When I asked a friend of mine whether or not he’d be watching The Legend of Korra, an animated sequel series to a show called Avatar: The Last Airbender we had both loved, he responded, “No, I’m not a girl.”
I’m not writing this to explain to you why even though Korra has a female protagonist it isn’t just for girls. Because duh. And I can state with some certainty that I’ve managed to root for characters that (shock horror!) do not share my sexual anatomy, and I know that dudes can too.
I’m writing this to say “ROCK ON” to writers Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino for choosing to write a female character even though they risked that exact sort of response.
The Legend of Korra is a show geared towards a tween and teenage audience that aired on Nickelodeon this year, and in addition to being an extremely well written and entertaining cartoon, it features the most badass female protagonist since Katniss Everdeen.
Korra is a seventeen-year-old girl who has the power to control, or “bend,” earth, air, water, and fire using totally rad martial arts moves. In the fictional world where she lives, select people are gifted with the ability to bend one element, but only the Avatar–Korra–can bend all four. It’s set in a kind of steampunk mixture of 1930s Hong Kong and New York called Republic City, where Korra and her friends fight evil and maintain balance in the universe.
There are a variety of traits that make Korra a great protagonist. For one thing, she is a hero in the sense that she fits perfectly into a stereotypically male hero narrative. You know the one. A young boy finds out that he has been gifted with glorious abilities and is fated to save the world, then, along with a ragtag group of buddies, fights the big bad guy and saves the day. In other words, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, King Arthur, Superman, to name a few. There are times when a female fills that role (BUFFY) but it’s rare. Korra has joined a small but elite group of heroines.
Korra is also dark skinned. Don’t try to tell me this isn’t awesome. Sure, it’s a fictional universe so it’s not like she can identify as any specific race, but she’s still the protagonist, and her skin is CONSIDERABLY darker than any other character. And since we still live in a world where dark-skinned characters are almost always sidekicks or bad guys, this is fantastic.
While costumed roleplay (cosplay) allows people of all races, sexes, and weights to dress as their favorite characters, black cosplayers tend to get stuck dressing as white protagonists. This young woman has chosen to dress as dark-skinned Korra.
Korra’s character design is muscly and badass, and while she’s attractive, she’s not sexualized to the extent that only a heterosexual male audience can appreciate her.
Alienating character design:
Look! She has a polar bear dog! I’m not at all alienated!
Korra also features a strong supporting cast of characters, including Korra’s crush Mako, and his brother Bolin who crushes on her. For a while the show teetered precipitously on the edge of a mind-numbing romantic triangle.
But saints be praised the romantic intrigues of Korra were as tangled and stupid as real-life teenage drama, and just as impossible to sort out in a half hour segment. The moral of the romance in Korra was essentially, “these things are not the end of the world” which is the sort of knowledge I sure wish I had when I was a teen.
The adults in the series are equally excellent. They aren’t just all-knowing mentors fixing up the mistakes of silly teens, or bumbling antagonists to the teenage leads. The adult characters in Korra make mistakes and have their own lives, and are just as fun to root for as Team Avatar.
Lin Beifong, shown above, is a middle-aged female character who is complex, funny, flawed, and JUST TOO FREAKING HARDCORE TO HANDLE.
Korra is not a perfect show. Some plotlines were too hastily tied up, and the good vs. evil plotline is not as complex as the series’ writers have led me to expect. However, it appears that the writers and designers of Korra made a string of good decisions that promise to make The Legend of Korra great.
Full episodes of Korra are available online at nickelodeon.com, and the series has been renewed for a second season although the release date has not yet been made public.
So my male friend doesn’t want to watch a girl be a hero. Well, I’m going to bet you will.
Katy Gehred is a pop-culture obsessed feminist who is too enthusiastic about too many things. Hobbies include co-editing this blog, knitting, smashing the patriarchy with a hammer, and nerdfighting. She is currently working on her Master’s degree in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, and if you have any questions at all about Thomas Jefferson, she is the person to contact.