It has been almost a month since there’s been a Fandomentals article on Avatar: The Legend of Korra, which is something of a cardinal sin for us. There just never seems to be a good enough reason to stop talking about this Y7 cartoon that ended three years ago, what with its subversive legacy, confidently tackling heavy subjects in a shockingly age-appropriate manner, and a willingness to reflect on the part of showrunners Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.
Now, I’ve taken the time to write about both the show’s unsung hero and the secondary character that leaves me clutching at my chest with feels. But what if I told you one of the best characters on Korra was actually one of the most hypocritical and petty? A ‘good guy’ with glaring inconsistencies in morality, and a messiah complex that could make Jack Shephard seem modest.
I’m speaking, of course, of Suyin Beifong: the walking, talking trope-busting antihero (at least in her delusion) who could not exist on any other show.
The Incredibly Present Mother
Suyin, in many ways, was a trope-buster by design. She was Konietzko and DiMartino’s (Bryke’s) direct answer to a pattern found within Korra’s first two seasons, as well as its predecessor Avatar: The Last Airbender—the absent mother. This trope is hardly unique (think of every Disney movie ever), but was especially striking in the case of these shows, since even in situations where both parents were alive, it was the characters’ relationships to their dads that mattered.
Poppy Beifong barely had lines while Lao Beifong is the one to whom Toph made her appeals, Ursa was missing while Zuko’s entire arc was about overcoming the cycle of abuse caused by his father, Sokka and Katara’s mom was dead, Aang was raised by monks though it was mostly his male mentor (and by extension, father-figure) who he remembered, Asami’s mom was dead and her relationship to her father in some ways defined her character, Korra’s relationship to Senna was paper-thin while she spent all of the second season struggling with her father’s protective paternalism, the season one antagonist was entirely motivated by his father’s abuse, the Kataang-offspring all have inadequacy issues from their relationships to Aang specifically, and Eska and Desna’s mother didn’t even make the trip down to the South Pole on what appeared to be a rather important political visit. The best example of a mother mattering was Lin Beifong having followed Toph’s footsteps in career choice, but that relationship was never even discussed until her sister came along. Though I guess Bryke should get some snaps for being equal opportunity killers with Bolin and Mako’s mom.
So, you’ve got an absent mother problem. How to solve it? Oh I don’t know, how about with an ENTIRE MATRIARCHY. That’s right, Suyin Beifong was introduced to us not just as the present mother we had hoped for, but as a matriarch of an entire city. Or…city-state? It’s very unclear. And “matriarch” is literally what her subjects—I mean, beloved and valued citizens who are totally like family—call her.
It should be noted, too, that the true Beifong matriarch Toph (the original Beifong), appears in the final season, though even in Book 3 her relationship to her daughters serves as a focal point. So the introduction of Suyin gave us not one, but two meaningful mothers. Did it change the fact that Senna may as well have been voiced by my 4-month-old niece? Of course not. But just Su’s very presence shifted the focus in a way that was very much needed.
“I see right through you”
Now here’s the thing. “Absent mother” is a sucky trope, and one that’s fairly sexist since it rests on the idea that the most important familial figure to a protagonist must be the paternal one. Even in the case of dead parents, it’s likelier to be the missing father that haunts the main character more. But including mothers also opens the doorway to some equally sucky trope, such as the dreaded “Idealized Motherhood.” Then there’s also the unfortunate fact that mothers in fiction are often stripped down to nothing but their motherhood. That role defines them, whereas fathers are given more narrative space. For instance, in the award-winning Game of Thrones, the death of Selyse and Stannis’s daughter causes the former to kill herself, while the latter (who actually was responsible for said death) plunges onwards, despite being the parent shown to have actually liked Shireen.
From the start, Suyin was introduced to us as much more than her maternal role (or her ‘matriarch’ one, even).
This depth remained a constant in her scripting. Suyin’s motherhood certainly mattered, as she loves and cares for her children, just like her leadership in Zaofu mattered. But so did her relationship to her sister, and her pride, and her fighting prowess, and her value system. It’s exceedingly difficult to simplify Suyin to any one characteristic or role in the story.
Part of this is due to the enormous ambiguity that immediately surrounded her. Suyin claims to be the matriarch in this paragonal progressive city, where everyone is free to pursue these issues. She shows Korra & friends her five children and how they’re all free to do whatever they want. Oh and who’s that following them around? Right, it’s her truthseer Aiwei, because in a perfect utopia there’s no need for lying! That’s…not frightening at all.
This is furthered in how she treats those around her. Opal is free to do whatever she wants as she trains to be an airbender, so long as she stays in Zaofu, of course. Kuvira is her trusted advisor and protege, but her taking initiative in a way that differs from Suyin’s choices is treason.
Even Suyin’s political views betray a rather self-centered focus. The Earth Queen is terrible and should step aside, but when given a chance to lead herself, she balks because she doesn’t want to “impose her ideals” on everyone in the Earth Kingdom. Though that’s more or less exactly what she was doing as the Governor of Zaofu. The result is that Suyin comes across as one of those people who talks a great game in a way to sound very smart, but when actually pressed, has no substance behind what they’re saying.
This was certainly the case with her criticisms of Kuvira’s actions (horrible as they were). Suyin doesn’t actually have any answer to Kuvira’s points about the power vacuum in the Earth Kingdom, nor does she really raise any issues besides not liking that people are bowing to Kuvira. Which seems entirely personally motivated given the manner in which they parted.
Suyin: What do you think you’re doing?
Kuvira: We’re doing what you don’t have the guts to do: We’re going to Ba Sing Se to help bring order back to the Earth Kingdom.
Suyin: No! You will stay here!
Kuvira: And who’s going to stop me? Your security force was more than happy to join my cause. They’re some of the best fighters in the world, and they are tired of being treated like exotic birds in your cage.
It’s important to point at that Kuvira was an oppressive authoritarian, and I don’t mean to suggest Suyin is wrong to oppose her. More, it’s clear from the start that Suyin’s issues with Kuvira doing this were, “this is inconvenient to me.”
Really, that’s what it comes down to: Suyin is self-serving. But she’s self-serving in that, “I’m such a great PTA member because I ensured that our kids have kale on their pizzas” kind of way. She has good intentions, and she cares, but she cares in a way that she always needs recognized.
Her messiah complex is most evident in the way she talks about her citizens. Everyone is “like family” to her, from Aiwei, to Kuvira, to even that poor guard she shoved against a wall when he had been falsely framed for helping the Red Lotus.
“I trusted him with my life. I thought we were family, but it was all a lie.” —Suyin on Aiwei
I know it’s a rather popular headcanon in the fandom that Suyin was something of a surrogate mother to Kuvira, but frankly…that’s not in evidence. What is, is Ms. Matriarch’s tendency to aggrandize her status, and her relationships with individuals, when it suits her needs. Heck, do you know Suyin never even told Korra that Kuvira was an orphan? She just mentioned “nourishing her talents,” which is not unusual in the context of her Captain of Guards. I have no doubt she’d be saying something similar about Aiwei had he become the Great Uniter.
This is most clearly exemplified in the way she treats her own kids. Suyin is unable to conceive of Baatar Jr. as having done anything for Kuvira’s campaign of his own volition. She says he was brainwashed, she frames his leaving Zaofu as Kuvira “turning him” against her, and even though he went through with an invasion of both Zaofu and Republic City, she’s forgiving of him because that’s apparently what family does. Look, I love my siblings, but if one of them had signed up to be the second-in-command to a fascist dictator, I’m really not sure there’s any working through it.
The only person to ever call Suyin on her shit is Lin Beifong (our unsung hero for that reason alone), and of course her own inability to let go of the past doesn’t allow for that criticism to be very effective. Even though after their fight, it’s pretty clear that Suyin is still hilariously hypocritical, and possibly immune to irony.
Lin: Where’s everyone? I’ve been waiting to leave for half an hour.
Suyin: And good morning to you, Lin. Now don’t get mad, Korra’s fine. I’m just waiting to hear if she’d tracked down Aiwei yet.
Lin: What! You let Korra go?! I thought we were on the same page about this, and then you go and stab me in the back?
Suyin: Oh, don’t be so overdramatic.
Yeah Suyin…she should really tone it down.
“I guess this is how it’s going to be”
The thing is, we all know Suyins. She’s not a ‘bad guy’, and even at her most unreasonable, where she comes from is at least somewhat sympathetic. But she is a deeply flawed woman with hilarious blind-spots.
That alone makes her a rare, exotic bird on TV. That’s not even touching the way her non-masculine backgrounded husband is just content to chill, the relationship that most heavily defines her role in the show is her sister, and how she’s middle aged and yet partakes in some of the best fighting sequences Korra’s ever offered. Just consider it icing on the cake.
No, Suyin Beifong was given the space to be so imperfect, and to act in such an immature manner. She sulked, she grandstanded, she threw herself into danger, she lectured, she bragged, and she helped. She’s the worst in so many ways, and her hypocrisy is impossible to ignore. But it shouldn’t be either; Suyin is the worst, and her being the worst destroys just about every trope in the book.