At the risk of being accused of insensitivity or even worse, hyperbole I must confess I wrestled with this statement. I mean who am I to determine a feminist role model? But I am the author so self-appointed or not, this task falls to me. As I watched the 3rd season of Nickelodeon’s “The Legend of Korra” unfold I became more and more convinced that I was witnessing a significant event that demonstrated the incredible potential of storytelling involving rich and diverse characters. The fact that the title character was a strong female lead only solidified that this was an opportunity to parse an important dialogue through the lens of pop culture.
For the uninitiated, The Legend of Korra is an animated show on the aforementioned Nickelodeon that exists in the universe of the original series Avatar: The Last Airbender. In this universe, there are those individuals, which have the ability to “bend” i.e. control the four basic elements Air, Water, Earth and Fire. In the history of their world periodically a figure appears with the ability to control all four elements and they are anointed an Avatar. They are also charged as a protector of the innocent, and will bring balance to the world. Think a little Neo from the Matrix, with a sprinkle of Buddha and a take your pick of western religious deliverer’s and there you have it. In the original series, the Avatar was a 12-year-old boy who honed his skills through various adventures. In this series, some decades in the future the current avatar is a young woman by the name of Korra.
Korra is exceedingly smart, extremely powerful both by virtue of being the Avatar and her athleticism. She is independent bordering on headstrong. She bristles against the tutelage of her mentor, Tenzin, her parents and various other authority figures from law enforcements to heads of state. Some of this is typical young adult angst, but given the physical and mystical power of the character it takes on a new dimension. Against the backdrop of worldly and otherworldly threats, Korra must learn maturity not only as the Avatar but also as a young woman coming of age in her world. She is a friend to her crew and confidants, a mentor to the younger children of her teacher, Tenzin and a spiritual leader to the population at large. I struggle to remember when a female protagonist was prominently the focal point of the action in as well rounded a way. The model of the female protagonist (in animation) we are most familiar with is the Disney Princess brand of plucky yet romantically motivated heroine. Famously, Disney Princesses pretty much look alike and still inhabit a world where their fates hinge on or rely on male characters. The recent Pixar film, Brave goes a bit beyond this model but it still is not in the realm of a show like Korra. Merida (the heroine of Brave) recent proposed redesign as a Disney Princess was also problematic. Obviously this is a model that is problematic at best when presenting these characters as role models for young people. This is not to imply that relationships and romance are not a part of the Korra universe. The 1st season of the show introduced a potential love interest/triangle between characters Mako and corporate heiress Asami. Since season #1, this relationship has evolved, with Mako firmly in the friend zone and Asami once a perceived rival is now a valued and trusted friend. Another example where a common stereotype, two alpha females locked in combat for the prized male was turned on its ear. Instead of going down this well traveled road the creators opted to give both women their own agency instead of pitting them against one another for the affections of the male character. This might seem subtle but its rarity in pop culture entertainment makes it extraordinary.
I highlighted Korra as a feminist ass-kicking icon but like many aspects of feminism what we are talking about is our agency as humans. We can all relate to Korra’s challenges, her triumphs and her failures because we too face life’s inevitable ups and downs (minus the ability to manipulate the elements.). Her world looks differently from ours but with enough similarities to develop a kinship. Korra is not waiting to be rescued; she is in fact doing the majority of the rescuing. The nations in her world are diverse, with a variety of characters of mixed heritage and cultural cues, mostly from Eastern/Asian/Native American influences. Unlike the debacle that was the Hollywood version of Avatar: The Last Airbender, which infamously whitewashed its characters, Korra embraces its diversity. Diversity is in an obvious deficit within our entertainment culture and it is refreshing to see it front and center on this program.
As ground breaking as The Legend of Korra is, the program still faces challenges. Among them is Nickelodeon’s apparent desire to run the show into the ground with sporadic scheduling and lack of marketing. One can only hope that the creators of this incredible character can survive the storm and remain their creativity excellence. The timing for a strong female character like Korra couldn’t be better and her existence couldn’t be more relevant. This is a perfect storm of entertainment: a kick ass protagonist, a fantastic world with social, technological and cultural upheaval, and bold storytelling that ties it all together. It’s a shame that it’s taken so long to have character like Korra in our zeitgeist. It’s also a shame that character is threatened by a tone-deaf corporation like Nickelodeon. What gives it hope is that we can now witness the power of diverse and inclusive storytelling. There are fewer excuses as to why characters like Korra are the exception rather than the rule. The bar has been raised for creators of content everywhere and the leader of the charge is a young female Avatar named Korra. Long may she reign and kick ass!