“The Legend of Korra,” which aired on Nickelodeon from 2012-2014, could be described as the phoenix that rose from the ashes of M. Night Shyamalan’s universally derided live-action take on the immensely popular animated franchise “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
While that short-lived series (2005-2008) is generally accepted as a groundbreaking piece of television storytelling, often mentioned in the same breath as “Buffy” or “The Wire” by those in the know, the last time we’d seen the “Avatar” universe onscreen was the movie, which whitewashed the entire cast and sank like a stone, only making a nasty impression on fans who were left with a more-than-sour taste by the disappointment.
Then came “Korra,” who flipped the entire franchise on its head. The star and hero was not just dark-skinned, but a woman as well: An insecure jock, a born celebrity, a spiritual searcher and eventually a gifted diplomat. This kind of central, celebratory representation of women of color is rarely seen in animation, and it let the series hit and explore social and philosophical issues from angles even “Avatar” wouldn’t have found so accessible.
Avatar Korra wasn’t the loud-mouthed friend, or the dainty princess too frail to hold her own, nor was she the ‘strong, independent black woman” trope we use so often as a hyper competent exemplar. Korra was multifaceted in the best ways possible, the first being vulnerability. She falls down, she gets up, she makes (often cataclysmic) mistakes, she trusts (and distrusts) the wrong people, but — at the end of the day, a quality we could all stand to emulate, she’s simply unable to hold onto her grudges.
Korra expresses vulnerability to the people around her, because she sees no shame in it — and no benefit to holding back. For fans of “Avatar,” and its beloved and open-hearted hero Aang, Korra could get a little tricky — she’s a firebrand, a loose cannon, a revolutionary at heart with little regard for tradition, structure, or at times community — but in the end, it’s her intensity and purity that make that vulnerability — along with every other quality that a more basic cartoon would portray as a failure — into such strength.
From the first season, “Korra” had to deal with identity issues that Aang never did: Being born an Avatar means, for Korra, instant celebrity: The presumption of greatness, expectation of perfection on her first try and a lot of other pressures familiar not just to those of us who show gifts at a young age, but anyone who has ever felt the pressure of representing their entire minority, as Korra does in the story.
From the first season, Korra’s identities played a major role in the obstacles she had to overcome. Being Avatar is tough enough, but being a queer, dark-skinned woman is a lot, even in the diverse world she’s inherited. Her first great opponent, the seemingly populist Amon, was just one of many demons she found herself fighting: Her own identity, as an Avatar and sports celebrity, her responsibility for maintaining global spiritual order, the constant surveillance of a developing paparazzi culture, and the normal pressures of becoming a woman all found equal, Buffy-esque expression in her travels and battles.
But what “Korra” signaled, with that first season, was an incredible ambition: By setting the story a few decades after “Avatar” had changed the world irrevocably, we’re able to see how quickly a unified continent, out from under the shadow of war, can develop and build. “Avatar’s” world was one in which Benders was rare enough to be exploited and revered — but by Korra’s time, just a couple of decades out, Bending (an absolute good; a literal gift from the divine) has warped society, stratifying urban populations into a system of haves and have nots.
The Benders, thanks to their work establishing order after the horrific 100-year World War and occupation that Aang and his friends helped end, have naturally developed into society’s leaders: Advising, governing, policing…
In America and across the world, we determine access to quality of life and deservedness — worth — based traditionally in terms of race, gender, socioeconomic status and other factors that intersect for each of us differently. One word used in civil disobedience and social justice for these intersecting “extras” is called “privilege.” “White privilege,” “male privilege,” “straight privilege” are often treated as a punchline, but we’ll leave it to you to ponder who’s generally telling the joke, when that happens.
For our purposes, and the show’s, we remove the usual “privileges” — while the show’s racial diversity is a given, it’s true that one’s “tribe” and gender still matter to an extent — and replace them in this new world with Bending. Suddenly, the downtrodden — who gave us so many insightful and often heartbreaking stories in “Avatar” — become the leaders, gifted from birth with power both physical and cultural, passing down through generations of privilege.
It’s like the question underlying so many old “X-Men” stories: Sure, you’re feared and hated now, but what happens when the tables turn? (Reverse racism is an imaginary idea, but so is a world where bunny-shaped angels from the other side make regular visits for teatime, little blind girls throw boulders with their minds and a female warrior princess might sacrifice herself to become the Moon.) And this is where the brilliance of “Korra” comes into clarity with such a rush, and after so many red herrings and symbolism switcheroos, that even a viewer who’s been paying attention would be forgiven for being a little confused.
The given privileges that the vast majority of us lack are something we spend our lives accounting for, balancing out, apologizing for — and by the same token, in Korra’s world, being the Avatar (harnessing not just one but all four of the elements; access to the wisdom and cultural understanding of an unbroken line of helpful ancestors) is in our world what some would call “white privilege”: The ability to play the game on the easiest setting possible.
In “Avatar,” non-benders were terrifying much of the time: Martialized Muggles who — depending on their nation-state — feared, enslaved and mistrusted the Benders among them. Here, despite our sympathies remaining with Korra, we’re invited to see them from their perspective: Oppressed not only by Korra’s existence and Bender superiority but by her access to power, both magical and political. In a world where people can breathe fire, control the earth, manipulate water and fly, wouldn’t you be pissed if you didn’t get any of it?
It’s easy to condemn the tricky populist Amon for his stated ideals, but non-benders didn’t see him as a villain at all: He’s one of them, as far as they know; shining a light at the end of the tunnel for the not-so-privileged, the left behind people of this new world who can’t fly through the skies on a whim, or launch a boulder with a quick jab.
Amon represented a radical movement of scorned people, Equalists, under the thumb of those with much more power, because Benders saying “I can’t change the fact that I was born with these advantages” didn’t do much to bridge the inequality non-benders faced. The fact that Amon was, in the end, just another power-player using that unrest to his own ends shouldn’t surprise anyone, not after the year we’ve had, but the brilliant, ground-level perspective we’re given on the conflict — without our current country’s easy references to poor education, purely financial inequality, and other glib soundbites to explain this underlying rage — is one that makes an impact.
Like “Scandal,” “Korra” takes the “powers” of the straight white man and puts them in the hands of a woman of color, then sits back to see what happens next. And despite being the Avatar of a much more spiritually balanced world than our own, Korra’s not impervious to the wonderful world of sexism brought to you by literally everyone. While Korra’s struggles often include social aggression of all types — Season 2 sees her bring on an apocalypse working on behalf of a doomsday theocrat; Season 3 means repairing civil and spiritual unrest in a permanently changed landscape — there is no redundancy in them. Being mistreated or underestimated for her gender is something that comes with the territory and, just like Buffy before her, presents in different ways every time she reaches a new level of responsibility.
Likewise, when your job is to restore peace and harmony to a world facing civil unrest, this naturally comes with a hell of a lot of entitlement. To have a dark-skinned woman as the protector of the world speaks volumes to young audiences, but by retaining her humanity and foibles — Korra maintains her headstrong nature throughout the series — the show is able to display a sense of power, its heights and drawbacks, unheard of in children’s television. But when you’re a young person who sees someone who looks, or feels, or is treated the way you are, it has a permanent effect: Suddenly “You hit like a girl” might trigger a mental image of Korra: “You’re damn right I do.”
Over the course of four seasons, particularly the last, the show took one step forward into that future it’s helping to create, by slowly making text out of the subtext of Korra’s relationship with (non-bender, financially privileged) Asami. What began with basic jealousy and infighting became friendship, eventually sisterhood, and climaxed with — after many trials, tribulations and love triangles, and in the show’s final moments — a burgeoning romantic relationship. In a country where sex education is not even required depending on where you live, this imagery is groundbreaking in its simplicity.
For those of us who watched “Blue is the Warmest Color” on Amazon and “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix — but don’t happen to be white girls armed with Manic Panic — seeing two women of color embrace at the end of their long and painful journey was a bolt of lightning: Imagine no longer having to “ship” your favorite same-sex pair, developing rich head canon with fellow fans and all the rest of the usual fan behavior.
Imagine the moment of simply and quietly drinking in the life-giving power of its legitimacy.
Certain things leave an impact on us, especially when your being lies outside or extends beyond the status quo. “The Legend of Korra” didn’t merely leave its impact on viewers, however: It redefined what a cartoon can do, and the themes it can explore, all the while presenting us with characters who have more than one skin tone.
I’m eternally grateful for what “Avatar” accomplished. But perhaps a bit more for the groundbreaking sweetness of “The Legend of Korra” — its transcendently peaceful protest, in an age when peaceful protest so rarely has an effect — and the doors it’s opened for whatever show next tackles the meaningless, arbitrary walls between us and our better selves.
“The Legend of Korra” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender” are streaming at Amazon; all seasons but “Korra’s” last are currently included free with Prime. Summer 2017 will see a “Korra” comic-book trilogy, “Turf Wars,” following on immediately after the series’ climactic finale.