Several weeks ago, I noticed a comment on Twitter referencing the idea that the Korra, the main character from “The Legend of Korra,” an animated show on Nickelodeon, was in a relationship with Asami, a female character from the show.
I’m not a regular viewer, but I enjoy catching it and its predecessor, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” when I have the chance, and I absolutely love the character of Korra; she’s smart, a good leader – – including in military-type contexts – – compassionate, tough, athletic, fiery, a warrior, physically and mentally strong & disciplined, and even dresses modestly! What’s not to love?! She also grows and matures, and learns to appreciate the value that can be found in even the most difficult life experiences. In short, she would make a fantastic role model for girls, especially Black girls, who don’t often find positive role models who look like them – – especially not in leading roles like that!
So, when I read that tweet, it caught my attention. The next time I had the opportunity, I caught the last few minutes of the finale. What I saw was fairly ambiguous. Sure, the hand-holding seemed rather chummy, but it wasn’t something that couldn’t just be a find gesture between two friends, especially two female friends.
So, I decided to see if I could find any other viewpoints or commentaries about the issue. It didn’t take me long to find articles revealing that the show’s creators – – Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino had confirmed that the two young women are indeed an official couple now.
When I read this, my stomach dropped. I was shocked and greatly upset that they would do this to such great characters, and I couldn’t believe they would put something like that in a show that’s rated as suitable for children.
However, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this, and the reason for that is two-fold. First of all, Korra is Black. (I do realize that there’s argument over the ethnicities of the “Avatar” and “Legend” characters, but I’m of the camp that considers Korra Black and the paler-skinned characters like Asami Sato to be Asian.)
When it comes to Black characters in movies and television, there’s almost always a catch. If they’re not relegated to a background or supporting role – – and even if they are – – there usually must be some major flaw they have that makes them unappealing, and casts Blacks as a whole in a negative light.
They may, for example, be vulgar, unintelligent, servile, childish, lecherous, cold and uncaring, promiscuous, strung out on drugs, etc.
In the case of Black men, they are typically either coarse and thuggish, or they go to the opposite extreme and are gay or effeminate.
For their part, Black women are often loud, obnoxious, don’t like or can’t get along with men, while they may be tough, they are overly masculine and are often dressed and styled in ways that make them unappealing (they may look trashy, overly masculine, or just plain tacky and devoid of any fashion sense). White women are given more leeway to be tough while still being glamorous and sexually attractive. In fact, the sexual aspect is often excessively played up with White women; they’ll wear things like tight clothes and high heels in extremely impractical situations. (Not to say this isn’t done with women of other races; the over-sexualization of women period is a huge issue in the entertainment industry. However, even that trend is sometimes set aside to make room for other negative trends, like undermining Black women.)
In the cases where Black women aren’t stripped of their femininity, they are often swung to the opposite extreme and portrayed as promiscuous, free-for-all types.
What’s more, the Black characters who are otherwise appealing are often romantically paired with characters who are White or otherwise non-Black. Seeing a Black couple to be proud of is even rarer than seeing an admirable individual.
The other reason I shouldn’t have been surprised is that society is constantly pushing the boundaries, and not in a good way. The waters are constantly being tested to see just how much people will tolerate and eventually accept, and things are moving ever-lower, morally speaking.
Not to mention the fact that children are particularly vulnerable and receptive. Think about it; children who may not have even had “the talk” with their parents yet are seeing an ending where two women end up as a couple. While I’m glad that it was subtle enough to hopefully go over their heads, subtlety can actually be a very effective technique, especially in repetition.
With their decision to make Korra and Asami either lesbians or bisexual (I’m inclined to say bisexual, since both of them have had romantic relationships with a least one male, and Korra still seems as though she’s attracted to Mako), the show’s creators have done a great disservice to their viewers, and on multiple levels.
As I said before, Korra is a fantastic character with numerous wonderful attributes…and she’s Black…and a female! What’s more, she isn’t the Black or female character who is relegated to a minor role, or has to step back in the end to let a guy – – especially a White guy – – ultimately play savior or hero. No; Korra remains the hero. This doesn’t mean she has to or does work alone; it just means that she continues to be the star, and is not overshadowed by the others. She is the Avatar…and she’s darn impressive.
(And I should mention, the series is full of strong, impressive female characters who have any number of the qualities I’m listing here – – and they are a great deal of what makes the series great, and what makes it so tragic that the creators decided to undermine the show this way. Nonetheless, for the purposes of this post, my focus is on Korra and Asami.)
In Asami’s case, we have someone who has been described as a female Bruce Wayne; she’s a successful businesswoman/inventor – – which I love; girls need role models that can inspire them to go into fields like engineering – – and also a skilled fighter.
She has a number of the same positive qualities that Korra has, including the fact that she dresses in modest, practical clothes.
I keep coming back to the clothes for several reasons. One is the lack of modesty when it comes to females on TV and in the entertainment industry as a whole. (Obviously, this is an issue with males as well, but far more so for females; far more pressure and expectation.) With female warriors, the push is even stronger; they are often dressed in what amounts to little more than a bikini with a little extra fabric thrown in.
Not to mention those high heels that women are usually shown wearing. Excessively high heels are both impractical, and downright harmful.
With Korra and Asami, girls get to see that you can be attractive and feminine without trying to show off every curve or every square inch of skin you can manage. What’s more, Korra also goes for a very natural, makeup-free look, which is an admirable thing to show and encourage in women and girls. Not that I mind Asami; her more made-up appearance at least shows that you can be into girly things like make up while still being tough, and also that things needn’t be taken to extremes. She wears makeup, but her clothing is modest and practical.
Additionally, Korra, who has long hair through much of the series, cuts it in the final season, and the end result is a look that still works and that shows girls that short hair can also look very appealing.
Both women show a wonderful balance; things like modesty and style or physical attractiveness are not mutually exclusive qualities or concepts.
Unfortunately, though, the women affirm some negative ideas even while squashing others. Korra is a Black woman or girl who is indeed attractive, appealing, and is both interested in men, and of interest to men. As I mentioned before, this often isn’t the case with Black female characters. However, she falls into the mold of not ending up with another Black character. Of course, I already figured that would be too much to hope for, and was content with the idea of her ending up with Mako, but evidently, I hadn’t lowered my expectations quite enough.
Also, both Korra and Asami perpetuate the idea that strong, powerful females are either lesbian or bisexual. As I mentioned before, White women have more leeway to be tough yet feminine – – though even they are not immune to this concept. (This brings to mind Shaw from Person of Interest, and that kiss….Technically, I don’t consider her to really be White, but I’m guessing most people probably do.)
Being strong either physically or mentally is not an exclusively male trait, and does not need to exclude femininity and heterosexuality. A woman like Korra or Asami would indeed be a demanding partner for a man to have; they wouldn’t be easily impressed or led, and it would take quite a man to be in a relationship with such powerful women. However, instead of seeing this as a negative or a threat, things like this should instead be seen as incentive for men to improve themselves. Rather than feeling threatened or intimidated by powerful or successful, well-educated women, men should simply see this a reason to “up their game,” so to speak. In fact, I think this is likely why men do have such a problem with it; it’s easier and requires less of them if their spouse doesn’t have high expectations.
The ending of “Legend of Korra” also perpetuates the idea that, if heterosexual relationships don’t work out, homosexual relationships are a viable alternative. It brings to mind a scene from “The Good Wife.” After witnessing the bloody aftermath of a shooting, the character Kalinda, who is bisexual, turned to her boyfriend for comfort. However, seeing him made her think of a male acquaintance of hers whom she had watched die that day, so she changed her mind and instead left to go spend the night with another woman. There were other ways Kalinda could’ve handled the situation, rather than being intimate with another female. (And obviously, it’s not like I’d really want her to have slept with the guy either, since she wasn’t married to him.)
Additionally, there’s also a phenomenon I’ve seen where people take relationships that could work platonically and choose to interpret things in a romantic light. In some ways, this makes sense – – the qualities that make someone a good friend can also be the qualities that would make them an appealing choice as a spouse. However, some relationships shouldn’t be carried past the limits of platonic love and affection. In a way, it’s tragic to see what could otherwise have been beautiful relationships twisted into something that crosses moral lines.
I’ll sometimes read the words of people in homosexual relationships, and many of the qualities they list that attracted them to their partner are things that would’ve been present in a regular friendship, as well. As much as I love romance and love stories, society has become overly sexualized, and that, combined with the lack of morality, is encouraging people to cross some serious lines, and it seems like people sometimes view things through a sexual lens even when they shouldn’t or needn’t.
This brings to mind another two series I’ve enjoyed watching – – “Naruto,” and its sequel, “Naruto: Shippuden.” There’s a particular character in the series by the name of Itachi. Besides being something of a prodigy, he’s an extremely noble, self-sacrificing character who suffered enormously for the sake of his village, his nation, and his little brother, Sasuke. Itachi had a deep affection for his younger sibling, whom in turn greatly admired and looked up to him. Their relationship has a very strong love-hate dynamic to it, and is one of the most compelling storylines of the series for me.
However, as with Asami and Korra, there’s a segment of the fan base who “ship” as they say, Itachi and Sasuke! These two are BLOOD BROTHERS, which makes their relationship not only homosexual, but also incestuous! Not only that, but some even argue that this fan-made relationship is actually canon. The idea that Itachi’s love for his younger brother was sexual basically turns the story from a tragic yet beautiful one into a story of a sick individual who was motivated by his sexual desires for his own brother – – his younger brother, no less! Essentially, he goes from hero to would-be molester. I suspect part of the reason people would even come up with this idea is that society has become so saturated with sex, that people feel that it’s a necessary or automatic part of close, loving, intimate relationships, even though that is not the case. Even in cases of heterosexual, non-familial relationships, sometimes people find that they truly love each other and make terrific friends, but simply cannot get along in a romantic context. (This brings to mind a lovely piece I read about the upsides of being “friend-zoned.”)
In the Legend of Korra finale, the creators missed several great opportunities and options they were presented with. They could’ve treated Korra and Asami’s relationship as a story of two women who have differences and tensions with each other – – the two were even romantic rivals for a time – – but ultimately work things out and become close friends. What’s more, it really wasn’t necessary for Korra to have ended up with anybody. Choosing a mate is nothing to be rushed through, and being overly needy is a quality that makes you more likely to make poor choices and end up in a lousy relationship. Korra is still young, and even if she wasn’t, it’s perfectly fine if she wanted or needed to continue her hiatus from romantic relationships, and continued focusing on her own growth and development until she did find the right person. (In fact, I’ve heard that one reason fans came up with the idea of Korra and Asami being a couple is that the males in the series simply haven’t been very appealing choices.) This actual could’ve been a positive message to have, especially given how teens and sometimes even preteens get into sexual relationships well before they have the maturity to handle the responsibilities and situations involved.
Additionally, from a personal perspective, I don’t even believe in romantic relationships outside of courtship and marriage, so if Korra wasn’t ready to get married – – and she probably wasn’t – – it would’ve been just fine for her to have remained single for the time being. However, because of what I mentioned earlier, regarding the lack of portrayal of successful Black couples and also the portrayal of Black women as not being able to have successful relationships with men – – especially with Black men – – I think the best choice would probably have been to have Korra end up with a Black guy (most likely a member of her tribe.) And not just any guy; one Black and other non-White boys could see themselves in, and look up to as a role model – – and a guy who actually made sense as a choice for Korra. One complaint I’ve heard about the pairing of Korra and Mako is that it seemed forced, and that it existed simply for the sake of having such a relationship but didn’t really make sense or feel natural.
Naturally, I’d prefer that Korra and this proposed character would marry or at least get engaged in the finale, for moral reasons, and also because marriage period is something that’s been underrepresented and badly portrayed in the media; I noticed some time ago that movies and TV have made fornication and adultery seem more appealing than marriage. Whether it’s the more light-hearted moments that appeal emotionally, like having a picnic together or cuddling up together to watch a movie, or the physical intimacy – – like a passionate love scene – – the positive aspects of romantic relationships seem to be much more frequently portrayed in couples that are either unmarried, or are cheating on their spouses. Marriage seems to be shown with more focus on the negative or difficult aspects, and sometimes you’ll even hear characters openly make comments that undermine marriage – – either by criticizing the institution itself, or by explicitly stating that there’s nothing wrong with two consenting adults engaging in sexual activity.
If Konietzko, DiMartino, and Nickelodeon as a whole were going to send a message with the series finale, they certainly had much better choices than the one they ultimately
made. However, one thing I can say is that even in the bad, there is often good and value to be found. I’ve made a conscious choice to try to influence individuals and society as a whole in a positive way in my creative activities. The issues I’ve outlined here just further motivate me to do so. Who knows? Maybe some of fans out there who are unhappy with the ending will be inspired to write alternate endings and storylines for Korra – – or even better, create their own original characters and series!
If you want something done right…well, you know the rest!