The Legend of Korra: Anti-Feminism or Bad Writing?

Nerdy Girl Contributor Jo takes a close look at the writing of female characters (especially the titular one) on The Legend of Korra

Earlier this year, I absolutely devoured the series Avatar: The Last Airbender. I watched all three seasons in about a week in anticipation of its sequel, The Legend of Korra. As a feminist, I was incredibly psyched about a series about a female Avatar. She would undoubtedly be awesome and kick-ass and “I am woman hear me roar.” Right?

After the first few episodes, I was disappointed. We are introduced to Korra when she already has three out of four bending abilities already under her belt – just handed to her by the writers. This is justifiable, I suppose. The writers didn’t want to just rehash Ang’s learning in ATLA again with Korra. However, despite being a powerful bender, she was not as strong as I had hoped, and she definitely didn’t have it all together. But Ang needed time to get it together too, so I gave her a few more episodes to get really in the swing of this whole ‘Avatar-thing.’

What unfolded in the remaining episodes seemed to be a story that happened around her rather than being her story. Supporting characters stole the show from the its supposed lead. Those most notable ones for me were:

Lin Bei Fong – inventor of metal bending*, daughter of Toph Bei Fong (from ATLA), and all-around kick-ass woman.

Bolin – sweet, silly, loyal Bolin. Powerful fire bender*. Dork extraordinaire.

Yes, Korra did things. Yes, her bending was good and she kicked butt in some fight scenes. Yes, she saved the day most days, but she never did it alone (until the finale – and even that is questionable). Ultimately, her struggles never really felt like struggles to me: Gee gosh, I can’t air bend. Darn.

In the world of ATLA, viewers will remember that Katara struggled to find a water bending teacher. She was excluded from being taught because the male water bending master refused to teach a girl. She was told to go and learn to be a healer. Obviously, sexism and gender stereotypes existed in this world. The writers/creators seemed to come out in support of fierce, feminist women. Katara stood up and proved herself to the water bending master and was accepted into training.

Writer support for strong women seems to carry over into The Legend of Korra, which basically opens with (a now elderly) Katara – herself now a water bending master – instructing/watching newly discovered Avatar Korra. The chief of police is Lin Bei Fong – a fierce female earth/metal bender.  At least one woman, from the Fire Nation, sits on the council of Republic City. Asami Sato, the spoiled rich princess, learns that her father is working for the Equalist revolution and fights back. There are strong, important women in this society.

No one seems to make any kind of fuss about the Avatar being a woman. Korra gains friends – Mako, Bolin and Asami – and no one remarks at all about her gender. Master Tenzin (Ang’s son) doesn’t disparage Korra for being a woman or refuse to train her because she is a woman, as Katara experienced in ATLA.

So, is Korra’s world a post-feminist world? A world in which it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female? A world where you are judged only on merit? 
Perhaps. Perhaps the Equalist movement is evidence of this. Their society is so advanced that bending is the last thing making citizens of Republic City subject to a perceived inequality.

Somehow I doubt this line of thinking. Crime and poverty still exist. Mako and Bolin grew up in both and are tempted to return early on in the series. Therefore, inequality and discrimination are likely to still exist. There is only one woman on the Council – it’s not exactly even numbers.

Ultimately, I say all of this to ask: Why is Korra so damn boring?

She feels very two-dimensional. Her struggles have none of the depth of her ATLA predecessor. At times, she genuinely feels (to me, at least) like an afterthought around the other characters. She gushes about her feelings for Mako to other characters. Equal (if not more) time is spent on the “will they-won’t they” between Korra and Mako than on developing her character. This is time that could have been well-spent showing us Korra doing air bending training – and succeeding – or connecting with her past selves or having some kind of internal struggle to come into her own and thrive. Anything. Anything other than what was chosen.

I’m just confused that a show called The Legend of Korra could have such lax character development for Korra! It might as well be renamed “The Legend of Republic City” or “The Legend of Everyone Kick-Ass Except Korra.” Most perplexing of all, there’s no really obvious evidence that leads me to believe that Korra’s absolute lack of development is because the writers are anti-feminist or the world Korra lives in is anti-feminist. At least that would explain it.

I’m left to believe that the writers got too caught up in the generation of the world and the Equalist struggle and simply forgot about Korra. Or, though not anti-feminist, the all-male writing staff simply didn’t know how to handle writing a strong female lead. But Lin Bei Fong is a strong female character and could absolutely be the lead. Maybe Korra is just supposed to be really boring!

As I said earlier, I was let down by The Legend of Korra. I loved the world of ATLA and its concepts, and I wanted an exciting sequel about a strong female Avatar. What I got was a moderately interesting sequel to ATLA in terms of how the world has developed, populated with a few strong females as secondary characters and one really boring female main character.

Here’s my plea: Do better, TLoK showrunners. Hire some female writers. Perhaps they can give our heroine the legend she deserves.

*Corrections: Toph Bei Fong is the inventor of metal bending. Bolin is an earth bender.

29 thoughts on “The Legend of Korra: Anti-Feminism or Bad Writing?

  1. Toph invented metal-bending, and Bolin is a powerful earth-bender. And Korra’s isn’t a post-feminist world — there had been dozens of woman Avatars in the past! So nobody was surprised at all. It was just that the master who wouldn’t teach Katara was one idiot who was really, really sexist. The show’s writers thought they were only writing one season, so they had only twelve 23-minute episodes to work with. Not very much at all. Maybe Korra just isn’t your cup of tea; maybe your many complaints and standards ruined your own viewing experience. But that isn’t the show’s problem. Or Korra’s.

  2. Evident by other areas in the story, I believe the problem rests with the writers skill (or attention to detail). Korra was not the only neglected character. Nearly all of the characters are extremely shallow; the audience may only relate to the characters through specific points rather than through a state of being or feeling. You simply did not intimately know any of the characters. You did not feel their struggles.

    Speaking of struggles, the Legend of Korra had very few. Korra couldn’t airbend; that seems like a huge deal, but the writers downplayed it as if it was merely a pebble in Korra’s shoe. She seemed to have little weight opon her apart from her crush on Mako and pro-bending. At the same time, equalists were threatening genocide, and she was failing at being the Avatar in every way: spiritual mediation, mastering the 4 elements, and balancing the world. The writers only briefly addressed how she felt about those topics. Her feelings about them and her attempts to overcome those challenges should have been front and center. They did not even attempt to address why she couldn’t airbend. The writers could have introduced a rich story element addressing the topic.

    Other characters had few conflicts as well. Mako and Bolin’s backstory opened the door to many possible internal conflicts, but their only developed struggles revolved around puppy love. What about trying to make something of themselves and be successful? What about ambitions to be a part of something greater? It seemed as if they, along with many characters, simply floated through the dynamics of the story.

    I could argue that every character had great possibilities for engaging struggles to which the audience could relate. Unfortunately very few of those struggles were developed, and the few developed struggles were not developed deeply enough for the audience to become emotionally involved to any intimate degree.

    The writer’s main folly is that they created far too many struggles to resolve in 12 episodes. They should have kept to the essential conflicts and left out filler content such as the romance elements and the great amount of time devoted to pro-bending. Such things are fine, but not when the core story and conflicts suffer as a result. Observing the episodes, one can easily identify a great deal of content that serves no purpose in furthering the core plot and characters.

    Regarding feminism, did the story have to incorporate such a conflict? The whole series was already based upon a racist conflict. A sexist conflict would have only further cluttered the story.

    • I agree on how the feminism part would of cluttered the story further. But honestly Korra disappointed me as the fact she reminds me of a man. The silly thought that a girl wearing pants and playing sports and burping makes you a strong female lead. It does not! And I hate that women have been brainwashed to think that being a female with man qualities and mannerism makes you a strong woman. I wanted to see a female avatar well rounded. Smart, Beautiful, Clever, maybe even funny/dynamic.

      • I definitely agree. Feminine traits are not weaker than masculine traits. Men are taught as though being rude or animal-like is masculine and somehow makes them strong, which is simply not true. Many “masculine” traits aren’t even desirable or mature traits. That goes for Korra in that overall she is stubborn, reckless, disrespectful, hotheaded, and impatient. Degrees of those imperfections help round out a character, but they gave her too much of them. I would like to see them make her a more well-rounded character as she matures in the next few seasons.

  3. The legend of Korra was great. i think you missing some of the reason that it is so.
    let me throw a few points out:

    – the animation details that tell stories so they don’t have to devote large portions of

    time explaining everything. The best stories rarely tell you everything.Sometimes its best

    to leave it up in the air.

    – I’m glad it wasn’t a “Im a girl hear me roar”. The more femisism gets shoved into peoples

    faces, the more it will get attacked. The legend of Korra works because it isn’t focused on

    the avatar being a girl who then breaks free from her “corset” and becomes empowered. Its

    about the Avatar and how she helps republic city. And of course she didn’t do
    it alone- she couldn’t. She was a target of a radical terrorist movement. She had a

    political responsibility. She barely knew what what going on and lacked any real means to

    take care of it. She made friends with Mako and Bolin who helped take care of her in the

    dangerous city. This all happened in about a month or two. Aang and his friends had a lot

    longer time to gain the experiences and skills, and they spent a lot of the series running

    and hiding.
    Perhaps Korra may not feel as developed as a character, because she isn’t devloped as a

    person. Her life growing up may have been incredibly boring. She will develop more as a

    character though the show, learning from her life experiences, to become that strong female


    Also, everything doesn’t have to be 50% women to be fair equality. that is too fake and

    would feel forced. Thats like saying the Kyoshi warriors should be 50% male, or else it is


    -Korra had a natural talent with 3 of the elements. This helps add to the pride she

    develops. Secluded from most of the world, she grew up with the amazing stories of aang and

    team avatar, she had a large sense of pride in being the avatar.She believed that she was

    this awesome person and that was her role. She focused on the combat side because that’s

    what she was good at. She avoided the spiritual side of things because it wasn’t easy, and

    it bothered her pride. She avoided talking about her personal conflicts for the same reason,

    instead doing things that complimented her abilities and she was somewhat familiar with,

    such as probending. This is a big part of her personality. Though the series, she is

    learning to control her pride and face her fears and weaknesses.

    -The other characters had internal struggles, too. No, they didn’t delve into them, which

    can be a good thing. Its realistic. How many people delve into deep personal struggles at

    the slightest opportunituy? Do you want Mako to have a deep emotional flashback for 10 mins

    setting up his relationship with his father before he was killed, just because it was

    relevent? He has been living with that for a long time. Him and Bolin cope with it

    differently, but it’s not something they like to focus on. They moved on with their adult

    lives. Let them. Not every main character has to have a million problems. Once again Mako

    and Bolin had daily life problems and they were dealing with them because they are adults

    who learned to take care themselves.

    -The characters show amazing friendship with patience and forgiveness. Yes, there are

    conflicts, but they try to fix them and/or get over it.
    I really could write a book on why both Avatar series’ are amazing and how modern tv and movies can learn from them.

  4. It’s not at all unfair to compare Korra to her predecessor, but we had 4 seasons with Avatar: The Last Airbender. Could we at least have faith that once this series completes that Korra will reach (or at least make an attempt to) the heights that Avatar: TLA has.

  5. Avatar Korra IS a woman stereotype:

    1. She’s impulsive.
    2. She’s a crybaby
    3. She can’t drive.
    4. She needs a man to do the job for her. Like when she was accompanied by Mako in her PERSONAL avatar mission and Mako did almost all the dirty work( in fighting Amon and besting him because he’s the only one there with common sense. Korra and Iroh Jr., master firebenders as they were, should have produced lighting, or at the very least, redirected it.)

    Bonus Round:
    5. She’s a man-stealer, considering Mako and Asami had a thing for each other. She could have STFU and respected it.
    6. Remember in the first episodes, when she said that she doesn’t have to work for her living because everything is provided for her?
    7. About no. 4. The only thing she did was she “blew” Amon(using Airbending) and made him wet(by blowing him out to the sea). I think this doesn’t count but hey, this isn’t the only sexual reference you would notice from the series, or from the Avatar and Nickelodeon franchises in that matter.
    8. Her bestfriend is a “bitch”, well sort of. (Again, not counted.)

    Still, this show could just have thrown itself to the Boiling Rock if it were not for one character, Asami Sato. She’s the real stereotype breaker. She took initiative to the one she loved and got him(though to be stolen again by a certain manstealer who happens to master all 4 elements, barely). She’s independent and showed no intention to seek her father’s approval and left her life of luxury beacause of what she believed in(though she still took many of her possessions). She could also fight well and is the only non-bender in their group, considering that it’s a disadvantage in their world. Not to mention her driving skills and her knowledge of machines (when she figured out that the Mecha-Tanks are like Future Industries Forklifts).

  6. I hope if they would ever make Avatar: The Legend of Kyoshi, they would not make her a crybaby( because, you know, the tears would smear the make-up).

  7. Toph didn’t invent metal bending! Toph was told by somebody that fragments of Earth were in metal. Plus there was 2 scenes obviously stating that Toph learned/mastered metal bending she didn’t create it!
    1: When Toph was being taken away in the metal box. Her captor clearly stated ‘Even you can’t bend metal’
    2: During Korra’s flashback of her past life. There was a trial of the gangster and much older Sokka said the metal banding was almost impossible until Toph learned it by herself.

  8. I think women should write their own stories that way they can represent their female characters as they feel right, i have noted that most of this stories are created by men as such you would understand why legend of korra is that way.

      • um, I think they’re saying women should be allowed to write female characters, since men write just about everything. There’s a difference and you’re being willfully obtuse.

        • If Machismo feels that men tend to be lacking when it comes to fictional depictions of women, then maybe men should stick to writing men, and maybe women are better suited to writing women, because the author of this article believes that men dropped the ball on Korra, and Machismo agrees.

  9. The love triangles are annoying, as is how Korra is more impulsive, emotional and confrontational where Aang was more introspective and spiritual. What bothers me more, however, is how it seems that more frequently than in Airbender, Korra is put into positions where she is rendered completely helpless and requires rescuing either by her friends, or circumstances not within her control, or just luck.

    Spoilers follow.

    The image of the Avatar, lying on the ground, completely defeated or taken captive, happened four times in the original three seasons of Airbender that I can recall. Once, when he was taken captive and needed rescuing by the Blue Spirit (Zuko in disguise); another time, when he was in the spirit world and Zuko took his physical body captive; he was nearly killed by Azula below Ba Sing Se and required rescuing by Katara; and finally, he was all but defeated by Ozai and required a stroke of luck to enter the avatar state in the finale. By contrast, in just two seasons, Korra has already been in that position at least five times.

    In the first season she was first taken captive by Amon, and he could have ended her there, but he released her because the confrontation was “premature”. She was again taken captive by Tarrlok, whose bloodbending powers were too great for her, despite how Aang could overcome bloodbending by entering the Avatar state. This doesn’t really count, however, as it was her wits and strength that helped her escape. Amon later defeated her, removing all her elemental powers, but she then inexplicably gains the ability to airbend and later requires the help of Aang to restore her other powers.

    In the second season, Raava (the avatar spirit) is ripped out of Korra and annihilated by the male antagonist (her uncle, fused with Vaatu), and must be reborn from within Vaatu like proverbial Eve from Adam. At this point, this is the second time that the very essence of the Avatar is taken away. She loses her will to fight, and needs the encouragement of father figure Tenzin to even try continuing. Then, even while using the tree of time in the spirit world to project her soul into a powerful cosmic form, and fighting Vaatu using her own soul, she still cannot overpower Vaatu and would have been similarly annihilated were it not for the intervention of Jinora and the amazing power she suddenly wields while holding Wan’s teapot.

    All this is not to mention the imagery that ensues in each of these scenarios of defeat that Korra must go through. For instance, when Korra was captured by Amon the scene almost looked like a rape waiting to happen. There were also a fair number of times that she is seen lying on her back, battered and weakened, as if the writers had a subtle fetish for showing that.

      • It’s all in the forceful restraint, Korra’s expression of fear, the tone of Amon’s voice and the way that he grabs Korra’s face, treating her like she’s nothing to him. It is difficult to overlook how the scene is at least sort of reminiscent of a rape scenario (the beginnings of one).

        • I don’t recall seeing all of this in Korra, but you are free to provide evidence in the form of screen shots. I am pretty sure you are reaching for things that are not there. As far as objectification goes, the show doesn’t come off like it’s some sick fanservice.

          • I’m not sure how much longer this YouTube video of the entire scene will last with Google’s algorithms that automatically detect copyright violation and take down videos, but here is the whole scene from start to finish:

            If the video is gone by the time you open that link, then don’t expect any more from me. I don’t feel the need to spend any further effort “proving” that these exact events happened in the show because I’m quite confident I saw everything to which I was referring. I will say that as of this writing there’s also screenshot of the equalist ninjas holding Korra at her knees in front of Amon on the wikia page of Amon:
            Furthermore, you can easily find the face grab in a simple Google images search for “amon korra”

            And of course, it goes without saying, sick fanservice is not and was never the intention of the creators. It is far more subtle than that, and I get the impression that you overlooked the words I used: “almost looked like” and “waiting to happen.” If you aren’t able to see the likeness, then I have no place trying to make you see it, because it’s all a matter of perspective. For what it’s worth though, I’ve given you my point of view.

            It just bothers me that Korra, a very strong female protagonist, loses all of her confidence and is frequently caught in positions of helplessness (both externally and internally) at certain points in time facing the male antagonists. It’s not even sexist per se; it’s showing that she’s human after all, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I just think it went a bit far and bordered on being gratuitous.

            • I have seen that exact situation in many films and TV shows. Because it’s a woman, it now has a sexual connotation? If you want to see it as such. I did not.

              As for the video, I think that is a better argument for differences between a male character and female. I think a female imprisoned in some way typically has her space violated in a way that male characters do not. I found the scene more frightening in a horror movie way than in a sexual way.

              • Maybe this scene looks like the beginning of a rape to someone who watched porn, and that’s almost every man using the Internet. That’s the harm of porn – men start to see sexual meaning in everything connected with women, especially they tend to expect sexual violence, because that’s the main subject in porn. Really bad thing.
                Once a man said that the beginning of one educational video looked like the beginning of a porn movie to him. Guess what was in that video? A woman parking her car in front of a house and walking up to her door. No way it is sexual unless this man is used to see women getting naked right after they appear in front of his eyes.

    • I have thought that they are just trying to conpensate for her over-done traits. It does get creepy and somewhat troubling. It isn’t so much that she is powerless. It is how her male villians lord over her, as you said. They did not have to do it that way. I certainly hope it is not motivated by what you suggest.

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