Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Guest Post: Legend of Korra and the Downside of Getting the Guy

The creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the multitude of fabulous young women portrayed therein did not disappoint with their sequel series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra. For those who don’t know, these shows are set in a world of elemental magic where the Avatar, master of all four elements, must deal with world threats.

In the case of The Last Airbender, it was an evil Fire Lord who tried to take over the world. For Korra, it’s a terrifying masked man whipping the people into an anti-bending frenzy. [Editor’s Note: Bending is using magic. When you firebend, you move fire with magic. The same goes for earthbending, airbending, and waterbending. Each element has a different set of emotions attached, etc. The one person in the whole world who can bend all four elements is the Avatar, a state that is passed along by reincarnation. It’s fantasy.]

The Legend of Korra is set seventy years after The Last Airbender, and the land is no longer divided into four separate nations. Korra, the seventeen-year-old new Avatar, teams up with Fire-bender Mako (love interest from episode one), his Earth-bending brother Bolin, and technology-wielding nonbender Asami. She’s mentored by the incredibly awesome in all ways (as in, rivals Giles from Buffy) Airbender Tenzin.

The women in this show were portrayed as fully integrated into every aspect of life, and they avoided two of the Strong Female Character Pitfalls: “I Am Woman and Do NOT Need Help” and “All Men Are Now Useless.” Yay! (Tenzin alone could redeem the male species in this show, but fortunately they aren’t too much in need of redeeming.) Unfortunately, though, these female characters do fall into another trap: the need for a man’s love. Blech.

At the top of our Sheer Awesome list is the legendary Lin Beifong. The daughter of extraordinarily powerful and ingenious Toph Beifong and chief of police, Lin is all business, bravery, and skill. At first you’re a little skeptical, because she’s very hardboiled and seems out to get Korra. But then you see her in action and realize that this woman is tough. She’ll do what needs to be done, and if that means overcoming her reluctance to help the Avatar, she’ll do it.

Her past romance with Tenzin adds a bit of (slightly humorous) emotional backstory to her character, explaining why she’s a bit stiff and cross with him. Near the end of the season, she proves that she isn’t bitter over a failed romance, but really cares for Tenzin and his family when she singlehandedly attacks two whole ships of bad guys in effort to allow Tenzin’s family to escape.

As she is captured by the Equalists (the anti-bending bad guys), one of Tenzin’s children solemnly says, “That woman is my hero.” And rightfully so. Throughout the show, she recognized when she was wrong, never failed to deliver as an Earthbender and Metalbender, cared for the police under her command, and ultimately sacrificed herself to save the four living Airbenders and an old friend. The only problem with her angle of the story is that said old friend was actually an old lover. Now, this doesn’t negate the sheer awesomeness that is Lin Beifong, but it does raise some questions. Why does she need to be doing this for a man at all?

In second place on the Sheer Awesome list, we find Asami Sato. She’s not a bender, but she can more than look after herself. She first shows up as romantic competition for Korra, but I soon loved her so much that I couldn’t care less about the romance subplot. She has the guts to resist her father when she thinks he’s wrong, and the dedication to physically stand up to him when he threatens the success of the Avatar’s plan.

She lost her boyfriend and her father in the same day, but went on with composure and a quiet emotional fortitude. Mako, the former boyfriend and Korra’s eventual love interest, treated her poorly and she deserved so much more than what he gave her. But as with all things, you can see her story nearing romantic completion as well, with the fans shipping her with Iroh II, grandson of one of the characters from The Last Airbender.

Finally, we come to our title character, Korra. I didn’t put her last because she’s least awesome in any way, but because she provides a good segue into my major complaint with the show. Korra, from the beginning, is the polar opposite of Aang, the main character from The Last Airbender. She’s hotheaded, impatient, very unspiritual, and can sometimes be arrogant.

This could be a recipe for an obnoxious character, but Korra is intelligent and dedicated (though rebellious), and we get some glimpses of her inner struggle with mastering Airbending and the pressures of facing political unrest as a public figure.

The thing I love most about Korra’s character development is summed up in what Aang says to her in a vision: “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” She is strong, determined, and confident in her skills. But in the end, she faces the fracturing of her identity and goes off alone to mourn. At that point, she finally breaks through into the spiritual realm and accesses the Avatar state, and it brings her peace.

The peace is what I wanted to see as a continuing theme. Throughout the show, you get little glimpses of Korra’s internal life. Moments when she’s by herself and frustrated. So, I loved seeing her so peaceful in the Avatar state, and I wanted to see her develop as an independent character learning to live a holistic life that includes spirituality and inner peace. On her own.

Which, of course, isn’t what I got. That’s why I don’t like the fact that she got the guy in the end. I wanted to see her grow into a fully-fledged, adult Avatar who does not have a boyfriend to cuddle. Because she didn’t need one.

The future seasons of LoK will feature a full-fledged Avatar who can access the Avatar state at will as well as perform the energy-bending Aang demonstrated in his series finale. I think this is all new and exciting in terms of plot, but keeping Korra single would have given the creators an opportunity to do something new relationally. 

The writers have done so well in the past when it comes to letting characters struggle and grow, and letting Korra struggle through a bit of unrequited love and grow into a woman who doesn’t need a love interest would have given her an extra layer of depth.

Granted, getting the characters together in the first of four seasons gives them plenty of time to work on their relationship and take it to a new level. I have a lot of hope for the characters’ development in future seasons. I would like to regain respect for Mako and see Bolin grow into a man. I don’t want to see Asami disappointed, and I want to see Iroh as a man and not just a warrior. This show is full of potential. Even though I think the teenage-love drama mucked it up a bit, I still loved it dearly.

Overall, I have to admit that I love this show. Sure, the female characters are constantly forced into romantic relationships even when the show doesn’t seem to call for them, and admittedly, the obsession with happy endings is really annoying. While that approach worked for the more kid-geared Last Airbender, it comes off as weird and phony on the darker and more adult Korra. But still. Korra’s cool, Asami’s a badass, and Lin Beifong wins at everything.

I just wish they weren’t waiting for their princes to come.

Avatar Korra don't need no man.
Elizabeth is attempting to run a videoblog called Kobyzoshi on YouTube, but makes the excuse that she needs a camera to continue. In the meantime, she’s working on a novel, editing educational videos, and trying to catch up on too many TV shows.

1 comment:

  1. Korra bothered me a lot because of all of these romance plots. And it contrasts so much with the Last airbender because the male protagonist DIDN'T need to have romance not only be present but take up so much of the story. Sure there were minor romance moments, but they seem to be far more prevalent in Legend of Korra than last Airbender

    I actually was frustrated with the first half of the series because romance and the games seemed to be such a major part of it rather than any development or Korra's own path as Avatar - and why does Korra's ultimate victory have to come with getting the guy? Ang's didn't. And it's not like the epic moment she cured people's blocked bending wasn't already a powerful enough ending

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