The legend of inclusivity

Or Korra and the struggle for more inclusive writing.

Recently, Dark Horse have announced a comic book series continuing the stories of Avatar Korra, focusing on her relationship with Asami (here‘s the Mary Sue article for more details). Now, if this sounds like gibberish, I’ll explain. The Legend of Korra is the sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was a 2005 TV animated series that some people liked. Vague? Alright. It’s basically Kung Fu meets magic in Mysti-China. A world inspired by various Asian mythologies that featured a cast of ethnically diverse (but predomninantly mystic-Asian) characters (who were played by a bunch of white guys, but we’ll get to that in a minute). It touched upon topics of spirituality, peace and loving the environment. At the same time it was essentially an American coming-of-age story starring the most white-American mysti-Chinese character I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, it captivated audiences worldwide and inspired a lot of people to… do Kung Fu and love nature, I guess?

I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t watch the original series until much later. Oh, what’s that sound? It’s my geek cred slamming against the floor. Bear with me. I actually watched the original series only after having watched the sequel, The Legend of Korra. The peer pressure finally became too much so I agreed to watch “that silly cartoon”, but I guess the female protagonist just appealed to me more.

Fast forward to 2010 and the film of roughly the same name (The Last Airbender) was – what’s the polite way of putting it? – not well received. It featured a cast of mostly white people in mysti-China which already looked dumb. They threw out a lot of the mystic and spiritual topics in favour of shadow-punching and choreographed Dung Fu that looked plain silly. I love M Night Shyamalan and generally think he gets too harsh criticism on most of his films, but I can’t defend this one.

Hope seemed lost until two years later when “Legend of Korra” hit the screens. And Holy Shyamalan Shaolin, Batman, was it good. Alright, I’ll admit, I thought the first season (or book, whatever) was quite… what’s the word? Meh. The second one was ok… ish. We were still dealing with a white-American coming of age story, only this time of a girl from an Inuit-like tribe who really, really liked sports. Hold on, Nickelodeon, I’m not giving you points for originality just yet.

It was nice to have a female protagonist in a children’s cartoon, since, well… we really should. Right, that’s the end of that discussion, what do I talk about for the rest of this post? Oh, I know. The series, I felt, really came into its own when they ditched the boring romance that Korra (the protagonist) was in (hint: it’s with a sports jock, it was awkward at first and then they fought, then they kissed, then they broke up again… wow, so original) and turned the story over to some really interesting villains who pushed Korra’s limits. In the end, she won, but the main bad guy broke her. Bane vs. Batman style. In the fourth season (book, give me a break), she had to rebuild a Kingdom whilst thwarting its dictator all on her own. No pressure, Korra dear.

But that all pales in comparison to that last episode (and the build-up to it), and that scene between Korra and her friend Asami (who used to be her ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend… talk about complicating things). In that scene, after they left a party together they… wait for it… they… still waiting… they… hold hands.

Yeah, I know. The writers later went on twitter to confirm that “Korrasami” (as fans have dubbed the relationship) was officially “canon”, otherwise known as “a thing” (See IGN for more details). And that’s… great? I guess?

Personally, I felt robbed. Like they didn’t go far enough with it. Here, we have a perfect story for the new age. A story of diversity, inclusivity and pushing boundaries. A children’s cartoon with a female main character who is not white and, in the end, a bisexual. This is so great. On the one hand, we’ve blown away the “white male” standard with an uppercut straight to its bearded hipster chin, and not only do we have a main character who is not straight, but she challenges the simplicity of “straight or gay” in terms of sexuality. So, why is my reaction to it lukewarm at best?

First of all, the shortage of minority actors. You could argue that it’s voice acting, so the colour of the characters is what’s important, regardless of the voice. Fair point, but allow me to expect more. Take the Southern Water Tribe from whence Korra came. It shows Native/First Nations and Inuit influences in its culture. It is a highly spiritual society with a deep connection to the spirit world (and in this Universe, that means something). Why not hire some Native actors to do the voice? I’m sure Adam Beach is dying to get another gig, or recruit others too (Sorry, Adam, you’re great, but you’re fast becoming the Samuel L Jackson to Wes Studi’s Morgan Freeman of Native actors, give others a chance, eh?). I guarantee you, an actor with that cultural background will bring a whole new dimension to the character that transcends the boundary of the TV screen, reaching out to the audience in a way that a white actor cannot.

But it’s not that the actor voicing Korra is white. (Way to create jobs for minority voice actors, Nick.) It’s not that it was yet ANOTHER coming-of-age story (like we don’t have enough of those already). But it’s that last scene. Them just holdings hands. I loved it the first time I saw it. I still do. I thought it was sweet, innocent and hinted at something great for children’s TV (i.e. no longer pretending like other sexualities are not a thing). But it was vague enough that it let “fans” take to twitter in a storm and say “no, she is not. I’m taking my strictly hetero marbles and leaving, yo.” But I wanted more. I wanted them to embrace and kiss while rose petals fell from the ethereal planes and spirits danced in a spiral around them, while violins played in the background and sparks flew. If you’re wondering where the sparks came from, it would be from the screens of all the homophobes watching. I mean, keep it PG-13, but give me something! Go full Hollywood with it, just to rub it in everyone’s faces. “Yes, she’s bi. Deal with it!”

I’m not blaming the authors. I guess what they did is already pretty bold by today’s standards (which is a sad statement in and of itself). I just want a bisexual non-white female character in a children’s TV show to be seen as something perfectly normal. Why? Good question, I don’t know, because… it is? I want that to be the shtick of a popular TV series and not cause a fuss. And I want to be able to stop praising people for writing “inclusively”. Because inclusivity implies that there is exclusivity to be fought.

The inclusion of a scene with two girls holding hands in a way that may or may not be romantic may be seen as a step forward from nothing. But is it enough? For me it was wishy-washy, non-committal, maybe-maybe-not-maybe-bother-someone-else. What I’m asking is… own it. Commit to it. Embrace it. Make sweet, sweet love to it and let it bear babies. Diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, polyglot babies who don’t go “ewwww” when they see two girls kissing on screen. A next generation of art that acknowledges that someone’s sexuality does not need to fit neatly in a box, that girls kissing girls is normal and that we’re all free to be what we want.

And, in the end, Korra and Asami are perfect together, and you know it!