A GENTLE ODE TO KORRA FROM A LESBIAN FEMINIST DEPRIVED OF STORIES
Asami liked Korra.
“Do not start. Do not blush,” Virginia Woolf instructs female listeners in A Room of One’s Own after announcing to them that “Chloe liked Olivia.” Woolf continues: “Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.”
Woolf goes on to lament that in the 1920s it was rare for her to read books in which women actually liked other women--either romantically or platonically--since most everything that was published had to do with how women’s lives revolved around men. And I lament here in the 2010s how rare it still is for a story to be told about women liking women without men inserting themselves into these stories.
But Asami liked Korra. And my heart wept in gratitude for the men who wrote that story. However, this essay is not about those men. I would only like to say that the writers and creators of The Legend of Korra, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, apparently loved their protagonist enough to give her the resolution she deserved. It was so simple, so subtle, yet so subversive against our internalized cultural attitudes that bury women’s stories--especially those of lesbians. Perhaps still at this point in mainstream culture it is too impossible to find these narratives told by women writers because to get ahead in the game, women have to play the game, and have observed that the game still requires them to force their female characters into heterosexual relationships and treat lesbianism as a joke, while gay male characters, even if often stereotyped, get visibility and acceptance (See: most mainstream comedies; e.g. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Modern Family, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, etc.). Of course, there are exceptions few and far between, but I’ll never stop wanting more until every aspect of society accepts lesbian relationships as deserving of positive and sufficient representation. I often wonder how many writers are fighting to tell our stories on screen, and how fiercely, because it’s not impossible, as The Legend of Korra, written for a young adult audience, shows us; it’s only widely perceived as such.
The writers of Korra fought for their characters, especially for Korra. It is clear throughout the four “books” (what the creators call their seasons) that they loved their hero, in the way they present her facing her adversaries both physically and mentally. It did not seem at first, however, that Korra’s fate was going to be any different than that of every other potentially relatable female character. But a ho-hum male/female relationship is when and why we first meet Asami.
The first two books of the series portray the stereotypical love triangle. Korra likes the brooding Mako, who likes the pretty Asami. But even when Korra is jealous of Asami, Asami likes Korra, so much so that she betrays her father in order to help Korra. We see throughout these two seasons that women do not always have to be in competition with each other even when they seem to want the same things.
Of course at the end of the first book, Mako chooses Korra, and Korra accepts because she thinks that’s what she’s supposed to want, but their relationship in the second book is increasingly strained. Their interactions are tense and forced, and one can easily read Korra as incredibly uncomfortable with having a boyfriend at all. Once the two break up, for some reason the writers have Asami pursuing Mako once again. What is the purpose of this? Perhaps it was to help sooth the inevitable hurt feelings of the straight audience when Mako ends up with neither girl because both women become fed up with his opportunism between them by the end of the season when he is shown to betray both their trust. The women shouldn’t have needed a reason to be done with him, but the writers concocted one nevertheless, apparently to cater to those viewers who needed a reason. Mako is a “nice guy,” after all. And in all the stories the nice guy gets the girl, right? Or at least is pitied because he doesn’t (See: the “Duckie” complex)? Not in this one, the writers decided.
For the final two books, there's no more hint of either woman liking Mako, but instead their friendship, manifesting in their perpetual closeness (often literal proximity), begins to bloom. It is subtle yet lovely because a viewer is struck that one does not see this sort of storytelling more often, which may also be why so many fans began to “ship” Korrasami at that point. Of course, there were also fans who complained that there was no reason to ship them because women do not just fall in love once they become close. Yes, that can certainly be true in real life, but when popular stories treat relationships between women as something rare, a lesbian viewer, especially, cannot help but attach longing to that relationship. It is a thirst that is so infrequently quenched. It is also a need--a need to be recognized as real humans who have a richness to contribute to society because of our bravery to subvert the deeply ingrained societal expectation that tells us we should depend on men in our domestic lives. I like to think that even if it was subconscious, the writers recognized this bravery in women loving women, and wanted that for their hero, Korra.
And I have seen very few female protagonists as heroic as Korra. In the first three books, her adversaries are men who are set in their ideals, ideals that necessitate the annihilation of Korra’s inborn power. The villain Amon’s cause is Equality between those born with certain abilities, in this case “bending” or controlling the elements, and those without, which would require those with the power of bending to be stripped of their powers. Korra, as the Avatar, can bend all the elements, which makes her Amon’s primary target. Amon’s objective can be seen as that of men who believe they should have more power than even the most powerful woman. Too many men have been indoctrinated with the concept of “masculinity” and the possibility of becoming “emasculated” if a woman were to display any kind of perceived superiority over him. In Amon’s case, he merely uses the discourse of equality to bring down the Avatar, since he himself secretly has bending abilities. His “blood-bending” is the supposed gift that allows him to take benders’ abilities away. Eventually he gets hold of Korra and, as she kneels on the ground, he takes her powers from her despite her horror and protests of “no.”
By the end of the first book, however, Korra finds her inner strength, which reveals that her essence as the Avatar cannot be taken from her. She discovers the same by the end of Book Two, when her uncle becomes a dark avatar and tears her spirit from her body. Book Three’s resolution is different, though. Here she encounters Zaheer. His cause is Anarchy, which leaves no room for an Avatar who wields incredible power. Korra doesn’t know why Zaheer wants to capture her rather than kill her, and she’s terrified to learn. Regardless, by the end she has turned herself over to him to free his captives. It turns out that in order for there to never be another Avatar reincarnation, she must be killed while in the Avatar state, when she is at her most powerful. Zaheer chains her up and invades her body with metallic poison to force her into this state, but the rage and fury that manifests in her as a result is unexpected. On one hand, this fury while she’s at her most powerful is good because it allows her to defeat Zaheer, but it also causes her to lose her control, her own sense of balance, her sense of self. That is why the battle with this man leaves her broken, body and mind.
Finally, in Book Four, we see Korra battle her demons, her PTSD, for three years before she returns to her friends, namely Asami. As previously stated, we see Korra and Asami’s friendship blossom in Book Three, with them even bonding over the humor found in their respective immature relationships with Mako. Most lesbians have been there--giving it a shot with a boy, based on a real crush toward that “perfect” guy she thinks him to be. That’s the limited information we enter this dating game with, anyway, and the rules of that game (because every system that creates false identities for us is a “game”) are only just now changing for the current generation. Anyone who’s broken the heteronormative rules up to this point, one could argue, is just as brave as Korra, and the earlier the generation the braver. We’re brave because society’s influence is incredibly strong, as is our own personal desire to be accepted. But throughout history, and more visibly in recent history, there have been lesbians whose personalities are much stronger than those pressures, so much so that they can break free from the lies and know that acceptance means nothing if people only accept a person for who they’re not. I speak specifically here of lesbians because of the intersectionality of homophobia and sexism (and in Korra’s case, she is also dark-skinned and from an arctic-like country, so many fans see her as Inuit, if her world weren’t fantasy). Basically, the fact that Korra and Asami once dated a guy does not mean they’re not fierce lesbians.
Throughout Korra’s recovery where she learns to walk again while trying to rid herself of the image of when she lost herself with Zaheer, she receives many letters from her friends, but only writes back to Asami, her friend who stood by her and even saved her on a number of occasions though she has no bending abilities. She’s just smart and caring and loyal. And even though Korra has a lot on her mind at this point, she finds comfort in this friend. There is an excuse for Korra to get close to her rather than her other friends--she is another girl. Girls are friends with one another; they have those shared experiences as women in both natural and social landscapes. They both know how awful men can be when they try to impose their ideals on them no matter the cost. Asami feels this reality as much as Korra since her own father tried to kill her for not believing as he did--another historically possible consequence for lesbians--even if she (perhaps) has not experienced the physical pain that Korra has. That pain is nevertheless a reality for women everywhere simply because they are women. And so by Book Four, Asami and Korra have recognized the strength of their bond.
Also in Book Four, there are a number of other women characters who play key roles in Korra’s journey. Not only does Katara (wife of the previous Avatar) help Korra heal her physical body, but Toph (friend of the previous Avatar) helps her heal her spirit. These two elderly women use their gifts to aid the young Korra to realize her female strength. Korra is stubborn, so she has to learn that sometimes she needs help outside of herself. Who better to help her than women with whole lifetimes of experience? She also finds when she returns to Republic City that the person trying to take over the city by force is a woman this time, named Kuvira. The difference in the outcomes between this showdown and the three previous that Korra had with her male adversaries is that Kuvira does not try to violate her before she destroys her, but I will not spoil anything else that happens with Kuvira here.
I am, however, going to spoil what happens with Asami a little bit. In the last few minutes of the series, after everything has calmed down, we are left with only Korra and Asami. The moments are not blatantly romantic, only sweetly so. “Let’s go on a vacation, just the two of us, anywhere you want.” Korra is starting to see that life is not all turmoil, that there is a light that shines through all the corruption, and there is no logical reason she should not allow herself to cling to that light. One gets the impression that Asami knew of her own feelings for Korra for a long time, but waited on her patiently, through the storms of battle, and through the quiet of Korra’s absence during her long recovery. That’s not to say that Asami did not vent her frustrations with Korra for being gone so long upon her return. But that was because she had missed her.
So that final scene came, and the audience caught a glimpse into the dawning of Korra’s realization about what her friend meant to her. She had fought her way through the violence of entitled men to find peace with the woman who showed her the most love and patience while Korra came into her own, without the overbearing influence of a whiny boyfriend, and past the effects of her suffering. Asami stuck by her.
Virginia Woolf continues in her essay, “Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers...literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.” The writers of The Legend of Korra may have known what they were doing when they decided where Korra would end up. They may have even wanted to go farther in exploring the relationship but were constrained by production expectations. I have read what co-creator Bryan Konietzko had to say on this topic of Korrasami (in short, he confirms the relationship as canon), but an author’s intention has never really mattered that much to me. A story a person writes reveals so much about the human mind that the author never intended or even thought to intend. Somewhere in their psyches, the writers knew where Korra’s story had to go, and I can only hope that women and girls will soon have an abundance of theses stories of women helping women and women loving women.
“And what am I going to find if I get through this?” the exhausted, pained, frustrated Korra asks Katara, the old woman helping her heal.
“I don’t know,” Katara says, “but won’t it be interesting to find out?”
Chrissy is a Hoosier nerd who loves stories about interesting women because she finds meaning that way. An Indianapolis native, she currently lives in southern Indiana with her partner and her dog while she attempts to inspire young minds as an English teacher.