These metas tend to be somewhere along the lines of “Jenna: This is Stuff I Like,” so in keeping with that: I like video games and cartoons. In particular, I played Mass Effect for the first time a few months ago and fell for it hard, buddy. You might also be aware that I’m super into Steven Universe, just like the entire rest of the internet. Clumsy intro aside, I’m going to be talking about blue space aliens who are queer female-types — Liara T’Soni from the Mass Effect trilogy and Sapphire from Steven Universe — and while I was trying to come up with why, the conclusion was in my face the whole time: sometimes you just kind of want to appreciate characters who are awesome and who impact you in some way by means other than, um, writing fan fiction.
Okay, but before we really begin, I want to clarify, I don’t actually mean capital-L “I’m in lesbians with you” LESBIANS, because that would be hella problematic.
Bisexual and pansexual erasure is a sadly common trend, and one which I do not intend to willfully take part in, and so we should state that both of these characters are more what you would call pansexual. Liara goes so far as to explicitly state that the partner (or “bondmate”) gender is irrelevant to her race, the Asari, who are all female-identified; Sapphire is female-presenting and uses female pronouns, and I believe that fusion is a metaphor for sexual expression, but who knows how Crystal Gems actually identify personally, if at all, because the gems’ identity isn’t something Steven Universe has explored to deeply yet but hot dam would that be awesome. At any rate, I use the phrase “Blue Space Lesbians” only because it was a term a friend used (with great success) to get me into Mass Effect, but neither Liara nor Sapphire identify as explicitly gay, nor is there any indication that this is an identity marker in their cultures. (Truly, sexuality as we know it may be entirely moot.) There aren’t a lot of queer folks in media, period, and a lot of the women we’ve seen up until the past few years have been, you know, lesbians on The L Word or something — which, ugh — and bisexual women are seen as tricky promiscuous minxes who can never settle down and are straight people in disguise, and pansexuality basically doesn’t exist outside headcanons or, um, Deadpool. Not only is these unfair and untrue characterizations on the whole, often propagated by biphobic people both within and outside of the LGTQIAA+ communities, it’s also blatantly untrue of these two characters. So…just want to put that out there. “Blue space bisexuals” or “blue space sapphics”** or “blue space queers” are perhaps each a better fit; using “lesbians” is an aesthetic choice only, and fits the characters on surface level only, especially as the latter is mildly abrasive.
I’m 24 years old. In theory, I should be beyond the years of looking at fictional characters as people to admire or role model myself on, when my mantra was basically “what would Hermione Granger do?” In theory, I should be a real Adult Human(tm), self-actualized and self-sufficient. And I am — which is good, because teenage!Jenna would never have seen that coming.
And yet, ever since the Korra finale in December 2014 and my rediscovery of the ups and downs but general welcomingness of fandom community, I’ve found myself finding solace in analyzing fictional characters: their motives, their development, the ways they evolve that are, well, admirable. There’s a lot to be said for a well-written female-female couple, a lot of it already on this website, because we don’t get much of it in media. No; far more often, if the relationship existed at all, we would until very recently get shit like Jenny Schecter being completely and utterly batshit and blatantly transphobic even for 2006, or Bette and Tina having it out in the season 1 finale and becoming physically violent, emotionally abusive, and sexually assaultive with each other, only to get back together (and cheat on each other, and break up, and get together again) repeatedly over the course of six seasons and somehow be possibly THE LEAST AWFUL RELATIONSHIP ON THE SHOW. Relationship dynamics are certainly different between female-female, female-male, male-male, nb-male, nb-female, and nb-nb relationships, and so I don’t need to sing the song of representation here. What works well and looks good for the straight couples out there won’t necessarily work for me in my femme-presenting-but-nonbinary self dating a cis-female.
It’s not all about this, though, the need for diverse relationships; it’s also a need for neurodiversity. I have high-functioning autism, and people on the spectrum tend to comment that we feel like aliens trying to understand why and how people do the things they do, or what comments are appropriate for which situations, or which jokes to laugh at, or what social nuances you’re supposed to follow to be Polite or Acceptable, etc etc. This isn’t to say that we’re all socially hopeless, or that we’re all awkward or don’t understand humans, because that’s not true at all, and it would be pretty offensive to suggest. We just kind of learn the algorithims. I, at least, piece together the context clues that I am given and pair it with similar situations I’ve gone through in order to come to a logical conclusion for what a good response to be, and while many folks do this innately, for those of us on the spectrum, it is a learned behavior — one that becomes second nature, but does require effort nevertheless. I get pretty fatigued of it by the end of the day.
Which is why sometimes it’s nice to see aliens who well-meaningly try to understand others, who are believable, perhaps, rather than someone like these guys…
While not doing that thing where people try to diagnose their favorite characters with their own diagnosis, Liara is kind of a great representation of what it can feel like to be on the spectrum. She’s deeply committed to her study to an almost painful degree — and then, when she also becomes The Shadow Broker, the holder of all knowledge of the galaxy, we have to wonder how, and when, she ever rests — and doesn’t seem to care or notice much if other people are making fun of her. She tirelessly tries to understand how interactions work, and needs to retire to her room when she becomes socially exhausted. And she’s awkward.
And Sapphire — Sapphire is how it feels when something comes up that I didn’t predict. Sapphire is the logical-to-a-fault part of arguing, annoyingly predicting what the other person is about to say, being stony until I thaw out and realize that, well, even if I think I can predict things, people aren’t inherently rational. Sometimes shit happens that doesn’t fit the logical structure. (Didn’t I mention oh, once or twice an article that I studied philosophy?) Sapphire is when anxiety kicks in and I’m not sure where to go and my feet feel frozen to the ground or, um, my back to the headboard of a figurative bed, I suppose. Sapphire isn’t necessarily neuroatypical, considering she’s a sentient space rock and all of the Crystal Gems are a little bit odd, but I’ll be damned if the characterization of Sapphire isn’t very, very familiar to how I feel when my predictions go awry. Sometimes, it just takes a lot of time to work through them and get out of your own head.
My point, darling readers, is this: we talk so much about the need for representation of different genders, sexualities, and races, with which I COMPLETELY agree, but a part of the conversation that doesn’t seem to get mentioned so much is neurodiversity, in part because it’s such a huge swath of stuff to talk about. We talk about depression, which is good. We talk about anxiety, which is good. And we talk about characters who get it wrong, as I’ve done throughout this writing. These characters, Liara and Saphire, who display parts of my particular intersection — not explicitly cisgender, are explicitly queer, and a decent metaphor for being on the spectrum — are a refreshing breath of air. And they do it without falling too far into tropes or stereotypes. They just kind of exist, as we say the best of queer or female or otherwise-non-straight-white-male characters should. So here’s an applause to these characters done right, and done subtly, because so often we focus on the bad, and dammit, I like that I can identify with blue space ladies.
Images courtesy of Electronic Arts, Cartoon Network, Universal, Nickelodeon, and Fox.
** Changed from “blue space pansexuals” because Claire pointed out that I had written that and there’s no indication of Sapphire being anything other than wlw, and suggested this term instead, which I rather liked. Thanks for catching that!
1. I’m also shameless Korrasami trash, but I am not about to post the link to my fan fiction here and also there are no blue space queers on that show, to my knowledge, unless you count Korra briefly turning blue in the season 2 finale or how that’s the only color she ever really wears…
2. Pansexuality, if you are not aware, is a sexual orientation where gender identity or presentation do not influence, or perhaps it is better to say do not negate, attraction.
3. Asari will mentally and emotionally bond with long-term partners in addition to having sex with them.
4. We also learn in “The Answer” that, contrary to what we get out of her fight with Ruby in “Keystone Motel,” her future vision isn’t always correct, that she didn’t expect for Ruby to take the fall for her, that she didn’t expect to desert everything she knew and fall in love with someone who was essentially her bodyguard.[4a]
4a. WHICH SOUNDS A LOT LIKE THAT ONE MOVIE, DOSN’T IT, THE WHITNEY HOUSTON ONE, YOU KNOW, AND EEEEEEYYYYEEEEEE WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOOOOOOU…but better.
5. Excluding maybe Alice and Dana, which was adorable but short-lived, and you know a show is doing a shitty job of keeping its audience captive when a major character dies and some of them (*cough*) don’t give a rat’s arse.
6. Also, don’t equate “least awful” with “healthy” because it is not, in any way.
7. “nb”: Non-binary
8. “cis”: Identifies with the gender assigned at birth (so, e.g., a person given a female designation who identifies as female).
9. I want to make very plain that in no way do I speak for everyone on the spectrum in this section. This is generalized based on the experiences of quite a few people I know, myself included, but of course, generalizations are the middle of the bell curve. There are outliers, and those experiences are totally valid. It would be foolish to say, for instance, that all ASD people are good at math, or are socially awkward, or can’t empathize with anyone.
Faerie Tale Aged Poorly
Once again before starting this article I must confess that I do not own Faerie Tale in its original langage. This shouldn’t be a problem for the following article which as more to do with the story than with the style of the book. Nevertheless because of it some names might sounds strange. I apologize for the inconvenience.
There is nothing worse, speaking of books, than getting utterly disappointed by a book that seems written for you. The other day, when I pitched the story of Faerie Tale to my best friend, he asked me playfully “why are all the books you are reading always so you?”. And that is true. On paper, Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale had everything to please me. Folklore, slightly gothic ambiance, horrific set-up, fantasy, a focus on a coming of age story, an entrapment situation… Everything! I even read it in the best mental conditions possible to welcome the story warmly.
And yet as I progressed in the story, an increasing amount of elements irked me. Until the mystery of the ex-owner of the house was revealed. I wasn’t just irked at this point. I was laughing. Laughing because what I was reading was laughingly bad.
In the end if I were to grade Faerie Tale I would give it 5/10 because there were things I really like so it doesn’t deserve to be under average. And I wanted to like this book. Still, after my encounter with the laughingly bad twist I came back on everything that irked me about Faerie Tale. It’s not good and it doesn’t deserve more than the strict average.
But maybe there is more to Faerie Tale. Maybe it isn’t a disappointing book after all. Maybe it simply aged poorly.
The Hastings in Fairy Land
Faerie Tale follows an American family, the Hastings, relocating to the father’s hometown in the 1980’s. The Hastings are five. Phil, the father, is a popular screenplay writer. Gloria, his wife, was an actress without real career who dropped everything to take care of her sons. Gabbie, Phil’s daughter from a first marriage, is a young college student who came to spend the summer with her father. And finally there are the twins Sean and Patrick. The Hastings are rich, in the case of Gabbie crazy rich. Is it important to the plot? Not really. If anything, it makes the Hastings’ will to endure what is thrown at them weirder. But it allows the initial situation and it’s mention a lot (A LOT) so I figured I should mention it.
Thanks to their sweet sweet money, the Hastings bought the house and land of an eccentric German who passed away without heir. On the land stands the Hill of the Elven King, a place, which in the local legends, is renowned for hiding the faerie court. Of course, as it turned out, it isn’t a legend and the fairies living there are trapped and want nothing more than to be free. And for that they are more than ready to manipulate the Hastings into helping them (I guess they are also doing all that they are doing because they are fairies and therefore assholes).
After several very severe incidents (Gabbie being nearly rapped, the family cat being gutted, Sean being swapped for a changeling) the Hastings (let’s be perfectly honest Patrick and Phil) helped by some secondary characters (all men) defeat the evil fairie. They also make a pact with the less evil one and the status quo is restored. The world is saved.
Still, the international secret organisation that secretly rules our world makes everyone forget everything about what happened, except for Patrick and Sean. Then, the Hastings are magically manipulated into moving back to California.
Everything for Nothing
Here you already might see one of the issue with Faerie Tale. What was the point of the books? We have five main protagonists and two are virtually unchanged by the 370 pages of development they just undertook. Gabbie has development (and I will come back to it later), but it isn’t linked to the faerie business. So if we exclude the twins, what was the point of the story?
Most of the characters, who weren’t really interesting to begin with, didn’t progress because of it. The villains—who are unnamed, unseen, and whose goal was already reached at the beginning—have already won. It wasn’t scary. It was mildly distracting (I might be harsher with my books that I am with my TV-shows, but it’s like that). And it didn’t have any sort of profound meaning.
So yeah, the plot of the book has its issues already. But that’s not the only problem with Faerie Tale.
Being a story of urban fantasy (rather rural fantasy… please someone stops me) Faerie Tale deals with myths that are real.
Fairies as archetypes
One the things I really liked in Faerie Tale is that the fairies are fairies. They aren’t human and don’t have a human sense of morality. Their essence isn’t the same as ours. And frankly it’s refreshing. Considering the current craze around fairies in YA where the fairies are mainly pseudo medieval humans with powers and a penchant for misogyny, I am delighted to be facing creatures that are really different and troubling.
The fairies in Faerie Tale are archetypes. They play a role and when they have been beaten, another steps into their shoes assuming their role to the point of taking their identity. They are immutable. And they are monsters that are egoist and takes pleasure from human inconvenience and misery. Some of the members of the fairy courts are humans, but they are humans who have suffered the corrupted influence of the fairies for years. They are unhappy, twisted, wrong, etc.
So, Feist did create an interesting fairy court. The only complaint I have is that it is made pretty explicit in the book that the degree of horror inflicted on the Hastings is linked to the will of the fairy to break free. Meaning that if the master plan wasn’t set into motion, the family would just have suffered harmless pranks. None of the pranks they suffer in the book are harmless (except one) and they are all linked to the master plan. Which leads me to believe that this fairy court is super lazy on a daily basis. But that’s just a detail.
One folklore to rule them all?
My main issue with Faerie Tale is the refusal to explain where the fairy court stands in a complex cosmology. I mean the book states that fairies, as conceptualized in Ireland and Germany, exist. Apparently Christianity might be correct too, since Christian prayers are efficient against fairies. But what about other religions that have different folklore traditions (Islam, Judaism)? Are their prayers efficient against fairies, too? Do their folkloric monsters (Djinn, Golem) exist too? The story explains how the fairies were brought to America, but what happened to creatures from the various Native American folklores? Did they ever existed? Or is this a case of ‘Germano-Celtic culture was right all along and every other belief is superstition’?
A good example of that is the presence of White Ladies in Faerie Tale. You see, in France White Ladies are probably one of our most famous folklore creatures. The issue is that they aren’t fairies. They are revenants. They announce death (or they might lead to yours if you see them, it depends on the legend you are considering). The myth is old and persistent. The Louvres and Versailles were and still are known to have their White Lady. The current urban legend of a vanishing hitchhiker has been fed in France by the White Lady mythos (most of these stories in France are about women who warm you about the place they died leading you to your death or avoiding it, it depends).
So when I saw the White Ladies of the books depicted as sexualized fairies in a fashion reminiscent of the Brides of Dracula, you have no idea how disappointed I was. “They suck” was my honest reaction.
To be perfectly honest, the issue I have with Faerie Tale‘s lack of a complex cosmology that refused to acknowledge the diversity of myths might have been enhanced by the fact I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods just after. Still, there is something missing here. And it’s annoying.
If I tell you a story put fairies and a conspiracy theory together, you might answer me that doesn’t sound like a good mix. And you are right. As a general rule, I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. I think they are way of shifting the blame from the actual people responsible for the situation to someone else (sometimes a disadvantaged minority) and preventing systematic changes. I also think that they are often anti-science. If we add to that our current political context of fake news and post-truth, I would find any story cheaply relying on it distasteful.
Unfortunately that’s what Faerie Tale does. The ex-owner of the house was a member of a secret organization using fairy magic to rule the world. The members of this organization are super rich and super powerful and they use all this power to remain secret and keep the fairies from hurting humanity. Wait… Are they the good guys? No, they aren’t because they are still a secret evil organization that rules the world for its own gain and that’s all… They just want to be rich and powerful. They are the GAFA without internet and with pixie dust.
They are uninteresting. They are unoriginal. They don’t add a lot to the story considering that all their influence undoes the story. From a storytelling perspective, they are useless, stereotypical, and dumb. This is the laughably bad distasteful part of Faerie Tale.
Faerie Tale’s characters aren’t unforgettable. Far from it. Every time I sensed something interesting could be done with one of them their potential was utterly wasted. But I will focus on two main issue in this section
Money, money, money
Thank you Faerie Tale for making me feel like Lady Violet Crawley.
Never would I have thought that a book about fairies would talk so much about money. Never would I have thought that characters could talk so much about money without having their story center around it. The Hastings are rich. Gabbie is more or less the equivalent of an heir to the Rockefeller fortune. Despite that they are presented as humble people. I mean, the book tells us they are humble and they do welcome everyone in their home.
But everyone must be ready to hear about how much money they have. Phil explains to a perfect stranger (let’s be honest, he spoke to him twice before this) how much his daughter is rich. They have their own lawyer, their own agent. They can pay a doctor to come to and do a study specifically for them… But rest assured that they don’t spoil their children and raise them to value real life. They just allow their daughter to drop out from college because she won’t have any problem starting again later. They buy a house on a whim. They only postpone their children’s extravagant fancies to teach them rationality. They dropped a promising career because they don’t think the story they were writing was good enough…
You know normal stuff from normal people who aren’t literally made of money. How did they get this money? Well Gabbie inherited it. Phil wrote extremely popular movies for Hollywood. What are they doing with this money? Phil is doing normal things for an 80’s American: not paying taxes that would finance public universities, public healthcare, etc and indulging in a lifestyle of over-consumption. Gabbie is buying horses and an expensive car (paying for her little brother’s treatment) and not learning how to do anything significant for the companies that create her fortune. Relatable stuff that will definitively make them sympathetic to an average audience.
Sure, it could be forgotten in the narrative. But they talk about money all the time! This is ridiculous. You just want to shake them violently and scream “You are rich idiots without real problems who put their children at risk and need to move out of the bloody estate!”.
This constant mention of the Hastings’s fortune ended up making them despicable in my eyes.
Faerie Tale has a deficiency of female characters. If I had to give a percent of the gender balance of the book, I would say that 65% of the characters are men and 35% are women. To give you an example, there are four named doctors in this book, the four of them have dialogue, all of them are men. Among the fairies, four of them are women. All of them are sexualized and none of them really have an agency linked to the master plan. The three most important fairies are men. And despite Gabbie having a strong sexual reaction to them, none of them are describe in any way as sexualized as the female fairies are.
Among important female characters, we have Gabbie, Gloria, and Phil’s university mentor. Let’s start with the last. The first thing of importance to note is that I have forgotten her name. But let’s put that aside. This character could be an interesting one. Indeed, having a woman scholar who guided several male characters in their literary/professional progression is pretty progressive. Having men being inspired by a woman’s work and ethic is great. It’s a nice reversion of the “I don’t want to fuck him, I want to be him” trope, and I think it essential for boys and for girls to see it done more often in media. However, your devoted servant would argue that it isn’t that well done here.
Phil’s university mentor has a maternal relationship with both the men she has tutored/is tutoring. She even misses the true calling for one of them: being a dialogist. And of course the person who notices this oversight is… a man. In general, she doesn’t do a lot of mentoring despite the evident respect both her students have for her. A huge missed opportunity.
Now to Gloria. Gloria isn’t a bad character. Once again she had a lot of potential. She is the only one of the adults Hastings that feel there might be something deeply wrong with the estate. She even witnesses a fairie’s activity, which allows her to connect with Patrick after Sean’s disappearance. Clearly, or at least from my point of view, Gloria was built to be the parent who ultimately assists/saves Patrick in his quest to get his brother back. But in the end, it’s Phil who gets the mission of finding his sons. Phil, who never showed any instinct for the supernatural and who had no progression—no real mental progression—linked to it. Why from a narrative perspective is Phil chosen to go and save his sons? Well I guess it’s because that’s what fathers do, while mothers fall into a hysterical state…
Finally, let’s discuss Gabbie. Gabbie is an 18-year-old woman currently studying in California. We have already discussed Gabbie’s financial situation so we won’t do it any further here. There are a lot of things done properly with Gabbie: a subversion of the spoiled rich girl trope, a good relationship with her step-mother, a positive treatment of the rape attempt she suffers, and a positive depiction of her sexuality. Still, no character infuriates me as much as Gabbie.
Gabbie has two important arcs that are connected: her love story with Jack and her relation with her mother. You see, Gabbie’s mother married Phil young. They had a bad year professionally and Gabbie’s mother also broke with her family, who didn’t approve of her lifestyle (she was disinherited). Then Gabbie was born and her mother changed her profession to journalism, more precisely to be a war reporter. She then decided that her career was more important than her daughter and husband, leading to her leaving Phil and not taking care of Gabbie. Here I must emphasize that Phil also put his career before his daughter and Gabbie was left to her maternal grandmother, who raised her.
Now that her grandmother is dead and she is an adult, Gabbie has bonded with her father but not with her mother. Partially because her mother, too caught up in her career and in her importance for the “American left” (yes, that phrase is in the book; take it as you want because I really don’t know what I am supposed to do with it), hasn’t extended any hand for her daughter to grab. Therefore, Gabbie’s arc deals a lot with her coming to terms with her insignificance to her mother.
This is once again an incredibly important narrative to explore. Once again, it’s a gigantic wasted opportunity. The career of Gabbie’s mother is constantly denigrated by the book. Her principals and ideologies are ridiculed when Gabbie learns that her mother is to marry a French millionaire (who is also a pedophile since he hit on Gabbie when she was 15) that she should normally hate if if she wasn’t a total hypocrite. As a consequence, Gabbie has no trouble and no regret leaving at her mother behind her since she is irredeemable. Indeed, none of the reasons Gabbie’s mother had to abandon her daughter have any sort of value. (Note that Phil, who also left his daughter behind for his career, only has to be a decent human being to be allowed back in her life with open arms.)
Therefore Gabbie has no trouble to make the decisions she ends up making. She decides to marry a man she has known for 5 months (her first sexual partner if I might add). He is an aspiring writer being tutored in college by the same tutor as Phil. She also decide to stop her studies for now. Does she have a better idea of who she wants to be as a person, except than being Jack’s wife? No, but I guess it’s okay because she is going to be someone’s wife; what else could she aspire to be? In the end, Gabbie rushes into marriage without knowing who she is, with a man who is a younger version of her father (yes, Jack even admires Phil). She is making exactly the same choices her mother did, but she’ll be fine because she is being a good sport about it, unlike her mother.
I can’t even begin to explain how much I despise this narrative. Even if it hasn’t directly touched me, the idea of coming to term with one’s insignificance to one’s mother is something that has influenced a lot of people I love in my family. I can guarantee you that it’s not fixed by making all the same choices as your mother but not being a total hypocrite about it. People are complex, yes, even people who abandon their children. They can’t be summarized by using two overused cliches, and the impact they had on you can’t be brushed aside by simply reducing them to these overused cliches. Besides, do I have a to explain why I find it distasteful to see a woman bloom in domestic bliss when her mother is vilified and mocked for pursuing a career? No? Great!
The twins, Sean and Patrick, are the saving grace of Faerie Tale. Not only are they the more connected to the fairy court, they have the most interesting progression as characters. More Patrick than Sean but still. Patrick is a shy little boy that ends up finding the courage to save his brother. Sean learns that he can rely on his ‘weaker’ brother and shouldn’t lash out at him because they both have strengths and weaknesses. By teaming up, they save the world, kill the villain, and free their perverted double. And of course for all of that, they are graced by the capacity of remembering what happened.
All in all, the twins’ story is a well-crafted, interesting storyline. I just wish I didn’t have to suffer the rest while reading Faerie Tale.
As you have probably gathered by now, I didn’t really enjoy my read. But while thinking back on Faerie Tale, I came to the realization that I might be part of the problem. Raymond E. Feist is an incredibly popular author. The last time I went to a bookstore, one of his new works was heavily advertised (I mean, as much as a fantasy book can be in France). I don’t doubt that he has great qualities as an author.
A quality he can’t have though is creating a book that pleases the taste of a public that will be born 8 years after its original publication and will only read it 30 years later. Nothing is ever perfect, and age is never tender. Trust me on this, even fine wine that isn’t properly preserved ages poorly. This doesn’t absolve Faerie Tale of its mistakes. But I must be honest.
When it was first published in 1988, Faerie Tale might have been an above average book. It might have introduced a new concept: a sort of gothic horror based on fairy tales taking place in our time and adding an ‘international context’ to it. But everything I saw Faerie Tale trying to do, I have seen done better in other books since then. Time has been cruel to Faerie Tale, and, unfortunately, I paid good money to discover that.
Image Courtesy of Doubleday
Avatar, Spirits, and Spirituality
Here on The Fandomentals we like to talk about Avatar: the Last Airbender (ATLA) and its sequel, Avatar: the Legend of Korra (LoK). But while many of us have talked about the strides the franchise has made in LGBT representation, its portrayal of a mental healing and recovery, complicated family dynamics or deconstruction of the superman narrative, I would instead talk about something that has concerned me ever since I saw the second season of Legend of Korra: spirits. After all these years, it’s time to finally put my concerns into words. And I will unfortunately continue to be the resident malcontent when it comes to the show.
To start with, let me lay down some groundwork and my central thesis. See, there’s two ways that the word “spirituality” is used in the franchise. One is the meaning we associate with it in the real world – concerned with immaterial things rather than material ones, inward-looking, meditative, contemplative. The other is the setting-specific meaning of being connected with the spirits and their world. But here’s the rub – the spirits aren’t actually very spiritual. Why do I say that? Let’s begin…
Avatar: the Last Airbender
Spirits certainly exist in the world the original show portrays, but they only sometimes play any major role – the biggest is perhaps the Book One finale. They’ve got their own worlds, but they also have a rather vague relationship with nature. In “Winter Solstice” we see a spirit named Hei Bai go mad after humans devastated a forest.
Vague it may be, it’s also significant, as we find out during “Siege of the North”. Zhao killing the Moon Spirit causes the moon itself to grow red and waterbending to stop working. If Yue hadn’t become a new Moon Spirit, presumably it would have become even worse from there.
In the same finale we also meet Koh the Face-Stealer, a spirit whose brief appearance nonetheless made him memorable. Just as his name implies, he steals faces, and the only defense is to maintain an entirely neutral, emotionless expression. This is the kind of thing that spirit stories tend to run on, after all – taboos and specific behavior that protect you from malevolent spirits. He was genuinely creepy and threatening in what little we saw of him.
The other spirit who plays a major role is Wan Shi Tong, the cranky owl who runs the spirit library. He accuses humans of always trying to use his knowledge for their own brutal ends. In his defense, Zhao used the library to find out about the Moon Spirit’s physical form, and we know how that ended up.
The Painted Lady only appears very briefly, after the rest of the episode might make us suspect she doesn’t actually exist. Like Hei Bai and the Moon and Ocean spirits, she has a connection to the natural environment, in this case her lake.
The show’s finale involves Aang receiving energy-bending from a Lion-Turtle, but… are they spirits? It’s kind of ambiguous what they are, what they aren’t and what they want. Still, they clearly do have some spiritual connections and they allow Aang to resolve the conflict without compromising his beliefs… even though the way they do it leaves something to be desired.
Spirits are, in general, the more outwardly “magical” element of the world in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Bending is by design rather predictable and we generally know what works and what doesn’t by the time we’ve seen half of the first season. Spirits introduce stranger and more fantastical things with them when they appear, but they’re not particularly central.
Legend of Korra Book One
The first book of the sequel contains no spirits. Amon says that they sent him to bring balance to the world, but he’s lying. So none of them appear or do anything. However, the word “spiritual” crops up frequently, mostly in terms of Korra’s lack of this trait. But why is she lacking in it and why is it a problem?
Well… that’s a good question, actually. “Not spiritual enough” seems to be a catch-all term for Korra’s struggles with airbending, connecting to her past lives, entering the Avatar State and her general combative attitude that focused on fighting and bending rather than the Avatar’s duties as a leader. Basically, every character flaw and struggle the show outlines for her.
Unfortunately, as we know, none of it really goes anywhere. Korra receives her vision from Aang long after it ceases to be useful, her airbending comes to her when Mako is in danger and she connects to her “spiritual side” because she’s depressed. This moment is just the first of many where the word “spiritual” is thrown around without any meaning. She became more “spiritual” in the sense that she got access to all her Avatar powers, but she gained no spirituality in the other sense of the word.
Sadly enough, you can see some ultimately unused plot hooks in this story. Korra receives her first incomplete vision of Yakone’s trial after Amon knocks her out during their “premature” confrontation. She receives her second vision after Tarrlok bloodbends her into unconsciousness and the final, complete one when he holds her hostage. It seems clear that Amon also used bloodbending on her, but subtly and maybe in combination with chi-blocking. Thus opening a way for Korra to figure it out on her own. But that was not to be and instead all the relevant information came from Tarrlok’s exposition dump.
But let’s not dwell on it too much. Instead, let’s move on to the second season, where spirits come to the fore.
Legend of Korra Book Two
And they do so in style, by attacking right in the first episode. The dark spirits prove difficult for even strong benders like Korra, Tonraq, and Tenzin to handle. Non-benders are entirely helpless, even though we saw Sokka best Wan Shi Tong with a heavy book and gravity. This is in keeping with LoK’s treatment of non-benders, really. We also find out there’s some tensions between spirits and humans and that corrupt spirits attack more and more often.
Either way, Korra’s uncle, Chief “I’m not a villain, I swear” Unalaq pacifies the spirit with a waterbending technique. Korra is impressed and wants to learn from him, since she feels she’s not spiritual enough to be the Avatar and a bridge between worlds. Sensible, one might think, and a logical progression. And yet… something doesn’t add up.
It once again comes down to the issue of spirituality and actual spirits. Unalaq complains about how the Southern Water Tribe turned their spirit festival into a festival of commerce. Which sounds plausible on the surface. He’s a crusty old traditionalist, of course he’ll complain about it. But what do the sprits even care? It’s not as if they have any concept of economy. As long as humans don’t go around destroying the environment or infringing on “spiritual” places (not that we know what makes a place qualify as such), they seem to be indifferent. Korra’s father, Tonraq, got on their bad side by doing the latter.
I feel like the show sort of expects us to take it as face value – they call it spiritual, so obviously spirits should care, right? But real-world religions give a reason why the spirits or deities they believe in care about the ceremonies and rituals. Here, we see no such reason.
As I mentioned at the beginning, ATLA got around spirits by being pretty vague about them. They do spirit-y things, they get angry if humans mess around with things they shouldn’t, they have a connection to nature… in the end, they’re not what’s important. But the second season of Legend of Korra puts them front and centre and makes them tangible… well not literally tangible, but much more real and relevant.
It doesn’t exactly get better when it turns out that Unalaq– who is absolutely not a villain, trust him on that– arranged for Tonraq to destroy a spirit-grove in the first place. Later on, it further turns out that he’s working with the spirit of darkness. It’s the two of them together that are responsible for the dark spirits attacking people. Which means… there’s no actual tension between humans and spirits, no crisis of spirituality or anything of the sort. Just two bad guys doing bad guy things.
Or… not exactly. After Unalaq spent many episodes doing various terrible deeds, and competing with Hiroshi for the title of the franchise’s second-worst father, he asks Korra if Avatar Wan had done the right thing when he separated the worlds. So it suddenly becomes a question we’re meant to care about. The relations between spirits and humans become an actual topic rather than just Vaatu being a big evil kite. But this happens right before the finale, so there’s not much time to talk about it.
As we know, Korra agrees. Why? Good question. The decision to keep the portals open gave her agency that the Book One finale had never given her. Her becoming the first Avatar of a new age is also appropriate. But as far as motivations and sense go… well, it has none. Which brings me to the second massive problem with the spirits in the show, and requires me to start at the “Beginnings”.
In the two-parter we see humans and spirits living in the same world. Or rather, humans surviving seemingly thanks to the protection of the Lion-Turtles. Everything beyond the four settlements huddling on their shells is a hostile jungle full of spirits who won’t give them an inch. We see proto-firebenders go out to hunt using their power. Again, the only reason they can do even that is because the Lion-Turtles help them. Why? Like I’ve said a few times already, good question. But one we have no answer for.
When Wan is exiled from his town and ventures into the wilds, he earns the spirits’ trust by not eating a gazelle he encounters. Which… well, I suppose gets us into the whole argument about whether or not it’s moral to eat meat. But still, he had to risk starvation for them to give him a chance? This starts the general trend in which it’s humans who have to put all the effort into harmony between the two species.
We do later see that there was a tribe of proto-airbenders who live in harmony with the spirits. But how? Once again… good question, no answer. There’s really nothing here except a vague feel-good “spirits are great” message.
After Wan accidentally frees Vaatu, he later fuses with Raava permanently to fight him, becoming the first Avatar. He seals Vaatu into a tree and decides to forever separate the world. Which… isn’t a perfect solution, perhaps, but certainly looked better than what was, at best, a perpetual war. At worst, it was spirits oppressing and bullying humans. So why are we supposed to believe that this wasn’t the right choice and that the one Korra made was right?
Aside from the spirits’ behavior, there’s still the major disconnects between them and being “spiritual”. We still don’t really know what it means. Yes, Korra is woefully unequipped to deal with spirits. But that’s just part of her general immaturity and rashness at this stage of her character arc.
Tenzin, her mentor, is however also unable to mediate into the Spirit World. For… some reason. It seems connected to his general psychological turmoil and massive pressure he’s under to live up to his father’s expectations. The Spirit World is governed by human emotion, so I suppose it would make sense.
While the inability to enter the Spirit World this way is yet another failure dropped on the large pile of Tenzin’s issues, his daughter Jinora can do it. Once again, we don’t really know why Tenzin can’t do it, but she can. All we get is that, you guessed it, she’s more spiritual. Except we still don’t know what that means and why being spiritual is even of any concern.
I’m also not entirely sure why only benders seem able to enter the Spirit World through meditation. If we accept that it requires peace of mind, concentration and inner balance, non-benders are as capable of them all as benders are.
When Korra actually enters the Spirit World, it turns out to be a realm where reality is something of a subjective matter. Human emotions affect it, particularly those of the Avatar. It more or less adds up, is visually interesting and makes some intuitive sense. Still, I’m not sure how much it adds up with the spirits’ connection to the environment that we saw in ATLA.
We also see Iroh in the Spirit World, which raises the question of whether human souls end up there after death. We know the Avatar reincarnates into new bodies every time, but what about everyone else? Maybe Iroh was special – “spiritual” enough to transcend into the Spirit World after death.
This kind of exemplifies the problem I’m talking about here. Yes, Iroh was spiritual in ATLA, in the more conventional sense of the word. There were some hints that he’d travelled to the Spirit World, but for the most part his spirituality was very down-to-earth. He told Zuko to look at what’s in front of him and think about what he wants, instead of chasing some lofty destiny someone else had imagined for him.
The wisdom of spirit-Iroh in Legend of Korra feels a lot like platitudes. Light, dark, staying true to yourself and all that. There’s just not much to it. His earthly wisdom and vague mentions of having had dealings with spirits are turned into some sort of deep connection to the spirits. Which allowed him to effectively become one.
What it adds up to is that the season tries to build up to Korra keeping the portal open, but the attempts just don’t work together. We don’t have a clear idea of what the relationship between humans and spirits should be. Korra’s decision feels like a big plunge for no good reason.
Legend of Korra Books Three and Four
The first episodes of Book Three deal with the consequences of the worlds reuniting. Korra spends a lot of time trying to contain the spirit-vines growing in Republic City, with the help of her friends. And the spirits… well, they don’t do a thing about it except yell at Korra, as if Raiko and the press weren’t enough. It seems that, once again, it falls to humans to work for harmony and peace, while the spirits are just going to complain about everything they do.
The spirits themselves take a backseat as Korra has to contend with the Red Lotus, so she never gets the chance to properly solve the problem. Which instead happens off-screen – we find out that in the period between Books Three and Four, while Korra was recovering from the horrific beating she took from the Red Lotus, Republic City integrated the Spirit Wilds. We see no real evidence of the spirits doing anything to help here, but at least they didn’t get in the way, I suppose?
Still, when Korra goes to ask for their help with Kuvira, she gets the cold shoulder. Kuriva is abusing the spirit vines to power her weapon and she’s invading the city where spirits and humans live together. But what do the spirits say? They’re not going to help, since they don’t interfere with human matters. But aren’t spirits and humans supposed to live together now, so there’s no “human matters” and “spirit matters” anymore? The worlds are back together and they’re all in it together, aren’t they?
I feel like it’s pretty common that whenever humans and more supernatural beings are in conflict in stories, the pressure is on humans to do something about and find common ground. The others, in this case spirits, are seemingly allowed to be aloof or outright hostile instead.
And of course it bears mentioning that humans have a lot more to fear from spirits than the other way around. They can hurt humans in many ways, while humans struggle to retaliate or attack. The biggest danger spirits seem to suffer from humans is their tendency to twist and corrupt when around humans who feel strong negative emotions.
To bring it all to the central point, I think the treatment of spirits in the Avatar franchise is one of the cases where a previously vague and ambiguous element gets more attention. Which doesn’t serve it well. Legend of Korra seems to expect us to take a lot at face value. It’s a lot of talk about spirits, spirituality, change and harmony without a whole lot to back it up. I got the distinct impression the show just skips over it all so we don’t have time to think about it too hard.
Images courtesy of Viacom
Suspension of Disbelief, Representation, and You
Suspension of disbelief is a key element for fictional stories to work. This is our willingness to believe something surreal, that goes against logic or reason or the way we know the world works. It’s the act of suppressing our criticism for the sake of enjoyment and immersion, if you will.
We know that a bite from a radioactive spider won’t give people superpowers. We know there isn’t a secret wizarding world right under our noses. We know mechas shouldn’t be piloted by angsty teenagers. Actually, we know mechas aren’t even a thing. Our willing suspension of disbelief is what allows us to ignore all this knowledge and be carried away by the narrative. It’s our brains saying what if.
Speculative fiction in particular wouldn’t work without this, because it plays with elements distant from our reality. There are entirely invented worlds, or technology that humanity is far from developing. We have zombie apocalypses, alien invasions, time travel, alternative realities, monsters, and magic. It’s not that we don’t know those things aren’t real, we just want to see a story in which they are.
Opening our hearts and minds to the universe presented by the creators is our counterpart, as audiences, to allow stories to touch us. We need this to be fully invested in them, and that emotional engagement is when stories matter.
When there’s friction in your fiction
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re willing to accept everything. If the audience’s job is to be open to the impossible, the creator’s job is to make the impossible seem plausible. Stories don’t need to be realistic but they need to be internally consistent in their setting, characters, or plot.
If you establish your fictional society as heavily patriarchal, you cannot expect us to believe that a female character could be sassy without social consequences. When your character is commanding a fleet, that fleet cannot simply show up on the other side of the world a day later. You can’t have a character being stabbed in the guts and dumped into a dirty canal, then soon parkouring around the city and fighting as if nothing has happened. And yes, these are all the same show.
When creators break the rules they set for their stories, our suspension of disbelief breaks as well. Just as it’s not fun to play a game with someone who cheats, it’s hard to be invested in a story when we can’t follow its internal logic. Thus, we’re less engaged and we trust the creator a little less.
What makes or breaks the suspension of disbelief will depend on the audience. A good example is when creators mess with specific knowledge that most people don’t have, but experts in the field will find hard to ignore. It’s simply easier to suspend your disbelief when you don’t know enough about a topic to dispute it.
People also have different levels of tolerance to absurdity and inconsistency. To continue with Game of Thrones example, for us at the Fandomentals the show has defied logic for years, but for a good part of the audience it took a character gumbo and their unlikely quest to raise eyebrows. There’s no right or wrong answer in those cases, since we’re all different. If the story still works for you, then it still works.
It’s worth questioning, however, what breaks our suspension of disbelief and why.
I want to believe
Follow fandom discussion for long enough and you’ll notice that sometimes what breaks suspension of disbelief for audiences is the presence of certain characters in the story, particularly when they belong to socially marginalized groups. Why would the agency or protagonism of these characters bother our immersion more than all the absurds we buy into when consuming fiction?
Cast an actor of color for a period drama and you’ll hear people complaining about “historical accuracy.” Have a mostly female cast in your story and you’ll be accused of being “politically correct.” Write multiple LGBT+ characters and people will cry there’s “too much diversity.” The list could go on, but this diversity happens in real life and it’s actually much more realistic than your typical homogenous cast. Then why you can always count on part of the audience to look at it with incredulity?
In the past I’ve complained about gratuitous sexual violence in stories, especially when used as a shortcut for “gritty historical realism” in fantasy. This complaint is sometimes met with “that’s how it was back then;” people that defend the decision because it supposedly adds realism and credibility to the story. Wait, so you can believe in dragons or ice zombies, but that one rape scene “had to happen” because otherwise “it would have been too unrealistic”? I’m sorry, I just don’t get the metric for realism here.
Perhaps the easiest example for this relative suspension of disbelief would be Mary Sues. There’s a lot of debate on the validity of the term and this deserves its own separate piece, but we can all agree that a Mary Sue is the type of character that forces our suspension of disbelief. So why is this label often used to undermine competent female characters when we would be a lot more forgiving with a male counterpart? Star Wars is a great example of that, because since the release of The Force Awakens audiences have accused Rey of being a Mary Sue. Have you ever seen Luke or Anakin being called Mary Sues? I haven’t, even though their abilities were much more of an asspull than Rey’s. Then why is Rey the one breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief?
Why do those examples threaten our suspension of disbelief? Why is it so hard for us to simply accept these characters as part of the story, to extend them the same open mind we would to others? If we can’t conceive a fictional society that is diverse or accepting, then maybe the problem lies in our imagination.
It would be tempting to say that this happens because people are sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. To be fair, that’s true for a good portion of the audience that has these reactions. But I think there’s more to it as well: we’re too used to be sold a single narrative, and we’re too used to buying it.
We have come to naturalize certain actions, or characters, or beliefs. Now, when we find a story that goes against what we internalized, that story hurts our suspension of disbelief. In a way, it’s easier to believe in elements clearly distant from our reality, like hobbits, evil robots, or superheroes, than to go against a social narrative we’ve been taught since a very young age.
Yet we have to do exactly that. When something breaks our suspension of disbelief, we have to ask ourselves why. Why is this, of all things I’m being asked to believe, the thing that bothers me? Does it make sense for this particular setting that this specific group is being oppressed? Is this an interesting story to tell or consume? If I changed the race, gender, orientation, etc. of this character, would they still feel unrealistic? Does my belief belong in the 19th century and should I send it back there?
We may not be responsible for the narratives that are created, but we are responsible for examining how we interact with them. This is key for demanding better stories and for engaging with stories that challenge our world views. Especially when said views are in dire need of being challenged.