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.

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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.

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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.

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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.Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 12.53.06 PM

 

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.

The Author

Ashley Victoria Robinson

Ashley Victoria Robinson

Ashley Victoria Robinson is a Canadian girl by day and Robin by night. She lives in Los Angeles now and stars as Ensign Williams in THE RED SHIRT DIARIES, co-hosts the GEEK HISTORY LESSON podcast and writes for Top Cow.

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13 Comments

  1. c.norman
    August 29, 2014 at 4:08 pm — Reply

    You…you make some good points.

    I too felt like it was odd that Korra’s avatar form was so weak against Zaheer. I suppose the idea is that the venom is weakening her somehow, but it’s not really explained.

    I felt like that was why she seemed so depressed at the end. She was powerless against Zaheer, someone she should have been able to handle, considering that Amon and what’s-his-face from Season 2 seemed like more powerful foes.

    I feel like they aren’t really sure what they are trying to do with this series and it shows.

    -c

  2. Cody
    August 29, 2014 at 5:32 pm — Reply

    I would check out ign’s chat with the creators about Zaheer doesn’t excuse that it should gavel been better explained in the show but the short version is Zaheer is a master martial artist so air bending is like handing him a sword.
    Don’t agree with thegirls-aren’t-as-good-as-boys adventure tale since we saw the boys all get beaten by various enemies in this series.
    I expect the reason Korra didn’t metal bend or avatar state out of the shackles was to give Asami her moment but I do agree that Asami is not used to full effect.
    I like that they have emotional challenges and at least Lin overcome hers. Agree about Toph though.

  3. Will
    August 29, 2014 at 5:39 pm — Reply

    These are valid points being made about the female characters. Some of the issues, I’d say are caused by the introduction of so many characters into the universe. There are the main characters of Team Korra and then there are the introductions of past favorites like Zuko and Toph. This diminished the roles of females like Asami and Kya.

    However, I do find issue in Toph’s actions. How Toph reacts to Suyin’s crimes shows a lack of maturity for a parent and the head of police. This immaturity simply be a reference to her rebellious nature in the original series.
    As for Korra, herself, yes she is rash and loud, but she has also shown signs of maturing. She is willing to follow her elder’s advice and she has shown that she is willing to sacrifice herself to save an entire nation. I don’t know if you consider sacrificing yourself an attribute of weakness or selflessness, but I find it an honorable act. As for Korra’s us of the avatar state, I believe that she felt it was overused at points. There are consequences to fighting in that state, it’s not simply going to be a guaranteed victory. Her reliance on it, i thought, was a reason she lost all of her past lives.
    And we can’t talk about female characters without talking about Janora. She was definitely the strongest female character in this season. She took charge when times of need. She saves Korra and grows to become the leader of an entire nation. She is an example of a woman who can stand her own without the aid of her father or even the Avatar.
    I don’t know if what I said was right or if I was just using personal biases to make an argument, but I do feel that there are moments of both flaws and strengths for female characters.

    • September 4, 2014 at 4:39 pm — Reply

      I think you make a really salient point bringing up Janora and I hope that in the coming final season she is really able to help Korra grow into an amazing Avatar (it would be fun to see a child take on the teacher role), and for her to become more than a tertiary character in her own right.

  4. Mark
    August 29, 2014 at 7:01 pm — Reply

    I’d agree with most comments, especially on Korras character, save for the comments regarding Zaheer. As it’s been stated above, he’s slated as a master martial artist, as well as having nearly fifteen years of solitude to meditate (A major aspect of air bending) and we were constantly, constantly reminded that he was a scholar of air bending at every turn, not one episode went by that he was in that didn’t in some way mention or elude to this.

    Honestly my biggest personal gripe with this season was the finally its self. The writters spent the entire season developing characters, not telling us what the goal of the Red Lotus was, sloooowly spooling out information and allowing us to make predictions and hypothesis and in the end all they wanted was the same exact thing the last two villains did, and they went about it in similar ways. The entire season could have been so much better and offered serious chances for character development of Korra and the people around her had it not been so incredibly black and white as to what was going on! A protagonist is, after all, is only as good as their antagonist, and this group came off as being complex and deep right up until the final act :/

    • September 4, 2014 at 4:40 pm — Reply

      I really felt this season had about 4 plots when it only needed two. It also bothered me that Tenzin always gets hit butt handed too him even though he was trained by Aang and should be the greatest airbender alive.

  5. Shush
    August 30, 2014 at 1:45 pm — Reply

    My belief is that most of the problems with The Legend of Korra could be solved with resolving it’s pacing issues.

    The Last Airbender spent far far more time on simple character development, going from place to place, and the random adventures that popped up. It’s seasons were also twice as long, so it had the time to spend.

    Comparatively, The Legend of Korra feels very rushed with it’s pacing; racing ahead to get to the conclusion. Take Asami’s introduction for example. We see her for the first time, she gets another short scene with Mako and at the end of the episode she’s Mako girlfriend. That is [i]very[/i] fast. Normally something like that would be unfolded over two or three episodes. Or at least given the episode’s emphasis!

    The characters in The Legend of Korra are given too much to do in too short an amount of time. Bolin has to be comedy relief before anything else, because he doesn’t have the time to explore what he really wants until the next season. Tenzin isn’t allowed enough episodes to show him as both patient [i]and[/i] stressed and pressured at the same time. I could probably go on and list an example for each character.

    Strangely enough, it seems that the main antagonists get the most character developement.

    Despite all that, I still like the show.

  6. Zack Linly
    August 30, 2014 at 5:20 pm — Reply

    Yeah sorry, I just don’t agree with any of this. First, it was stated over and over that Zaheer was an expert on the air nomads and their culture. And it’s stated in the 2nd or 3rd episode that no one can take on any of the 4 red lotis members one on one (and that was their reputation before Zaheer could air bend). So he was a formidable warrior… this was known. (I suppose I can agree Kya shouldve been a stronger match considering who’s daughter she was, but eh)

    I don’t see how Asami is reduced down to being Mako ‘ s girlfriend in the 2nd and 3rd book when they broke up in the 1st book. She was never really a heavily focused on character, however, in this last season she’s been side by side with Kora on several episodes…. so I don’t understand your issue there.

    And you’re offended that Lin Beifong had a little emotional baggage (which took all of 3 episodes to address and resolve)? Yeah that seems a little mundane as far as complaints go. And Toff may not seem to be the best mother but that hardly takes away from her strength as a character ( she’s also my favorite). Toff is all about shirking traditional female roles and given her issues with her own parents it makes sense.

    Why no mention of Janora? Maybe because she doesn’t fit the narrative you’re pushing?

    I don’t think Kora is unlikable at all (I mean, obviously you don’t like her but…). I can’t think of any time she hurt anyone she loves and didn’t apologize… and you didn’t give any examples so I don’t know how to address that. As far as her attitude, she is a teenager and she does pull it together when she needs to. Ang was also, throughout the series, a prissy little immature boy until he needed to be strong and assertive. I don’t see how Kora is all that different. And as far as her fight with Zaheer, 1. she was poisoned 2. Zaheer spent half that fight running from her 3. She still, for the most part, defeated him on her own, the others only helped to contain him while she was… you know… dying from the poison inside her. At any rate, I’m not sure what any of this has to do with her being female. I don’t see reason to think it wouldn’t have played out the same way if she were male. I just feel like you’re really reaching to find sexism where there isn’t any. This series has done an awesome job of creating diverse and strong female warriors without having them always connected to some romance or objectified an anyway. That hasn’t changed at all in my opinion.

    Lastly, as far as character development goes, it should be pointed out that The Last Air Bender had 23-24 episodes per book to work with whereas The Legend of Kora had about 13. And it’s green lighted one season at a time so there simply hasn’t been as much time. But there will be at least a 4th book. So we’ll see.

    • Josh
      August 31, 2014 at 9:47 am — Reply

      Thank you for replying with this – I read this article on my phone a few days ago and had pretty much every issue with it that you mentioned here, just haven’t had the time to write it all out myself.

    • alvarlux
      September 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm — Reply

      Agree with all of this. Over the course of the 3 seasons, Korra has grown – she started as brash and over confident and I think this season was the pendulum swing where she ends up losing confidence in her abilities. I’m excited to see what that does to the character and how she grows.

      I also think it’s worth noting that Kya isn’t really an offensive fighter – she’s more the medic type water bender, so her strength comes from the fact she’s standing up to these people at all, rather then her weakness from losing.

      I also think it’s worth pointing out that the Avatar is rarely the most likeable character in the series – they are just the reason for the plot. Toph was more interesting, and Zuko had significantly more character development then Aang. I can’t even watch early episodes of the original because Aang is so immature.

      I also liked the Finale – Korra had to come to terms with the fact you can’t fight your way to victory all the time, found the courage to sacrifice herself to save the new air nation and the Red Lotus ended up having a completely relevant reason for wanting to capture her alive (to put her into the Avatar state). The fact that even with the Avatar state (weakened as she was by the poison) she was unable to defeat Zaheer (who had the OP power of flight), the air nation helped save her was nice instant karma. The whole point was it’s not just about Korra anymore – it’s not up to her power to save everyone, she just needs to lead them.

  7. Jordan
    August 31, 2014 at 2:27 pm — Reply

    You can’t be serious about the complaints. Given the time frame they had to work with, this cartoon isn’t bad at all. This is a one-sided article that doesn’t take MANY things into account that’s contrary to the feminist mindset of the author. It simply sounds like you’d like a cartoon with women characters who completely dominate any male character while these women hold every position of power and simultaneously keeping there ever fluctuating emotions in check. You say that “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.” The same undercurrent can be said about Ang not making it on his own. Let’s not forget that a weakness was highlighted when it came to Ang being in the Avatar state when he was critically wounded by being struck in the back with lightning by Zuko’s sister Azula. Zack Linly said it best.

  8. J Perez
    August 31, 2014 at 3:25 pm — Reply

    Yeah, I’m not doing a point by point analysis against or in favor, that seems like work…. I will say that I’ve hated Korra as a character since the first episode and have been watching this show in spite of her. She’s stubborn, selfcentered and generally childish, frankly a scary person to wild the kind of power entrusted to her, and the main problem is that she NEVER grew out of it, I’ve not seen any character development that points to her become a good leader (much less a spiritual one). And yes, Ang was a little id for most of the series, but we saw him grow with every chapter and become someone with the capacity to make difficult and capable of great wisdom, y’know, for a kid. But Korra always goes back to being the teenager and the fact that you can compare Korra on her 3rd season with that 13 year old kid really tells you somethign about that character.
    Now, in this I see nothing thing but bad writting and a lack of a general plan for the series. I think that just putting the focus of the show on the women of the series while the guys just tag along says somehing about the intentions of the creators, but the lack of clear definition of what a strong woman is in our society, makes developing the character of Korra a challenge that the writters just feiled to meet. Sure, Korra has a brash personality, but that doesn’t make her a strong person much less a strong leader, and this is specially evident in this season because Zaheer is written as a very capable, very knowladgeable, very inspiring dude and that makes Korra look a lot weaker by contrast. But we also saw Jinora growth over this season into a smart young woman who is also a much better leader than the avatar (yeah, go rewatch that episode, Korra got her behind handed to her on that last fight, while Jinora lead her brothers and won that fight for the team).
    I guess you could force the issue and see sexism in this man being just generally better than Korra, but in the end she wasn’t saved by the “boys”, she was saved by a young female air-bending master. It’s no a girls-aren’t-as-good-as-boys adventure, it’s an our-main-character-is-weak-and-childish adventure, and that is just bad writting. I was trying to keep it short, but there it is.

  9. stellarleader
    September 1, 2014 at 4:47 pm — Reply

    I’m sorry Ashley but I couldn’t disagree more. Korra, Lin, Asami and Jinora are very strong characters on my opinion and I don’t see their ’emotional conflicts’ as something negeative at all. It’s way too easy for writers to go from Disney princess to rude tomboys and I’m glad the creators of the show managed to portray strong female characters that are still capable of caring and loving without being treated as expensive glass dolls by everyone else.

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