Feminism / TV

The Legend of Korra: Learning to Love the Unlikeable Heroine

Why aren’t you watching The Legend of Korra, already?

I’ve been noticing quite a few people, including fan communities, who feel frustrated with Korra and her unlikeability this season. I want to give viewers the benefit of the doubt, but it’s also something that tends to happen with female characters, in that they are often judged more harshly by audiences than male characters, even with very sympathetic writing. Think of the many thousands of Breaking Bad viewers who are willing to rationalize most of Walter White’s cruel, power tripping, malicious, and abominating acts (including letting a young woman overdose in front of him, manipulating those around him, gaslighting his wife, poisoning a kid, making people explode willy nilly), but flipped out upon seeing his wife, Skyler, smoking while pregnant with their second child.

Korra may have noble efforts. But she’s stubborn, and careless, and doesn’t think before she speaks. When faced with criticism or advice, she takes neither well. She overestimates her own abilities. She has serious anger issues, and she can’t stand to let anyone take the reigns in her life. She’s rude, not clever, not tactful, and she thinks physical fighting is the answer to all her problems. A destructive and rebellious teen, she’s basically a fire bender in a water bender’s body. When Nickelodeon first unveiled Korra’s character design, I remember thinking they were taking a risk in making her highly athletic looking, and not as traditionally feminine compared to other women in the series. But I think Nickelodeon is taking an even greater risk—and ultimately a more interesting one—in making her an “unlikeable heroine.”

korra being angryFrom the surface it seems like Korra and Aang are very different. Personality-wise, they are. Raised by monks in the Southern Air Temple, Aang is both understanding of authority and the wisdom of his elders. He’s also highly spiritual. He’s a vegetarian, he meditates, and even when he has a serious job to do, he finds time for laughs and lighthearted fun.

Aang actually exhibits a lot of traits that we tend to see in female heroines. He has really delicate features, his frame is small, and lithe, and he moves nimbly. The creators of The Last Airbender, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, are unafraid of putting him in situations and even outfits where he might come off as feminine or sensitive. And these are situations where the femininity is not for a laugh—there isn’t even a hint of irony. He is gentle, generous, and forgiving, and his first instinct is to be kind to others, even his enemies. He shies away from confrontation, and his native bending element—air bending—is all about evasion and avoidance as opposed to facing conflict head on.

aang wearing a crown of flowersKorra, on the other hand, gets an F in spirituality (and for the Avatar, that’s pretty bad). She faces every problem with aggression. Compared to Aang, Korra looks like someone who could rip you apart. There are a lot of camera angles that very deliberately show her from below to make her seem as though she’s towering over us. Plus, women tend to get flak for being angry. And as an audience, we have a very low tolerance for “bitches.” Korra shows a lot of anger often. She is a character who surely has the ability to exhibit kindness, loyalty, gentleness, and love. And she has. But in conflict, she exhibits some of the more traditionally masculine character traits that we tend to associate with male heroes, from her overconfidence, to her audacity, to her lack of compromise. She is absolutely rebellious and has a lot of character flaws that classic male heroes have, especially impatient, young heroes. But while Korra may not be as charming as the war profiteering Varrick, she is far more deserving of respect.

It’s also worth noting that when it comes to dealing with being the Avatar, Aang and Korra are not so different. There was a time when Aang made decisions just as brashly and carelessly, and when he hurt others around him for selfish reasons. In the episode “The Storm,” he reveals that he never wanted to be the Avatar. In fact, when he learned that he was, his life changed so drastically that it left him feeling powerless. His friends no longer played games with him because having the Avatar on one team or another would make their teams uneven, and the Avatar was supposed to represent balance above all things. His days were made up of hours of rigorous training and tests. The final straw came when they wanted to take away his friend, mentor, and father figure, Monk Gyatso. That day Aang made one of the most reckless decisions of his life, packing up his belongings and escaping on his flying bison in the middle of a storm, leaving his friends, loved ones, and responsibilities behind.

This entire scene occurs in a flashback so we only see his rebelliousness and frustration in several minutes. With Korra, we see the whole thing. We see her struggling with a lack of autonomy. We see her being manipulated by those who want to use her. It becomes so common, that anyone who expresses faith in her abilities looks suspicious. We see her training endlessly and becoming more powerful, but constantly told to stand down when there are opportunities to use her skills. We see those who are closest to her withholding key pieces of information, and once she discovers these secrets, she is told that she was kept in the dark for her own good. We see her misunderstanding the meaning of “balance,” when everyone around her interprets political conflicts as having “sides”: the North vs. the South, the Benders vs. the Equalists, the humans vs. the spirits.

republic cityThere are a LOT of good reasons to be watching this show (music, characters, fight choreo, setting). What’s so interesting to me about this stage in her life is her character’s immense potential for growth. How will she learn to hold back? How will she learn to not fight fire with…fire? We’ve also seen Korra and Aang’s personalities in heroes of the opposite gender, so it feels stirring and, well, different to see it the other way around. I can’t prove that there’s a causation between angry TV women and angry viewers, but there is definitely a correlation, and it’s something to think about. How might this affect a viewer’s perception? There’s a reason for why DiMartino and Konietzko chose to go in a completely different direction with Korra than they did with Aang. It shows the many faces of a hero and how a person becomes one.

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4 thoughts on “The Legend of Korra: Learning to Love the Unlikeable Heroine

  1. Pingback: How I spend my semester break :3 | Daniel Azwan

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  3. I found this to get someone else’s insight on the matter. I just started catching up and the fact that this tends to happen with females characters occured to me. I was wondering if this might be hindering my judgement of her character. So far I’ve been avoiding comparing the whole show to the atla. My problems stem more from the writing and the heavy fanservice. Sometimes the voice acting.

    I hope I do come to like her and the show.

  4. You know this pretty much sums up all my problems with this show. Much as aang was allowed to be more femm I want to see Korra be not just more masculine but more independent. I want to see her fly off the chain in the way only male characters usually do

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