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.

Korrasami and Unity Between Women

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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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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.

 

Representation Matters

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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.

Lessons From Legend of Korra: The Fading Importance of Gran Gran Katara

Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra wavers between exciting and disappointing. The rocky first season left much to be desired both from a storytelling and pacing standpoint. Although season 2 is more put together, it’s clear that this show doesn’t have the excellent writing that its predecessor had. At least, not all the time and certainly not for all characters. In fact, almost everyone in the cast gets shafted at some point. Is it because the seasons are so short and the creators are trying to cram a 26-episode story into 12 episodes? Have they just lost their touch, or have they gotten lazy because of the success of Avatar: the Last Airbender?

Whatever the case, I would actually consider The Legend of Korra a good learning tool for writers. The story is enjoyable enough to hold your interest, and the problems are obvious enough to show you what doesn’t work. One of the things that doesn’t work is how Katara, now an old woman, is just sort of “there” to occasionally make those of us who have been around since A:TLA feel all the feelings. As an old woman, Katara hasn’t retained even a drop of who she was as a kid. Although Legend of Korra is not about Katara and it’s clearly not intended to have any strong ties to A:TLA, I still believe that Katara’s characterization in Legend of Korra is an example of how elderly characters, especially elderly women, are not important parts of the stories we tell.

At least her brief appearances do their job: they create catharsis for the audience, AKA feels.

On the one hand, Katara’s story is finished. She aided the Avatar in restoring balance to the world and purging the corrupt leaders from the Fire Nation. Along the way, she helped benders in a small village fight for their liberation, got thrown in jail several times, and accidentally became a master of bloodbending. She’s done a lot and we’ve seen that, so I don’t have a problem with her being a static character in Legend of Korra.

What’s odd to me, though, is just how passive Katara is, especially in season 2 when her own people are in a civil war. Although I can imagine that an old Katara is tired and has already passed most responsibilities on to the next generation, I can’t picture her having lost all of her passion, especially when the conflict is so close to her. Not once do we see her even express opposition to the fighting or frustration with the situation.

I can’t imagine that the Katara who vehemently insisted that she will never turn her back on people in need and blew up a Fire Nation factory in the middle of the night would stay silent. She might not want to fight in the civil war between the water tribes, but it would be much more in character for her to at least try to convince someone somewhere that this isn’t a good idea.

I don’t know what it’s like to be an old person because I’m a 20something, but I do know that people don’t lose their passion when they get older, especially not people like Katara. I don’t think her life experiences would allow her to ever be completely passive in the goings on of the world no matter how much she’s relinquished to Korra’s generation. So how did Katara get reduced to a nice grandma who heals people and that’s it?

A lot of people who write a lot of stories that get a lot of mainstream attention are young. Youth is celebrated in media and, especially for women, it’s sold to us as the only desirable way to be. I rarely see recurring elderly characters in anything. If I do, it’s in fantasy and the character is usually male and a mentor to the young protagonist (Gandalf, Dumbledore, Brom). I’ve only seen prominent elderly women in Harry Potter (Minerva McGonagall) and various anime/manga series (Naruto, Sailor Moon, Soul Eater). Aside from Professor McGonagall, all the elderly women I’ve seen who are of any importance to the plot have some sort of magic or skill that makes them look young most of the time.

It’s like when we write old people, we don’t know what to do with them because we have consciously or unconsciously devalued them. We’re fed a very narrow depiction of humanity and that depiction is young. We know how to make complex young characters, but elderly ones are much more of a challenge.

I think Katara has unfortunately become a victim of this “I don’t know how to write old people” problem, which is especially weird given that Uncle Iroh was very important in A:TLA and helped move the plot forward in the second season of Legend of Korra. I know that Katara is supposed to be a minor character in Legend of Korra and that at some point she probably decided that she was done and wanted to keep growing old in peace, but it would be nice to see a little more involvement out of Gran Gran Katara. I mean, we have to remember just what kind of person she was as a kid.

 

 

The Lesson for Writers

Being old doesn’t mean becoming docile, cynical, or passionless. Old people can and should serve more roles in fiction besides the mentor that usually dies so the protagonist can grow up. If you’re writing something where one of your main characters from a previous series is still around as an old person, don’t forget how you created the young version of the character. Just because they get old doesn’t mean they have to fit in whatever we may think is typical of old people.

This is something that I will admit I don’t catch in my own work. The elderly are a more difficult group for me to write about because that experience is in my future. However, I think that understanding the way elderly people are portrayed in stories (or not) can help writers avoid resorting to the same tropes.

Who are some awesome elderly characters you’ve seen or read about? Are they mentors, or do they serve another role? Are they there just to be the token old person, or do they actually play an important part in the story?