Dec 22, 2017

Korrasami Had Enough Buildup

Over on my personal Facebook page, I once asked the question, which cartoon will be remembered as more progressive: Avatar the Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra? I eventually conceded, due to the wording of my question, that The Legend of Korra is the answer.

Korrasami Wasn't Out of Nowhere
by Duy

Honestly, I get it. The last two minutes of Korra is the most blatantly and obviously progressive thing in either show. It meant so much to me that it singlehandedly broke my "Always just talk about comics or things that originated in comics" rule on the Cube. I'd offhandedly mentioned in the beginning of Season 3 that Korra and Asami had more chemistry than either of them had with the show's main dude, Mako, and when the series went full digital early in Season 4, I said that it would be the perfect opportunity to pull the trigger on Korrasami, the fandom's ship name for the two. I didn't think they'd actually do it.

They did, of course, and while critics of the show believe the development came out of nowhere, it was evident that they either had stopped watching the show in Season 4 or were looking at it purely from a heterosexual lens, meaning that they didn't believe someone could be anything other than straight unless it was very specifically mentioned. Korrasami was the natural sunset ending. It was brave. It was progressive.

It's also the only thing The Legend of Korra has over The Last Airbender.

Everything else in The Legend of Korra was started in The Last Airbender, which put Asian culture at the forefront in an American animated series. While this isn't unheard of, it's also the first one that explored many of them deeply and provided diversity in their representation. Aang is a Buddhist, both the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation incorporate different cultures. And it even goes beyond Asia, as Katara and Sokka from the Water Tribe are pretty clearly Inuit. The excellent Imaginary Worlds podcast by Eric Molinsky describes the world-building process as similar to what all fantasy novels do: take an existing culture and then rebuild the world based on those parameters. Whereas something like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones does that with European culture, Avatar did it with Asian culture.

This type of racial diversity wasn't unheard of in 2005 when the show debuted, but it was very rare to see it treated with this type of nuance without a lack of stereotyping, with the minorities as the protagonists, and with diversity within the diversity. That's a huge step, and I doubt that a show remotely like The Legend of Korra, with its dark-skinned protagonist, would have been greenlit by Nickelodeon without Airbender paving the way.

Another thing: Korra had a female kickass protagonist, another occurrence that hadn't been super-common (it still isn't). Airbender's main character, was in fact, a male, but a lot of its most competent characters were girls. The most dangerous firebender in the course of the show was Azula, whose fire was so strong that it was blue; Katara was a fast learner of waterbending and Aang's teacher; Toph was probably the most adept bender of the entire show, even inventing metalbending; the best hand-to-hand fighters on the show were Suki and Ty Lee. By the end of the series, the team consisted of an even gender split.

And another thing is this: Airbender is just the better show. It starts off as good, gets to very good at the end of the first season, and officially crosses into "great" with the eighth episode of the second season. Before the series even ends, it's already one of the greatest and most important works of fiction in history. Korra doesn't start out great. It seemed to me that they decided to make Korra the exact opposite of Aang, meaning she was more like Airbender's secondary protagonist, Zuko: hotheaded, prone to making the wrong decisions, subject to failure, but learning. But where Zuko was a secondary character that you could be patient with because you had the actual main character to pay attention to, Korra carried the show on her own, and her failures and frustrations were ours.

So out of 52 episodes, it is frustrating that Korra didn't really come into her own until the last few. My favorite episode of Legend of Korra is "Beyond the Wilds," which takes place four episodes prior to the series finale, which is where Korra learns to live with all of the baggage that she's been saddled with. Coincidentally, my favorite Last Airbender episode is "The Firebending Masters," which takes place four episodes prior to the series finale, if you count the series finale as one episode. It's also the one where Zuko learns to live with all the baggage he's been saddled with and how to control his anger. The principle of living with what you've done/what's been done to you and continuing to move forward resonates with me.

One of the side effects of this ending, the feeling that Korra was only really coming into her own at the end, is that it makes the end of the story look like the beginning. As far as I'm concerned, the story of Korra is only getting started when the cartoon ends. And that includes her relationship with Asami, and the self-discovery that it comes with.

Korra and Asami getting together was criticized for coming out of nowhere, but that's not so. Upon watching the first season with my girlfriend, she immediately commented that Asami seemed to be hitting on Korra as early as the first half of the first season. By the third season, the two of them had ditched the leading man of the series, Mako, and formed a bond that was independent of any men. By the end of the third season, with Korra in a wheelchair, Asami says to her, "I want you to know that I'm here for you. If you ever want to talk — or anything," as she holds her hand. If either of them had been a guy, there would have been no question about what was happening.

In the second episode of the fourth season, "Korra Alone," which depicts the three missing years between seasons 3 and 4, we see that Asami volunteered to accompany Korra to the Southern Water Tribe to help her heal, and, more importantly, that the two of them wrote to each other in secret, not telling any of their friends.

There are other signs, but these combined highlight it enough for me. The only reason I was still apprehensive about it happening was because it was on Nickelodeon, and there was no way this would fly in a kids' cartoon, right? But the moment it went full digital, all bets were off. They still couldn't explicitly say it, but why did they have to?

Every LGBTQ person I know who came out of the closet when I already knew them had no build-up. They either didn't want to say it, or they didn't realize they were until such time that they admitted it to themselves. Why should fiction be any different? Korrasami gets flak for using the same-sex ending for shock value; to me it felt more organic than Aang and Katara (Zutara 4eva!), but if they had done episodes about how they came to terms with their sexuality and feelings for each other, I'm certain it also would have gotten flak for being too preachy.

And as I've said, the ending felt more like a beginning, which is where The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars comes in. Picking up where the series leaves off, this series by co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino and artist Irene Koh sets the two girls up in the Spirit World.

That's beautiful.

It's actually here that they have their first kiss and only then do they talk about their feelings for each other. And with Korra back in full force, it's only here that we see her being proactive about bringing balance to the world, instead of just reacting to the latest threat. Korra uses her powers to help out the people who have been displaced by Kuvira and also deal with a new threat, while at the same time trying to keep the spirits happy.

So Korrasami had enough buildup — I think if you were open to the possibility of it happening at all, you'd see that. And maybe the fact that even the characters themselves seem surprised indicate that it's a discovery for them as well. Sometimes things just happen — that's especially true of relationships and how they start.

That's a big part of what makes me collect Turf Wars, while simultaneously leaving the Last Airbender comics to my nephew, okay for me not to own. Whereas the entirety of Last Airbender felt complete, the ending of Korra was a cliffhanger, and I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

Quite frankly, I expect it's gonna be better than the show as a whole.

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