The Avatar franchise of television shows is something that I give a lot of credit to for the portrayal of strong, diverse female characters and when Legend of Korra was announced starring a teenaged female Avatar it seemed like the logical next step in the development of this world.
SPOILER: I am going to talk in some detail about events of the most recent season of Legend of Korra, if you haven’t watched it and are planning to, you might want to come back later.
Legend of Korra would probably be a lot more successful is Korra were at all likeable. This series’ Avatar should be heroic figure, rather she is consistently petulant and will willfully harm those who love her. By contrast, the Last Airbender’s leading ladies Katara and Toph (both of whom were younger than Korra), did lash out and hurt the feelings of those around them, but apologies were always offered and team Avatar was repaired by the end of the episode, allowing them to continue as a functional unit.
Legend of Korra is rife with female characters and none of them are much more functional or emotionally stable than Korra.
Let’s start with the character of Asami who represents every non-bender in a very pro-bender world, but uses her brain and financial assets in order to protect herself and present herself as an equal to the benders. To top that off: Asami is the head of Future Industries, one of the most powerful and cutting edge organizations in Republic City. Yes, that seems to be a powerful position, however it’s largely abandoned as soon as team Avatar goes out into the wide world. Asami used to be the beautiful young woman with the cool gadgets (remember the lightening gloves?), and over the course of Book 2 and Book 3 has been reduced to Mako’s girlfriend – therefore, indirectly Korra’s rival – to that girl who stands in the background an occasionally says something, which not only invalidates everything that used to define her as a character, but takes one of Legend of Korra’s leading lady and forces her to take a backseat.
Another character that at first glance appears to be of high status is Mako’s boss and chief of the Republic City Police Lin Beifong. Lin is a tough metal bender who is great at what she does, although her main function in the Legend of Korra narrative is to set up obstacles for either Korra or Mako and be the bad guy for a couple episode at a time. In the third season she goes along with team Avatar to take Tenzin’s place as the stick-in-the-mud and when they arrive in the city of Zaofu and we meet Lin’s half-sister and city leader Suyin Beifong, Lin goes from being a strong leader to a petulant emotional wreck, taking a lot of emotional beats from Korra as she stubbornly refuses to reconcile with her sister and have anything to do with her tribe of nieces and nephews.
Suyin is slightly better adjusted than her elder sister, however, she comes from the trope-y back story of having dated a petty thief, ruined her family’s reputation, harmed her sister – physically and emotionally – but, now she’s got her life together. That’s fine and probably one of the least offensive things about any of the female characters in Legend of Korra, but the thing that really hurts about Lin and Suyin is that they are daughters of Toph. Here I am going to admit that Toph is one of my two favourite characters from the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra has turned our blind bender into a hardened chief of police with no time for either of her daughters even when they themselves break the law. It baffles that the show runners have managed to take two of their strongest, most powerful female benders and render them emotionally damaged to the point of inefficiency.
Briefly, let’s touch on Kya daughter of Aang and Katara appears in season 2 and 3 of the Legend of Korra and her main function is being badly beaten by the Red Lotus operatives. During her first encounter with Zaheer he takes her out in two moves, then she stands back up and he takes her out in one, so that he can fight two non-bending male guards instead. At this point in the season Zaheer has been an airbender for approximately two weeks, by no stretch of the imagination he is an amateur. Conversely, Kya was trained Katara and Aang and, arguably, should be the most proficient waterbender in the entire world, but she is speedily incapacitated by her male adversary. In the final two episodes we see Kya once more and she gets her butt handed to her, albeit this time by Ming-Hua (the Red Lotus waterbender), who is also a lady, so I suppose that is something. Even more than Kya’s inability to stand her own against almost any foe in hand-to-hand combat we’ve hardly learned anything about her as a character. Kya’s main function in the series is to scold Bumi (who is a far more developed character), and babysit the new airbenders – thereby, relegating her to the traditional female roles of babysitter and mother.
That, however, is nothing compared to the problem with Korra herself. Yes, she’s a teenager. Yes, sometimes teenagers are horrible and rash and make bad decisions (I was a teenage girl once and I certainly did), but no matter what Korra never emotionally develops beyond the point of stamping her foot, shouting at someone and ignoring their advice, which inevitably leads her into mortal peril. That being said, in the season finales Korra usually puts aside the attitude and pulls out something incredible – and it should also be noted that she is the youngest Avatar to have mastered all four elements and moved onto some of the more complex forms of bending (for example: this season we watched her learn to metalbend). The aforementioned big-bad of this series is an anarchist named Zaheer who is suddenly granted airbending following Harmonic Convergence. Events come to head when Korra and Zaheer fight it out and this man who has no formal training as a bender of any sort spends almost ten minutes kicking the life out of Korra. She is helpless almost from the beginning of the fight and about to lose her life when everyone else effectively rushes in to help her. Perhaps this near-defeat wouldn’t have been as offensive if Korra hadn’t spent the entire series being capture and not using metalbending to get herself out of jail or going into the Avatar state – her most powerful form – in order to escape shackles. Legend of Korra has a disturbing and pervasive undercurrent of THE GIRL AVATAR CAN’T MAKE IT ON HER OWN. As I recall from the Last Airbender, Aang certainly could not have made it alone, but when he entered the Avatar state he was nye on unstoppable.
It’s frustrating as a female viewer that this show set against an incredible world seemed to be offered us a very feminist equivalent and it has played out as just another girls-aren’t-as-good-as-boys adventure tale.