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“Avatar: The Legend of Korra” gets badass on gender expectations

2011 March 24

I’ve written previously for BadRep on how the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender is very feminist-friendly in its treatment of female characters. Women have important roles, the prejudices they face are explored and ridiculed, and they are counted as the most effective and capable warriors. There are equal numbers of them compared to the men in the group, and while the lead character is male that fact becomes almost unimportant in the weave of personal stories from the whole team.

A new 12-part miniseries is being made, this time with a female character in the title role. This image of her has been released and is doing the rounds on fan blogs and so on, and some of the comments which have greeted it are very interesting.

A picture showing a girl named Korra, who is the lead character in the upcoming series of

Here are some of the initial replies I’ve seen (not exact wording):

  • “Why does she look like a boy?”
  • “She looks well butch.”
  • “Take the pigtails out and you have a dude.”

All of which might arguably be true, but that’s firmly in the tradition of Avatar playing with gender in awesome ways. For a start, the character of the Avatar is a holy person who has reincarnated as male and female over the centuries. They have a long line of both to call on for wisdom during meditation.

An image from the Nickleodeon tv series

Aang, the boy monk who is the lead character of the original Avatar: TLA series. Image copyright Nickelodeon.

In the original series, the Avatar is a boy named Aang, who presents as relatively gender-neutral: his young age and upbringing as a monk make him quite androgynous, his head has no hair or facial hair and he wears mainly shapeless robes. While physical power and combat are key measures of success for the world he lives in, Aang refuses to take the hyper-masculine pose which is constantly encouraged. He is instead always flying out of reach and using his enemies’ aggression to quickly slip behind them to safety (a key technique of the Ba Gua martial art which his tribe learn). He doesn’t judge or take sides, but is laughingly delighted to meet anyone. He has been away from the world, and society’s restrictions on gender simply make no sense to him compared to love for your fellow beings. Expectations of male and female conduct are explored (and often refuted) by everyone around him, but he stands alone in the centre. He is a pacifist trickster, unique in the world.

Tricksters in mythology are often linked to exploration of gender roles. They can be shapeshifters, disguise themselves as anyone, and try out, or even master, traditional women’s or men’s skills. Shamans in some communities (who can in many ways embody the trickster role) may not consider themselves to be male or female: some cross-dress, or adopt the conventions of different gender roles at different times. Tricksters are also usually Outsiders. They all know loneliness and derision, and can only succeed in their task if they do NOT fit the safe confines of known social roles. Aang is definitely an Outsider, and the lonely last of his kind.

The fact that the series can do all this while still being a genuinely thrilling, hilarious and entertaining children’s show is just one of its strengths (do you get the impression I like it quite a lot?) The attitude of neutrality with regard to gender isn’t laboured, and as the episodes progress Aang develops a hetero attraction towards a female character, but by that point it doesn’t feel like it was inevitable in a Hollywood kind of way.

When we look at who the commenters expected Korra to be like, the closest fit is probably the main female of the original group – Katara, a teenage girl who, like Korra, also comes from the Water Tribe. Katara has complete agency over her actions and repeatedly refuses to fit into everyone’s expectations for what ‘a girl’ should be able to do. She does take on the familiar female roles of healer and nurturer, but only after proving she is as strong and determined as the men around her and choosing the additional activities for herself. Demanding them, in fact, when there is so much which she rejects and fights against as well. But at the end of the day… she is also very conventionally pretty.

Korra doesn’t give the studios that reassurance. You can usually be as liberal as you like in a new show – provided you have a white male lead. I think Avatar: TLA did the minimum it had to in order to be made, and took great risks after it had snuck in under the radar. Avatar: TLK isn’t putting up with that nonsense at all, has a teenage young woman of colour as the protagonist and (if the previous writers were anything to go by) will not be taking any crap about it.

I can’t wait to see what Nickelodeon do with Korra, and in many ways “she’s not feminine-looking enough!” is a wonderful comment to have provoked. Television for children is SO important in terms of teaching norms to a new generation. The original depicts the heroes observing the world around them, choosing for themselves which parts to take into their life, and being treated with honour and respect no matter who they feel they are. I just wish we were getting more than a 12-part miniseries this time!

Promo Image for the new series by Nickelodeon, showing Korra standing on a bridge looking towards the horizon.
11 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    March 24, 2011

    Just to reinforce the “bald kid in a yellow dress” gender ambiguity, if you’re VERY OLD like me you might remember the children’s show “BOD”. Bod appeared to be a Chinese child, but fans still argue about whether he was male or female (I have one of the books, it’s a ‘he’). The reason he’s wearing a yellow dress is that he IS Chinese, and they are Taoist robes. Another child monk! (He really is Taoist, as are most of the stories, the authors even released a “Bod’s Way” Taoist book).

    Aang wears orange robes, because his tribe is based on Tibetan Buddhists, but it’s nice to see that the ambiguity is still there :)

    • Mawgen permalink
      March 24, 2011

      omgosh – I did not know that! :)

      I knew bod was a boy, but I never thought of his clothes as a dress, and did not know about the monk stuff. That makes bod even more cool!

      • Stephen B permalink
        March 24, 2011

        The Taoist book they wrote is CRAZY. It has Bod characters demonstrating verses from the Tao Te Ching (emptiness is useful, if a bowl wasn’t empty you wouldn’t be able to put anything in it, etc) and Chuang Tzu (his dream with the butterfly, the giant bird etc) but it doesn’t explain WHY any of these are important! The end result is trippy, and somehow manages to be faithful to the original tales while not making any sense to new readers, because there’s no explanation of why he’s riding on a bird!

  2. Russell permalink
    March 24, 2011

    Other than the fact that she’s a cartoon and it’s like applying a sexual attraction value to an inanimate object (ooh, that book makes me want to READ it so hard, yeah, I’m gonna give that novel a damn good reading), if you met someone who looked like what that cartoon would look like in real life, in real life, I don’t think you would make similar complaints about her attractiveness. These animated characters, drawing inspiration from the Japanese tradition, are typically unrealistically gorgeous no matter what you do. I think there is a degree of hyper-sensitivity here from the fans.

    That said, I also think you’re totally on the money about it being okay for her to not be the paragon of physical gorgeousness as imagined by the white male, including what you said about trickster types, who are awesome and the best. :)

  3. kaberett permalink
    March 24, 2011

    My reaction on looking at that picture was, in fact, “but! She is wearing clothes! And muscled! And of colour! What is this! Surely it is not mainstream TV!”

    Or, to put it another way, :D :D :D. This is almost enough to *make me watch TV*.

  4. Jonathan H permalink
    March 24, 2011

    A couple of points here. Firstly, he (Steve B) really IS that old. He’s not lying. He’s like ‘Yellow Emperor old’. But I digress.
    Secondly, I should point out that the gender ambiguity in Avatar and Bod ( or – for the up-tempo youngsters out there) has been well seen in other sources too. Lest we not forget Tripitaka in ‘Monkey’ portrayed by Japanese actRESS and MODEL, Masako Natsume. Or even in the humble panto tradition of the male hero played by girls.
    Bored numbering my points now, so I shall simply plough on.
    I may be off-base slightly, but whilst I can see the concern that some elements are ‘bothered’ by the fact the female protagonists are not supermodel material – very likely young males who don’t quite grasp the nuances of gender politics or their own place in the world yet, anyway – I am not sure it would be my main issue. If you start thinking that way, then God help you, you have to take issue with the film and television industry as a whole, and that’s an argument for another time.
    No, instead, I would look at the positive aspects. You hit the nail on the head with characters not entirely conforming to gender stereotype. You have female leads, and if the previous series was anything to go by, they are going to be kicking ass and taking names. They would chew bubblegum, but I am reliably informed, they are are all ‘outa gum’.
    I don’t know how many peeps would agree, but I am quite encouraged by the increasing number of pretty good roles, of increasing depth and variety, out there in TV land for women. Many of my favourite shows coming out of the US have solid parts for women that make you actually want to listen rather than just sit back and enjoy the view. Of course, there is still the issue of most LA-based actors being gorgeous and not what you would call ‘ordinary’ looking, but this applies to the men as well, though perhaps a lesser extent.
    If the good roles keep coming, then you never know, the move towards the less conventional ‘look’ may not be far away.

    • Stephen B permalink
      March 24, 2011

      Yeah. It wasn’t just that the response (from teen boys on the net) happened at all, although it was more vicious than the quotes I could remember here, but more that it made me appreciate once again how awesome A:TLA is!

      Ooh, good catch on Tripitaka :)

      • Jonathan H permalink
        March 24, 2011

        Well, my thought processes are slightly meandering today. It’s an interesting journey, if not very practical. Kinda segued into live action more than cartoon, but it’s still the same mindset of ‘girls must be pretty’. Even our man, Whedon, despite his love of the strong women, never quite got past the idea that his protagonists (and even support cast) needed to be Made of Sexy (tm.).
        What made me laugh however, was recently being told that the new Thundercats Cheetara was insufficiently sexy – by a woman. So it’s not just the teen boys. :)

  5. Damion permalink
    February 10, 2012

    Haven’t seen the episodes with Korra yet, but she looks awesome. I love to see tough women in fiction, few as they may be at times. Then again, I’ve also watched a lot of Xena: warrior princess. I really don’t care if characters (or people) don’t conform to gender stereotypes, as long as they can kick ass.

  6. anthony permalink
    March 4, 2012

    more korra stuff

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