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Analysis

The Power of Korra’s Healing Arc

Kylie

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This piece is co-written by Gretchen and Kylie

It’s hard to find a podcast or analysis piece on this site that doesn’t somehow sing the praises of Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra. Yet with two of the three Turf Wars comics published and the third scheduled for this summer, the reaction from our Fandomentals staff, and Korra fandom at large has been, shall we say, mixed. One of the more prominent criticisms, especially after Part 2, has been Korra’s characterization and personality. It’s…definitely something, but not something we recognize as lining up with where she ended her arc in the TV series. Korra of Turf Wars seems to lack the balance Book 4 was named after, which her character had been progressing toward from the beginning.

Please stop attacking people doing their jobs…

We’re still scratching our heads with how she got here. Because the last we remember from the show, Korra was identifying with the season’s antagonist and actively pursuing ways to understand how all of her enemies have been right to a certain degree, only out of balance. With that in mind, and in preparation for our Korrasami panel at ClexaCon coming up, Kylie and Gretchen decided to take a dive back into Legend of Korra and focus specifically on Korra’s healing arc in Book 4.

Out of the Compound, Into the Wringer

Korra hasn’t exactly had an easy time of being the Avatar. Not that Aang did, by any means. He was frozen for 100 years and woke up to discover that his entire culture and nation had been completely wiped out. He was a survivor of genocide facing down the imperial ambitions of the nation that had destroyed his own. He died and lost his connection to the Avatar spirit. Even after Katara revived him, his access to the Avatar state was severed, and he had to pursue spiritual healing to overcome the block.

Korra may not have to cope with being a child soldier or the genocide of her people, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t experience trauma. It’s just a different kind. Korra’s traumas were far more personal than Aang’s, and by that, we mean specific to her person—localized in her body and her bending. In Book 1, as soon as she sees Amon remove a Triad leader’s bending, that becomes her greatest fear, only for her to suffer that later. She loses her water, fire, and earth bending. It’s a terrifying moment for her, but her concern for saving Mako from the same fate unlocks her airbending ability. Still, she’s traumatized, depressed, and seemingly on the verge of committing suicide…

Until Aang shows up and magically restores her other bending abilities as well as giving her the power to restore everyone else’s, too. Yay! She’s fixed now!

So far as Book 2 is concerned, what even are depression and the lingering effects of trauma? Korra sure doesn’t know, because her losing her bending is never explored in any meaningful way, or even brought up. She has her bending back, so why dwell?

But Book 2 presents her with yet another personal, traumatic loss in the form of having Raava literally ripped out of her and her past lives destroyed. In two seasons she’s arguably lost two of the most important pieces of herself that make her who she is as the Avatar: her bending and Raava. And unlike Aang, it isn’t that she just lost contact with the Avatar spirit or couldn’t enter the Avatar state. She literally had the Avatar spirit—who must feel like a second soul inside of her given how deep and intimate the connection is based on what we see with Raava and Wan—forcibly torn out of her and shattered.

Thankfully, when she’s reunited with Raava, it’s less a ‘lol, fixed’ than the ending to Book 1 was, though it was still not quite what one would expect for such a painful event. She’s ‘whole’ again as the Avatar, although she still lost her past lives. All that history, wisdom, knowledge, and experience: gone.

And it isn’t just that, she’s lost a community, a sense of her own place in the world. We see in Books 3-4 that she struggles to make her way in the world precisely because she lacks this sense of place. What must be a lonely experience—being the only one of your kind and misunderstood or rejected because of your power—was mitigated knowing she was one of a long line of Avatars. She could take comfort in their presence in her ‘life’ even if she didn’t commune with them. Just knowing they were a part of her through Raava meant she wasn’t alone.

In one stroke, she lost all of that.

However, losing her past lives wasn’t really presented as having been traumatizing. On paper, this sounds like a very damaging thing to have happen, yet it’s presented more as an inconvenience since she now cannot access them as a resource. One would think at least the show would have explored how traumatizing it would be for Katara and the Gaang kids to ‘lose’ their dad all over again. But no, losing her past lives is just a thing that happens and Korra has to seek advice from real human beings instead of asking the former Avatars.

Bolin: Ooh sorry, did I interrupt an Avatar wisdom session?

Korra: Avatar wisdom is the thing of the past, Bolin.

That’s not inherently a bad move. We really like Korra connecting to and seeking advice from Toph, Tenzin, Lin, Suyin (er…sometimes), and Asami. At the same time, not treating the loss of the Avatar spirit or her past lives as traumatic does feel inauthentic and like a missed opportunity.

That brings us to the events of Book 3, where Legend of Korra sets up what will be one of the most compelling healing arcs we’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something for a show that didn’t actively deal with the protagonist’s trauma for half of the show’s run.

After being pursued for unclear reasons by a group of anarchists with unclear motivations all season, Korra is ultimately poisoned by their leader Zaheer with a metallic poison in an attempt to force her into the Avatar state and kill her, ending the Avatar cycle for good. While she’s under the influence of the poison in the Avatar state, Zaheer tries to suffocate her. When the poison is (mostly) removed, we can see clearly that Korra isn’t the same. She survives, but only at great cost to herself physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Unlike the previous two trauma’s Korra suffered, this one was intentionally written to be lasting so that the show could explore it in Book 4. Even the ending to Book 3 wasn’t as neat as the previous two books. Where Book 1 closed with a magical Aang fix and Book 2, with a fully whole and restored Avatar, Book 3 breaks with the pattern and offers us a ‘flash forward’ to three weeks later…and Korra still isn’t healed. She’s in a wheelchair and visibly depressed. We know right then that the story isn’t going to take the easy road out of Korra’s traumatic experience with Zaheer.

Before we talk about the healing arc proper there’s one other thing to note about Korra’s arc in Books 3-4, and that is what it displays about showrunners’ Bryan Konietzko’s and Michael DiMartino’s (aka Bryke) growth as storytellers. Legend of Korra is actually a great test case to talk about writers actively improving over the course of the show. They listened to their audience and course corrected, and they listened to their characters and the chemistry—we have that instinct to thank for Korrasami (more on that later).

And, they also display a desire to improve and ‘get it right’ when it comes to dealing with Korra’s trauma. As we’ll see, Book 4 doesn’t just deal with Korra’s trauma from Book 3; it also finds ways to include and explore what she experienced in Books 1-2. With Book 4, we truly get to see Bryke give Korra space to deal with her suffering in a meaningful way. And that’s a huge mark of growth from “yippee, Aang fixed Korra’s depression!” in Book 1.

“Nobody expects you to bounce back right away”

Perhaps the most interesting call was that Book 4’s opening episode was almost entirely Korra-free, until the final scene. We learned through the other characters that she had been at the South Pole for the three years that passed, and everyone was eagerly awaiting her return to Republic City. However when Tonraq arrives without her, it’s quickly discovered that she gave all her friends and family the slip for the past 6 months. When we find out where she is, it’s nearly as grim as where we left her the previous season: underground fighting (and losing) somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, while denying that she’s the Avatar. This was tonally striking and foreboding, and sort of allowed the audience to immediately tap into Korra’s interpersonal imbalance.

That’s what’s great about this arc is that from the get-go: it’s clear that her regaining physical strength is not the sum total, nor even really the focal point. Book 3 ended with her in a wheelchair, yet our first glimpse of her in Book 4 in the earthbending fight is just as worrying, if not more so. It’s clear she’s made an unhealthy choice to hide, and is not in the best state of mind. Even her loss in the match seemed more as a result of that headspace rather than any physical limitations.

It’s the next episode where we get the details. “Korra Alone”—named after “Zuko Alone”, which is considered one of the best episodes from Avatar: The Last Airbender—is a nonlinear tale of Korra’s recovery up until the unground fight. We learn through flashbacks that soon after the end of Book 3, she traveled back to the Southern Water Tribe alone in order to heal. There, she struggled with nightmares, clearly not improving for what might have been months (based on her friends’ letters piling up), until her mom begged her to visit Katara.

We then get a sequence of healing sessions: Korra wiggling her big toe for the first time, Korra taking her first assisted steps. These also include Korra screaming in frustration at Katara thanks to her slow progress. It’s then that Katara talks about Aang’s own struggles with the loss of his culture, and how he choose to find meaning in his suffering and recontextualize what he had gone through.

Katara: [Aang] chose to find meaning in his suffering and eventually…found peace.

Korra: And, what am I going to find if I…get through this?

Katara: I don’t know. But won’t it be interesting to find out? (4×02)

The next flashbacks take us to a Korra that’s sparring with the White Lotus again, trying to show-off for a visiting Tenzin like she does in Book 1. However, she’s clearly not in the fighting shape she used to be, and when she loses, she expresses her frustration at not improving fast enough. We next get her narration of a letter she writes to Asami two years after her injury, intercut with scenes of her training and meditating. She confides that she hasn’t been able to get back into the Avatar state since Zaheer, and worries she’ll never fully recover.

After this, Korra tells her parents she wants to go back to Republic City to be “where the action is”, saying she hit a wall with her progress. They agree to let her travel alone, which she opts to do by boat as a way to clear her head. However, when she stops in a small village for lunch, she’s unable to apprehend two thieves in what should have been a stupidly easy fight. Worse still, as she approaches Republic City, she sees something disturbing: herself, wrapped up in platinum chains and in the Avatar state, as she had been when fighting Zaheer (from here on denoted as “dark!Korra”).

Korra decides she’s not ready to go back, cuts her hair, and changes her clothes to disguise herself. We then find out how she spent those missing 6 months, as she narrates a letter of her lying to her father; she searched for Raava, unable to feel her Avatar spirit anymore, in what looked to be the most remote reaches of the world. Even going to the Tree of Time in the Spirit World didn’t help.

We’re then taken back to the present day—just after the underground earthbending fight—which we learn she only entered because she spotted dark!Korra in the pit. She heals her bruises and leaves, only to have a cute potato-esque spirit lure her into the swamp. There, she encounters dark!Korra once again, who fights her, seemingly dragging her into a puddle of the same metal poison. Instead, she winds up in a cave where she meets Toph, who has been living in the swamp for years.

At first, Korra asks Toph to train her, since she’s getting beat-up by “losers” all over the Earth Kingdom. Yet it becomes apparent that there’s something else at play than physical shape: Korra is doubting all her old instincts. In one sequence when she wanders off in the swamp, she spots all of her past enemies in the moments where they hurt her the most. Amon taking away her bending, Unalaq ripping Raava out of her, and of course a shot of Zaheer all flash before her, and us.

We also learn that Korra’s begun to wonder if she’s even needed in the world at all (which is not particularly aided by Toph’s words on the subject). Toph is still able to get to the root of things though, and eventually explains to her that the problem is that she’s been disconnected from herself and the people she loves for too long. Oh, also, there’s still bits of metal poison inside of her, because Suyin apparently missed some when she had extracted it.

Korra asks Toph to bend it out of her, but every time she tries, Korra flashes to her fight with Zaheer or dark!Korra in some way, fighting and interrupting the process. Toph tells her she has to do it herself, and it won’t be possible if she keeps carrying around her former battles without trying to learn something from them. Korra’s disconnect from the people she cared about had been a major issue too; once she reaches out and spirit bends through the vines of the swamp, she directs Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo to her. After she reunites with them, she successfully manages to bend the metal out and re-enter the Avatar state.

It would have been easy for her healing arc to stop there. The metal was out of her, the physical reason she hadn’t been in the Avatar state and she had been losing fights. Right?

Well, the next couple of episodes counter that idea. In them, Korra tries to end the new crisis with Kuvira’s power grab by confronting her forces at Zaofu. She didn’t want to fight—that was something she felt the “old me” would have done. But when Kuvira (and Suyin, honestly) left no other way to solve the conflict, Korra agreed to duel Kuvira. She began losing, then jumped into the Avatar state, which would have clearly allowed her a finishing blow. But she still flashed to dark!Korra, causing her to fail, and Kuvira to capture Zaofu. Korra was taken to safety before Kuvira could hurt her, but she remained confused as to why she had these flashbacks now that the metal had been removed.

Once back in Republic City, Korra reconnects with her friends, getting past the awkwardness of having cut them off for three years, and even reaches out with her spirit bending to locate someone who’s missing, showing that she she can stay connected outside of the swamp. She still worries about whether the world needs her, but when the city’s spirit vines go haywire and kidnap a group of tourists thanks to Kuvira’s meddling with the vines in the swamp, Korra knows she’s the only one who can free them from their spirit-stasis.

Small problem: it requires her meditating into the Spirit World, and when she tries, she once again flashes to Zaheer and dark!Korra. Korra decides she has to confront Zaheer in his prison, which she does alone. It’s clear she’s still scared of him, and we learn that the most frightening aspect to her is her having been completely out of control in their fight. Dark!Korra represents that extreme vulnerability to her. Despite their differences, Zaheer agrees to help guide Korra through meditation into the Spirit World, since he believes that Kuvira needs to be stopped too. Using language evocative of mindful meditation, he tells her to accept what happened to her.

She manages to let go and allow the upsetting flashes play out, despite being out of control. Once that happens, she finds herself in the Spirit World, where she reconnects with Raava (or rather, reestablishes their connection; Raava hadn’t gone anywhere), and saves the tourists. Turns out she can energybend in the Spirit World, demonstrating that she’s even more powerful than she had realized. She tells Mako that she finally feels “whole” again after this.

All that’s left is to save the world from a technocratic emperor then, right?

Korra does just that, but it’s clear that there’s been a shift in her mentality and approach to fighting. It’s not that she’s any less proactive or fearless—quite the contrary. However, there’s a strategy. When Kuvira invades Republic City, she knows they can’t take her on head-first, and instead devises a plan to kidnap her fiance Baatar Jr., thinking they could reason with or strongarm him instead. When it becomes apparent that he’s as committed to this plan as Kuvira, she shifts her tactics to target his love for Kuvira.

Korra: We’ve been going about his all wrong. You’re right. I’m not gonna physically hurt you if you don’t talk. But there is something I could do that will be even more painful. I will take away the one thing you care for the most…Kuvira.

Baatar Jr.: What do you mean?

Korra: Kuvira might win. She might chase us out of the city. But you won’t be around to enjoy the victory. Because wherever I run, I’ll take you. I am going to make it my life’s mission to never let you see the one you love again. Is taking the city worth losing Kuvira forever? (4×11)

This ultimately blows up in Korra’s face (kind of literally), when they find out that Kuvira is willing to sacrifice Baatar to accomplish her goals. Only then does Korra realize they have to take Kuvira head on. In this showdown, we see that Korra’s bending is about as powerful as it’s ever been. But that’s not what saves the day. Kuvira’s spirit vine super-weapon malfunctions, and when it’s about to accidentally fire on her, Korra throws herself in front of her enemy and bends the energy of its fire power to save her. This ends up ripping open a new spirit portal in the heart of Republic City, which she and Kuvira get blasted through.

Once in the Spirit World, Korra “wins” the fight by simply relating to Kuvira. She tells her that she understands acting from a place of vulnerability and worry, not knowing what will happen. Kuvira was trying to keep the people of her kingdom safe, just like Korra had tried to keep herself safe by cutting herself off and fighting the disturbing visions every step of the way.

Kuvira surrenders, realizing how out-of-balance she got, even if her intentions had been good. This hearkens back to Toph’s advice about Korra being able to learn something from her past enemies, and come to understand their views even if not agreeing with their means or ends. Korra can “carry around” her past battles in this sense—that there’s something of value there she learned, and can apply to other situations.

Later, Korra reflects on this to Tenzin. The meaning she found in her injury and recovery from Zaheer is that she can empathize better with people like Kuvira now, and she can’t regret going through that given her perspective now. This serves as the endcap to Katara’s advice as well. She’s reshaped the world possibly more than any other Avatar (at least since Wan), yet she tells Tenzin there’s more she wants to do, and she’s hopeful about the future. It’s clear she found an inner sense of peace.

The series then ends with Korra allowing herself a moment of self-care: she asks Asami to go on a vacation with her, quite obviously framed as a beginning to their relationship (and a very intense first date), and steps into the spirit portal with her as the last shot.

Korra’s Withdrawal, and Why Korrasami Still Sounds Perfect

There’s a lot to be said about this arc, as well as its implications—positive and negative. However, as we were talking through it, one of the things that jumped out to us was how female-driven this was. In fact, all of Korra’s primary dynamics in Book 4 were with other women. Katara and Toph both served in a mentor role, each delivering a neatly packaged thesis statement (Katara’s focused on Korra’s internal journey, with Toph’s focused on the main tensions of the season). Jinora was the first person Korra reached back out to in a very external way. Asami was the person Korra realized she was in love with and took steps into the future with her. Kuvira served as Korra’s antagonist and foil; Senna was the one who begged Korra to go visit with Katara in the first place; even Raava (in some ways a representation of Korra’s self, but still) is female-coded.

Korra’s final conversation with Tenzin was more a result of their dynamic in previous seasons (not that he’s chopped liver to her or anything), and frankly other than Zaheer, there wasn’t a man who particularly influenced her recovery. Not to mention his mindful meditation session was far more about Korra’s inner demons than him.

There’s not much to say about that pattern beyond, “Hey, neato,” but it’s worth noting that even over three years later, this is a major anomaly in modern media. And given Korra’s brutalization at the hands of specifically men for three books, a very welcome one for her. No more “Aang magically fixed her instantaneously.” She’s found balance and healing in and through relationships with female characters.

That brings us to the other “anomaly”: Korrasami.

Though wlw portrayal has come a lot in the past few years, it is still hardly commonplace. And it may be hard to remember, but in 2014, this representation had never existed before in Y7 programming. We’re talking pre-Rupphire on Steven Universe. Watching the final season, Korra ending up with Asami seemed like the most obvious thing in the world really—they were the closest emotionally, it was to her that Korra confided about her struggles with the Avatar State. With “The Earth Queen” and “Long Live the Queen” especially, Book 3 showed us how in tune Korra and Asami were on multiple levels, and despite the hurt feelings at their initial reunion in Book 4, we saw them immediately snap back into that productive dynamic.

However, years and years of storytelling conventions still made it seem like the longest of longshots. So, bemoan its reserve (Bryan certainly did), but in terms of the characters at play, it’s hard to argue there wasn’t a natural flow to that end point, which was in fact a new beginning.

We both have to applaud the way that Korra’s interest in Asami and their feelings for each other really didn’t become any sort of focal point. Too many healing arcs in shows are about the power of love (heck, Book 1 somewhat framed Korra’s airbending mastery as being linked to her feelings for Mako and endcapped her ‘healing’ with a kiss between them), and while that’s not strictly a bad thing since love is…nice (?)…we find it more refreshing and impactful that it was Korra’s own force of will and inner strength that guided her healing. It’s an uplifting message, that we all have this capacity to strive towards healing and reach a place of peace and balance on our own.

It’s not to say Korra’s loved ones didn’t influence her—of course they did. Reuniting with Jinora (her spiritual guide), Ikki, and Meelo gave Korra the resolve to bend the remaining metal out of her body. But her path to healing was focused on embracing her own vulnerabilities and uncertainties, and learning not carry them with her like tiny drops of metallic poison (it’s like it’s a metaphor or something!).

So then, why would we bring up Korrasami at all? Well, because that’s the end point for Korra in the series proper. This is the final note (or, musical cue) Bryke picked for her. As it aired, there had been criticism from some viewers that it was arbitrary, or tacked-on fanservice. But in our minds, it was the perfect way to resolve her healing arc, and the franchise as a whole.

Korra being disconnected for too long from the people that she loved was a rather apparent reason for why her progress had stagnated. When we meet Korra in Book 4, she may have the regained the use of her legs and her bending, but she’d lost a connection with almost everything else. She has a tenuous tie to Asami in the form of that one letter, but lost all sense of what Asami is doing, as well as the rest of her friends and family. She had no connection her her past lives or Raava. She had lost a sense of her own bending ability, too, in that she’d been living with self-imposed boundaries and didn’t trust herself to lean into or rely on her skills the way she used to. She was out of touch with Republic City and the world at large. She really was ‘alone’ in a way she’s never been before in her whole life.

And it’s understandable why she withdrew: she was feeling weak and vulnerable, and didn’t want to come back until she was ready to embrace her role again. This is why she had a mounting frustration when months passed without progress, and it’s certainly why she turned and ran, opting to hide herself instead, when she got feedback at that village that she wasn’t “fit” to be the Avatar. At least, in her mind.

To end on the note of beginning a new relationship with the woman she fell in love with over her three years away is a direct response to that. It’s not just demonstrating that she’s back and rekindled her friendships—we saw that explicitly. It’s that she is allowing herself to prioritize a relationship after everything she’s been through. That’s why the criticism of her somehow shirking her duties to have a vacation have always bothered us; if anyone’s earned a damn break, isn’t it her? Especially since putting too much pressure on herself to be this paragonal Avatar (that’s never actually existed) was what caused so much anxiety and stress to her in the first place?

Then there’s the fact that the show ends on a new beginning. I can understand the frustration of not seeing an explicit representation of this relationship on screen (i.e. a kiss), but at the same time, this is their first date. In some ways, the “incomplete” nature of that last shot without a kiss was kind of perfect, since the lack of finite resolve between Korra and Asami was the point, right? Their story isn’t done, it was just starting. But the series and franchise story was concluded. Korra, the first Avatar of the new age, found her place in the world, found her inner peace, and is now pursuing her own personal happiness. What we can imagine is more powerful than had anything that could have been shown to us.

We mean…we still would have liked a dang kiss. Come on now. But given the perceived restrictions on this medium, this is what we got. And it’s kind of perfect for that meta reason.

Heck, this isn’t even touching the out-of-verse transgressive nature of it perfectly mirroring Korra’s own in-verse transgressions. It’s impossible to separate Korra’s queerness, in the most literal sense of the word, from her healing arc, and from her staking a claim to her place in both the narrative and the world. Then we’ve got the rather remarkable foils between Korra and Asami that hammer home the theme of ~balance~ in an almost stupidly immaculate way.

As Kylie’s put it before:

“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.”

Korra’s never, for even a single millisecond, depicted as incomplete without Asami, or without romantic love in her life in general. Hell, her moment of first connecting with herself to unlock her ultimate cosmic power (without any Avatar spirit in her, it’s worth noting), happened at exactly the same time she was reminded of her breakup with Mako that she had forgotten about prior thanks to amnesia. Obviously that didn’t affect a whole lot for her in that moment, even if she did have a sort of sad, resigned, “this isn’t working” moment with him later. 

But ending on Korrasami showed that Korra was still moving towards healing, towards letting her guard down, towards leaning into her connections with others. And it’s just so dang perfect that it was with the one person who complements her so thoroughly.

Korra’s Balanced Endgame

And that brings us back to the discussion of balance, which is what Book 4 (and arguably all of Legend of Korra, and even its precursor) is all about. As we mentioned, Korra’s healing brought her to a place where she was able to balance her duties as the Avatar with her personal life. She no longer felt guilty about taking time away, as she did when Book 4 opened, and she accepts that she doesn’t have to do it alone. She doesn’t have to save the world herself, as she has believed most of the series.

Kuvira acts as a foil to showcase her progress in all of this. Just as Korra had believed it was her sole responsibility to save the world, that same mentality is what got Kuvira to the point where she would willingly sacrifice her fiance to achieve her goals: the belief that she alone was responsible for saving the Earth kingdom from itself. Like Korra, Kuvira saw a need and wanted to fill it when others wouldn’t or couldn’t. Like Korra, Kuvira has a fierce desire and determination to protect her people; you only have to compare Kuvira to Korra’s Book 2 arc with the Southern Water Tribe.

Kuvira: We are nothing alike!

Korra: Yes, we are. We’re both fierce and determined to succeed, sometimes without thinking things through. (4×13)

And like Korra, Kuvira went too far and didn’t consider all the consequences of her actions and choices (though to be fair, Korra never came close to being a fascist dictator). Kuvira became fixated on her own skills and power. And on other people needing to acquiesce to her power and confidence.

Kuvira: This wasn’t how I wanted things to end. If you would have all just surrendered, none of this would have happened. (4×13)

Sounds a lot like Books 1-2 Korra, doesn’t she?

Yet even in her final balanced-state, Korra doesn’t lose what makes her unique. She’s still fierce and proactive—she jumped in front of a damn cannon to save Kuvira and made her stand at Republic City despite her initial desire to pursue a peaceful solution. But, there’s a contemplativeness to her, and she finds solutions to struggles not through flexing her physical prowess but by tapping into a shared vulnerability with her antagonist.

She’s less “I’m the Avatar and you gotta deal with it,” and more “I’m the Avatar, and I get to decide what that means for me.” Her being the Avatar isn’t about other people acknowledging her power or position, as it was for much of her story. There are layers to her self-conceptualization now. Being the Avatar does still include a sense that other people acknowledge her power, but now it’s disarming rather than aggressive.

She’s also someone who leads with compassion more than she used to. Not that she was ever non-empathetic…we see her sympathize with Tarrlok of all people way back in Book 1. Rather, she takes a more thoughtful approach to dealing with complicated issues in the final season, trying to see other people’s perspectives before deciding on a course of action. Or in the case of Baatar, switching her course of action based on her perception of that perspective. Her power lies not just in asserting physical strength, but through taking a more multifaceted approach to problem solving. She’s come to a place where her stance is less “you have to listen to me because of who I am” and more “because of who I am, I will listen to and understand you first.”

“And now I’ve gotta deal with that.”

And, as we keep pointing out, she’s found a way to carry her struggles and the lessons she’s learned from them with her as wisdom. She ‘defeats’ Kuvira through expressing empathy, validation, and vulnerability. She sees Kuvira, relates to her, and pinpoints how Kuvira was out of balance, just as she herself had been. She has internalized Toph’s lesson about seeing her enemies for their extremism, not just their antagonism to her, and molded that into a means of finding an ultimately peaceful solution. That’s balance.

The Representation of PTSD

Through all of this character work, Legend of Korra never lost sight of its chosen narrative of representing PTSD. As someone with PTSD, Gretchen is continually blown away with how sensitively Book 4 explores Korra’s trauma. Not a lot of stories she’s engaged with have come close to this level of thoughtfulness, and it’s a kid’s show. (Steven Universe, The Hunger Games, and Jessica Jones are other pieces of media that spring to mind when it comes to nuanced depictions of PTSD.) It would have been so easy for Bryke to shortcut Korra’s healing at multiple points throughout Book 4, but they didn’t. For the length of the season and age group this show was written for, it’s damn fantastic. It’s Y7 appropriate, yet it still demonstrated that healing isn’t linear or easy.

There were layers to her trauma, and layers to her healing. Korra wasn’t just physically poisoned, her trauma had emotional, spiritual, and mental aspects to it as well, as is true of PTSD in real life. The emotional layers manifest in her ongoing depression, fear, and the repeated emotional memories/flashbacks Korra experiences. Their suddenness, unpredictability, and lingering effects rung especially true for Gretchen.

Korra struggles with mental blocks, lacking faith in herself and her abilities and feeling like she can’t trust herself or her perceptions. Yet another true-to-life representation of the experience of PTSD. Korra also wrestles with competing desires regarding how other people treat her. She doesn’t want people to walk on eggshells or treat her as incompetent or damaged—that feels like an admission of failure and weakness when she’s desperately trying to heal and be strong. At the same time, she wants space to be vulnerable if she needs to be.

The push-pull of “I’m not weak” and “Let me be weak” seems contradictory, but it precisely encapsulates the struggles of someone living with PTSD. It’s all about timing, self-confidence, and believing that other people trust you to manage yourself unless you ask for  help. “I can do this unless I ask for help, so please don’t treat me like I can’t unless I’ve asked you to help me.” The accuracy is heart-wrenchingly moving.

Korra’s spiritual trauma manifests in her loss of connection from Raava. Insofar as Raava is basically Korra’s “Avatar soul,” losing that connection is a significant loss to her own spirituality, something she’s struggled to connect with anyway and only recently had torn out of her and restored. Small wonder she goes on a quest to find that piece of herself again and reconnect with it. Loss of spiritual connection is quite common in the aftermath of trauma, and even though it wasn’t the focus of Korra’s healing, that they bothered to include her spiritual side at all speaks volumes for the degree of thought that went into this.

That they let Korra confront Zaheer is significant as well. Bryke created space for Korra to confront the person whose actions haunted her most; she got to say exactly what he did that hurt her and how it has impacted her life, and without any justification from Zaheer. She gets her say, and that’s that.

But they don’t even end it on that event, which would have been yet another reasonable place to ‘end’ her healing arc. Instead, Korra literally faces her trauma in what is basically a word for word transcript of what a safe guided meditation looks like from a licensed professional:

Zaheer: Focus on the sound of my voice. [Korra flashes back to her fight with Zaheer and him suffocating her] Let it play out.

Korra: I can’t!

Zaheer: You can. Accept what happened to you. Don’t fear what might have been.

Korra: I have no control!

Zaheer: Don’t be afraid. Hold on! (4×09)

In an ideal world, Korra would be doing this kind of work with a therapist, not the one who attacked her, but we’ll set that aside for now to talk about the important pieces of therapeutic work embedded in this seemingly straightforward exchange.

Everything about that scene rings true to Gretchen’s experience with exposure therapy and guided meditations through traumatic experiences. Zaheer encourages her to let the scene play out and not focus on her fear of what might have happened. Embedded in there is an admonition to focus on what did happen: Korra survived and is in the process of healing. She is safe now, and that is underscored in her re-experiencing that traumatic flashback. She grounds herself in the present (Zaheer’s voice, her own safety, the truth of what happened rather than her fear) while re-living the past and that is what robs the traumatic memory of its power over her.

Zaheer also grounds and re-centers Korra by repeating to her that she can face this, she can accept it, and she can control it. She’s not as powerless as she feels and is capable of facing this down. The power to do it comes from within herself, but she needed a guide to remind her at every step that she’s capable.

There are echoes of Korra’s previous traumas as well. Her weakened abilities and the loss of the Avatar state echo Book 1 (and Aang’s trauma in Avatar: The Last Airbender). Her loss of connection to Raava echoes Book 2. Korra even flashes back to previous villains and Toph explicitly draws a line between all of Korra’s traumas when she talks about Korra carrying around the metal past trauma in her body.

Bryke basically created space in Book 4 to deal with all of Korra’s past traumas in a nuanced way after having neglected them for three books. Korra processes her struggles with controlling and trusting her bending in a way that rings true to what should have happened after Book 1. She goes on a spiritual quest to reunite with Raava and finds a way to connect even more deeply with her Avatar Spirit and other aspects of her spiritual nature, as she should have done after Book 3. And all that while dealing with her physical limitations and pain (the poison), the flashbacks and emotional aftermath of almost dying, and reconnecting with her friends, family, and the world. That’s a hell of a lot to pack into 13 episodes, and you know what? They did it really well.

Most importantly to Gretchen’s mind, given her experience with PTSD, was the explicit focus on acceptance.

Mako: Do you think you’re finally able to forget what Zaheer did to you?

Korra: No. But I am finally able to accept what happened, and I think that’s gonna make me stronger. (4×09)

Healing isn’t about forgetting; “forgive and forget” is bullshit (take note, Asami). A good therapist will tell you that healing is about acceptance. In certain therapies, they call it radical acceptance, and it doesn’t mean that what happened was good or that it wasn’t painful, awful, and traumatic. Acceptance just means stating the truth of the event as a fact and no longer focusing on wishing it didn’t happen. Korra will never forget what happened to her, but she doesn’t have to carry the fear, pain, or anxiety about it forever. She can accept that it did happen, and not let it control her.

Korra reaches that place of peaceful, calm acceptance after confronting Zaheer and facing her trauma head on, letting it play out through mindful meditation, and letting it guide her into the Spirit World. Only after she’s faced and accepted the truth can she fully reconnect with her spiritual self and the world of the spirits. Acceptance leads to reconnection, which becomes a source of strength, balance, and compassion.

“…That came out wrong”

That’s not to say things were 100% perfect with Korra’s arc in Book 4. Even our little joke about Asami just now does have some weight behind it: doesn’t her quick forgiveness of Hiroshi kind of seem counter to how Korra approached Zaheer? Both these guys had tried to kill them, respectively.

There’s also that Korra and Kuvira did have to have an intense physical fight before Korra found the more balanced, strategic approach to get her to give up. But given the stakes of the invasion, not to mention the genre of the show, we don’t take any particular issue with this. In fact, we loved seeing Korra’s resolve and commitment to engage in a situation that was, for once, not coming from a place of anxiety, fear, or overcompensation.

Still, the biggest misstep of this portrayal is a criticism that largely was raised by women of color within the fandom. It stems from the wording of Korra reflecting on her trauma to Tenzin.

“I know I was in a pretty dark place after I was poisoned. But I finally understand why I had to go through all that. I needed to understand what true suffering was so I could be more compassionate to others, even to people like Kuvira.” (4×13)

As we talked about before, this relates back to Korra finding a meaning in her suffering, like Katara talked about Aang doing. And with the benefit of creator interviews, Bryke spoke about their influence in writing this on the Book 4 DVD commentaries (as well as podcasts). They said they had read a memoir of a war journalist who had been shot, and he chose to recontextualize his own trauma to give meaning to it, viewing it as having been necessary to understand what all the people living in these countries were going through.

We talk a lot about misaligned intent and result, and how sometimes there is a space to award effort. Here, we think it’s important to recognize that Bryke did have good intentions to write a true-to-life healing arc with an uplifting message. That story is powerful. And that method of coping with trauma—recontextualization—is certainly not something limited to white men.

However, there’s a reason intersectional approaches to feminism are important. You can’t just copy-paste the experiences and takeaways of one person and put them into the mouth of a wildly different character without some forethought. Had Aang (who is decidedly not white, it should be noted) said a line like that, it would have felt different than having it come from Korra, an indigenous, brown, bisexual, mentally ill woman. There’s common tropes and conventions, and sadly in our media’s history, that includes the brutalization of women to ‘learn’ respect, particularly women of color. Korra’s cultural background may not have lead to any kind of in-verse prejudice, but viewers watch the show in today’s cultural context, and for many, it was hurtful to see Korra implying that she needed to suffer to get to that place where she could chuck herself in front of the cannon to protect Kuvira, or find that commonality in the Spirit World.

We can split this down however we want, point out that it was about needing to understand suffering rather than the actual suffering itself, and so on. To us, the good intentions are clear, and what Bryke was going through is fully accessible. But again, that doesn’t mean there’s not a very valid discomfort with two white men using Korra as the mouthpiece to that message. Especially when the same message could have been explicated without the “why I had to go through all that” part.

Had there been a more diverse writers’ room, had there been a more diverse vocal cast, had research been done about individuals with PTSD of different backgrounds and intersections…maybe that line looks different. It’s okay for something to be both validating and offensive, depending on engagement; sometimes, that those feelings even overlap.

What’s important is listening to each other and striving for more and more authentic and representative media. On that front, we find it hard to argue that Legend of Korra wasn’t a constructive TV show overall.

The Last Avatar

We think a large reason why Legend of Korra was so constructive had to do with Korra being a deconstruction of her predecessor, Aang, in the first place. She was the over-eager woman rejected by the world, instead of the reluctant male hero needed by the world. In the end, they were both loved and praised and counted on, but for her, that required her quite literally reshaping the world to find her place within it.

This is why the focus on her vulnerability as a strength, and her pursuit of balance is so crucial. Because it’s not just the end of her story, but the planned end of the franchise. Aang’s story was very much also about balance and vulnerability, and his resistance to killing the Fire Lord resulting in him breaking the rules of the universe a little to find a path that worked for him. They both went through journeys of “self-discovery” in this sense, but given Korra’s in and out-of-verse intersectionality, that she was put through the wringer as much as she was is both poignant and uncomfortable.

At the same time, it makes seeing her so effective, so strategic, and so inspired all the more impactful. Her boldness and determination to succeed is absolutely still there; she rejected Raiko surrendering the city, for instance, and not only was willing to sacrifice herself for Kuvira of all people, but was willing to sacrifice herself in the Avatar state, meaning she was willing to end the Avatar line to save her antagonist. That’s dang powerful, and no wonder Kuvira was humbled by it.

Yet it’s her quieter determination in both the Spirit World and in her conversation with Tenzin that stand out even more, and demonstrate how far she’s come. She’s grown up a ton from the girl who challenged Amon to a duel out of fear of seeming weak. And while she absolutely didn’t “need” to go through the hell that she did—no one does—that she got to a place as a character to have a positive takeaway and hopefulness about the future is the true power of this narrative. It’s aspirational, sure, but a reminder that we’re all allowed to be broken. We’re allowed to find our own meaning in our suffering that makes sense to us. And, we’re all allowed to self-care.

This is why it’s just such a dang perfect thematic and character end-cap.

That’s also why we opened this article talking about the Turf Wars comics. It’s not that we can’t imagine a story following this one; there’s certainly still things to explore with Korra, like how she continues to define her role as Avatar now that there’s no need for a bridge between the Spirit and physical worlds. Heck, we’re not even saying she couldn’t continue to process her trauma. She may have gotten to a place of accepting it, but in our experience that’s less of an endpoint, and more of a frame-of-mind that can be an ongoing struggle to maintain. But in the case of the comics we’re getting, it’s really hard for us to go from this wholly satisfying character endpoint into something where Korra seems far less at peace and far more like her pre-healing arc self.

Truthfully, even if we had been given comics with a Korra in her finale headspace, we think it would have been an uphill battle for us to be as enthused with it as we were with the ending of the series. Because let’s be real: what could top that? We don’t think there needs to be an answer, at the end of the day. There’s a reason Legend of Korra has stayed with us as long as it has, and of course we’ll support any material that keeps us in this universe. But if the worst thing is that our praises peaked at the franchise’s TV ending? Well…sounds perfect to us.


Images courtesy of Nickelodeon

Kylie is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals on a mission to slay all the tropes. She has a penchant for complex familial dynamics and is easily pleased when authors include in-depth business details.

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Analysis

In Scorpion, I like my women…oppositional

Patrycja

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Scorpion had many flaws and there were plots that could have been handled better. Thankfully with a small exception they were able to write decent female characters which gave us a variety of characteristics and strengths. While leaving the characters on opposite sides of the spectrum.

The waitress liaison

When we meet Paige she’s a waitress at a diner who’s barely getting by. She works two jobs and everything she earns goes to her son Ralph.

We know very little about Paige. There were just a few details that we know. Her father died and her estranged mother is a con women. Their relationship wasn’t the best but they managed to repair it. (Although Veronica leaves at the end of episode 3×14.) Not without leaving some cash for her daughter and grandson. It’s clear to see that Paige tried very hard not to become a mother like her own. She’s very attentive to Ralph’s needs and even though she isn’t aware that he’s a genius in the beginning, she tries very hard to connect with and understand him. She protects her son fiercely.

Paige is a college drop out. During the show she took some night classes in European history to finish her education. Although Paige isn’t a genius, she often contributes some useful ideas to solve problems or offers a comment that helps the others to find a solution.

Throughout the course of the show, she starts understanding and learning more of the science. Her main area of expertise is communication with clients and other people that the team meets. That’s why Walter hired her. She’s supposed to be their liaison to the normal world. She also often takes charge and helps the team to refocus as their minds tend to wander. Paige isn’t a mom only to Ralph—she has to take care of the whole team as they do things like forget to eat.

The waitress had some problems fitting in at the beginning. She didn’t really know her place or role, but with time she became a natural at her job and solidified her position on the team. She did have some trouble with Happy, but they worked it out while dangling on a broken cable in the air.

As wonderful as she sounds, Paige is only human and has flaws like any of us. She is stubborn to a fault and doesn’t like to admit defeat, which doesn’t always sit well with Walter. She can be overprotective of Ralph. Paige has abandonment issues. They can originate from her mother or Drew leaving her when Ralph was little. She was also cheated on. Even though she had abandonment issues, she often used her own fear against Walter who has the same problem. She left him at the end of season 1…which was understandable since Ralphs life was in danger but after that she did it again. Sometimes she lets her emotions cloud her judgement.

Paige is the epitome of a struggling single mom who pushes trough no matter what. Most of her actions are dictated by her heart and the love for her son. Although flawed, she is an excellent example on how to master life’s challenges

The mechanical prodigy

Happy Quinn is a genius mechanic with a rough exterior. She often seems as if she doesn’t care or feel. It’s not true because under the tough shell hides a loving women.

She grew up in a foster home after her mother died. She didn’t see her father until she grew up and found him. Her dad (Patrick) has an Auto repair shop, which can be viewed as the source of her mechanical talent. Repairing stuff is also how she bonds with him.

Her father isn’t the only special man in her life. She shares a profound bond with Cabe, who has kind of stepped up to the role of her father. He was the one who gave her away on her wedding.

Although she may not seem like it, she cares about a selected few very much. Especially team Scorpion. She nursed Walter back to health after he spent some time in the rabbit hole, showcasing her gentle side. She even married him so he didn’t get deported to Ireland.

Happy shared a special relationship with Toby. They got married after she divorced Walter and planned to start a family together. They tried to get pregnant but even then they met another obstacle. Sadly we’ll never know how that plot ended because of the shows cancellation, but I digress.

What I find special about their relationship is the strong foundation in friendship and how well they know and trust in each other. Toby is the only one who didn’t abandon or betray her.

Happy is a representation of every women who makes it in a field dominated by man and was hurt by life. Regardless of that she, was able to build a family and gain success.

The new chemist on the block

We meet Florence as the new chemist who moves to the building next door to the garage. She isn’t a genius, but she’s very smart. She started her own company but lost it. She then moved to start a new business venture.
She can’t really get along with the team in the beginning. Within the course of the show, however, their relationship starts to get better.

Personally, I didn’t enjoy this character. She was created to be a competition to Paige and to show a really smart individual who isn’t a genius but has the same problem as them. Sadly the character comes off as inexpressive and bleak. Her story and problems didn’t manage to get my attention or interest me.

I enjoyed her growing relationship with Sylvester, but it went down the drill since Flo had to have a crush on Walter. The character had potential and maybe with time she could grow on me but alas we’ll never know

The genius whispering sister

Megan was Walter’s older sister. She was a sickly child with a happy attitude. She was one of the few people who understood or tried to understand Walter and build a relationship with him no matter how different he was. She was very ill. She had multiple sclerosis (MS), which eventually killed her.

Even though she was deadly ill, she soldiered on and always saw the glass as half full. She was always kind and lived her life to the fullest. Megan inspired everyone around her, and comforted them when needed. This included Walter and Sylvester in the same episode, at one point (1×12).

She always supported and stood by Walter. Megan was her brother’s biggest cheerleader. Being ill didn’t stop her from having her own opinion. She didn’t want to be on a respirator and she got her way.

Something worth mentioning is her relationship with Sylvester. This particular romance was sweet like a middle school one—the feeling was strong and build on a foundation of trust. Megan gave Sylvester enough strength and courage to go against Walter’s wishes and marry her. Even if they only had a short time together, they were very happy and Megan died having lived a full life.

Megan was the character that showed us that even in the darkest times there’s always hope and a chance to be happy.

Although the woman of Scorpion are on opposite sides of the spectrum, they are united by one characteristic. Strength. Every female character showed strength in her life and soldiering on, making them prime examples on how to handle obstacles.


Images courtesy of CBS

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Analysis

Game of Thrones 3×02 Rewatch: Long Things, Dumb Words

Kylie

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Tuesday means one thing on TheFandomentals: we’re back with another installment of The Wars to Come, a deep dive into Game of Thrones early seasons in an attempt to understand what happened. Last week, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) penned a fairly competent opening to the third season. This week, Kylie, Julia, and Jana are ready for another of Vanessa Taylor’s finest, with “Dark Wings, Dark Words.”

Episode Recap

Beyond the Wall, Mance makes it clear to Jon that he won’t hesitate to kill him if he finds out he’s faking his allegiance. After all, the reason he united everyone was to get them to understand they’d all die if they didn’t move south, so he is very focused. Mance then takes Jon to meet Orell, a skinchanger who entered the mind of a bird overhead. Once he comes back to, he informs the group that he spied “dead crows.”

Speaking of those crows, the Night’s Watch brothers began their slow journey back to the Wall. The exhaustion gets to Sam, who kneels down to give up after some taunting by Rast. Edd and Grenn do what they can to rouse him again, but it’s Commander Mormont who gets them all moving by assigning Rast to Sam. If Sam doesn’t make it back, then neither will Rast.

Heading up to the Wall meanwhile are Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor. Bran is still having his crow dreams, though in this one, a strange boy about his age appears, telling Bran he can’t kill the crow since it is him. Later in real life, the same boy manages to sneak up on Bran’s camp. When Osha threatens to kill him if he takes another step towards Bran, the boy’s sister holds a knife to Osha’s throat. He introduces himself as Jojen Reed, with his sister Meera. He explains to Bran that he does have prophetic dreams, though Bran is also a warg thanks to his ability to control his direwolf. He also says the raven is something else entirely, and that it “brings the sight.” Osha tells Meera it’s shameful that she has to protect her brother, though Meera just shrugs it off.

At Robb’s camp, news arrives from both Riverrun and Winterfell. The former is that Hoster Tully, Cat’s father, has died. The second letter explains about the burning of Winterfell, and no sign of Bran and Rickon. Robb tells this to Cat, who grieves and asks if she’ll have to wear manacles to her father’s funeral. Robb turns his army to march to Riverrun, though it’s clear not all the Northern Lords want to go. On the way, Talisa approaches Cat to try and talk to her. Cat makes it clear that she blames herself for everything that’s befallen her family and cites her treatment of Jon Snow as her selfishness that doomed them.

Someone whose self-blame is a bit more deserved is Theon, who finds himself tied up in a dimly lit room underground. He is tortured, while he is asked his motivations for taking Winterfell. However, it’s clear they’re not interested in his answer. A man sweeping the floor comes up to Theon after the others leave and slightly eases the tension in the device for him, saying that he was sent by Yara and plans to save Theon later that night.

Elsewhere, Arya continues her travels with Hot Pie and Gendry, the latter of whom teases Arya for her terrible choices in the three names Jaqen gave her. They are soon found on the road by a group of men who easily outnumber them, including Thoros of Myr and Anguy. They call themselves the “Brotherhood without Banners,” and quickly piece together that they escaped Harrenhal. The brotherhood buy the trio food at an inn, and Arya lies about their escape, saying that Gendry forged them weapons and they fought their way out. Thoros says they’re free to go, but just as they’re heading out, Sandor Clegane comes in, who instantly recognizes Arya and identifies her to the room.

Speaking of trying to avoid tension, Jaime and Brienne continue their travels, as Jaime tries to make conversation by figuring out Brienne’s former allegiance. He guesses that she was in love with Renly, though the mocking stops when an old man with a loaded horse passes by. Jaime says Brienne should kill him, but she refuses. Later, they have to cross a bridge together, and Jaime sits down, purposely dragging out the process. Brienne tries to rush him up, but Jaime manages to grab hold of one of her swords. They fight, and just as Brienne manages to best him, a group of men displaying the Bolton sigil appear. As it turns out, the old man did recognize them, and they are taken captive by the Bolton troops.

Finally, down in King’s Landing, Cersei tries to talk to Joffrey about his view of Margaery, no doubt concerned at her son’s fondness. She points out that Margaery had been engaged to Renly not so long before. Meanwhile, Shae tries to warn Sansa of Littlefinger, implying that he wants to have sex with her. Their conversation is cut short when Sansa is summoned by the Tyrells. Loras walks her to where Margaery and her grandmother Olenna wait. Olenna is very critical of the men in her family and makes it clear that she has a strong grasp of the political situation. The two women ask Sansa about Joffrey, since Margaery is to marry him. They promise no harm will come to her, and Sansa tells them that he’s a monster.

Margaery gets to see that fully on display, when Joffrey summons her and ask if the bedside of a traitor was her proper place. She quickly turns the conversation around, puffing up Joffrey’s ego and feigning interest in his new crossbow. She then hints at killing something with it and letting him watch her do so. Shae is also trying to sort out sexual interests in a conversation with Tyrion. She goes to him to try and figure out what to do about Littlefinger because of Ros’s warning, but quickly becomes jealous of Tyrion’s past purchasing of Ros’s services, as well as his comments about Sansa being attractive. However, they have sex, temporarily resolving that situation.

Does Tyrion want Sansa? Did Cat doom everyone? And will Margaery really have to kill something for Joffrey’s enjoyment? We’ll find out next week, but for now, let’s break down what we just saw.

Initial, quick reaction

Kylie: Well, there’s that cliff the show begins to fall off in Season 3. There were a lot of parts of this episode that worked well, and I genuinely enjoyed. But there’s just so much invented that doesn’t quite work, and it’s quite obviously done with the intent of “improving” the plots. The drop in quality is not subtle for those moments. In fact, just writing that recap the drop in quality is not subtle, but how the hell else do you frame that Shae conversation?

Jana: This is where you start getting whiplash from the draaaastic fluctuations in quality between scenes. I’d say about 75% of this episode was fine or even good, and then we have a self-flagellating Cat doing a crafting project on the road.

Julia: The one thing about this episode was how LONG it was. Seriously, it just kept going and going. There were actual highs this time, but my eyes hurt from all the rolling in other parts.

Highlights/lowlights

Kylie: Marg was my highlight last week, just for a pretty effortless performance that’s enjoyable to watch. This week that’s still the case, but my annoyance at her scripting has finally caught up. However, I will give a highlight to Jack Gleeson in his performance. I think the material is a little mixed in terms of how well it worked (and some of it is the result of trying to age up Joffrey), however he is such a talented actor that it makes up for a lot of it. He has this ability to turn the mood of a scene on a dime, and you see his entitlement, his cruelty, and his vulnerabilities all at once. It’s really brilliant.

My lowlight was the Reeds’ introduction. It wasn’t the most unpleasant thing to watch in this episode by a long shot, but just…why? What are we supposed to make of them from this? They’re mystical? Dramatic? It just came across as random, forced tension, when it would have been genuinely nice to have a pleasant interaction as an opening. A reminder why it is Northern Lords are so loyal and everything.

Jana: The Time Warp Trifecta was really working for it this week, at least for me. Though Margaery’s scene with Joffrey was supposed to be cringey, I guess. And Talisa was the least worst thing about her scene with Catelyn. That conversation between Tyrion and Shae, though… What even was that?

Julia: Omg, “The Time Warp Trifecta.” Thank you so much for being part of my life, Jana.

Jana: Nevertheless, nothing makes me scream more than Catelyn self-flagellating over… Not loving Jon enough? Even though in the same breath she mentions doing things for him most highborn women wouldn’t even do for their own children? And what’s this bullshit about wanting to ask Ned to legitimize him? And being jealous of Jon’s mother? Good god, what a mess.

(Never forget, three seasons from now, all of Book!Catelyn’s fears about Jon threatening her children’s claims will come true. Too bad Show!Catelyn had completely different concerns, apparently.)

Highlights… Hm. I mean, any scene that gives Sansa something to do that resembles her book storyline is nice, and Diana Rigg is a treasure. I feel like this Sansa maybe gave in a little too quickly, but other than that, I guess that’s my easy highlight to pick. Followed closely by Brienne and Jaime fighting on the bridge.

Julia: Lemon cakes is a very easy highlight. There were even some women doing needlework in the background! And cheese boy! Bless his heart. And it’s kind of all I can think of for an unironic highlight.

An ironic highlight might be the patriarchy magically appearing in King’s Landing, because god did it come hard. Wise women obey, guys! And what even is anal sex? Fun times.

The Cat thing was so horrible on many levels, especially the ones Jana mentioned. Legitimating Jon, Cat’s concerns being framed as primarily jealousy… but did we forgot the torture scenes? Maybe we tried to.

Quality of writing

Jana: Varied, is the word I’d use here. Some scenes were really well and tightly written and enjoyable, and then others, the quality just dropped. And there wasn’t even a Littlefinger around to blame! Though admittedly, the scene where Shae and Tyrion talked about him had probably the worst writing. Was anything Shae said even remotely coherent from one sentence to another?

Julia: Is she just really committed to the Girlfriend Experience or are we supposed to think this is a real relationship? Like, why is this sex worker upset that he once engaged the services of another sex worker?

I think it’s at least a soft original material-book scene dichotomy this week. The best written original scene was probably the one with Carol Cersei and Joff, but then you had… all the other stuff. There were scenes that were just middling, I guess, like where Mance explains his backstory.

Kylie: The Jaime and Brienne scenes were some of the best writing in the episode, and also some of the only scenes that included book content as they were supposed to be. But Jana is right; we’d go from that one moment to the horror of Shae and Tyrion’s nonversation. Possibly the first true nonversation of the show?

Our 8th grade book report (on themes)

Julia: Well the title is kind of appropriate because Robb got those two bad news ravens. Not that they quoted the proverb. Also, why is Lord Karstark delivering messages now?

I’m kind of nowhere in terms of overall theme. The best I can do is that people are bonding and consolidating relationships. I’m thinking especially of Marg and Joff, Cat and Talisa, Jamie and Brienne, and Jon and Mance. There are also new relationships that will be important later; Sansa and Marg, the Reeds and Bran, Arya and the Hound, (who never really interacted before, as far as I can recall) Ramsay and Theon (barf).

Jana: Yes, I was considering something along those lines as well. Uneasy alliances, maybe? False friends? Though that might be more hindsight than anything substantial in this episode.

Kylie: “People in groups of varying sizes doing things.” No, “uneasy alliances” is the closest at making sense, and it actually works fairly well. Don’t forget Rast and Sam, too.

The Butterfly Effect

Kylie: Biggest one I see in effect here is with Cat’s scripting. D&D made no efforts to sympathize with her or her viewpoint in Season 1, which is why we get Cat telling Ned to stay in Winterfell. The political advancement of her family? The legitimate concerns over Jon’s potential claim? Never in evidence, so now we get her mistreatment of him played as just…she was petty and jealous and couldn’t love a baby because he had a stranger’s brown eyes.

Jana: No kidding. If I didn’t know any better, you could almost say that Catelyn’s dynastic worries were completely taken out of the show to make it more palpable for the average watcher when Jon becomes king, and that’d be a great move. But that’s also assuming the writers planned more than one season at a time, and, well…

Julia: They just don’t see Cat as a political actor at all. Even when she went to talk to Renly it was only because Robb asked her to, remember. All this personal and political stuff goes right over their heads. The closest they ever got was with Theon, and we all saw how that turned out.

Kylie: It’s early Season 3 and we’re already at the point of legitimizing a bastard being painted as an unquestionably good thing. GAH.

Julia: Okay, I know I’ve been mentioning this every week, but why do they continue to dig this Shae hole? Now she’s defending other woman from sexual exploitation?

Jana: I actually kind of like the scenes with Sansa and Shae, at least right now. I mean, it is clearly a different Shae than the one in the books, and those moments at least make her somewhat likable. I also think that in theory, having someone for Sansa to bounce her inner monologue off of could have helped the show, a lot, with its portrayal of Sansa, buuuut that sure as hell isn’t happening here.

Kylie: I do think Sansa needs someone for that (and why Dontos couldn’t have fill the role is beyond me). But it’s not really in the service of Sansa at all. In fact, the scenes are mostly just Shae imparting worldly advice on the continually naive Sansa, and then whipping out some weird ‘empowered’ lines, like how she’s totally going to make Littlefinger stop. I guess because she runs around with daggers? Or goes to Tyrion with her problems?

I guess I’m torn on it, is what I mean. I like Sansa having someone she can be nice to, even if this is all going to get thrown out the window. But Shae’s scripting is a sore thumb for this worldbuilding.

Remember adaptation?

Jana: They’re doing an all in all okay job with Jaime and Brienne. Yes, she’s more of a brute, and yes, maybe he goes on about Renly being gay a little too much, but other than that… Or maybe I’m just distracted by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (NCW) getting to actually do something again. God, he used to be so good as Jaime when he was allowed to be kind of clever and not just Carol’s beleaguered brother-lover.

Julia: You mean befuddled.

Jana: Larry was very much both beleaguered and befuddled.

Kylie: Agreed. And to be honest, I adore the way NCW and Gwendoline Christie play off of each other. This is what happens when you give actors actual content and motivation. From what I can tell NCW still tries to make sense of things. Poor guy.

Jana: Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here yelling about how they’re PERFECT AND THIS COULD HAVE BEEN SO GREAT AAAAAH but instead we try to normalize twincest for a few years, no biggie.

Julia: I just realized that the changes to Shae and her foregrounding have effectively made Sansa’s plot all about Tyrion even before they get married. But can we please indulge me and talk about why we think the stuff with Shae is happening?

Jana: My best guess as to why the Shae stuff is happening is basically that Tyrion, the precious saint-like audience avatar main protagonist hero, can’t just be fucking a regular sex worker who doesn’t care about him and his amazingness, which is why Shae is given a personality, traits that make her likable (see above points about caring for Sansa), and an informed knack for intrigue. And like, if it didn’t end the way it did, having Ros and Shae meddle with the politics of the big boys might have been a worthwhile plotline. Shae might have been a really nice example for how ladies-in-waiting are used to spy and all that. However, there was still an endpoint to get to, so all the crumbs we’re thrown here are completely meaningless in the long run.

Kylie: It’s so hard for me to understand what they were trying for with Ros in this. Because there is a bit of a throughline about maids and sex workers spying and having outcomes on the politics of the Highborn for sure. But yeah, it was a plotline without space for it, so it just ended up being this…weirdness that gets thrown out the window.

The most confusing part for me is how Martin has praised Shae’s scripting, and not an inconsequential number of times.

Jana: Eh, he is good friends with the actor. And to be fair, Shae is an actual character who at least occasionally seems to genuinely care about Tyrion and has character traits other than being out for self-preservation and good at playing the role she’s being paid to play. It paints Tyrion in a better light and make him more likable in the long run. But that only work if that was GRRM’s actual goal for Tyrion, which I doubt. I’m pretty sure Tyrion being flawed the way he is is very much the point of the character… Or maybe not. It’s hard to say at this point. The Shae thing is going to collapse hard next season, so for now it just seems like too much effort put into the wrong thing.

Julia: Right!? She just has so much screen time. Is it true or apocryphal that she has more lines than Cat this season?

Jana: I don’t have the numbers, but she definitely…does more than Cat. Has more agency than Cat, which is admittedly a low bar to clear, but nothing an ascended extra should be able to do next to a POV character.

Kylie: If it helps, Catelyn’s end tally is more than Shae’s across all their seasons? I feel like it doesn’t help.

Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?

Kylie: I’m leaning towards Carol. We had nice slut-shaming digs at Marg’s wardrobe that could have gone either way, but we’re beginning to get that sad mom who can’t control her wild kid framing of it all.

Julia: Yeah, I’m going for full Carol. She’s totally right about the sinister nature of Marg’s risque wardrobe. And the patriarchy!

Jana: No kidding. And Joffrey yelling at her about what wise women do is very much like how people are going to be mean to Carol in the future. What happened to the woman who slapped Joffrey for talking back to her last season?

Kylie: It’s official then:

Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?

Julia: Um, Jojen gave us some myth arc exposition, I guess. We learn about anal sex? And FYI, Lord Karstark, it probably snows all the time in Dorne. They have mountains.

Jana: The guy yelling at Sam was kind of telling us What Happened So Far, but it made sense in context, I guess, and the only reason I noticed it was because I was looking for it.

If you’re generous, Joffrey tries to give us exposition about Westerosi views on homosexuality that are somehow not shared by anyone else making fun of Renly and Loras this episode. Did we mention that in the themes? People make fun of Renly and/or Loras being gay a lot this episode.

Kylie: The most seamless exposition was over lemon cakes, when Olenna was complaining about her various family members and her views on their political alliance. But we can’t exactly credit Vanessa Taylor for that one, can we?

I will say one bit of subtle exposition was that Theon is captive of the Boltons. He was on the wooden cross, and then we see the men displaying that later, which Jaime calls attention to with his, “a bit gruesome for my taste.” It was enough to preserve suspense, but it rewards a close watch, which is not anything I can say about the show now.

Julia: The problem with good exposition is that you don’t always notice it.

Kylie: Why do I feel like we should make that into a shirt?

How was the pacing?

Julia: This episode was 57 minutes long, so maybe it wasn’t the pacing that made it feel like it was taking forever. Though I do remember screaming, “am I seriously only 25 minutes in!?” at one point.

Jana: They had a LOT of scenes that were just going nowhere, or had especially frustrating content like the Cat Self Roast and Shae wildly fluctuating between actual nagging girlfriend and the girlfriend experience bought and paid for. Those scenes and the torture scenes dragged somewhat, the rest was fine.

Kylie: It was endless, absolutely endless. Griffin asked me, “Is it over now?” about three times, and I was just as horrified to discover it wasn’t too. It’s interesting, because the pace wasn’t slower in the way Season 7 scenes are slower, where people just walk across the screen for thirty seconds without saying anything. Instead, each scene itself felt pretty packed, but just packed with nothing.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

Kylie: Most sexual aspect of this episode was Marg explaining Renly’s gayness to Joff, and then getting him turned on with a crossbow. I guess there was also Shae’s blowjob to Tyrion after yelling about his attraction to Ros and Sansa.

I don’t know what to do with Marg to be honest. It seems so sinister now, knowing that Littlefinger will give Sansa the advise of “make him yours” to Ramsey, and her failure to do so resulted in her brutalization (at least, the framing of it). Here, we have the successful “make him yours” campaign by Margaery, and boy does she just wield her sexuality so effectively. I understand Vanessa Taylor wrote this episode, but this entire plotline was scripted by D&D, and it’s clear they think women really can successful control “monsters” if they weaponize their womanly bodies properly.

Jana: I’m also just gonna call it— Natalie Dormer already looks way too old for these interactions to not feel an entirely different kind of creepy than they’re meant to be. I know the show is very vague on their ages and all, but there’s at least a 10 year age difference there and Joffrey is in his teens. Not a good look. Nothing compared to what comes later, but already not a good look.

Julia: Does Shae explaining to Sansa “the only thing that men ever want” count as sexual content? Why am I so effing obsessed with Shae?

Kylie: Someone’s gotta teach Sansa about the awfulness of the world, since she’s sure as hell not learning about it inherently or having a survival narrative. Isn’t this the year where we find out she doesn’t know the word, “shit”?

Jana: Well, remember how Sansa is such a slow learner? How could she have figured any of this out if not for the help of others? But yes, the sheep shift scene is in episode 10, newlyweds being nice to each other for some reason, juuust before the news of the Red Wedding arrives. I have no idea why any of that happened, but hey. Eight episodes to go until then.

In memoriam…Hoster Tully

Julia: Did anyone die?

Jana: Catelyn’s self-respect and self-worth. That died. And from what I recall, also her relevance for the rest of the season.

Oh and I guess we find out about Hoster Tully dying off-screen.

Kylie: Just Hoster Tully. I actually liked Cat’s lines about her manacles in relation to that, though may have been more effective if the guy had ever been mentioned prior to this episode. I miss the Whispering Wood monologue.

Julia: I just miss Cat.

Jana: I miss Cat’s plot.

Kylie: I miss Your Sister.

Maybe she’ll be back next week? We’ll have to wait to find out, but that’s a wrap for today. What did you guys think of the episode? Did the Cat/Shae/Margaery stuff overshadow everything else for you, or were they not as bad as we were making them out?

We certainly look forward to continuing on in Season 3, to see what’s in store for us in The Wars to Come.


Images courtesy of HBO

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Analysis

My First Queer: 90s Fantasy Novels

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This article is part of the My First Queer series, a site-wide series of articles written by some of our non-straight Fandomentals contributors. Each will contain their thoughts on their first experiences with queer media and what it meant to them. Enjoy!

Oh look, Gretchen is going to be writing about books, big surprise! Like Kristen before me in this series, I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. Books were my escape, especially fantasy books. As conservative evangelical Christians, my parents were all about making sure our little child brains were as free from the ‘corrupting influences of the world’ as possible, hence why I watched so little TV and why it took me so long to figure out I was queer. Fortunately for me, my parents trusted my instincts with books. Granted, I was a compliant child who didn’t go out of my way to find anything subversive. If the cover art wasn’t scandalous and the dust jacket seemed free of ‘questionable content’, I could read it.

With literally hundreds of books passing through my hands over the first decade and a half of my life, if I still remember a scene from a book I read only once and decades ago, it meant something to me. Sometime last year, I reflected on these handful of books seared into my soul. Once you look at them, it’s pretty telling why these are the stories I remember.

The Eagle and The Nightingales by Mercedes Lackey (1995)

Sometime in late middle school/early high school, I picked up one of Mercedes Lackey’s books at the local library and proceeded to devour every available book of hers I could get my hands on. I can’t remember which book of hers I read first, but they left an indelible impression on me.

Part of Lackey’s Bardic Voices series, The Eagle and The Nightingales tells the story of Nightingale a Free Bard (someone who wields magic through music) tasked with finding out why the human king and churches are growing overtly hostile to non-human sentient beings and other classes of people they cannot directly control. She joins forces with T’yfrr a member of the Haspur, a race of humanoid eagles who has an angelic voice. Over the course of the book, the two become not only quest partners, but lovers.

So what? I can imagine you thinking. What does a bard and a bird-man have to do with ‘my first queer’? Fair point, dear reader. On the surface, T’yfrr and Nightingale are differently gendered and so seem to fit a heterosexual mold. However, as a young teen, an interspecies relationship felt as ‘forbidden’ and ‘taboo’ as anything overtly gay. There was something…queer about it even if it featured a female human and a male humanoid eagle. Especially in the story’s context of non-humans being persecuted by the church (*cough cough*) and interspecies relationships being considered taboo by the church but accepted in T’yfrr’s culture. Conversations Nightingale has with T’yfrr mirror conversations Vanyel, one of Lackey’s openly gay characters, has about being attracted to men.

Ultimately, it’s a story about discrimination against marginalized people groups and finding love in unexpected places that your society might find taboo but that’s just their (wrong, bigoted) opinion. That struck a chord with me that I couldn’t label. I just really, really liked it okay? And it made a lot of sense to me and made me feel seen for some reason. (Like I said, really telling looking back.) It was also a really well-written story, the best of the Free Bard series (of which this is the third book), in my opinion. We won’t talk about Four and Twenty Blackbirds. I like to pretend that book never happened.

Admittedly, certain aspects of The Eagle and the Nightingales didn’t age well. While the complicated politics and theme of acceptance are still relevant today, the entire Free Bard series features ‘gypsies’ prominently. Lackey’s characterization of the culture she calls ‘gypsy’ is positive, if a bit stereotypical. The real problem is her use of the word ‘gypsy’ at all. I know, I know. This is a fantasy book from the 90s. In that context, her free use of that word to describe a nomadic, Romani-like people is understandable. At the same time, understandable doesn’t mean problem-free and I would be remiss, even in my reminiscences, to overlook that rather glaring issue.

The Last Herald-Mage Series by Mercedes Lackey (1989-1990)

This brings me to the aforementioned Vanyel. The three books in this series—Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, and Magic’s Price—tell the story of Vanyel Ashkevron, the greatest Herald-Mage in the history of Valdemar. He presents at first as a bored, coddled, vain pretty-boy disinterested in running his family estate. That veneer hides the reality that he’s an emotionally neglected, highly introverted and intuitive, sensitive child who suffers from his father being overbearing and believing he’s ‘not a proper man’. His homophobic father, who fears he is shay’a’chern, the in-universe term for gay, sends him to train as a swordsman to ‘make a man’ out of him.’

Vanyel meets a Herald-Mage trainee, Tylendel, who is openly gay and sparks Vanyel’s understanding of himself. The two become lovers and lifebonded (aka soulmates), but in a magical tragedy, Tylendel dies (don’t worry, I’ll come back to this). The event also awakens Vanyel’s mage gift. In the aftermath, he learns he possesses all of the Heraldic gifts and becomes the most powerful Herald-Mage to ever exist. Eventually he meets another shay’a’chern couple from the mysterious human clan of the Tayledras, the Hawkbrothers known as Moondance and Starwind. Being gay in their society is not taboo, so they teach him to accept his orientation as normal and beautiful. He also meets a bard named Stefan, the reincarnation of his soulmate Tylendel.

Vanyel dies at the end of the series fighting against Valdemar’s enemies. However, that’s not the end for him. He’s given a choice to continue protecting Valdemar, so he, Stefan/Tylendel, and Vanyel’s psycially linked horse Companion Yfandes (it makes sense in context, I promise; she’s like a platonic soulmate who helps him with magic) become spirit protectors on Valdemar’s border.

Admittedly, Lackey killing of Tylendel to awaken Vanyel’s mage gifts doesn’t sit well after recent conversations about the representation of queer characters. Maybe I’m nostalgic and too kind because of what these books meant to me, but the events never struck me as Bury Your Gays (BYG), even as a kid. Lackey goes out of her way to normalize Vanyel’s sexuality, villainize his homophobic father, an even reincarnates Tylendel in the form of Stefan.

Vanyel’s heroic sacrifice at the end doesn’t feel like BYG either. His death isn’t intended to punish him for being gay, which is the root of the BYG trope. In fact, he gets a happy ending, even in death. He, his soulmate Tylendel/Stefan, and his platonic soulmate Companion Yfandes live forever doing what he wanted most in the world: protecting Valdemar.

Oh, and he has four biological children to carry on his legacy, though I honestly can’t remember how the sperm donor thing worked. Twins Brightstar and Firefeather are raised by the Tayledras shay’a’chern couple Vanyel meets. He also fathers Avren, the daughter of lesbian swordfighters in his older sister Lissa’s command. Most important is Jisa, daughter of Shavri, the king’s co-consort. Basically, the king is infertile but no one knows that, so Vanyel agrees to be the donor in secret. As Jisa ends up marrying the heir, the entire rest of the royal line in the Valdemar series descends from Vanyel.

Plus, Vanyel’s story is so central to the worldbuilding and history of Valdemar that without him, the rest of Valdemar wouldn’t make sense. So even in hindsight, I have a hard time labeling this as BYG. He’s just too important a character and everything else about the story resists being boiled down to, “he and Tylendel died because they were gay.”

Anyway, back to why these books were important to me. I related to Vanyel on a deeply personal level. He was introverted, misunderstood, and suffered from both neglect and direct emotional and verbal abuse. He’s deeply emotional and struggles with depression. He’s mocked by friends and family for being ‘moody’ and not fitting into society’s expectations for his gender. Because of the abuse he suffered, he both feared and desperately wanted intimacy yet denied himself the opportunities to open up for fear of getting hurt. Hey! That was me. Reading about Vanyel felt like Lackey had peered into my soul and put what she found on page. And that was aside from him being gay.

Even though reading these books didn’t immediately make me understand my sexuality, following Vanyel’s journey of discovering his sexual orienation deeply impacted me. I got to read it in real time, watch him figure it out, struggle with the implications, and learn to accept and embrace it by being told it was normal. He gave me the first glimpse of something I didn’t realize was true of myself. I just really, really liked and identified with him okay? I was a shay’a’chern…ally.

Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy (1994)

Before Lackey, there was Lovejoy and Cohen’s Seven Daughters and Seven Sons. I read this in 5th grade, having picked it off of my teacher’s classroom library shelf because it was based on an Iraqi folktale. I loved (and still do love) all kinds of folktales, myths, and fairy tales, especially non-Western stories. Buran’s story became my favorite, though over time I forgot the title and it took me years to track it down again.

Buran is the fourth of seven daughters living in Baghdad. Everyone in the city shuns her father for not having sons; her uncle—father to seven sons—especially like to throw Buran’s family’s poverty and seeming lack of favor from Allah in their face. Not content to see her family suffer, Buran disguises herself as a man, travels to Tyre, and sets up shop as a successful merchant while maintaining her masculine disguise.

Mahmud, the prince of Tyre visits her shop often, and Buran finds herself falling in love with him and he with her, though she’s still disguised as a man. Soon after he realizes his in love with Buran-in-disguise, Mahmud has a moment where he begins to wonder if she is a woman. So, he sets about testing her to prove her gender. Fearing discovery and the loss of friendship and her business she uses to support her family, Buran uses her wits to pass Mahmud’s first two tests. The third, to meet him at the baths, she flees from as it would reveal her identity. Donning women’s clothing, she heads home, encountering two of her male cousins, whose position in life has much diminished since she left. Her family, on the other hand, is rich and her sisters have married well due to her business acumen.

Her family pressures her to marry, but her heart belongs to Mahmud, though she cannot admit it. Rejecting social expectations of her, Buran determines to never marry and leave her fortune to her sisters’ children. However, Prince Mahmud eventually finds her and the two get married and live happily ever after.

Stories about women who disguise themselves as men and have a prince fall in love with them exist in a strange limbo between queer and heteronormative, depending on how the author frames the prince. Lovejoy and Cohen straddle that line in an interesting way. On the one hand, the story lets the prince believe himself in love with Nasir—Buran’s masculine name—for almost two pages. There’s even a highly sexually charged scene between the two of them told from Prince Mahmud’s perspective. But then Mahmud has a rather convenient insight that Nasir is actually a woman in disguise. It simultaneously feels less homophobic than it could have been and as heteronormative as people who don’t want to acknowledge that Li Shang in Mulan was totally in love with Ping and flagrantly bisexual.

Still, as a child, it was eye-opening to read a story about a man who falls in love with another man, only to realize she’s a woman. And Buran was definitely a character I both admired and identified with. I, too, wanted to be more than what my conservative environment said a woman should be. I admired her courage, her intelligence, and her unwillingness to submit to societal expectations for what it meant to be a woman. There’s a bit of Not Like Other Girls, but no more than Vanyel felt like Not Like Other Boys. They’re both characters who didn’t quite fit in and found a way to embrace and celebrate who they were. Once again, to not-yet-aware-of-her-queerness-Gretchen something about Buran and Mahmud struck home.

And then there was the scene where Buran strips naked and looks at herself as a woman after living as a man for years.

“When I got back to my room, my own safe little room in Jihha’s house, I bade the servant leave the candle, and then I dismissed him. I took off all of my clothes, every single piece, and then I stared down at my naked self. I saw the gentle swell of my two breasts, small, but firm and high, with smooth golden flesh giving way to rosy nipples. I saw the slight curve of my belly, which would never, ever be absolutely flat, no matter how thin and hard the rest of me might be. Beneath my narrow waist, my two hips curved like two crescent moons and between my legs, black hair curled in tiny ringlets.” (p. 151-152)

Poor little 10-year-old baby bisexual Gretchen did not know what to do with the confusing feelings reading that passage awakened in her. I’ll be honest, this was the scene that stuck in my mind for years. Until recently, I had no idea why. Looking back now, I can 100% label it as the first viscerally, “Oh shit, I’m queer,” moment of my life. It only took me 20 more years to unpack it, but this book is the piece de resistance of young queer Gretchen.

So these were my first queer inklings. Strange, I know. Two of the stories weren’t even explicitly queer and the other featured a gay protagonist, not a woman-loving-woman (wlw). But they meant something to me. They planted seeds in my repressed, survival-mentality brain that would only come to fruition many years later. For a survivor of CSA and abuse who literally had no framework for understanding being a wlw, these books were the only shreds I had of a part of myself I didn’t have words for. Yes, they were problematic in some ways. Yes, they were imperfect matches to my own experience. But they were literally all I had.

As I said at the outset, these are stories I vividly remembered years later. Even if I couldn’t remember the name of the book, I remembered scenes or interactions that felt…significant to me in some unnamed as yet way. However flawed they are, they hold a special place in my soul.

They’re also the reason why I write mainstream SFF novels. I know there are other kids out there who don’t know they’re queer just like I didn’t. Kids who wouldn’t think to pick up a book explicitly labeled as ‘queer’ either because they don’t think that’s who they are or because their situation at home wouldn’t allow them to. (My parents would have banned any book labeled that way on sight.) Kids waiting to pick up a book about mages or queens or space colonists and see a protagonist who loves in a way they didn’t know was possible.

So in the end, they gave me even more of myself than I ever could have imagined. This is why stories matter.


Images Courtesy of Atheneum Books and DAW Books

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