Monday, July 15, 2024

No, I’m Still Not Over Korrasami

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You’ve probably noticed our Legend of Korra (LoK) kick this past week over here, and for good reason. Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of its series finale. And, though I can’t think of a single other show for which this is done, the ending of LoK was so riveting, so satisfying, so thematically rich, and so validating, that it truly does feel like something worth celebrating.

It’s that last point that I want to focus on though…the validation. You see, the final two seasons of LoK—in addition to an in-depth healing arc, antagonists with complicated philosophies, messaging about compassion and balance, amazing fights, complicated familial dynamics, and the transition into adulthood/maturation—included a love story between the series protagonist, Korra, and her best friend, Asami. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my Shipping Guilt™, and how reducing a narrative down to its romances is anathema to me. But while there’s much about LoK I could gush about, the relationship between these two women (dubbed “Korrasami” by the fans) is something that really is worth discussing on its own. And perhaps even weirder still, something I actively want to discuss on its own.

For what it’s worth, I expected to be over it by now. I mean, watching Korra and Asami’s relationship grow and deepen was engaging. Even more, this was a show with a TV-Y7 rating; despite the fact that there were obvious romantic beats to their relationship during in the final two seasons, the idea that this was something that was ever going to actually make it onto our screens seemed unlikely, at best. So when the finale rolled around, and Korrasami unambiguously sailed…yeah. That’s a feeling I still remember.

But you know, it’s one year later. I’ve rewatched it a number of times and analyzed it every which way. Hell, the parts of the narrative I’m the most engaged with right now have absolutely nothing to do Korra and Asami’s relationship, but instead revolve around the political and corporate details that were heavily glossed over in between Seasons 1 and 2 (sometimes it’s best not to ask with me). Why is this what I’m choosing to to celebrate?

The thing is, it doesn’t take much to suck me back into the Korrasami narrative. An out-of-context gif here, the use of “snazzy” as a compliment there. It doesn’t matter how small, I’m somehow gripped again, drowning in those dreaded “feels” I managed to avoid my whole life.

So why does this ship have that effect on me? I think there’s a few reasons, none of which are trivial. For one, Korra and Asami’s relationship was not only the natural conclusion for both characters, but the perfect thematic fit. In my recent piece about writing implications, I discussed how given the inherent difference placed on her within the narrative, Korra was (in many ways) a queer-coded character from the get-go. Having her end up in a place where that was translated into our language demonstrated the way showrunners Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (Bryke) learned to listen to her. Perhaps this sounds trite, but it just felt “right” that Korra was made explicitly bisexual.

On a thematic level, while only the last season of LoK was titled “balance,” that had always been, perhaps, the central theme to the entire Avatar franchise. The delicate balance of benders and the nations always featured as a backdrop to the main plot since the days of Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA). Season 4 of LoK explicitly expanded on this, outright stating the ways in which the series’s antagonists had philosophies that were not inherently bad, just taken to the extreme. Then there was the matter of Korra finding her own, internal sense of balance and peace as she worked through her trauma.

Her relationship to Asami, however, hammered home this theme. Korra represents ancient spiritual wisdom where Asami represents modern technological innovation. Korra (as the Avatar) is the champion of the downtrodden, where Asami is wealthy. Korra is sheltered where Asami is wordly. Korra bends every single element where her girlfriend bends none. There’s the way their strategization and fighting styles play off one another too: Korra is very “shoot first, aim second,” decisive, and at times hot-headed, while Asami is reserved, meticulous, and at times known to hide from her problems (see: not visiting her father for 3 years). Korra has a vision for the world, and Asami has the ability to bring it into the material, as was demonstrated by her infrastructure work that married the spirit vines and the modern city.

It was as if Asami was scripted to be Korra’s perfect balance; no two characters could possibly be more suited for one another. Which makes the fact that they were originally scripted as “rivals”competing in a love triangle even more hilarious. And again…this is why the Korrasami ending “felt right.” It was thematically cohesive not just with the season, but with everything Bryke had built.

But I think even looking beyond narrative “worth,” if you will, the reason Korrasami still has me is that, well…this might sound odd. It was a restrained story. As I said earlier, this kind of depiction had not been done on TV shows with a Y7 rating. At least certainly not with the protagonist being the one to explore a relationship with someone of the same gender. Therefore at the time, it seemed like something that probably couldn’t be explicitly shown. When Bryke scripted the final two seasons, they worked in the idea that Korra and Asami’s “trajectory could be heading towards a romance.” It wasn’t until they got close to finishing the finale that they realized they were making an assumption about what could be depicted, and sought to challenge it, as they successfully did with the explicit, clear-as-day ending that we got.

So, why the hell am I so excited about a show that wrote a love story between two women in such an understated way? Because that’s exactly what made Korrasami so special. The constraints holding Bryke back from writing the story they wanted were based on heteronormative assumptions—the same types of assumptions that make it complicated for individuals experiencing same-gender attraction to sort out their feelings. I’ve talked about this before, but not immediately understanding feelings, more subtle flirting and looks, greater ambiguity surrounding the friend/partner dynamic…those are very common features in modern-day queer narratives, especially between two women. And because of Bryke’s self-imposed restrictions, this was what they had to turn to.

It wasn’t your typical tropey love story. It wasn’t the boombox being held over someone’s head, or the good ol’ “we’re stuck in this cave and based on mythology we only loosely understand there’s a 0.3% chance that kissing will save our asses so let’s give that a shot.” And while sometimes these tropes are cute, it’s just not what normally happens in real life. Especially when the case is two women experiencing attraction towards one another in our heteronormative society.

As I said before in my “Korrasami is GREAT Writing” piece:

From my (limited) experience, figuring out sexual intrigue with someone of the opposite gender is almost immediately done through touch, testing the boundaries, seeing what gets reception. This is what tends to be depicted in television and movies (e.g. Mal and Inara’s clear sexual tension being established with one touch in the pilot episode of Firefly).

With someone of the same gender, it’s much more complicated. It takes a lot of wading through emotional closeness to attempt that physical level, especially when the context is both parties still figuring out their attraction. And even then, because women can touch each other without it being perceived as homoerotic in the way that men are usually told that they can’t, things can get misinterpreted. Yeah, you can feel the tension, just like you can with the opposite gender, but there’s so much more second-guessing involved. And at the same time this person has probably become your best friend, so there’s an inherent hesitancy there.

This is why Bryke being forced to turn towards developing Korra and Asami’s emotional connection led to, in my opinion, one of the most realistic and organic love stories ever told.

Of course, there were still those moments I think everyone can relate to, such as showing off for the person you’re interested in, maybe without a full understanding of why you’re even acting like that:

I think more importantly, there were those moments of lightness between the two. It wasn’t some clichéd slogfest of tortured emotions, full of “ommgggg you do have feelings for me!” drama, or some kind of forced “wow when you talk about sand being irritating it really makes me want to kiss you.” We actually were shown why Korra and Asami were interested in each other, and those reasons were clearly well, well beyond “oh look, hot person.” They could laugh together about a rather crappy shared experience. They supported each other in battle without hesitation (and with ridiculous synchronization). They truly enjoyed spending time in the other’s company, and that was something we saw since the first season.

That’s not to say Bryke even shied away from messiness. They wrote in a conflict between the two women, just to demonstrate that even under stress, even in cases of disagreement, these two never resort to shouting matches or to negating the other’s feelings—something that featured strongly in both of their past relationships.

But overall, it was the quiet moments between them that were the most poignant. It was the moments where they’d provide emotional support. It was Asami offering to watch Korra’s body as she meditated into the Spirit World. It was Korra praising Asami to her dad. It was Asami telling Korra that she was there for “anything” the Avatar might require. It was Korra suggesting a vacation that Asami dearly needed. Their entirely relationship was just nice. It was based on mutual respect, understanding, and support. There was no single event that made them recognize their feelings for one another, and no plot devices to get them together (*cough* love triangle *cough*). They fell in love slowly, and without ceremony, because sometimes that’s just what happens.

Weirdly enough though, it’s a story rarely told. Especially between two women. The way these narratives usually go is that you have one girl, probably the protagonist, who starts out the story thinking she’s straight. Bonus points if she grew up sheltered and her outfits reflect that. Then there’s some sort of gold star lesbian with dark hair and sarcasm who shakes the squeaky protagonist to her core and makes her see the agonizing truth about her sexuality. Oh yeah, even more bonus points if she has some Nice™ white bread boyfriend who she doesn’t want to hurt. Sometimes it ends well (But I’m a Cheerleader, Imagine Me & You), sometimes it ends horribly (The L Word), though frankly more often than not it’s only told in allusions (Foxfire, Bend it Like Beckham).

Sure, we also get the occasional gay side-character, or the lesbian moms in an already committed relationship. And it’s not to say those stories don’t matter either. But the fact that it was the protagonist of LoK with whom we experienced it? That’s huge.

More importantly, Korra’s overarching self-discovery, growth, and maturation pretty much was the central story of the show Unlike the externally-focused epic of ATLA that featured major character growth, LoK was an internally-focused character-based narrative that featured epic plotlines. It’s a small difference, but one that matters.

And even better, Korra falling in love with Asami was not some angsty feature of this journey. It was not something she needed to ruminate on, or seek advice about. It was just something that happened organically along the way, and the fact that Asami was a woman didn’t even seem to be something worth giving a second thought.

Korra chose to spend the rest of her life with the one person who could balance her like no one else, the one person she felt she could open up to about her emotions, and the one person who was unquestionably there for her at all times. She didn’t need to end up with anyone…she just wanted to. Because that’s what happens. Nothing was forced; nothing overshadowed the narrative. It was just that in this fantastic, fantastic show, a love happened to grow and develop between two characters who were almost inherently meant for each other.

So yeah, that’s why I’m still not over Korrasami.

Images courtesy of Viacom

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