Book 3 of The Legend of Korra ended last week with a level of darkness I didn’t think Bryke would have the guts to include given that Nickelodeon seems to constrain what’s shown. Though I loved the finale, overall, LoK is not its predecessor and probably never will be as the first two seasons are sloppy enough to serve as an example of “what not to do.” There are many ideas that the writers seemed to miss out on based on what they had built in the past. My post about Katara explores some of those problems.
Now, while I’ve been left wanting more from LoK after the first two seasons, I’m also hesitant to completely write it off because the story is not complete. In my opinion, many of the writing problems are made worse by the 13-episode structure. Avatar stories had 26 episodes in the past. Perhaps with 26 episodes, Amon and the Equalists would have been treated as a legitimate movement and a powerful allegory of oppressed people clamoring for their rights. Perhaps Korra would have been forced to spend time with them and understand how non-benders have always suffered, either directly or indirectly, at the hands of benders. The 100-year war is enough proof of that. Speaking of the war, I’m very surprised that nothing in LoK up to this point has touched on the lingering effects of such imperialism, but I digress.
LoK is not a smoothly told story and many have touched on its problematic representation of women and the darker-skinned PoC. Even the entire Avatar world itself can be described as what white people think Asian people are like (even though it’s a well-researched world). If we take a broader look at what stories about Asians are popular and well-loved in Western culture (outside of anime), it’s ones involving martial arts and Eastern spirituality.
So, there are a lot of critical lenses one can apply to the Avatarverse, but what I’d like to focus on today is the development of Korra and Asami’s relationship throughout what we’ve been given so far in Legend of Korra. Whether they remain as close friends or become the first openly queer cartoon characters on a children’s TV network, their relationship is extremely important and has the potential to express a spectrum of how women bond with each other.
Book 1: Asami Proactively Bonds With Korra
I’ll be frank and fully disclose that I ship these two to the ends of the Earth. Many naysayers argue that Korrasami is a crackship and that these two characters have had no real interaction, but that’s just not the case, especially in Book 3 and especially in the finale. They have more healthy chemistry than Ty Lee and Azula, which I also ship, but it takes a lot more reader-response criticism to make those two work than it does Korra and Asami.
Now, in the first two seasons, Korra and Asami really don’t spend that much time together. I blame that partially on shoddy writing and partially on the fact that too much other drama is going on. However, their very first interactions speak volumes about the chemistry between them (and I mean chemistry in a much broader sense than its romantic connotation).
In Book 1, Korra and Asami get one episode of bonding time where they immediately hit it off. Asami takes Korra out for a drive and the two of them just click. Korra sees that Asami is actually pretty cool despite being her romantic rival, and Asami making a conscious effort to get to know Korra is a gesture of goodwill on her part. As Mako’s girlfriend, she is showing a vested interest in getting to know other people in her boyfriend’s life on a personal level. She doesn’t see Korra as a threat, nor is she interested in inciting Korra’s jealousy via her relationship with Mako. From the very beginning, Asami wants to be united with Korra, not pitted against her as is typical in so many other heterosexual love triangle stories. Though Korrasamians will call this romantic for the sake of going down with this ship like Dido, it shows Asami’s maturity at the very least and presents a situation in which women do not allow any drama or attachments to men impede their own relationships. This, I argue, is Asami’s attitude throughout the entire series and that helps Korra understand the same thing about Asami, even though it takes Korra a little longer to warm up to Asami. She’s initially put off by Asami’s friendliness toward her and expects that “girl time” with a wealthy heiress will involve typical feminine activities—shopping and makeovers—that Korra has no interest in. However, there’s more to Asami than Korra’s superficial judgments and once Korra learns this, she starts to see Asami as a friend and separates her from whatever is going on with Mako.
Though this is the most one-on-one time Korra and Asami have in the entirety of the first two seasons, the connection they make in this episode carries over into how they each deal with Mako. They never vilify each other and Asami confronts only Mako about his behavior with Korra. She never blames Korra. Even though Korra is the one who initiates the kiss with Mako in Book 1, which further confuses Mako’s feelings, Asami only blames Mako. To her, Mako is being irresponsible not because he’s confused about his feelings, but because he takes so long making a decision either way. Perhaps in her mind, he should’ve either firmly stepped away from Korra or been honest with Asami from the start, taking some time alone to figure out his feelings. Instead, he tries to juggle both women, which is why it probably doesn’t occur to Asami to blame Korra. Not only has she already connected with Korra, but she may think that Korra is acting more out of naivety than spiteful intention to hurt Asami. Later on, Korra comes to see just how harmful Mako’s indecision is and also views it as his problem, not Asami’s. Thus, Korra and Asami’s relationship is preserved, even though they don’t directly interact while things with Mako become more complicated. In the end, neither of them seems interested in losing or disrespecting each other.
This is a form of love–an important one as it presents two women remaining unified in a situation which in so many other stories often pits women against each other.
Book 1: Korrasami as a Metaphor for Balance
One of the many missed narrative opportunities in Book 1 is how a relationship between Korra and Asami could symbolize unity between benders and non-benders. Book 1’s setup leads us to expect a thorough exploration of the tension between these two groups, but unfortunately it pans out as a shoddy farce and paints the non-bender plight as frivolous instead of legitimate. Still, in the cultural/political context of Book 1, Korrasami could have symbolized the ultimate form of balance: the highest level bender and the daughter of one of the most prominent Equalists. The chances of Korrasami actually happening in Book 1 were null, even if Mako was out of the picture, but the writers could have easily developed a strong, yet platonic unity between the two to create a really awesome metaphor for balance.
Unfortunately, Book 1 ended up as a teenage drama disguised in a poorly written oppression story that “resolves” with tons of deus ex machina. Still, the writers could revisit this idea with how they’re now developing Korrasami.
Book 3: A Healthy Relationship
Book 3 has been a dream come true for Korrasami shippers. The girls develop a tight bond that involves driving lessons, sparring, escaping shoddy airships, and most importantly emotional support in the wake of the worst trauma Korra has experienced so far. In the driving scene early on in the series, Asami nonchalantly hands Korra the keys to a satomobile and lets her drive. I think this speaks volumes about how much Asami actually trusts Korra. After all, Asami is always in control of all the vehicles because she knows them best, yet she easily gives some of that control to Korra knowing Korra’s track record with driving.
Then there’s the conversation they have, which includes some major shipping fuel when Korra calls Asami her “girlfriend.” This is pretty sly since the argument that Korra’s just using the language they used “back then” can appease anyone who just loathes this pairing, but those of us who know better realize that LoK and ATLA have always used contemporary language in dialogue regardless of time period.
Most importantly, they discuss Mako and they’ve both clearly moved on–or they’ve moved on enough to not let it affect their relationship. Some feel that this was just a poorly written band-aid over the whole situation and that no two girls who dated the same guy would ever become instant best friends like that. But I’ll go back to my previous argument that Asami has always been proactive in connecting with Korra. This goodwill makes it easier for them to stick together. Furthermore, since I ship Korrasami, I’d say that some level of romantic interest is making it much easier for them to seemingly gloss over the Mako issue.
The rest of Book 3 offers several other great Korra and Asami interactions (though not as many as I would’ve liked). They spar together, break out of an airship together, and build a sand glider together. Asami also protects Korra’s body while she’s in the spirit world (twice). It’s clear that they’re close and that Asami is slowly becoming more protective of Korra. This new dynamic is solidified in the aftermath of the battle in the finale. What Korra goes through leaves her mentally, emotionally, and possibly physically changed. She will be slow to heal, but Asami is there with her. The support Asami shows in this scene is not objectively or exclusively romantic, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that Asami could easily be developing feelings for Korra.
Asami has always initiated positive bonding with Korra and now she’s in a position where she might be the only person Korra feels comfortable talking to. That’s an immense level of trust and would be present in any healthy relationship. While I don’t think Korra’s in a good place to be in any relationship at the end of Book 3, if a lot of time passes before or during Book 4, it’d be more plausible.
Fandom: The BrOTP vs. OTP Mentality Needs to Stop
One argument against Korrasami that, IMHO, reads as thinly veiled homophobia is that somehow Korra and Asami becoming romantically involved would “ruin” the show and just be fetishization, or even that Korrasami shippers celebrating the breadcrumbs are destroying something “innocent.” Having them as really awesome platonic friends is the way to go, but having them date would take it away from being all about girl power. This reservation typically comes from folks who don’t ship Korrasami for one reason or another (many of them are also not shy in mentioning that they’re straight, which opens up another can of worms). Those who do ship it are also fine with the idea of a strong, platonic friendship (which is more likely to be the case since Nickelodeon is scared of angry homophobic parents). For the shippers, a strong friendship still emphasizes the importance of solidarity between women, not pitting women against each other, and women sticking together even if a man temporarily comes between them. A romantic relationship between Korra and Asami would only add to these things, not detract from them.
It would be groundbreaking to have a canon queer couple on a TV show airing on a children’s network. Adventure Time over at Cartoon Network is all but plainly stating it with Bubblegum and Marceline, but pressure from the network is restricting the writers. It’s canon that they were a couple in the past, but the relationship is very, very subtle in the show.
But if Nickelodeon can air Degrassi, which has its fair share of queer characters, then Korrasami really shouldn’t be a problem, especially now that LoK is online. The barrier, of course, is that Legend of Korra is a cartoon, so it isn’t part of TeenNick and it has the cultural expectation of being “appropriate for children,” which means that since queer romance is thought of as purely sexual and graphic, it’s not gonna show up in a cartoon. Still, someone has to break the mold and if it’s not gonna be Adventure Time, I hope it’s Legend of Korra. Someone has to start pushing the barriers to show that queer romance isn’t automatically explicit content.
If Korrasami became canon, they’d also possibly be a canon bisexual couple as both of them have had past relationships with men. This is important since bisexuality is treated as a phase or a joke, even within the LGBT community. Many people wrongly assume that the gender of someone’s significant other changes their orientation. A bisexual girl who is with a man does not become straight, nor does she become a lesbian if she’s with a woman. Korrasami could potentially affirm that to the young teen viewers, some of whom are no doubt discovering that they aren’t straight. As an added bonus, they would be a cannon queer couple where both members are women of color.
Korrasami would also be the first relationship in the show that initially developed from a strong friendship. That strong friendship is what appears to be happening in Book 3. If Korra and Asami’s relationship is developed first as a tight friendship and then actually becomes canon, or better yet endgame, then it could really be an exploration of what a healthy relationship with someone looks like. Both Korra and Asami fell for Mako too quickly without really getting to know him. Mako, too, barely knew either of them and that may be part of the reason why he kept alternating between the two. He didn’t know what he wanted and neither of the girls was able to build a solid foundation with him before moving into a relationship. However, Korra and Asami are much different. Their strong friendship is already canon, and it’s already affirming unity between women who have been through something that’s often divisive. If it grows into an actual relationship, then they become an exemplar of something much healthier than the canon relationships shown so far.
So, I don’t see how Korrasami becoming undeniably canon would detract from anything good that their relationship could be, nor would a platonic friendship be less than desirable. This is why I think we’re better off if we start understanding women’s relationships as a spectrum and not pit queer romance against platonic friendship, or even imply that two women can only express one type of relationship or the other.
Whatever Korra and Asami end up being to each other, their relationship as it is now is already showing an important unity, one that defies the path of enmity that the circumstances of their first meeting placed them in. We’ll see how Book 4 handles these two, but right now things look promising.