Kella (my 3 year old daughter) and I finished The Legend of Korra this weekend. Both Kella and Finley resisted watching the cartoon every time I wanted to turn it on, demanding Stampy or some other nonsense, but would sit enraptured for hours, requesting episode after episode once the show began. Finley missed out on the last few episodes, preferring to sleep in (oh the life of a five year old). While I was glad to get through the whole series, the very last scene left a bitter taste in my mouth.

More on that in a minute.

First, while the series was excellent, better than almost every other so-called kid show my children like to turn on (except, perhaps, the surprisingly good My Little Pony), it wasn’t better than Avatar: The Last Airbender. My kids hadn’t seen the original series, so I turned on a couple episodes after Korra finished up. I was instantly drawn in by some of the stark comparisons.

Plus it’s totally adorable that my kids insisted on calling it “The Legend of Aang” once they found out he was the Avatar.

Just a couple notes on the two. Right from the get go, Avatar presents us with a complex scene. A boy frozen in ice for 100 years, who will not only have lost all of his friends seemingly overnight, but his entire culture and the world he knew. A girl who has powers she can’t control, who lives with her brother in a community without any men for reasons not yet explained. A teenager burned on half of his face, hellbent on finding someone who hasn’t been seen since before his father was born. This is a crazy world with deep back stories that, despite the child-focused telling, are compelling for anyone.

Korra has a strong willed girl who has basically no mystery, who meets a couple of other people with similarly bland back stories. Living on the streets? Okay, could be good, but rarely discussed after it’s been established. Rich but psychotic father? Leads to some angst, but didn’t really have anything to do with the past, and didn’t even lead to questioning whether her choices were right going forward (which I thought was an odd choice, but whatever).

The latter show still did a wonderful job creating dynamic characters that you can’t help cheering for, but the mystery is what happened to the world after Avatar, rather than how the protagonists got to be how they are. And even the changes in the world aren’t that interesting, since Aang left everything pretty great. It’s like Season 6 of Supernatural, which was great in it’s own respect, but missing the overarching direction of the first five seasons.

On that same note, I was sorely disappointed that the various seasons were only tangentially connected. There was no overriding “Fire Kingdom Tyrant” that Avatar had to handle.

All that isn’t so much a complaint, just background into why Legend of Korra, just like Korra in the story, had gigantic shoes that were basically impossible to fill. The fact that it came so close is accomplishment enough.

And then, that ending.

When I say ending, I mean the very last part where Asami and Korra walk off hand in hand, then turn longingly towards each other in the Spirit light.

This

I’m sure any complaints I, or anyone else, have about the ending will be dismissed as homophobic attacks. You’re free to believe what you want, but that’s not why it annoyed me so much

Zero Development

At some point during the finale, I remember thinking, “wow, after all the flirting going on in the first couple of seasons, we might actually end the show relationship free.” That it struck me as a surprise shows how ingrained relationships are in Hollywood. You can’t have a happy ending AND end up single. That would be blasphemous.

After that first though I moved on to, “wow, what a bold choice to buck against the Hollywood trend by having the big four main characters ending up as friends.”

So when two of them walked off hand in hand like they were in love (something the developers later confirmed) it was like a slap in the face. That trend bucking I thought the creators had been courageous enough to follow was doused with cold water. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was Korra and Mako, Asami and Mako, Korra and Asami, Korra an Bolin, or even Bolin and Mako (okay, that would have been gross for incestuous reasons), the fact that they fell into the Hollywood troupe of “happy endings have relationships” was a HUGE disappointment.

What hints did we have that Korra and Asami were in love, anyway?

Let’s see, Asami once said that she likes Korra, but it was in the, “hey, we all want her to succeed” context, not the “I’m attracted to her” context.

Korra wrote Asami at one point, specifically noting she wasn’t writing to Mako and Bolin.

Finally, at the very, very end, Korra tells Asami that they should go on a vacation together, without everyone else.

In other words, the very thing that women do all the time with other women when they want to have fun with their friends without boys screwing everything up.

There might have been a few more hints, but if it they were there, I completely missed them. I guess there was that one part where Asami and Korra were fighting and Mako mentioned that’s basically how his and Korra’s relationship was, BUT THAT WAS WHY THEY BROKE UP! So I would consider that an unhealthy clue if it was designed to be one at all.

“But wait,” someone must be saying, “it’s a kid’s show, so they COULDN’T develop it more!”

Okay, fine. I get it. Maybe the censors wouldn’t allow anything so explicit in a kid’s show. But when your solution is to make a cardboard cutout of a plot point, it makes you seem either (a) lazy or (b) cowardly.

The route they took was sloppy and flat, designed for one thing only. Which leads me to. . .

Politically Cheap

Like I mentioned before, the creators would have accomplished the hyperbolic impossible by filling their predecessors shoes. The ending made me think that they felt like they’d come up short, so they stuffed some tissue into the toes by proclaiming, “look, we’re addressing important social issues in a kid’s show! Take us seriously!”

It was like a last ditch effort by a failing artist trying to get noticed: “Add 3D effects, a vibrating seat, and a lesbian couple and maybe people will overlook our lackluster plot.”

It didn’t need it, though! It was such a good show all on it’s own that relying on cheap political tricks to get people praising the series really should have been below it.

Fighting Stereotypes the Wrong Way

Let’s imagine a story together. Let’s say we watch a movie about a man with a great voice who fights his way through politics and persecution to become the most successful singer on Broadway. Then, at the very end, it’s revealed that HE’S GAY!

If that final revelation comes as surprising twist to anyway, please turn off the internet now, because apparently you’re doing it wrong.

It’s sad, but the shocking stories are still when a completely regular person is revealed to be gay, rather than the walking stereotype. With the story above, the shocker would have been if it was the other way around and the character turned out to be straight.

In one of the recent episodes of The Walking Dead, our growing group of survivors meet a seemingly normal man who suddenly turns crazy at the sight of a flare shot. We discover his unexpected turn was because his male Significant Other was endangered. There’s no long discussion, no other message, no painful stereotypes. Just someone who happens to be gay wanting to save someone he loves.

It’s kind of pathetic that it’s the normalness of it all has become the shocker in Hollywood. So many shows instead have this constant refrain of, “we’re all the same, except look how different they are from us.”

This Cracked video sums it up better than I can:

Or, to point out another popular fictional character, which would have been more surprising: (a) Dumbledore wears flamboyant clothing because he’s gay and that’s what gay people do, (b) Dumbledore is straight and just happens to like flamboyant clothing, or (c) Dumbledore is gay and wears completely normal wizardry clothes.

In Hollywood it seems like both (b) and (c) are the correct answer.

Okay, enough throat clearing. What does that have to do with Korra?

Let’s play “guess the sexual orientation”:

Picture a woman who’s a bit of a tomboy, bucks the cultural norm by wearing baggy pants instead of form fitting clothing, is constantly trying to prove herself against domineering men, and is the a pretty gosh darn competent warrior.

Is this woman attracted to men or women?

If you read through that and though “lesbian,” you probably work in Hollywood.

Just thinking through some of the shows I’m watching right now, you’ve got Tara from The Walking Dead, Charlie from Supernatural, and Nyssa al Ghul from Arrow, all hitting most to all of those points above. And they’re lesbians. There’s a couple more characters who also fit that description, but they bisexual. Examples: Sara from Arrow, and apparently Korra and Asami.

Heaven forbid we have a strong, courageous woman who happens to prefer baggy pants AND men.

Straight, Non-crazy Women Sorely Lacking

Why does there have to be an “and” to the equation every single time? Let’s look at some of the women from the show:

Korra – strong, independent woman AND lesbian (or at least bi)
Asami – strong, independent woman AND lesbian (or at least bi)
Kuveria – strong, independent woman AND insane
Lin – strong, independent woman AND kind of insane (though she gets past a lot of it). I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if the creators said this strong, commanding, independent woman was a lesbian (or at least bi, since she dated Tenzin in the past)
Eska – strong, independent woman AND completely psychotic
Zhu Li – weak, submissive woman until an odd and unexplained twist at the end where she suddenly becomes a strong, independent woman. I was trying to stick with main characters, but the fact that this flat comic relieve became someone at the very end was another striking and odd change-up, almost like the creators looked at the above list and realized their representation of straight, sane women was sorely lacking.

There are a few women that don’t fall into that stereotype. Opal, Jinora, and Ikki all become stronger characters, developing by overcoming their submissiveness. Though, unfortunately, none of them ever reached Korra, Asami, or Lin levels of strength and independence, with the older two basically falling into a relationship the second they come into their own.

Only one person came to mind that avoided the AND categorization: Suyin. She’s a fairly minor character, though. And, thinking back on it, I believe the narrative strongly hinted she was insane when we first met her, and it was the twist of Season 3 that showed she wasn’t. I might be remembering that wrong, though.

I won’t bother breaking it out for the men. They’re all apparently straight, and, other than Varrick, only the bad guys are insane. Even Varrick is the “crazed inventor” insane, and gets somewhat inexplicably redeemed at the end with Zhu Li.

My Point

I guess I just don’t get why everything has to have some political shock point or be needlessly stereotyped. Can’t we just leave the older-kid oriented story filled with good, complex characters who deal with non-reproductive system related issues? Do we really have to tack on some politically charged point to make us feel good about ourselves? And do we really, really have to finish up with relationship = happy ending every single time?

Part of what made Avatar so strong was that it managed to convey a very grown up story without using grown up fall backs. Aang might have an adorable crush on Katara, but it didn’t develop much past that. It could have been completely platonic the entire time and the story wouldn’t have lost any of it’s power. That the creators of Korra felt like they had to fall back on last minute tricks seriously lowered it’s prestige in my eyes..

Which is really too bad, because otherwise it was a fantastic show.