The Legend of Korra tells the story of a bisexual woman who inherits incredible power, but does it go far enough in queering animated series?
Growing up, I was a die-hard Avatar: The Last Airbender fan. I watched and rewatched the show whenever marathons ran on Nickelodeon and the complete Blu-ray box set of the series counts among my most prized possessions to this day. I was enthralled with Katara (though, looking back, I might say “in love”) and was so excited for a female, waterbending Avatar.
So I was in front of the television, ready to roll when The Legend of Korra premiered. I kept up every week with the first season and emerged… less than enthused. I was so uninspired that I didn’t even bother to continue watching the second season. Not even Korra falling in love with her former rival Asami was enough to tempt me back to the series. However, since the series hit streaming, I finally finished the show and found myself really, really liking it. Why didn’t TLOK resonate with me this way the first time?
Television is tricky in a way that many other pieces of media (movies, video games, books, etc.) aren’t. Each week, the people who make a TV show present its audience one segment of a story that is subject to change up until the airing of its final episode. With this in mind, it’s unfair to talk about The Legend of Korra without at least mentioning its conflicted production.
The first season was originally ordered as a standalone 12-episode miniseries, responsible for introducing ATLA fans to a new Avatar, the bold and brash Korra, and to a new world embodied by the metropolis of Republic City. However, the series played well and was ordered for a second (presumably final) season, then for a third and fourth (actually final) season. Consequently, the third season, the only one without the weight of being the possible closing of the series, is the show’s best and most inventive, likely due to the comparatively luxurious breathing room.
This is all to say that The Legend of Korra was originally created as a contained story of political intrigue set in a universe radically different from the one explored by Aang and his friends. For my younger self, that first season felt too far removed from its predecessor, and I was unwilling to adapt. Change is hard, a theme well explored throughout TLOK. In a way, the whole show is about drastic, world-altering change, and how people adapt to and make peace with the new.
In The Legend of Korra, Avatar: The Last Airbender’s pacifist monk is reborn as an intrepid and hotheaded woman unafraid of violent means to an end.
From the moment we’re introduced to her it is clear that Korra is nothing like Aang. The pacifist monk was reborn as an intrepid and hotheaded woman unafraid of violent means to an end. Her status within the greater rankings of pop culture suffered early on from bad faith criticisms that varied wildly between accusing her of being a “Mary Sue” to being incompetent and immature. In the beginning she is immature, so was 12-year-old Aang at the beginning of his story. By the end of season four, Korra is compassionate, responsible, and brave. Only by failing and emerging from those failures is she able to become a hero.
Korra’s romantic life evolves similarly as well. In seasons one and two, Korra pursues Mako, the fire-bending bad boy of the group, who in turn pursues Asami, then Korra, then Asami and Korra again… the first season spends a not insubstantial amount of time on Korra’s pursuit of Mako and silent competition with Asami, with Korra eventually winning Mako’s love. As their relationship continues in the second season, Asami gets much less screen time and Korra’s troubles with Mako feel inconsequential in the face of a spirit-fueled, world-ending calamity. Asami and Korra’s friendship evolved immensely in the third and fourth seasons, with Asami becoming Korra’s closest confidant and, eventually, girlfriend. The development of the romantic aspect of their relationship is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but the show’s final moment of Korra and Asami holding hands and essentially riding into the sunset served as a confirmation of their newfound love.
I’ve long debated with myself whether to celebrate the canonization of Korrasami as revolutionary or to take the belated acknowledgement with a grain of salt. One one hand, by explicitly stating that Korra is bisexual, the creators of The Legend of Korra certainly broke barriers within the realm of children’s cartoons. On the other hand, something about the need for Korra’s bisexuality needing to be retroactively confirmed in a blog post feels akin to the halfhearted reveal that Lando Calrissian, at least within the world of Solo: A Star Wars Story, is pansexual: an effort to be regarded as representative of the LGBTQ+ community without doing any of the work.
The development of the romantic aspect of their relationship is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but the show’s final moment of Korra and Asami holding hands and essentially riding into the sunset served as a confirmation of their newfound love.
I don’t call the development of Korra and Asami’s relationship blink-and-you-miss-it lightly. Though they grow obviously closer in the latter half of the series, the audience only sees small snippets of their interactions as Korra’s interpersonal relationships take an understandable backseat to fighting villains and fascism.
However, in his blog post titled “Korrasami is Canon,” co-creator Brian Konietzko writes “if [Korra and Asami’s relationship] seems out of the blue to you, I think a second viewing of the last two seasons would show that perhaps you were looking at it only through a hetero lens.” An accusatory statement in a self-congratulatory post, the onus is placed on the audience for failing to sniff out an “endgame relationship” that was only explicitly romantic once for about 30 seconds half a season before TLOK’s finale.
So, does TLOK deserve its laurels, or should the conclusion of Korrasami be viewed more critically? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Celebrating a show for its queer representation is a good thing, and public support leads to more opportunities for queer stories and creators to enter the mainstream. At the same time, Korra aired among shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, both cartoons that broke the same barriers as Korra and, in the case of Steven Universe, even more with regards to nonbinary representation. While the concept of “death of the artist” is not the answer to all of these questions, it certainly frees me from disregarding my mixed feelings as a product of heteronormativity.
The Legend of Korra didn’t resonate with me as a gay teenager because as Korra warred with the only other main female castmember over a boy, I was watching three nonbinary aliens co-parent a half human boy who sometimes fused with his best friend into a nonbinary teenager. That being said, though I was disappointed on the gay-content front, for those looking for an epic fantasy story with a complex female lead, The Legend of Korra a solid series well worth anyone’s time.