Why I'm excited about The Legend of Korra

Media Buffy the Vampire Slayer Feminism Avatar: The Last Airbender The Alien Trilogy The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra

Being a geek and a girl is tough. As geeks, we have to put up with the things every geek is familiar with: the bullying and derision from people who think we’re weird. As girls, we have to put up with the sexism that is so deeply entrenched in our culture that many petiole can’t even see it when you point right at it and say “Here it is. This. Look at it.“

Geek guys perpetuate this sexism, too. Every time we see “tits or gtfo” in a forum our multiplayer game, every rape threat we get in our xbox live inboxes (trigger warning), and every “are you looking for something for your boyfriend” from a comic book store employee sends a message: geek boys don’t want us in their clubhouse.

And the creators of (for lack of a better term) geek-targeted content perpetuate the problem. Every time a game assumes a masculine gender onto an unseen protagonist, that pushes women a little farther away. Sure, we can roll our eyes and move on, but it all contributes to a culture that delivers a resounding message of “we don’t want you here.” Really, it’s been one long chain of Marios rescuing Peaches for decades. And notably, when Peach finally got her own game, it had to fall back on the tired trope of women being overly emotional.

Even Braid, which is a fantastic game and worthy of heaps of praise, is fundamentally about a man and his obsession with a princess, albeit a metaphorical one. And Portal, a game with literally no male characters (the companion cube seemed to have a distinctly feminine presentation to me, gods rest her soul), managed to bring fat shaming into its sequel.

And yes, there are exceptions. We have Buffy, and Samus, and Ellen fucking Ripley. And of these examples that sprang to my mind, 2 of the 4 have scenes that seriously compromise the strength of the character in ways that are flatly uncharacteristic: Samus in the entirety of “Other M” and Buffy in the pointlessly rapey scene in The Pack in which she is suddenly incapable of fighting back the moment the situation becomes slightly sexualized (by contrast, the much later scene in Seeing Red handles sexual assault and its aftermath much more impressively, with the actual ramifications of the scene explored in detail. But that gets into the oddly difficult to navigate world of Buffy's feminist politics, which is too large in scope to deal with here).

And even more often, we just get male characters, with the female characters in minor or supporting roles. The argument goes like this: men are the target audience, so protagonists have to be male or the audience won’t identify with them. This argument, of course, is broken on at least two levels: male geeks loved the Alien trilogy, and a very large portion of geeks are, in fact, women.

Which brings me to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a children’s television show that underestimated its target audience by about a decade. It was a great show, with humor that worked well for both children and adults, serious themes that were not sugar-coated, beautiful artwork and a well-researched, interesting and unique setting. If we are very lucky, Avatar will do for western animation what Birth (by Ōshima Yumiko) did for shoujo manga - present it as a serious storytelling medium that deserves recognition alongside other visual arts.

And one of the core characters was a strong female character, portrayed with depth and nuance. Several minor female characters were likewise independently motivated, steering women. Of course, the protagonist was still a boy. Because this is a show with martial arts and fireballs and armies, so it’s obviously for boys, right? There’s no way a girl would be interested in an epic struggle against impossible odds, right? The best we can hope for is to inject a little feminist thought as a side issue.

Except now, we have a sequel series: The Legend of Korra. A story by the same team, with a female protagonist. Here’s a trailer. There are several promising things about the trailer: the music, artistic direction, action sequences and the little hints we get about the story and setting are right in line with what we expect from the team that brought us The Last Airbender - this is going to be quality. But the thing that really strikes me is how practical her outfits are: they actually look like clothes someone might fight in. And, despite Korra being visibly several years older than the main characters of The Last Airbender (she looks closer in age to Zuko), the artists have resisted the urge to (consciously or otherwise) sexualize her appearance. Visually speaking, she is clearly a girl, but being a girl is clearly not her sole defining attribute. She is also strong and athletic, and dresses practically. From the (admittedly a bit emo-looking) scenes of her sitting alone, she is also torn or driven by something. And apparently she’s not averse to knocking someone through a shop window. All in all, she looks pretty bad-ass. A Strong Female Character in the Ellen Ripley tradition.

This is something we need more of: female role models in geek media. It lets young, potential geek girls know that it is okay to enjoy this stuff; that it is for them, too. And it gives those of us who have struggled to carve a place for ourselves a sense that we’re finally being heard.

And if anyone reading this doubts that sexism in the geek community is a real problem (that is, if you still can’t see it), let me share with you this youtube comment from the above trailer:

chicks with muscles are just creepyyy. i take it that you’re a girl, and if you like “women muscle" then get some muscle for yourself and see how many guys like it. i mean for me i like when a girls body is nice and soft, not hard and strong. don’t you understand that that’s a turnoff for most guys?

See, what fanime1 has done here is to assume that the central purpose of women is to be ‘nice and soft’, to be appealing to men. A vast majority of our media supports this idea - most women in media, geek media included, fall into a pretty narrow band of ‘conventionally attractive’ body types, because they are written (and cast) primarily for men (more specifically, for the Male Gaze). And girls absorb this idea: that women have to be attractive to have worth.

This is what I mean when I say we need more things like The Legend of Korra. Korra is a rarity: a character for us.