by Ria Desai

In my whirlwind journey through the cartoon The Legend of Korra, I found that the show, while exemplary in featuring strong women as its leads – and strong women of color, at that – fails to empower those women. Instead, the female characters, as is all too common in media, fall victim to constricting stereotypes that leave them underdeveloped.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a bona fide fan of the show who loves certain female characters (Lin Beifong, for example!), but the show’s problems are too flagrant to ignore. My biggest issue with the show is that women are set up as rivals, and pitted against each other when it comes to love. Korra is jealous of Asami’s relationship with Mako; Lin and Pema are still at odds after their long-gone fight over Tenzin.

I get that the characters in this show are teenagers, and that with teenage years come drama (at least, according to every TV show ever). What I don’t appreciate is that the romantic drama ends up dominating the main plot conflict. When Korra should have been concerned about the Equalist terrorist movement and its leader Amon, she was instead preoccupied with boy troubles.

Korra is indeed older than Aang was in the original Avatar series, but the writers of the original show still never let Aang’s on-and-off relationship with Katara overshadow his inarguably more important goal of mastering the four elements. I can’t help but wonder if it was partly Korra’s gender that induced the over-emphasis of the romance angle. Sure, fandom’s enthusiasm for couples also plays a role, but I felt like relationship drama was emphasized way too much in a show meant to chart the growth and development of a new Avatar. Realistically, when a girl is a girl on a mission, crushes shouldn’t get in the way of the show telling that story.

The writers consciously chose to depict Korra as boy-crazy, when she could have a perfectly strong character without all the angst. In fact, the writers of this show are (rightfully) lauded for making Korra a strong, independent female in the first place. I admire them for that, but I’d have to challenge the notion that Korra remains a strong female throughout the first season: in the finale she feels unworthy of her boyfriend because her bending is gone. It’s as if she doesn’t feel she’s good enough for him without her powers.

The writers could have chosen to make Korra’s story even more potent by having her reflect on her loss and grow more resolute as a result. Instead, they reinforce Korra’s feelings of inferiority, and she’s handed her powers back on a silver platter: no internal healing or growth happens in the process of Aang returning her ‘strength’. It seems as if her strength is based in her powers rather in her inner character, a sad development in her characterization.

And while Korra’s relationship woes may be a frustrating part of the storyline, they can’t be ignored in terms of analyzing the messages of the series. Her boyfriend Mako is the absolute worst character in terms of the treatment of women. Mako, the silent broody type, is in a relationship with Asami, a girl we’re subtly encouraged to dislike when we first meet her. Despite being stereotypically pretty and aesthetically everything Korra’s not, Asami is actually a pretty badass character who I came to love because she fights well, races cars, and holds her own even as a non-bender. Nevertheless, I’m bitter that the writers thought that her character development wasn’t enough and set Asami up as the jealous girlfriend type.

To sum up the Asami-Mako-Korra love triangle, Mako indecisively swings between choosing Korra or Asami. At first, Mako thinks that “it makes more sense” for him to date Asami, but he soon realizes that he has feelings for Korra, resulting in a secret kiss between the two. Mako eventually chooses Korra over Asami and doesn’t admit fault for his actions, even when confronted by Asami about cheating. What really set me on edge was that he never comes clean and breaks up with Asami, and that his parting words after their last fight were, “I care about you.”

Somehow both Asami and Korra are fine with the way he treats both of them. He toys with Korra and never truly breaks up with Asami, degrading and belittling the respect that both women deserve. We, the audience, are meant to support Mako and Korra’s relationship, ignoring the fact that doing so means that we support Mako’s ill-treatment of both women.

Even though I’m a fan of the show, I find it sad that I can’t support the main couple because of the wonky writing and characterization. As I move on to watch later seasons (known as “books” in the Avatar-verse), I’ll be watching carefully, hoping to see if the mistakes of the first season are rectified.