by Eliana Buenrostro
For the past 3 months, I’ve really enjoyed watching The Legend of Korra on Nickelodeon. For those whose don’t know, The Legend of Korra is a follow up to the critically acclaimed series Avatar: the Last Airbender, which aired on Nick from 2005 to 2008. Avatar is heavily inspired by distinct Asian cultures and takes place in a world where four nations–each a representative of the elements earth, water, air and fire–rule separately. Some of the people born within each nation are born with the ability to “bend,” or control and manipulate the element of their respective nation. Given the show ‘s careful character development, attention to detail, gorgeous animation, distinctly developed plot, and realism, it is no surprise that in 2008 when Avatar won a Peabody, it was for its “unusually complex characters and healthy respect for the consequences of warfare.” After Avatar ended in 2008, its fans eagerly awaited Korra’s premiere.
It’s rare to find a show directed at children that treats kids in a realistic manner instead of as unintelligent, hysterical or dramatic. It is even rarer that a show – in any genre – portrays women in a realistic manner. Avatar: The Last Airbender did both. One of the characters that stood out to me most in the series was Katara, one of the female protagonists. She’s the narrator of the story and an exceptional waterbender who travels with the Avatar and is determined to help him end the Hundred Year War. A driving force in her quest to defeat the Fire Lord is the death of her mother: when she was a child, her mother was killed by the Fire Nation, the very group responsible for the war. One particular touching moment late in the series was when Katara, intent on seeking revenge, finds the general responsible for killing her mother. It is in that moment that she realizes revenge would not bring her peace.
Another stand out female lead is Azula, a firebender and daughter of the Fire Lord who is waging a war on the Earth Kingdom. She is, in my opinion, one of the best developed villains I have seen on a kids’ television show. From a young age she was a prodigal firebender. She never had a very pleasant or submissive personality, but with only her father around to praise her abilities she eventually became abusive and manipulative. Azula even overheard her own mother say she was terrified of her. That, coupled with her mother’s protectiveness of her brother over Azula, left a profound impact on her. By the end of the series, we see her become mentally unstable, after the only friends she had unexpectedly betray her. I could never defend the incorrigible things Azula does, but she certainly intrigues me as a character.
The Legend of Korra is undoubtedly darker than its predecessor. It deals with themes of abuse of power, political corruption, and manipulation. Years after the end of the original series, a war is waging between the citizens of Republic City, the haven built after the Hundred Year War. An extremist group of non-benders have begun to terrorize the benders after decades of feeling powerless. It brings up a lot of interesting questions about class struggle and power abuses. With the new series also comes the introduction of more complex female characters–this time, the Avatar has been reincarnated as a hot-headed girl. As the new Avatar, Korra is almost practically opposite to Aang, the Avatar of the original series. While Aang was generally peaceful, humble and cared a whole lot about nature, Korra is headstrong and unafraid to use her abilities to intimidate. She is ready to fight at a moment’s notice and she even enjoys her title as Avatar, where it took Aang a while to grow into it. She is eager to impress and she soon joins a pro-bending team. I don’t really see Aang using his bending for recreation like this.
As much as I love the characters from the original series, I have found Korra to be infinitely more relatable than past characters. She is not motherly or sweet and she has the tendency to clash with authority quite a bit, but she also has a tender heart. Her struggles revolve on her attempting to connect with the spiritual side of being an Avatar. She is joined by another equally complex counterpart, the non-bender Asami Sato. Asami looks traditionally feminine, enjoys watching pro-bending matches and is an experienced fighter (though I was disappointed that her being inducted into Team Avatar was the result of horrendously handled love triangle). Her biggest challenge in the series is putting aside her father, who is bent on revenge, to do what is right.
While undoubtedly many of themes in these series are very dark, there a lot of lessons that can be taken from them. It is first and foremost a story of friendship and family and of hope and perseverance. These are kids whom have been tasked with saving the world. They are treated with respect by the adults, unlike in a lot of children’s programming, the female characters are developed and complex. If you haven’t seen either series, they’re worth a watch.