The Sketchy Feminist

Staring down the male gaze, or: Looking at looking at women in popular culture

Tag: avatar: the last airbender

Thoughts on The Legend of Korra Season Four and the Korra Series Finale

Long time no see, WordPress Dashboard. Man, I’m bad at updating.

So anyway, I finally got around to finishing out the last season/Book of The Legend of Korra. And I have thoughts.

Or–perhaps more accurately–feels. ALL THE FEELS. [And this post has ALL THE SPOILERS. Tread carefully.]

Well, not all of the feels, actually. Case in point: the Book 3 finale left me a quivering mess. I was so moved, and so unsettled, that for the next few days I was just simply Not OK, and I wandered around the apartment going, “I’m not OK. I’m not OK. Oh, Korra!” And then I made the Boyfriend watch the whole season so that he could suffer with me.

I didn’t feel that feel this time. So whatever particular feel that was didn’t make it to the Season Four finale party, meaning that, at most, I am now experiencing ALL THE FEELS -1.

Yeah, at the end of Book 3, Korra sacrificed herself to save the newly-revived Air Nation, and ended up poisoned and injured as a result. The last shot of the season is a close-up on the Avatar’s face as tears run down her cheeks because she’s worried that she’s never going to be able to heal or ever live up to the expectations the world had of her or the expectations she had of herself. And that feeling–the Avatar’s feeling–this reckless, strong, brave heroine’s feeling–of despair just left me an utter wreck.

Since Korra was wheelchair-bound at the end of Season 3 (and the specific physical results of her injury and poisoning were not made clear at the time), I was seriously wondering if they were going to bring her back in Season 4 as a physically-disabled, wheelchair-bound action heroine. And how cool would that have been? The technology for mobilizing chair-bound disabled people–in the air, at least–was introduced way back in Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the technology of Korra’s universe has progressed SO MUCH since then. I mean, it’s basically a steampunk mecha show. They could have done a lot with (and maybe said a lot about) disability and access and how access relates to technological advancements, privilege, etc.

Well, the show didn’t go that route (missed opportunity?) but it did do some things that I like quite a lot.

Season 4 focuses on the theme of recovery in some really interesting and insightful ways. Season 4 picks up 3 years after the Season 3 finale, and Korra starts out the season feeling … not quite right. She’s slower than she used to be, weaker than she used to be, and even though she’s invested a lot of time and energy into healing herself, she still feels like she isn’t up to what she considers “fighting” shape. (Though really, she could probably still kick most people’s butts. Girl is tough on herself.) Perhaps even more disconcertingly, she’s having hallucinatory panic attacks, mostly starring Zaheer, the d-bag who imprisoned, poisoned and choked her almost to death in the previous season. (And then she fought him–with a serious assist from Jinora and the Airbenders–while still wearing the chain he had used to keep her captive. Damn that was cool. I want a poster of Korra in that scene.)

And excuse me while I fangasm over an action heroine in a kids’ cartoon having panic attacks, and it being a part of her arc, and it just being something to work through. All while no one–except maybe bit characters and a villain or two–dismisses Korra as “weak” or “crazy” for feeling what she’s feeling. And I just–I can’t even. It means a lot, is what I’m saying.

During Korra’s literal-slash-figurative journey to recovery (at around episodes 2-4), she meets up with fan-favorite character Toph (Is anyone from A:TLA not a fan favorite?), who has taken to being a cranky old hermit lady like she was born to it. Which come to think of it she kind of was. I love Toph so much.

Anyway, Korra asks Toph to train her. While training with Toph and wondering why she’s always “a step slower” than she used to be, Toph tells her something like, “Probably all that metal you’re carrying around doesn’t help,” and then Korra is all, “What metal?” and we learn that some of Zaheer’s poison (which was, yes, metal) is still in Korra’s system, and has been for the last three years. And for a few moments, I was a little bit peeved. Because some people suffer from PTSD because of the Trauma part, and not due to external physical causes, and Korra’s trauma stemming from a physical foreign substance felt like a bit of a cheat.

But then I got over that nonsense, because honestly, the poisonous trace is such a good metaphor for trauma. It’s this physical weight that Korra’s been carrying around for years without even realizing she’s carrying it, only knowing that she’s still suffering and she can’t understand why. And in order to combat this poison, she has to metalbend it out of her body herself. And in order to do that, she has to not only face her past, but accept her past. She has to relax, and to accept that she can’t change or control her past experiences. Traumatic recovery for Korra isn’t the act of taking control, but the act of letting go of the illusion of control.

And y’all, this is straight out of the trauma and recovery handbook. This is one of the central principles of mindfulness meditation–accepting your own thoughts without judgement–in a kids’ cartoon. Both Korra and A:TLA do a lot with the themes of trauma and working through, but this is the first time that either show has really delved into PTSD treatment (though Zuko’s fever-dream battle between the divided parts of his self did some similar things/had similar overtones).

I love that Korra seeks help. I love that she needs treatment. I love that, even though she seeks treatment, she is the one who ultimately has to expel the poison from her own body.

Yeah, when Korra metalbent those teeny, tiny little globules of poison from her body–so small, yet so hurtful–I started tearing up.

And I love that once the poison is expelled from her body, Korra’s still not completely “healed”. Because even though the physical trace is gone, the emotional trace lingers. Eventually, she has to “face” Zaheer, her bogeyman, in his prison. And rather than fight him, she has to accept his help. That’s kind of a painful scene to watch, but I think it’s painful in a good way. I mean, I didn’t want to see Korra vulnerable in front of the person who hurt her, but it was important for her to face her own feelings of vulnerability–and to go into a situation in which she felt uncomfortable and out-of-control–in order for her to learn and to grow. (That’s also out of the trauma and recovery handbook, btw.)

And in the Season 4 finale, when she eventually defeats the season’s Big Bad, Kuvira, she does so not through brute force, but through saving Kuvira’s life and then showing her compassion, thus inspiring Kuvira to surrender. Now, I’m not sure how much I buy Korra talking a dictator out of her plans for world-domination in a conversation that takes maybe half a minute, but still, the moment makes sense thematically. And one of the things that Korra tells Kuvira is something along the lines of, “When I was first poisoned, I would have done anything to feel in control.” Korra reframes Kuvira’s military takeover as a defensive measure, a quest to feel in-control and to escape feeling vulnerable. A quest to keep her country from being/feeling vulnerable. Kuvira accepts this interpretation, and it’s when Kuvira accepts that she can’t have total control over the world that she steps down and turns herself in.

Because to live in the world is to be vulnerable. And to live in the world is to be out-of-control.

This message of acceptance is pivotal to the Legend of Korra series, and that Korra can not only understand and embrace this message but pass it on to others shows amazing growth as a character. [SPOILER WARNING FOR A:TLA] Heck, the peaceful, accepting, live-in-the-moment Avatar Aang had to take away the Firelord’s bending, but Korra gets to talk her biggest villain down. (Of course, Aang was a peaceful character who had to learn to use force while Korra is a forceful character who has to learn peaceful acceptance. Using force to take down Ozai actually did showcase Aang’s character development, while he stayed true to himself by not taking the Firelord’s life.)

So, while I really believe the Korra/Kuvira conversation should have been longer (like, maybe the length of an entire additional episode, say), I think that a peaceful, non-violent resolution was a very appropriate climax to this Avatar series. And as a bonus, Korra made another spirit portal! Because she does that, and because the harmonious integration of the spirit world with the human world is another awesome extension of the show’s themes of balance and acceptance.

Some other great stuff happened in the finale as well. Brothers Mako and Bolin said “I love you” out loud to one another, which was touching, and even though it was in the middle of an action sequence, it did not feel at all undercut by machismo. Once-estranged sisters Lin and Su Beifong worked together seamlessly, really bringing home that they had finally gotten over their old issues. (They were also generally badass.) Tenzin told his student he was happy about how much she’d grown, and reminded her of how much she’d changed the world. Teams Avatar and Air Nation were heroic all around, Asami reconciled with her father only to have him sacrifice himself in a grand and touching heroic gesture, and Varrick and Zhu Li “did the thing”.

Oh yeah. And Korrasami became canon.

Starting to worry I wasn’t going to get around to that, weren’t you?

Like an early Christmas present, legions of Korrasami shippers’ dreams became reality when female characters Korra and Asami announced that they would go on vacation to the spirit world together, then held hands and looked longingly into each other’s eyes. Tame stuff? Yeah, definitely. But still groundbreaking in context–as the final moment in a kids’ cartoon produced by Nickelodeon. (Or I guess it’s just Nick now; I think they dropped the “elodeon” part.)

And it means a lot to a lot of LGBTQ people, who don’t tend to get much representation in media, especially when that media is aimed at children.

For myself, I jumped on the Korrasami bandwagon a little late. It wasn’t until the end of Season 3, when Korra was in the wheelchair and Asami was pinning up Korra’s hair for her, that I was like, “Oh, I get it now.” Because that was such a sweet moment, and it was clear that Korra was leaning on Asami more than she was on anyone else. And while you could read it as Asami’s being same-sex making her a more “appropriate” caretaker for Korra (helping her dress, etc.), it was also easy to read it as more than that. And again, in Season 4, when we learned that Korra kept writing only to Asami and no one else, it really seemed like Asami was the person she felt closest to. At the time I just thought, “I see what those shippers are talking about now.” I didn’t think we’d get to see the Korra/Asami romance pairing in the show. (Not because I don’t think that more hints are there. Just because, when I saw said hints, I assumed they were winks to fans and that the show wouldn’t be daring enough to take the romance further. Because most American cartoons wouldn’t have been.)

To be honest, my personal preference for endgame romance for the series (and I have no idea how many are in this camp as I have not researched it) probably would have been Makorrasami, because they all clearly loved each other, and it would have resolved so much of the series’ early love-triangle drama. (As an aside: I had no problem with Mako professing his devotion to Korra as a friend-to-a-friend/a follower-to-a-leader.) And also because queer poly relationships get almost no positive representation in popular media.

But still. The canon Korra ending? I WILL TAKE IT. And while I agree with a lot of people that it would have been nice to see more explicit development of the girls’ relationship throughout the series (and I also understand that there are a variety of reasons why that didn’t happen), this is still a very nifty step forward.

I need the follow-up comic, which will hopefully be The Legend of Korra and Asami’s Spirit World Adventure, like, yesterday.


Related Reading/Viewing:

Mike DiMartino’s “Korrasami Confirmed” over at his blog

Bryan Konietzko’s “Korrasami is canon” over at his tumblr

The Legend of Korra: IGN Editors React to the Ending and Korrasami“over at M.IGN [found through Konietzko’s tumblr]

Katie Schenkel’s “On That Legend of Korra Ending Scene & The Desire For Explicit Representation” over at The Mary Sue [found through that IGN editors post]

Max Nicholson’s “ENDINGS.” [a Korra finale review] over at M.IGN

Joanna Robinson’s “How a Nickelodeon Cartoon Became One of the Most Powerful, Subversive Shows of 2014” over at Vanity Fair [found via Mike DiMartino’s post]

Doug Walker’s final Korra Vlog over at Channel Awesome

Jim C. Hines’s “In Which John C. Wright Completely Loses his Shit over Legend of Korra” over at Jim C. Hines’s blog

Following links found via Jim C. Hines’s post:

Joanna Robinson’s “Legend of Korra Creators Officially Confirm Your Suspicions About That Ending” over at Vanity Fair

An Awesome Video of fan Reactions [that totally made me cry]

In which Uncle Iroh helps me in my ongoing struggle with depression

My last post was about Avatar: The Last Airbender, for no particular reason other than that I like Avatar: The Last Airbender. And I wasn’t planning to bring up Avatar again so soon … but plans are worth what you pay for them, really. (And most plans are homemade.)

So, the Boyfriend and I have been marathoning ATLA again. Because we like it and because he gave me the DVDs as a birthday prezzie (yay!). And we just finished up Book 2: Earth (Avatar calls its seasons “books”), which means we just got to the episode where Aang asks Iroh a question, and Iroh answers with this:

Iroh: I don’t know the answer. Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving …

[They enter a well-lit cave full of shining crystals.]

Iroh: You will come to a better place.

And I know, I know, it’s not exactly the most original sentiment (A “light at the end of the tunnel”? Please.) but this moment spoke to me anyway.

Maybe it’s because Iroh never says “Look for the light at the end of the tunnel.” Because if we can’t see the light, then looking for it’s not likely to do us much good. What I really like about Iroh’s little speech is that it’s not so so much the “light” that matters as it is the movement. What matters is to keep moving, even without any sign that things will get better.

Especially without any sign that things will get better.

Because sometimes, all you can do is keep moving.

Recommended Viewing: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

Of all time, people. It is, hands-down, my favorite animated series produced in English, and it has some of the best plotting and characterization that I have ever seen on TV.

Yeah. A Nickelodeon show. Who knew? (OK, a lot of people knew. It has a large and devoted fan-base.)

I’m not going to bother summarizing the basic plot and premise, because the opening sequence of the show has already done that for us. Tidily.

The opening sequence:

KATARA’S VOICE: Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world. [Transcript taken from the Avatar wiki, here.]

The above narration plays over the opening animation of just about every episode, reiterating the series’ premise. I assume that this narration is primarily for the benefit of new viewers, so that people catching it out-of-order on air still have a chance to understand what’s going on. However, it also serves to remind regular viewers of the core premise of the series. Basically, everything in the show somehow connects with or boils down to the quest outlined above.

The thing about Avatar is: all its characters are good. (As in well-written.) Not just “It has sympathetic villains” or “Its heroes are good role models” or “It has strong female leads,” but all of that. It’s one of those shows where I can’t pick my favorite character because they are. All. So. Good. And so well-developed. Pretty much everyone in the central cast has at least one character arc in which they change and grow over time. Most of them have more than one.

Now, I’m not going to argue that every single episode is gold-pressed latinum, or anything. It has its hits and misses. But even the episodes I found difficult to get through the first time (due to cheese or silliness or what-have-you) still have something going for them. And the show’s retrospective episode–in which the characters watch a staged play of their own adventures–is the single best retrospective episode I have ever seen of anything. Seriously. Do not skip the retrospective.

The thing I find most compelling about Avatar as a series is its setting. And I don’t mean the fantasy universe with Inuit-inspired ice villages and East-Asia-inspired city designs. (Though that’s cool too, and it makes a nice change-up from kids’ shows which assume that “fantasy” means “it has a European castle somewhere.” Not that I have anything against European castles. Honestly, I’d like to see more children’s fantasy TV of every stripe.) The thing that really resonates with me in Avatar, and which is vital to the series from the first episode on, is that it takes place in a world ravaged by war. “Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked,” remember?

Here is one of my favorite lines from the first episode:

KATARA: Aang, this is the entire village. [Gestures to entire village.] Entire village, Aang.

And I find this line so significant–significant enough that I put it all by itself in a block quote–because the “entire village” consists of nine women and ten children. And one dog. Twelve children if you add Katara and Sokka, whom Aang has already met.

This moment is played as cute and funny–a kind of “Katara’s village is so small that …” joke–but it delivers important information. There are no men in Katara’s village. There are no men because the men are at war.

Also from the first episode:

SOKKA: Now men, it’s important that you show no fear when you face a firebender. In the Water Tribe, we fight to the last man standing. For without courage, how can we call ourselves men?
[Cut to an audience of six wide-eyed little boys]
Boy: [raises hand] I gotta pee!
SOKKA: Listen! Until your fathers return from the war, they’re counting on you to be the men of this tribe. And that means no potty breaks.
Boy: But I really gotta go.
SOKKA: [sighs] OK. Who else has to go?
[They all raise their hands.]

Sokka, the oldest male human left in the village, is trying to take on a more adult role by training the village’s next generation of “warriors”–who are at this point all still little kids. This is another moment played for laughs, and yet it brings home the trauma that is integral to the entire series.

I really like this central conceit–of the world of a children’s show being at war–from a narrative standpoint, because it provides a reason for the world’s heroes to be children. The adults are busy–either fighting battles or recovering from their aftermaths. So it’s time for a team of kids to step up and save the world.

Over the course of the series, it is established that most of its main characters (almost all children) are haunted by trauma of one kind or another, much of it either a direct or indirect result of the war that it takes the three seasons of Avatar to resolve. I won’t give you the backstories now, however, because many of them are revealed gradually, and that would be some major spoilage.

More review, some minor SPOILERS and a brief discussion of The Legend of Korra under the cut:

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