Progressive Legend of Korra Ends on Fantastic Queer Note
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Note: Since this was published both creators have announced that “Korrasami” is unequivocally canon. Moreover they’ve acknowledged that they could have done more and this was merely a step in the right direction. It’s fantastic stuff.

It’s only been a couple of days and already the criticism for Legend of Korra’s series finale is starting to ramp up. “It wasn’t enough,” they’re saying. “It could have been more.” Those critics are right. When Korra and Asami walked off into the bisexual sunset spirit beam perfectly mirroring the pose every major romantic couple on the show has struck it was still ambiguous. There was no confession or kiss and that’s gonna leave the moment up for debate.

And people will debate. The subtextual level queer people are forced to operate on in mainstream entertainment leaves their every gesture open for discussion. From Ben Hur to Great Gatsby to that Supernatural show. Hell, Xena used to call Gabrielle her soulmate and they kissed multiple times and viewers still crowed they were just friends.

Animated children’s shows have to be especially wary of their queer subtext. While it’s perfectly valid to condemn Rizzoli and Isles or Supernatural from shying away from the gay the story of Adventure Time’s queer episode is pretty notorious. Just hinting at something gay had Adventure Time losing a major YouTube series they produced and even jokingly mentioning something queer between Marceline and Bubblegum is still met with censure and wagging fingers. Children’s shows have a much different business model than “adult” shows and that leaves them kowtowing to advertisers and distributors more. So if the shows want to stay on air than Bubblegum and Marceline have to be “old friends,” those chicks from Sailor Moon have to be “cousins” and Sakura’s older brother and his boyfriend on Cardcaptor Sakura have to be “school chums.”

The queer text has to be so buried it goes past subtext into subterranean text.

And that makes Korra’s finale groundbreaking. This is unabashedly purposeful subtext. One day when an animated heroine pulls her girlfriend into her arms and lays a big wet one on her and we all fan ourselves and high-five over representation the old people in the audience will be able to point to Legend of Korra and say “see those two bisexual ladies holding hands and smiling? They’re that big step in American children’s entertainment.” Other gaymos have come before Korra and Asami, but they’re the watershed moment in pop culture.

But the murky status of Korrasami isn’t even the biggest feather in Legend of Korra’s progressive cap. Like Avatar before it Legend of Korra doesn’t feature a single white character. Not one. Every single person on screen is a person of color.

And there’s Asami, with the curves and sultry voice of a femme fatale. She was even supposed to be a femme fatale! Only they subverted the tropes her character was so heavily rooted in and made someone human. Someone who could be torn between her love for her (evil) father and her own sense of altruism. She was never villainized for her desires and even refused to hate Korra when they were mired in a love triangle with Mako. Time after time the show refused to slot her into the role of Korra’s romantic rival and instead developed them as friends.

Legend of Korra OH MY GOD SHOULDER TOUCH

Developed them as friends with Mako too. He’s progressive guy himself. He was a painfully calculated character designed to woo the audience (and Korra), but when he ended up being a major irritant the show didn’t cut him or double down and try to force us to root for him. They systematically deconstructed and ended every romantic entanglement he was involved in and allowed him to be a simple friend to Korra. Even Buffy, a hallmark of the “girl power” genre could never neatly end a romance as well as Makorra ended. That Mako, Korra and Asami could maintain a healthy friendship after the breakups might seem like icing on the cake, but it is actually exemplary of the show’s progressiveness. Romances don’t get to just end. Unless it’s an awards-bait cable drama romances are inevitable–friendzoning is just supposed to be a bump in the road. Particularly in children’s entertainment where it’s expected that a person’s first love is their only love. Mako’s friendzoning is representation–telling the teens and preteens watching that teenage romance isn’t the end all be all that pop culture like Twilight and Harry Potter insists it to be.

Toph Beifong is representation too–and not just because she’s blind, cranky and kick ass, but because she’s a deeply flawed individual who makes choices counter to what we idealize in our heroes. Toph has two kids by two separate men and remains unmarried and the only person upset about it is her crotchety daughter Lin, and even then it’s made clear that it has everything to do with Lin and nothing to do with society. For little kids in a single parent household Toph and her daughters are important. Parents don’t have to die to not parent and parents don’t have to stay together to raise a good kid and things don’t need to be a 2.5 kids, a dog, a house and white picket fence for kids to turn out okay. Like Toph, Aang, the virtuous lead of The Last Airbender, also loses his luster in the hindsight Legend of Korra affords. He’s a distant father with clear favorites and his efforts to bring balance and peace to the whole world create new problems–like profound classism.

The kids (that term is relative) can screw up too. Like Suyin, who spends her teens embroiled in crime before settling down to have a big wholesome family and lead a utopia on earth. Or Aang and Katara’s daughter, Kya, who spends most of her life running from the legacies of her parents. Even Tenzin, Korra’s primary mentor, isn’t a golden child as a kid. He screws up his relationship with Lin and cheats on her, but only after spending years being snobbish to his siblings because he’s the only airbender in the family.

The Legend of Korra’s progressiveness isn’t just in its queer lead. It is often in its refusal to talk down to its audience or force idealism onto them. The show crafts a deeply flawed world where there are no right answers and provides heroes who are capable of being just as hurtful and oppressive as the villains.

I’ve spent a lot of this essay talking about the way Legend of Korra tread new ground with its subversion of tropes and inclusion of non-traditional families and jerk heroes, but I still haven’t talked about Korra.

Legend of Korra BAMF AVATAR

Which is a shame, because even if she isn’t the bisexual POC butterfly heroine we all deserve she’s an incredible central hero. The Last Airbender’s Aang is easy to like. He comes from the reluctant hero mold that dominates our modern action narratives. He slowly gains power through hard work and through learning he wanted that power.

That’s the way of a reluctant hero. They have the greatness thrust upon them and the drama is in them learning to accept it.

But Korra always wanted power. She always wanted to be a hero. She even has the blueprints! She grows up on stories of Aang and Katara and Sokka and Toph and she understands the journey a hero most travel to become someone great. Korra’s journey is never about gaining power, but about learning humility and grace.

While there’s something a little problematic about the woman avatar being the one stuck with the far less popular hero’s journey there’s something kind of great about her being the one that gets to tackle the prototypical eat your heart out Joseph Campbell hero’s journey. Aang is a modern hero, but Korra is cut from the mold of Luke Skywalker. Aang is running from his destiny and Korra is racing towards it.

Aang is nearly undone by indecision, which is something anyone can empathize with and even romanticize. Korra is nearly done, time and again, by her hubris. Her faith in her own strength is so powerful that she nearly dies. It’s Korra’s final journey to heroic fulfillment that will ultimately sets her apart from other heroes.

After Korra is violently attacked at the end of season 3 in an unmistakable rape metaphor she doesn’t bounce back. She beats the bad guy and she survives, but the cost is heavy–leaving her in a wheelchair and depressed to the point of catatonia. The first half of season four is given over to Korra fighting her way back, emotionally, to the person she wants to be. That journey, and her struggle with depression and PTSD is so crucial because there’s a cost to Korra’s adventures. One rarely doled out in children’s entertainment (Hiccup losing his leg in How To Train Your Dragon is another rare example). It’s letting the “real world” trickle into a kid’s show.

And Korra isn’t “weak” because she struggles. She isn’t “broken.” She’s still, acutely, Korra and she’s still the biggest and baddest character on the show. She’s just fighting the bad guys inside of her head instead of out of it and all the while engendering optimism in her audience. While Korra’s hubris is her great weakness her optimism is her great strength. Because she is saddled with a much more realistic and flawed world than Aang ever experienced Korra has to work twice as hard to see and enact the good in others. The world Korra experiences is a prickly and cold one that fosters villains like the fascist Zuvira and anarchist Zaheer. The complexity of the world Korra must navigate makes her victories that much more potent.

Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (with no help from Nickelodeon) have set a high water mark for children’s entertainment that isn’t likely to be matched for some time. They’ve given us dysfunctional families that still love one another and guys that can be perfectly fine in the friend zone and queer women that can walk into the sunset together. And in Korra herself they’ve manufactured a groundbreaking character. A well-muscled, dark-skinned young woman who often meets her enemies with fists before words and who struggles with demons too painfully familiar to her audience. That might not be enough for some, but it is so much more than what we’ve had.