Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Originally published on Pop Culture Social Club: On Tuesday, July 31st, 2012. This is the latest draft I could find (having had computer issues in Feb), and PCSC having only half the essay up (as mentioned here). I shall now redirect my links to my full essay on my blog.

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  I was asked to write a review about the show; The Legend Of Korra, a universe sequel to  Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLAB). The problem is, I can't. I can't, because that's not the show I watched. That's not the show that was presented. The show I watched was 'Tales From Republic City'. And it was a very specific type of tale - a traditional kyriarchial, not particularly Asianic tale about the call to adventure for several men. I didn't enjoy it very much.

 Legend of Korra (LoK) was supposed to be about the Avatar; the one elemental master capable of utilizing all four (or depending on your point of view, if you include 'Spirit', all five) of the elements. And yet the title character, the supposed central character is woefully misused. Despite being in mostly every scene, Korra and her related themes didn't have much of a developed role. For a show called LoK, there really wasn't much about Korra, or her actions that was specifically legendary.

 Whether or not the creators, writers, directors et al intended to make the brown, young teenage girl an accessory in a story that bears her name; this is exactly what happened. The domino chain starts with her and it's all downhill - everything associated with her, associated with being the Avatar ALSO becomes an accessory to other tales; other people's stories.

 When you're telling the story of a character, it's them interacting with their worlds; their intimate world and their public one; and their dynamics within these worlds that create rich life.  These interactions reveal the larger universe, reveal the character and help frame the story being spun. The problem with LoK is that the intimate and public worlds revealed have nothing to do with HER, Korra, at all. The story does not make sense if it's supposed to be about HER. If the show is Tales From Republic City, however, it makes perfect sense.

 The Avatar is meant to bring balance to the world; among the people, between people and the spirit world, among the elements and the kingdoms; thus a topic like oppression is very much within the bailiwick of an Avatar's duties. But when Korra is an accessory to other characters, it means oppression, and the themes of oppression, resistance and revolution become accessories as well. They're not fleshed out, they do not reveal the world or the larger universe, they do not have lights shown on them revealing an inner private life (in the case of Korra), or greater depths or complex layers - instead they themselves become tools to explore other characters.

 The tale of Korra, in Tales From Republic City is incredibly shallow. The story of a young brown woman, with a huge political and influential role in an Asianic universe - ends up being shallow. As the universe itself, is shallow,  lacking in depth of culture and broad design.

 Korra is not the only female character who's made peripheral - it happens to ex-girlfriends, current girlfriends or wives, and mothers who were main characters in the first iteration of the universe. It's as if the inability to deal with female characters in great depth in ATLAB is compounded in LoK. Instead of the mystery of Ursala, Zuko's mother, and the lack of any older female elemental masters or White Lotus members; we have Katara sidelined from the start; Police Chief Lin whose personal development is focused through her interactions with Tenzin and his family; Pema whose primary purpose seems to be to be pregnant and married and Asumi Sato of Sato Industries who becomes a plot point for two men.

 On the other hand while some male characters are sidelined, the kyriarchial call to adventure in the ' Tales From Republic City', as I saw it, mainly revolves around Tenzin, Amon, Tarrlock and Mako.

 In 'Tales From Republic City', we learn about Tenzin; Councilman, son of the prior Avatar, and  family man. Tenzin's story seems to strongly be about duty and family with strong themes of prioritizing obligation and honor. I won't claim Tenzin isn't created in a way that shows he loves his children. But there are distinct times family itself comes across as duty and obligation; in his interactions with Lin, his ex-girlfriend with whom he has awkward but very present chemistry and in his interactions with Korra herself. Korra is an accessory to his tale of trying to find balance in a world where his father is reincarnated and he's left trying to pass on his father's wisdom back to him. The end of Season One seems to show Tenzin reveling in the small joys of life, but stuck to duty and obligation, in perhaps a contrast to his brother who's seemingly merged an enthusiastic love of life with career or direction. Tenzin solidly rejects the call to adventure; including the adventure to be had with Korra.

 We did not see Tenzin in relation to Korra from her point of view; what it's like to have him as a master and guardian figure, what it's like to interact with him as the son of her water master (Katara), and as yet another family member of her prior incarnation.

 We did not see Korra interact with Tenzin in an extended fashion when it came to air-bending, to meditation, to finding her center or drawing strength. Tenzin doesn't even tell her stories of Aang - he advises her to meditate and contact him herself.

 I was struck with memories of Aang's playfulness and his fierce joy in competition; memories of Air Bending sports at the Temple, playing with Sokka, trying to ride a water beast etc. But we don't see Korra and Tenzin interacting about her joy of professional bending. There's been much talk about Korra's discipline or what it should have been - but I'm truly struck there wasn't a showing of how she found a way to connect to joy and freedom in all her bending, via the professional sport, and how maybe finding joy in air-bending might have been key. Aang was filled with joy about air-bending; it helped define him. And yet it's not joy that connects her to the form, it's responsibility, and some fear and some deus ex machina.

 Why does the brown girl not get to have joy in air-bending? Why is her enthusiasm for learning other styles of bending touched on once, but not again? How is she rebellious and independent and pugnacious and disobedient and yet the one time we see her truly carefree and enjoying the moment, it's quickly followed by angst and ends in disaster?

 Why does a brown girl in a leadership role not get to show joy?

 Why? Perhaps because it's not her story. It's Tales From Republic City, and it's not about her.

 The story of Amon, touches on power and influence and control. His stage is resistance to oppression. But like a stage, everything behind him is a prop and two dimensional. He is mysterious and motivated, later revealed as complex and pained. He treats Korra as his enemy, and as an obstacle to be overcome. But his interactions with Korra, are all about him; his power, his domination, his schemes, his coordination, his manipulation, his orchestrating her humiliation and helplessness. Korra is as much a prop to him, as are his fellow Equalists, the entire Equalist movement, and the concepts of resistance to oppression; how it starts, develops and becomes a platform. Worse, the end of his story has nothing to do with imbalances in society, but his personal trauma and a very twisted, faulty coping mechanism and world view. Amon's accepts his call to adventure and it leads to false power and ruination.

 Korra doesn't learn anything in her interactions with Amon. He's not a thread in her story,  she's a thread in his.  Nothing happens that leads her to maybe discover why previous Avatars lived among the people and weren't locked in a fortress having sheltered lives. She doesn't learn anything about general non-benders, about why people whom she's responsible for, as their Avatar, would join the Equalist movement.  Resistance and revolution against oppression and class domination become a kind of cult of personality; and her presence is a minor aggravation - after all, it takes outside influence both physical and spiritual before she's able to reverse things with Amon. And even then, she doesn't end his story, Tarrlock does.

 Why does the brown girl in a leadership role, not get to join the fight against the system and win? Why does she maintain the status quo and write off the complaints of others as their manipulation by a charismatic but wrong leader?

 Why? Perhaps because it's not her story. It's Tales From Republic City, and it's not about her.

 Tarrlock's story is depicted very clearly as that of a user. A Northern Water Tribe Council-person, he'll try and use anyone and anything to get what he wants; power, total autonomy and control. He uses Korra several times, but she's hardly his only or even his main stepping stone. He bullies the Council, non-benders, and even tries to manipulate the Chief of Police - both of them.

 Tarrlock accepts his call to adventure and it leads to crumbling weakness and loss. He too faces ruination and false power; which makes a kind of symmetrical sense given how his storyline intertwines with Amon's.

 In Tarrlock's story, Korra is a tool, another instance of her being an accessory. There isn't any reflection on Tarrlock as perhaps who she doesn't want to be, or his wrongheadedness or where power took him, of how he uses people. It's difficult to bear comments about Korra's age being an excuse for her lack of growth during the series when in ATLAB we saw all the young characters grow; Zuko to Ty Lee, Aang to Sokka.

 Why doesn't the brown teenage girl who's meant to be leading the story, reflect on how she needs to be different from an obvious villain? Why doesn't she come to realize what abuse of power, specifically bending power means - why does she try similar bullying tactics right after she saw how they affected not only random strangers; non benders; but her own friends? Why doesn't she mature, reflect, regret, change and grow?

 Why? Perhaps because it's not her story. It's Tales From Republic City, and it's not about her.

 The last main male in 'Tales From Republic City', is Mako. Mako is an orphan, an older brother, once a Triad member or at least part of that life, now a Pro-Bender trying to look to the future. We learn that Mako is about security, about protecting the last of his family, about putting food on the table. His interactions all stress these; when things interfere with his sense of security, with his sense of having some kind of control over his life and environment - we see more of his inner world, more of his breaking points, more of the lines he will cross. Personally, I didn't like what I saw - but it was there to see.

 In his tale, there's lots about balance between responsibility and self wants, self desires. It's a combination of needs taken too far - in this case a need for security; along with very valid wants. He deals with attraction, relationships, with his brother, and in figuring out when it comes to choosing the right girl for him, just exactly what it is he really wants; the sensible choice, or something more organic and perhaps irrational. Maybe it's a touch gender switched, as that's the kind of growing moment choice usually seen with women. But it still leaves Korra peripheral; an accessory.

 Her interactions with Mako revolve around her being a prize he deserves, by value of his existing and knowing her; one of  his two options as a 'good boy'; she's the organic choice, Asumi's sensible security.  Meanwhile Mako is also presented as a kind of protector figure Korra's set up to need. Korra becomes a 'princess' (stereotypical in particular ways); waylaid, unconscious, abducted, kidnapped and accosted and in the midst of it all, despite her own movements, Mako is clearly her champion. Mako answers the call of adventure and wins the prize; the admiration of his enemies and the love of the girl he decides on.

 Why doesn't the brown girl get to be the hero? Why isn't it her exploits that gain the guy's attention, that save him, that leave him swooning and a little bewildered and awed and impressed? It's not as if it's not possible, Bolin does it quite well - with mutual respect being involved from the very start.  Why does the brown girl end up with a Champion instead of being the Champion?

 Why? Perhaps because it's not her story. It's Tales From Republic City, and it's not. about. her.

 This is why I was left with so many questions at the end of the show claiming to be Legend of Korra. Where was Korra's adventure; her call, her struggle, her hero's journey, her hard won answers about herself and the world; as the Avatar, as a teenager, as a Water Tribe girl in the big city?

 I originally thought her becoming a Pro-Bender was a marvelous idea; instant access to the most popular sport, gaining fans, interactions with ordinary people; the chance to show herself as liking similar things, being swept up in enthusiasm just like them. I wondered if the way to get her to recognize privilege and her society's problems was in thinking about her fans - thinking about what their support meant to her in the ring and realizing what it'd mean for them to have the Avatar's support in life.

 Instead Pro-Bending was a way for her to meet Mako, a way for Mako and Asumi to interact and a way for all three to have an extremely unnecessary and plot diminishing love-triangle.

 Mako as a goal wasn't something new. It definitely wasn't the tale I was hoping for a young, brown, heroine. Mako's love as a struggle to be won, is just the romance prize gothic heroines have had for ages; a good/manly husband, along with the adventure of finding, attracting, choosing and keeping him.

 I wanted Legend of Korra. Not Tales From Republic City: Mako's Romance, starring Korra.

 But that didn't happen.

 The Legend of Korra, didn't happen.

 There were lacks and pitfalls,  stereotype after gender stereotype after racial stereotype. And none of this gets into the world being less rich in and of itself; language, writing, architecture, clothing - as if it's somehow impossible to imagine a non western type industrialization era. As if  'Republic City' is some twist on Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire, where the meaty stories are all about men; white men. Though those  shows at least like to claim it's because men had more citizen, political and other power in the times.

 What's LoK's excuse?

 In a universe that was previously shown to be so richly Asian diverse, and to have Katara and Toph and Suki and the other Kyoshi Warriors, to have Ty Lee and the female bounty hunter and the newly warrior trained Northern Water Tribe female healers and the newly healer trained Northern Water Tribe male Warriors. Where was all of that?

 Did they show how that universe's Triads are different than our universe's 1920's, 1930's Chicago gangs? No. I mean, Yakone. Al Capone. Surely I wasn't the only one who noticed?

 Did they show that the city Aang and Zuko built had anything within the city honoring the spirits of the land? Were there temples or monuments? No.

 Did they show glimpses of Earth Kingdom culture, or Water Tribes culture, within the city itself? No. The Air Temple was Air Nomadic. The respective Councilors wore appropriate dress, as did Korra. Everyone else seemed to abandon traditional hair styles, jewelry and clothing; as if that's the sort of thing that JUST HAPPENS. As if its happening in the West wasn't forced assimilation and fear of retribution at being different and pressure to become 'American' or 'British'. More-over, cultural dress tends to mean something for important occasions still, despite assimilation. Did they show it? No.

 Did they show something as simple and basic as rickshaws? No. There are rickshaws in various cities in East Asia right now, but there aren't any in Korra's world. There aren't any in Republic City.

 And if the focus is all about industrialization (which was last and perhaps popularly accepted as being best represented by the Fire Nation) then where were even the passing two line conversations about how Fire Nation Imperialism dominates the culture of a city that was meant to be a united city for all the citizens of the world? Lost somewhere as accessories to Amon's story? Lost somewhere in the dropped narrative of privilege, oppression and what it would mean to have an equal society? {Note: I'm not even going
 into Fire Nation Industrial culture somehow equaling Westernization if this is even the case - that'd be another essay}

 So, in the end, I don't know much about Korra or her world. I can't answer tens and probably hundreds of questions. I just know what I saw; which was the ATLAB world, infused with lots of 'Wouldn't it be cool if', including a 'Wouldn't it be cool if the Joker took over Gotham', while drowning in 1920's westernization references, clothing to technology. That's the fifth element of Tales of Republic City; that's the spirit.  It's
 a spirit that made concepts like imperialism, oppression, self-determination and resistance into weak half-used props.

 Meanwhile, I know what's capable in 6 hours of television; if it's focused and organized and truly means to tell the story of a young brown teenage girl heroine.  Whatever they call it, this show wasn't it.