The Incredible Women of ‘The Legend of Korra’

Korra-SF-Pic-300x84Last year, Nickelodeon aired the first season ofThe Legend of Korra, a sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Taking place in a world where some people can control, or “bend,” the four classic elements (earth, fire, air, and water), the story follows Avatar Korra, the newest reincarnation of the spirit of the planet, as she learns how to fully control her abilities and stop a violent rebellion.  Over 12 episodes, the series addressed numerous themes and ideas, including the struggle to discover one’s identity, classism, racism, extremism, the need for balance, and how to embrace new innovations while respecting tradition.  Any one of these ideas could support an entire article, but I want to focus on something else: the incredible women who populate the show.  Avatar Korra, Police Chief Lin Beifong, and Asami Sato are all very well-written and well-developed characters, embodying different kinds of strength.  And while the three of them are very different, they have one thing in common: they all kick ass.

The presence of such great female characters on Korra should be no surprise to people who watched the original Avatar series.  A lot of digital ink has been spilled praising that show for its great women.  To add a personal example, the character of Princess Azula is one of my favorite characters (male or female) in all of fiction.  Korra does its predecessor proud by making its principal (and even its secondary) female characters strong and nuanced.  Korra, Lin, and Asami are all imbued with agency, desires, faults, quirks, and skill, and their motivations are always clear and understandable.

Unfortunately, Avatar and Korra’s use of female characters is an exception to the norm (which is why I am writing about them).  You may recall from my first piece published on this site that Nickelodeon nearly elected not to take Korra to series because executives feared that boys would not tune in to watch a show that starred a girl.  But when they focus tested the show, the boys didn’t care that Korra was a girl.  They just said she was awesome.  So let’s look at what makes these women so great.

“I’m the Avatar!  You’ve gotta deal with it!”  –Avatar Korra, Episode 1, “Welcome to Republic City”

Korra is an absolute gift of a character.  As the Avatar, it is her duty to serve as the world’s peacekeeper, a role that carries an enormous burden.  As a teenager who has led a sheltered life, she does not yet comprehend the full scope of her duties and the tough choices she will have to face when “keeping the peace” turns out to have morally grey areas, and it is the dissonance between the reality of being the Avatar and her views on what it means to be the Avatar that drives her story arc.  To her, being the Avatar means that she is the coolest person in the world.  There is only one Avatar at a time, and he or she is the most powerful and most important person on the planet.  Korra defines herself by her Avatar-ness, and she could not be more excited to go out and help people through the use of her considerable bending skills.  We learn very quickly that Korra was gifted with plenty of raw talent, but that her headstrong nature holds her back from her full potential.  She is competent and confident, but in many ways her own worst enemy.

Korra is the perfect combination of capable and flawed.  She is a good-hearted and strong-willed character who can back up her bragging with talent, and it is these qualities that more than make up for her flaws.  When we see Korra be headstrong or selfish or impetuous or naïve, we know that her heart is in the right place and at the end of the day, she will do the right thing.  And beyond that, her flaws are all very relatable, and end up endearing her to us more.

One of the most amazing parts of The Legend of Korra is the way it addresses gender roles.  First and foremost, Korra’s competence is recognized by everyone who encounters her, and at no point in the course of the series does anyone question her skill or the propriety of a her being the Avatar on account of her being a woman.  In other words, much like the focus-tested boys, no one Korra encounters cares that she’s a girl.  They just think she’s awesome.  Contrast Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is one of my all-time favorite shows, but even as late as the 100th episode, people still questioned how a girl could be their rescuer.  Not so with Korra; no one thinks twice that the Avatar is a woman.  No one thinks that Korra is unladylike for using brute force as a solution to most of her problems.  When people compliment Korra, they focus on her skill as a bender, her intelligence, and her physical strength.  If people address her beauty, the trait that our society places the most value on for women, it is brought up after those other qualities.  When the villains try to insult or belittle Korra, they never target her gender.  Even a rival athlete (in Korra’s world, the professional sports league is co-ed), who is set up as an archetypical bully, focuses on Korra’s naiveté and inexperience.

But perhaps most importantly, Korra is active.  She makes her own decisions and is never put into a “damsel in distress” situation.  Yes, there are times when she gets captured by the villains, but she is never helpless.  She doesn’t wait around for someone to come save her, she takes steps to free herself.  And much more often, she is the one doing the saving.  She truly wants to help people, and does not hesitate to act when she believes people are in trouble.  Even when she was at her lowest – after the villain succeeded in diminishing her Avatar powers, destroying the very aspect of herself on which she based her whole identity – she kept fighting because she knew that other people were still in danger.  Korra is a hero, plain and simple.

“That lady is my hero.” –Meelo, Episode 10, “Turning of the Tides”

When police chief Lin Beifong is introduced, she is presented as an opponent to Korra.  They meet after Korra is arrested for causing extensive property damage.  As viewers, we sympathize with Korra because the damage resulted from her attempt to stop gang members from extorting innocent shopkeepers and because Lin comes off as having a chip on her shoulder regarding the role of Avatar.  But Lin is a pragmatist, and the presence of a vigilante will potentially complicate her job.  As the season continues, she is revealed to be very much like Korra, except she has the benefit of years of experience keeping the peace.  Lin and Korra’s similar personalities cause them to butt heads at first, but Lin’s pragmatism, ability to think about the bigger picture, and drive to serve the people makes her an indispensable ally to Korra.

Lin is a no-nonsense career woman.  She is cold and rational, but highly competent and extraordinarily driven.  Like Korra, her bending skills are top notch and her mission is to ensure the safety of the public.  And in keeping with the world’s lack of hang-ups about gender, no one ever thinks less of Lin for not having a family or not being comfortable around children.  Her skills lie in being a bender and peace officer, and everyone recognizes that the city is better off with her as police chief, rather than forcing her into a role she’s ill-suited for.

Lin is a metalbender, meaning that her earthbending skills are so advanced, she can manipulate the mineral impurities in metal.  This rare skill is possessed by only the most talented earthbenders, and Lin is the best of the best.  (It is at this point I feel that I should mention that three skills that have become commonplace in The Legend of Korra – metalbending, chi blocking, and bloodbending – were all invented by women during the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender.)  Over the course of the season, without her fundamental character traits changing, Lin evolves from a gruff opponent to a necessary ally, and has one of the most touching/awesome scenes of the season (from which the above quote is taken).

“People usually assume that I’m daddy’s helpless little girl, but I can handle myself.” –Asami Sato, Episode 7, “The Aftermath”

If Lin is Korra-plus-experience, Asami is Korra’s opposite.  Asami conforms to our concept of feminine much more than Korra; she is mannered, wears make-up, cannot travel without a comical amount of suitcases, and knows how to use her feminine wiles to get what she wants.  (Contrast Korra, who won a belching contest against male friend Bolin and is very blunt and aggressive when it comes to her desires.)  In perhaps the only example of the show using our world’s views on gender, Korra initially assumes that Asami is a spoiled, helpless rich girl whose idea of fun involves shopping and makeovers, when really, she’s anything but.  Asami’s many skills make her essential to Korra’s team.  In a world where automobiles are a new invention, she is Korra’s sole ally who can drive.  As the daughter of the inventor of automobiles, she can drive exceedingly well, and provides Team Avatar 2.0 with a quick means of navigating the city.  Asami can also hold her own in a fight, and was able to singlehandedly save her bender friends from a crisis.  Asami keeps a cool head in stressful situations, never batting an eye during a rough automobile race, and remaining completely calm while simultaneously fighting and driving.

Of the three main women, Asami is probably the least developed.  She is not without flaws, but they are much less developed than Korra’s or Lin’s.  But despite this, Asami may be my favorite character on the show.  Her personality defies the expectations we develop about her based on her appearance and surface qualities, and she stands up for what is right in the face of terrible pressure.  Korra and Lin’s loyalties are never tested.  Korra’s test of character comes in the form of learning how to address problems with balance, rather than extremism.  Lin has to learn to let the past go and be open-minded.  Asami, as a nonbender, can sympathize with the anti-bender sentiment that drives the villains, and when she learns that her father is a member of the anti-bender faction, she is forced to choose between her morals and her love for her family.  Multiple times, Asami is tempted to switch sides in the fight between Korra  and the anti-bender revolutionaries.  That she never falters in choosing what she views as the moral choice underscores how strong she is in the face of personal tragedy.

“Let’s cut to the chase and settle this thing, if you’re man enough to face me.” –Korra, Episode 5, “The Voice in the Night”

The Legend of Korra’s second season will begin later this year.  I cannot recommend this show, and its predecessor, enough.  In addition to having an emotional and thematically rich (if somewhat flawed towards the end) plot, it has some of the best women on television (including, among those not mentioned here, a young airbender voiced by Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka).  Korra, Lin, and Asami can stand proud next to Daenerys Targaryen, Joan Harris, and Hannah Horvath.  We need more characters like these three; not only are they great to watch, they are wonderful role models.