The Legend of Korra and Mixed Message Feminism
The Legend of Korra is an animated television show on Nickelodeon which just concluded its third season. It is a continuation of the world built in Avatar: The Last Airbender that aired from 2005 – 2008, to much critical acclaim. In this world there are certain people who have the ability to “bend” one of the four elements: Fire, Earth, Water, and Air. Even with these abilities, for the most part, benders are regular citizens who go about day-to-day life. There are exceptions: some use their bending to perform in certain arenas, such as the nation’s one professional sport (Pro-Bending) or the capitol city’s police force, all of whom are Earth benders.
In this world there is always one person who is capable of bending all four elements. This person is referred to as the Avatar. The Avatar is meant to bridge the gap between the physical world and the spiritual world, and thus maintain worldwide peace and harmony . The Avatar mantle is continued through the process of reincarnation, with a new Avatar being born after the previous has died. It it then the new barer of the title’s duty to master all four of the elements and engage in the responsibilities of peacekeeping and harmony.
This iteration of the show seems to have broadened it’s appeal to a more mature audience than the original. This popularity is due mainly to its older characters (late teens to early 20s, as opposed to the very early teens shown in Airbender), who have more mature, and more flawed, relationships. There are also complex motifs of political intrigue, classism, and family dynamics, among others. When The Legend of Korra was first announced there were many things fans were excited about, chief among them being the introduction of a strong female lead. With the show now in its third season, there have been many saying that Korra is poor depiction of a feminist character–that she relies too much on men, and isn’t the role model she had been hyped up to be. While some of that can be substantiated, the mixed (but mostly positive) feminist message Korra sends to its viewers is well worth the discussion.
The Fire of Korra’s Feminism
A problem with assessing something through the lens of feminism, whether it be pop culture or not, is that a lot of people misunderstand what feminism actually is. Contrary to popular belief it isn’t a movement that thinks women are better than men, that women should have more important roles than men, or that women deserve more. It is, at its core, simply about equality, equality in the sense that women are entitled to the same political, social, and economic opportunities as men are. With that in mind, a lot of the complaints about Korra being anti-feminist seem a little silly.
Sexism, in the overt sense, is basically non-existent in Korra. Gender is never used as a means to tear someone down or to say that a character is less than capable. Korra is never once begrudged for being a female Avatar (or a person of color). Similarly, Lin Bei Fong, the capital’s chief of police, is one of the show’s strongest and most well respected characters, looked at with nothing but admiration and esteem.
Another supporting character, Asami Sato, is a great example of a formidable woman. She is the only main character who is not a bender, but this in no way prevents her from being involved in every scheme and fight the gang gets into. She is a trained martial artist and often utilizes technology from her family’s corporation, a corporation that she eventually becomes the leader of. In later seasons she and Korra form a strong friendship, an important aspect of which is their differences. These aren’t two girls who rely on others, are helpless, and are waiting for a man to sweep them off their feet, but that is where their similarities end. Korra is depicted as somewhat masculine, short-tempered, and is not atenderhearted, caretaking, nurturing type of girl—she’d sooner water-bend your drink into your face than tell you how she feels. Asami, on the other hand, looks much more feminine, is warm-hearted, and known as a debutante. What’s so important about this friendship is that it shows two completely different types of women—notably ones who, stereotypically, should not get along. This friendship breaks the archetypes of the strong independent woman and the pretty socialite respectively, without demonizing either character.
While Korra is trying to learn airbending during Season 1, she is being mentored by one of the last remaining airbenders, Tenzin. He has three children, two daughters, Jinora and Ikki, and a son, Meelo. Throughout the first two seasons Jinora becomes a more than competent character in her own right. She becomes one of the only characters able to communicate with the spirit world, and is able to perform spiritual feats no one else is capable of. She and her two younger siblings also save Lin, while she’s guarding the Northern Air Temple, from attackers using their near mastery of airbending, despite being so young. Later in the same episode Lin downs two enemy airships by herself, running across the tops of them and ripping them to shreds using her metal bending (an advanced form of Earth bending). These are just two examples of action scenes in Korra, which are just as likely, if not more so, to have a female character leading the charge.
Strong women in Korra, then, are depicted in many forms: from the protagonist, to two very young children, to the older chief of police, to an upper class debutante. What is important about this variety in characterization is that it does not degrade something that many assume goes against the principles of feminism—femininity. Asami is a beautiful woman who has essentially no masculine traits; and Jinora is a pre-teen girl who based on her personality would likely be watching Lizzie McGuire (if only it was still 2006) and giggling at cute boys. The show never makes these characteristics negative, because they aren’t. It has seamlessly over three seasons depicted female characters who emote myriad of types of femininity, and who stand up for themselves and others. The women of Korra provide great role models, representing almost any archetype of girlhood you can imagine.
Bending the Bad Into Good
A major criticism regarding The Legend of Korra and its feminist message is in regards to Korra, Asami, and the third part of their love triangle, Mako. While their three-sided-love-shape is nearly pointless in the larger arc of the show, it never detracts from Korra’s agency. It is also full of clichés: She likes him, him doesn’t like her, he likes the other girl, then realizes he really liked her in the first place. In fact, the reason Korra is the focus of Mako’s, and his brother’s, affections is because she is such a tough woman, not in spite of it. While Mako leaves Asami for Korra at the end of Season 1, Korra ends things with him eventually, in a very mature way, with all of three of them remaining friends. This, in turn, results in the aforementioned close friendship between Asami and Korra.
Though not all of the male characters play into this detraction of feminist idea like Mako does, even if he does so inadvertently, most of the men in the show are incredibly respectful and treat the female characters with complete equality. When Korra is being trained by Tenzin he treats her as an untrained pupil, but that is exactly what she is, he never looks down on her because of her gender or takes away any of her agency because she is a female Avatar. By the third season their relationship is one of the strongest in the series, with Korra giving him advice and guidance at times, the mutual admiration and respect is clear.
On the other hand, what I do find problematic are the two instances of female characters fighting over a male character, once between Korra and Asami, and then through dialogue between two older characters. This is not to say this doesn’t happen in real life, or that pining after the same man makes them weak. The problems begin when that becomes the crux of character’s personality. When everything the character does is based solely around their focus on the male character’s affections, this denigrates them into something far less than they are. This is also something very rarely seen between two men on screen, because it seems emasculating when men do it, but dramatic and necessary when women do it. Continuing this trend erases the aspects of the female characters not focused on romance, while asserting the masculinity of the male characters as the objects of so much female attention.
Another complaint made about Korra hones in on her resentment of Asami’s femininity. During the rivalry over Mako’s affections, Korra seems to resent Asami and assumes she is just a brainless pretty face. It is not until she sees Asami driving competitively that she gains respect for her. This is certainly not the ideal we’d like to see—again, two girls clashing over a boy. Korra’s respect for Asami only emerging when the latter proves herself in a ‘masculine’ arena falls in with gendered stereotypes about motorsports (Danica Patrick would have something to say about this!).
The Legend of Korra is not perfect. But a strong female lead who is only human—and a teenager at that—is going to make mistakes, sometimes involving boys. Sometimes she is going to do things that aren’t feminist. This fallibility is present in even the most empowered and independent of teenage girls. It is how she handles these mistakes that makes Korra the role model her fans want her to be. This is why she is a fantastic example for young girls growing up among a host of ditsy boy-crazy modern television characters. Korra is exactly what we need her to be.
What do you think? Leave a comment.