female representation and female character arcs in legend of korra
There was some quote with Bryke talking about how they don’t think there’s anything revolutionary about how there’s all these strong female characters in Avatar, and while that would irritate me by itself, (some dude talking about strong female characters not being revolutionary is being disingenuous at best), after Korra it drives me up a wall. Because Legend of Korra is a wonderful example of how Bryke, by themselves, don’t have a fucking clue of what to do with their lady characters, as evidenced by their casual neglect in the narrative. Look at the main three:
Lin BeiFong: Head Chief of the metalbending police, but where I thought her place in the story would be to provide an adult ‘adversary’ and teacher to Korra, to put her out of her comfort zone and have her learn that her actions have repercussions, Lin’s plot arc was instead entirely tied up with Tenzin’s. She was his ex-lover, he broke up with her because they had different ‘life goals’ (he wanted kids, she didn’t,) she didn’t really get over it up until the end of the series, and her ‘arc’, instead of being centered on Korra and the turmoil in the city, instead is much more about her coming to grips about her relationship/past with Tenzin.
Eventually, she sacrifices herself to save the embodiment of what ended her relationship: the Air babies and Pema. It was a wonderful, brave, touching scene. And they negated it utterly for a couple minutes of tension to have the Air family tied up in front of a cheering crowd and then quickly have them escape. After her bending was taken away, she was not seen from again until the end of the series, further adding to the problematic theme in this show that losing your bending makes you worthless to the story.
Asami Sato: Asami is introduced as a love interest for Mako and the daughter of rich guy Hiroshi Sato who will quickly stab our protagonists in the back. Arguably her only point in the storyline is to serve as a third wheel in an overwrought love triangle that causes both our main characters to be shown in a bad light. She is a walking mess of lost potential. That said, her story arc is also a mess, torn between serving as Mako’s girlfriend (read: roadblock to Korra’s life love) and a daughter who has lost her father to vengeance and a cause she doesn’t believe is right.
I say that it’s a mess because the former role of Asami as girlfriend is, at first, played with her going through the motions: kissing him, sharing pet names, but no real emotional connection between the two characters can be seen. It’s an empty relationship and we’re left wondering why he even meant so much to her to begin with.
Also, her role as girlfriend is subverted by the narrative because we very seldom see anything in her perspective and often, it seems as though the show even forgets that Asami should be important in the lives of these friends. It seems as though the show forgets what Asami has gone through and consequently, so do the characters: we never see them comforting Asami and making her feel at home with them, stressing that friends are the family you make. She claims friendship with Korra, but speaks with her very rarely and only once alone. She speaks with Bolin only to ask about Mako. Her place in the group, then, is constant outsider: she always seems alienated, kept to herself, and off to the side. Korra doesn’t even mention her feelings or seem concerned about how she would feel when Mako starts making his moves on her, and this is odd particularly because she was the one who pointed out Asami’s need to depend on Mako for a while.
Her role as a betrayed daughter is also poorly done, because we aren’t given details about happier times in Asami’s life. She broods about her father through randomly dropped phrases, (saying ‘time to fight my father), but we don’t get moments of introspection and indecision, moments where she hates him but is desperate to save him, or much of anything but an underlying sense of resentment. Look at Zuko’s relationship with Ozai: we could see how complicated it was, even with a single episode. (Zuko Alone.) Asami’s most interesting character motivation is practically glossed over to make time for her place as romantic rival to Korra and the mistreated girlfriend to Mako.
When we end the series, Asami has lost her boyfriend after being treated poorly by him, (we still didn’t get an onscreen break-up) and was betrayed by her father after being attacked and almost murdered by him. That’s how they end her character arc. She’s left with nothing except for possibly Bolin-the-symbol-of-friendship, but it rings hollow after her place in the group was so poorly written.
Korra: This really is inexusable, because after all the previous series did to flesh out and explain what the Avatar is and is supposed to be, they center the majority of Korra’s story arc on her romance with Mako. They dedicate episodes to it, to the point I feel like this story is really: Korra and How She Found Love in Republic City (oh yeah some revolution happened too.) Even her final showdown with the big bad was framed through a romantic lens: Mako accompanying her so they can share shippy moments together when really Korra needs to learn to stand on her own two feet as the Avatar and face him down alone. (Goddamn, Aang faced the Fire Lord alone at twelve.) They waste so much precious time with Korra figuring out her burgeoning feelings of love for Mako where they could have her learning important lessons about airbending, spirituality, and the situation with nonbenders and benders in Republic City.
And it really is all tied up with her gender. Flip the main characters and pretend that Mako is the Avatar, Korra is the pro-bender with a past. Can you picture that they would honestly painstakingly devote so much time to his romantic life, have him discussing it with the kids and Pema, have him focusing on his feelings for Korra instead of preparing to face his arch-nemesis, Amon? No. We’ve seen these shows, we know the genre, we know how it works. To many, female protagonist = romance plot, even when it sabotages her storyline, undermines her autonomy, and stymies her growth as a character.
We are left with a Korra who has the same flaws, same weaknesses, same poor ideas as the Korra we started with. Her perspective towards nonbender issues hasn’t changed, her reckless and hotheaded way of stumbling into problems hasn’t changed, and more troublingly: her way of self-identifying solely as a bender of all four elements and only therefore the Avatar has not changed. She is a stagnant character who has learned nothing. But she has her man, so I suppose that’s counted as a victory? No personal growth, no spiritual reassessment, and she didn’t even really defeat the antagonist or gain a greater understanding of why the turmoil in the city is how it is. Her sole accomplishment is landing the love of her life. Disappointing.
That’s not even going into the lack of mothers and maternal influence in this story. In ATLA, mothers had great impactive power over their children’s lives, as evidenced by Ursa and Kya. In LoK, they are passive figures who can not affect the lives of their children. Or the lack of female characters in general: just look at the cast of this show.
Everything I loved about female representation in ATLA has been turned on its head in LoK. There is no good reason for this.