Let's talk about portrayals of women and femininity in Legend of Korra.
This was one of the most disappointing elements to me, because ATLA was a very feminist series that carefuly avoided a lot of common sexist pitfalls while creating a large and varied cast of empowered women who could choose to embrace or reject femininity to any degree without being treated as less for it. It wasn’t perfect, but it did a damn good job with the ladies. LOK…was really problematic on this level.
Let’s look at a few points:
- There is not a single significant female character over the age of ten who hasn’t had to compete with another woman for a guy. This plays into that gross old stereotype that women need to view each other as rivals and competition, and prevents strong relationships between women from forming. Hell, Pema even encourages this behavior and Korra follows it. Even worse, Korra only feels guilty about kissing a taken guy when his brother finds out. Asami? Who the hell cares if Asami got hurt! Women are supposed to hate each other, right?
- Femininity is treated as inferior. Asami is easily the most feminine of the cast, and Korra judges her for it and thinks she’s ‘prissy.’ She doesn’t earn Korra’s respect until she shows that she has a traditionally masculine interest in racing cars. Until that point, Korra acts like a total brat around her, making faces behind her back, assuming the worst of her, being ungrateful and rude and hostile when Asami had never been anything but nice to her. This plays into the ‘other women as competition’ trope, but Asami has to do things that are unfeminine to make Korra be even remotely civil to her. It should not fucking matter if Asami wanted to take her shopping instead of car racing. And Korra’s judgement of her really isn’t treated as problematic! The most you get is, ‘don’t judge the girly girl, because maybe she does non-girly stuff too!’ Bullshit. There is nothing wrong with enjoying feminine things, and Asami certainly isn’t less for it.
- There aren’t any really strong female relationships. The best we get is Korra and Lin, but this is vague and poorly developed. Hell, they bond in episode six and then hardly interact until the finale. I have a hard time buying this relationship. Korra and Asami is even weaker; as previously mentioned, Asami has to earn a teaspoonful of Korra’s respect and friendship by showing her something masculine. Korra is decent to Asami for all of five minutes when she tells Mako to go to her, and then she appears to forget that Asami exists as anything more than the person who drives the car. They never talk, they don’t even say goodbye to each other in the finale. Calling that a friendship is downright laughable. Korra gets along with Pema, but the only time they actually really talk involves Pema indirectly encouraging Korra to ‘steal’ Mako. Similar with Korra and Tenzin’s girls; I can’t recall the three of them ever talking about anything other than Korra’s love life.
- The only main protagonists to lose their bending were women. We are given physically strong women, but it really undermines it when they have their power taken away and, even worse in Korra’s case, have to be saved by a man. The ending was downright insulting; we’re expected to read Korra as a strong, independent woman, but in the last episode she’s more of a damsel in distress who has her happy ending given to her by a man without having to work for it herself.
I’m hoping the second season will be less gross on this level, but my hopes are just not very high at the moment.