Saturday, December 20, 2014

Relationships... "Korra"... and beyond

So, last night my wife, my son, and I sat down to watch "The Legend of Korra", specifically the last three episodes. These would mark the end of a Television masterpiece that started with "Avatar, the Last Air Bender" (2005), and between the two series, has been one of the most groundbreaking and powerful animated story arcs in the 21st century. There aren't too many critical topics that haven't been touched on, and the show deftly speaks to audiences ranging from six, to thirty six. To say that they they have character development even more of an understatement than to say Star Wars has blasters. The show is built on changing people, and the amazing ability of the human spirit to adapt to situations, no mater how challenging.

The show was amazing, as I expected it would be. LOK very aptly takes the medieval far-east settings of LAB and takes the show into the Steam Punk genera without sacrificing any of its core strengths. The final fight of the first series, a prepubescent Avatar Aang squaring off against a war hardened, lifelong combatant Firelord, not only set a high bar for "boss-fight" scenes, but kept the human element in the fight better than most other shows.

Korra very deliberately took a very different tone with each battle in her show, being as much about the character's internal struggles as about the final fight in each season. I think part of what made the show work was how well it keeps character relationships central to the story, even in the midst of the hardest fights.

And here we come to the actual reason I am sitting down to write this. In LAB, each of the characters bonds differently with those around them, and most of the fan favorites finding "someone special". I don't think anyone was overly surprised to find out that Aang and Katara's young romance lasted through the rest of his life, and produced three children. At the same time, decades later, I don't think anyone was even bothered to watch Korra's on-again/off-again relationship/flirting with Mako as the two young adults (the former a world leader, the later a tough street cop) found their way in a very different world from that of the generation before them.

Early in the show we meet Asami Sato, an educated, thrill seeking engineer/business woman who makes up for her lack of magical powers with technical savvy and daring on a par with most comic book central characters. She's the perfect addition to the "team avatar" quartet, and a good balance of perspective against the team's two dominate (and drastically different) male personalities.

And that is why the final moment of the series is so important.

Asami (left) & Korra (right) Final scene before end-credits
This is even more powerful when you consider the final scene of the first series.

Aang and Katara share a kiss before
the final credits of T.L.A.B

This (left) is the kiss that sealed a relationship that would help shape the whole path of its successor series. It doens't take too long to think about it and connect the dots.

Yes, I think its safe to say that the writers, animators, and voice actors of this series  just put a shot over the bow of the bow of the last vestiges of the old-school social conservatives. Maybe it wasn't intended that way, there has been a strong Korra/Asami fan club going since season 2 of the show, maybe the writers wanted to give them something. Though they have always been regarded as the minority opinion.  Now, it would seem, the underdogs have come out on top. Or, who knows... maybe this was in paper before the first frame of the show was ever painted. I honestly have no idea

As a bit of social commentary and statement, I have to admit, the moment was played with chess-master precision, and I think I can relate to middle age'd audiences of the 50s when kisses between "adulterous" couples started showing up on theater screens, or white audiences when the first interracial kisses showed up on TV in the 60s. There was a strong sense of "how dare they show me that", and I won't deny I was a little put off myself. Not for my own sensibilities, mind you, I have a number of friends in same-sex relationships. But, the show did stop just short of hitting me upside the head and saying "now explain that!" with regards to the fact my nine year old son was sitting next to me at the time. My wife and I just haven't talked about that part of society with him, but as smart and insightful as he is, he's probably not as naive as I think he is at the moment.

So yes, we have come to the point where a cartoon isn't talking about a major, current social issue with metaphor or analogy. While there is "some" room to wiggle out of this, within the world of the Avatars, the dramatic overtures of the show are a fair indication that these two women will explore the relationship beyond friendship.

And to that I say, best of luck to them.

Outside of that world, I think the show does two things for us in those final seconds.

First, it makes it very hard to call the character "gay" or "bi". Korra is the avatar, part of "team avatar", friend to Mako and Bolin, student of Tenzin, defender of the Republic City.., and so much more.  For once, I think we might actually have a point in american history where the story and society aren't going to put a relationship preferences at the top of the resume.  Korra is no more defined by the look she and Asami shared than I am by my relationship with my wife. I am not "that strait guy" and more than she is "that bisexual avatar".

Second, and I think more importantly, the show was a wake-up call for many of us that this conversation is being had too late in life. Unfortunately, romantic relationships are no longer under the american decency laws of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, Even in small town Oklahoma (arguably the most conservative, and in many ways socially repressive state in the US), Romantic couples will hold hands in public, share personal jokes and gestures that only couples do, and be glad to be seen as being "together". And yes, some of those couples will be same-sex.

If we don't explain at least the groundwork of that scene to our children fist, others will. Sure, you may, or may not agree with same sex relationships, but what is your reaction going to be when you do go to talk to your ten-year-old about it, and they say "Oh, you mean those fags"?

Yeah, doesn't matter that the kid sitting next to them at school doesn't know jack squat about the word he just taught your kid. He got his foot in the door ahead of you, and now you're playing catch-up to a fifth grader.

As a society, we have so criminalized, regulated, restricted and legislated sex and sexuality that many of us are actually scared to talk about honest relationships with our children because "relationships can lead to sex, and that is taboo until they are 'old enough'."

I don't know how I am going to address the overall topic of relationships (same sex or otherwise) with my son. He's 9, but well ahead of that in comprehension. I know it will be a process, one that will probably start sooner rather than later, and once that he will shape as much as I and my wife will.

But if he asks me, some day, "Are Korra and Asami in love?", I don't know what I specifically will say, but one thing is for sure; I'm not going to take the coward's way out, and say "no".

...and then again, he might very well just just spend the next five years raving about the 25-story mecha that mostly destroyed the city in the final battle. :-)


  1. Should've had that talk about 4 years ago. He's not as naive as you think/hope. Public school spreads anything current and in the news like wildfire.

  2. But realistically, he will be more interested in the mecha.