Because fans should be critical, too

Deconstructing Korra: An Interesting Perspective

Long-time commenter JMR linked me a tumblr post in which the author (whose name I can’t find anywhere on her tumblr entitled KABOOM) proposes that the last three seasons of The Legend of Korra were a deliberate attempt to deconstruct not just Book One, but the entirety of the Avatar story up to that point. I’m still trying to gather my own thoughts on the essay–I’m not even sure how well I articulated the premise–but rest assured, it’s definitely a worthwhile read.

I’d like to discuss this post with the rest of you, because it brings up a lot of interesting points. Some I agree with wholeheartedly; some, not so much; and some I’m a bit ambivalent about and need some clarification. This may just be the boost I need to get back to my retrospective reviews (I’ll do a post regarding my absence over the last three weeks in a few days), as well as provide some much needed discussion about Korra after only talking about Avatar for the last few months.

Here is the post.

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13 responses

  1. rosemon

    I really think this was the heart of why the first season Korra was so controversial among a lot of fans:

    “A poorly-written love triangle is not a neutral failure when you have fought to get a female lead onto the screen in the first place. None of us need another story about women competing over a dismissive, but terribly complex loner. A poorly-written story about learning to check your privilege is not a neutral failure when your lead is a woman of colour. None of us need another story about uppity brown ladies learning their place. It’s not neutral to have Korra unlock the Avatar state as an Aang-assisted wrap-up because none of us need another story where a woman’s agency is thrown under the bus of narrative convenience.”

    Good point, which makes me wonder why the writers didn’t think this through before they completed the script. Why try to change these stereotypes in the middle of the show’s run when they could’ve been avoided from the beginning? And why make a point to “kill” Aang later in the show when they’ve already established him as dead as early as the intro to season 1?

    On the other hand, I don’t believe there is any defending of book 2; it didn’t seem like they realized what didn’t make book 1 work would not make book 2 work either, since I’m sure the second season’s writing was being completed way before Bryke even was aware of the criticism of book 1. Season 3 onward felt like the staff became aware of critics’ opinions, as can be seen by the increase of female characters and the lip service in that recap episode regarding Mako’s love triangle and the deletion of a romance between him and a fire nation princess. Going back to season 2, it seems more of a case of bad timing as well as the disconnect between the staff and the viewers more than anything else, then they needed a quick and easy solution to get back into their good graces. It feels like since fans on sites like tumblr (which has contained the harshest, most in-depth criticism of the show) talk about being different/openly gay/ not white and straight, that the writers saw that and thought, “Let’s make our main character queer, that’ll shut up critics and win back fans and get our show with lowered ratings noticed again!”

    Also, the whole “empowerment” story seems like an interesting issue regarding fans who are not white boys: a you tuber named Melinapendulum once pointed out that there aren’t any famous stories involving people of color unless it’s some depressing oppression story about how hard it is to be non-white for children, which is why in their childhoods, people like Melina end up liking or empathizing with white/light-skinned characters because their stories are always simple empowerment stories or escapist without any of the political baggage since “white is the default,” etc. Which makes me wonder if Korra being that kind of story would’ve been better than what we actually got.

    August 21, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    • On the other hand, I don’t believe there is any defending of book 2; it didn’t seem like they realized what didn’t make book 1 work would not make book 2 work either, since I’m sure the second season’s writing was being completed way before Bryke even was aware of the criticism of book 1.

      Yeah, that’s where the article started to break down for me. It’s an interesting theory to examine Book Two as if it were starting to rebuild itself from the ashes of Book One’s failure, but in reality, it amounts to little more than wishful thinking. Facts are facts: Book Two was pretty much fully written by the time Book One had finished its initial run. Narratively, many elements from Book One reach a definite arc in Book Two, but as a self-aware and critical debunks of those initial elements? Naw, don’t think so. Book Two is, and always will be, the nadir of the series.

      Going back to season 2, it seems more of a case of bad timing as well as the disconnect between the staff and the viewers more than anything else

      Funny you say that. I remember someone linked me this video a long time ago, and one of the things that stuck out was that a great deal of people who eventually worked on Korra were initially huge fans of Avatar. Which is fair enough, but I doubt any of those fans challenged DiMartino and Konietzko on any of their big ideas, and the series suffered from lack of truly critical judgment. Whose going to argue with the geniuses behind Avatar?

      people like Melina end up liking or empathizing with white/light-skinned characters because their stories are always simple empowerment stories or escapist without any of the political baggage since “white is the default,” etc. Which makes me wonder if Korra being that kind of story would’ve been better than what we actually got.

      That’s a tough question. I was in the same both as Melina in terms of enjoying the pure escapism of those “white is the default” stories (to an extent, I still am, but the gradual awareness of my racial situation has been rocking the boat for years now). In a way, having Korra simply be the big damn hero without all the political baggage, while not as cerebral, might have been the most powerful political statement of all. A little line here or there would have sufficed, and definitely would have been much more subtle.

      August 24, 2015 at 7:48 pm

  2. JMR

    As is pretty much inevitable with an essay of this length, there are points of it that I disagree with and points that I agree with.

    One point I do agree with is that, even as someone who is highly critical of LoK, I have to give props to it for being far more risky than ATLA. As much as I think ATLA is unambiguously the superior show, as the essay points it, it was consistently supported by a very safe “A” plot.

    However, I have to agree with rosemon that I think it is entirely too charitable to Book 2. The essay largely ignores that season’s bizarrely nasty treatment of its characters, particularly the women. Think Bolin’s outright abusive relationship with Eska being played for laughs. Bolin’s forcing a kiss on Ginger, again played for laughs, and so on. One of my favorite quotes from the essay is, in regards to Book 1:

    “You need awareness to be subversive, and at this point, the show did not have it”

    I would argue it lacked this awareness in Book 2, as well.

    What really interested me and got me thinking was something that rosemon also touches on: the social justice community online is one of LoK’s most scathing critics, but I would add is simultaneously one of its biggest fans. This divide has been a point of interest to me, and this article got me thinking about a reason I believe it exists.

    There is an irreconcilable dissonance between interpretations of Korra (the character, not the show) that are based purely within the confines of the Avatar universe (in universe interpretation), and interpretations of Korra that are based in examining her as a fictional character created by two 30ish white American men (out of universe interpretation).

    Within the boundaries of the Avatar universe, Korra is never made to suffer for the color of her skin, for her gender, or for her sexuality. Quite the opposite, she is instead a member of the Avatar world’s greatest privileged class: benders. Not only is she A member, she is THE member as the Avatar. In universe, Korra is a paragon of privilege.

    Understanding Korra as a product of the culture that created her, gone is the paragon of privilege to be replaced by a veritable crossroads of several different disadvantaged groups. Korra is a dark skinned, (formerly) wheelchair bound, PTSD suffering, bisexual woman. She’s what you get when jackasses jokingly make up “silly” combinations of different characteristics when complaining about people asking for representation of minorities (“Oh yeah, what’s next, a show about a Mexican lesbian Space Marine? HAW HAW HAW”).

    The problem, as the article points out, is when you try to take tropes and story conventions built for those with privilege, and try to shove in a character who represents groups who in the real world have none. The division, then, erupts between those who emphasize interpreting Korra in universe, and those who emphasize interpreting Korra out of universe. Is Korra’s being a beneficiary of privilege within her own world enough to counterbalance these issues? That’s a question I can’t answer, and I don’t even know if its really the right question to explain this division.

    August 21, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    • The problem, as the article points out, is when you try to take tropes and story conventions built for those with privilege, and try to shove in a character who represents groups who in the real world have none. The division, then, erupts between those who emphasize interpreting Korra in universe, and those who emphasize interpreting Korra out of universe. Is Korra’s being a beneficiary of privilege within her own world enough to counterbalance these issues? That’s a question I can’t answer, and I don’t even know if its really the right question to explain this division.

      You’ve hit upon something that’s irked me since the beginning, because that division is definitely real and it continues to derail so many conversations one can have about the series.

      Personally, my angle has always been to assess Avatar and Korra as stories, complete with characterization, dramatic tension, and a consistent inner logic, among other things. I rarely bring up Korra’s unique status as an dark-skinned leading lady in an animated series because, frankly, isn’t that the main selling point of the show? That a character who has the external attributes of an underprivileged class of people in the real world? Wasn’t the whole point to prove that girls and boys would watch an action show with a girl in the leading role (a dark-skinned one, at that)? To the extent that Korra was successful, now girls everywhere–dark-skinned or otherwise–have in Korra what men have had in someone like, say, James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger: an ideal to aspire to and vicariously live through. A power fantasy straight out of the mass-production machine.

      The problem here is that in Korra’s own universe, she is, as you eloquently put it, “a paragon of privilege.” As the most powerful being on her planet, she almost has to be taken down a few pegs before she can pick herself back up and enjoy a satisfying victory. That’s just the mechanics of good storytelling at work. It certainly didn’t have to be as cerebral and didactic as DiMartino and Konietzko intended it be–for my money, I’d say they ruined a potentially good fantasy tale with misguided attempted at blatant social commentary. As I said to rosemon, I think having a straightforward action serial with Korra as the lead–Hell, she still Gets the Girl in the End!–without all the intentional political baggage would have made for a better show and a more powerful political statement.

      I have a lot of issues with this article–besides individual points it makes that I disagree with, the whole thing is a little too “romantic” in its connections and conclusions–but I wholeheartedly agree with this:

      Intent is not an innoculation against error, but it goes to character and provides context through which to interpret actions and choices. It is part of the reason why I interpret The Legend of Korra’s increasingly deconstructionist tendencies as reflective of a journey taken by Bryke themselves. It is why I think it is it valuable to refer to them in a way that recalls their humanity even as we look at the places where they did not do as well as they might have.

      Damn right.

      August 25, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      • JMR

        I think having a straightforward action serial with Korra as the lead–Hell, she still Gets the Girl in the End!–without all the intentional political baggage would have made for a better show and a more powerful political statement.

        I’ve long believed that if you want to do social commentary, you need to be capable, both artistically and in terms of imposed network constraints, of treating the subject with the respect it deserves. I’ve seen a lot of people wanting to give kudos to LoK simply for mentioning issues and political ideas, but I just can’t agree.

        I’d rather the show play to its strengths, which, as you noted, are in the action, than attempt some uninformed, half baked political statements. Its one area where I can’t allow full blame to go to the network. I think its pretty clear that Bryke just don’t understand the subjects they’re trying to comment on well enough to add anything much of worth to the conversation.

        Personally, my angle has always been to assess Avatar and Korra as stories, complete with characterization, dramatic tension, and a consistent inner logic, among other things

        I do agree, I think that by and large stories need to be allowed to speak on their own terms and be analyzed as such. However, I do think the sort of meta-textual analysis the article does is important as a reminder that stories don’t exist in a vacuum, that they’re a product of a specific culture and that we can glean things about that culture from what it values in its stories.

        August 31, 2015 at 10:59 pm

  3. edbva

    While I generally concur with the essay’s initial assessment of ATLA and LoK’s Book Air, as with the others commentators, my views start to diverge after that. What really jumped out at me was the emphasis on analysis via the real-world identity culture paradigm as a valid viewpoint. I find it discordant for the following reasons:

    1. It places more emphasis on what Korra is (demographic) than who she is (character), which ironically is the sort of prejudice that diversity representation ought to combat in the first place.

    2. It implies a deep prejudice on the part of the audience, since they (apparently) cannot separate their own sensibilities about social identity group relations in the real world from a fictional universe where such things are demonstrably irrelevant.

    3. The idea that LoK sought to dismantle an already established universe and canon just cuz it wasn’t deemed fit for a WOC protagonist constitutes a rather iffy twist on the heroic character. The Avatar in particular exists for the world he/she is meant to serve, not the other way around. The world does not exist for the Avatar, and to suggest otherwise is awfully narcissistic. I certainly got that part of the msg straightaway from the Book 2 finale and it was the final nail in LoK’s coffin for me.

    4. It (again, rather ironically) kinda adds to LoK’s incoherence. In depth social commentary is fine, but those things need to be built into the context of the story. As much as Kaboom insists on describing Korra as queer brown girl, the fact is that her gender is arguably the only one of those attributes recognized in-universe, and it has no effect on how others treat her.

    Personally, I think that wrt representation, keeping it simple is perhaps the best route if one lacks either the wherewithal or the screen time and space to do it proper justice. In other words, do what ATLA did: present diverse, engaging characters as a matter of course. That what amounts to a ‘brown woman’ IRL could logically emerge as the next titular hero without seeming outlandish owes to the interesting world that ATLA established in the first place. Once again, in-depth social commentary is fine, but like all other things, it needs to be done well. The real problem is that the creators also tried to do a heck lotta other things as well.

    In keeping with the previous sentence, a more plausible theory of how ATLA translated to LoK can be found in what happened to the Star Wars movies. Kaboom’s analysis is interesting, but stretches quite a bit and glosses over a multitude of glaring missteps after Book 1 on the basis of noncontextual paradigms.

    August 29, 2015 at 12:00 am

  4. PsychoPass

    A more concise explanation is that ATLA took a simple plot and made it complicated, whereas TLOK took a complicated plot and made it simple.

    August 29, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    • Yunus58

      Well done. That really sums it up in a few words.

      August 30, 2015 at 1:34 pm

  5. Ian

    Hey Marshall! Hope your alright dude. Youve been silent a while and i just wanted to make sure you were ok bro. Keep up the amazing work!

    September 9, 2015 at 5:24 pm

  6. Ian

    Echo! Echo echo echoo echoooooo….

    October 22, 2015 at 9:02 pm

  7. As Ian said, I hope everything’s alright.

    October 27, 2015 at 8:21 pm

  8. Ian

    Day 89, the marshall has seemingly vanished. New exciting blogs of avatar have risen to write interesting views and perspectives. But I haven’t lost hope, I still believe that marshall will return to save the Internet! (I.e. WRITE AWESOME STUFF LIKE HE ALWAYS DOES COMEBACKMARSHALLWEMISSYOU)

    November 18, 2015 at 2:48 pm

  9. latenightscribe

    Hey Marshall,

    I thought you’d like this 17 minute video on Hayao Miyazaki, “Hayao Miyazaki: The Essence of Humanity”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52raDbtNpa4

    I think some of the ideas expressed here help explains some of the issues with “Korra”, particularly the first season. The first season is still such a huge “what-if” for the entire series.

    Hope you return soon. It’s like you left us where the first season of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” would have stopped or did stop before renewal. Was the original hiatus between the first part of the season and the second part equally long?

    Best Wishes,
    Late Night Scribe

    December 1, 2015 at 8:42 pm

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