Avatar: The Last Airbender
As a sequel series, comparisons to the original are inevitable, and in this case, I think, actually quite useful. Avatar is often hailed as a masterpiece of serialised storytelling for a young audience and rightly praised for the deftness with which it handles serious subject matter. When comparing it to Korra, I would have to agree that Avatar provides the more polished experience. By certain metrics it is definitely “better”. But I think it is worth pointing out that it was supported by a traditional, safe narrative structure.
Creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (known hereafter as “Bryke”) go to lengths throughout the show to make it plain that the Avatar universe is based on East Asia rather than the West. There is potential criticism to be made regarding the execution, but I am not in the best position to deliver such criticism and a later portion of this essay will attempt to provide a broad overview and starting points for further reading. For now, let us look at it in a positive light: a refreshing choice in representational terms, and also one that organically supported some spiritual and political themes that aren't commonly found in Western children's media.
However, it is still a story about a young boy, discovering he is the Chosen One, and growing into his power. Aang is not white (and I think Bryke's decision to consistently depict him as a Tibetan Monk is an attempt to keep this visible), but the combination of the animation style, his skin tone and a (sub)consciously racist network and audience means that he was never going to be as challenging to see on screen as Korra.
Avatar: The Last Airbender tells a beautiful story, the bones of which are deeply rooted in classic Western hero narratives. The fundamental structure of the tale is so honed by repetition, we accept it without question. It is the ultimate set of safety-wheels.
burning, flaming safety-wheels.
Aang's story is epic and genuinely resonant, but ultimately the overarching plot is not revolutionary. Aang completes the Hero's Journey. Its treatment of characterisation within that framework, however – (Aang's rejection of traditional masculinity and complex relationship with pacifism, Katara's unsettling and ultimately unresolved experiences with revenge and forgiveness, and, of course, Zuko's validated rejection of his abusive parent) – could legitimately be considered radical when compared to its media peers.
The show deserves tremendous credit for this, but I do think it's worth remembering that it did so with the support of a plot structure which we are primed to find powerful yet philosophically unchallenging.
The Legend of Korra's aggressive critique of its earliest season can also be read as a gentler rejection of some of the more traditionalist elements of Avatar and I will discuss this as it becomes relevant throughout the rest of this piece.
Book One: Air
Okay. This was a hot mess. I mean, on a basic plot level, this was flawed and before we dig into the wider representational implications, I think it would be useful to break this down into three broad areas:
so much shade.
1) The Love Triangle. I don't believe the show establishes any reason to believe Korra and Mako are romantically interested in each other besides the inevitable momentum of expectation as the male and female leads. Mako seems actively irritated by Korra most of the time and their bickering feels less like romantic tension and more like actual tension. While I was pleasantly surprised that Asami's character was not demonised, and that the show specifically allowed her to reject the idea that she should blame Korra, it was a bright spot in a poorly conceived plotline. A plotline that ran headlong into a number of other stereotypes such as the romanticisation of dismissive behaviour from boys as sexy and troubled, and the conflation of conflict and passion.
no but really where did you all come from?
2) Politics. Amon is clearly tapping into some kind of societal unrest or he wouldn't be able to summon a warehouse full of people to watch him ritually punish a scapegoat. He wouldn't have a vast army of highly-trained chi-blockers. The problem is that Mako and Bolin's history makes it clear that bending isn't a free ticket out of poverty. Even if their athletic abilities have allowed them an escape in adulthood, their financial exploitation and ties to the criminal underworld continue to haunt them. It becomes difficult to understand the proper lens through which to view Amon's demagoguery. Is this dogwhistle politics? I hate to risk Godwin's Law, but given the very obvious comparison between Hiroshi Sato and Henry Ford (the real-world industrialist who popularised consumer technology, primarily via the automobile, while offering political support to a group hell-bent on murdering an entire class of people) I think it's unavoidable. Is this Germany in the run-up to the Second World War? Is this framing a small but supposedly privileged class of people in order to provide a focus for blame and anger regarding difficult economic circumstances? Or is this the French Revolution? Are people correctly identifying their oppressors, and then responding with murderous violence because they have been pushed past the brink?
Their cause is never examined. The initial implication is that their grievances are valid, and this seems easy to believe as there is a provable inequality of power. Korra's brash dismissal of their concerns during the first episode seems to be an intentionally negative characterisation – the set-up for a learning experience. Unfortunately this is never explored with any delicacy. The Equalists immediately become generic masked bad guys. Amon conducts kidnappings and hurts innocent people to the adulation of a baying crowd. We are never presented with any real history explaining how the resentment grew to such proportions. Our sympathy for Amon is ultimately gained by allowing us to see his (genuinely tragic) personal history, but the extent to which his own brutalisation by his bending-obsessed parent is in line with the real world's problems is completely unclear.
Ultimately the Equalist storyline introduced oppressive faultlines in the Avatar universe's society, implied our protagonist was on the wrong side of them, and then failed to deal with them in any meaningful way, much less provide satisfying resolution.
3) Korra's Spiritual Journey. Or rather, Korra's lack of spiritual development. The ending did not feel earned. More specifically, it did not feel like Korra's achievement. The line - “when we are at our lowest point, we are most open to change,” - may have merit as a philosophical statement but it is unsupported by the surrounding narrative. It doesn't feel like a transcendent response to unimaginable tragedy, it feels convenient.
In an earlier episode, Korra finally admits how afraid she is and collapses against Tenzin in a genuinely resonant emotional moment. It sets up the expectation that at some point, she will have to truly face her fear, accept it and move beyond it. Instead, when we reach that point, Aang swoops in to save her. I understand that Aang is an expression of her own spirit in this context, but as I noted above, my criticism here is the execution. It does not feel like Korra's achievement.
She unlocks airbending in a moment of reflexive desperation, and restores her own bending in a moment of reflexive despair. The issue is not that Korra reflexively saves herself with an instinctive use of her powers (which Aang did on many occasions), it's that it's not presented as such. It's presented as a spiritual revelation and the moment she attains mastery of the Avatar state.
The Opposite of Aang
Korra and Aang are drastically different. That's good, it makes sense; we do not need to see the same story twice. Aang struggled with the change in his identity caused by finding out he was the Avatar. He had to learn to stop avoiding his responsibilities and to become comfortable with his own power. Korra was always comfortable with her power and with the concept of responsibility (even if Lin Beifong would prefer she included collateral damage in her threat assessments). Rather than the Hero's Journey, Korra's story recalls Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, who lived a life of extraordinary privilege as a prince, before discovering the reality of the world's hardships. Ultimately he chose to expose himself to that reality, and in doing so, was able to achieve enlightenment.
Of course, Korra differs from Aang in terms of immediate social signifiers, too. Korra is a queer, brown girl, and two of those three things were obvious to the audience from the start.
A story that is the opposite of Aang's plays very differently on a brown girl. It's why none of the plot problems I already outlined can be just plot problems. A poorly-written love triangle is not a neutral failure when you have fought to get a female lead onto the screen in the first place. None of us need another story about women competing over a dismissive, but terribly complex loner. A poorly-written story about learning to check your privilege is not a neutral failure when your lead is a woman of colour. None of us need another story about uppity brown ladies learning their place. It's not neutral to have Korra unlock the Avatar state as an Aang-assisted wrap-up because none of us need another story where a woman's agency is thrown under the bus of narrative convenience.
Obviously I'll never know the exact reasons this season was written in the way it was, but I'm going to venture a guess, and I'm going to venture that it was something else Aang had that Korra did not: a rubber-stamped structure. The Legend of Korra has many of the same deft characterisation touches as its predecessor, for instance Asami's rejection of classic love triangle dynamics, Lin Beifong being abrupt, harsh and simultaneously uncompromisingly heroic, Bolin's absolute willingness to be Korra's friend after her romantic rejection, or Noatak's backstory. But unlike Avatar: The Last Airbender where such moments (along with stellar worldbuilding) elevated an otherwise average plotline to great heights, those pre-built narratives cannot be used to keep Korra ticking over.
No classic narratives exist for characters like Korra, and the ones that exist for characters who are not like her? Drop her into them without care or context, and you run headlong into all the double-standards and dangerous stereotypes society created to keep people like her out of those roles in the first place.
It's not right or fair – putting characters not often allowed to be archetypal heroes into those roles can be fundamentally powerful. It's why it's worth working at it. But Book One: Air fails. You need awareness to be subversive, and at this point, the show did not have it. They gave her a plotline designed to differentiate her from Aang – she starts out brash and confident for apolitical reasons – but the show does not consider how that will intersect with her race and gender and how many obnoxious social scripts it will trigger.
It's why shifts in the later seasons feel more momentous and important than simply an improvement in the quality of the writing. They begin to deconstruct things, because nothing is fit for purpose. They begin realising that within both her own fictional world and within our real one, Korra is an inherently transgressive figure. The Legend of Korra demands to be read on queer terms.
The Bridge Between Worlds
Book Two: Spirits is often cited as the weakest of the series. I can, in some ways, understand that. While I've outlined my arguments that the first season was messy, it did have the appearance of telling a complete, self-contained story. One of the most common criticisms of the second season is that it ineptly retreads ground covered by the first. This annoys both those who enjoyed Book One and those who disliked it, unless, like me, you interpret the repetition as revisiting it only to burn it to the ground.
This is why I feel Book Two is worth defending. The latter half of the series began to rebuild itself in new and fascinating ways, but it was here that the series made a radical, handbrake turn. This was where Korra's queer origin and radical future were expressly clarified.
In fact, the three major problems I highlighted above are specifically repeated and inverted.
1) The Love Triangle. The most obvious example of repetition as destruction is the love triangle between Korra, Mako and Asami. There is really no way to interpret the events as anything other than a scorched earth policy. I was never fully convinced we'd seen the last of Mako and Korra's relationship until the final credits had rolled, but that had more to do with reflexive distrust of the media than what was actually shown on screen. I do not believe Mako and Korra manage a single episode as a couple without at least one scene that descends into antagonistic bickering. The stereotypical love stories we are often exposed to mean we may have been able to view Mako's Book One inability to choose between Asami and Korra as acceptable, or even somehow romantic, but it's hard to make the same mistake in Book Two.
Mako's reunion with Asami may come on the heels of a very clear breakup, but it is still undermined by the fact his first act as her Heroic Boyfriend is to actively break the law to help her save her company. When Korra asked him to passively break the law to save her nation an episode earlier, it was one of the reasons their relationship exploded. I'm not a fan of the use of amnesia as a plot device in general and this is no exception (particularly as the relationship between Korra and Mako plays almost no role between their reunion and ultimate breakup), but it does neatly allow the show to do two things. Firstly, it revisits Mako's murky breakup with Asami the first time they were dating, but this time lingers on her reaction, showing us just how exhausting and banal it is to be discarded out of convenience. Secondly, it allows Korra and Mako's relationship to fail because of their emotionally volatile incompatibility, but allows them to break up to a tone of tired sadness and acceptance. It goes against the romanticisation of their fighting as passionate.
Republic City: now with slightly more believable politicians!
2) Politics. We also revisit the notion of Korra as impulsive and hotheaded in the midst of complex social problems. This time she is trying to negotiate the painful internal politics of a civil war. Amon was introduced as a villain with a point but methods so extreme he needed to be stopped. Korra opposed him from the start, meaning we never got a sympathetic perspective on what he was trying to achieve or whether Korra was blind to his concerns due to personal bias. Unalaq is another villain with a valid point but unacceptable methods. This time we take that journey of discovery with Korra. She occupies a complex position in a story that – while not the height of political subtlety – nonetheless attempts to grapple with the painful internally oppressive dynamics of the North's paternalistic approach to their poor Southern cousins. After the awkward metatextual tension of putting Korra into a story where she unambiguously occupied the oppressive role, this seems a deliberate, perhaps even conciliatory attempt to provide contrast.
I will not attempt to argue that the escalation of the Civil War and Republic City's abstention is particularly nuanced, and the criticism that it is handled in a way that is detrimental to pacing in the earliest episodes is fair. But I would argue that it is a step up from the cartoonishly inept Republic City Councillors of the first season, who seemed to continually agree with Tarlokk in order to ratchet up Tenzin's blood pressure rather than for any internally consistent political reason.
Amon's concerns were never addressed within the primary narrative and were reduced to a reference to free elections in a recap during the following season. Unalaq's concerns led to Korra leaving the spirit portals open, which continued to have major impact throughout the rest of the series.
3) Korra's Spiritual Journey. In the first season, this was effectively non-existent. In Book Two, it dominates the latter half. We see Korra truly learning to connect with her spiritual side on both a personal level, via her past life, Wan, and in a physical sense, as her journey of self-discovery manifests in a literal journey through the Spirit World. She begins as a scared child before growing alongside her confidence, power and compassion.
When the Avatar spirit is stolen from her, she pulls herself up and she goes to war for it. She asserts not only that there should be an Avatar, but that it should be her. Instead of receiving assistance from a past life against whom the audience and media reviews frequently and unfavourably compared her, she received assistance from a young girl she had saved in a recent episode. Instead of being handed the solution, she was provided with an opening.
While Book One ends with Korra returning to the status quo by restoring Lin's bending, Book Two ends with her upending it by opening the portals.
The Death of Aang and the Age of Korra
I was initially wary of the historical episodes focusing on Wan. I still felt they were on shaky ground, and here we were, interrupting Korra's story, for an extended retrospective about Some Boy. But I get it now: Wan is Aang, repeating. Wan is a good-natured trickster who steps up and wears orange.
The entire Avatar Cycle ends with Korra, but a new one begins with her, too. She is the Wan of the next age. She both parallels and replaces him.
Wan and Korra both make radical decisions to change their worlds and then live in them. But Wan is also responsible for the world we recognise as normal and his philosophy was one of peace through separation. That reflects stasis more than change. Wan is male and Raava is female and this is another way in which Wan is reflective of the expected status quo. Interestingly, I feel that one half of the Avatar's spirit always being female-identified queers later Avatars, including Aang (another example of Korra's deconstructionist tendencies and ability to critique its predecessor), but by writing Wan and Raava as a metaphorical love story, this is avoided in his case.
The traditional heterosexual balance Wan represented is subverted by Korra's exclusively female existence. If we do choose to view a direct connection to Raava as subtextually romantic then it may even be foreshadowing of Korra's romantic interest in women. (Though I am personally uncertain whether restarting the Avatar cycle makes Korra's relationship with Raava a direct parallel to Wan's, or whether Raava would still feel more parental towards her – considering the Avatar line a filial legacy, regardless of the fact it has been broken and reforged. I think it defies specific interpretation and that this is fitting for a series more interested in challenging structures than categorisation.)
The last age – bookended by our boys in orange – is definitively ended. Bryke do not simply change the normative conditions of the Avatar universe: they kill Aang. They completely remove him from the ongoing narrative. By taking Korra's past lives away, permanently, the writers make a clear statement about how Korra does not exist to be compared with Aang. It posits Korra as the first of a new age – alone: the eponymous legend, completely autonomous at last.
Throughout Book Two, as we spend more time with Aang's children, our image of him is challenged. The plotline ultimately resolves with love – love between Bumi, Kya and Tenzin, and love for Aang in his imperfections. It is not bitter, it is not about anger and blame. But it is about acceptance. Tenzin should not seek to emulate Aang any more than Korra should. Like Tenzin, we must all accept that Aang, and by extension, Avatar: The Last Airbender, were experienced differently by different people. Kya and Bumi's experiences were valid. Avatar was not a show that did right by everyone. There are many valid reasons to love and appreciate them, but nothing grows if it's caught in the shadow of something else.
As I outlined at the beginning of this essay, Avatar relies on a number of traditional narrative patterns that do not, and cannot, fit Korra. Here, the show finally realises this, and bids them farewell.
Whereas Aang faced the apex of his heroic myth at the end of his series, Korra faces hers in the middle and then has to deal with the fallout. Aang's story is about peace. It's about restoring what was lost. It's about endings. He is the last Airbender, he ends a great war and he defeats his greatest enemy by making his spirit unbendable. Korra's story is about rebirth. She lives in a world of emerging technology and developing democracy. She opens the Spirit Portals, resurrects the Air Nation and restarts the entire Avatar Cycle. She learns from her enemies and allows them to change her. It's about beginnings.
The new age does not start with an adorable boy in orange, it starts with Korra and everything she represents. It is untrodden ground and that makes it a rougher ride. I stand by my earlier assessment that in many ways Avatar is the better show. But Korra is braver and more necessary. Korra is trying to build something new.
Build Yourself a Metal City and Build Around the Vines
Korra cannot remove the Spirit Vines from Republic City, so Asami rebuilds around them. Their friendship grows from the wreckage of their failed relationships with Mako. We have seen friendship between women before, but Katara and Toph's friendship was always somewhat strained, and Azula's friendships were explicitly unhealthy. In Book Three, Korra's primary supportive relationship is her friendship with Asami. Whole episodes focus on this dynamic, and by the end of the season, Asami is acting as Korra's primary caretaker in the aftermath her confrontation with Zaheer.
Korra's relationships with her mentors – her father and Tenzin – begin to shift as they start following her as a leader instead of trying to instruct her on how to be a leader. We meet Suyin Beifong, the first adult who treats Korra as a peer and who represents a seismic shift in the series' perspective.
Avatar: the Last Airbender was always very good at including a diverse female cast. Katara, Toph, Suki, Azula, Mai and Ty Lee had diverse skillsets and personalities and complex relationships. Still, it would be true to say that until Book Three: Change, these shows were deeply concerned with fathers, while mothers were dead or absent. Sokka and Katara's mother was tragically murdered and they long to reunite with their father, Hakoda. Zuko and Azula's mother was banished, and their lives now revolve around their unhealthy relationships with Ozai. Zuko finally breaks free by finding an alternate adoptive father in Iroh. Aang is unusual in that only his father figure (Monk Gyatso) was killed to provide a tragic backstory, but as he had no mother figure at all his parental relationships are still paternally focused. Asami Sato fits the same mould: a murdered mother and a living father who looms large in her life. Noatak (Amon) and Tarlokk failed to escape the legacy of their father, Yakone; I'm not sure their mother was ever named. Eska and Desna's mother is referenced without a name in a single, throwaway line, while they have a close relationship with their father, Unalaq.
very dead mother.
Even minor characters like Haru or Teo are characterised in terms of a male parent. Haru is desperate to save his earthbending father, while Teo was raised by a single father and their relationship drives the plot of the episode in question. Narratives for characters whose parents do not play large parts in and of themselves – such as Mai and Toph – still prioritise the male parent. In Toph's case, it's her father who denies her request to leave and later sends bounty hunters after her, while her mother's role is largely non-speaking. In Mai's case, neither parent seems to do much except cause her ennui, but it's her father who is socially important.
Both of Korra's parents are alive, and she has a good relationship with them, but it's still Tonraq, not Senna, who gets a major recurring role. Tenzin is a more important character than Pema, and while Katara is clearly a greater presence in The Legend of Korra than Aang, her children's emotional journeys still revolve around their father. There's the occasional orphan (Jet, Mako, Bolin) with tragic backstories that get rid of both parents, or character whose parents aren't detailed at all (Ty Lee, Suki) but until the Korra's third season, the only character I can think of whose primary parental relationship is maternal is probably Lin Beifong, and at that point, Toph's not actually part of the story so it's mostly inference.
And then: Suyin happens.
Suyin Beifong, matriarch of the Metal Clan.
mulitple living mothers in the same frame!
Her presence as Lin's half-sister introduces Toph as an active character through the exploration of their backstory. Suddenly Lin's relationship with her mother is no longer inference. It's implied in Book Three and confirmed in Book Four that Toph's relationship with Lin's father “didn't work out”. He didn't die tragically, they just split up. Su has a different father. This is the first time either show has addressed the notion that parents split up, children may have different parents, that the traditional nuclear family is not sacred.
Looking towards the next generation, obviously, there is the fact that she has five children of her own. The first dominant mother we have seen. Opal and Bataar Jr both become fairly major characters in their own right further adding to the number of characters where a mother is the dominant parent. And, of course, there is Kuvira. Her relationship with Suyin is complex, fascinating, and plays along distinctly maternal lines. I don't think that Su's “she was like a daughter to me,” can be taken at face value, but I think the fact that she can say that and believe she's being honest, while Kuvira seduces her son and founds an Empire in an attempt to get her attention (or, if we're eschewing subtext, in an attempt to excise her own abandonment issues), is all that really needs to be said.
Su founds Zaofu and builds a city and a society because none existed that were fit for purpose. Asami rebuilds Republic City, carefully wrapping its infrastructure around the Spirit Vines, because regression is not on the agenda. Mothers and female friendships are suddenly a priority. The show is reconstructing itself. The metaphor is not subtle.
Post-Industrial Political Revolution
The metaphor of Republic City's jazz-influenced industrial revolution isn't subtle either. The world is changing and unlike her predecessor, Korra faces a new villain each season. The series is bookended by Amon and Kuvira, representing communism and fascism, the two non-capitalist, non-democratic giants of the modern era. We can also credibly align Unalaq with a despotic or theocratic worldview. There is an environmental allegory to be found in his concern for the separation of the physical and spiritual world, to be sure, but ultimately he sought power and his justification for doing so was on moral, spiritual grounds. Zaheer is popularly associated with anarchism, a philosophy which solidified into a defined, expressly political movement with self-identified proponents at the end of the Industrial Revolution, and was particularly prominent in 1920s Japan. As a political ideology it has never been as influential as the others noted here, but, even though Zaheer's motivations may have diverged, on an aesthetic level he recalls radical, violent populist revolution, which is most certainly a part of our post-Industrial political landscape.
Was it entirely successful in its portrayal? By no means. I think it is worth noting that Avatar: the Last Airbender's Ozai was not a particularly complex villain either – in terms of characterisation, that role was filled by his children and their associates. If we are going to criticise Korra's portrayal of villains, then I think it would be best to do so on the grounds that it lacked characters like Zuko and Azula, rather than the complexity of its political commentary, which has always been effective and economical, but rarely deeply nuanced in either show. Like Azula, we ultimately see cracks in Amon's composure and learn how his family history was responsible for his skewed moral compass. Like Zuko, Kuvira ultimately realises that her singleminded focus has blinded her to damning context; that she has been on the wrong side. The ideas are there, but with only thirteen episodes and an enormous cast, I think it's fair to say that they were not developed as well as they could have been.
On the other hand, focusing on a shifting, and often interlocking, series of conflicts, is absolutely the right approach for The Legend of Korra. There is no single, specific, correct answer. Solving one problem may create another. The world is complex and intersectional. Once again, the narrative concern is destabilisation. These ideological attacks from diverse quarters successfully change the landscape of the world, even if not in the ways the attackers intended.
If the show were being truly politically radical, I do think that it could have examined its own stance on democracy more thoroughly. It's used as shorthand for positive progress but the only place where we see a democractic government in power for an extended period is Republic City, and the President is negatively characterised as more worried about poll numbers and power than ethics.
My personal opinion is that democracy is one of the more robust societal models we have, at least theoretically. That said, I am quite fascinated by the way the show's conscious attention to our default political structures – in opposition to those represented by the seasonal antagonists – is arguably more focused on capitalism than democracy.
President Raiko is a reasonably well-established figure, but his election as a remedy to the anti-bending movement is glossed over within the text of the show. Similarly, abdication in favour of a democractically elected government is the capstone of Prince Wu's personal development, but this is dropped into the last five minutes of the final episode so its significance is not truly explored. On the other hand, one of our main signifiers for progress is technological innovation, as exemplified by Future Industries. Hiroshi Sato was explicitly modeled after Henry Ford who, in addition to the unfortunate political affiliations discussed earlier, revolutionised mass production in the name of consumerism. Asami's company's role in rebuilding Republic City's infrastructure, as well as Varrick's manipulation of the Water Tribe Civil War through his company makes it clear that in both positive and negative ways, private industry holds huge political sway. It owes far more to the norms of the United States than the more socialist leanings of certain democratic European or South American nations.
It does not go without critique. Hiroshi's villainy is explicitly tied to his corporate influence (although we can add the notion of equality through technological innovation to the list of issues I feel Book One could have done a better job of addressing). Varrick likewise presents as an initially villainous capitalist. However, neither is presented as the primary threat, and both are provided with redemption arcs. Those arcs are also primarily structured around forgiveness from women they have specifically wronged (Asami, Zhu Li), rather than recanting past political actions. It might be more accurate to tally these arcs as part of The Legend of Korra's ongoing attempt to reconfigure itself in ways that engage more fully with a feminist perspective than as a capitalist critique.
Varrick's horror at the notion of a spirit weapon certainly makes it clear that he has ethical limits. Our most prominent capitalist, Asami Sato, is characterised as benevolent and philanthropic. Alone amongst the villainous political ideologies represented, capitalism is demonstrated to be potentially positive and even its villains aren't as bad.
While I would still argue that Korra's use of antagonists is in keeping with its subversive agenda in the sense that it defies a single, set framework of “right” and “wrong”, it is fair to note that capitalism is a vine trellis of oppression. Its treatment by the text is ambivalent rather than positive and clearly some thought has gone into portraying it as a philosophy capable of causing great harm when unchecked. On intersectional lines, Asami's gender provides some inherent commentary, and we may be able read some engagement with class dynamics into Varrick's manipulation of the Southern Water Tribe. That said, it's never really portrayed as an external threat. It's never an invading force. In itself that's accurate; capitalism will be the norm for the majority of the audience. However, this feels less like an intentional choice and more like it is the unexamined norm for the writers, too.
On Earthly Bodies, Enlightenment and Sin
By Bryke's own admission, Korra's spiritual arc was the only part of the show for which there was a plan from the beginning. The narrative parallel to Aang's Hero's Journey. I have already touched on some of the ways that attempts to distinguish Korra from Aang caused representational problems during the first season, but were also indicative of the impossible double-standards and boundaries imposed by a patriarchal world. However, if I'm going to talk about the way the show reconstructed itself in a fundamentally subversive manner, then it is worth engaging with these issues throughout the show, and not just during the season I am most comfortable criticising.
One of the effects of The Legend of Korra's seasonal structure is that there is no single, overarching conflict to be resolved, nor is she given a consistent love interest. Her role as the lone protagonist is never challenged. This means that the primary narrative thread is, very clearly, Korra's personal development. Regardless of execution, on a very basic level, this is startlingly unusual in our media landscape and is worth keeping in mind as we consider it within a broader critical framework.
But let's jump in and address the elephant in the room. Let's talk about male spirituality and female bodily sin and how Aang meditates his way to enlightenment while Korra's story is written in scars on her brown skin. Her journey towards spirituality is not something that can be disentangled from her physical trials: the loss of her bending, her separation from Raava, the poison from Zaheer and its physical after-effects, the panic attacks and hallucinations of her post-traumatic stress disorder.
In keeping with its Buddhist influences, the Avatar universe does not draw neat lines between the body and the soul. This is exemplified in the spirituality of the bending arts. Bloodbending and chi-blocking, for example, remove bending ability (a spiritual attribute) by physically harming chi pathways. Aang's time with Guru Pathik focuses on emotional and spiritual well-being through the physicality of these pathways. Ultimately, Aang unlocks and masters the Avatar state in reaction to the physical agitation of a spiritual scar.
In itself, Aang's death at Azula's hands and resurrection at Katara's, does stand as an instance of physical suffering in Aang's larger spiritual arc. However, when taken holistically, it's clear that Aang's suffering is primarily emotional (the loss of his people) and the tension with regards to his role as Avatar is his own fear that he will not live up to people's expectations of his greatness. Conversely, Korra's suffering is primarily physical. Even her emotional journey in Book Four is tied to her physical injuries (while Aang's physical suffering is largely discrete). The tension she experiences with regard to her role is fear that it will be taken from her.
Korra is a much more physical character than Aang. This is a sensible decision not only because it differentiates her from Aang, but also because it is unexpected in terms of her gender. Korra is allowed to be brash, confident and even aggressive. In the context of a world with a Buddhist take on the (lack of) separation of mind, body and spirit, it makes sense that her trials will reflect her physical confidence.
But this does not negate the fact that women in our media, particularly brown women, and particularly queer women, are often placed into violent stories as victims. Sometimes this is as aesthetic decoration (they do not matter except as a lesson for someone else), sometimes as part of more focused toxic narratives (they deserved it, they needed to be taught a lesson, they were arrogant), but the pattern is clear and omnipresent. That this also reflects the lived experience of many of these women makes the comparison and its importance more immediate and damaging.
To see this pattern repeated with Korra is painful. There's not much more to say. It is possible to view Korra's journey through this lens; to interpret it as a wild, joyful girl who needed taming, who was beaten into enlightenment because her body was too earthly, too female, too brown, to be spiritual. Who was only, ultimately, a full and wise person when she looked back and saw the necessity of her own brutalisation.
It's a pattern, it's real, and whatever Bryke intended, it's valid to point out the similarities. It's valid for that to bring up feelings. It's valid criticism.
It's probably also clear that this is not the extent of my interpretation of Korra's story. If I felt that her overall arc contained nothing but replication (accidental or otherwise) of violent tropes, I would not be writing an extensive essay on its progressive, subversive legacy.
So let's also talk about post-traumatic stress disorder. Korra's mental health during Book Four: Balance was not something that flew under the radar. It received positive media coverage for its realistic approach. However, I do wonder if there was general awareness of how specific it was in its accuracy.
PTSD is a condition that occurs when the memories of a traumatic experience (or long-term exposure to a traumatic environment) are not properly processed by the brain. Adrenaline and other high level stress hormones can prevent the brain – specifically the hippocampus – from correctly processing memories and this “blown fuse” effect means that nightmares, flashbacks and general anxiety will continue as the mind is unable to get to grips with what has happened. Every time a memory of the experience is triggered, the physical stress reactions will prevent the brain from dealing with the trauma and ultimately healing. It's a vicious cycle.
We see this clearly with Korra as she is repeatedly confronted with visions of herself during her fight with Zaheer, or with literal flashbacks to suffocating when she tries to meditate into the Spirit World. When Toph attempts to remove the residual poison from her body, the flashbacks make it impossible. We may even view the poison as analogous to heightened adrenaline levels: the underlying mental health issues cannot be addressed until the poison (adrenaline) is dealt with and yet you cannot remove the adrenaline (poison) without triggering the underlying condition.
Two of the primary approaches to treating PTSD attempt to break this catch-22 by allowing the brain to begin processing information normally once more. I'll mention EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprogramming) briefly for completeness, but it is not a treatment method I believe The Legend of Korra attempts to mimic. Essentially EMDR requires recalling traumatic experiences while following certain movements with the eyes (or other kinds of external sensory input). It is believed that this may mimic eye movement during REM sleep, or otherwise disrupt cognitive processes in a way that allows the brain to begin processing traumatic memories once again. However, the reasons for its effectiveness are not fully understood.
The other most common type of therapy is prolonged exposure therapy. It is often used in tandem with EMDR. Essentially the patient relives aspects of their traumatic experiences either imaginatively or by placing themselves in physical circumstances that recall those events (but that are not actually dangerous). Adrenaline rises, panic and inability to process begins. But there is a fundamental, biological limit to the amount of time these stress levels can be maintained. Eventually adrenaline levels will begin to drop off. An individual will be able to recognise that they are not in danger. New associations will be formed and the ability to recall and process traumatic memories will improve as will physical reactions to triggering situations.
Again, Korra engages in a certain amount of metaphor and dramatic license, but the overarching narrative is clear. While Korra is able to heal physically from her battle with Zaheer, she is not able to make much progress with regards to her mental health until her encounter with Toph and the parable of adrenaline and poison. Of course, this is not a single, watershed moment that cures her. Exposure therapy is slow, painful progress. Her success is immediately contrasted by a setback when she loses to Kuvira at Zaofu. The poison might be gone, but the traumatic memories remain. She cannot access the Avatar state or the Spirit World because she is overwhelmed by memories of her own suffocation.
The next milestone in her recovery is confronting Zaheer and allowing him to assist her into the Spirit World. It should be noted that I believe actually confronting Zaheer in person is an area where the show strays into the realm of dramatic license. Exposure requires similarity but also safety and while confronting an attacker might be useful under very specific circumstances, there is often no way to control or predict the other person's behaviour. Safety is not only a physical concept. Still, Korra's choice to confront her trauma in a way that is strongly reminiscent of the original traumatic incident – and the fact that it involves forcing herself to simply live through the panic until it recedes – rings very true. Korra plays chicken with her own anxiety. She forces herself to exist and experience her panic until it simply cannot be sustained. She forces herself to live through her imagined suffocation until, plainly, she has not died.
Both EMDR and exposure therapy concentrate on overcoming an error of biochemistry that prevents a person from fully processing, and therefore accepting, what has happened to them. To be clear, I do not use the word “accept” here as an indicator of gratitude or approval, I mean it on a very basic level. It is important to accept that a traumatic experience did occur and does now form part of the totality of your experience, before you can engage with it in a way that will allow you to heal moving forwards.
We can, perhaps, bring in a comparison with Katara during Avatar: the Last Airbender when she confronts her mother's killer. She cannot bring herself to take the path of either vengeance or forgiveness because it is not a story about morality or even closure. It is a story about acceptance. Katara is, and will always be, furious and hurt by what happened to her mother, but she moves forward from her life-changing field trip with Zuko as someone to whom this happened. She is no longer looking for hidden meaning, or impossible closure. She's no longer looking for a way to make it okay. She's no longer trying to fix the fact that her mother was murdered – not with vengeance, and not with forgiveness – because she can't.
When Korra leaves Zaheer's prison, Mako asks her if she'll finally be able to forget what Zaheer did to her. She responds that no, she will never be able to forget what he did to her, but that she can now accept it.
This brings us to the final part of my argument: forming new meanings. The therapies I have mentioned so far focus on the physiological issues. The brain blows a fuse and can't process what it has experienced, so if you fix the fuse, you fix the processing problem. This still leaves a person who has been through an extremely traumatic event. PTSD almost always presents alongside issues such as depression and can lead to feelings of isolation and guilt. Individuals may either feel emotionally disconnected or emotionally out of control and have often internalised damaging messages as a result of their trauma. There is often a focus on creating new meanings as these memories are re-examined. We see this in Korra's evolving attitude to her own experiences.
Zaheer asserts that her power is limitless. She should never have been able to survive the poison. He offers her an opportunity to recontextualise her survival as evidence of her enormous resilience and strength rather than as a failure because she did not survive unscathed. While she is recovering, Katara tells her about Aang and how he chose to find meaning in his suffering. “What will I find?” Korra wonders. “Won't it be interesting to find out?” Katara asks. The answer comes in her final conversation with Tenzin. Korra chooses to form new meanings for her experiences, and chooses to find a message of compassion and empathy.
Again, a comparison with Avatar: The Last Airbender may be fruitful. Zuko's father burned and then exiled him. The show is uncompromising in its condemnation of that act, and allows Zuko to express it, much as Korra is allowed to express her anger at Zaheer when she confronts him in prison. However, almost all of Zuko's personal growth stems from his exile and the way that change of circumstances allowed him to view issues from other perspectives and to let different influences into his life. Sometimes we learn things as a result of terrible experiences we did not deserve.
It's a difficult line to tow, and arguably the dialogue could have been reframed so that Korra didn't assert it was something she “had” to go through, rather than something that she had learned from. That said, I hope this clarifies the ways in which it is possible to view this narrative arc as an accurate portrayal of recovery and learning that is in keeping with the thematic concerns of the ficitonal universe and its real world influences.
There's a collision at this intersection
So the obvious point to make is that there are valid perspectives here that are in conflict. Viewing the story primarily through the lens of violence, race and gender yields a very different interpretation than using a lens reliant on mental health. Further, if one's experiences in that field are primarly related to anxiety and depression, the accuracy of the story as a narrative of PTSD recovery may be lost in a desire to combat negative stereotypes that depressed people are lazy and can overcome their illnesses through grit and willpower alone. Exposure therapy is something wholly different to this, but without clear markers, it would certainly be an understandable interpretation.
I believe in some situations it is possible to be aware of potential conflicts of perspective and to take steps to prevent potentially harmful interpretations from seeming intentional. I do not believe this is the case in all situations. I even believe that in certain situations it may be more valuable to run towards the conflict than to avoid it. Are the disparate interpretations fundamentally unrelated? Or has an awkward, interlocking hegemonic system been revealed?
It is difficult to talk about Korra's experiences with violence as they relate to her race, gender and orientation, without acknowledging that these staple elements of our media are not confined to the media. These are not purely fictional stereotypes. A queer woman of colour is at a significantly higher risk of suffering violence and oppression during her lifetime. PTSD is a more likely outcome for her than it is for many people in other social categories.
The central conflict here is this: the things Korra must do to recover from her PTSD intersect with experiences of homophobia, misogyny and racism in ways that are deeply emotionally restimulating. The notion of exposure therapy is voluntarily putting yourself back into harmful situations. Learning that you are not required to voluntarily return to harmful situations is a key aspect of fighting oppression. Learning that anger is valid and that you do not need to rationalise or legitimise your poor treatment is likewise a vital message that can be very hard for abused people to internalise. This feels directly at odds with the notion that you must accept what has happened to you and even actively attempt to change the meaning of terrifying experiences in your personal history. What happens when your oppressors are the reason you have PTSD? What then?
I don't have a clean answer. I do not believe there is one. For that reason, I do believe that paying attention to this conflict, to this intersection, has independent merit even if it's painful.
The real question may be how realistic we wanted The Legend of Korra to be. Did we want an empowering fantasy? That would be a valid desire. Boys are given such things all the time, and an unambiguously uplifting story of Korra as a power fantasy would be subversive in its very existence, even if its internal story was less complex. I think avoiding running into the sexist presumptions of a patriarchal world would be difficult (as earlier portions of this essay detail), but it certainly didn't need to run headlong into those thorny areas in the way it did.
On the other hand, is there value in Korra's journey as it stands, in all it's painful, messy fragmentation? I do not believe it's a coincidence the first three villains she faces are all older men telling her she's not needed. That she does not even get to face the villain that reflects her, until the final chapter. That she must change and save the world, and do so repeatedly, before she is taken seriously on her own terms.
For all it is uncomfortable and deeply painful to watch, Korra's narrative is, in many ways, realistic. She is an inherently subversive figure, representative of several marginalised groups, and as soon as she is given any amount of power, people are terrified of her. She spends the majority of the story fighting for her own autonomy while authority figures (in the context of our world, if not in the context of the Avatar universe) violently oppose her and successfuly harm her.
It's fucking hard to be a girl, man.
It's hard to be the wrong colour, or to want to kiss the wrong people, and this is what it is: it's a life at war. You will be hurt, and the things you will need to go through to recover will not, on any level, be fair.
Here's a thing, though: Korra wins.
We need stories where oppression does not exist, but we also need stories where we engage with it. Not as some strawman opponent, conveniently tied up in time for a Very Special Message in the last five minutes of the episode, but depicted in all its banal, sprawling, terrible inevitability and still deconstructed and destroyed. Say over three seasons of a television show slowly realising quite how subversive and how deeply destabilising its lead character really is?
Would The Legend of Korra's queer critique have been as powerful without an uncompromising look at the physical and psychological toll of gendered, racialised violence?
I am not sure.
Part of the reason I have devoted so much of this piece to this particular part of Korra's story is that it is deeply self-critical on a metatextual level. It is not simply fixing past errors and moving forward (albeit in a wonderful, transgressive direction), it is actively engaging with its own problematic decisions and subverting those tropes by showing the fallout, the cost, while at all times grounding it in Korra's perspective and autonomy.
Dismantling oppressive structures does not only require us to build better ones, it requires us to be honest about the violence they perpetrate and the pain they cause.
This storyline may be one of the show's most holistically fearless achievements and is certainly the substance around which much of its broader deconstruction revolves.
Korra is an inherently destabilising character. Her existence challenges the structure of her world. That makes her powerful and it makes her feared. Here is the culmination of that storyline.
I cannot help but compare it to the final moments of Book One. Korra stares over the edge of an ice cliff in a moment of honest despair. Instead of engaging with with her psychological state, the show swerves, “fixing” it by having Aang swoop in with a spiritual pick-me-up and Mako provide the obligatory romantic coda. The final moments of Book Three present us with a near identical scenario, except she is surrounded by women. Asami, not Mako. Jinora, not Aang. There is no swerve.
The Legend of Bryke
On a personal, aesthetic level I am not generally a fan of portmaneaus. However, “Bryke” is a nickname the Avatar fandom uses to refer to Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the creators of the Avatar universe, and one the creators themselves seem to regard with fondness. Considering their tendency to operate in the public sphere as a cohesive unit, it is useful to have a concise way to refer to them. I also feel it keeps a focus on the warm, loving relationship they have with their audience, which in turn humanises them.
bless them for standing in correct portmaneau order
In the context of the representational issues regarding Korra, as well as the Avatar universe's arguable appropriation of Eastern culture and philosophy for the benefit of a Western audience, Bryke's status as white American men who do not, at least publicly, identify as queer, is a valid point of discussion.
I remain convinced that while Book One: Air's failures allowed The Legend of Korra to establish a status quo to undermine, this was an ironic benefit, not a deliberate set-up. The first twelve episodes were originally outlined before it was certain the show would be renewed. Had Bryke fully understood the negative implications of aspects of their story, I do not think they would have risked it standing alone as their only statement on the future of their world.
One of the reasons I am convinced of this is their clear interest in social responsibility and progressive media. Konietzko in particular talks publicly about embracing learning and seeking to educate himself on the subject matter he engages with. This is something he talks about, especially with regards to martial arts and Eastern religious influences, during the Avatar: the Last Airbender episode commentaries and associated interviews. They condemned the white-washed casting fiasco of The Last Airbender live-action movie adaptation and refused to cave to Nickelodeon's discomfort with the notion of a female lead for Korra.
Intent is not an innoculation against error, but it goes to character and provides context through which to interpret actions and choices. It is part of the reason why I interpret The Legend of Korra's increasingly deconstructionist tendencies as reflective of a journey taken by Bryke themselves. It is why I think it is it valuable to refer to them in a way that recalls their humanity even as we look at the places where they did not do as well as they might have.
In general I lack the tools and personal experience to speak with authority on the complex question of whether their use of Asian influences was respectful or appropriative (or if those concepts are mutually exclusive). One of the benefits of these series broad popularity is that there is no shortage of critical and fannish engagement by those with greater expertise.
Jane Iwamura's work engages with the popularisation of Eastern spirituality in American popular culture and makes it clear that Avatar's use of the “Oriental Monk” icon is not particularly unusual in children's animation, and is in keeping with an orientalist Western fascination with Asian culture and religious practices. Her work is not freely available on the internet, however this essay from Brian Johnson is rooted in her research and explains the underlying concepts. On the other hand, it is also a series that has won frequent praise from people within Asian communities for its respectful attitude and willingness to engage with non-stereotypical narratives. I found Natassja Gunasena's essay on Avatar's engagement with diasporic experiences particularly interesting.
O. K. Keyes' work provides a critical perspective not on the narrative itself but on its industry practices and sheds light on the way it was less challenging of racism in the voice acting industry than its reputation might imply. I would also thoroughly recommend Keyes' essay, “Dear Bryke, You Are Not A Reflection Of Your Father,” which analyses Bryke's personal development via their decisions regarding the narrative and production of both series. I think in places it steps a little close to assuming motivation, but taken as a theory, it is absolutely compelling and very much worth your time.
Ultimately, I think the main point to make here is that Bryke have always had progressive intentions, but, like most of us, their understanding and expression of these things is imperfect and developing. It is tempting to view their work, in particularly the shift that occurred in within The Legend of Korra as reflective of their own journey. I would note that this could also be interpreted as part of a pattern of white people's personal growth taking priority over the people of colour around them (who may have facilitated it or suffered for it). That said, I do think that there is something independently interesting and fitting about the Avatar universe's subject matter reflecting back onto its creators.
I would like to believe that Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra were positive developmental experiences for Bryke, in the same way they were for so much of their audience.
Perhaps the strongest evidence to support this can be found in the show's closing moments. Korra and Asami walk off into a romantic future, and in their official statements, Bryke apologise that it took them so long.
The ending of The Legend of Korra was not inevitable. It was not expected, even by those who wanted it desperately. It was a choice. Not a random, unsupported choice, but an absolutely purposeful, and in many ways perfect, statement.
Let us enumerate the levels on which it works.
In terms of character, Korra's story was always one of impulsivity and recklessness giving way to a more careful and compassionate approach as she grew and changed and considered the consequences of her actions. It's fitting that this is reflected in her relationships. She ultimately realises that her instantaneous attraction to Mako is not enough to sustain a relationship plagued with miscommunication and poor emotional support, but that they can work well as friends. On the other hand, it's Asami's rock-steady, untheatrical friendship – developed slowly, across multiple seasons - that eventually proves to be a more appropriate opportunity for romance.
Asami represents technology and innovation, while Korra stands for spirituality and the natural world. Asami is associated with mental attributes – she is intelligent and adept at problem solving. Korra, meanwhile, is driven by her emotions and draws strength from her passion. Both women are skilled combatants, but Asami is portrayed as being clever and quick, off-setting her physical disadvantages as a non-bender with gadgetry and tactics. Korra is pure power, relying on overwhelming might.
However, both women are also actively aligned with progress and change – Asami at the head of an industrial revolution and Korra as the instigator of a new spiritual age. Their differences in approach are opposite and complementary, but their direction and ultimate goals are aligned. Tui and La, Push and Pull, Ying and Yang, Korra and Asami.
These are arguments independent of Asami's gender. I certainly believe that if she were male her friendship with Korra would have been seen as a more valid basis for romance; that their complementary attributes would have been seen as more deliberate if not for compulsory heterosexuality. It is not, however, my goal to argue that the validity of their relationship rests solely on the aspects that are gender-neutral.
Bryke have gone on the record stating that they did not originally imagine Korra and Asami falling in love, but that the idea developed organically as they wrote the story. However we also know that they were somewhat censored in what they could portray, which is why the ending, while not ambiguous in its intentions, was most certainly deniable. This very fact illustrates why ending the Legend of Korra with a same-sex relationship is so important, and that doing so was a deliberately political decision.
Within the construct of the narrative it is fitting as a final comment on Korra's subversive legacy. As a character, she has fought for autonomy – over her body, her identity, her political responsibilities, and now, her romantic destiny. In each case, she chooses the unexpected. In each case normative control is dismissed.
On a metatextual level, revealing the protagonist of a children's cartoon as queer, is an unavoidably confrontational political statement. As detailed earlier in this essay, I believe that The Legend of Korra incorporated a deconstructionist agenda to an increasingly radical degree. However none of the previous decisions made by the creative team were subject to censoring by the network. Given that Korra is also a woman of colour I feel it is important to note here that I do not mean to set racism and sexism in competition against homophobia. These issues intersect but they are distinct and function in unique ways within society. One of the main challenges for queer representation, especially in anything aimed at children, is simply being allowed to visibly exist. The fact that Nickelodeon set very firm boundaries to what Bryke were allowed to depict is a clear example of this.
In addition to working well simply as a rational extrapolation of Korra's journey, in addition to capping off Korra's role as a transgressive figure within her own narrative, this decision moves The Legend of Korra into a transgressive role within our society. It appears that Korra is the first queer protragonist in Western children's broadcast media. Her inability to be contained by normative structures has finally expanded beyond the confines of her fictional existence and she is challenging the hegemony of the world in which we live.
Korra and Asami's relationship did not become romantic until the final seconds of the series, and yet, while deniable, I stand by my earlier assertion that it is unambiguous. In addition to recalling the wedding of Varrick and Zhu Li mere minutes earlier, it recalls the final moments between Aang and Katara during Avatar: The Last Airbender. The music, the heady golden glow, the symbolism of leaving for the Spirit World (together) in a show that excelled when it focused on these women's efforts to make a new world (together)? The semiotics are unmistakeable. Even the immediate, reflexive assertions of those opposed to the relationship, claiming that it was intended to be read as platonic, are based on the need to deny a plausible interpretation. The romantic implication was clear even to those who immediately set about dismantling its validity.
While the need to rely on that imagery may also remind us how much more obvious Avatar's romance was allowed to be, and while it may open the ending up to allegations that it “came from nowhere”, this romance also serves a different narrative function. In keeping with the fact that Avatar is thematically concerned with endings while Korra is concerned with beginnings, Aang and Katara's kiss is the end of their romantic plotline, while Korra and Asami mark the beginning of theirs. Aang is waiting for his best friend to return his feelings. Korra is working out what hers are. The whole show ends with a huge, and brand new, start.
A final image is a powerful thing. The closing statement. The final message that will reflect back on all that preceded it. The point.
It was a long, messy, brutal journey to get here. It was realistic. It was unfair. It was a show and a pair of writers and a girl deconstructing themselves over and over until they could stand up honestly and say yes, this is who I am. This is how I'll be.
Korra, with her brown skin and blue eyes and beautiful muscles, taking her girlfriend to see the brave, unpredictable world she willed into being. A perfect ending. (A perfect start.)