spirit World

An image shows Korra and Asami facing each other in the glow of a spirit portal while holding hands.

Over a year ago, I joined with the rest of the Internet gushing over the Legend of Korra series finale. Subsequent Tumblr posts from Mike and Bryan confirmed Korrasami, which fueled ongoing debates about Korrasami’s value as queer representation. Did Bryke do their best in the face of network censorship, or should the queer community reject Korrasami for being barely more than breadcrumbs (as portrayed just in the series itself)? Does good queer representation mean that there cannot be any ambiguity about the relationship by the time a series ends, especially in light of people who stress that they’re just “gal pals”?

There may not be a straight answer.

Puns aside, I do think we can glean some good meaning from what we see of Korrasami’s relationship in those last moments as they hold hands and enter the portal to the Spirit World. To start, we need to compare Korra and Asami’s relationship with the relationships they have with Mako.

Because overt heterosexuality is permissible (and assumed) in children’s animation, Korra and Asami’s respective relationships with Mako contain that physical element. Both Masami and Makorra happened fast. One minute, Asami runs into Mako with her moped and does a hair flip. The next minute, they’re dating. Though Makorra happens a little slower than that, it’s still canon by the end of season one. Compare that to the three seasons it took for Katara and Aang to get together. Physical attraction or infatuation likely cause these quick hookups. Neither Korra nor Asami has much time at all to get to know Mako before dating him (and being physical with kisses and such). Mako and Korra do know each other a little bit better before they officially start dating, but Korra spends most of Book 1 with “Mako blinders” on, so to speak. He’s cool and charming and great, but Korra doesn’t actually know if they’re compatible. Both of them rush into their relationship and it’s clear by Book 2 that that they have no clue how to be with or support each other. It’s the same with Mako and Asami. In Book 3, Korra and Asami place the issue squarely on Mako’s inability to understand his own feelings or what he wants.

But during this Makorra and Masami dance, Korra and Asami begin their friendship. Korra is the reluctant one. In her brash judgments, she decides that Asami is her competition for Mako and is nothing more than a prissy heiress. Asami, however, shows nothing but respect and kindness for Korra. So as their friendship really starts to grow in Book 3, both could very well be attracted to each other in the same way that they were attracted to Mako. However, their history with him may compel them to actively and intentionally deny physicality. They both remember what happened the last time they rushed their feelings for someone they liked and they don’t want another burnout. So, they choose nonphysicality and spirituality becomes entwined with it. Asami is the one who requests the vacation to the Spirit World, of all places, so whatever is starting between her and Korra is intimately connected with the spiritual.

Now, technically speaking, holding hands is a physical act, but when we think of “physical” in terms of romantic relationships, we typically mean more than hand-holding. The absence of kissing or the types of touch one would usually have only in the context of a romantic relationship is what makes Korrasami “nonphysical.” However, their relationship is still deeply affectionate and there are plenty of examples, especially throughout Books 3 and 4, of the care they extend to each other.

Abstaining from physicality has some precedence in the Avatarverse. During Aang’s training with Guru Pathik, he’s encouraged to let all earthly attachments go when opening his chakras, which include the physical needs of his body and emotional ties, particularly his love for Katara. There’s this notion that being free of all tethers to the world will lead to a greater connection with the divine. Aang is ultimately unable to renounce his attachment to Katara and that’s the end of that.

Korra and Asami do have an attachment to each other, yet they are easily able to enter a spiritual realm. Part of this is because the plot of Legend of Korra allows for this, but I think another way to look at it is as an affirmation that earthly relationships can be windows into spirituality if they’re built on foundations other than physical gratification. This doesn’t mean physicality is bad. It just means that it isn’t a lasting foundation and Korra and Asami have learned that through their relationships with Mako.

Yet doesn’t Korrasami’s ambiguity as shown in the series make it too easy to dismiss them as “just gal pals”? That’s the constant tension of transcendent queer relationships. Because their affections are not or cannot be explicitly shown, these relationships take on many metaphorical elements. When relationships are up for interpretation, fans tend to categorize them on one end of a binary or another. They’re either just friends or they’re dating.

I don’t think this binary is particularly helpful in talking about Korrasami because I see both strong friendship and romantic love between them, which I’ve expounded on in other pieces on this blog. Moreover, their relationship suggests more of a spectrum than a binary. This quote sums it up nicely:

“Friendships include love and power, embodiment and spirituality. . . .Women experience these dynamics to various degrees in everyday friendship. . .sexuality, as most women see it, is an integrated part of everyday human interaction–whether touch, embrace, caress, or more intimacy. The prioritization of friendship based on women’s experiences offers a different starting point for sexual choices. Friendship becomes the bedrock of all love relationships. It is a good foundation” (Hunt, “Love Your Friends: Learning from the Ethics of Relationships,” Queer Christianities, 140).

Being friends doesn’t exclude the possibility of romantic relationship. Friendship is the substance on which relationships thrive. Korra and Asami spend Books 3 and 4 making that foundation solid. Their friendship shouldn’t be used to discount or eliminate romantic attraction because doing so results in lesbian and bisexual erasure. Instead, their friendship ought to be seen as the grounding of their relationship–whatever it may be when they disappear through the spirit portal. Who knows what the comics will bring to their relationship? If we get lots of scenes of their vacation in the spirit world, there could be more to say about how their relationship connects to the divine.

Utena x Anthy: Someday, Together

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Everything about Revolutionary Girl Utena is a metaphor and that includes Utena and Anthy’s relationship. So, it makes sense that their relationship has this ambiguous, transcendent element. Utena and Anthy’s ambiguity fits with what the rest of the show presents. In a way, defining the relationship as anything would almost take away from its compelling mystery.

In the past, I’ve framed Utena as a Christ figure and the events of the last couple of episodes in the series as a salvation narrative. Utena’s death/transcendence and Anthy’s possible immortality makes their relationship go beyond the physical world, which therefore places them in a space where logic and clear definitions can’t fully grasp what’s going on. And as someone who talks about “divine illogic,” that’s totally cool with me–profound, even. Utena now exists in some intangible world outside of Ohtori Academy and Anthy, having been given a way out of the same cycle through Utena’s “death,” follows her on that journey, hoping to reunite with her someday. It’s subtly romantic in the context of other moments they have throughout the series, but it’s also quite spiritual because of this sense of passing and breaking through a seemingly unbreakable cycle. It’s not as blissful and Korra and Asami walking into the spirit portal together, both clearly alive, but it still has that element of a relationship carrying over into another world.

For me, if queer relationships must be subtle or undefined, they should be so in connection to the divine because at least it serves some greater narrative purpose and contributes to interesting themes. Many may disagree, especially those who are not particularly religious. But should ambiguous and transcendent queer relationships be the new norm? Are they merely a convenient way to avoid explicit representation so that heteronormativity can remain comfortably unchallenged?

Steven Universe, among many things, is showing both overt queerness and a connection at least to the illogical. I’d expect this given its several homages to Revolutionary Girl Utena. There isn’t yet any sort of divine realm in Steven Universe (the diamond matriarchs could be the closest the show will get to divine figures), but there’s certainly a narrative of queer love and transcendence.

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Rose Quartz and Pearl encompass several Revolutionary Girl Utena references. The most obvious is the connection between Rose and “the Rose Bride.” In this sense, Rose is more of an Anthy figure. She’s always depicted in a white gown and she’s the one Pearl is always fighting for. Pearl, then, is Utena because she fights with a sword and some of her fight scenes parallel those in Utena. On the other hand, Rose is most like Utena because she’s the one who dies/takes on another form in Steven. This makes Pearl Anthy, as she’s trying to live on in Rose’s legacy.

Either way, the show makes it very clear that Rose and Pearl had feelings for each other. Plus, Rose at least has this transcendent/illogical element to her nature. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but Rose and Pearl show that telling a transcendent story doesn’t necessarily mean that queerness must be so vague that it’s easy to dismiss.

Garnet is especially illogical. She’s a fusion of two different gems, which was unheard of before Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused. Garnet is the result of a relationship filled with such a deep love that she’s not only stable and very powerful, but she also confounds other characters just by existing (especially Peridot). Additionally, there’s nothing hidden or censored about Ruby and Sapphire’s relationship.

Steven Universe is breaking many molds while maintaining its popularity. It just may set a precedent for future stories that explore themes of transcendence and queerness. They do not have to be so subtle that they leave room for dismissal, but we can still find things worth analyzing in those subtle stories.

My Little Sato: Asami, Rarity, and the Femme Fatale Stigma

I can’t say how or why the comparison between Asami Sato from Legend of Korra and Rarity from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic came to me, but it did and I laughed. Then, I thought about it some more and realized that these two characters are actually very similar both in design and audience misperception.

If Asami were a pony, she’d be Rarity, though her cutie mark would probably be a wrench instead of a gem and she’d likely be an earth pony. Both are very feminine in their expressions and specifically have a femme fatale aesthetic: long, curly hair, luscious makeup, and general fabulousness. Yet this fabulousness exists in tension with audience preconceptions of their character types.

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Film and television have subtly trained us to see girls like Asami and Rarity and think that they’re villains or mischievous. The femme fatale image of the 1940s is a strong cultural image, even though it doesn’t seem to appear much in that very obvious form anymore. I think this image is more intentional with Asami because Legend of Korra’s universe is a pseudo-early 20th century world and it makes perfect sense for a wealthy woman to style herself as Asami does.

A Nice Rich Girl

Asami’s introduction sends loud signals to viewers that she will not only be Mako’s love interest, but a rival for Korra. Her story in Book 1 also led many fans to speculate that she was an Equalist. The first impression she leaves signals “femme fatale” and makes it much easier for audiences to make those predictions. In fact, I feel like it took many people a long, long time to actually like Asami as a character because she’s presented to us as a piece of the dreadfully overdone heterosexual love triangle where the two girls involved just have to be bitter rivals. With such strong impressions and expectations of how this story will go, it’s very difficult to see that Asami is the complete opposite of a femme fatale. Korra actually causes more emotional destruction than she does and Asami doesn’t intentionally seduce anyone, though she makes tons of bedroom eyes at Korra, like, constantly.

In fact, we’re shown from the start that Asami is a very generous person who is interested in unity with Korra rather than being her enemy. Upon meeting Mako and learning of the Fire Ferrets’ situation, she elects to use her wealth (technically her father’s wealth) and status to help them. Though this may seem like a typical femme fatale setup in which the woman is concocting a nefarious plan to make the man indebted to her, this is not how Asami operates. Rather, it’s her father who has the ulterior motives. Asami is really just a kind, generous person who doesn’t try to win people over with her riches. Asami’s generosity continues later on in the series. In Books 3 and 4, she offers the wealth and resources of Future Industries to team Avatar, including a giant airship. She’s generous even when she should still be recovering from heavy financial losses in Book 2.

So while Asami looks like what we sense is a femme fatale, most of her actions in the series show that she’s not. Her super feminine expression cues certain negative assumptions about her because we’re very used to women that look like Asami actually being evil or conniving. I think that, ultimately, Asami helps us challenge and unlearn those assumptions.

A Friendly, Girly Pony

Likewise, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s Rarity is presented as someone very feminine who we expect will be rude and full of herself while shallowly lavishing in riches and pretty things. I remember while season 1 was still airing seeing many people list Rarity as their least favorite or expressing surprise at her being the element of generosity. Why would the prissy rich girl who likes fancy things be associated with generosity?

This supposed mismatch of elements isn’t completely without support. After all, there are many times in the shows earlier episodes when Rarity frets over something trivial or is reduced to a damsel in distress or tries to assert her idea of femininity over others. In fact, she doesn’t always seem any more generous or kind than anypony else when things are going well for her. Generosity doesn’t seem to play much into her character until around season 3 (though there may be earlier instances that I’m forgetting). Before then, the only other instance I can think of is when she makes dresses for the Mane 6 and doesn’t charge for them. Rarity’s generosity seems to manifest most in her time and talents rather than giving away material possessions.

One could probably find many instances in which Rarity doesn’t come across as generous at all, but while she may not always be generous, she is never disloyal. She never betrays her friends, nor does she plot against them. The most she does in relation to the femme fatale character is bat her eyelashes at Spike to get him to do things. Sure, this is reminiscent of the femme fatale, but Rarity is still far from actually being such a character. Yet she seems to be the most disliked–at least, that was the case back when I paid attention to the fandom in 2011. I don’t think people hate her, but I don’t often see anyone say she’s their favorite pony. For good or for ill, she’s the most feminine pony by expression and I think that contributes to her being off-putting at times. We expect characters like Rarity to, at some point, annoy us by being shallow or whiny or rude to her friends. Rarity expresses these behaviors at some point, but so do most of the other ponies.

 

Asami and Rarity faces a certain set of audience expectations that aren’t as noticeable for the other characters. However, they both show that super feminine, wealthy girls can be genuinely good to their friends and lovers even while their character designs clue to the classic femme fatale.

Eschatology in The Legend of Korra

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Seasons two and four of Legend of Korra end with some kind of radical, permanent change to the world. First, Korra opens the spirit portals, allowing spirits to live together with humans in Republic City. This also revives airbending and sparks the birth of the Air Nation. In season three, she has to deal with the consequences of bringing about this new era, both good and bad. Finally, season four brings the end of imperial powers and leaves room for yet another new era of overturning powers not with violence, but with grace.

By nature, the Avatar is someone who changes the world in some way or another. No Avatar has ever escaped this fate. What makes Korra’s actions as the Avatar particularly eschatological is that they change the established rules and assumptions of the Avatarverse. What Korra ultimately achieves are illogical things that no one thought were possible. She closes the divide between spirits and humans by opening the spirit portals, which directly contrasts the notion that, because the Avatar world is becoming more modern, it is necessarily becoming less spiritual. Arguably, Korra makes the world even more spiritual despite her major struggle with spiritual disconnect.

Eschatology is, most generally, the study of the end of history. In many religions, the eschaton (though it may not be called such) is the end of the faith’s spiritual story. Secular and scientific eschatologies envision the era of humans ending–or humans mixing so much with technology that we are no longer humans, but something else. There are dozens of theories both across faiths and philosophies, and within faiths (Christianity has several which depend in part on how literally one takes the Bible).

Season four in particular pits two types of eschatons against one another: spiritual (the Avatar) and technological (Kuvira). Willingly or not, Korra has acted as a spiritual revolutionary in that she is always bringing more spirituality into the human world and changing it as a result. Kuvira, obviously, is a technological revolutionary. Her ambition has no limits and with all her mecha and spirit cannons, she will definitely create a new era.

This tension between the spiritual and the technological is certainly something we see in our own world. New scientific innovations push the boundaries of what we thought was possible or ethical. In Legend of Korra, Kuvira embodies this ethical problem. She has proven how far technology can go and how much can be done without spirituality–without the Avatar. In her mind, none of the people who were supposed to lead the world, spiritual or political, lived up to their calling. Those systems, in a sense, failed and Kuvira feels that it then fell to her to both save and recreate the world.

The thing is, Kuvira isn’t completely wrong. Spirituality and spiritual authority have taken major blows in the Avatarverse, and nowhere is this more prominent than in Korra’s traumatic injuries at the end of season three. Previously, her struggle with being a spiritual Avatar has been more of an inconvenience, but now she’s completely shattered. She, the embodiment of spirituality, retreats from the world to recover, and perhaps those who earnestly believe in the Avatar are left wondering when or if their god–their guide–will come back. Surely others, like Kuvira, become cynical and abandon faith in the Avatar or the spirits altogether.

So, technology comes to fill that spiritual gap and totalitarianism fills the political gap in the Earth Kingdom. When spirituality (Korra) finally does return to the world, Kuvira has already gone too far and it seems that her way–her version of how the eras shift–will come to pass. In the final episodes of the series, these two visions clash, yet the resolution does not result in one side overpowering the other. Korra and spirituality win, but they win in a very spiritual way: humility and understanding. When Kuvira loses control of the spirit cannon arm she found among the vines in the middle of Republic City, Korra manages to transport them both to the Spirit World. There, Korra sits across from Kuvira, listens to her, and shows her grace.

In the end, it’s spirituality that brings about a change in era. It quells Kuvira’s anger and makes her relinquish her aggressive vision for the world while allowing the connection between the human world and the Spirit World to persist.

Yet this doesn’t suggest that spirituality and technology don’t exist in harmony in this new era because they most certainly do, and the clearest example of that (as many have noted) is Korrasami. Is it possible for me to write about Legend of Korra without bringing up Korrasami? The answer is probably no.

In a few of my past posts, I’ve mentioned how Korrasami is a perfect metaphor for balance because Korra, the Avatar, is the ultimate form of a bender while Asami is a nonbender. However, they also embody a balance between technology and spirituality. Numerous Korrasami fans have pointed this out already, so I won’t spend much time on it here, but Korra, obviously, is spirituality and Asami, as the owner of Republic City’s most innovating company, is technology. However, Asami’s approach to technology is much different from Kuvira’s. Instead of using it to dominate spirituality, Asami uses it to work with spirituality (as best as she can). She rebuilds Republic City’s roads to accommodate the spirit vines and leave them in peace whereas Kuvira wants to find a way to exploit their power. While Asami will always find the next big thing in transportation or technology, she’s still very conscious of protecting Korra’s place in the world and her identity as the Avatar. Asami always affirms Korra, protects her body when she’s in the Spirit World, and uses technology to aid Korra’s goals (like the time she brought Korra a giant airship). Likewise, Korra accepts Asami’s assistance, whether it’s emotional or technological.

So, the type of eschaton or era-shifting that Legend of Korra ends up showing subverts a one-over-the-other, us-versus-them battle and victory that we might expect (both of the show and of our own faiths). Spirituality and technology may initially be pitted against one another, but the battle ends illogically with harmony between the two opposing sides. Yes, the evil conquest parts of the technology side are purged and calmed, but technology isn’t completely tossed aside just because spirituality technically wins. Besides, if one side were to totally dominate the other in the end, then the Avatar wouldn’t really have brought balance to the world.

I think this type of illogical, harmonious ending can help us conceptualize eschatologies in different ways. For Christians, we read Scripture and are given an idea of the end of things. A surface reading of Revelation gives us a clear good side and a clear bad side, making it easy for us to project that to the world and figure out who will be redeemed and who won’t. Sometimes, we think we know how the battle will end and who will be let into heaven; however, the real ending (whatever that might be) could end up being very surprising and could go against the logical conclusions or understandings that we have come up with over the history of our faith tradition.

I’m not suggesting that God will make good and evil one in the same and live harmoniously with each other, but if the story of Jesus is any indication, the end of our already/not yet time may not at all be what we expect.

Korrasami is Canon

I tried thinking of a wittier title, but I just couldn’t. After two years of fervently shipping Korrasami (I’ve been on board since Book 1), I finally got the confirmation I needed, but never realistically expected. Both Mike and Bryan have posted their official statements on their Tumblrs that Korrasami is, well, official.

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I won’t rehash anything either of them said (I found Bryan’s post especially beautiful and touching), but I will try to articulate just how important it is for them to make these statements. In the afterglow of the finale, Korrasami shippers have been basking in the glory of our OTP being canon, and the queer members have been celebrating what we knew was undeniable representation.

However, there were many who still tried to deny this reality–who insisted that Korra and Asami are just friends and we were wrong for reading too much into things. For the past two years, I’ve seen every glance between Korra and Asami–every touch and smile and hair flip and snappy one-liner–discounted as evidence of romantic feelings. I was cynical because what I thought was obvious to me had completely flown over the heads of the show’s creators, especially since I felt that other aspects of Legend of Korra’s storytelling were not as strong as they could’ve been. I assumed–based on the very same paradigm that Bryan describes in his post–that the creators were oblivious to what they had built. I can happily retract such statements regarding Korrasami. As Bryan says, “I have bragging rights as the first Korrasami shipper (I win!). As we wrote Book 1, before the audience had ever laid eyes on Korra and Asami, it was an idea I would kick around the writers’ room. At first we didn’t give it much weight, not because we think same-sex relationships are a joke, but because we never assumed it was something we would ever get away with depicting on an animated show for a kids network in this day and age, or at least in 2010.”

He, at least, seemed to have it in mind as early as Book 1, and I think I can confidently say that the Korrasami interactions we do get in Book 1 easily fall into those first seeds of romantic feelings. I can hardly express how validating it feels to know that my understanding of Korra and Asami has been aligned with that of the creators basically since the very beginning. Both personally and intellectually, I’m not sure if I’ve come this close to fully grasping the author’s intent. I feel like throughout these past two years, I understood every subtlety for what the creators wanted it to be, even though I did so with assumption that I would be wrong in the end or at best have plausible support but no definitive word. I thought I would have to accept Korra and Asami’s bisexuality as a headcanon and not something that’s expressly confirmed. I mean, even in other stories where the characters are overtly queer, I’ve seen people just gloss right over that and talk about how some hetero ship with them is canon (looking at the SnK people who somehow don’t see that YumiKuri is canon, same with KLK). This is queer erasure and there really isn’t a way of getting around that in most cases.

We needed this confirmation because people have, and still will, do everything it takes to deny that Korrasami is the real, intended outcome–that queerness exists not only in headcanon, but also in canon. When canon is considered “real” and “true,” it becomes vital for queerness to exist there. For once, with Korrasami, heterosexuality, which is often the assumed default in everything ever, is clearly relegated to headcanon or AU, spaces that the queer community is very familiar with. Don’t get me wrong; headcanons and AUs are great and fandom is a wonderful thing that adds so many more dimensions to the stories that create it, but canon is still the main narrative, the one that represents the creator’s vision.

On a side note, it’s hilarious that just a few days ago, most of us laughed off that “Bryke” comment on the podcast and now most of that comment is confirmed. Also, if they retroactively confirmed Tyzula, I would just explode in feelings.

Sure, you can still invoke reader-response criticism and claim “the author is dead” as your starting point of analysis, but now with these posts out, I’d really have to question the purpose in doing so. What purpose is there in going this route to cling so strongly to Korrasami not being canon? In other words, why reach so hard for denial and queer erasure? On this point, some may think that authors/creators shouldn’t comment on their work like this and just let the audience interpret things how they want to. In many ways, I can agree with that statement, but in cases involving obvious representation of historically marginalized and oppressed groups, this clarity validates something that in reality is so often invalidated.

As I absorb Mike and Bryan’s statements, I feel a growing sense of trust, respect, compassion, and care. This whole time, they had been intentionally considering the queer community, even though they were faced with the reality of certain limitations. They really did everything they possibly could to make Korrasami explicit.

My hope is that this sparks further changes in the industry–that we will see more cartoons with relationships like Korrasami that can go even further and not have to hide in framing and colors and stolen glances.

I still reserve many of my other critiques about other aspects of Legend of Korra, but knowing that they were this intentional with Korrasami makes me wonder if I’d now have a different perspective on my criticisms.

Legend of Korra Series Finale: It’s Not Just All Physical

An image shows Korra and Asami facing each other in the glow of a spirit portal while holding hands.

At long last, the Avatar franchise has come to an end, at least in terms of the TV series. The Legend of Korra aired its final episode at midnight on Friday and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Especially since Korrasami became cannon.

In my previous LoK post about Korrasami, I analyzed the slow burn that Korra and Asami’s relationship has been from the start of the series and stressed how important cannon Korrasami would be while compromising/validating an ending with no ships at all. At the time of that writing, Book 3 had just ended and, narratively speaking, there weren’t yet enough romantic hints between the two for me to feel angry if Korrasami didn’t happen.

Then, everything changed when Book 4 attacked.

From Korra’s letter to Asami to “you’re looking snazzy as always” to Asami giving Korra warm tea in a pagoda, Book 4 is chock full of nonverbal cues at their closeness, cues that, were Makorra made cannon again, I would have criticized as queerbaiting. Thankfully, Bryke seemed to regain a sense of what they had built up so far. While I’m immensely pleased with the shipping outcome of the finale, The Legend of Korra is not a smoothly told or fully developed story like its predecessor was. Though each season is an improvement on the last, I still hold that the 13 episode structure Bryke had to work with just wasn’t enough for another Avatar story, especially one that changed villains every season.

Book 4 dips into some themes of spirituality, specifically the tension between spirituality/nature and modernization/technological exploitation. Kuvira becomes a walking example of irony as an Earthbender who does nothing but exploit the Earth and a conqueror who does nothing but exploit spiritual power/energy for the sake of destruction disguised as peace. Korra, who has lost her spirituality, suffered the loneliness of spiritual disconnect, and then worked through her suffering on her way back to wholeness, ultimately extends a grace and compassion to Kuvira that relies not on physically overpowering her, but on connecting with her emotionally and spiritually. Unlike past LoK villains, Kuvira becomes human again, stripped of power, but not at the cost of Korra’s physical or mental health.

I might explore some of these spiritual themes in another post, but what I want to highlight here about Kuvira’s non-physical demise is how it parallels the non-physical start of Korra and Asami’s relationship. I think it’s fair to draw a parallel between these two events because the villain’s defeat and the hero’s love life are often the most vital resolutions in a story and LoK follows this path. The importance/necessity of romance plots is debatable, but they do make stories more comfortable since we’re so used to seeing them and LoK isn’t out to change that aspect of storytelling.

What it does change is the perception of queerness both in children’s media and media in general. Korrasami is the healthiest queer relationship I’ve seen in any media created by Western people. Many series about queer women specifically portray characters who are often destructive both to themselves and to their partners (The L Word and Orange is the New Black are two examples). Furthermore, these stories are targeted toward older audiences, perpetuating the notion that the mere existence of queerness instantly necessitates bumping up the age rating. Legend of Korra had to bow to many restrictions, but pushed the envelope anyway (from violent suicide in Book 1 to the overt political themes to Korrasami). If that wasn’t a direction Bryke wanted to take at all, they wouldn’t have done it. Fans simply don’t hold that much power over a creator’s vision. In publishing, many authors speak of how they don’t look into the fandoms of their work at all, be it fanfiction, fanart, or anything else. TV may be different, but I still think that Bryke did what they wanted to do, though they did listen to a lot of the criticisms of Book 1.

Korrasami becomes stronger and stronger as Books 3 and 4 progress, both of which had to be finished or nearly finished around the time Book 2 ended to air as close together as they did. This pairing has plenty of buildup and makes perfect sense for both characters. When Korra was recovering after the events in Book 3, Asami was there to be strong for her. Now, at the end of Book 4 when Asami has no family left, Korra can be that strength. Furthermore, their entire relationship is built on a solid, relaxed foundation of friendship and mutual respect, whereas both girls’ relationships with Mako were sudden and purely physical. They each found that they weren’t emotionally compatible with Mako, and Mako had a lot of his own self-discovering to do before he could understand how to be with another person.

Though I wanted a kiss, I’m okay with the ending and here’s why: it connotes a love that goes beyond physicality, something that a lot of the more adult-oriented queer representations don’t do. Yes, the show was working with a limitation due to foreign markets, but I think Bryke still made it as overt as they possibly could. Tying Korra and Asami’s gaze to entering into the Spirit World adds an ethereal element to their relationship and shows that what they have is quite literally something that carries on beyond this world.

Also, Korra and Asami are at least bisexual and both are women of color. This kind of representation–where both are main characters, aren’t white, are good people, are in a healthy relationship, and end up happy–is immensely important. This sort of thing does not happen often, especially not in children’s media right now. The change is coming and I think Korrasami is the start. Hopefully, the series won’t fade into obscurity and future cartoons will continue to normalize queer relationships. They don’t have to be broken, sexual, dramatic, or unhealthy. They can be like Korrasami: non-pressured, stable, and supportive, which is really what any relationship should be regardless of the genders of the parties involved.

All of this said, there are many fans who interpret the ending differently. While it is my strong view that this is blatant queer representation and nothing can take that away, the ending can also validate a strong friendship for those who really don’t see Korrasami as a thing for whatever reason. I’ve mentioned before that I’d rather not see platonic relationships between women pitted against romantic ones in any sense (and implementing this view myself is something I have to work on, especially when the problem of queerbaiting presents itself). At the same time, queer relationships are so often censored to “good friendship,” that I can’t take that view when presented with cues that tell me otherwise (as is the case with Korrasami). Even so, Legend of Korra depicts, at the very least, a strong, positive bond between two women.

Korra Alone: Denial from God and the Guilt of Spiritual Disconnect

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Legend of Korra’s final season will perhaps give us the most compelling conflict yet, one that has been hinted at throughout the whole series but never fully explored: Korra’s struggle against herself and her Avatar duty of being connected to the spirits. Three years after the events of Book 3, Korra’s body had recovered, but she has completely lost her Avatar abilities, i.e. her spirituality and spiritual connections, things that are essential to the Avatar. Her Avatar ghost haunts her, reminding her of her failure and stirring her guilt at her denial of her identity as the Avatar. She wanders the world alone, considering herself a failure and trying to be someone else, someone unknown and out of sight now that she has thoroughly convinced herself that she can never again be the Avatar. In a way, she is mourning the loss of her identity while also aching to step into it again.

While watching this week’s episode, mewithoutYou’s song “Carousels” just kept popping into my head, especially at the scene where Korra sees an image of Raava in the desert only to realize it was just an illusion.

Interpreting this episode and Korra’s state of mind through this song leads to some revelations about our relationship with spirituality and expectations about our spiritual lives vs. reality. For some, this may not even be a struggle since not everyone finds value or a sense of identity through spirituality, but I do think many people experience this sort of turbulence in their spiritual lives, which is why I find Korra’s current state so compelling. Now, I’m a Christian so my reflections are filtered through that lens. I am not suggesting that Legend of Korra involves Christianity or Western spirituality in any overt or significant way. The religion and mythology of the Avatarverse is firmly rooted in the East and the traditions of many POC cultures. Twisting the show’s spirituality to fit within the parameters of the Judeo-Christian tradition would be problematic on a number of levels and is not my aim here. Rather, I’m interested in Korra’s experience of denial from “God” (Raava, in this case) in her suffering and her guilt of her loss of spirituality. In unpacking these ideas, I’m going to use Christian language/experience, but I’m not suggesting that only Christians experience these things in their faith.

Denial From “God” and Desiring to Reconnect

The Avatarverse does not, strictly speaking, have a God in the Western sense. There are multitudes of spirits with varying relationships with humans, some more powerful than others. The closest the Avatar world comes to God is Raava and Vaatu, but there are stark differences between those spirits and a Christian understanding of God, the most obvious being that God isn’t conceptualized as one supremely good spirit battling with one supremely evil spirit. In fact, only Raava bears any similarity to God: she is light and life, and she takes on a human body. Still, in this universe she seems to be the highest spiritual authority and the Avatar is always supposed to be in close relationship with her.

Without any sign of Raava in her, even the spirits can’t tell if Korra is the Avatar and neither can Korra. Right now, Korra is just a body trying to find her way back to Raava–to being the Avatar. She enters the spirit world through one of the portals and tries to reconnect with Raava, saying, “The last time I was here, I saw all sorts of visions. Now I don’t see anything.” Then she leaves, still alone, still disconnected, and wanders the world in an attempt to find Raava, but this resentful Avatar spirit version of Korra haunts her everywhere. At last, Korra finds herself in the desert and finally sees Raava at the top of a sand dune. Korra runs up the dune, calling Raava’s name, but she reaches the top, she sees nothing but the vast desert and slumps to her knees, defeated.

This image of Raava is most likely just an illusion, rather than the actual Raava, but for Korra, it’s a very real denial from spiritual connection and spiritual health. It is after this denial from Raava that Korra starts denying, both to herself and others, that she is the Avatar. Many people at some point or another feel that God has denied them in the midst of their own suffering. They see God in the desert, so to speak, only to find that God is not there. Truthfully, God is there, just in a way that isn’t obvious or expected. Still, that doesn’t lessen the resulting pain from the perceived denial. I think this section of “Carousels” speaks to this scene and where Korra finds herself now.

And if I didn’t have You as my guide, I’d still wander lost in Sinai
Or down by the tracks watching trains go by
To remind me: there are places that aren’t here.
And I had a well but all the water left,
So I’ll go ask Your forgiveness with every breath,
And if there was no way into God,
I would never have laid in this grave of a body… so long, dear.

Specifically, I found a connection between Korra having this experience specifically in a desert and the line “I’d still wander lost in Sinai.” Being lost in the desert appears a lot in the Bible and is often related to various Biblical figures/the Israeli people struggling spiritually. I don’t think Legend of Korra is involving any sort of Biblical connections, but the subtle connection is certainly plausible since the shows creators do come from Western culture, which is heavily built around the Judeo-Christian tradition. It will seep through everything, even in an unconscious, vague way. However, there are some stronger connections between the song and Korra’s current state. “I had a well but all the water left” easily relates to how Korra’s spiritual dryness leaves her hopeless. Raava/her essence as the Avatar was once a well to sustain her, but now it’s gone. It left her. Furthermore, Korra is first and foremost a water bender, yet she has removed any signs of her being a water bender and from the water tribe so that no one will recognize her. Quite literally, all of the water has left her.

Despite all of this, I think Korra still has some sense of hope, though she doesn’t find joy in it because her suffering is too great. In the Book 3 finale, she could’ve let herself die. If she had no hope–no sense of anyone needing her–then perhaps she wouldn’t have fought so hard. Perhaps, if she truly believed that “there was no way into God,” or Raava in her case, then she “would never have laid into this grave of a body.” And her body is certainly a grave for her. It’s unresponsive, weak, and plagued by the aftermath of the poison. Its suffering and limitations severed Korra from Raava, yet Korra remains in it, thinking that she can find some way back into her identity as the Avatar and connect with Raava again.

Who, then, is her guide? “Carousels” overtly names the guide as God, but Korra actually has a couple guides so far and they aren’t of any spiritual authority or power. One is that tiny spirit that leads her to Toph and the other is Toph herself. Since only two episodes have aired, there’s no telling what sort of role Toph will play or how she’ll guide Korra. However, I think Korra will find her way again.

The Guilt of Spiritual Disconnect

A large part of Korra’s struggles right now stem from her inability to live up to the expectations placed upon her about being the Avatar in the first place. She is the Avatar, but clearly not the Avatar everyone wants or expects. The Avatar should always be connected to Raava, or in other words, have a thriving spiritual life, but Korra doesn’t. She no longer fits anyone’s understanding of the Avatar, especially her own, and this weighs her down. Two of her greatest enemies have had stronger spiritual connections than she has: Unalaq and Zaheer. Now, she doesn’t have one at all and the guilt is so bad that it’s manifesting as this haunting Avatar state ghost stalking Korra everywhere she goes. It reminds her of what she’s lost and how she’s failed and judges her for it. This guilt is the reason why she turns away from Republic City. She can’t face anyone again as a half-baked Avatar.

Feeling that we’re not as spiritually connected as we should be is something Christians go through all the time. What makes it worse is when other Christians question our spiritual life because they see no sign of it in us. The guilt can be overwhelming and can make it even more difficult to find our way back. However, the truth is that there is nothing wrong with being disconnected. It’s all part of the journey and always “feeling” spiritual is a rather narrow understanding of spiritual life anyway.

Korra’s guilt is a buildup of both her own expectations and the verbal poison that others have given to her over time. Now, it has completely broken her and it will take a long time for her to wade through that and find her way back into being the Avatar again. The result may be redefining who the Avatar is in the first place or whatever she may discover in her search for balance. Since that’s the title of this season, we’re led to believe that she’ll find wholeness again.