Politics and Privilege in The Legend of Korra
I didn’t see The Legend of Korra coming.
I loved its prequel series Avatar: The Last Airbender for its wonderfully realized world and charming cast of characters. The show bravely depicted themes of genocide, imperialism, and identity through the lens of a fantasy monomyth, heavy stuff for a kids show. The sequel, The Legend of Korra, was wholly unexpected and incredibly extroverted with its bold sociopolitical commentary. By reframing the central power of bending, The Legend of Korra delves into contemporary themes like the luck-based distribution of advantages and socioeconomic justice.
In the Avatar universe, certain people are blessed with magical powers allowing them to manipulate the classical elements with the martial art of “bending”. A spirit known as the “Avatar”, with the ability to bend all four elements, is cyclically reincarnated in human form and acts the planet’s peacekeeper and delegation to the Spirit World. After the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Avatar Aang establishes Republic City, with the utopian vision of creating a place where all can live in harmony.
But Aang’s dream dissipated after he died. When his successor Korra arrives at Republic City, she discovers a world changing. Rapid technological growth has displaced the spirituality of bending; what was once a renowned martial art is now commonplace, and benders use their powers to fight or cause crime, compete in arena sports, and fulfill their everyday jobs. These supernatural powers create social divides, and a movement called “The Equalists”, seeks revolution against the City Council, comprised exclusively of benders. This pretense of societal unrest fuels The Legend of Korra’s first season, as Korra challenges the Equalist leader Amon while dealing with the internal conflict of living up to the monumental expectations both sides place on her.
Bending, Privilege, and the Exercise of Power
When Korra arrives in Republic City, she encounters an Equalist agitator decrying bending as an inherently unfair and oppressive art. Korra feels impugned, defending bending as “the coolest thing in the world” before storming off.
In Republic City, bending grants greater social power than nonbenders. Many of Republic City’s more respected jobs are reserved for benders exclusively: metalbenders make up the police force, firebenders direct lightning to generate electricity, the city’s primary form of entertainment is Pro-Bending, and the City Council is now comprised exclusively of benders. On the other side of the law, bender gangs like the Triple Threat Triad use their powers to extort protection money from nonbending shopkeepers. Nonbenders are systemically disadvantaged in Republic City’s social structure and must work substantially harder in order to succeed, as in the case of Hiroshi Sato’s Future Industries. Furthermore, due to the lack of nonbender representation on the City Council, nonbenders are disempowered and have no say in public decisions at all. Simply put, one’s difficulty of life in Republic City comes down to a matter of luck.
Despite well-intentioned ideals of promoting peace and unity, Republic City’s economy renders benders and non-benders as non-equals. Simply by possessing supernatural powers, benders achieve greater social mobility and cultural identity. Amon has the devastating ability to permanently take away a person’s bending powers, thereby nullifying both their personal identity and their societal power, an interesting reversal considering that Aang used the same power to defeat Firelord Ozai and end the Hundred Years War. Amon thus becomes the figurehead of the Equalist movement, hoping to equalize society by eliminating these unfairly distributed privileges from the world.
Privilege, that’s a loaded word. Theoretical rhetoric aside, privilege is defined by Webster as a “special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people”. Bending fits this definition perfectly: bending is a special power granted by birth only to certain people, giving them a substantial advantage in society. Real world parallels can be found throughout history, the first to come to mind is gender, historically, western civilization has granted greater social privileges to men. Cultural texts provide a substantial level of discourse on the topic of patriarchy and privilege, making this a dialogue that I don’t think I can meaningfully contribute to here.
The most accessible analogy coming out of bending in The Legend of Korra comes from the real world “Digital Divide”. Contemporary culture is computer-centric, practically all white-collar, government, or military jobs demand computer use of some sort, and the creation and distribution of information now happens through the Internet. Science and engineering are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying fields, and college students who have had computer access from a young age and programming classes in high school are put at a substantial advantage over those who did not. In such a digitally centric world, lack of technological access severely limits socioeconomic mobility, and the less privileged may find themselves unable to compete with their better-off peers. While this disparity in advantage may not be unfair per se, and myriad programs exist to cross the Digital Divide, growing up without technology leaves individuals in a difficult position. The analogy to the knapsack of perks that bending affords in Korra’s universe is obvious, as both bending and access to technology grant social mobility and influence.
However, unlike technological availability, bending is a privilege that people are born into. Bending is a God-given privilege that immediately sets the bender apart and provides her with the pertinent abilities and gifts. Like ethnicity, gender, or background, factors which one has no control over, bending is an integral part of one’s identity and strongly influences one’s life experience. Empathy between benders and non-benders becomes difficult simply because of the sheer disparity between the life experiences of the two groups. It is difficult for a bender to comprehend life without bending in the same way it is difficult for people raised in, say, East Asian cultures to comprehend the cultural ideologies of contemporary America. Disparity in background and perspective creates misunderstanding and discrimination.
Unlike many Campbellian heroes, Korra comes from a background of privilege. Being the Avatar, she has lived a sheltered existence in the White Lotus Compound. Immersed only in bending culture and living amongst masters of the art, bending informs her entire perspective and worldview, inspiring her admiration of Republic City’s Pro-Bending League and her disdain towards the Equalists. Having been raised in a community comprised entirely of benders, she does not quite understand how non-benders could feel oppressed by benders, believing that benders are doing non-benders a favor by playing out their societal roles. This changes when the Council resorts to a McCarthy-esque witch-hunt to fight the Equalists, instating a strict curfew applying only to non-benders. When an arrested civilian exclaims, “You’re our Avatar too!” Korra realizes that in order to fulfill her purpose as the world’s peacekeeper, she must step outside of the comforting confines of the culture she was raised in, recognize her privileged upbringing, and empathize with people whose life experiences radically differ from her own: a message very pertinent to the show’s audience of young adults entering college for the first time.
Distributive Justice and Bending
Throughout most of Korra’s first season, non-benders are treated with sympathy. Benders are depicted exercising power unfairly over non-benders, as in the case of Tarrlok’s task force ambushing a group of chi-blockers in training. Even Korra isn’t entirely sympathetic to non-benders; she outright threatens an Equalist agitator before tossing him aside in Episode 3. Acknowledging that the Equalists provide non-benders their only means of self-defense against bending aggressors with electrified gloves and chi-blocking classes, Amon becomes a charismatic extremist. However, Amon’s means of achieving equality involves removing inborn privileges from benders, putting him in an unjustly egalitarian position.
The central conflict in The Legend of Korra is one of distributive justice- the branch of ethics that deals with the allocation of goods in society, of which political philosopher John Rawls is most influential. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that the distribution of wealth, privilege, and talents amongst individuals in society is morally arbitrary, the result of a “social and natural lottery”. Luck is a faulty entitlement to greater life prospects than others because fortunate individuals did nothing to merit their greater privileges. Rawl’s position that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others” would seem to support Amon’s radical egalitarianism. Given that bending grants privileges such as governmental representation and greater job prospects, its presence in the world would disrupt that right to basic liberties under Rawl’s principle of “Fair Equality of Opportunity”, where positions of privilege must remain open to all.
The second of Rawl’s principles would actually support the inequalities between benders and non-benders. Critical to Rawl’s theories of equality is the “difference principle”, which posits that certain inequalities are acceptable in society insomuch as those inequalities come to the benefit of all society. Bill Gates’ great socioeconomic power is acceptable because his work creates the societal benefit of making computers cheaply accessible to everyone. To this extent, benders may keep their privileges as their work generates electricity for the city and keeps the streets safe from bender gangs, both services that benefit non-benders. Under this application of the difference principle, benders act as benefactors to non-benders as their actions benefit the less privileged members of society, lending credence to the City Council. At the same time, this sense of bender-paternalism is problematic as it disempowers and disenfranchises non-benders, almost becoming reminiscent of “The White Man’s Burden”.
One issue I take with some of the contemporary dialogue around privilege is with the language that it implements. Blanket statements paint a diametric opposition between the privileged and the non-privileged, assuming that the privileged are maliciously and intentionally oppressing the non-privileged. This sense of miscommunication and assumption of bad faith becomes central to The Legend of Korra, as Korra must transcend her own limited upbringing to appease people unlike herself. The problem with privilege is that the privileged are don’t know that they are privileged, and disparity between life experiences causes that divisive rhetoric. What makes The Legend of Korra so interesting is that it addresses that disparity as part of its coming-of-age tale, which has us excited for season 2.
What do you think? Leave a comment.