thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How to be Awesome Like Korra the Avatar

In How to be Awesome Like, Television on September 12, 2013 at 8:06 am


brian psi

The second season of Nickelodeon’s animated The Legend of Korra, the follow-up to the enormously successful Avatar: The Last Airbender, premieres tomorrow. For the unfamiliar, it takes place in a fantasy world inspired by Asian martial arts, spiritual practices and traditional and pop cultures. Some people are born with the hereditary ability to manipulate or ‘bend’ one of the four elements (earth, air, water, or fire) associated with their nation, shaping it to their will. The Avatar, who alone can bend all four, maintains the balance between the elements and the nations they represent. In celebration of Book II: Spirit, here’s how to be like Korra (ie, awesome).

Announce yourself

The Last Airbender was about learning to take responsibility: its Avatar, Aang, ran away from the great conflict of his own time, freezing himself in a block of ice for a hundred years to avoid it. Throughout the four ‘books’ of his show, he learned to put aside his self-doubt, accept his place, and finally end the war that he perhaps could have prevented all those years ago.

From the opening moments of The Legend of Korra we know that this is a different show with a very different protagonist. In the show’s first scene, when we briefly see her at four years old, she is already putting the world on notice. Bursting through a wall and channeling three of the four elements around and at some skeptical officials—standing in, perhaps, for those too attached to the previous Avatar, or nervous about turning the franchise over to a female protagonist—Korra’s first line says it all:

“I’m the Avatar, you gotta deal with it!”

Go your own way…

As a teen, Korra does’t follow orders and never meekly submits: when Tenzin, her new airbending teacher, has to return to Republic City because of political instability, Korra—unwilling to delay her training—follows him. When he bars her from joining her new friends Mako and Bolin on the Fire Ferrets, their professional bending team, she does so anyway, proving to him later that she can handle the extra work and fame.

 …but bring a friend

In one of Book I’s better episodes, “The Aftermath,” Korra discovers evidence that industrialist Hitoshi Sato might be supplying terrorists with weapons and machinery, and orders his estate searched. This move is complicated politically but also personally, as Sato is the father of Asami, Korra’s romantic rival for Mako. Neither of them take it well… until some sleuthing leads to Asami’s discovery of her father’s complicity, and the reasons for it: Hiroshi blames benders for the death of his wife, Asami’s mother. Asami, whose anger and jealousy of Korra seem destined to make her a villain… doesn’t take her father’s side. Instead, she plays a large role in bringing him and his operation to justice. Even though Korra’s actions threatened Asumi’s family, both of their commitments to doing what was right, despite the personal costs, allow them to reach a new level of understanding and respect for each other.

Break Through

Korra’s impulsiveness, her inability to find a place of stillness prevents her from learning to bend air, the final element she needs to master. She learns to only when the villain Amon uses a lost power to remove her bending. She defeats him using only air, then wanders out into the snow in tears, believing that her time as Avatar is over. Her predecessor comes to her into a vision, and tells her that “when we are at our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” Korra then achieves the full avatar state for the first time, and reclaims her powers.

In Book II, Korra will continue to make things happen, she will act rashly, and she’ll make mistakes. She’s a teenager as well as a messiah. What she reminds us is that, while many of our mistakes are to be learned from so they can be avoided, sometimes the greater wisdom comes from learning through them, from seeing in them those possibilities—new ways of living or forms of knowledge or power—that we would have never encountered without the gift of spectacular failure.

The Legend of Korra airs Friday nights on Nickelodon.

Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and recent PhD in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis. Read his scribblings on these and other things here.


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