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Korra and Wan, the first Avatar

Last year, Lady Business presented Ana and Jodie's co-review of series one of The Legend of Korra, which sits somewhere between a sequel to and a spin-off from 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'. It's fair to say that as feminists invested in media and huge Avatar fans, we both had a lot of feels about this program and a lot of dreams for series two. Join us as we talk about how the second series played out and whether flying bunnies can soothe a riled critic.

Jodie: Ok, so I feel like we have A LOT to get through in this post. You correctly predicted that I have many emotions about this series, especially related to the use of secondary female characters this series and they are all bashing against each other. Where shall we start?

Ana: YES, SO MUCH TO SAY. I think we might want to begin at the beginning and address all our dashed hopes for the second season. As you and our readers might remember, the last time we discussed The Legend of Korra I was still clinging to some hope that the incredibly rushed and frankly bizarre ending of Book One wasn't the last we'd see of the Equalists plot; and also that the the writers would eventually get around to acknowledging the fact that the non-benders in Korra's universe had perfectly legitimate grievances and valid points to make about inequality and weren't just blindly following someone who could easily be dismissed because, you know, evil arc-villain.

Let us pause for a moment and weep for what might have been.

*passes tissues*

There.

The first episode of Book Two was all it took for me to see that a return to previous plotlines wasn't in the cards. It's pretty clear by now that one of the main ways in which The Legend of Korra differs from Avatar is that this spin-off isn't out to tell a single cohesive story. Each season is meant to be mostly self-contained; if you consider the fact that the seasons are also shorter, there isn't much scope for the kind of detailed storytelling we saw in Avatar. I really think that the way in which this determines the series' pace is one of its greatest weaknesses.

To be clear, though, once I resigned myself to what the writers were doing and accepted that season one was over and done with, it didn't take me long at all to warm up to Book Two. In fact, with the exception of some big BUTs (which we'll discuss in time, I'm sure), I enjoyed "Spirits" more than I did "Air". The overall story arc for the season certainly appealed to me more, and I think it was better executed too.

Jodie: See, I liked "Spirits" more than "Air" for the same reason , but I also felt like it lacked a lot of the joy and character connection of the first series. In this series "Team Avatar" spends a lot of time apart and the teenage characters are often distanced from each other or fighting. I didn't think I'd taken to them as a group quite so much in the first series but I actually missed their bond this series. It wasn't until we got to see more of Tenzin and his family that I felt any real heart being pumped into the story.

I was especially disappointed that - let's just jump right in here with no regrets - Asami wasn't a bigger part of the story. It was like the writers had no idea what to do with her this series. Occasionally she would pop up and we would be reminded that she had business troubles, but her appearances felt so infrequent and I missed her a bunch. I know we have other underutilised ladies (Lin Beifong) and fucked over female characters (Eska) to discuss but can we start with Asami?

Ana: Yes we can! I wanted MOAR Asami too — so much more. She continues to be one of my favourite characters, and I really wish she had been more central to the plot this season. And the main reason why this breaks my heart is that there's still so much I adore about the way she's portrayed (all the hearts for this post about how Asami subverts expectations forever).

Asami and Bolin approach Korra


So my sadness goes hand in hand with a certain… protectiveness, I guess? Not of the creative team behind Korra, but of Asami herself. I'm definitely happy to talk about the ways in which the writers dropped the ball by sidelining a great female character like Asami, but if possible I want to do so without flattening out her complexity and humanity. The more I examine my conflicted feelings, the more I'm reminded of Renay's essay on Alaska Young (and it was only as I went back to it now that I realised we were both set off by spotting the same word, "prop", in online commentary). Renay says:
I think it's useful to critique authors and hold them accountable for weak writing, shallow characterizations, and failure to render particular characters thoroughly. However, I especially believe we should always critique with a nod to the humanity those characters can come to possess once we meet them. It's worth that serious examination in today's culture and environment that is hyper-focused on these issues of representation, especially for girls, to do so in an even-handed, thorough manner for everyone.

I think this sums up my feelings pretty well. I definitely want to ask for more, but I'll do so while continuing to unapologetically shout about how much I love Asami.

With that out of the way, here's something that made me super sad: remember how we talked about how glad we were that the situation with Korra, Mako and Asami was handled so well last season, with no one being villainized and the narrative acknowledging that feelings change and people break-up and that's life? I wish they hadn't tried to stir things up this season for what it felt like cheap dramatic shots. Asami deserved so much better. It seemed that at least she and Korra continued to be friends, but I don't know if that's the story acknowledging that they both know the other isn't to blame for Mako's lack of honest communication, or if it's just that they got so little screentime together that you wouldn't notice if there was a riff.

Jodie: I know exactly what you mean - the Asami/Mako kiss seemed like such cheap drama as did way the romantic storyline between Korra and Mako ran aground so quickly. It's a shame because there are a lot of deep and interesting romantic points included in their relationship - difficult communication; misdirected anger; friendship. By the time the quite complex end to their relationship is revealed there's too much dramz in the way obscuring the true to life emotional aspect. I think that the creators got in their own way a lot this series. They seemed to feel like simple storylines, emotions and plot plainly rendered weren't enough to keep audiences interested.

I personally feel like Korra and Asami's relationship has always been kind of sidelined. In the first series it was brought more to the front in order to make a point about how girls can be friends, and after that I didn't mind so much that they didn't really form much of a relationship. The politics of that encounter kind of carried me past any failure on friendship follow through. However, their relationship served no adorable, subversive point making this series and so the lack of Asami and Korra screen time bugged me more. As you say, there are some complex feels that need to be worked out between them! Perfect job for fan-fic but I WANT IT IN CANON TOO. Without a little canon confirmation of how they relate the door will always be open for people to claim Korra and Asami are set up against each other. Maybe they'll talk about the whole situation in series three, but hey look how our future predictions turned out last time!

Ana: Ha, yes — no more risking heartbreak via future predictions! And yeah, I agree that a big problem with the series is that it tries to cram too much in. The shorter seasons wouldn't be anywhere near as much of a problem if they focused on more straightforward (though not necessarily less emotionally complex) storylines. All the dramz was unnecessary — I wish we could have had Korra and Asami going on this series' version of the life-changing trip with Zuko instead.

Speaking of heartbreak, and continuing with our theme of ladies who deserved better, my cries of joy when I realised that ZOMG APRIL WAS IN KORRA soon turned to absolute dismay when Eska's plot progressed and I realised that yeah, the writers were actually going to go there. I suspect you have a lot of Eska feels of your own - want to get us started?

Eska and Bolin


Jodie: I don't really know what to say except that EVERYTHING WAS WRONG! I actually have a personal fondness for romance plots where men fall in love with women who initially kind of scare them. It hits a lot of my buttons - powerful women, reversed power dynamics, women who aren't traditional love interests...

Tangent - what I'm interested in is very different from romance plots where the woman softens and that causes the man to fall in love with her. If I'm getting a 'downfall = straight romance' plot the guy better be the one learning lessons.

Anyway, even though Eska quickly becomes this scary figure in Bo Lin's life and her deadpan control was played for laughs I still had *dreams* of getting my own personal happy times on later in the show. Bo Lin is the one who first approaches Eska, so I thought maybe after a period of concern and hiding the show would bring him around to confront his own part in starting this relationship. Perhaps there would be honest conversations!

We have got to stop having dreams for this show, Ana.

Once we hit the mascara tears chase scene I was done with this show's treatment of Eska. They made her really out of control (oh hey my Azula feels, who knew you were still around?). Her strong emotion was played for laughs, which just feels way different to me than the comedy around her severe personality, or her deadpan use of her pet names. This more like haha, girls lose all sense when it comes to boys. Lolz. Yeah, 's a funny joke man, but I think I've heard it somewhere before. And of course once I saw that kind of comedy used it changed the way I saw everything that had gone before - the jokes surrounding her control of Bo Lin have a less affectionate vibe and instead feel like serious use of the controlling woman/emasculated man trope.

Then they pulled out a girl hate line about how The Avatar stole her husband. OK.

The only part of this romance plot that I did like was the eventual resolution of Bo Lin and Eska's big kiss. Sometimes you do get swept up in the moment and a kiss isn't the beginning of a lasting romance. I actually still think this program does a good job overall of expanding the range of 'end moments' in media; Mako and Korra's final breakup is respectful, and they want to stay friends which is unusual to see in mainstream romance plots.

I still really hated what they did with Eska in general in the romance storyline though (although I thought her other big storyline about her relationship with her brother and father was interesting).

Ok, I want to hear all your feelings about this one because I feel like we are having shared "Parks and Recreation" based disappointment here.

Ana: I completely agree that the series is actually good at portraying the ending of relationships in a nuanced and complex manner — which is part of why it hits me so hard when they get other things so spectacularly wrong.

As much as I did like that final scene with Eska and Bolin, I was just so put off by the whole female stalker played for laughs storyline. Let me see if I can explain why I think Eska's gender is important here. I know there's no shortage of mainstream media out there that defangs situations where men harass women and presents them as comedy material (for example, here's an excellent piece by Genevive Valentine about how Brooklyn Nine Nine does this); these stories are awful and prime examples of rape culture at work, much in the same way Eska and Bolin's story is. Repeat after me, kids: disrespecting people's boundaries and disregarding consent is really, really not funny.

What happens when the stalker is female and the person being staked is male, though? One obvious consequence is the fact that the wider social dynamics at work are not the same. It's still a situation of harassment that absolutely needs to be taken seriously, but because women don't have social power over men in the same way men have power over women, the power dynamics and the social perception of the situation are both different (any dreams I might have that the series would address this went down the drain pretty quickly). I think a further consequence of the gender flip (and one Korra is absolutely guilty of) is that the female stalker might be perceived as too pathetic to be a real threat. This is how Eska is primarily portrayed: as obsessed and crazed in a way that merits pity, which is not only classic misogyny but also another side of the same old awful rape culture coin. When men act as stalkers, the threat isn't taken seriously because hey, that's just how male sexuality works and "boys will be boys"; when women act as stalkers (and, to a much smaller extent, men who fall outside of hegemonic masculinity, like Boyle in Brooklyn Nine-Nine), the threat isn't taken seriously because they're deemed too pathetic to merit attention — which in addition to being icky in its own right, conveys all sorts of messed up ideas about who gets to be the subject and the object of desire.

To make matters worse, the writers have, apparently with no sense of irony whatsoever, placed Bolin in a situation in which he's the harasser in the very same season. Bolin pursues Ginger, the actress who plays the female romantic lead in the "Nuktuk, hero of the South" films where he stars, and doesn't take no for an answer. I wouldn't necessarily have a problem with Bolin initially failing to spot that he was making Ginger uncomfortable in much the same way Eska made him uncomfortable — characters get to be wrong, after all, and it's not like this is an impossible blind spot for someone to have. In fact, initially I thought this was where the series was going, especially as some of Ginger's rebukes were pretty awesome. But then there's the awful, awful, awful finale: Ginger sees Bolin act like a hero and look and behold, suddenly she's into him, which vindicates his creepy persistency and shows that any hint of self-awareness I thought I spotted in this storyline was wholly in my imagination. There are NOT ENOUGH SOBS IN THE WORLD.

Leslie Knope says Everything hurts and I'm dying


Jodie: Agreed - tears forever.

I actually got a slightly different read off Ginger's sudden interest in Bo Lin. To me it looked like she was swooping in on him because he had the spotlight and the potential to push her star higher through association. Either way though, Bo Lin gets to be inappropriate and end up with Ginger's arms around him without learning anything along the way. There are just so many missed opportunities in this series. Maybe we should remind ourselves of what we did like before we both end up going under! What was your favourite thing about this series?

Wan, the first Avatar, bends the four elements


Ana: I think that's an excellent idea.

It's hard to pick a single favourite aspect of the series, but I'll start by mentioning two things I loved and that I have a feeling you might want to talk about as well. First of all, I loved that we got to dig deeper into the Avatar mythos with the "Beginnings" episodes, as well as with everything that happened after that. The backstory they came up with not only fit into the overall narrative arc of the series, but it also made sense in the context of Avatar episodes such as "The Spirit World". Besides, I loved the animation style for "Beginnings", and it was just so much fun to get to know the very first Avatar.

Secondly, I really enjoyed the subplot involving Tenzin and his siblings and children (especially Jinora, on whom much more later!). As much as I love Korra as a character, I have to admit that it was this subplot rather than her story that truly kept me hooked this season. Like you said earlier on, Tenzin's story had heart in a way that was very reminiscent of Avatar, with personal challenges and interpersonal relationships at the forefront of everything that was happening. Feel free to talk more about this yourself, as well as about any other aspect of the series you enjoyed!

Tenzin and his siblings, Kya and Bumi


Jodie: I loved this element of the series too. I didn't think I would; in fact when the series split Korra and Tenzin I was dead against it. There's almost nothing I like more about the first series than Korra and Tenzin's fraught partnership (apart from Lin Beifong). I just think that when they disagree they bring up so many interesting angles on different issues. I also really liked watching as their understanding of each other grows throughout the first series. Media allows audiences to understand other perspectives and I think its always interesting to see characters reflect that kind of empathetic journey.

However, I ended up getting a lot out of the program's decision to explore Tenzin's life away from Korra. Like you, one of my favorite parts of Tenzin's subplot was seeing his relationship with his siblings and learning a little about their family history. The way the three of them interacted often reminded me of Katara and Soka's relationship. They're so affectionate, but there are issues underneath the surface too. Each of them has their own family "role" that has been solidified over the years. Throughout the series they all try to break out of those roles, in order to get their family to see them more clearly, but they also have to work out which parts of those roles are true to themselves. I felt like I was watching real people, especially when the focus was turned on Tenzin. Seeing self styled role model Tenzin deal with failure was one of my favourite parts of the whole series because, like you say, it added a lot of heart in to the show.

I also loved, loved seeing more of Tenzin's relationship with his kids. Jinora!!! In series one I thought his kids were ok, but I wasn't really that invested in them unless they were interacting with Korra. This series they really came into their own.

Korra and Jinora prepare to enter the Spirit World


Ana: They really did, and like you I loved how with both sets of sibling relationships the series explores not only the companionship and warm fuzzy feelings, but also the more complicated emotions, like people occasionally feeling sidelined and resentful and hurt. And Jinora! It was so nice to see another girl come into her power, especially considering all the problems we described above with how this seasons handles its female characters. When it was revealed that Jinora had an affinity with spirits and was going to guide Korra into the Spirit World, and especially when Korra came back but Jinora stayed trapped, I was terrified -- terrified -- that she was going to become another Princess Yue and Die For the Greater Good. There's just something about the series' track record and the situation's potential for easy pathos that led me to expect the worst. But what do you know, for once my fears weren't confirmed :D It was amazing to see how resourceful they made Jinora, and I cheered out loud when she returned to her family safe and sound. Girls do get to save the world without becoming sacrificial maidens in the process!

Jodie: Also, they get fuzzy dragonfly bunny spirits:

a green dragonfly bunny spirit sits on top of Jinora's head


and spend time with the littlest sky bison:

tiny sky bison sit around a table


Not gonna lie - the girl's time with the creatures provided some of my favourite on screen moments. I would have killed for a magical creature like that when I was little. I probably have more restraint now >.>

Seriously though, I loved everything about Jinora's storyline in this series, and the ramifications of her storyline for her father. This might be mean, but I really enjoyed seeing Tenzin struggle with rejection and his limitations this series. It was so interesting to see a guy who is a sensational trainer and politician also deal with the things he can't do. I think that's been the major theme of his story this series - his desire to be perfect because of who his father was and his growing realisation that he can just be a brilliant person on his own terms without failing his dad. I also adored the way the siblings corrected his view of A'ang as a perfect dad. I'm a huge A'ang fan, but Avatar was never afraid to show that A'ang had partialities or that he made mistakes and I loved seeing that carried over into "The Legend of Korra".

The only thing I really, really wish they'd done is directly addressed what I see as Tenzin's desperate need to singlehandedly breed a new air bender tribe. How does Pema feel about that? Have they ever talked about it explicitly? Have his kids picked up on the fact that their dad needs them to be committed to bending? How does all of this affect their relationships? Basically, I'd like another show in the future where Tenzin's kids talk to each other about him. And I'd like more of Pema - she's such an underused character. Which I think brings us on to mothers in this show in general. I think you have some feels about this so have at it!

Meelo and his winged lemur Poki


Ana: Yep, I do. Some of it has to do with Pema, and you've pretty much covered it. She occupies a very traditional role within the series, and while I do want my media to also include women who do stereotypically feminine things, I need for there to be an exploration of what those roles feel like from their perspective, you know? Knowing that Pema is raising a new generation of air benders doesn't actually tells us anything about her as an individual, and the series seems to assume that it does. It's like they use "mother and wife" as shorthand for her entire personality, and I know I don't need to get into why that doesn't work.

Pema is only one of several reasons why I think mothers exemplify Korra's issues with how women are represented. Asami's mother has been dead since before the start of season one (and we've covered dead and/or bad mothers before); while Korra's mother, Senna, is really sidelined in comparison to Tonraq. Although initially both of Korra's parents are arrested by Unalaq, it's Tonraq's fate that turns out to be the main source of tension and the focus point of Korra's concerns. Again, I want to reinforce that I do want to see stories about women who don't particularly want to be out there plotting the revolution (or who can't because of an unfair division of labour at home and of family responsibilities, though in that case I'd hope the story would be partially about that), but the way Senna ends up at home, crying with worry about her husband, seems to be used by the series to signal her unimportance. If they had done the same but had given Senna subplots of her own it would have been another story altogether.

This might be a good time for me to say that going over the many aspects of Korra that made me frown reminded me of a discussion we had with Amy a long time ago, about how media with immediate feminist appeal is often scrutinised more closely, possibly because its core audience has higher standards. Obviously I don't think this is a bad thing — we should have high standards, we should keep asking for more, and we should talk openly about all the ways in which series like Korra could do better. But as you said all those years ago, those discussions are more productive when we ensure that series dominated by white men are not getting a free pass, and it's important for me to make it clear that my criticism of Korra goes hand in hand with a deep appreciation for the existence of a series with a woman of colour at its centre that gave us characters like Korra herself, Asami, Kya, Jinora or Lin Beifong. This is probably pretty obvious, but: I love Korra, I was sometimes tremendously disappointed in Korra, I care about articulating this disappointment and raging about Eska and etc with you, none of this means I think everyone should give up on this series and go watch True Detective instead, and all of these feelings exist at the same time.

Kya, Jinora and Korra


Jodie: I read a related article Racialicious just after we had that discussion. The Racialicious piece deals more with how critics talk about a lack of diversity in female run/focused shows. However, one of their arguments was that female critics dig into female orientated shows because they really, really care about them. I felt that kind of tied in with a piece by Mia McKenzie called "On Defending Beyonce: Black Feminists, White Feminist & the Line in the Sand" about how black female critics can both support and critique Beyonce (unfortunately a full version doesn't appear to be available on line any more).

As a white female critic I would never want to say our criticism is exactly like the forms of criticism these articles describe, and I think it's important for us to keep the intersectional issues of critiquing "The Legend of Korra" in sight. Still, like you, I think there's negative stuff in the second series that we felt it was important to examine and I don't think there's ultimately any problem with that. And if we mess up while critiquing then it's fine for people to point that out.

I think another important thing to say is that we would not have watched two series of "The Legend of Korra" (and be planning to watch a third) if we didn't have great affection for many aspects of it. We work full time jobs so we prioritize our media and I think we're pretty quick to cut stuff we can't muster any interest in. Which is to say, if anyone out there thinks this long critical discussion isn't also an 'it's complicated but I rec it' post I think it totally is.

Ana: Well put.

To return to aspects of the series we have a lot of affection for, didn't you just love how this season handled Korra's temporary loss of her powers? When we discussed the abrupt ending of the first season, you pointed out that although it was frustrating that the writers kept backtracking instead of following their storylines to their final consequences, taking Korra's bending away would have had troubling implications in terms of how powerful women are generally represented. I can see that, which is why it was so great to see that for once we needn't have worried. Korra losing her connection to Raava did not equal Korra being disempowered: even without her powers, Korra still had herself, and it turns out that she's a force to be reckoned with. I was reminded of Buffy's classic moment "No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away and what's left?” / “Me” — so resonant, so satisfying, and such a powerful piece of storytelling.

Jodie: That was so great. And I really liked how the storyline surrounding Korra's Avatar status ended this time around. It was well balanced between keeping Korra empowered and allowing her to be a character who loses things. And the storytelling surrounding these two elements flowed much more naturally. It didn't feel like an attempt to write the ending of series one again - the storytelling in this ending felt too distinct for that - but I think it does show that the team's way of creating Korra stories has developed from the first serie. I enjoyed it anyway.

I'm also excited to see what the next series will bring now the link with past Avatars has been broken. I know all our hopes for series two were dashed, but I wonder if series three might have something about re-establishing that connection and the adventures necessary to do so. I'm so looking forward to series three now the trailer's been released:



Mostly I just hope for more Lin Beifong! Spin off crime-fantasy show about Lin Beifong is one of my many dreams.

Ana: Yes! It made me so sad that she was so underused this season. Also, I find it really hard to believe that the Lin Beifong we grew to know and love last season would have been so completely fooled by her sneaky, incompetent officers and wouldn't have smelled a rat when Mako was incriminated. Talk about the writers selling a character short.

At the risk of having my heart broken again, here are some hopes and dreams for season 3: that they don't backtrack and that the events of the series finale do lead to some real changes in the balance of the world; lots of Korra and Asami hanging out time; cool new ladies; more episodes like "Beginnings" that add depth to the mythology of the Avatar/Korra universe; lots of Jinora and Tenzin; adorable critters like Poki and the flying bunnies; and last but not least, ZUKO, ZUKO, ZUKO. I seriously can't tell you how excited I am by that two seconds appearances in the S3 trailer. Getting Iroh cameos in S2 was enough to give me some serious feels, so imagine this.

Hopefully it won't be much longer now until we find out what S3 has in store for us!

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